One thing I am sure of.
Human beings have a hard time dealing with uncertainty.
From the moment we’re born till the moment we die, we have a need to know.
That’s why we spend a lifetime answering questions, such as:
- Why am I here?
- Is there a God?
- Can I be happy?
- Why does evil exist?
- Is there an afterlife?
- McDonald’s or Burger King?
Not knowing is often worse than knowing. That’s why TV shows take us from cliffhanger to cliffhanger, and millions tune in to find out who the next American Idol is going to be. We cannot live with the suspense of not knowing.
Where does this innate urge come from? I believe it has to do with control. Subconsciously, people assume that the things they know for sure, they can control. We cannot measure and control the things that are unknown.
Two friends of mine love going on vacations. Let’s call them Jack and John. Both have traveled the world in ways that couldn’t be more different. Jack’s a free spirit. He likes to improvise, and takes life one step at a time. Jack is the person who’d buy a ticket to Rome and a Lonely Planet guide to Italy, and he lets his gut feeling determine where and when he goes to explore the country.
John would absolutely hate that. He prefers to tour Italy with a group, knowing exactly where he ‘s going to be, and where he is going to stay from day to day to day. And if things wouldn’t go according to plan, he’d get very nervous and upset. “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail” is his favorite saying.
Ask yourself: Are you a Jack, or are you a John?
That’s a question anyone should ask before deciding to become an independent contractor. It’s exactly the sort of thing that makes it so hard to be a professional voice-over. I’ll go one step further: the answer to that question is the number one reason why most people who are going freelance, fail.
I’m not making that up to rain on your parade. The Small Business Association (SBA) estimates that 30% of new businesses fail during the first two years of being open, 50% during the first five years, and 66% during the first 10. Those cold numbers camouflage dreams dashed, families in turmoil, and the burden of bankruptcy.
I’ll be very clear: those who eventually become successful at doing voice-overs, are great at handling uncertainty in an economic system that favors predictability.
So, what kind of uncertainty am I talking about?
For starters, you’ll never know where your work will be coming from, and which job you’ll land, and which job will go to a colleague. If you’re not selected, you’ll never know why.
When you audition, you won’t know what the client is looking for. Many clients will tell you: “I’ll know it when I hear it.” The job description is purposely vague: “Male/Female voice, Neutral English, Young Adult to Middle Age.”
You’ll never know how much the client has budgeted for the job you just auditioned for. They all plead poverty. These days you won’t even know how much a particular job is worth anymore, and what your bid should be. You’ll be bidding on jobs in many countries and many markets for all sorts of media. There will always be an idiot who will do more for less.
Once you’ve accepted the job, things don’t get any clearer. Nine out of ten times you’ll be recording by yourself without a director, so it’s up to you to read between the lines and interpret the script as best as you can. It’s a hit or miss process.
The whole thing feels like running a restaurant where you are the owner and chef. The client comes in and wants food. “What would you like?” you ask. “I’ll know it when I see it,” says the customer. “Go to the kitchen and work your magic. But make it quick.”
Half an hour later you proudly present your finished dish. The client smells the food, turns green, and waves the plate away saying: “That’s not what I ordered! I’m not paying for that.” Or worse, they’ll eat everything and disappear without leaving a check.”
You see, that’s another thing you’ll be uncertain about. As a voice-over, you run an international business that’s based on trust. The client trusts you to take care of the job. You trust the client to pay you for the job. On time and in full.
Good luck with that!
The Freelancers Union estimates that 7 out of 10 freelance workers face nonpayment, and freelancers are stiffed an average of $6000 annually.
Who is going to protect you? So far, New York is the only city in the United States to adopt the Freelancing Isn’t Free Act which extends unprecedented protections against nonpayment for millions of New York City’s freelance workers.
But what do you do when that client in Mumbai or Shenyang doesn’t respond to your payment requests? They wanted your audio files yesterday, you sent them, and now they’re MIA. You have no leverage. The only thing you can do is publicly shame them, and demand payment up front the next time you work with an unknown client.
Given the fact that you don’t know what you’ll be working on, when you’ll be working, how much you’ll be working, how much you’re getting paid, and when the money will be coming in, how do you know you’ll be able to pay the bills?
Try getting a mortgage on a freelance income, or any other loan for that matter. If you’re just getting started you need the money the most to pay for all that equipment, your demos, website, home studio, marketing materials, and coaching sessions. And you have nothing to show for it but good intentions.
No matter how much or how little is coming in, your insurance company expects you to pay your premium on time, your rent is due the first of the month, and your credit cards need to be paid, as well as your taxes. John would go crazy going from month to month.
You may be able to live with uncertainty, but what about your family?
Now, in the past I used to say that the only factor in this business you can count on and control, is YOU.
That sounds nice, but based on my experience, most people who try their hand at voice-overs lack the knowledge, the drive, and the discipline to run a business. They can handle it as a hobby, but that’s it. Let me give you an example. As a VO-coach I can quickly tell if someone has what it takes by the way they handle my assignments.
Those who need a lot of hand-holding don’t impress me. Those who don’t do their homework and make all sorts of excuses, tend not to do well. Those who say “Just tell me where I can find work,” are likely to fail.
Many are interested. Very few are committed.
Here’s the problem: as someone who is self-employed, no one will tell you what to do. No one will hold you accountable. No one cares if you sleep in, or waste your time surfing the web.
And then there’s this.
Until March of this year, I thought I was in control. I believed that I was the certainty my business was based on.
Then I had a stroke.
I woke up weak, exhausted, and without a voice. During many months of rehab I lost thousands of dollars in work I was unable to do. Some of my clients with whom I’d been working for years, found other talent and never came back.
Instead of building my business, I am rebuilding it, piece by piece. But if it weren’t for my amazing better half, my business probably would have gone bust.
At the end of the day, running a business is about risks and rewards.
Too often, newcomers focus on the rewards, and forget about the risks.
So, if you’re seriously thinking of becoming a voice-over, are you a Jack or a John?
I know you want the rewards, but are you certain you’re ready for the risks?
If so, you are in for a most rewarding career!
Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice
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