A decade. Holy heck. What happened?
This is an attempt to piece together a brief history of life on Planet Nutshell. Before I start, I want to stress how much of this adventure has been supported and powered by other people, people much more talented than me, particularly in the areas of art, design, and animation.
Ten years ago, I wasn’t sure what was next. I was living in Seattle, working at a small content writing company that I’d co-founded. Then, my girlfriend and future wife received an academic job offer in Boston to teach English Literature. Getting a professor position in the humanities is a bit like winning the lottery so there was little question about whether or not she would take the job.
I knew I wasn’t really satisfied with my current job, but Seattle felt like home. Fortunately, though, I decided my relationship with Jill was more important than the life I’d leave behind. To make the move work, though, I needed a job I could take with me to Boston.
A friend pointed me in the direction of an emerging media form called the “explainer video” that was finding audiences on a relatively new platform called YouTube. These short, often inventive videos were designed to help everyday people understand products, services, ideas, and more. One of the pioneers in this space was CommonCraft, a Seattle-based husband and wife duo who produced a popular series of “In Plain English” videos. Their work comprised of stop motion paper cutouts moving on a white background that had a disarming handcrafted quality. I got to know Saschi and Lee of CommonCraft a bit and said to myself, I want to do something like those guys.
Three essential things converged to enable the explainer video way back in 2007 and 2008: Increasing technological complexity and the general confusion that comes with it, more accessible and affordable production tools, and online video platforms such as YouTube. Suddenly, explaining technology to your parents and/or in-laws became a necessity. Meanwhile, big companies were seeing the value of making their products and platforms more friendly and relatable beyond the typical marketing and advertising paradigm. It wasn’t enough to just pitch something, you needed to explain it, too. It also helped that many new startups, which were exploding in number, wanted concise, engaging videos to attract investors and users.
And so I got started. I jumped headlong into this promising new space with little knowledge of how to run a company or get new clients. The only guiding light I had was to focus on creating good work, or at least work I thought was good.
At first, I produced videos for free and released them into the public domain in the hopes of getting noticed. Here’s one of the first videos I ever made, which explains Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.” I chose the poem because I’d learned from a wonderful professor in college that it’s commonly misinterpreted, requiring deeper analysis than the casual reader might give it. This, I figured, made it ripe for an explainer.
The first video I actually got paid to produce was this little ditty for Brooks Running Shoes. In retrospect, the design and animation are a little, well, embarrassing, but I think there’s still something lovable about it.
Another big milestone, and one that really launched Planet Nutshell out of my apartment in Boston, was a relationship I developed with Utah Education Network. In 2009, I submitted a proposal to produce 15 or so online shorts explaining Internet safety to kids. Those are still alive and kicking on our website today and thousands of parents, teachers, and kids watch them each month. Here’s one of the most popular episodes:
Our work in education continued for public broadcasting with a followup series for UEN on climate change, physics videos for WNET and NASA, and an early learning series for KET. Through the years we’ve met some wonderful people in the PBS ecosystem and this work will always be important to me and the team. A highlight from our work with WNET is this animated interview of Gloria Steinem:
Planet Nutshell has always been focused on social and environmental impact. The work we do in these areas is simply an extension of our values: Media should advocate and inform for good. The first project that comes to mind in this domain is for Roca, a Boston-based nonprofit that asked us to explain their innovative, data-driven program for supporting, mentoring, and educating at-risk young mothers.
Early on in Planet Nutshell’s development it became clear that working for public television and nonprofits would not fully support our growing team. I began exploring ways that we could be a part of two key industries, healthcare and technology, both of which have a strong presence here in Boston. Out of that effort, we developed a long standing relationship with Foundation Medicine, which we worked with when it was a relatively young company right through to its IPO and beyond.
We’ve also worked with a many technology companies, but some of the most fun we’ve had is simply creating videos for companies that never actually hired us, such as this video for WhatsApp:
We released it during the WhatsApp craze, when Facebook had just acquired it for some incomprehensible amount of money. Projects like this one, while not directly profitable, were worth their time and effort because of exposure. I learned that if you timed things right, lots of people who are interested in a hot topic will see your work. In addition to bringing us many views, the video was picked up by German television, expanding our exposure even more.
And no overview of our work would be complete without mentioning a video we did for a company that never existed at all, Exploozy, a “disruptive” technology company that allows you to make a 90-second animated video in ten seconds, right from the palm of your hand. The irony speaks for itself, and perhaps Planet Nutshell will be made obsolete with something like this in the decade to come. But I do wonder, will it ever be possible to automate creativity?
As I said at the start, the story of Planet Nutshell is a story about talented people. John McGowan, who joined us relatively early, has devoted so much of himself to this enterprise, offering inspiring optimism, empathic thoughtfulness, and creative leadership that are sewn into every video we release. He’s an absolute force of nature. David Trexler came to us three years ago to bring order and organization to the studio. His unparalleled skill as a producer has made Planet Nutshell work for all of us. It also helps that he’s fun to be around, a devoted father, and infallibly loyal to the cause of art. Occasionally, he even tells a good joke. Our newest addition, Jen Sanchez, has in just a few short months gone from a fresh art school grad to a vital part of the team. We’re all in awe of her drive and commitment to learning and growing.
We’ve also been supported by an incredible lineup of freelance writers, artists, and animators over the years. Their work is deeply sewn into the fabric of many of our videos. A special thanks goes out to them.
Of course, some people have moved on, but they certainly left their mark. Brien Hopkins sadly moved on to Google, but his dry wit always made me smile, and I felt privileged to watch him develop into a wizard-level motion designer while he was under this roof. Trevor Piecham was very instrumental in creating Planet Nutshell’s visual style for several years and he worked diligently to help me develop Planet Nutshell into a professional studio.
If I’ve been successful at one thing, I’d say that I’ve found a way to transmute all of the efforts of these amazing people into something special that lives at the heart of everything we do. Call it special sauce. Call it a soul. Call it love.
Now, I do not want to sugar coat this. There have been many setbacks, many trials. This is a tough and competitive business, especially if you are guided by principles of service to a greater good. But people, amazing people, keep bringing me back through the door each morning. That includes the Planet Nutshell team. And it certainly includes my wife, who has listened to my woes with care and attention. She’s also known exactly when to stop listening and turn me back to the hardest work of all: Faith in oneself. Our clients bring me back, too, those people who are doing incredible things, educating the world, and solving seemingly unsolvable problems. The ones who delight in our work and see potential in us, the ones who, for ten years, have taken a leap of faith and entrusted us with a great honor: Telling their stories.