LAYING SOLID FOUNDATIONS FOR INTERNATIONAL GROWTH

30 September 2020

For this young motion picture production house, tapping international markets feels like the next logical step. But where to begin? Sean Aquilina, Managing Director at MAKA Visuals and Joe Tanti, CEO at the Malta Business Bureau, chat to Martina Said about achieving growth, valuable business mentoring, and navigating a young company through a pandemic.

 

Ambition and determination are essential qualities for young entrepreneurs looking to establish themselves and their business in competitive markets – and Sean Aquilina, Managing Director at MAKA Visuals, possesses these traits in spades. However, as he attests, penetrating Malta’s market is one thing – taking to the international stage is a whole other. And, dealing with all of this, in what could be described as the aftermath of COVID-19, is purely uncharted territory.

Before delving into the company’s journey and the valuable business support assistance it received through the Malta Business Bureau (MBB)’s Enterprise Europe Network service, Mr Aquilina recounts how MAKA Visuals came to be. “When we started out, most of our team members were still finishing their degree year at MCAST. Our focus back then was not to build a business, but to be a team that could assist companies in their marketing through commercial videos.” 

It began with a team of four creatives willing to put in all their time and effort into it, delivering end-to-end services, covering filming, motion graphics animation, 3D animation and also videos that combine all these elements together.

“We typically get a request directly from a client or advertising agency, we come up with an ideal strategic creative concept, and work on getting the video produced and delivered, while the client’s effort is invested in mainly green lighting our pre-agreed upon process. This proved to be a needed service, and at a point, we started to feel the natural shift towards turning it into a sustainable business,” says Mr Aquilina. “A few months after delivering our first project to a client we still service today, we started receiving organic interest in what we do. Clients started reaping their marketing benefits from our services and that was another moment where growing our business started to make sense, while maintaining the boutique approach.”

Discussing how video is fast becoming an essential medium to engage with audiences, Mr Aquilina expands, “our efforts are entirely targeted around the use of video in marketing. We invest our energy on advertising content that can make a difference. Anyone can shoot a video on their phone or ask a friend to use their SLR, but for it to strategically work, it goes way beyond that,” he asserts. “As any other effective marketing effort, a video is never there simply to make a brand look fancy. A video is there to help a brand grow, enhance the brand’s positioning in its respective field, help tell a product’s story, or reach new leads to convert them into sales.”

Reflecting on the use of video in local marketing efforts, Mr Aquilina states that, while this has improved since MAKA Visuals first started out, “unfortunately, the weight given to video is still not as it should be, and it’s understandable given the size of the market.” He adds that, traditionally, most companies extract video from an advertising campaign, rather than place video at the centre of the campaign and extract the rest of the content from it. And, the team are aware of the limitations imposed by Malta’s market.

“As much as we enjoy operating in our market, our ambitions as a team are bigger than what the local market could offer, so internationalisation is something we’ve been considering seriously and working on,” says Mr Aquilina. “We’ve been building a team that allows us to still service the local market effectively, maintaining our high standards in quality and service, while also producing international projects.”

It is at this stage that the Malta Business Bureau stepped in to assist Mr Aquilina and his team with these ambitions, under the guidance of CEO Joe Tanti. “Joe listened to all my pain-points and took me on board as his mentee. Together, we formulated a plan and we met up every couple of weeks to discuss, learn and evaluate. Given the situation, this all happened virtually via video calls,” which, he adds, turned out to be a huge advantage given their schedules.

Speaking of their collaboration, Mr Tanti explains that as an Enterprise Europe Network (EEN) service provider, the MBB is always looking for new locally-based start-ups or enterprises that have the potential to grow and develop through the support of EU funded schemes and initiatives.

“Sean Aquilina had initially shown interest in one of our previous outgoing company missions which we held back in 2019 as part of the EEN. He could not join us at the time. However, we kept in contact as we saw a huge potential in his business. Given the aim and nature of the Network, it is expected that the clients with higher ambitions to grow, innovate and engage in business or technology partnering activities, stand a better chance of benefitting from the Network services,” says Mr Tanti.

From that point, they continued building their client-journey relationship, where MBB learned more about MAKA Visuals, and assessed which services are best suited to take the company to the next level. “Most importantly, it allows us to build trust in one another. Building a trusting relationship is critical in building a strong foundation that will, hopefully, help the business innovate and grow internationally. This is what the EEN business mentoring is about.”

The mentoring sessions involved informal one- to two-hour long discussions on team-management, addressing team challenges when pursuing internationalisation efforts, access to finance, as well as new business ideas within the market, amongst others. The session concludes with a set of progressive pointers to be chewed on for the next meeting.

Mr Aquilina explains that “the full potential is appreciated when the candidate takes the sessions seriously, otherwise it’s hard to find help, if you’re not ready to help yourself.” He adds that his business was heavily affected by the pandemic, “so technical as well as motivational guidance by Joe were of great help for a young entrepreneur like me experiencing such challenges. Additionally, he never stopped at our chats – he was constantly helping me get in touch with other professionals in various fields so I could seek further assistance.”

The MBB CEO continues that, through EEN, they will continue to provide growth-oriented and innovation support services to help ambitious businesses like MAKA Visuals strengthen their competitiveness and grow their business internationally. “Internationalisation has been on MAKA Visuals’ cards for quite some time, and, as such, we will continue to support them and help them find the right international business partner to expand their business abroad,” Mr Tanti says.

“To facilitate international partnerships, EEN has a business database which contains thousands of company profiles, so businesses looking for international partnerships can find the perfect match for their needs,” the MBB CEO adds. “We also organise a number of matchmaking events and company missions across Europe and beyond, where SMEs can meet potential business partners in person.”

Looking back at the mentoring experience, Mr Aquilina describes it as “fruitful”, which could result in learning new practical skills, “but most importantly, learning soft skills in business that not everyone is able or ready to share, but which Joe never held back from doing. If he knows it, he’s going to share it to the full, and if he doesn’t, he’s going to find out and get back to you in the following session.”

As a young company, and a young leader at the helm of a company, Mr Aquilina considers the lack of contacts and business confidence as his greatest challenges. “Being a young player among bigger players can sometimes feel intimidating, but it’s a natural fear that can be overcome. In fact, through the mentoring I learned that certain worries are positive traits that should be embraced, and this was very helpful,” he asserts. “Going forward, also in view of the business climate we’re facing, where unfortunately marketing is probably the first department brands will retract funds from, the EEN can be of great help in tapping funds, getting business tips and helping to push our business further locally and internationally.”

 

EEN Business Mentoring

As part of the Enterprise Europe Network, the MBB has started offering free business mentoring sessions intended to support the professional activity of entrepreneurs, helping them address doubts, explore alternatives, and face new challenges. “This is being offered to start-ups whereby we allocate a number of mentoring hours which are structured on a threefold approach, namely: information, advice, and continuous support,” says MBB CEO Joe Tanti.

He adds that the support service they offer through these mentoring sessions covers various areas ranging from start-up management, start-up sales, talent attraction, access to finance, internationalisation, and even seed investment attraction – while always tailoring the support to the company’s needs.

“With the global economy struggling under the unprecedented weight of the coronavirus pandemic, it is important that businesses now, more than ever, raise their ambition and embrace new opportunities into their business strategy and operations,” says Mr Tanti.

“Through EEN, which is the world’s largest support network for SMEs, we are pledging ourselves to provide business mentoring to those in need of support in these difficult times. We understand that keeping a business running during and following the crisis is challenging. However, we are here to continue guiding and supporting the Maltese business community on how to align their operations and help them embrace new practices such as sustainability and digitalisation."

 

Article featured in the Malta Business Bureau's Business Agenda publication.

For more information on the EEN Business Mentoring, please contact the Malta Business Bureau on info@mbb.org.mt