nethervoice

Only Fools and Horses

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Freelancing 5 Comments

If…

You believe that having a good voice is your ticket to success,

You’ve never had any coaching or training,

You don’t know what equipment to buy,

You have no professional demos,

You have no idea how to price your services,

You think that low rates will attract quality clients,

You don’t know how to run a freelance business,

You have no clue how to market and sell your services,

You can’t handle constant rejection,

You have a hard time working on your own,

You adopt a wait and see approach,

You expect to make full-time income while working part-time,

You’re happy to reinvent the wheel,

You try to fake it until you make it,

You think you get paid to learn on the job,

You’re convinced that a good microphone will make up for a bad recording space,

You believe that an online casting service will launch your career,

You think an agent will give you all the work you can handle,

You’re certain that sites like Fiverr are a way to break into the business,

You take on more than you can handle,

You have no support system,

You know nothing about vocal health,

You like to complain but not contribute,

You constantly have to ask your colleagues for advice,

or

You believe you know it all…

You are not ready to call yourself

a voice-over professional.

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

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Competitions Are Not My Thing, And Yet They Are

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, International, Internet, Journalism & Media, Promotion 14 Comments

A Tale of Kat and Dog, A Holland Cool MovieCompetitions and Awards.

If you’ve been following this blog for a few years, you know I feel rather ambivalent about those things.

When I expressed my opinion about the Voice Arts™ Awards a few years ago, people took it personally. In the aftermath of the article, I received some very nasty emails, and quite a few colleagues unfriended me.

All of us survived the turmoil, and it appears the Voice Arts™ Awards are here to stay. Once again, colleagues will pay a non-refundable entry fee of up to $150 per entry to nominate themselves ($199 if you’re a company) in different categories.

Just so you know, all submissions become the property of SOVAS™, “to be used at its discretion, for the production of the ceremony.” SOVAS™ is the Society of Voice Arts and Sciences™.

If a category attracts fewer than four entries, “the organizer reserves the right to withdraw that category from the competition.” The participating entrant “will receive a credit towards future entry fees. No cash refund will be given.”

PAYING FOR YOUR PRIZE

If you’re thinking of entering any type of competition, you need to consider at least three things:

– Is the entry fee proportionate to the prize?

– Is the cost of entering worth the odds? 

– Does the prize give a credit worth having? 

Let’s start with the numbers. Winners of a Voice Arts™ Award can order an Award Certificate for $43, an Award Plaque Certificate for $160, and an Award statue for $346 (amounts include a handling fee, but there’s no mention of shipping costs).

Let’s say you’re competing with two entries, and you win. If you go for the statues, you’ll spend almost $1,000 ($150 + $150 + $346 + $346), plus food, lodging, and transportation. You may even lose some money because you’re not available to work while going to the ceremony. 

Ask yourself: Is that money well-spent, or would it be better for your business to use these funds to have someone design a new website? You could also spend it on coaching, on demo production, or on a marketing campaign. Would that ultimately give you a better return on investment?

IN THE SPOTLIGHT

To be fair, organizing these awards takes time and costs money. Sponsors can only cover so much. Yet, I don’t think a voice actor’s wealth should be an arbiter of talent. Why, then, must it function as a barrier? Why not lower the entry fees, and offer prizes people don’t have to pay for themselves, such as gear, representation, and coaching sessions?

I don’t think a voice actor’s wealth should be an arbiter of talent. Why, then, must it function as a barrier?

Now, the organizers hope to convince you that there’s more to winning than a walnut wood plaque, or a shiny statue. Your extraordinary talent will be publicly recognized in a business that’s built on invisible voices. 

The question is: Do we really need a competition to get recognition?

Some people who know our industry really well, feel we do. It’s not enough to be outstanding. You need to stand out. And if there’s no podium, why not create one? Whether you like competitions or not, it’s a given that winning a prestigious prize has never hurt a career. Others say that real stars don’t need a spotlight to shine. 

Here’s what I would like to know: will short-term recognition have a long-lasting effect? Could it increase someone’s market value? And who’s paying attention? Are we just throwing a party for ourselves, or will these awards generate publicity outside of what I call the babble bubble?

I’m not going to answer these questions for you, by the way. It’s your money, and I won’t tell you how to spend it. What I will tell you is this:

I’M A WINNER!

Much to my surprise, two projects I voiced were recently nominated for an award. Full disclosure: I didn’t submit myself, and I did not pay an entry fee. The only plaque I get, will be removed by a dental hygienist. 

A documentary I was part of, received the Audience Choice Award at the French Télé-Loisirs Web Program Festival in March. It’s a project for the European Space Agency, in which I play the role of an astronaut, documenting his life aboard a space station. Be sure to click on the English flag to hear my version: http://cnes-xch.lesitevideo.net/enmicropesanteur/

Then this message appeared on my Facebook timeline:

A Webby Award is an award for excellence on the Internet, presented annually by The International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences (IADAS). That’s a judging body composed of over two thousand industry experts and innovators. The New York Times called the awards “The Internet’s highest honor.”

Two winners are selected in each category, one by IADAS members, and one by the public who cast their votes during Webby People’s Voice voting. Last year, the Webby Awards received over 13,000 entries from more than 65 countries.

The nominated video I’m featured in is called A Tale of Kat and Dog, A Holland Cool Movie. Thanks to the Edge Studio, I was cast to be the voice of a rather charming dog who takes the viewer on a whirlwind tour of Amsterdam, while chasing after a ball. There’s also a bit of romance in the air!

This 17-minute movie presented by the Holland Marketing Alliance, is up against companies like Squarespace, BMW, Samsung, and Nike. In May we’ll find out if the experts picked it as the winner, but the public has until Thursday, April 20th to vote online. If you’d like to take part in that process, click on this link.

Of course I’d be thrilled if you would show your support for The Tale of Kat and Dog, but don’t do it because you know me. Take a look at the five entries, and vote for the one you believe to be the best.

THE FINAL WORD

Meanwhile, I have a couple of auditions waiting for me. Those auditions are really mini-competitions we take part in every day. And who knows… one of them might lead to a project that turns out to be a prize-winning entry. But that can never be the goal. Just a nice bonus. 

I’ve said it before: I’m in this business for the music. Not for the applause, although I have to admit that every once in a while it is nice to hear: “Job well done!”

Will winning a Webby change my mind about competitions?

Will it catapult my modest career into the voice-over stratosphere? 

This is the only answer I can honestly give you:

“My jury is still out on that one!”

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

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Facebook: Why You May Be Doing It All Wrong

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Freelancing, Internet, Journalism & Media, Personal, Promotion, Social Media 6 Comments

In a hurry?

Here’s a two-line summary of this blog post:

Are you still using your Facebook Profile to promote your services?

You need to stop that right now, and create a Facebook Page for your business.

Got it?

There are many reasons for doing that, and I’ll give you lots of carrots, but let’s start with a few sticks. Article 4.4 of the Facebook Terms of Service clearly states:

“You will not use your personal timeline primarily for your own commercial gain, and will use a Facebook Page for such purposes.”

In other words, using a Profile for commercial activities is a violation of those Terms of Service, and Facebook can and will delete your Profile because of it. That’s what someone in my neighborhood found out when she tried to peddle her skin care pyramid scheme on a local Facebook group. Fellow-Facebookers reported her, and without warning she lost all her contacts, messages, pictures, and more.

PROFILE OR PAGE

To some people, the distinction between a Profile and a Page is a bit confusing, so here’s the bottom line.

A Facebook Profile is a personal, non-commercial account for individuals. It’s the way you connect with friends and family. It’s where you share your photos, videos, and life events. You can only have one Profile, and it’s managed by you. Only people you’ve added as a friend are able to see your posts, unless all your updates are public. For some mysterious reason Facebook allows you to have no more than 5,000 friends.

A Facebook Page is a business account for a company or organization. You can have many Pages, managed by multiple people. Your following is not limited by friend requests. Anyone who clicks the Like button receives your updates, and you can have an unlimited number of followers.

In order to create a Page, you first need to have a Profile. You can convert a Profile to a Page, but I don’t recommend it. First off, you only get one chance to do it. Secondly, the name on your personal account will become the Page’s name, which isn’t very smart. You want your Page to have the name of your business. Your Profile picture and cover photo will also be transferred, but it’s better for your brand to use your business pictures, instead of those silly summer vacation snapshots.

PROFESSIONAL OR PRIVATE

Before I discuss some of the features you can access once you have a Facebook Page, I want to tell you why I think it’s inappropriate to use a Profile to promote your business. It has to do with privacy, professionalism, and boundaries.

Number one: why would you give people you barely know access to your private life? Just because you exchanged business cards at a conference, doesn’t mean they should see you on your Timeline sporting a skimpy bathing suit at the Jersey shore, or drinking beer from a boot in Berlin.

The current U.S. administration may think it’s okay for Internet Service Providers to share our browsing history, financial information, health information, children’s information, social security number, and app usage. I disagree.

I don’t want my private life to become publicly traded property. It’s literally none of other people’s business.

Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t like the fact that the lines between public and private are getting more blurry every day. I value my privacy. Online and offline. I don’t see the need to turn my life into some kind of reality show for the whole world to see. It’s not that interesting anyway.

CUSTOMERS OR FRIENDS

Some of my colleagues who are still using a Profile for their business, have accepted friend requests from clients without giving it any thought. To me, that’s shocking. I don’t think a client needs to know what’s going on in your life or mine. Let’s say a client asks you to do a rush job, and you tell him you can’t fit it in. The client sees on Facebook that you’re taking the day off, and he wonders: “Why were you lying to me? Am I not important to you?”

It is unacceptable for an employer to ask about your general health and medical condition, so why share that information on social media? Let’s assume a client has a job for you, but you just posted that you’re a bit under the weather, so he hires someone else. Had he not known that you’re sick, he would have asked you, and you could have said: “I’m totally booked today, but I can do it tomorrow,” (if you think you’ll feel better by then).

A few more scenarios.

A client owes you money, and he sees on your Profile that you just bought a boat. That client may think: “Oh, he’s got plenty of cash. He can wait to be paid.”

What if you tell your Facebook pals you’re struggling financially? Friends of mine just started a very public GoFundMe Campaign because their clunker car died, and they can’t afford to buy a new one. Desperate people are willing to work for less, and a client could abuse that situation to negotiate a lower rate.

One colleague became Facebook friends with the author of a series of books he was about to narrate. “He’s such a great guy,” my colleague said. “I’m honored he wanted to be friends with me.” Well, when the writer saw on Facebook that my colleague was gay, he said he could no longer work with him, citing his faith. What a terrible way to lose a deal worth thousands of dollars!

A conservative think tank wanted to hire a voice-over for a number of ads, and they found a female talent with the perfect pipes. Just before they offered her the contract, they did a quick background check. Because all the posts on her Facebook Profile were public, they discovered she was a Bernie Sanders supporter, and they called off the deal.

So, you have to ask yourself: should you really give the whole world access to your personal life? Is gaining a superficial Facebook friend worth the risk of losing a good client?

FRIENDS OR COLLEAGUES

But what about fellow-voice talent? Coming back from the VO Atlanta conference, so many people I had met wanted to be my Facebook friend, and that’s very flattering. If you’re one of those people, you’ve received the following message:

“Thank you for your friend request. I’m honored! This is my personal Facebook Profile which I’ve reserved for close friends and family members. It helps me separate my personal from my professional life.

If you’re interested in my work as a voice-over, and in developments in that field, please like my professional Page: https://www.facebook.com/nethervoice. That’s the best way to stay in touch with me. Thanks for understanding!”

In the beginning I thought people would hate me for blowing them off, but you know what the most common response to this message is?

“That makes so much sense. I should really do that too.”

But when I check in on a colleague a few weeks later, she is still promoting her business on a Facebook Profile, together with pictures of her cats, a couple of bible verses, and some crazy pop quizzes about celebrities and sex. 

Very professional, indeed!

WHAT’S A FRIEND ANYWAY

Sociologists have said lots of things about the way Facebook has hollowed out the notion of (online) friendship.

Yes, some of my Facebook friends happen to be colleagues, but not all colleagues are my friends. It takes a certain level of intimacy and bonding before I let people into that select circle. Most people who want to be friends, want to connect with me professionally anyway, so why bother them with pet pictures, or photos from lunch at the local eatery? That’s why I send them to my business Page. 

Sometimes, colleagues become contractors when they hire me for a job, making them my clients. That’s another reason to point them to my professional Page. Making this distinction has another advantage. Because I have fewer friends, it’s now easier to keep track of the lives of people I feel closer to, and Facebook is less of a time suck.

CREATING A BUSINESS PAGE

When you’re ready to create a Facebook Page, you have to pick a category based on the following options:

  1. Local Business or place
  2. Company
  3. Organization or institution
  4. Brand or product
  5. Artist, band, or public figure
  6. Cause or community

Once your business Page is set up, and you have at least 25 fans (or Likes), you should get a vanity URL. For instance, my Page is https://www.facebook.com/nethervoice/. This will make it much easier to find your page for those doing an internet search. Be sure your 180 x 180 pixel profile picture, and 828 x 315 pixel cover photo (the most important visual aspects of your Page), look good, and reflect your brand.

Last summer Facebook rolled out a new ad-free business layout, making it possible to add more prominent Calls to Action buttons to your Page. The seven calls to action available are: Book Now, Contact Us, Use App, Play Game, Shop Now, Sign Up, and Watch Video. Try my Contact Us Call to Action button, and see what happens.

VALUABLE INSIGHTS

A business Page also gives you an idea how your audience is responding, and how your Page is performing through Page Insights. Insights tell you which posts have the most engagement (videos and images rule!), and when your audience is on Facebook. You can use that information to increase traffic by creating content people respond to, and post it at strategic times. Jennifer Beese wrote an excellent article about Page Insights for Sprout Social.

Boosting posts is another way to increase your reach. You can boost a post when you create it, or after it’s been published. Simply click the Boost Post button, and you’ll be presented with some options. This is not a free service, by the way. The budget field allows you to select the amount you want to spend, or enter your own. 

Another thing a Facebook Page allows you to do (and a Profile won’t), is create ads. Facebook itself has written a step-by-step guide, and you might also want to check out this beginner’s guide from Hootsuite

THE BIG QUESTION MARK

It’s usually the more senior coaching students who ask me:

“Do I really need to be on Facebook? Isn’t it all a big waste of time?”

Facebook is too big to ignore. It’s the largest and most popular social network in the world, with over a billion and a half monthly active users, and over a billion daily active users. If Facebook were a country, it would be substantially bigger than China (source), and it continues to grow by 18% per year. According to Pew Research, 79% of internet users are on Facebook, and Forbes estimates that fifty million businesses are now using Facebook Pages.

In other words: this is a huge opportunity, because most of your (potential) customers are already using Facebook. If you were to pick one social media site for your marketing, skip Twitter and Instagram, and choose Facebook.

But please, do yourself a favor, and create a Page for your business today!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

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The Copyright Trolls Are Coming After You

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Internet, Money Matters, Social Media 19 Comments

TrollSome years ago, digital marketing firm The Content Factory got an unpleasant surprise in the mail.

A lawyer summoned them to pay $8,000 in penalties for alleged copyright infringement. Why?

Well, one of their professional bloggers wrote a story about bargain hunting in Omaha, and used a photo of Nebraska. It wasn’t a great picture, and the article didn’t get much exposure, but that was beside the point.

The Content Factory did not obtain permission from the rights holder to use the image, and that was the problem. A very expensive problem!

What would you do if you were in their shoes? Take the photo down and apologize, hoping that would be the end of it? That sounds reasonable, right?

Forget that.

ENTER THE TROLLS

The enforcement of copyright is a billion dollar business. Companies like Masterfile and CEG TEK litigate against corporations, individuals, and small businesses who have intentionally or unintentionally used images without having obtained a license.

These companies (and individual lawyers) are commonly known as “copyright trolls.” They have sophisticated computer programs that search the web 24/7 to find copyrighted works that are used without authorization. They’re not only going after pictures. They’re also targeting illegal downloads of any kind, such as video games, music, porn, and movies.

Once they’ve secured the names and contact information of the people accused of infringement, the trolls will send out “litigation settlement” demand letters. These letters threaten defendants with costly lawsuits.

Of course the suit can go away, but only if you pay promptly. The longer you wait, the higher the amount you will be sued for. And if proven guilty, you’ll pay attorney fees too.

Now, is this blatant extortion of vulnerable people who simply made an honest mistake, or are these trolls in business to protect the rights holders?

I think it’s a bit of both.

According to copyright.gov:

copyright infringement occurs when a copyrighted work is reproduced, distributed, performed, publicly displayed, or made into a derivative work without the permission of the copyright owner.”

Let’s say you’re a professional photographer, and your portfolio is on the web. You own the rights to these pictures, and you make a living selling them. Now, somewhere in a different state, a web designer is doing a Google image search for a website he’s building. He stumbles across one of your pictures, he takes a screenshot, and decides to use it. 

In that moment you as the owner, lose value, because you could have sold the use of that image to the web designer. Under the law, you can claim monetary damages for financial losses, and for additional profits the infringer earned from using your photo.

That seems fair, doesn’t it? But copyright issues aren’t always cut and dried.

FAIR USE

Under certain circumstances people are allowed the unlicensed use of copyright-protected works. It’s because of a legal doctrine called “Fair Use.” For instance, making braille copies or audio recordings of books for the blind is considered “fair use.” Recording a TV show on your DVR, is also considered “fair use,” as long as it’s for private viewing.

The U.S. Copyright Act of 1976 allows the reproduction of authored works for the purpose of “criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching …, scholarship, or research.” There is a four-part Fair Use test based on the following factors:

1. The purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;

2. The nature of the copyrighted work;

3. The amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and

4. The effect of the use upon the potential market for, or value of, the copyrighted work

For instance, using short quotations or excerpts from published books authored by others, is “fair use.” Courts do evaluate fair use claims on a case-by-case basis.

PUBLIC DOMAIN

But what about if something is in the “public domain”? The public domain refers to creative materials that are not protected by intellectual property laws such as copyright, trademark, or patent laws. These works may be used freely, and without permission.

There are four common ways that works arrive in the public domain:

  • the copyright has expired
  • the copyright owner failed to follow copyright renewal rules
  • the copyright owner deliberately placed it in the public domain, known as “dedication,” or
  • copyright law does not protect this type of work.

 

CREATIVE COMMONS

Creative Commons (CC), is an American nonprofit organization designed to foster the public domain, and it helps copyright owners dedicate their works to the public domain.

It provides free legal tools that give everyone from individual “user generated content” creators to major companies and institutions a standardized way to pre-clear usage rights to creative work they own the copyright to. CC licenses allow people to change their copyright terms from the default of “all rights reserved” to “some rights reserved.”

If you’re an artist, student, educator, scientist, or other creator looking for content that you can freely and legally use, there is a giant pool of CC-licensed creativity available. There are many millions of works – from songs and videos to scientific and academic content – that you can use under the terms of the CC copyright licenses.

WHAT THIS MEANS FOR YOU

First and foremost: it is your obligation to make sure that you have permission from the rights owner to use his or her images on your website, on your blog, and for your social media posts. This includes all the logos of companies you ever did voice-overs for!

Trademark owners might actually sue you for “dilution” of a trademark,” because your use might (in their opinion) lessen the uniqueness of the logo, and tarnish the brand’s reputation.

If your demos have music, make sure it is properly licensed. Copyright your own sound files if necessary, to secure payment, and to protect usage. And by the way, as long as your client has not paid you for your audio, you own it!

Attorney, actor, producer, and voice artist Robert Sciglimpaglia advises VO’s to trademark their brand, company name, website, slogans, and tag lines.

YOUR HOMEWORK

So, here’s what you should do.

Go over all the images on your website, your blog, and the ones you use on social media, and immediately delete the ones you have been using without permission. If in doubt: take them out!

Replace them with pictures from a subscription site like Shutterstock, from Creative Commons, Wikimedia Commons, or with pictures you took yourself.

Check the music and videos on your site, and get permission from the owners to use them.

Go to http://copyright.gov, and read up on copyright law. Learn about the difference between a trademark and a service mark, and click here to find out what you need to know to register a trademark. When you’re ready to register, hire an attorney like Rob to guide you through the process.

BEING SUED

Should you ever get sued over copyright infringement, know that the goal of most trolls is to obtain a settlement. They don’t want to bring their lawsuit to trial because they would have to prove the allegations. The only reason they even mention court, is to scare the living daylights out of you, hoping you will settle.

The website fightcopyrightrolls.com (a great resource in the public domain) warns:

“In order to increase settlement rate, trolls resort to lies. They conceal important information from the Court. They make unrealistic and unnecessary threats to defendants. They grossly overstate the damages to copyright holders caused by infringement.”

Get legal representation, and go over your options.

NEBRASKA

So what happened with the case of The Content Factory that had to pay thousands of dollars for the unauthorized use of one lousy photo? They hired a lawyer who negotiated a settlement. Instead of having to pay $8,000, they ended up paying $3,000 in penalties.

The Content Factory concludes

“Had we been a smaller company and didn’t think to negotiate a settlement, we could’ve been put out of business. To be honest, had this happened within the first few months of starting the company, we would’ve probably closed up shop and run back to living one-third of our lives in cubicles, where it’s safe and there’s always health insurance.”

Don’t assume this won’t happen to you.

One of our colleagues is being sued as we speak over a lousy photo he put in his blog, and had forgotten about.

You have been warned!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Many thanks to Rob Sciglimpaglia for bringing matters of copyright and infringement to my attention, and for allowing me to use some of the information from his talk at VO Atlanta 2017. Rob is the author of Voice Over Legal, a must-have book for every voice actor. Click here to order a copy. 

Image credit: EFF (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 us (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/us/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons


The Cost of Having a Conscience: the Ethics of Voice-Over

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Pay-to-Play, Personal, Social Media 24 Comments

The author at VO Atlanta

There is no doubt about it:

The fifth edition of VO Atlanta was spec-ta-cu-lar!

Over 550 voice-overs, coaches, service providers, and VO VIPS gathered for three never-ending days, and had a blast.

The quest for actionable knowledge was palpable. The desire to raise our reputation, our standards, and our rates was on everybody’s mind. The energy was electric!

If you ever doubt that ours is a sharing and caring community, come to next year’s conference, and feel the love of an amazingly talented, supportive, and crazy group of people who are short on ego, and big on brother- and sisterhood. You’ll never feel isolated again, and you will leave tired but incredibly inspired.

I had the good fortune of sharing the stage with Bev Standing, Dave Courvoisier, Cliff Zellman, Rob Sciglimpaglia, and moderator J. Michael Collins for a panel discussion on Voice-Overs and Ethics. Because so many of you weren’t able to be there, and the topic is so important, I want to recap some of my thoughts on the issue. Let’s begin with my take on ethics.

MORALS, MONEY, and ME

In short, ethics are moral principles that shape our lives; beliefs about what’s right and what’s wrong. These beliefs guide our decisions, and help us make choices based on what we think is important and good for us, and for society. Every day we make ethical decisions: at the grocery store, when we decide which charity to donate to, and which party and politician to vote for.

Even though the ethics panel largely focused on rates and business practices, ethics goes further than fees and codes of conduct. In my case, personal ethics impact pretty much every business decision I make. My moral compass makes me ask questions such as:

– Do I really want to work with this client?
– Is this a product or service, political party, or philosophy I want to be associated with?
– Is my business all about money, or can and should it be an instrument for social change?

During the panel discussion, moderator J. Michael Collins asked a number of thought-provoking questions, and here’s number one:

Do talent have an obligation to consider the impact of their pricing on the greater industry?

No one lives on an island. Whether we realize it or not, we’re all connected. Perhaps I see it that way because I come from a very small country. In the Netherlands, the Dutch can’t easily escape the consequences of their actions. The behavior of one company or one person even, can affect society as a whole. 

In the labor market, voice-overs belong to a rapidly growing group of independent contractors. I’ve always thought that this label was wrong. I prefer to call us interdependent contractors. We’re all linked by common causes, and individual actions influence those causes. What do I mean?

For one, all of us are training clients how to treat us.

Every time we quote a job, we’re giving out a signal to the industry: “This is what a job is worth. This is what I’m worth.” If we’re telling clients they can get more for less, we’ve just helped set a standard, and made our job a bit cheaper. Of course you may not see it that way, because it’s part of human nature to downplay the impact individuals have on their environment.

Millions of individual shoppers, for instance, neglect the fact that their plastic bags are responsible for the killing of marine life on a scale that’s unimaginable. But -as a wise man once said- if you believe that individuals have no influence on the system as a whole, you’ve never spent the night with a flea in your bed.

Here’s Michael’s next question:

Do talent have a responsibility to avoid doing business with sites or companies who promote poor pay standards?

As far as I’m concerned, there are many reasons to avoid working with certain companies. Perhaps they’re big polluters. Perhaps they use child labor. Perhaps they are run by a corrupt family. You’ve got to do your homework to find out. By working with those companies and sites, we keep them in business, thus enabling their practices.

Here’s the thing. I’m not going to tell you why and where you should draw the line. If you’re okay voicing a promotional video for a company that makes cluster bombs, that’s your choice. If you’re fine voicing a commercial for a fast food giant, go ahead -as long as you take some time to think about the ethical implications of what you’re doing.

In our line of work, a job is rarely “just” a job.

I will not lend my voice to video games that glorify gratuitous violence. As a vegetarian, I refuse to promote animal products, and as a non-smoker, I will never sing the praises of a tobacco product. For that, I am willing to pay a price. Sometimes it is a hefty price, because throughout my career I’ve had to say “No” to quite a few projects that would have paid the bills for many months.

My voice may be for hire, but my morals are not for sale.

So, do I think we have a responsibility to not do business with companies that rip us off? Absolutely! We’re either part of the problem, or we’re part of the solution.

What are some best practices you would like to see coaches and demo producers follow?

Number one: Don’t guarantee your students any work. ROI is not a given. There are very few shortcuts to success. Coaches and producers should stress that this is a subjective, unfair business. Get rich quick does not exist. They should educate their students about going rates, and professional standards.

Coaches and producers should carefully select whom they want to work with. They should not continue to take money from students that have no talent, or show little improvement, just because they’re paying customers. In my opinion, that’s unethical.

What expectations should talent reasonably have of talent agents and agencies?

An agent or agencies should offer opportunities that play to the strength of a particular talent. They should do the leg work, so the talent can focus on the job. Agents or agencies should also negotiate a decent rate. What else?

A good agent knows you better than you know yourself. A good agent sees potential, and hears things you yourself do not hear. A good agent helps you grow, and goes to bat for you.

A great agent has a unique in, into the market; something other agents may not have. I want an agent to be brutally honest with me, and to shield me from bad clients.

What is a reasonable commission for an agent, or other casting organization to take?

Anywhere between ten and twenty percent.

What are some red flags to watch out for when seeking agency representation?

Agents charging a fee for representation: “I’ll represent you if you pay me 250 bucks!”

Another red flag points at agents that send out jobs every other agent sends out. That’s lazy. Also keep an eye out for agents that are never available, and never give you any feedback.

What level of transparency should we expect from online casting sites, and what does that look like?

A lot has been said about one of the biggest online casting sites operating out of Canada. Last year, Voices dot com (VDC) had a clear and controversial presence at VO Atlanta. This year, the conference organizers determined that VDC was no longer welcome at the table, because it “does not have the best interest of voice talent at heart.” The importance of that decision should not be underestimated, and the announcement was greeted with great applause.

As you may know, I have exposed VDC’s dubious business practices in the past, and part of their problem has to do with a lack of transparency. When asked why VDC would not be entirely open about the way they do business, I quoted psychologist Dr. Phil McGraw, who once said:

“People who have nothing to hide, hide nothing.”

An online casting site must be open about their business practices. Otherwise, it will lose the trust of its members. It has to be clear about the way auditions are offered, and to whom. Is everybody getting a fair chance, or is there a secret system limiting talent, lining the pockets of the people in charge?

A Pay to Play has to be open about how much a client is paying, how much the talent is getting, and how much is taken in by the casting site. That site should listen to feedback from its members, answer questions honestly and without spin, and refrain from double or triple dipping.

Is it reasonable for sites to charge both a membership fee and a commission?

Ideally, I believe a commission should cover all services provided by the online casting site. That way the site has an incentive to deliver, and make sure the talent gets paid a fair fee. Commission rewards positive action. The more a talent makes, the more the casting site makes.

Now, by using the commission model, an online casting site might start acting like an agent, and in the U.S. that’s not allowed. Remember though, that in most countries in the world there are no voice-over agents, so this is not as big of an issue as it may seem to some.

THE UNSPOKEN SIDE OF BUSINESS

During the panel discussion in Atlanta I noticed something I hadn’t noticed before: the ethical aspect of our business is not something we tweet about, or talk about on Facebook. Ethical issues are hard to put into 140 characters, or in a short status update. They often are complex, deeply personal, and seldom black or white.

Some people don’t give ethics much thought. If the money is good, they’ll take the job. Others feel that just because they’re the voice of a campaign, it doesn’t mean they have to agree with that campaign. They see themselves as voice actors, and actors merely play a role. That in and of itself, is a position based on a personal belief. 

One thing I know for sure, and from experience.

Once you decide where you draw the ethical line, you will be tested. Let’s say you don’t like the way animals are treated by the agricultural-industrial complex. The moment you decide not to promote anything having to do with animal abuse, you will get a request to do a commercial for a fast food company.

It’s the irony of life!

WILL YOU JOIN ME?

During VO Atlanta, many colleagues had a breakthrough moment, or even multiple Aha moments. Just look at your social media stream. People can’t stop posting about it. Something in them has changed as a result of this conference. A spark has been ignited, colleagues have become friends, and people no longer feel isolated.

Take my advice, and join that silly gang in 2018 (March 1-4). If you preregister now by clicking on this link, you’ll lock in the very best price. This offer is available until the end of the month.

I hope to see you there, and perhaps we’ll get another chance to talk about ethics!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be sweet: subscribe and retweet!

PPS The inimitable Peter O’Connell has penned a response to this post. Click here to read it. 


The One Thing That Will Improve Your Voice Acting Immediately

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Studio 26 Comments

Bradley Cooper

Question:

What’s the one thing that, if you’d start doing it today, would make you sound so much better?

Warm-ups?

Tongue twisters?

Sufficient hydration?

Well, in order to answer this question, we first have to agree on what “better” sounds like. “Better” is one of those vague words we all use, but rarely clarify. We always tell each other to do better, be better, and get better, but how? I’d better explain.

Before I do, let’s take one more step back, and find out what it is that actually needs to be improved. After all, we can’t come up with a solution if we don’t know what the problem is. 

Today I want to focus on something that many of my voice-over students struggle with. They have trouble sounding “natural.”

People who pose for pictures suffer from the same phenomenon. As soon as they see a camera, they become self-conscious, and start acting differently. Unnaturally. 

The same thing happens when you put people (even professionals) in front of a microphone, and it’s time to record. During the sound check they were chatting away carelessly, but as soon as the engineer utters the words “… and we’re rolling,” something weird happens. 

Immediately, the voice changes. With men it often becomes deeper, and forcefully resonant. Words start coming out in a more deliberate, over articulated way, as if the voice talent is impersonating what they believe a voice-over should sound like. It’s that intolerable tone that’s so cliché and contrived. It tells you a text is read aloud, instead of spontaneously spoken. 

This vocal switch-flipping phenomenon is not limited to voice-overs, by the way. I see it in grown-ups trying to interact with infants. Give them two seconds, and out comes the baby voice! Teachers have their teacher’s voice, priests have their preacher’s voice, and some nurses have this annoying way of saying: “And how are we feeling today?” 

Back to the recording booth. Apart from a clear change in diction and tonality, I’ve noticed two other things both men and women are equally guilty of, as soon as they realize they’re being recorded.

One: they start talking louder.

Two: they start talking faster

If you’ve ever sung in a choir, you know what I’m talking about. A conductor asking his choristers to sing softer, will tell you that they’ll automatically start singing slower. When asked to speed up a bit, people start singing louder. It’s almost a knee-jerk reaction. 

Because this not a deliberate process, most of my students aren’t even aware that they’re suddenly talking faster and louder. I’ll often interrupt them and say:

“Who are you trying to reach? Your deaf grandmother in the back row of some imaginary theater? Right now you’re talking straight into a microphone. Think of it as my ear. There’s no need to raise your voice. The script doesn’t ask you to. This is a simple educational narration. Adjust your gain if you feel your signal is too weak, or come closer to the mic, but whatever you do, please use your normal, inside voice.”

At this point I wanted to write “It’s easier said than done,” but that’s not true. Saying it, is the problem. Consider this.

The relationship between a narrator and a listener is delicate, and intimate. Rarely will you be closer to a human being than when you’re whispering into his or her ear, even though both of you are invisible to the other.

At that moment of connection, you breathe life into the lines, creating a world with your words. It is your job to make that experience as truthful and natural as possible. When you manage to do that, a few things will happen: 

1. The listener will be able to focus on the content, without being distracted by an over-the-top delivery. 

2. The listener will become more receptive to your message, because you sound more real. 

3. By treating your voice gently, you’ll be able to go on longer, because you’re not putting so much stress on your vocal folds. 

Everybody wins.

Now for some bad news, and some good news. The bad news is that old habits tend to die a slow death. Think of all those ex-radio people who just couldn’t shake their announcer voice. It takes awareness, coaching, and practice to unlearn what has become automatic, and do more with less. 

The good news is that even the greatest actors of our time struggle with sounding natural. When the movie Silver Linings Playbook came out, leading man Bradley Cooper was interviewed by Terry Gross, host of NPR’s Fresh Air. This is what he told her:

“As I’ve been acting the last 12 years, I’ve thought, ‘Well, the one thing I do have is this ability to make things seem … that I’m not acting.’ I’ve always felt like I can make lines that have been written come out of my mouth in a realistic way. … Then I met Robert De Niro and did the movie Limitless with him and realized that that wasn’t the case.

“I … still remember the table read for Limitless. … He comes in on about page 25. … The beginning of the movie is basically my character talking — there’s a lot of voice-over — and then all of a sudden he says something to me, and I stopped the reading, and I turned to him and I said, ‘I’m sorry. What’s that?’ And I realized he was actually saying his first line, but it was so grounded — as if he wasn’t acting — and I realized, ‘Oh, I’ve just been acting my tail off for the past 20 minutes. And here’s an example of somebody, you know, saying what they mean and meaning what they say.”

Of course there’s a difference between playing a role in a motion picture, and narrating a documentary, or an eLearning project. However, being a narrator is one of the roles voice-overs play, if you will. Good narrators give the impression that they’re not playing that role. They say what they mean, and they mean what they say with the least amount of performance. They create the illusion of spontaneity, giving the audience the impression that they’re not acting at all. 

Great (voice) actors are masters at pretending not to pretend. 

So, what’s the one thing that, if you’d start doing it today, would make you sound so much better? To put it bluntly:

Quit trying so hard!

Relax.

Breathe.

If you want to sound more natural, use your normal speaking voice and volume. 

Stop yelling, and start telling. 

Imagine you’re talking to someone across the table from you. 

It sounds so easy, doesn’t it? 

Well, there’s the rub.

Only a true and talented professional knows how to make something unnatural seem natural, even if it’s as normal as making conversation. 

The great acting teacher Sanford Meisner explained it best when he was asked for his definition of acting.

This was his answer:

“Acting is behaving truthfully in imaginary circumstances”.

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be sweet. Please subscribe, and retweet!


VO’s Unfair, so, Grow a Pair!

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Freelancing, Personal 16 Comments

Two pears

The other day it happened again.

In mid-session, I gave one of my voice-over students a simple script for a cold read. I thought he’d be excited to try something new, but this is what he said:

“You’re giving me this now? Are you trying to trick me? You gave me zero time to practice and get ready. I don’t think that’s fair.”

“Wow, I wasn’t expecting that response,” I said. “You’ve grown so much in the last few weeks, I thought you’d be up for a challenge. Maybe we should use this as a teaching moment?”

He agreed.

“First off, just as there is no crying in baseball, there is no fair in voice-overs, or in any freelance job for that matter.”

“What do you mean?” my student asked.

“Let me give you a few examples.

Yesterday, some A-list actor made fifteen grand for saying three lines in a 30-second commercial. Today, a VO-colleague got a nineteen hundred dollar check for narrating a lengthy novel that took her a month to record, and two weeks to edit. Is that fair?

How about this one:

A voice-over veteran auditioned for ten jobs a day for four weeks straight, and landed none of them. Meanwhile, a newbie walked up to a microphone, yelling a few words and hit the jackpot because some producer thought he sounded “raw and authentic.”

Here’s another one:

A fellow voice actor had been recording eLearning programs for the same company for six years at the same rate. His work was consistent, and he never missed a deadline. He came to think of himself as the go-to voice of that company. So, when year seven came around, he raised his rates a little, in line with the increased cost of living.

He never heard from the company again.

Is that fair?

Now, here’s something that happened to me.

A few weeks ago I auditioned for a very prestigious job that would have paid the mortgage for at least six months. At the end, it was between me and another person. Why didn’t I get the job? The reason was simple: the client preferred a female voice.

“Tell me,” I asked my student, “do you think that’s fair?”

He made a noise suggesting a lightbulb was slowly coming on in his head, so I continued…

“The idea of “fair” presupposes that there’s some grand equalizing principle at work in the world that gives equal opportunities to people with similar education, abilities, and experience.

Well, wouldn’t that be nice?

In many ways we may be equals, but that doesn’t mean we’re equal, or that we’re treated as such. What do I mean by that?

In a highly subjective and personal business as ours, things like training and experience count for something, but they will never get you hired. The fact that you’ve taken a few voice-over classes, and you’ve been knocking on doors for a few years, entitles you to… nothing.

The only guarantee I can give you, is that there are no guarantees.

No matter how hard or how long some people study, they’ll never become the next Albert Einstein, Yo-Yo Ma, or Don LaFontaine.

That’s not unfair. It is what it is.

On paper you may be the most experienced voice talent in the room, but a casting director isn’t listening for your resume or seniority. She needs to make her client happy, and the client wants someone who sounds just like his grandfather selling cattle in Kansas during the Great Depression.

Oh… but the specs didn’t say that, right? How unfair!

That’s because the client didn’t know he was looking for that voice until he listened to the top ten auditions.

My student let out a despondent sigh.

“That’s why the audition was a “cattle call,” I joked.

“But seriously, the only “fair” thing about this situation is that to most people in the middle, this crazy business is equally unfair. With “people in the middle” I mean the vast majority of voice-overs who aren’t making millions voicing The Simpsons, but who aren’t new to the business either.

I call them “the Nobodies.”

It may sound derogatory, but I don’t mean it that way. I mean it literally. Not figuratively.

Voice actors get hired for the way they move their lips; not for the way they move their hips. We’re not in the game for our glamorous looks, but for the way we sound. You and I… we are a no-body. Personally, that makes me very happy because slobs like me still stand a chance.

“But what about things like merit,” my student wanted to know. “Isn’t winning something like an Audie, or a Voice Arts™ Award going to open certain doors? That would be fair, wouldn’t it? I mean, winning a prize makes people more in-demand, right?”

“It’s a definite maybe. Let me explain.

Even though audio books have become increasingly popular, most people still think of a German car when they hear the word Audie. Secondly, I’m not sure clients will hire you on the spot because you won some gold-plated statuette they’ve never heard of. Accolades may be well-deserved, but they’re only worth their weight if they mean something to people outside the cheering in-crowd.

Even Oscar winners need to audition again and again, unless a part is especially written for them. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It keeps people sharp and humble.”

I took a long sip of water, and formed my next thought.

“Then there’s this weird phenomenon in our business that’s hard to prove. Let’s pretend people actually know about your reputation as a prize-winning narrator. They might not consider you for their next project because they assume you’ve become too expensive. Do you think that’s fair?

I once thought I could convince a client to hire me by telling them about the famous brands I had worked with in the past. Big mistake! The software giant I was auditioning for, ruled me out once they heard a close competitor had used my voice in 2015. This is what I also learned:

Most clients aren’t very interested in what you did for others, years ago. They want to know one thing:

What can you do for ME, today?

I’m not saying accolades aren’t awesome, but as the Dutch soccer star Johan Cruyff used to say:

“Every advantage has its disadvantage.”

That’s unfair too, but here’s the ugly truth:

In an unregulated business, those in power, and those with the deepest pockets get to determine what is fair.

“Pardon me, but that’s depressing,” said my student. “First of all, you’re giving me a lecture instead of a lesson. Secondly, I thought you were supposed to encourage me. Now I don’t even know if I want to be a voice-over anymore.”

“Language is a wonderful thing,” I said. “Especially if you like to play with words. To the ear, there’s almost no difference between “the termination,” and “determination.” The choice is yours.

If you want to end this, it’s going to be the termination of something promising. If -on the other hand- you really, really want to become a successful voice-over, allow what I’ve just said to strengthen your determination.

Please don’t be a chicken. You didn’t hire me to stick some feathers up your butt, so I could make some money off your dreams. That would be unethical. Just like that coach in the gym, you hired me to take you through a series of exercises designed to build your muscles, and give you a strong spine. You’re gonna need it!

And just like in the gym, change is a gradual process. Some days, your muscles might ache because of the resistance training. Sometimes, it might feel like you’ll never reach your ideal weight because you see other people getting fitter faster. But remember:

You’re on a personal path.

Those scary slim people you admire so much were born with different bodies, and different metabolisms. Some of them go to the gym every day of the week, and stay there for hours. Others like you can only afford to come twice a week for a 45-minute session.

You know what isn’t fair? Comparing yourself to others!

Compare yourself to yourself instead. So, here’s what I want you to do.

Forget the word fair.

Instead, focus on the word Prepare.

My goal is to help you be the best you can be at this moment in time, and to become even better in the future. Forget the silly randomness of this subjective business. You cannot control it. But one day soon, opportunity will knock on your door, and you’d better be ready! That’s the part you can control. Do you get that?”

My student made an affirmative noise. 

“Before we end this session, I want to give you one more piece of advice. I’ve known you for a while, and you’ve told me more than once that you’re a perfectionist. That mindset will hold you back, and that’s why you probably didn’t want to do the cold read I just gave you. Am I right? Were you afraid of making mistakes because I didn’t give you any time to look at the text?”

Reluctantly, my student agreed, and I went on:

“Please listen to this:

Be soft on yourself!

I strongly believe that living is learning. As human beings, I feel it is our job to evolve; to unearth and develop what we’re capable of, and to share those gifts with the world. 

To that effect, life offers us lessons. And unlike in voice-overs, life’s unscripted. You never know what it will throw at you next, so you have to be prepared to catch it while you can. Sometimes you need to improvise, and try things you’ve never done before. Sometimes you’ll get it right, and sometimes you won’t. As long as you keep on learning and growing, you’re doing great. This is what I want you to remember:

No matter how long you train, and how hard you work, you will never be perfect, and that’s perfectly fine. You want to know why? 

Because perfection has nowhere to grow.”

My student’s response was so quiet that I could almost hear the penny drop. Then I said:

“Let that sink in for a while, and let me know what you think, okay?”

“Fair enough,” said my student.

“Fair enough.”

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be sweet. Please retweet!


Five Questions. Five Answers.

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Freelancing, Personal 3 Comments

As a blogger and somewhat visible voice-over person, there are a few questions I get asked a lot:

  1. – How did you get started in the voice-over business?
  2. – What challenges did you encounter in your career, and how did you overcome them?
  3. – What advice do you have for beginners?

Well, I could write a book about that (and I did), but some time ago, my colleague Peter Kinney O’Connell asked me the following:

1. When did you know you wanted to be a voice-over talent; how did your career begin, and when did your passion for voice-over develop into something professional?

When I was six years old, my parents gave me a Philips cassette recorder. It didn’t take long before I discovered how to capture the sound of my own voice. That’s when it all began. In 1969.

I can still see myself sitting on the front porch with a copy of “King Arthur and the Black Knight.” It would become my very first audio book. Actually, it was more of a radio drama. Around me were all sorts of self-made instruments I used for sound effects. Every character had a different voice. Every voice had a different character.

The tape I made that day was used over and over again, and eventually it broke. What didn’t break was my love for painting pictures with sound.

Eleven years later I auditioned for my first job in Hilversum, the heart of Dutch broadcasting. A public network was recruiting a group of promising teens to start producing radio and television programs. Veterans would coach them in all aspects of the business. I just knew I had to be part of that program.

In the years that followed, that program became part of me. I produced and presented documentaries, talk shows, music specials, and radio plays. The microphone became my best friend. It was the beginning of a career in broadcasting that would take me to a number of national Dutch networks, the BBC, and Radio Netherlands International.

In 1999 I made a bold decision: I would leave Holland and start a new life in the New World. In a matter of months I was represented by Mike Lemon Casting in Philadelphia. My European accent seemed to be a welcome addition to their talent pool. It took me a number of years to build a client base that would sustain a full-time voice-over career, but eventually I became the Chief Artistic Officer of a company I named Nethervoice.

2. What is the one thing you know now that you wish someone had told you when you started out in voice-over?

If someone had warned me that this job could easily turn into an obsession, I still would have applied for it. It’s true though, but it might also have to do with my personality. When I’m passionate about something, I want to immerse myself in every aspect of it, and learn to do it well.

I realized early on that it takes more than a good voice to make a good living in this field. Success needs to be carefully planned. It’s like a flower bed that has to be protected, watered, and fertilized regularly (more about that in Jonathan Tilley’s “Voice Over Garden“).

Because I have a home studio, I’m always at work. It seems ideal, but for someone with an obsession it can be dangerous. It’s tempting to become a boring recording recluse who lives and breathes voice-overs. And you know me… When I don’t read and record, I write about it in my blog.

Life Coaches always advocate finding a balance between work and play. But what if your work is your play? At some point in the day, the headphones have to come off, and we must leave our soundproof studio. Without sunlight, there’s no growth. Our job is just a means to and end.

3. What do you see as the biggest professional or personal obstacle you face that impacts your voice-over business and how are you working to overcome it?

I wasn’t born to toot my own horn. The Calvinistic Dutch preach modesty and frown upon anything that may be perceived as vanity. Why? Because human talents are seen as a gift from God, so we shouldn’t take too much credit for our accomplishments. Many centuries have passed since the spirit of Calvin touched the Netherlands, yet, some of his principles are still present in our DNA, the Dutch National Attitude.

Looking back, I really believe that this mindset kept me from promoting myself properly. But there was something else. Coming from the relatively safe world of broadcasting, I never needed to market myself. I was hired by a network to do a number of jobs, and I left it to the PR people to sing my praises.

After I’d said goodbye to Holland, I had to learn that it was okay to be proud of what I had achieved, and use those achievements to attract business. To this day, I try to do this in a veiled way, by offering advice and entertainment in my blog. That’s where clients and colleagues get to know me as someone with a certain level of experience and pizzazz. Well, that’s the idea…

4. What personal trait or professional tool has helped you succeed the most in your career so far?

One thing that has helped me tremendously is a toolbox called Neuro-Linguistic Psychology. It’s a mix of positive attitudes, beliefs, and strategies to help people design and live the life they’ve always dreamt of.

At the basis of NLP is the process of modeling. I’m not talking about the catwalk in Milan, but about the study of exceptional people: business tycoons, sports icons, therapists, artists, et cetera.

The idea is that these people -in order to achieve something extraordinary- have set themselves up for success. They have carefully (and often unconsciously) conditioned themselves to accomplish amazing things. The question is: How did they do that?

NLP tries to break it down into bits and pieces: the ingredients of a recipe. Once the recipe is uncovered, it can be taught to almost anyone. The finest and fastest way to mastering something is to start teaching it. That’s why I eventually became an internationally certified trainer of NLP, and that’s the reason I started coaching voice talent.

5. In your development as a voice-over performer, what has been the one piece of performance advice that you felt has had the most impact on your actual voice over performance and why?

Here’s my answer:

Find something that defines you, but that does not limit you.

In other words: you want to box yourself in to emphasize what sets you apart, but you want that box to be big enough to attract a wide audience. If you try to be everything to everyone, you end up being nothing to no one.

In my case, I describe myself as a European Voice. Not British. Not American. Not even Dutch, even though that’s my native language. I tell my clients that I specialize in intelligent international narration. For that reason I get to do multilingual projects and jobs that require someone with a more global, neutral English accent. 

WANT MORE ME?

A while ago, my old Radio Netherlands colleague Constantino De Miguel interviewed me about the voice-over business on Voice Over Plaza. If you want to take notes, get pen and paper ready!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice


Becoming A Frugal Freelancer

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Gear, Money Matters 2 Comments

If you’ve stumbled upon this blog post without reading part one Would You Survive The Shark Tank? please stop. Click on the title above; read the story, and come back when you’re done.

By the way, as always, blue text on this blog indicates a hyperlink. 

Here’s one nugget from last week’s post you’ll remember:

“The way you manage your money is one of the most important indicators of success. You may have the most enchanting voice in the world, but if you don’t price for profit, and you spend more than you make without even knowing it, you may end up driving for Uber, instead of doing your dream job.”

A week ago we talked about investing in your business. You’ve got to spend money to make money, but you have to do it wisely. I call it “strategic splurging.”

BUSINESS 101

Today I’m going to talk about saving some cash, but before I get to that, let’s go over a few basics.

As a solopreneur, you have to ask yourself:

“What is the purpose of my business?”

Financially speaking, there can only be one answer:

It’s not to make money, but to turn a profit.

If I were a bank, and you’d come to me for a loan, I wouldn’t care about how well-respected you are in your community, or how much you love your job. I would not look at how many people read your blog, or how many friends you have on Facebook. I would look at your bottom line.

Your profit is the number one indicator of the health and success of your business. Here’s a simple formula:

Total Sales – Total Expenses = Profit

AMATEUR OR PRO

We often talk about the difference between doing voice-overs as a hobby, or as a business. What’s the difference between an amateur and a professional? In the end it doesn’t matter what you think, or what your coach tells you. You’ve got to convince the tax man!

Here’s what the IRS has to say about the difference between a hobby and a business: 

In order to make this determination, taxpayers should consider the following factors:

  • Does the time and effort put into the activity indicate an intention to make a profit?
  • Does the taxpayer depend on income from the activity?
  • If there are losses, are they due to circumstances beyond the taxpayer’s control or did they occur in the start-up phase of the business?
  • Has the taxpayer changed methods of operation to improve profitability?
  • Does the taxpayer or his/her advisors have the knowledge needed to carry on the activity as a successful business?
  • Has the taxpayer made a profit in similar activities in the past?
  • Does the activity make a profit in some years?
  • Can the taxpayer expect to make a profit in the future from the appreciation of assets used in the activity?

 

The IRS presumes that an activity is carried on for profit if it makes a profit during at least three of the last five tax years, including the current year.

SAVING MONEY

Healthy companies focus on two main things:

1. Increasing revenue
2. Decreasing expenses

Here’s what you should know: Curbing costs starts between your ears.

In Are Those Black Friday Deals Really Worth It?” I gave the following spending advice:

1Distinguish between a WANT and a NEED

Every time you’re tempted to make a major purchase, ask yourself: 

“Do I really need it right now, or is it just something I want?” “Is it a necessity, or a luxury?”

So, if you really, really want to buy a nice, new, shiny piece of equipment, ask yourself:

– Will it make me more professional, productive, and profitable?

– Will my clients experience an undeniable difference as a result of this purchase?

– Will this investment pay for itself within a reasonable period of time?

If you can answer these three questions with an emphatic YES, move on to the next level:

2. Find the product that best meets your needs and your budget

This applies to business expenses, but also to other purchases. You have to be a smart shopper across the board, to allow your business to grow. 

If you must make an investment, do your homework before you make an impulse buy. Determine how much you can afford to spend, and begin your research. Ask people you trust for suggestions. Look at what the pros are using.

Skip commercial copy, but pay close attention to independent reviews from reliable sources. For gadgets and certain pieces of gear, I will often turn to The Wirecutter website for extensive comparisons, reviews, and recommendations.

Here’s my rule of thumb: Always choose high quality over low price. You may pay a bit more today, but you will save money in the long run.

When you operate your own business, it’s so easy to get bogged down in the day-to-day running of your shop. However, if you want to have staying power, you must think long-term, and plan accordingly. And speaking of time, here’s your next decision:

3. Determine the best moment to buy something 

Saving money has a lot to do with timing. For instance, the best time to buy a new television is right before the Super Bowl, and before new models hit the showroom. It can save you hundreds of dollars. 

One of my favorite sites is lifehacker. Lifehacker has a handy graphic, illustrating The Best Time to Buy Anything During the Year. You’ll see that February is great for buying cellphones and home theaters. August is best for office supplies.

Once you’ve found what you are looking for, and you know when to get it, you must make the following commitment:

4. Never pay full price

No one pays sticker price on a new car, right? That would be foolish. So, I want you to bring that same mindset to your next purchase. And just as you’d go from dealership to dealership to get the best price, I want you to use the same method online.

The first thing you need to find out is how much retailers are generally charging for what you want to buy. Otherwise you don’t know if you’re overpaying, or you’re getting a steal.

A simple way to do that, is to start a Google search for your product. Click on the shopping tab, and sort by price from low to high. Before you begin this process, always clean your disk space by clearing your cookies, cache, history, and footprints. Otherwise, your search history might reveal to online retailers that you’re interested in buying a certain product, and they’ll quote you a higher price.

If you’re an Amazon fan, I recommend installing the free camelcamelcamel price tracker. It monitors millions of products, and it gives you insightful price history charts. On top of that, this tracker can send you alerts via email and Twitter, notifying you of price drops.

The website Slickdeals also has a price tracker, tracking prices from 52 stores. You can install a bookmarklet, and add it to your browser’s bookmarks bar to check the price history of any item at a supported store as you browse the web.

Once you have a clear price point, the next decision you’ll have to make is whether to buy…

5. Refurbished or used

My biggest savings have come from purchasing previously loved equipment. Not everyone is comfortable with buying second-hand, but once you’ve had a few positive experiences, I think you’ll warm up to the idea.

The safest way to buy used gear, is to get it from someone you know. The Facebook group VO Gear Exchange has over 1,500 members, and right now there are 123 items for sale. Online retailer Sweetwater has a Trading Post where you can buy and sell gear. You can also buy and sell used pro audio equipment from Guitar Center by clicking this link. 

As a buyer and seller, I’ve had mostly positive experiences with eBay. The trick is to do your homework before you start bidding. Know how much something is worth, and use the website Checkaflip to find out how much a certain product is usually selling for. 

Buyer beware! Only buy from sellers with overwhelmingly positive feedback, and look for auctions that end on hours very few people will be bidding (mornings and early afternoons). The fewer people bid on something, the better your deal will be. eBay has a money back guarantee if your item hasn’t arrived, or isn’t as described.

Amazon shoppers can also buy used or reconditioned products. Just click on the Used & New link below the description of the item you’re looking for. You might be surprised how much money you can save. 

Speaking of reconditioned or refurbished, that’s another great option for frugal freelancers. I recently bought an iPad Air 2 with 128 GB, Wireless & Cellular. You can find it at the Apple store for $629. I bought a factory refurbished model from BLINQ for $396.79 with free shipping (using a 20% off coupon for signing up for email alerts). Apple sells the same iPad refurbished for $529. Retailer Best Buy is selling the iPad Air 2 with similar specs as an Open Box item for $464.99.

My tablet didn’t arrive in Apple’s signature fancy packaging, but otherwise it looked and felt brand new, without any dents or scratches. Right now I’m using it as a second monitor, with the help of an app called Duet. The app is available for Mac and PC.

If you’re still not comfortable with getting a used or reconditioned product, you have to consider what to do when you’re… 

6. Buying new

Of course you’d start by using a shopbot like Pricegrabber, to find the best price. You can also look for deals on Retailmenot or a site like Overstock.

Rick Broida from website CNET, writes the Cheapskate Blog that’s written for bargain shoppers like me. Once I had ordered my iPad, I wanted to set up cellular service. The Cheapskate Blog told me about a free T-Mobile data plan for my tablet. All I had to do was buy a ten-dollar Sim card, install it, and BAM: I now have a 200MB monthly plan at no cost.

Rick also wrote about the Brenthaven Elliot Slim Brief with lifetime guarantee which normally retails for $79.95. I got it for $24.95, and it protects my iPad perfectly during my travels. This deal is no longer available. 

Apart from Rick’s blog, CNET has another deals & promotions page you might want to check regularly. You’ll find deals on anything from electronics, cruises, office equipment, to clothing.

There are at least four other deal aggregators I visit regularly: kinja Deals, BradsdealsWoot, and Tanga. Please do some window shopping to find out what they have to offer. You can thank me later!

Another money-saving concept is that of the Buyer’s Club. This is where a number of buyers commit to purchasing something to get a group discount. Groupon is probably one of the best examples. One of my favorites is MassDrop, which has a special Audiophile section. 

Whenever I’m shopping online, I make sure to activate my eBates account to earn cash back on my purchases. The Cash Back Button I’ve installed tells me how much cash back is being offered, and it reminds me to activate the discount. About 2,000 stores give cash back through eBates. The way I see it, it’s free money!

“But what about coupons?” you may ask. Well, I use a browser extension called Honey. Honey automatically finds and applies coupon codes at checkout on thousands of sites. Honey also finds better prices on Amazon, and offers cash bonuses on many stores. 

Once you have Honey installed, whenever you’re on a shopping site that Honey supports, you will see the Honey icon in the top right corner of your browser turn the color orange. This means that Honey supports that store.

Now, here’s my last money-saving tip for you: 

7. Get a good accountant who specializes in small businesses

Let’s face it: you didn’t become a freelancer so you could bury yourself in boring and time-consuming paperwork. Spare yourself the headaches, save yourself some time, and hire an expert. Your forms will be filled out correctly, and filed on time. A good accountant helps you maximize your deductions, lower your tax bills, and can be your financial sounding board.

When you’re ready to make your next purchase, remember this: it’s easy and lazy to pay full price. It’s also bad for business. 

It may take you some time to track down the best bargains, but you’ll learn a lot, and finding a bargain can be quite gratifying. 

The way you shop for your business will help you cut down your household expenses as well.

Small savings add up quickly. At the end of the day, you’ll have more money in the bank; money that’s going to be your security blanket.

Of course there are more ways to save, and if you have specific tips, I hope you’ll share them in the comment section.

Happy frugal shopping!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

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