The moment OK Go’s “This Too Shall Pass” video was posted to YouTube in 2010, it became a hit. To date, the music video has more than 39 million page views, which isn’t surprising to Adam Sadowsky, founder of Syyn Labs, the company behind the Rube Goldberg machine featured in the video.
As Sadowsky explains it, he and his team understood the market opportunity to build truly creative things that audiences would respond to—an understanding that has paved the way for success, and is a baseline that can help all entrepreneurs as they start new companies. “You really need to understand the market that you are entering and understand how practical it is to enter it,” he says. “Know what you want to do and go for it.”
Since the OK Go video, Syyn Labs has executed creative ideas for a variety of brands, such as Google, Red Bull and Die Hard batteries. (Check out the Die Hard battery commercial where keyboardist Gary Numan plays his song "Cars" with actual cars.) The company provides the brains behind each video’s creative idea and outsources video production to a third party.
The idea for the company was born in 2009 when Sadowsky was working as the CEO of MindShare LA, a company that produces TED-style thought leadership seminars. While the talks interested Sadowsky, what excited him more was the time before each event when he and friends would create interactive art pieces in the seminar lobby.
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“We would get hackers and makers and engineers and scientists together and do really creative things like create QR codes for attendees that, when someone looked at a monitor, would reflect back to them pictures of their friends on Facebook,” he says. “As long as you were looking at a screen, you could send a tweet and it would pop up in a thought bubble on the screen above your head.”
These creative art and technology installations became so advanced that Sadowsky thought it’d be fun to start a company focused on designing such concepts, which turned into Syyn Labs. One of his friends was on OK Go’s mailing list and knew the rock band was looking for a machine to dance with in a video. “We thought that it was the perfect fit and contacted them right away,” he says.
With five employees, dozens of freelancers on call and a sprawling warehouse of an office in downtown Los Angeles, the company has never taken outside money. “We are entirely bootstrapped,” Sadowsky says.
How do you and your team come up with such creative ideas?
We start with the parameters a company gives us relating to their brand or message and then we figure out how to apply it. It doesn’t take long for us to come up with an idea we love; the hard part is stopping there.
Do you have any rules when coming up with concepts?
We like to, as one of my colleges would say, put limitations on our projects, even if they are artificial. For example, we will start a meeting by saying that for a campaign we will only use white, or only use electronics or only use Jello. By putting those constraints on a room full of creative people, it helps us give us somewhere to start.
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What challenges do you face as a company?
I think our biggest challenge is business development—trying to find the right people to hire us. We get a lot of what we call "tire kickers," people who are interested in chatting with us and who we end up spending a lot of time coming up with concepts for, but for one reason or another, don’t follow through. We’d like to improve our hit ratio on that.
What does the future hold for you?
We're not at a point where we are developing sources of passive income. There is an opportunity for us to offer merchandise and our team is excited to build things to offer for sale.
Katie Morell is an independent journalist based in San Francisco. She regularly contributes to Hemispheres, USA Today, Consumers Digest, Destination Weddings & Honeymoons, Crain’s Chicago Business and others.
Photo: Sarah Ross