Shooting Your (Moon)Shot: How to Unleash Your Team’s Creativity with Independent Work

By Nate Houghteling, Co-founder, Executive Producer, Portal A

“F*** it, we’ll do it live.”

In the early days of Portal A, this line – borrowed from a first-ballot-hall-of-fame internet video – became a rallying cry. If we ever had doubts about jumping out of a plane or climbing into a boxing ring in front of a thousand people, these words pushed us over the edge.

Don’t overthink, just let it rip.

Fast forward 15 years. Our team has grown, along with our brand roster and body of work. Some of us have kids. We offer dental.

With more to balance and more to lose, it’s easy for “f*** it, we’ll do it live” to give way to “let’s slow down and think about it.” But for creative companies, too much deliberation can be its own trap. We hear a version of this from many of our peers in the industry – you forge an identity around fearless work, but how do you hold on to that spirit over time?

The answer for Portal A has been to create a program through which we can (responsibly and sustainably) let it rip.

Moonshots is a lane within our company where we develop, produce, and release independent projects into the world, from narrative short films to feature documentaries to experimental series on TikTok and Instagram. It’s a bet on the community of talent that we work with – and on our own creativity.

Standing up Moonshots has been a journey of its own, and through trial and error, we’ve landed on a model for investing in our own independent work, and by extension, our creative culture. Here’s what we’ve learned.

First, understand the business rationale for self-funded work and be able to communicate it clearly to your team.

There’s a reason that “passion projects” are often met with skepticism inside creative companies. They can suffer from a lack of purpose, meaning that the “passion” is only shared by the one or two people directly working on them. In order for self-funded initiatives to thrive within an organization, there needs to be a clear business case that everyone can get behind.

For us, Moonshots is our version of R&D. Just like tech companies dedicate time and resources to identify new products and lines of business, our program allows us to peer around the corner of what’s next – whether that’s experimenting with new tools available to storytellers, collaborating with under-the-radar talent, or proving out our own IP on social.

When we saw an opportunity in scripted short-form, we invested in an Instagram horror comedy about a possessed influencer who will do whatever it takes for social relevance; shortly thereafter, we were producing a slate of shows for Snap Originals.

Second, find the right balance when it comes to process.

There are challenges to finishing a self-funded project when you don’t have a client, a brief, or external deadlines. Without these forcing mechanisms, it’s easy for this type of work to float or get deprioritized as more pressing issues arise.

To ensure Moonshots had the space to flourish within our company, we think carefully about #process so that our independent projects can exist alongside (and ultimately complement) our branded work. This starts by placing them in the same operating system – assigning them project titles, Slack channels, leads teams, reviewing our slate of projects the same way we do our brand projects, and more. We also always set deadlines to make sure these projects have a go live date.

While we’ve learned to allow for a larger degree of flexibility and creative autonomy to ensure that this work doesn’t get bogged down in too much administration and groupthink, we also adopt the best parts of process from our brand work.

Third, pay attention to wins and losses, but don’t get dispirited.

It’s the nature of these types of experimental projects that not everything’s going to be a runaway success. The vast majority of videos sit on YouTube with 289 views. Such is life.

The power of these initiatives comes in playing the long game. Maybe you make a bet on an unproven director who a couple years later kills it on a high-profile brand campaign. Maybe you crack a format that catches the eye of a potential client who gives you a call a couple years later. Maybe over time, you change the perception of your company as one that wasn’t afraid to make the first move. If you’ve articulated the business case and committed to the work, you will reap the rewards over time.

Fourth, trust the process and see where it leads you.

Of course, the beauty of this type of work is that you don’t always know where it’s going to lead. We invested in independent projects on YouTube with Adam Rippon and Stephen Curry that led to sponsorships with Ketel One and Lyft, respectively. We recently released an Instagram series with Olympic swimmer, Bella Sims Needs a Life, and are currently in conversations with brand sponsors for another season. Not every independently financed series will reach that next level, but if you don’t build it, they’ll never come.

A core value of Portal A is that we are all makers. Moonshots is an investment in our team’s ability to go out and make, free from some of the typical constraints of brand or entertainment projects. It’s a gamble we’ll make every time and hope to encourage others to do the same.

Sometimes you gotta do it live.