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Meet Don Nguyen of LetterBox Collaborative in Irvine

Today we’d like to introduce you to Don Nguyen.

Don, can you briefly walk us through your story – how you started and how you got to where you are today.
Creativity has always been a part of my life. Growing up, I played the piano (like many other Asian kids) and the electric guitar. But it was never enough to simply learn and play others’ songs, so I began songwriting and recording music.

Toward the end of high school, I realized that I could use YouTube as an outlet to express my creativity. I created a YouTube channel with my cousin, Brian, and under the moniker DoubleTake, we started making music videos. YouTube was my first real experience branching out of my comfort zone. We started this adventure with nothing but an idea in our heads and little to no experience in recording or filming/editing. In fact, our first videos were modest one-takes filmed on a MacBook in PhotoBooth and edited in iMovie.

With little else, we were passionate. We never stopped challenging ourselves because even though we created our channel for fun, we took our content seriously. We began improving every aspect of our videos and content, from recording, mixing, and mastering, to filming and editing. We quickly upgraded from recording with Apple headphones and the standard MacBook webcam to a full-fledge condenser mic and DSLR setup. Premiere, After Effects, Logic, Photoshop, Lightroom, you name it, became a second language. We really focused on upping our production value, and our projects soon required much more work than our first one-take videos (as you can imagine, we were doing way more takes than just the “two” as our name implied). We would often strategize timing for our videos to maximize YouTube SEO, which meant sleepless nights where we produced, recorded, filmed, and edited entire videos in one night, just to meet crazy turnaround times. We would sometimes work 24-hours straight just to ensure we were one of the first to post covers of new song releases on YouTube; it was crazy!

Each video was a new learning experience because inevitably, something always went wrong. But we learned to be patient and innovative and quickly learned to adapt to create creative solutions to our problems. But it didn’t stop there. We knew trial and error was part of the journey, so we kept learning, and constantly strategized and tested various ways to drive our channel’s growth. There were so many aspects to our marketing strategy that eventually led to both my love for photography, as well as experience that has helped me in my career. Our channel grew from scratch to 30,000 subscribers with over 10,000,000 views. It was my first taste of creating something out of nothing; a realized vision stemming from just an idea.

Post-college, though I couldn’t maintain that hectic YouTube schedule, my passion for music, videography, and photography always remained. After graduating, I started doing marketing in-house and gained experience working with various creative agencies in different industries. In a different way, I channeled my passion into my corporate marketing roles and positioned myself in a way that allowed me to continue expanding my creativity. I challenged myself to learn and apply anything and everything I could around the planning and execution that goes into campaigns and advertising shoots. Meanwhile, I also continued to pursue passion projects on the side. I shot graduation photos, cars, family portraits, couples photos, and experimented a lot with lighting and illusions. I also began traveling and shooting on the go, creating travel montages. My passion projects allowed me to experiment and create dynamic visuals for what would otherwise be considered mundane things, and to take risks where companies and corporations traditionally wouldn’t.

Fast forward to last year, I had been working in-house for several years at this point, and it became clear to me that there were shortcomings and gaps in the industry. Time and time again, I watched as companies paid serious sums of money to agencies producing less than stellar work, which often led to me having to revise their work or go back to the drawing board entirely. I felt that with my skillset and expertise, I could offer a higher quality work product at a better value. This is what prompted the idea of starting LetterBox Collaborative. LetterBox weaves a lot of my work experience with experience I’ve gained through passion projects to create a niche within the industry. But most importantly, it allows me to continue to do work that I find both creatively stimulating and fulfilling, and also allows me to challenge myself like I did with YouTube. LetterBox has become more than just a business and more than just my passion project. It is my way of creating something from nothing.

We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
My road has been full of speed bumps and potholes, and I am sure there will be many more in the future. But in my journey so far, my biggest challenge has been more of a mental hurdle. I find myself undervaluing my worth or hesitating when it comes to opportunities outside of my comfort zone. But I realized that sometimes, I have to just push myself and go for it, but most importantly, never sell myself short. That said, this hurdle is also what keeps me on my toes and challenges me to be innovative and creative. This industry is competitive but also constantly changing. I am always re-evaluating my own work and techniques to ensure that my work is top-notch and competitive within my industry (especially when there are so many other talented, creative people out there!).

So let’s switch gears a bit and go into the LetterBox Collaborative story. Tell us more about the business.
LetterBox Collaborative is a full-service creative agency that specializes in providing photography, videography, and post-production services. Our aim is to help clients drive business through visual marketing and deliver big-budget quality work at reasonable rates. I think one of the best traits that set us apart is our flexibility. This is something I started with the support of several of my talented previous coworkers who were also looking to expand their creative range of work. My specialty is in photography, videography, and post-production, but being able to partner with colleagues I trust to deliver quality work allows me to also offer graphic design and web development services to clients who have similar needs. This ensures reliable, consistent work while maintaining competitive pricing. I’m most proud of how well we get along together both inside and outside of work and how diverse we are both from a skill set perspective as well as that of our backgrounds.

Has luck played a meaningful role in your life and business?
Luck has actually played a huge part in my life. In 2012, as I was driving alone on the freeway behind a large semi-truck, a 10-pound metal stake was picked up into the air by the truck’s rear wheel and hurled backward. It came flying toward my windshield… and was aimed directly at my face. In one of the luckiest moments in my life bar none, the metal stake grazed the hood of my car, flew through my windshield to crack my dash, hit the very top of my steering wheel, and somehow managed to land squarely in my lap. I walked away largely unharmed, with a few minor scratches from the windshield glass shattering at high speeds. It’s difficult to describe in words how scary this really was without seeing a photo. I ended up calling the police and filing a police report.

After seeing what happened, all the officer could say to me was, “Wow, you should go buy a lottery ticket.” It felt surreal; this sort of thing was something you only ever see on TV. You never think it happens to you until it does. I remember being overwhelmed with a complete sense of gratitude and realization that life truly is too short. From that moment on, I changed my entire outlook on my life. Before, I only devoted my free time to pursuing my passions. I spent a majority of my time working toward becoming a dentist because I thought that was a good career to pursue. But this event was a true page turner in my life. I decided to stray away from the “safe” path and decided to only pursue my passions in life. It was at that point that I committed myself to YouTube, which as you already know, ultimately led and inspired me to start LetterBox Collaborative.

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