Upper One Studios Helps Small Businesses and Nonprofits Find Their Marketing Niche
Alaskan-owned Upper One Studios has developed a range of marketing and media tools to meet the needs of any small business or nonprofit budget.
While working for the Alaska Department of Corrections, Rick Mallars and Tom Karpow were given the opportunity to create a probation/parole orientation video that could spread a consistent message across corresponding state offices. After spending a month creating the project, the duo discussed how much fun it would be to make videos for a living. Thirteen years later, they’re doing just that—and much more.
“We made the video, which was well-received, and that gave us the idea to start a video production company,” says Mallars, president and CEO of Upper One Studios. “I walked into my supervisor’s office and asked him if they would have hired me if I had my own company and had come in at a reasonable price, and he said yes. So I put in my two-weeks’ notice.”
Mallars cashed out his retirement and bought three cameras, audio equipment, and an editing program. He also came up with the name for the company, which refers to Alaska being the “Upper One state” above the Lower 48.
“Once we had a basic concept of what to call ourselves and what we wanted to do, we got a business license and decided to see where it would go,” says Mallars.
While they were extremely motivated, the two soon realized that they were going to have to do something different to make money. “You can be the most talented person in the field, but that doesn’t matter if you can’t find clients,” says Karpow, who was still working for the state at the time. “We started out doing weddings and picked up work on Elance and SmartShoot,” platforms for freelance hiring and video crowdsourcing, respectively.
“The market was saturated with video production companies that had been around for decades and had their claws in every large company,” adds Mallars. “Two podunk guys like us didn’t have the connections.”
Behind the scenes of the “Meet the Andersons” video campaign shoot for MTA.
Instead of quitting, Upper One decided to turn to the small businesses in Anchorage to see if they could meet their needs.
“While we were networking with small business owners, we realized that they wear a bunch of hats and don’t have time to try to figure out how to use video to grow their businesses,” says Karpow, noting that these smaller companies also had smaller budgets.
“We’d get budgets of $500, $2,000—we’d be lucky to see a $5,000 budget,” he says with a laugh.
Both men had backgrounds in improv and realized that they could use those skills to create high-quality videos as quickly as possible. “When you only make $500 from a client, it can’t take three months to make a video,” says Mallars, “so we used our improv abilities to create scenes and write scripts within minutes.”
Mallars and Karpow would write scripts during the business meeting with the client and then turn the projects around in an hour or two. “Once we perfected our craft, we began producing high-quality, smaller budget videos as quickly as possible, which became the core model of our business,” Mallars says. “That made us untouchable.”
Karpow was able to leave his state job in 2013 as the company continued to grow. Upper One signed contracts with Kendall Toyota, E2 Media Group, Fox 4 News, and Coastal Television Broadcasting Company. “We really started building a name for ourselves, which brought in other clients like Bailey’s Furniture and Continental Auto Group,” says Mallars, adding that most of these clients remain with them to this day.
“Upper One has always done top-notch work for us; we’ve been working together for many years and have a great relationship,” says Susan Hamilton, director of advertising at Continental Auto Group. “We typically write our own commercials, and we pull from our own employees for our on-camera cameos, and Rick, Seth, and Jamaal [Upper One’s animator/editors] always make sure we look and sound great. They are always professional and go the extra mile.”
Though the team never planned to get into marketing, they moved into that area because of client demand. “It wasn’t our intention; we just wanted to create great content for clients,” says Mallars. “But they started asking us what to do with these videos, so we wrote a list of suggestions. That would result in a successful marketing campaign, so we got pulled in more and more.”
“We’re a content creation company with marketing solutions,” says Karpow. “An ‘unagency’ agency.”
The Upper One team attending the Junior Achievement Alaska Business Hall of Fame in 2019.
Upper One team members providing support for a fundraiser for the Alaska SeaLife Center in 2021.
One of Upper One’s advantages is that they do everything in-house, including web development, design and hosting, graphic design, logo development, branding, and entire marketing packages for everyone from start-ups to legacy companies.
“We create a marketing plan for the year and build content to go into that,” says Mallars, who notes that Upper One follows an “employee model” where they serve as a client’s workforce. “We manage social media, content and copy, and ad campaigns.”
The company has since grown to include twenty employees, each playing a role in their “conveyor belt process,” similar to that used by multibillion-dollar corporations like McDonald’s, which Karpow notes has streamlined the process enough to make money from a $2 burger.
“While we haven’t grown super quickly, we’ve grown because we provide amazing value by helping small businesses, which are the heartbeat of America,” says Karpow. “We don’t have a lot of competition in certain areas because most companies don’t want to deal with the budget of a small business owner.”
In 2017, Upper One began working with MTA to create a marketing program for small businesses, and once again, one thing led to another.
“MTA had participated in a survey to business clients asking them what services they needed to grow their businesses,” says Mallars. “People wanted marketing coaching and training, so we hooked up with MTA to create the Business Amplifier Marketing Program, powered by MTA.”
Upper One took part in that program for three years, handling clients’ videos, websites, and design and content needs. “Eventually, MTA closed the program down, so we took it over and rebranded it as Business Nitro, a hugely successful program for small businesses,” says Mallars.
Business Nitro provides clients with an account strategist and account manager who meet with them once a month to go over strategy and to create a roadmap that will last the entire year. While a typical agency would charge $2,500 to $10,000 for this type of help, Upper One’s packages start at $499 a month, with the highest priced packages totaling $1,700 month.
“We act like a personal trainer keeping clients accountable, and they keep us accountable,” says Mallars. “The marketing world is so fragmented that it’s like throwing pebbles into a lake on a daily basis. You have to be able to remain consistent at a low cost, which will give you peace of mind no matter what’s going on.”
Like every other business, Upper One had to pivot during COVID, creating a hybrid video department that partnered with Anchorage event planner Toast of the Town to create virtual meetings, presentations, and fundraising events for its clients.
“Even as the world opens up, people in this state have realized that having a virtual component to meetings is critical,” says Mallars. “Once we streamlined the process and made it affordable, we found that a number of clients, like the State of Alaska and Native corporations, still want these hybrid events.”
Mallars adds that Upper One is one of only three companies still offering these services in the state. “While we originally thought we were investing money into something that would go away when COVID did, that’s not happening,” he says. “It’s still a big part of our business.”
Giving Back to the Community
In 2010, the opportunity to help Junior Achievement (JA) with its Business Laureate award program arose, and Mallars jumped at the opportunity.
“I was in JA as a kid, and it helped me become the entrepreneur I am today,” he says. “We met on Saturdays at 2 p.m. in Midtown and created our own corporation of kids. I was voted in as CEO, and it inspired me and my friends to want to become business owners.”
Mallars believes most people are not aware of JA’s breadth of programs. “JA is responsible for teaching financial literacy and entrepreneurship—super important things that are being lost across the nation… When kids get out in the real world and have to pay an electric bill, they don’t know how to balance their checkbook or fit that in the budget.”
“As soon as Upper One saw what we were doing with the awards program, they had so many great ideas about how to level up the laureate interviews, the student interviews, and the event itself,” says JA of Alaska President Flora Teo. “It was a game-changer, overall.”
“As a very small nonprofit, we also struggled with telling our story,” she adds. “They came up with simple, cost-effective things we could do, and over time we came to think of them as our marketing department.”
In addition to helping Junior Achievement with the videos for the Business Laureate Award program, Mallars also volunteers to talk to fifth-grade students in the classroom about running a business.
“Rick shares the story of how he got his start in business—the good, the bad, and the ugly,” says Teo. “He really connects with kids.”
Guest speakers are important, Teo says, to help kids figure out a career path. “We can provide an award-winning curriculum, but it’s our volunteers that really bring it to life. It’s what kids remember the most,” she says.
In 2017, the company established Upper One Cares, which discounts services 30 percent for nonprofits. For The Arc of Anchorage, one of Upper One’s longest-held nonprofit accounts, the company worked on public relations, communications, and data services even as the organization underwent staffing shortages.
“We’re their most consistent employee,” says Karpow.
The ability to quickly maneuver and to produce high-quality content at a reasonable price has helped Upper One to grow, but it’s the commitment to helping others succeed that makes it such a valuable part of the community.
“Companies that participate in JA are role models,” says Teo. “Even though it may only be one day out of their schedule, they are connecting with thirty future leaders and having a huge impact on the future workforce. They are connecting with kids in meaningful ways.”