Interview: Vala Halldorsdottir (Co-Director – ‘The Startup Kids’)

Behind the technology entrepreneurship documentary ‘The Startup Kids‘  are two Icelandic entrepreneurs with a passion for business and innovation. With an aim to motivate young people towards entrepreneurship, as well as meeting and learning from other entrepreneurs around the world, they grabbed a (now accessible and practical) camera and traveled around the U.S. and Europe, interviewing the founders of some of todays most successful and recognizable web based startups.

The duo of Sesselja Vilhjalmsdottir and Vala Halldorsdottir started working together in 2009 when they started a board game production company and made the best seller board game Heilaspuni. Now they are working full time on KinWins, a mobile application that turns life into a game.

We talked to Vala Halldorsdottir the Co-Director behind ‘The Startup Kids‘ about the current nature of technological entrepreneurship in Europe, how the worldwide financial crisis may be a blessing in disguise and how to break into documentary filmmaking without holding a film school background.  ‘The Startup Kids‘ is now available on ITunes and all VOD platforms, as well as online.

Buy or Rent ‘The Startup Kids‘ on iTunes, Presented by FilmBuffHERE

How did you got started in the tech industry?
My partner Sesselja Vilhjalmsdottir and I started our first company in 2009.  At the time, I was working as an engineer in Iceland and the bank crash in resulting in me losing my job; Sesselja was coming home from studying abroad, so we thought it was the perfect time to start a business.  We created a board game which was manufactured in China and sold out in Iceland in 5 days.  We knew we wanted to build a tech startup next, as well as show people how to build a successful company.

Despite the initial shock of unemployment, did that time of economic turmoil created a better environment for entrepreneurship?
I have often said that the bank crash was the best thing to happen to Iceland.  For entrepreneurs, everyone was going to banks at the time.  All the well educated people went to work for them and they grew so huge.  Then they just went bankrupt and many accomplished and able people lost their jobs.  In Iceland, everyone wanted to continue working so startups developed over the next few years.  I see the same thing happening in other countries now.

So how would you gauge the current tech specific infastructure of Iceland and where does Iceland fall within the rest of Europe in this regard?
All the countries have a lot of great tech talent so that is the main ingredient in building a good ecosystem.  The “hot spots” of Europe are Berlin, where office space is relatively cheap and funding is most accessible.  Also, there is London.

How do those two cities compare to New York City and San Francisco?
San Francisco has always been the mecca due to its history.  The thing about San Francisco is that it is a good place to find funding now.  Europe is still up and coming.  Still, the cities in Europe have to grow but I think in the next few years the gap will get much smaller.

Recently, our “Made in NY” program expanded outside of film production into technology startup tax incentive based program.  Though good for the city specifically, these kind of financial based incentive programs still polarize industries, essentially centering them in certain geographic locations, hindering the growth of others.  In an industry as borderless as digital communication and technology, how is it beneficial for an industry like technology to remain so distinctly anchored as bi coastal (in the USA)?  Does the tech industry still rely on the idea of a physical workplace?
Change is happening right now.  Many of the people that we interviewed mentioned that just 5 years ago you would have to be associated with huge financial backers and teams of lawyers, but now there are so many online tools to aid entrepreneurs.  At this point, coders just need a wi-fi connection to do their work, so in the very near future the idea of the entrepreneurship “hot spot” may not exist.

The other thing is, in San Francisco and New York, the histories and experience there is solid.  The early generations of tech entrepreneurs return frequently, adding to the existing foundation.

What is your interest in documentary film?
The initial idea came from our interest in startup companies and entrepreneurship.  We had been involved in a few media projects before, but by no means considered ourselves filmmakers.  Like I was saying, the change is happening so it is much easier to get access to proper cameras and equipment.  We thought that it should not be THAT hard to make a documentary, even though we had not done it before.

How long was the time span between the film’s initial development and its first screening?
We had 5 or 6 trips abroad.  Our first trip was May, 2010 and we premiered the film in September of 2012.  All in all it was about 2 years, but we also were a part of other projects so the editing would take place between the trips.

What kind of a crew did you bring along on your travels to Berlin, San Francisco, etc?
In the beginning it was just the two of us.  This was before anyone really knew about the project.  At that time it was not that focused so we thought it might turn into a web series.  As the word got out, many people reached out to us with genuine interest.  Through this we hired a Director of Photography, a sound mixer and such but we were always a small team.  5 People at the most.

So you two were wholly responsible for the research aspect of the film?
Yes, that was just us two.  We did get professional help with editing, graphics and all post production.

While developing the film, did you have any specific routes that you wanted to take the narrative or was the main point more of an objective look at the nature of entrepeneurship in technology?
At first it was to motivate as many people as possible towards entrepreneurship.  While in college, it seemed like the idea of succeeding on your own was never mentioned.  We saw that there was a need for motivation like this.

We were also very interested in the differences between Europe and the US, so we ended up getting a lot of footage about that aspect of things.  Halfway through production our rough cut was completely different from what our final film.  At that point it was more of an educational video, maybe too specific toward technology people.

What is your familiarity towards independent film distribution, specifically to VOD platforms and iTunes?  Since you do not come from a filmmaking specific background, did the notion of theatrical runs, festival circuit or VOD release ever cross your mind?  What was your initial distribution strategy for your end product?
This is interesting since we are not filmmakers.  We saw that the film distribution model was totally broken.  We saw that there were so many opportunities for entrepreneurs to do something there.  Since films are just as accessible (if not more so) online as they are in theaters, we always knew that this was going to play significantly into our strategy.

To answer the question, while were actually filming we were focused on the task, as well as the interesting people and places we were traveling to.  As interest grew in the film, we became much more focused on our end audience.  We reached out to other documentary filmmakers of the likes of ‘Press Pause Play‘ and ‘Indie Game‘.  Their strategy is very effective and mostly online exclusive.  From these teams we learned a lot about distribution online, as well as documentary filmmaking.

In my opinion, filmmaking and technology are much more aligned then, say, the music industry since film is so reliant on technology (as well as “talent”) to a much higher degree.  For so long, the common person just did not have the kind of access to the basic equipment needed to make a film, which is not the case now.  I wonder, when it is all said and done, how will the increased advantages of digital distribution and marketing tie into the digitization of the physical filmmaking process…

To finish up, in your opinion, are there transferable qualities that can make a successful entrepreneur also a successful filmmaker?
What we learned is that building a startup is exactly the same as the creative process.  On entrepreneurs, they are the same everywhere.  They are just as ambitious in Siberia as they are in San Francisco.  In film and entrepreneurship, these are some of the hardest working people I have ever met.

Did you have a favorite place that you visited with your film?
It was my first time in San Francisco.  All the European tech people dream about San Francisco, so it was amazing to be there.  What was so great though, was meeting all the successful people you read about them end up being so down to Earth.  They are just like you and me, started out coding in their bedroom…

Was there anything specific that you took away from this entire experience that you did not know before you started?
Cecilie and I are building a mobile app and we have now learned how much of a hand me down business entrepreneurship really is.  It is something that must be experienced, and maybe failed at, in order to ultimately find success.  People just need to go out and build something.

And what is next for the film?
We are very excited about our iTunes launch.  We also would like to expand on ‘The Startup Kids‘ brand with franchising.  I think “Startup Kids Asia” would be very interesting.
: @thestartupkids


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