Barry Simmons here. That’s me on the left with my friend Milton. More on him in a minute. I should preface this story with saying up-front that, as a general rule, I’m much more comfortable telling other people’s stories – it’s been my bread and butter now for twenty years – but whenever I make new acquaintances the question always turns to how or why I started Stonecastle, so it’s probably time for me to get the story straight. So here goes.
First thing: I never planned to start a video content agency
If I had, I would’ve taken at least one business class in college. Instead, I went to school for journalism at The University of Missouri. I envisioned myself as a hard-nosed newspaper reporter and romanticized about working sources and scooping the competition. That is, until I realized two things: one, I’m actually not very good at investigative journalism and two, I’m really drawn to moving images. So I graduated instead as a television reporter and took a job at a TV station in Shreveport, Louisiana.
I worked in the business for seven years, most of it as a reporter for the CBS affiliate in Nashville, when I came to terms with two more realities: one, I hate public speaking and two, I hate covering car wrecks and bad weather even more. This pretty much disqualified me from any advancement or happiness in local television, so as I neared thirty years old, I found myself in a super-deep funk.
Quick aside here: I did have one thing going for me, which is that I had a knack for winning awards for my stories. It was my writing, mind you, certainly not my presence on-air. This video below is what we in the biz call a “montage,” which reporters put together along with their resumes to demonstrate their ability to to walk and talk at the same time. This kills me, but I will share mine. Just keep in mind, this was my good stuff.
The meeting that changed everything
Around this time a friend of mine, the executive director of the non-profit Blood:Water Mission, came to my rescue. She connected me with a medical student named Milton who had the kind of heart-warming story I liked to feature on the news. But after spending thirty minutes over coffee with Milton I was struck by a powerful sensation of – this may sound weird – calling. I don’t fully understand it to this day, but I left that meeting with an urgency to do something I’d never before even considered: film a feature documentary about the story Milton had just told me.
Now, again, there were a few flaws in this plan. One being I neither owned a camera nor knew how to shoot. The second being I had no money to fund the operation. These very real considerations, however, held no sway in my decision to quit my job. Another note: as I’ve told this story countless times in the past, I tend to paint myself in a more courageous light than I should.
Truth is, I was terrified. It’s just that I was more terrified of not quitting. They say courage is the greater of two fears. My greater fear was never finding the thing I was truly meant to do.
I’ll spare you the details of how we made the documentary, but here are the highlights:
- My big break came from receiving two fancy journalism fellowships, the first funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the second by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. Both fellowships came with stipends that provided money to travel to Kenya to begin filming.
- The camera situation. My old boss, bless him, struck me a deal. He said if I’d agree to produce a few news stories during my travels to Kenya, he’d lend me one of the station’s photographers. I took the offer and ran. (Later, he surprised me again by giving me access to the TV station’s editing rooms after the 10PM newscast to work overnights with my team of volunteer editors.)
- The documentary won a few film festival awards, including Audience Award for Best Documentary at the Nashville Film Festival, but honestly, the real high point for me was our own fundraising premiere at Nashville’s TPAC Theater. Thanks to a team of helpers who came alongside me to put the event together, we raised $230,000 for Milton’s health clinic in Kenya. I was tired, jobless, and broke, but that was truly one of the most magical nights of my life.
This is the behind-the-scenes video we made for our press kit that went to film festivals.
People often ask me where I got the name Stonecastle. At the time, I really just needed a legal entity for the documentary, so as I was putting the opening credits together I decided to name it after my parents. Stone is my mom’s maiden name and Castle is my dad’s middle name. They got a kick out of it at the premiere. But then something unexpected happened: I began getting calls to create brand films for non-profits, a hospital, and Milton’s medical school, Vanderbilt. Suddenly I found myself with a startup business and a new identity as an entrepreneur. I learned Excel (so that’s what that icon is!), bought some affordable camera gear, finally taught myself to shoot and edit, and loaded up the Jetta like a clown car to whatever job I could get.
It’s really a gift that we can’t see the future. The long nights ahead, the fears of failure, the loneliness, and the realization you’re in over your head. Most of us would never start a business if we saw the real climb up the mountain! All you can see is the next step, and that’s where I’ve learned to keep my focus. Do a great job today. Work hard, walk humbly, and let tomorrow worry about itself.
These days, I’m more a fan of hindsight. Twelve years later, I can look back with some perspective and appreciate the larger story of Stonecastle. All that hard work adds up. I see that our team has left a tiny mark on the world by helping good organizations tell impactful stories that lead to change. We’re just a small team of filmmakers, marketers, and one middle-aged former reporter, but supporting the work of our partners has given purpose and meaning to our own work.
And hey, even on the tough days, it still beats covering car wrecks and bad weather.
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