Tom Van Haute, founder van House of Media (© Bram Laebens)
If there’s one thing Tom Van Haute firmly believes in, it’s the power of a group. It made the audio engineer from Ghent decide to set up his own community for creative freelancers. “When like-minded people join forces, they create added value for each individual. Together you can absorb strong shocks,” says the 36-year-old founder of House of Media, who has been carrying a serious illness since childhood. “It is the source of my infinite will to make life and work as pleasant as possible for everyone.”
House of Media – or HoMe – is on the surface a media company you can turn to if you want to launch a campaign, make a video, hatch a podcast idea or are looking for a copywriter or photographer. In short, an agency, you might think. Not so.
Making videos and podcasts is just the top layer of what House of Media is all about. “We may be a media company, but our actual raison d’être is to organize sustainable work and life”, surprises Tom Van Haute. “I know, these have now become empty terms. But with us it is really our foundations. If that falls away, there will be nothing left because that is how it all started.”
Paradox of freelancing
As a twelve-year-old boy, Van Haute was allowed to go with his uncle to the mega discotheque Fuse. While Uncle Yves E Zone played techno records as one of Belgium’s first electronic DJs, little Van Haute stood on a crate in the DJ booth with his mouth open, watching the excited crowd. Wow, I want to do that too, was the first thought that crossed his mind! Soon he was carrying records more than textbooks, and he organized bustling after-school parties on Friday evenings.
“Fortunately, my parents have always supported me in my enthusiasm for music and wild plans. Not only because they saw that music was my life, also because I became seriously ill around the same age. Being confronted with mortality at such a young age makes you think differently from your peers”, says Van Haute. “Normally at the age of twelve you still have plenty of time to be a child, but I wondered what I wanted to do most if it ended soon. The answer was simple: make music and take an audience along in tow through atmospheres and emotions.”
Being confronted with mortality at such a young age makes you think differently from your peers
When he started as a freelance audio engineer at the age of eighteen, it was immediately clear that the combination between being sick and independent would not be easy. If he is one or more months out he lost work and customers. “The freelance status promises you wonderful freedom, but in reality it is difficult to refuse work. Moreover, you are also your own marketer, sales employee, administrative assistant and HR manager. Clearing your agenda completely for a long time is almost impossible if you also want bread on the shelf.”
That is why Van Haute started looking for a way to provide continuity in his work. One day he passed on an assignment to an audio engineer friend. The next day the customer called Van Haute. The replacement had done a good job, but his work attitude was not what they were used to from Van Haute. If he couldn’t work for them, they would look for someone else.
“I realized that if you want to cooperate successfully, you must have shared norms and values. Because how quickly do you say in a café to someone with a similar job that we should work together? Until you actually do. It often turns out that everyone has a different vision and still mainly wants to secure their own work. Then there is no trust or real cooperation. But when you have a shared vision, you transcend your self-interest and the cooperative, the group, becomes more important. Then House of Media is no longer mine, but ours. And from the customers, because they too are part of the ecosystem.”
I realized that if you want to cooperate successfully, you must have shared norms and values
By taking professionalism and good skills as basic requirements and selecting friendly freelancers mainly on their values and norms, Van Haute quickly gathered a group of ten audio engineers around him with whom he gladly exchanged assignments. They became residents called, co-inhabitants of the house.
From robbery to crisis
“But we soon encountered the second major difficulty: the organization of our collaboration,” says Van Haute. “Because who makes the planning? Who will manage this? Who does the sales and follow-up at the customer? I. In addition to my work as an audio engineer, I worked another production shift. And that while I was sick and actually just needed more rest. Unsustainable of course. I became completely exhausted while my intention was just to be able to organize my work and life in a healthy way.”
Van Haute was also financially exhausted at a certain point. Because as a founder you often put yourself last in line. First he paid the residents. Borrowing money from a bank to pay a production worker was not an option at that time, because House of Media was completely built around soft skills. There were no hard figures yet to underline the success. The residents paid one resident fee in return for the services they received, their group was still too small to keep it financially viable. And so Van Haute continued to work double shifts.
But during a meeting everything suddenly came out. “That it was no longer possible, that I had to work too much so that we could all enjoy that continuity and unburdening of tasks. That my health suffered and I couldn’t make ends meet financially either. That I didn’t know what to do with it, but I certainly couldn’t keep it up any longer,” says Van Haute.
“The response from the group has been fantastic. Of course they didn’t know anything because I hadn’t been open about it. Immediately they took over tasks and we pulled the resident fee op. My original idea became reality: surround yourself with others so that you are strong as a group and you don’t have to exploit yourself. The group is not okay until all members are okay.”
Creation of a city
After that, House of Media continued to grow as a collective for freelancers in the media sector. Photographers, videographers and copywriters were also allowed to live in the house, albeit always after a thorough selection procedure. HoMe now employs five permanent employees and there are about forty residents. That is good for about 27 full-time equivalents.
In addition to shared norms and values and a good organizational structure, the group is also working on a long-term vision. “As a freelancer you mainly have to be busy with the order of the day. You rarely have time to learn new skills, switch assignments, fail, and make sure you’re still relevant in five years”, says Van Haute. “That is why the permanent team also focuses on research and development, and they map out a long-term vision together with the group.”
I have already spoken a lot with freelancers from other sectors and they also need continuity and unburdening. Those needs are actually universal
That vision of the future is called Hometown. So no longer a house, but a city built on shared norms and values to organize work and life in a sustainable way. So other houses are also being built in Hometown. “I have already spoken a lot with freelancers from other sectors and they also need continuity and unburdening. Those needs are actually universal. We believe that what we do in the media sector can perfectly be used in other sectors where freelance work is the norm.”
Pharmacists as neighbours
House of Medicine will be the first neighbor of House of Media. Since October, pharmacists have been housed together to achieve sustainable work and life within their market. Because pharmacists and pharmacy substitutes also collide with the same struggles On. Pharmacists who would like to work a day less, travel, become ill or take maternity leave are looking for a suitable replacement to keep their business open. Because there is a shortage of replacements, the agendas of those freelancers are full months in advance. Getting sick or taking extra rest is not an option if you don’t know which colleague can entrust you with the assignment. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
I think a foreign story will come our way naturally, but I’m certainly not going to force it
“We are currently still in the testing phase of House of Medicine,” emphasizes Van Haute. “But the first results show that our ecosystem also works for pharmacists. If we can perpetuate it now, the options are theoretically endless. Then builders and ladies from other sectors could also come knocking on our door to build their house in Hometown. Hometown can be such a vehicle to have an impact on a really large scale.”
Whether Hometown’s houses can also be located outside Belgium in the long term is certainly possible for Van Haute, because the problem of employment as a freelancer does not stop at national borders. People abroad are also paying more and more attention to their well-being and a sustainable career. “I think a foreign story will come our way naturally, but I will certainly not force it.”
Whatever happens in the future of House of Media, Van Haute wants to remain loyal to his original mission at all times. “If growing means that we have twenty houses and are active in five countries, but our residents not feeling well, I kindly thank you for that. Because that would mean that we have lost sight of fundamental things and then our existence ceases. Then it will happily remain with House of Media and hopefully House of Medicine. My ambitions cannot be expressed in figures or the number of countries to be conquered. I didn’t set up my business to make it big and resell it for a lot of money. HoMe is something for the long term.”
I didn’t set up my business to make it big and resell it for a lot of money. House of Media is something for the long run
Meanwhile, Van Haute also succeeds in giving his health the attention it needs. “I have learned to better dose my energy and drive. Our ecosystem works and I now earn a decent wage for the work I do. In fact, I recently took a two month sabbatical for the first time and I now work 4/5. And that is also productive for others, because I can only create added value for the group if I am okay myself. My illness is the worst I’ve ever experienced, but actually also the best. It has become the source of my infinite will to make life and work as pleasant as possible for everyone.”