Arts in Lockdown #19: Jacob Tell of Oniracom

By Joanne A Calitri   |   February 18, 2021
CEO Jacob Tell at the Oniracom headquarters in Santa Barbara (photo caption: Emma Claire Brock)

Millennial entrepreneur Jacob Tell, CEO and founder of Oniracom, is celebrating 20 years as CEO of a small business built during his studies at UCSB, with a mission to provide unique branded services to the arts and music artists, their agencies, and venues. He navigated his business into commercial branding and during lockdown pivoted to offer his clients avenues to maintain their business and revenue online. Jacob is posed to be a guest speaker on the virtual MIT Enterprise Forum Central Coast panel this April to share knowledge of emerging trends, new technologies, and discuss their impact on our future. 

Joanne Calitri interviews Jacob Tell

Born in Carlsbad, California, he came to Santa Barbara in the ‘90s to study at UCSB, where he holds a BA in Film Studies and Black Studies, with a desire at that time to be a political documentary filmmaker. 

Here is our Zoom interview: 

Q. Is lockdown a plus or minus for you?

A. Supporting the arts has definitely been a mixed bag. Some music industry clients had to furlough all their employees and pause everything due to funding, while others with a strong revenue base asked us to virtually promote fundraising for them.

We worked with individual artists to bring their physical events to the virtual stage via live streams, where they are more broadly connecting and marketing with their audiences on a global level.

We changed our office space into a production stage environment and opened it up to the creative and nonprofit organizations in SB that needed that resource. In 2020, we hosted nine gala events for nonprofits, and these groups were able to continue to raise funds virtually. Several reported back that due to a lower overhead, they netted more revenue doing a virtual gala. 

Many projects were paused at the beginning of the lockdown, as companies did not know what was going to happen. In the summer and fall, they realized the pandemic was staying longer than they initially thought, and we got quite a bit of new business. In 2019, we were focused on long-term business strategy planning, whereas during the COVID era, things are much more technical and short-term thinking and assets to promote a business in the moment versus a two-year plan.

In sum, it’s been ups and downs, but we’ve managed to bounce back from that original decline in business March to May 2020, and we are proud we did not have to let any of our employees go. We did receive the PPP Loan designed perfectly for a company of our size. 

Talk about the mission of Oniracom…

On May 17, 2001, we established Oniracom. The first decade was a music and entertainment focus. We diversified quite a bit in the last 10 years with businesses and cannabis. We’re proud to have pivoted many times prior to COVID (9/11 and 2008) and this was just another exercise in being an entrepreneur, with changes in digital landscapes, the types of people I used to hire were Gen X and millennials, now it’s Gen Z. We’ve been through a lot of changes and we have to adapt, which is the key to longevity in entrepreneurship, things are fluid and you have to roll with it and surrender to the flow.

Our first slogan, “solutions for dreamers,” played off our company name Oniracom, based on the Greek word oneiric meaning, a dream, which I learned studying Film at UCSB. The core mission is to listen to our clients, what their goals and dreams are, and how to translate that into marketing plans, digital web, productions and assets. In the last 10 years our slogan is, “We create a culture of positive disruption,” and we are proud to be associated with businesses in many different industries including cannabis.

What are you doing to stay creative and inspired?

Jacob Tell presenting at the SB Executive Roundtable in February 2020 (photo credit: Emma Claire Brock)

As a CEO and biz leader, I’ve taken an interest to dissolve the lines between private and public persona. I’m very socially-politically active and that influences my staff and company. We openly support Black Lives Matter, put out content for businesses about dealing with systemic racism, creating a more equal playing field, and white privilege. It’s been wonderful to not have the split between public and private persona. We actively are working on our hiring process for more team diversity, in our production casting of models and actors diversity, in script writing themes and settings more open and diverse, and less status quo.

Have you taken up any online courses or education?

Yes, I have been a part of “Vistage,” a CEO peer group, which is a great resource of CEO mentors and peers to process issues and challenges. 

Movement and mindful eating are both key especially during quarantine. We are so blessed to be in SB with our outdoor places to connect with nature for mental health. Live music is my church, the venues suffering are my temples, so I’m still tuning in on the internet and supporting venues and artists, and often replace the TV with music.

Industry roadblocks?

We were one of the first full-service marketing agencies in SB, and I didn’t have a model, the internet was different, no smart phones, tablets, difficult to set up a website, people did not trust setting up credit cards on the internet. We came in to support artists, record labels, and artist managers to go into the digital space. Now you can set up an online store and website in a weekend. To be honest, to have as much diversity as we need, the hiring pool in SB is pretty white here in the applicants that apply for our open positions. We are sensitive to it, and for example during COVID we added a more diverse team.

As a voice for your generation, what is the world looking like now, what do you want to change and how?

I hesitate to generalize any generation, however my observation is that I think there is a lot of talking past one another, the internet is a double-edged sword. A concept from Stephen Colbert, called truthiness, rather than facts defining the truth, you have a gut response, “I feel this way therefore it’s true.” What I think we need is a respect for science and the scientific method. I hope we can start labeling things on social media the same way a publication has the responsibility to label content, like op-ed. On social media it’s a big problem, we have to teach a generation about media literacy and to research facts, it creates mistrust. We can have discourse and disagreements, but if we’re basing it on other things rather than reality, we will never have a realistic debate. We can pressure all our online resources and social networks to have public policy written in this country that forces them to start labeling things properly, and educate people to research what they are reading so they don’t take it as gospel. It’s so easy to manipulate people through the media right now. We need the government to enforce the policy. The same thing should happen to social media that happens to The New York Times and Washington Post. From a citizen standpoint we need to push pro-science and education, logic and reason. The Gen Y and Z’s I’ve seen are more socially and politically active, care about the story of a brand and where it’s sourced from, they vote with their dollars, think about the environment and future, they see the writing on the wall.

Paying forward/giving back?

We are very community-orientated, we make in-kind and financial donations to groups, and we offered free consultation and at-cost media studio services, photography, video, podcast recording, voice-overs, and live streaming for people and organizations that provide inclusive, social justice, and democratic causes. 

Advice for the next generation of entrepreneurs?

Have a clear purpose and a clear why, and lead with the why, rather than the what. The why for us is we want to support artists, we believe in artists being the voice of society, making a positive impact in our world. Those things will allow the company to thrive and you will attract your clients, partners, and team by being purpose driven.

Who inspires you?

Neil deGrasse Tyson, he really makes science cool and engaging, more importantly people like him want to teach people how to think for themselves to synthesize and assess facts to come up with their own thoughts and put creativity into the world.

Anyone doing creative things inspires me, everyone has creativity from engineers to artists, there are spectrums of creativity in everyone, and what inspires me is seeing people create not destroy.



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