Los York is a “hyphenate” in a lot of ways. Its name, of course, points to its dual locations in Los Angeles and New York – though as founders Dexton Deboree and Seth Epstein put it, the name was derived more from a state of mind, an ethereal destination, a common zip-code inhabited by citizens of a like-minded pursuit of creative excellence. Its 30-person staff, which develops campaigns for the Jordan Brand, various categories of Nike, Motorola, Fitbit and range of today’s best brands—including a recent content campaign with Jordan and NBA star Carmelo Anthony—comes with hyphenates as well. “By nature, everyone has a hyphenated skill set: Our creative directors do strategy, write and direct, and some of them DP, edit and design. Our Account Director’s EP and contributes to the creative process. It lets us work with a really lean, but incredibly impactful team,” explained Deboree. “We work directly with brands, but also collaborate with other social agencies, digital agencies and advertising agencies,” added Epstein. “It’s one thing to say you’re collaborative, and it’s another to actually do it and be it. We envision ourselves as a new model, a hyphenate, where we’re taking the best of what there is in the creative production side and agency side and blending them into one seamless process.” The new model has no doubt contributed to the agency’s success.
Los York – In a flash; in Dex Deboree, and Seth Epstein’s words
The way Dex Deboree, co-founder and co-CCO tells it, he was brought into a fledgling production company back in 2012 to turn the business around. In a few short months, it was clear the company had issues beyond repair under the company’s existing ownership.
Amid the precipice of collapse Deboree and Epstein, who strangers to each other before, serendipitously came together on a project Epstein was brought in to direct for the company.
As the company was falling further apart, with the changes Deboree implemented not able to surmount the ownership philosophy and infrastructure, closure was imminent. Deboree and Epstein had a very brief conversation on a Friday night about whether the two virtual strangers with a guttural sense of synergy between them, might want to take a big change by taking on almost a million dollars of debt, a whole host of angry freelancers and vendors the company owed money to and jump into a blind partnership overnight and figure it all out.
The pair slept on the consideration, woke early Saturday, called each other and, based on pure instinct said – let’s go for it. By that Monday morning at 8AM, they owned the company and all it’s challenges with no real business plan, no financial backing, and no clear way out of the mess they were now in.
That same afternoon, the two sat down, discussed the practicalities of what could be done and decided on the fly to focus only on the next 30 days, honesty, integrity and sincere effort – the very basics of any business. However, according to Deboree & Epstein the most significant moment for the two was when they paused to have a conversation about the philosophical and spiritual space that they wanted to hold. Beyond what had to be done, they agreed the most important ingredient to their success or failure is the way the two chose to BE. Despite the massive debt and headwinds upon them they were going to be selective about the type, quality and context of the work, discretionary about the people they chose to work with and unwavering in their commitment to pushing the company to a world class level of work, talent, company operations and the work produced. They did not know how, when or what they would do to make it all happen, but they were both crystal clear on where they intended to end up.
And end up, there they did. This very commitment and the synergy between them would lend to their success. The two relative strangers turned out to be pretty good business partners. In 2015, thanks to partnerships with brands like Jordan, Nike, Motorola, Sonos, Fitbit and WeChat, Los York pulled in almost $16 million in revenue, up from just over $100,000 in 2012. And had effectively shifted their business model away from the single-source of revenue, solely doing production for advertising agencies into a multi-faceted creative juggernaut that serves brands, collaborates with a range of old and new types of agencies, develops long form entertainment properties and is even about to launch a product of their own – an all organic protein bar called Index that embodies their core values and personal and professional missions in life.
The two offer that it’s all about that original intention and unwavering commitment. If you stay true to who you are, the words you speak and the actions you take, the rest will fall into place.
At a whopping 14,405 percent, that growth landed the company at No. 8 on this year’s Inc.5000. According to Deboree, they also erased approximately $1 million of debt left to them by the previous company’s owner in just six months.
“That’s a huge number for a company that was basically starting from scratch, that had five employees and no runway,” Deboree says. “We didn’t come with an infusion of cash. We weren’t backed in any way. And we had no real game plan for how we were going to get out of it.”
When Epstein and Deboree–who co-lead the company as executive partners, with neither officially opting for the title of CEO–first assumed ownership, there was no grand rescue plan. There wasn’t enough time to put one together. They ran the business 30 days at a time, checking in monthly to see if they were still alive. They still do that now, four years later.
Instead of focusing on the numbers, Los York makes producing quality content its primary concern. Most traditional ad agencies come up with the ideas, and then flip them over to a production company to turn them into reality. Los York does both, with an emphasis on quality storytelling rather than glitzy style. It’s leaner, meaner, and cheaper. A two-minute commercial for the shoe company Deckers was Epstein and Deboree’s “aha!” moment. It was their first attempt to do everything themselves, and it came in significantly under budget. The ad was high quality; it won a few awards.
“Huh,” the pair thought to themselves. “That’s interesting.”
From there, they’ve almost been lucky: Every brand with which they’ve worked has come to them by word of mouth. And once they get a foot in the door, they tend to stay there.
“They were my SWAT team,” says Harsh Sisodia, who worked with Los York on Nike’s Jordan brand before becoming the sports-apparel company’s global brand digital director.
“They’re the type of guys whom I could call at midnight and say, ‘Look, I need someone to get on a plane tomorrow and shoot this thing.’ And what I end up getting the next day is as good as something that took six months to do.”
It’s a constant reminder that if you concentrate on the fundamentals–a quality culture and a quality product–the rest will fall into place.
“It feels rewarding,” Deboree says. “Because we had lofty philosophical goals – that had no basis in reality – from the moment we took on the company to really, really do something extraordinary. And the growth is sort of an indication and a result of that goal and really guttural and heart-based commitment.”
Candid Q&A with the co-founders Dexton Deboree and Seth Epstein
Why was the company set up? How did you select the vertical and decide to be a part of the global platform?
Initially to save a failing business. And then our evolution came out of a desire to do things differently, to make quality films more efficiently, to approach brand strategy and creative development more holistically and true to the solution and then to collapse the layers of advertising to address the challenges faced in our modern world.
Tell us about your first product that was launched?
It was a film for AHNU. A very low budget film we developed the strategy for, wrote the script for and then executed which spawned our current content model.
How successful was your first project roll on? Share the experience?
The project was very small. It won a few awards. And made the client happy. But the exponential value was the insight it delivered us on how to collapse the process of advertising and production and break the old model of big teams, slow process, expensive methods, and broken communication.
What kind of mixed responses have you received from your consumers over the years?
Mainly around perhaps our definition. Who we are and what we do. People are generally used to and far more comfortable with specified and singular definitions – for businesses and services. But what we do and how we do it is far more of a complex, multi-faceted, multi-hyphenated, grey area of overlap type thing and we are okay if we don’t fit the box that everyone struggles to fit us in.
What were the grounds on which you have expanded your company and its offerings over the years?
We’ve evolved into more strategy, conceptual development, technology driven experiential projects, our first feature film and a forthcoming product – an organic protein bar. But it all stems from the core desire to deliver holy shit experiences to the world. The vehicle through which that experience is delivered just keeps evolving and we keep remaining open to what shows up in our space.
What challenges did you face in your initial years? What can your peers learn from it?
Time and money. We took on a company with massive debt. And had no time to develop a plan. The key for us was short, often and concise check-ins on immediate, and long term plans that we just kept refining, iterating, testing in the field and followed what worked and dropped what didn’t.
If you have to list five factors that have been/are the biggest asset to your organization, what would they be and why?
People. Commitment. People. Commitment. People.
It is difficult to start a venture. But far more difficult to maintain it’ – How would you and your team interpret this saying?
When you start out you have less to lose and no past by which to really measure yourself. You also generally have more energy and a lot more freedom – mainly in all the things you’re totally naive to in the unknowing. With time, experience, maturity and wisdom, you now have those things to argue against your pure instinct and intuition.
Are there any trigger factors/events/individuals that have played key roles in shaping your organization’s road map?
Michael Jordan and Phil Knight. Inspiration and dedication to excellence from MJ and an anchor in a core belief and commitment to sticking to it no matter what from Mr. Knight – both of which we’ve had the honor and privileged to meet and work directly with.
How do you and your company contribute to the global IT platform and society at large?
We’re constantly pushing boundaries of what can be done with technology and communication. And the results end up affecting all industry worldwide. We also stick to helping the right brands, with products that benefit society, communicate
What is a typical day in your office like?
Group morning meeting to talk about the day. Set up by a gong. A series of phone calls and meetings. Creative time. Companywide “Brainstorm” sessions talking about what food we have in the cupboards to how we might come together to change the world. And as much focused time as I can to actually ideate, write and visualize projects and the state of our world.
Do you have any new products ready to be/getting ready to be rolled out into the market?
A documentary feature film that will show a side to a legendary athlete, sport and surprising hero character that should change the way people think about some highly popular subjects and life.And a Protein bar called Index – made for both elite athletes and everyday life warriors – completely organic, yet built to meet premium nutritional standards not common of whole food products and far healthier for your body then synthetic performance products.
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