How I created the one project that became my entire career.

The short version is simply: start with an idea, and then do everything you can with the resources you have to make it into a reality. The long version, which is the one I get asked most about, is a more complicated tale.

“High Class, No Cash” was the first project I completed on my own upon graduating from college, and it’s the one that opened a variety of doors for me. It’s what got me my first videography contract here in New York, and it paved the way for a lot of other projects. What started as a concept for a travel show slowly evolved into a variety of different things, but it was first and foremost a testing ground for my own ideas on a variety of topics. It was at the forefront of the web tv movement, it evolved to become one of the top Parisian travel apps on iTunes, and as a web site it became a top lifestyle site for 20-somethings looking to live well, without breaking the bank.

[sociallocker]

There are a lot of people who think “High Class, No Cash” was about my life. Which is grand and all, but it was more of an escape from reality rather than a daily diary. The project started out as travel show and an inspiration board for myself, and let’s say I’ve worked to embody the ideals at the foundation of the project. And while I wish I were always jet setting and living the glamorous life, the reality is that I’m on the road for a very small portion of the year, slugging away through work for the vast majority of my days. I relish in the moment and make the most out of every second. But I guess I’m doing something right because people tend to think I’m always somewhere. But I digress!

So how did the whole thing come about? Well, that’s sort of a long story, but here we go:

The project idea came about largely from the year I spent doing study abroad. I was in Florence, Italy for about 4 months, and in Dubai, UAE for another 4 months. My base in Italy was perfect to travel from, as it was central and I was located next to a low cost carrier airport in Pisa, which was about 45 minutes away from my apartment. I tried a hostel once and the experience was rather terrible, so I found ways to balance my budget so we could all stay somewhere nicer, and make the difference up with food or what not. Learning how to find a  a good mix of cheap flights, hotel deals, and cooking for ourselves or getting the lunch special, was the way of life I experienced firsthand, and it was the foundation experience I used to create the travel concept. Moreover, I was looking at the high end world of travel and finding ways to recreate that experience on a shoestring budget. Certain cities were chosen because they offered more budget friendly options, and being flexible with what we were looking for also allowed us to have a better pick of options.

I had to create an equivalent for what I felt about what I was looking at – not copy it.
-Georgia O’Keeffe

Throughout college the concept was centered around 4 hosts. These were friends who I thought would be great on camera together, and would each present a different aspect of life abroad. We had arts/culture, food, nightlife, and general travel knowledge. However, this group was never as motivated as I was, and it became clear that they would be glad to say “yes!” had I presented them with tickets, but that was about all they were going to contribute. I wrote several rounds of presentations for different schools, seeking funding from language departments on the premise that we could make this educational and also cultural. Nothing panned out, and the people lost interest.

So it goes. I cut them out, and focused on honing the concept while wrapping up my coursework.

This was the starting “Idea,” capitalized and ethereal. Once you have your idea, the next step is you talk endlessly about your idea. Give up the notion that someone is going to steal your idea, because while that is a possibility, it is unlikely.

That said, let me digress a little bit:

In high school I created an incredibly detailed project — an expansive itinerary for a trip through Africa, with full travel and accommodation details lined up and laid out. There was a budget, a cultural outlook, and every detail from private jets, to train times to tea time was scheduled. It was lavish and over the top, and I loved creating every minute of it.

One day when we were supposed to bring our work to class so we could talk with the teacher, and use the class time to finish by our deadlines. I thought nothing of leaving my work on the screen for a few minutes to go talk to a friend. I came back and there was someone who I didn’t particularly care for right there — can’t stand him even to this day — and he had a shit eating grin smeared across his face.

I didn’t think anything of it until class presentations rolled around and he insisted that he go before me. Ok, whatever. I didn’t really like presentations anyway, and I knew my project was amazing. He got up and gave the same presentation as me, down to the same colors and itinerary. He had saved my presentation to a thumb drive and presented the work as his own.

My teacher said she had no proof, and we received the same grade on the project. Even though she saw my work that day, knew what I was capable of creating, the fact he was entirely incapable of that kind of work, and yet, she did nothing. I learned the hard way not to trust people with your ideas, since frankly, people kind of suck.

But the thing about creative ventures is they don’t function in a vacuum. They need interaction and exchange in order to grow and thrive, much like a fire needs oxygen to breathe.

So my point is to not give everything away — don’t bring your work with you, and learn to keep some of the details secret — but you have to also be open to talking about your idea. Talking about your project is the only way you’re going to get the concept out there, and find the people who will help you get it off the ground.

I trademarked the name before I started saying it out loud, and I registered the domains as well. “High Class, No Cash.” It was catchy and it was different, and it got the conversation started. But I learned from my past mistakes, and I didn’t give away too much information.

I graduated early and moved to Italy for a few months to focus on Italian language. I was burnt out from the extra 70 credits I had jammed into my schedule, and this was some downtime. While back in Italy I also traveled more, and began talking about the idea that had been percolating already for a few years.

I was at a birthday party in Paris, having flown in from Italy for the week to visit a friend. At this party was a fashion photographer and we started talking about pictures and the like. He mentioned that he wanted to start working more with video, and I told him about my project. He seemed to think it was cool, and we decided to exchange information. I had done lots of video work throughout college, and he seemed interested in my knowledge, while he brought the technical know-how and the camera. The concept had originally been to film throughout Spain, France, and Italy, but due to logistics and a complete lack of budget, we decided to shoot in New York the next time he was in town.

Adaptation and evolution are possibly the most important part of getting a project off of the ground.

The next time he was in New York I took the bus down from Boston, where I was living at the time, and we met up for a very long shoot. I became the host, and took over the on-air and writing duties, as well as all of the behind-the-scenes logistics. I planned the itinerary, packed up the wardrobe and styled everything myself, and even figured out how to put on makeup so I wouldn’t look like a mess on camera. I’m not someone who really seeks out the spotlight, so I read a lot about how to pose and act on camera, and I did a lot of research into what models had to say on the subject. I figured they would be the people to ask. Basically, I winged it. I had always loved improv, and I took a class in Italy, and this turned out to be how I approached the project. My on camera work was honest and real, and I kept the umms and the quiet pauses. And the key here, which is what I had been looking for, was this photographer’s eye for fashion.

The aesthetics of the project were as important to me as the content, and this is what would essentially become my trademark.

After we shot in New York I went back to Boston, exhausted but excited. I had a ton of content to sort through, and I had to figure out the best way to present it. What had started as a travel show concept now evolved into putting short clips online. I had created a spoof series of MTV’s “The Hills” set at Harvard, and had already experimented with short format video. So I took that approach here, and created small webisodes that would be easy for viewers to watch and engage with. I taught myself how to create motion graphics with After Effects, Apple Motion, and even PowerPoint, and I edited the videos using iMovie. Not the most elaborate system, but I got the job done. I sourced music, and got everything online using YouTube, back when there wasn’t much high quality content on the site. This was homegrown but it was also high style, which was unique at the time. ipadpreview-x From here the project gained some traction, and I began reluctantly to blog about other locations in between shoots. I never wanted it to be a travel site, as this was supposed to be a tv show, but there you go. Things change. We filmed round two in Paris, and I set out creating an iPad version of the project. I learned how to use HTML and CSS to create an app that was iPad native, and the project became more about creating an experience viewers could really melt into. The app went live, and was one of the most popular apps about Paris for a few months. There were over 5,000 downloads within the first year, and that was with zero advertising.

The key was starting with an idea, talking about it just enough to get the right people involved, and then learning how to deliver it to the world.

I used every skill that I had and along the way I learned new skills as the project required them. When I moved to New York, I used the web site and videos to get my first interviews at companies, and I pitched myself as a video producer and content creator. As a content creator at the forefront of the web tv movement, I had firsthand experience in a medium that was slowly starting to blow up. I got my foot in the door at the right moment, and leveraged my past experience and my own aesthetics to create content that was ahead of its time. Likewise, meeting new people was critical to this, and I had to meet a lot of people and keep those connections alive in order for them to pan out into contracts and jobs.

Having done the videos in New York and Paris, I had international producing experience, which enabled me to land up a contract that had me creating videos in New York and Paris for a client.  I was tasked with creating a variety of web tv series, as well as a collection of different ad campaigns for fashion and beauty brands. After creating a variety of such content, I developed a reputation and people started seeking me out.

And that, in a few words, is how it all began.

[/sociallocker]

Jeff Smith

Jeff started in photography and short format video, and he's been at the forefront of the web tv movement. He’s worked on haute couture shoots in Paris, shot street style in Milan, and is currently developing a steady roster of beauty, fashion, and digital clients in NYC.