Emma Leventer ’19 is founder and CEO of Cuiscene Studio, which provides food photography and video, brand development and strategy, and web development. She spoke with Duke I&E about following her passion, developing expertise, and learning to say no.
What inspired you to start Cuiscene Studio? How did it evolve?
Sophomore year of college changed my life. My best friend in college asked me to help revamp her boss’s social media presence. When she asked me if I knew how to make “food top-down” videos, I lied between my teeth and said, “Of course I do.” Shoot, I thought. I don’t know how to make videos! I created my own crash course and studied YouTube videos for two weeks. I played with natural light in my apartment until I became a quick, makeshift expert. Finding angles that made smoothies look most appetizing, I shot roughly 10 videos a week on the floor, all while trying to keep up with my classes. Somehow, it worked, and her boss was ecstatic. Had I just created a new skill set for myself?
I kept up with the new job of content creation alongside academics. Slowly, I became known as “Inspired Foody” on campus—answering random people’s messages about what they should buy at the grocery store, where to go on a date, or how to simply cook chicken (remember, we were just college kids who didn’t know anything yet). Over time, making these recipe videos and taking food photography became my creative outlet. Then the real work began. I took on restaurant and food product clients for free to build up my experience and portfolio. I was going to class, keeping up with a social life, and filming in between. The more I continued, the more I realized that there was a market for food content (pun intended)
Fast forward to graduation, when I realized that many of my peers were following the same corporate paths but were unsure as to why. I knew I just needed to follow my passion. However, I also needed a consistent income. So I started out at a boutique marketing agency where I learned the ins and outs of branding and strategizing a company from the ground up. A year into it, I found myself seriously weighed down, overworked, and exhausted.
So I did something crazy. With less than 8k followers on Instagram, just a few hundred views a month on Inspired Foody, and my portfolio of free work, I quit my full-time marketing gig. I made a plan, giving myself three months to prove that my company could make it. I sent some cold emails, polished my site, and took some risks. With my ambition and commitment, it took just about three weeks. I signed some of my dream clients (e.g., BuzzFeed and Prince Street Pizza) and focused on my craft. I said yes to every project thrown my way. I founded a production company called Cuiscene Studio. Now I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.
What did you most take away from your Duke experience, including Melissa & Doug Entrepreneurs, that you’re applying in your venture?
You can’t be everything to everyone. When I started Cuiscene Studio, I made a conscious choice to focus on recipe video creation. Over the years, people have asked me for different types of content: videos outside of food, social media strategy, graphic design, or reels. While I most definitely can do those things, that’s not my magic. And by expanding into those areas, I would dilute that magic.
The classroom training for entrepreneurship and insight from mentors in the Melissa & Doug Entrepreneurs program helped me get my start. Not only did it provide me the confidence to embark on something of my own, but it also provided me with the expertise in craftsmanship. The program strictly made sure I was able to talk forwards, backwards, sideways, diagonally, etc. about the service I was best at: top-down recipe video production.
It took me a long time to realize and be comfortable with that idea. The Melissa & Doug Entrepreneurs cohort honed it into my brain. It’s far smarter to be an expert in one area than kind-of, sort-of proficient in five.
What’s a significant hurdle you’ve faced with your business, and how did you address it?
Saying no! In the beginning, you want to do anything to make your clients happy. But sometimes, it’s not worth the time or effort. You have to eventually create boundaries for your value as a creator/producer of artistic services that will be used professionally. And sometimes you have to tell clients to trust you rather than simply accepting whatever they ask for.
What are the next steps for Cuiscene Studio?
I get numerous emails/DMs/comments a week from videographers, bloggers, and Influencers asking me for tips on videography, booking cooking classes, and how I built a business with food videography. How does the saying go—”Give the people what they want”? I’m publishing my first online courses—one for people interested in producing their own top-down recipe videos, and the other teaching people how to gain their kitchen confidence, AKA how and what you need to step foot in your kitchen for the very first time. These courses will feature the tools and skills I learned over the early years, when I was able to create videos for clients like KitchenAid, Philadelphia Cream Cheese, and Costco. All on my own, not as part of a big NYC ad agency!
What makes Duke a unique place for student entrepreneurs?
I’ve always joked about Duke being a place for overachievers. I’ve never been surrounded by so many people who have their hands in multiple pockets of interest. While I felt like an outlier most of the time, everyone had one thing in common: the desire to be successful.
I used to think learning about business was a huge waste of time. I didn’t want to learn about economics. I hated finance. And why did I need to know about supply and demand? Like, let me just be creative! I felt like no one at Duke really understood me at first. The intrigue was there, but the understanding felt lost. But learning about business has been PARAMOUNT in my career.
And sure, the extensive course list was impressive, but I found that programs like Melissa & Doug and the connections to the alumni network are by far what makes Duke such a unique place for entrepreneurs. Everywhere you look, you’re surrounded by someone who knows just the thing you’ve been questioning.