Hire the best people and give them ownership over their responsibilities.
Since establishing part2 in 2007 in his native New York, David Shadrack Smith has created and produced over 150 hours of programming to a wide range of major networks and broadcasters. He oversees and manages a production slate that includes critically acclaimed series such as Our America with Lisa Ling (OWN), Dixie Mafia (Discovery), Hard Time (NatGeo), Off the Hook (Animal Planet), and Polygamy USA (NatGeo) as well as feature documentaries and films including the upcoming soon-to-be-released feature doc Honest Liar and feature film, I’ll See You in My Dreams. An integral creative part of every production, he also serves as executive producer and director on the highly anticipated landmark series with Oprah Winfrey, Belief and the new Lisa Ling series on CNN, This is Life with Lisa Ling.
Prior to Part2 pictures, he produced and directed The Revolution for History, served as a producer for National Geographic Explorer and lived in China as both a film and TV journalist and documentarian. Throughout his career, he has earned nine Emmy nominations and worked with broadcasters around the world, including National Geographic, PBS, OWN, Discovery, History, Showtime, BBC, Channel 4 UK, Arte and ZDF.
Where did the idea for Part2Pictures come from?
Part2 Pictures started alongside the arrival of my first child, ten years ago. That transition to parenthood is a potent one: you start asking yourself what your contribution to the world will be, what it means to grow as a person, what you value most. After working as an itinerant producer of television around the world for 15 years, I had a feeling the next phase of life should be about establishing my voice as a filmmaker and my platform to expand my work. Along with being a father, I wanted to mentor other filmmakers and create a space for my ideas and approaches to flow. In other words, I wanted the reins! Entrepreneurship was the only path I could see sustaining these work and life goals. Hence part2, the second phase.
What are you working on right now?
Right now, we are wrapping up four series, including our long running series, This Is Life on CNN and the second season of our dystopian docu-series, Dark Net on Showtime. At the same time, we are starting two new series. So it’s a busy moment and another moment of growth for us. Managing that is exciting and challenging. We’re are the busiest we’ve been in 10 years, but we’ve worked hard to build the systems, the structures, and the core values to embrace growth and still maintain our premium brand.
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
I split my time between running the business, overseeing production, and developing opportunities. My day usually bounces around those realms, sometimes in a way that flows, other times in a way that feels like I’m inside a pinball machine. The key to making it productive is having great teams who are empowered to handle things with or without you. Then, my job is additive and focused on the bigger vision thing. It’s not easy, though. There are a lot of meetings, a lot of emails, some fires and a lot of outward facing needs to meet. Making the day productive means trying to pry space away from those demands to think and create, especially when the job ultimately is about ideas and innovative approaches. I work best with teams – the creative friction and interaction is my most productive time – but I often forget that some time to space out is critical.
How do you bring ideas to life?
This is where focused teamwork is powerful. I find the best way to work through something is to hash it out with others, to have productive arguments and get to the heart of things by each making a case for something. To do this, you have to go in focused, you have to put away the screens, and you have to be present. It’s like playing music. That kind of performance can be exhilarating, but it also requires some time to get prepared, to come in with ideas and inspiration. And that’s where the input comes from – in order to have creative output, you need some creative input. Visiting museums, going rock climbing, playing the piano, running around the kids – as they say, it’s when you’re not thinking about something that the best thoughts come. But for me, that’s all practice for the main event – working with others to shape things from idea to real action.
What’s one trend that really excites you?
I am excited by how good television continues to get. I can’t think of a time when there was so much quality and so much attention to craft as right now – and I think that’s only going to continue as the screens in our homes get bigger, the ones in our hands get better, and growing content outlets demand unique and innovative approaches to stand out. It gives us – who have been committed to our craft of storytelling form the get-go – a chance to be even bolder. If I had to generalize that thought, it’s to embrace the changing nature of your industry and stay committed to your lane – it helped us stand out when we weren’t doing what everyone else was doing, and we had established our bonafides when the industry moved more toward our approach. Of course, it’s all cyclical, so hold on to your hat. Know what your values and standards are and stick by those as the world changes around you.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
I rarely read or write emails at night and almost never on the weekends. You have to turn it off. You have to leave others to process and come in the next day with fresh thoughts. You have to know that you’re in a long run, and to pace yourself.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Take your time to learn your craft – do something really well. You can take a skill with you everywhere and you’ll have confidence and discipline. I came to those things late.
Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on?
That businesses always have to be growing. There’s a mentality that growth is the goal – it comes from our shareholder-driven economy, I presume. But growth without a core sense of what you’re growing for and a strong set of values to guide you seems like a dangerous path. There are certainly rewards – but I think as a society we should also value depth and community and quality, too.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
Hire the best people and give them ownership over their responsibilities. It took me years to learn how to let go and to understand that people would do things differently but equally well if I gave them the standards and the goals. People, as one of my very first employees, taught me, want to do their best. You have to enable that, and it will come back ten fold.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business? Please explain how.
I think building a strong culture of our own from the outset was the most important part of starting our company. We made very conscious decisions about our culture – what was important to us, how senior management made themselves available, the open architecture of our offices, and the values and standards underpinning our work. It was idealistic, but to my surprise, 10 years later the core culture of inclusive, supportive collaboration has stuck, despite the fact that there are only a handful of us still here from the beginning. Culture has a way of sticking around and it will inform everything about how you grow, so pay attention to it.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
A school. It just seems like there is a constant demand and not enough supply.
What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?
We recently adopted a cat for my sons 6th birthday. The adoption fee was $100. But it’s been wonderful for us all to have this being to take care of collectively. I don’t think I realized how much my kids needed a pet!
What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive? How do you use it?
I use Evernote for just about all my ideas and thoughts and writing. It feels like a creative space for me to sit in front of and just jot down notes or try to flesh things out to a fuller form. It helps immensely that I can use it across all my devices, so I can pick up thoughts and strands of ideas wherever and whenever. I use Wunderlist for a shared to-do list with my colleague. It’s very helpful. Otherwise, I really like simple text messaging. I get one every morning with my days’ schedule and it helps me get set for the day.
What is your favorite quote?
My 6 year old came from karate the other day and said: “I am less afraid of a person with 10,000 moves than I am of a person with 1 move they’ve practiced 10,000 times.” It’s probably a cliché, but I like it. It speaks to craft and expertise.
What was the worst job you ever had, and what did you learn from it?
I always worked from a young age. I ran a babysitting service and was a bicycle messenger and worked in bookstores, bused tables, was a darkroom assistant, taught English to taxi drivers, sold pictures in the Hong Kong subway, wrote travel articles, you name it. I learned something from each and every job, whether it was working with others to getting someone to say yes to being more efficient. But the hardest job for me was being a production assistant on a music video set. I just wanted to be the director. I learned patience…until I became the director.
If you were to start again, what would you do differently?
At the beginning, I didn’t understand managing people. I was good at what I did, so I was still trying to control every aspect of the work and in many cases doing it myself. There were people around me who were very capable, but I had to learn to let go and trust. I think I would have taken some sort of management course or brought on someone whose expertise was in management to build better habits in myself. I would do that differently from the outset.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?
I think having values is more important than having goals. Knowing what is important to me, important to my decision making, important to the culture and product of my business – those are the things that have guided me more than trying to reach a specific business target. That always felt too pass/fail to me. I want to have some core values to turn to as a face challenges and opportunities. Defining those has been both critical and on-going.
How do you balance family and work life?
I’m sure everyone answers the same way: not well enough. I have tried to get home by dinner and turn off all my devices until the kids are in bed and especially on weekends. I try to sit and have a coffee in the morning rather than rush into work. I moved the office nearer to where I live (and, as it turns out, where a lot of people in my industry live) so I don’t have a commute. I visit my mother once a week at the same time, so there is something regular and predictable in our lives – I learned the value of ritual while making the series Belief, with Oprah Winfrey. Work/life balance is an area where there is a lot of room for improvement. But I love what I do and that helps. As my children get older, I will try to bring them with me on work trips and into the creative process. Maybe that will help!
What do you read every day, and why?
I listen to a lot of podcasts – Invisibilia, RadioLab, the Hidden Brain, This American Life and others. I read the news feeds, of course, but I like the depths I can take my curiosity with podcasts. I read a lot of proposals for projects, too, because we are always trying to develop amazing content.