The way Dex Deboree tells it, his boss–the owner of a well-known but struggling TV ad production company called Stardust, and a guy with a “tumultuous reputation”–called him in on a Friday afternoon in 2012 to discuss the future of his ailing business.
“I can’t do it anymore. I’m the problem,” he told Deboree, who was Stardust’s managing partner at the time. “I think you should buy the company from me, or I’ll close it down.”
Deboree immediately called his now-partner, Seth Epstein, to gauge his interest. The two filmmakers didn’t know each other very well, but they had worked on a project together in the past. Deboree remembered feeling a sense of “synergy” with Epstein. By Monday, they owned the company, which they eventually rebranded as Los York.
Epstein’s version, on the other hand, goes like this: Stardust’s owner–a friend, and a great guy who was just burned out and needed a break–reached out to Epstein three months before the deal. “I’m thinking about selling the company,” he told Epstein. “Are you interested?”
Epstein was, but the sale fell apart. Stardust’s self-presented revenue and debt figures didn’t line up with what Epstein was seeing.
Still, throughout the process, Epstein was meeting Deboree and the two developed a mutual appreciation from a distance. And then Epstein had an idea. He called up Deboree midweek with an invitation to join the deal–because if the company didn’t get bought, it was going to go under. By Friday, they had paperwork. On Monday, the company was theirs.
It probably doesn’t matter who called whom, because regardless, the two men turned out to be pretty good business partners. In 2015, thanks to partnerships with brands like Nike, Motorola, Toyota, Sonos, and WeChat, Los York pulled in almost $16 million in revenue, up from just over $100,000 in 2012.
At a whopping 14,405 percent, that growth landed the company at No. 8 on this year’s Inc. 5000. According to Deboree, they also erased approximately $1 million of debt left to them by Stardust’s previous owner in just six months.
“That’s a huge number for a company that was basically starting from scratch, that had five employees and no runway,” Deboree says. “We didn’t come with an infusion of cash. We weren’t backed in any way. And we had no real game plan for how we were going to get out of it.”
When Epstein and Deboree–who co-lead the company as executive partners, with neither officially opting for the title of CEO–first assumed ownership, there was no grand rescue plan. There wasn’t enough time to put one together. They ran the business 30 days at a time, checking in monthly to see if they were still alive. They still do that now, four years later.
Instead of focusing on the numbers, Los York makes producing quality content its primary concern. Most traditional ad agencies come up with the ideas, and then flip them over to a production company to turn them into reality. Los York does both, with an emphasis on quality storytelling rather than glitzy style. It’s leaner, meaner, and cheaper.
A two-minute commercial for the shoe company Deckers was Epstein and Deboree’s “aha!” moment. It was their first attempt to do everything themselves, and it came in significantly under budget. The ad was high quality; it won a few awards.
“Huh,” the pair thought to themselves. “That’s interesting.”
From there, they’ve almost been lucky: Every brand with which they’ve worked has come to them by word of mouth. And once they get a foot in the door, they tend to stay there.
“They were my SWAT team,” says Harsh Sisodia, who worked with Los York on Nike’s Jordan brand before becoming the sports-apparel company’s global brand digital director. “They’re the type of guys whom I could call at midnight and say, ‘Look, I need someone to get on a plane tomorrow and shoot this thing.’ And what I end up getting the next day is as good as something that took six months to do.”
In a way, that’s a microcosm of why Stardust became Los York. Yes, the company has offices in both Los Angeles and New York–but Epstein and Deboree insist Los York isn’t a tangible location. Instead, it’s representative of a creative space unbound by geographic constraints. And it’s a constant reminder that if you concentrate on the fundamentals–a quality culture and a quality product–the rest will fall into place.
“It feels rewarding,” Deboree says. “Because we had goals from the moment we took on the company to really, really do something extraordinary. And the growth is sort of an indication and a result of that goal.”