What do you do when you have very little experience, few contacts, no money for demos, and there’s not a single agent who wants to represent you?
Where do you start, and how do you know you’re not dumping money into a pipe dream?
First of all, ONE piece of advice is not enough to make a career. And any advice you receive is nothing but a possibility. If you don’t take concrete action, words are just words. Talk is cheap (and it’s getting cheaper by the day).
So, I think the real question should be: how do you start making a living as a solopreneur in the gig economy?
YOU’RE ON YOUR OWN
It’s THE question anyone opening a new store or offering a new service is asking him or herself. Where to begin? Sign up for a Pay to Play and wait for the jobs to roll in?
You know, there used to be a time when Pay to Plays (online voice casting/job services) did not not exists. We didn’t have these convenient home studios, and professional equipment was much more expensive. And yet, people carved out a path for themselves and became successful. When I came to the States in 1999 I had no connections, no gear, and nobody knew who I was.
Look at me now! I know at least three people who say they have heard of me. But maybe they’re just pretending to avoid embarrassment.
Seriously, I think one of the success secrets is to offer something very few people have to offer. It all starts with a high-quality product/service that is as amazing as it is unique. If what you are selling is crap or a dime a dozen, even the best marketing campaign isn’t going to save you. Your product must also meet a need.
I’ll take myself as an example. I am one of only two Dutch speaking voice overs that I’m aware of, who are living and working in the United States (I’m not counting my Flemish friends). That’s a convenient fact. Not an accomplishment. Of course the need for Dutch native speakers is not so great, and that’s why I market the heck out of my authentic neutral English and European accent.
But when you’re native tongue is English, heaven help you! If you’re an American actress in Korea like Barri Tsavaris, you are pretty unique, but even Barri (who is insanely talented) has to pull out all the stops to drum up business. If you wish to stand out in a sea of outstanding English VO’s, you better have something that makes you unforgettable.
No one is looking for more of the same. Not one agent.
Speaking of unforgettable… Remember Gilbert Gottfried, Fran Drescher, Tim Curry, or Alan Rickman? Each of them has a unique look and sound, but even they had to go to many casting calls before landing the parts that made them famous. Being good at what you do is not nearly enough.
MARKETING IS A MUST
The second step is to make a lot of noise. You can offer the best and most unique product, but if no one has ever heard of it, no one will buy it. Focus on markets that aren’t saturated yet, and be present where people who do similar things to what you do, aren’t well represented.
On a side note: being listed on a site like Voice123 or Bodalgo is not marketing. It’s you presenting yourself among thousands of your main competitors. It is THE best way to NOT stand out.
An example of making noise is the blog that you are visiting right now. My preferred method of marketing is content marketing, and I’ve been told that my blog is one of the most popular voice over blogs on the web. And thanks to this blog my website gets thousands of visitors each week. Having a popular website translates into higher Google rankings which makes it easier for clients to find me.
J. Michael Collins was right when he wrote:
“The Pay to Play party is over. We are now in the era of talent empowerment. Supported by our agents and managers, our own hustle and web presence, and whatever other tools and platforms we choose to use to augment our income.”
It sounds simple, but it’s easier said than done. In order to be seen and heard, you have to come out of your shell which is hard for a lot of introverts. And in my experience, it’s the introverts that are most attracted to VO because they can be by themselves in a box all day long (it’s not as creepy as it sounds).
THE RIGHT CONNECTIONS
Step three is making as many connections in the business as you can. More than fifty percent of my work comes from referrals. Without connections there would be no referrals. You also need a network that supports you. You need people you can count on for moral support and for professional advice. People who push you to do better and who hold you accountable.
I am still one of the very few Dutch speaking talents and presenters who goes to voice over conferences (I’m not counting V123 CEO Rolf Veldman. He’s Everything, Everywhere All at Once). Yes, I try to make myself unavoidable and I network as if my business depends on it.
Have you ever heard of the other Dutch guy in the States who does voice overs? No? Why not? Because he’s never been to a conference and he’s not visible on social media. It’s a shame because he is really good at what he does, AND he’s much more likable than I am, if that’s even possible 😉
DON’T DEVALUE YOURSELF
The next step is to price for profit so your business is sustainable. If what you’re selling is too cheap, people will think it’s low quality and you’ll never make enough to stay afloat. If you’re too expensive they think you’re pretentious. An intelligent pricing strategy will attract the clients you are hoping to work with, and keep the nickel-and-dimers away. Not sure about that? Ask Apple’s Tim Cook!
Here’s what’s also important: keep on learning and growing, and be flexible. This means: stay sharp and keep on training. Don’t be a one-trick pony. If I had to rely on doing Dutch voice overs only, I’d be out of business.
You know AI is coming for your job, right, so learn to do what AI cannot do: take ACTING and IMPROV classes. Hint: AI can’t cry.
A few more tips:
Focus on what you are good at, and outsource the rest.
I’m pretty good with words and very bad with numbers, so I have someone else do my books and boring paperwork. Building websites is also something that’s not a strength of mine, and that’s why I’ve hired voice actor websites to do it for me. Best decision ever! They connected me with Brad Newman of Upper Level Hosting and he makes sure my website is always online and that it loads quickly. And should something happen, Brad is always available. Peace of mind is his middle name!
I know colleagues who hire virtual assistants to help them with promotion, and with finding clients. Imagine having someone doing all those cold calls for you? They also make you sound like you’re running a real business with real employees! Some audio book narrators outsource their editing so they can focus on the things that make them most money.
If you think this is something you can’t afford, think again. There are many excellent English speakers in low-wage countries who are happy to make USD 5 – 15 per hour.
And speaking of money, I highly recommend you have plenty of money to invest, and a cash cushion to get you through the first most challenging years. Keep your day job if you can. Start with second-hand equipment, and make sure you have a dedicated and treated recording space before you buy that expensive microphone.
One of the safest ways to start out, is to have a partner will a full-time job and benefits, or to marry someone who is independently wealthy. I’m not kidding!
And last but not least, you’ve got to believe that you can do this, and have a plan to follow. Knowing how to run a one-person business is more important than being blessed with a velvet voice. The people who tend to survive the first three years are those who sound confident because they are confident. Those who come across as desperate will have a hard time convincing clients to hire them.
When you do all of the above, there’s one thing you should not forget: how to take care of yourself. You will work longer hours than you’ll ever have, and you’re dealing with uncertainty and stress all the time. Physically and mentally, you have to be in good shape to keep many plates spinning at once.
I’m not telling you this to discourage you, but to prepare you for one of the most fun and rewarding careers you will ever have!
UP TO YOU
By the way, if you’re a voice actor who has made it past the first three years and you’re still in business, please share some of your keys to success in the comments. What are some of the small things that have made the biggest difference? Let’s help a few newbies out, shall we? And if you don’t feel like sharing your success secrets, perhaps you can send this blog post to someone who really needs to read it. Thanks!