The Most Important Question Of The Year

freelancer at workWe’re nearing the end of December, and I want to ask you a few innocent questions, if I may. Questions that may make a few freelancers slightly uncomfortable.

Here’s the most important one:

“How was business in 2016?”

Some of you might tell me:

“2016 was great. I had so much fun!”

“I feel blessed to do what I do and even get paid for it.”

“I booked more gigs than ever, and I learned a lot this year.”

Those are interesting points, yet from a business perspective they are almost irrelevant. Let’s unpack theses statements one by one.

I’m so glad you had fun (and I don’t mean that sarcastically), but that’s not how you measure success as an entrepreneur. I know quite a few starving artists who had tons of fun while losing boatloads of money. 

You may feel incredibly blessed, but how is that reflected in your books? Did your CPA congratulate you because your numbers are up this year?

It’s great that you landed more jobs, but if you’ve been doing more for less, are you really better off? I don’t know about you, but I became a freelancer so I could do less for more. That has nothing to do with being lazy. I wanted to have time to travel, to volunteer, to write, to coach, and to enjoy being with family and friends. 

Learning a lot is cool, but clients don’t pay you to learn on the job. They expect you to know the job. I’m sure you’re familiar with certain folks (perhaps intimately) who are very good at learning how NOT to do a job. That’s not a way to determine the well-being of a business, is it?

SUSTAINED SUCCESS

Let me share something with you I learned not by guessing, but from decades of experience:

People who are prone to making the above statements may be good at what they do, but that doesn’t mean they’re good at running a for-profit business. In fact, their comments tell me they don’t seem to have their priorities straight. 

If you wish to have sustained success in any competitive field, you need to be better than 90% of your colleagues in terms of talent and skills, AND you must run your business like a business (instead of some elevated hobby). You can’t have one without the other. 

This means that when I ask you “How was business in 2016?” you should be able to answer the following (and potentially uncomfortable) questions:

“Did you break even? Did you turn a profit, or are your (still) struggling to survive?”

Be honest. Don’t give me an answer that would look good on Facebook. It’s time to face the facts. To quote Dr. Phil: “You can’t change what you don’t acknowledge.”

The bottom line is always about the bottom line.

Now, if you’re not yet where you want to be: Welcome to the club! Trust me. Even the big names you look up to, are seldom where they want to be. It’s what drives them! They know business is unpredictable and volatile. But they also know the five factors that lead to success:

  1. Learn from the best. 
  2. Offer an outstanding product or service. 
  3. Make it easy for clients to find you.
  4. Make it easy to work with you.
  5. Make it easy to pay you.

I always tell my students not to reinvent the wheel. It’s a huge waste of time. There are no shortcuts to success, but it does help to model your business after those who are where you want to be. When you do that, you’ll notice a sixth factor that contributes to continued success:

6. Manage your money.

This is where many freelancers lose the game, because they’re not on top of their finances. I admit: it’s not a glamorous job, but it pays the bills. Literally. If this is something you’re interested in, you need to take the first step:

Get Organized!

If you’re like me, and you could use some help in that area, consider a service like Invoice2go.com. It was developed by someone like you: a small business owner. For $149.99 per year (The Enterprise Plan), you can list 100 clients, and send an unlimited number of customized invoices using your phone, tablet, or computer. Invoices will show a Pay Now button, allowing your customers to pay you online in multiple ways.

Here’s the thing:

Not only will you look much more professional, but when you make it easier for clients to pay you, they will pay you faster. 

Invoice2go also helps you keep track of your expenses. That way you’ll always know how much is coming in, and how much is going out.

Mind you, I’m not getting paid to toot their horn, but I was approached to contribute to an infographic they put together for small business owners. I think that’s a really cool thing! Invoice2go asked entrepreneurs with years of experience for their top advice for starting a small business.

Here’s the result. Let’s see if you can find my quote!

Invoice2go just launched a free invoice template generator, allowing you to create and send customized invoices in three simple steps. Here’s the link: 

http://blog.2go.com/invoice-template/

Happy invoicing!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be sweet. Please retweet!

About the author

Paul Strikwerda

is a Dutch-English voice-over pro, coach, and writer. His blog is one of the most widely read and influential blogs in the industry. Paul is also the author of "Making Money In Your PJs, Freelancing for voice-overs and other solopreneurs."

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Freelancing, Journalism & Media, Promotion

9 Responses to The Most Important Question Of The Year

  1. Pingback: Here's What You've Missed | Nethervoice

  2. Jem Matzan

    Honestly not trying to dominate the comments on your article. I’m in the midst of an end-of-year retrospective (what worked? What didn’t work? What do I need to do differently?), so this all is on my mind.

    I don’t think income is a good measure of “success.” If you ask me how business was this year, with the understanding that I wouldn’t talk about money at all, I would give the same answer as I would if we were talking strictly about money: It started slow, as expected; then picked up and has continued to climb, also as expected. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to reach the level I was hoping for, but that level is still attainable if I make some changes.

    A lot of businesses don’t make a profit, but have other measures of success. Most startups fall into that category. Hell, Twitter hasn’t turned a profit since it started 10 years ago!

    I took the position that optimistically I would lose a little money for a year while building the business up and improving my skills and connections; pessimistically I would do the same with a bigger loss in income. All of this was with the understanding that a business is built on spec. It takes a willingness to take a big risk, a lot of work with no immediate reward, and some initial capital or credit to someday reach profitability.

    And maybe I won’t, but I can’t shake the feeling that if I just hold out long enough, I’ll have more profitable royalty share projects, more frequent flat-rate projects, and altogether have a business with current and future assets that I can borrow against and take another risk on expanding.

    You are totally correct, though, that this all has nothing to do with having fun, being blessed, or learning personal lessons. However, without learning business lessons, you can’t improve your business or your career. If you start out knowing that you don’t know, but you are willing to take some risks in order to learn and adapt, then I think that’s a great position to be in. On the other hand, ask me again in a year and see where I am. I can’t vouch for my future self.

    [Reply]

  3. Jem Matzan

    One of the ways I went wrong was committing to a 5-book series that was fun, and the (small) publisher was great to work with, but all 5 put together aren’t selling as well as one of the Key West Capers books from the latter half of this year.

    Those 5 books bogged me down for 4 months, preventing me from doing more profitable work. Lesson learned: I don’t agree to do a series on royalty share until I see how the first book sells.

    Again, though, this was also part of the strategy of building a solid portfolio of good work, rather than just whatever the biggest payout was at any given time.

    Also, I learned a lot about developing vocal effects with my DAW. I also developed a lot of new character voices. So now I can work faster on higher-selling/paying projects that I am now qualified to produce. So it was by no means a complete waste of time, and I wouldn’t go back and change it even though there was little income for a few months early this year. That phase is over, thankfully, and now I’m enabled to get high-potential royalty share projects. I just wish I had that one flat-rate project per month that would fill in the financial gaps until the royalty income is at a cost-of-living level.

    But hey, that’s business. That’s a startup’s challenge, and I very much think of this as a startup.

    [Reply]

  4. Jem Matzan

    Alright, I’ll go out on a limb and say that I’m barely surviving. How was business this year? Well, it depends on the metrics. I completed more jobs, increased my industry profile and credentials significantly, gained some extremely valuable long-term clients (in the last quarter of the year), and improved my skills in every facet of audiobook production.

    However, money’s been terrible. I took a leap of faith that I would be able to get more flat-rate work (since I was offered a flat-rate project immediately upon transitioning to this career, and it looked like there were a ton of other opportunities for the future), but despite perhaps a dozen solid auditions, I still haven’t gotten another offer beyond that first one. Everything I’ve done has been royalty share through ACX, and though I’ve increased sales exponentially, it’s still not quite enough to pay the bills. My projections say that I’ll have to continue finding good projects and completing them quickly for the next year and a half or so before I’m at that point. And I’ve been doing this for two years now.

    I recognize that much of it is on me. There is a lot I could do to find other VO work, and I haven’t been infuriatingly persistent in getting work from studios (though I’ve spent time on it and gave a decent effort, and I’ll continue to try).

    I wasted a lot of money (savings, sales of things I don’t need/use, credit) on things that did not work. This is a whole topic unto itself. Lesson learned, though.

    I keep excellent track of my expenses and business growth. I have a profit & loss spreadsheet with itemized expenses, assets, and income on a per-title basis.

    Every time I try to figure out why I’m not making more money, I always come to one conclusion: I am not a celebrity. People will buy terrible-quality audiobooks narrated badly by famous actors, but if I work hard to produce a truly amazing audiobook based on a great novel, nothing I can do will raise awareness of it. We live in an era of supreme hype and celebrity worship. People want what is familiar and comfortable, they don’t want to take risks, they don’t want something new and different. They want glitz and glamour and the implied promise of a brand name. This won’t last forever, though. The 80s were hype-driven, followed by the death of hype in the 90s, and here we are on the other side of that.

    However, I will admit that I have thought of arranging to have an “accidental” release of a sex video. Is there a quicker path to fame?

    Secondly, I’m competing against legions of people selling stuff. I can’t even give good audiobooks away for free because people already have all this marketing crap fired at them from every angle all day long. Everyone’s an entrepreneur selling something, publishing something, performing something, teaching something, asking friends and family to support their work. It’s exhausting. It’s too much noise.

    [Reply]

    Jem Matzan Reply:

    One more thing:

    Part of the money problem is that when I’m evaluating royalty share projects, it’s difficult and time-consuming to exclude the fakers.

    Because of the obsession with hype and fame, authors have to put up a facade of hype and fame. From buying hundreds of fake reviews on Amazon and Goodreads to buying Twitter followers to inventing controversies involving their cover models. They do massive ebook giveaways that inflate their Amazon Bestsellers Rank, they stuff their email lists and Facebook pages with accounts that don’t even want to be there or aren’t paying attention (not actual fans).

    Twice I’ve been fooled by authors who were good at making their books look big. That’s time I spent producing audiobooks that will never pay out even the minimum wage within its 7-year term.

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    You’re not the only one, Jem. The media have been talking about fake news, and how it influenced the elections for weeks now.

    Suppose you use a service like ACX to connect with authors, and find work as a narrator. Should it be your responsibility to separate the wheat from the chaff?

    Let’s say you’re using a Pay-to-Play to get voice-over work. Again: is it up to you to use your valuable time and do some detective work to find out if the client is legit?

    I think not.

    On a side note: unless you’re one of the top narrators asked to narrate acclaimed bestsellers, audio book narration is not a very profitable business to be in. It will take up all your time, it puts tremendous strain on your voice, and rates are steadily going down.

    Is it really worth it to be heavily involved in a vanity project from an author no one has ever heard of?

    [Reply]

    Jem Matzan Reply:

    Suppose you use a service like ACX to connect with authors, and find work as a narrator. Should it be your responsibility to separate the wheat from the chaff?

    As a narrator, no. As a narrator I need to configure my career environment so that work comes to me, you’re absolutely right. However, as a producer, yes, I have to find books worth my while to produce (and narrate). My goal is to build my business as a producer, a small studio that authors and publishers can go directly to for high-quality audiobook work. This is as an alternative to the big studios. In the future, if I’m successful at this, I would hire narrators to do some of the voice work. For now, though, it’s a one-man show.

    So as a producer, I have to pick winners. Fortunately, I can look at ebook sales as an indicator of audiobook sales potential.

    On a side note: unless you’re one of the top narrators asked to narrate acclaimed bestsellers, audio book narration is not a very profitable business to be in. It will take up all your time, it puts tremendous strain on your voice, and rates are steadily going down.

    Oh, I don’t even think the bestselling book narrators are making all that much, either, because it’s all flat-rate at that level. Narration, in my opinion, is only profitable if you can crank out a lot of books quickly at a good rate. The best businesspeople in the narration world are also farming out their editing in order to spend more time narrating.

    That isn’t what I want to do, though. Every project I take is a swing for the fences. One of them is going to be a home run, and then my entire back catalog will get a boost.

    Is it really worth it to be heavily involved in a vanity project from an author no one has ever heard of?

    For $400 PFH, almost certainly! For a royalty split, almost certainly not. Even high-paying flat-rate projects are more work than they’re worth though. Some are unreadable, many are fantasy or sci-fi novels over 100k words, filled with unpronounceable made-up names and places. But, you know, *someone* is going to get that money, right?

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    Thank you for sharing this with us, Jem. One of my readers once asked the following question:

    “How do I become a top-earning voice talent?”

    My answer?

    “By not becoming a full-time voice actor.”

    In a post entitled “The Most Embarrassing Moment of my Voice-Over Career” I wrote:

    Just look at the evidence. I’m sure you’ve seen a few lists of the best paid voice-overs. Trey Parker and Matt Stone are usually on those lists. They are the creators of South Park, and they wrote The Book of Mormon musical. Matt and Trey are screenwriters, producers. directors… and they do voices for the cartoons they created.

    Seth MacFarlane, Harry Shearer, and Hank Azaria are also on that list. All three are multi-talented multimillionaires. Hank is a stage actor, director, and comedian. Seth created Family Guy and co-created American Dad. He’s a writer, a producer, actor, and singer. Shearer hosts his own weekly radio show, and stars in many movies.

    On July 10th, 2015, Minions hit American movie theaters. The voices of these cute yellow fellows don’t come from a professional voice actor, but from French animator Pierre-Louis Padang Coffi. In the Despicable Me movies, fellow director Chris Renaud voiced a few minions too.

    So, if your goal is to make a ton of money doing voice-overs, the sure-fire road to success does not lead to the VO studio, but to a film set, a Broadway stage, or to a comedy club. There are exceptions, but the people for whom voice acting is just something they do on the side (among many other things), tend to be the highest earners.

    My advice: Get famous doing something else first, and before you know it, the voice-over offers will start pouring in!

    Now, I’ll leave it up to what level you’re willing to expose yourself in order to create a buzz. I have to warn you though. Not too many people will care about a voice actor in the buff, since we’re invisible anyway.

    [Reply]

    Jem Matzan Reply:

    Ah, yes, I read that post and many others related to it a few months ago. It refueled my bitterness about money only following fame, not excellent high-quality work.

    They’re working actors, among other things. A lot of famous actors have a strong work ethic regardless of fame and fortune. William Shatner, for instance. Even at his age, he’s still doing TV commercials, cameos, Web shows, writing books, narrating audiobooks — he’s a working actor. And a lot of their other work (writing, singing, etc.) is in support of their acting. Quentin Tarantino, for instance, wrote screenplays so that he would have something to direct, not so that he could be a rich and famous screenwriter.

    However, let’s also consider that the names you mentioned are outliers; edge cases; their results are atypical. When I made initial plans to produce/narrate audiobooks full-time, I constantly asked if a success story I read or hint that I got was due to an atypical scenario.

    So my strategy was to do one royalty share and one flat-rate project per month. One is a risk, the other pays (at least some of) the bills. As the newcomer, I didn’t have access to the high-selling royalty share work. So I decided to take high-quality projects regardless of their sales potential, give them my best effort, and use them as part of a portfolio of work that would help me get projects with more sales potential.

    And you know what? That plan has worked out well so far. It just took about 6 months longer than I’d hoped, and those 6 months were the first half of this year. In the second half of 2016, I picked up a regular narration gig with a series by a bestselling author. The trouble is, these are his older books that he’s got the rights to and is self-publishing, so the audience isn’t at its full potential. He’s got a new book coming out in a few weeks (with a concurrent audio release, produced by me). That will be the real test of whether my plans are working.

    That’s the future of publishing: you have your run with a corporate publisher, they dump you after 5 books because it turned out that you’re not the next J.K. Rowling, and then you take your audience and new material to self-publishing. When those authors need audiobooks, I want them to come to me. They have had success with their books — they have actual fans and followers, actual people who go to bookstores asking about new releases, a mailing list of fans who will buy thousands of copies of the book on release day. These are working authors, professional writers, and making money is just as important to them as it is to me.

    Audiobooks are a 1.1 billion-dollar industry, and growing fast. I’ve taken a big risk and declared that I’m going to get a reasonable share of that revenue.

    [Reply]

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