Portrait of a Girlboss: How KitSplit founders Kristina Budelis and Lisbeth Kaufman can get you the camera (or drone!) of your dreams
At the same age the rest of us were still finger painting with baby food and trying to put pennies in our mouths, New York native Lisbeth Kaufman had already hit the job market. The daughter of indie low-budget horror-film king Lloyd Kaufman, she made her silver-screen debut as “Jingoistic Baby” in the 1988 indie horror flick Troma’s War and would go on to fill her resume with roles such as “Toxic Child” in The Toxic Avenger Part II and “Subhumanoid Birthday Child” in Class of Nuke 'Em High Part 3: The Good, the Bad and the Subhumanoid. To be sure, the rest of her resume isn’t too shabby either: Lisbeth received her master’s degree in business administration from NYU Stern School of Business, worked as a legislative aide for Senator Al Franken, held internships for environmental organizations, and worked a host of additional gigs related to her abiding love for all things movie-related.
Simultaneously, across the Hudson in Princeton, New Jersey, Kristina Budelis was also growing up nurturing a love for film, photography and everything creative. As an undergrad, she attended Barnard, where she studied English and film, and eventually Kristina landed at the New Yorker as the second hire in the just-emerging video and multimedia department in 2011. Later working as a freelancer, she directed and produced the very funny and much-shared book trailer for Gary Shteyngart’s Little Failure, starring James Franco, Rashida Jones, Jonathan Franzen, and Alex Karpovsky.
The most recent job title these ambitious young women have added to their resume? In 2014 they became co-founders of KitSplit, a share-economy platform that has been hailed as the Airbnb for creative equipment by the likes of Fast Company, Forbes, New York Magazine and TechCrunch. KitSplit enables creatives to rent cameras and related equipment on a peer-to-peer basis with confidence that the transaction and their equipment is safe and secure. We chatted recently with Kristina and Lisbeth to find out more about how KitSplit came about, what it’s like to be an artsy type faced with running a business, fancy tech like 360 cameras and virtual-reality video journalism, and more:
So to rewind for just a minute, Lisbeth, you went to Brearley, which is an all-girls private school, and you mentioned that you really loved that environment. Can you tell me more about what that was like and why you’re such a fan of an all-female environment?
Lisbeth: I went there for 13 years, K through 12, so I might be a little biased, but I loved it. It gave us space to focus on things that mattered. I didn't have to worry about how I looked when I went to school, I didn't have to worry about my clothes. We were notorious for wearing sweatpants and not brushing our hair and just looking like bums. Instead, what I was focused on was the academics and literature and history and science. I really loved to learn in that environment.
I think it also really enhanced my connections with other people in my class. It's a small school. We were 50 people a class. I'm still so close with so many of them. Whenever I meet a woman from Brearley, we have an instant connection. There's no competition around boys or about who looks better than anyone else. Especially at a young age, like in middle school, I think there are a lot of hormones raging and your body is changing and it's a hard time; you start thinking of yourself as an object and thinking of how boys think of you. We definitely sacrificed our social lives, but I think it was totally worth it. We have the rest of our lives to meet boys.
And then you guys eventually met at NYU as you were both pursuing your master’s degrees. How did the idea for KitSplit come about?
Kristina: I was doing a lot of video freelance work at the time and I just found that access to equipment was a consistent pain point. I would spend more time renting equipment than actually on a shoot! Sometimes I would do pretty quick shoots near my home in Brooklyn but I would have to go all the way to Manhattan to pick up and drop off gear. The idea of a marketplace for cameras was kind of this way to solve my own problem.
I should add that people were already renting out gear to friends and colleagues on their own, but it was a little scary without formal insurance and contracts in case something were to go wrong. KitSplit was a way to solve all these problems and make renting easier by basically having more options online and having a streamlined way to fish for options, check out, and get insurance.
Camera rental companies have existed for a long time, of course. What sets KitSplit apart?
Lisbeth: The safety aspect and building trust and making sure that everyone—the owners and the renters—are protected in the rental process, that is a super important aspect to KitSplit. In the early days, when we were just starting out, we actually launched without insurance. We were really excited to see that even without insurance, people were excited about KitSplit. There was value to just being able to search a database of gear in your neighborhood. Then there was additional value to having a legal contract with someone you're renting from or someone you're renting to. That alone was a big step up from the informal rental process that people were doing before.
Our ultimate goal is to make rentals easy and affordable and actually enjoyable. There's so much interest in on-demand services, and we knew that content creators are looking to save time. Having delivery just made a lot of sense.
Kristina: We also have just a huge variety of gear. People can search across hundreds of different owners and see those different options in one place including individuals, production companies, and rental houses. We’re actually the only platform where you can see all those options in one place. That's really valuable to folks.
We're also really excited about the community aspect of KitSplit. We do a lot of amazing events and we have a blog featuring our members. That's another thing that I think draws people to KitSplit rather than another rental options they might pursue.
Seems like a lot of share-economy platforms are moving in that direction of trying to foster actual relationships between their users.
Lisbeth: Yeah! We're already doing events about once a month. We've had a really great response in the community. People in the industry are really excited about meeting people working in similar fields, and KitSplit provides multiple ways to do that. For example, we did an event on virtual-reality show-making featuring some people from our community, like a virtual-reality video journalist from the New York Times and one from the Wall Street Journal. That sold out immediately. We've got the first demo of this awesome 360 camera that's coming out. It's kind of like a sneak peek into the next wing of virtual reality.
As artistically-minded people that have had to take on the wide-ranging tasks of founding and running a business, how do you nurture that need to create art? How do you make time for it?
Lisbeth: Uh, yeah [laughs]. As a co-founder, it's so easy to just work all the time. Work seven days a week and just not take any time off. For the first year of Kitsplit I was doing that. But finally, I realized that's actually not the most productive way to work. If I took a few hours on a weekend and do something totally different, if I went to a museum or to hang out with friends, I found that I was more productive and efficient in the other hours I was working. I've now instituted a personal policy of taking time on the weekend to not work and do other things. That was a challenge, but I feel like I'm figuring it out.
We've talked a lot about what our values are at KiSsplit and creativity is definitely one of them. We're all creative people on our team, and we're serving creative people. We think that it should be in the DNA of our company. We like to share cool things going on in the art world and in the film world and engage in the conversation.
Also, we're really serious about vacation. We offer our employees a really generous vacation package and encourage them to not work while they’re gone. Don't check in. Get that time to mentally think about other things or do creative projects.
...and cue the flood of applications to KitSplit.
Lisbeth: [laughs.] Actually, I have a life hack that you guys might be interested in that I feel helps my creativity! I started biking to work. I live about 10 miles from work, so I've got an hour there and then another hour to get home. During my bike rides, I've started listening to books on tape or podcasts. I'm just racing through books, and I'm listening to a lot of really good literature and fiction. I feel like just having that worked into my life and part of my schedule has really helped me keep my creative side.
What's been your favorite book you've listened to recently?
Lisbeth: I've gotten really into this author Laura Groff.
Oh man, Fates and Furies was so good! And President Obama is right there with us.
Lisbeth: Yeah! I’ve been listening to all her other books. So good.
Any advice you can pass on to women looking to start a business or do their own thing?
Lisbeth: I think it's really important have great co-founders. The decision-making process is so much better when you've got other people involved. I think also having different perspectives is incredibly useful. So I would even say that you should look for co-founders who are different from you and have different backgrounds. It’s so important that you examine all issues from multiple perspectives.
Kristina: Start simple. Now that we have been working on KitSplit for a couple of years, I sometimes have friends or people I know approach me with business ideas to ask for advice, and they want to launch a really complicated website or app immediately. You have to realize just how much time and money that would take, which is really hard when you're just starting out. Boil it down to the simplest version of your idea and start with that.
interview by Deena Drewis