IN FOCUS: Small Business – Building from adversity

Posted on Feb 4, 2013 :: Small Business Spotlight
Sharon Verbeten
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

Husband-and-wife creative team Darren and Tina Lutz are the founders of Balance Studios, a Green Bay firm specializing in interactive media, animation and augmented reality projects.

Green Bay Studio excels at animation, augmented reality

When Jennifer Meetz, the director of marketing for Farm Rich, came up with a “crazy idea” for a 3D marketing tool for the company’s sales force, she didn’t think she would ever find anyone to replicate, or even understand, her concept.

Then she remembered Balance Studios in Green Bay. Soon, the crazy idea turned into a creative challenge — the kind that gets Balance founders (and husband-and-wife team) Tina and Darren Lutz excited and motivated.

“Clients are willing to take the leap with you,” says Tina Lutz, vice president of Balance, a small firm that creates multi-media marketing, animation, interactive media and augmented reality projects for clients worldwide. “We’ve developed things nobody else has.”

Bumpy start

Talk about roller coaster rides. It seems every step of the Lutzes’ journey to creating Balance has been fraught with challenges. In 2001, the two lost their jobs when a local animation company closed abruptly, leaving them with unfinished projects, access to other talented out-of-work designers and plenty of client contacts.

Instead of packing up and moving to a larger city (which they considered), the Lutzes took a huge leap of faith. In just five days, they went from being unemployed to launching their own business. “It was all or nothing,” recalls Tina, who has a degree in radio/TV and film.

After carefully assessing their previous company’s pitfalls, the couple used their own savings as capital and readily acquired a bank loan (based on a solid business plan). Coincidentally, they signed their loan documents on Sept. 11, 2001 – sending their newly formed business into a shocking and unexpected spiral.

“We were in shock for a number of days,” says Darren, a self-taught expert in animation and visual effects. With the 9/11 tragedy leaving many businesses on uncertain ground, Darren says anticipated clients and projects went away, sales dissipated, everything was collapsing.

Adversity once again fueled the Lutzes’ passion – and Tina immediately scrambled, traveling nationwide with work samples on VHS (the standard at the time, prior to more advanced technology and daily Internet communication), hoping to drum up some – any – work.

They experienced a few slammed doors, with many clients hesitant to believe creativity could come from a company in “tiny” Green Bay. But careful follow-up and promising pitches led to new work, which put Balance Studios squarely on its way to viability.

“Creative is still creative,” Darren asserts, no matter what the location.

Creating a new ‘balance’

Some of the company’s most unique projects involve augmented reality. A video on Balance’s website helps show what it is, but in a nutshell, AR is an environment where a real life element is enhanced by superimposing virtual elements (such as gaming, animation, graphics or audio) on top of it in real time.

“We’re changing reality,” says Darren, director of Balance’s Believe Animation division.

In addition to a new augmented reality children’s book (see sidebar), Balance has also created AR projects for corporate clients, like Farm Rich/Rich Products.

The Georgia frozen foods company recently launched an AR app for its sales force and brokers.

“We had a challenge,” says Jennifer Meetz, director of marketing for Farm Rich. Meetz had a complicated marketing idea in her head, unsure of how to execute it. But the Green Bay native had previously worked with the Lutzes on other projects at other companies, so she called Tina with the idea. In less than a year, Meetz says the idea came to fruition, with an app that literally makes product information “come to life” in real time.

“Everything is triggered off an image target,” says Meetz. “It’s interactive; unlike traditional printed materials, you can go live and interact with it from the app.”

Since the app’s launch in late 2012, the Farm Rich team has been “blown away,” according to Meetz.

“It changes the game for our brand,” she says. “We have very formidable competitors; we’re just a small little brand. For us to be able to go in front of a buyer and present with this technology … we are leapfrogging” the competition.

In addition to working with corporate clients, Balance has developed a niche of sorts, working with museums nationwide, including a 3D animated avatar for the Pullman Porter exhibit at The National Railroad Museum in Green Bay. They are also working on one of the first AR museum exhibits for the Wisconsin Veterans Museum in Madison.

From its AR projects and television animation (several children’s shows are in development and marketing stage) to other interactive media, Balance Studios has managed to find an ideal balance in its offerings.

“The number of hats we wear in a day is astronomical,” says Darren. “But we can’t stay stagnant.”

A CLOSER LOOK

Augmented reality for kids

One of Balance Studios’ divisions, Wonderwerkz Publishing, has debuted its first augmented reality book for children, “Rocks in my Socks.”

Based on characters from its Believe Animation “Dinosaurus Exploreus” animated series, “Rocks in my Socks” is the story of Gracie, a pint-sized pink triceratops who learns about acceptance through some unexpected visitors that show up in her favorite pink-and-white-striped socks.

The full-color picture book (sold with a coloring book and fuzzy pink-and-white sock) has an accompanying free app that allows readers to engage in augmented reality games and activities – placing the child, ultimately, in a 3D interactive world.

For more information visit: www.rocksinmysocksbook.com.

ON THE WEB

Balance Studios www.balancestudios.com