FOND Group catches up with an old by friend by way of a new one.
People of Purpose | Stevie Clifton
By Hillary Kaylor
What do we talk about when we talk about social media in 2013? With teens fleeing Facebook, heated Twitter stock debates, and marketers looking at monetizing every possible digital moment, it’s no wonder that most people are fatigued on the topic. But when really investigating social media’s landscape and some of the recent backlash behind it, we’ve found it’s because the connectivity and community that makes virtual sharing so important has increased while the thoughtfulness behind that community has decreased. Certainly selfies have a time and a place; so long as they’re countered with an output of real purpose, expression, and art.
Enter Animoto: a bicoastal-based video creation service where users can upload their pictures and video clips, and, with the help of some very high-level production technology, turn those clips into a gorgeous, cinematic work of sharable art. A natural fit for consumers who want to share their thoughts in a more compelling way, but as co-creator Stevie Clifton found, Animoto is also making a difference by bringing literally millions of unlikely artists, photographers, schools, humanitarians, and non-profits together.
How was Animoto founded? Did you see a need not being filled in the community?
My good friend Jason (Hsiao) and I both moved to NYC to work in the film and television industry over 10 years ago. After working for a few years (he in production and me in motion graphics work), we started to get a bit antsy, and began meeting weekly to brainstorm fun ways to bring production-quality video to “normal” people. We both had backgrounds in computer science, and we knew there had to be way to make beautiful video creation accessible to more people. After hitting on the idea of Animoto, we looped in my brother Tom (Clifton) and our friend Brad (Jefferson), worked on prototyping the concept for awhile, and had our first working version of the site in early 2007.
Can you walk us through the process of a project like this from inception to delivery?
After coming up with the initial idea, Jason and I created a founding team with a diverse set of strengths. In addition to complementing each others’ skill sets, we also trusted each other. This allowed each of us to focus on the things we were good at and get a lot done quickly.
Once we all had conviction about the idea, we committed. At the beginning, most of us were working part-time on the project, but if you stay in that mode too long, you’ll never make the progress you need to make. Once we realized this, we quit our jobs and dove in.
We then focused on getting a working concept as quickly as possible so that we could get feedback from real people. Without that, I think we could have made a lot of missteps along the way, or spent a lot of time working on things of little value to our users.
How did you realize that Animoto could serve the philanthropic community as a whole? Once you did, how did you change your product?
When we first launched Animoto, we thought that it was going to be a great fit for consumers who wanted to share their memories. But we noticed that photographers, businesses, nonprofits, and schools were pretty active too. It makes a lot of sense. Video is a powerful medium for communicating a message, so when you make it easy for people to create video to share their message, you open up the doors to a lot of different people.
When we noticed that a lot of nonprofits were using Animoto to try to spread the message about their cause, we decided to give them free access to our Pro features with our Animoto for a Cause initiative, which we launched in 2009.
Over the years I’ve spoken at various nonprofit and humanitarian organizations to help them understand how to share their message more effectively using video and Animoto (e.g. at the UN and Rising Tide Capital), and it’s been really fun to see the ways in which people are using it.
“…With Animoto for a Cause we have the potential to help real causes and real people, which is satisfying. I was tempted to give you guys major props based on the famous partners we’re working with, or the amount of press/exposure we’ll get through this, but even more important is the fact that we’ve found a way to use our product, a fun video creation platform, for real humanitarian work.”
–Tom Clifton, Co-Founder, Animoto
What advice would you give to someone who doesn’t know where to start in terms of becoming mindful and starting consistent charitable work?
There are three things that helped me get involved and stay consistent.
1) Just start.
I think the most important thing is just show up. There are a ton of opportunities, and many are probably closer than people think. Don’t try to find the best opportunity; just find one that’s close and start showing up.
Nine years ago I started volunteering at the breakfast program my church puts on for the local hungry and homeless, and I’ve been doing it ever since. At the time, all I knew is that I wanted to find a local volunteering opportunity because if it was far away, I’d be too lazy to stick with it. Finding something local is great because it helps open your eyes to some of the pain that’s right in front of you, but invisible until you know where to look. I bump into people who come to get breakfast at our church frequently in our neighborhood, and being confronted with need keeps me from getting too comfortable.
2) Commit to something
I think the longer you wait to commit to doing charitable work, the less likely you’ll ever do it. You only get busier and take on more responsibilities as you get older, so it’s not going to get any easier.
My wife and I have committed to giving away a minimum of 10% of our income to charitable causes, and we’ve been doing it since we got married nine years ago. We didn’t make much money back then, but we both had a strong conviction that it was the right thing to do. Since then we now have a lot more financial commitments–we have two kids, more bills, a mortgage, school tuition to pay, etc. If we hadn’t committed to doing this together, we wouldn’t still be doing it.
3) Know your reason
Knowing why you want to be charitable is an important part of continuing to do it long term. There’s no right answer here, but I think without feeling a sense of purpose behind what you’re doing, it’s going to be really hard to give money away when you have a big credit card bill one month, or to show up at 6am on a Sunday morning to serve people breakfast when your kids kept you up the night before.
Were you involved in philanthropy as a kid? Family? Religion? Community?
I wasn’t involved in philanthropy in the typical sense growing up, but I was exposed to it in its more traditional sense of “hospitality” throughout my childhood. I was brought up with my five siblings in a pretty devout Christian family, with parents who demonstrated a sacrificial hospitality to anyone who came across our doorstep. They are rare people who care more about relationship than dogma and are some of the most generous and empathetic people I know. Even though it must have been crazy raising six kids, they always had an open door policy for anyone that needed help. We constantly had people from all walks of life living with us when they needed a safe place to stay.
As an aside, I think it’s sometimes easier to be “philanthropic” these days than hospitable, especially with how much more isolated we are. To a lot of people, philanthropy is giving money away to organizations that need it, or going out and volunteering at an event. This is important stuff, but I think true philanthropy is welcoming people into your life, especially people that are different from you. It’s easier to sacrifice money or a little time than to sacrifice comfort by really engaging with people.
What’s the most rewarding thing about running your business today?
The people. It sounds clichéd, but it’s true. I look forward to going to work every day because I like the people I work with and respect them.
How would you like your legacy on this earth to be defined?
One of my favorite quotes is from Peter Maurin, a founder of the Catholic Worker movement. His goal was “to make that kind of society where it is easier for men to be good.” That’s such a wonderfully practical formulation. I’d be pretty happy if I felt I had somehow made the world a place where it’s easier for people to be good. I think it’s getting awfully hard to be good in the world.
Why does doing good feel good for the world and for you?
I think it’s because it reminds me that the boundaries between me and other people are porous. We’re actually all connected in really tangible ways, if we let ourselves see it. It’s both extremely comforting for me, but also a call to action.
If there is just one thing readers of this should take away from your project and your personal mission statement—what is it?
Don’t wait until you have it all figured out. The most important thing is to recognize your desire to be philanthropic and then just start somewhere!
In the works since 2005, Animoto was founded with the vision of inspiring people to share their lives through the magic and power of video. Animoto’s founders include veterans of the entertainment industry and have produced shows for MTV, Comedy Central, & ABC, studied music in London, and played in indie rock bands in Seattle.
Today, Animoto is a video creation service (online and mobile) that makes it easy and fun for anyone to create and share extraordinary videos using their own pictures, video clips, words and music.
Simply upload your pictures and video clips, choose your style, add words and music, and click the “produce video” button. Then, Animoto’s cinematic technology does its magic and in minutes brings it all to life with a beautifully orchestrated production you can share with family and friends.
Millions of people actively use Animoto for everything from special occasions like birthdays, weddings and trips, to sending a quick special greeting, or just to share everyday moments.
Based in New York City with an office in San Francisco, The entire Animoto team is a passionate and innovative group devoted to helping more people experience the power of video for sharing their lives.