“How do you stay in business?”
It was the frustrated question of a fellow voice talent who was struggling.
I thought about his question for some time after our conversation, and it led to this blog.
How DO you stay in the voiceover business? The more I thought about it, the more I realized that there were a number of things that I knew but had somewhat neglected and needed to revisit. And there were a few things that I seemed to be doing well, but the truth is that a balanced business is a healthy business.
Perhaps some of these thoughts and reminders will help you to grow a balanced and healthy voiceover business. But let me say right up front, I’m addressing those voice talents that want to grow their business. If you are a VO hobbiest and are fine with the workload you are doing, God bless you. Go for it and have fun (and ignore my comments about rates). I mean, I know it really is fun, and I wish you well. I really do!
However, I’m addressing those voice talents that are making a living at this, or at least attempting to do so.
ALWAYS BE BUILDING YOUR BUSINESS
The voiceover business is one of the most unique businesses around. Our product is in demand and growing. And yet our product is an intangible. We have no product on the shelf. Everything we deliver is custom-created. It’s not like we can go in and buy someone’s voiceover service, take over their client list and immediately be in business.
This business is one that must be built by the individual voice talent. You can’t even hire someone to build it for you. Of course, you can hire someone to help you, but overall it’s something you have to do on your own. And building it takes time. It’s further complicated by the fact that often you never even meet your client face to face, so you’re at a disadvantage and so is your client. It’s hard to build a relationship that way.
Furthermore, many of our clients change clients, and so we have to continually work to re-establish ourselves, build new relationships, and create confidence.
In my case, 60% of my client list is international. I’ve never met any of those clients face to face. It took time to build those relationships, and it is something that I have to consistently work at developing.
I say all of that to encourage you to create a plan to continually and consistently build your business. Think and work through the scenarios of what it’s realistically going to take to find and develop clients. What will your client turnover be? How often will each client most likely have work for you?
I’ve found that I need to spend up to an hour a day reaching out, making new contacts, connecting and reconnecting with new and old clients. Now get this: I HAVE to do that just to maintain my current workload. I’m not even talking about increasing my business. I mean I have to spend up to an hour a day just to stay even, and I’ve been in business for over 25 years!
DELIVER WHAT YOU DO WELL
This took me way too long to learn. I’m ashamed to admit that. I spent so much time over the years trying to do stuff that I’m, at best, average at doing. But clients don’t hire average. If you’re average in this business, you’re starving.
The turning point came when a client asked me to do a Dick Vitale impression for a spot. Well, I have nowhere even close to a Vitale impression. But the client insisted. They really needed me to do the job and they were down to wire on getting the job done.
I sent them a few takes of a pathetic rendition of Dick Vitale. A few hours later they came back and asked me to redo the audition with a few changed lines, and “could you give us a bit more of the Vitale emotion?”
I tried again.
The client was still not happy.
And a couple of days later this email:
“Our client has decided to actually hire Mr. Vitale for their project.”
What a waste of time. I should have just told them from the very beginning that I’m no Dick Vitale and that they needed to look elsewhere.
My point is that you are who you are. Do what you’re good at. Don’t try to be someone or something else, unless of course you are an impressionist.
Can you learn different styles? Perhaps, but do yourself a favor. Get a coach and trust them to tell you when you are ready to deliver those goods.
In the meantime, excel at what you excel at.
REVISIT YOUR SOUND
This is one of my pet peeves.
If you are going to compete in this business, for goodness sake do what you have to do to get a quality sound.
I am so amazed at how cheap so many voice talents sound as they try to pawn off their efforts as a professional voice talent. In fact I just saw a post (again) on Facebook from a start-up voice talent who asked, “what microphone and interface should I use, and I need to start as cheap as I can.”
Look, I’m not trying to be mean here, but if you want to compete in this business you’d better make sure you sound as good, if not better than the rest of the dogs in the hunt. Quit playing the mind game that you can go cheap, and as you get more business you’ll build your equipment quality. No! Start with good and then upgrade!
Seriously, your potential clients are listening to up to 100 auditions or more for a particular job. If your sound quality sucks, nine times out of ten that will automatically disqualify you. They are only going to listen for the first few seconds and if the quality isn’t there, you’re toast.
It’s not about expensive equipment versus cheap equipment (although cheap equipment is one of the main culprits). It’s about sound quality. If you want quality clients, you have to produce quality sound. Oooooo! That was a good line. Read it again.
Every couple of months a client will ask me to help them find additional voice talent for a project. I used to put those jobs out on Pay 2 Play sites, on Facebook, and whatever other means I could think of. I must tell you that at least 90% of the auditions I got back were crap.
I was amazed at how bad so many of those auditions were. Bad sound. Bad reads. Bad interpretation. Bad editing. Just bad. I’m not kidding! 90%!!!
Now, I just go back to the voice talents I know will submit good auditions.
Question your sound quality. Share some samples with your fellow voice talents. Ask them to give you an honest appraisal of your sound quality. If there is an issue with your signal, get a sound engineer to help you out. But don’t embarrass yourself by sending out poor quality sound.
By the way, here’s an aside: Based on my experience that 90% of the auditions submitted to potential clients are awful. Don’t be afraid to submit even if they’ve already received a large number of submissions. I can promise you that most of those auditions are garbage. Just make sure yours is not one of the 90%.
Along that line, be the exception. After having been on the receiving end of searching for voice talent on behalf of some clients, I can tell you that another one of the most frustrating things of going through auditions is that almost everyone sounds alike.
Think about it. If the client hears 10, or 50, or 100 people who sound almost alike and interpret the copy almost exactly alike, why in the world would he/she hire you if you sound and interpret the copy like everyone else? Chances are if the client wants the read that almost everyone has submitted, they’ve already chosen their talent…and it’s not you.
SET THE STANDARD
In other words, define, develop and set the standard in your niche. Quit wasting time in VO niches that you are not good at. The old 80/20 formula is as real here as it is anywhere. 20% of the voice talents get 80% of the work in any niche you are pursuing.
If you want to excel in a particular genre, you’d better train, develop, deliver, and market yourself better than 80% of everyone else.
Face it; clients don’t want to have to spend a lot of time looking for the right voice and interpretation. So, the first one that comes along that grabs them is often the one they go with.
This is where the combination of copy interpretation and production make or break an audition. The client doesn’t expect the audition to be the final spot, although that does happen on occasion. The client is just looking for someone who gets it and delivers what they are looking for, or as sometimes happens, surprises them and takes them in a completely different direction.
I mean really, when you think about it, what difference does it make if you went up on that word or down on it? Don’t sweat the little stuff in the audition. The client is looking for a unique interpretation that speaks to their image, sense and intent. They know they can get you to change little things here and there if it is that important. And as soon as they hear the “sound” they are looking for, they will most likely jump on it, or at least flag it for review.
So, be early!
BTW, here’s a little trick that works for me. I warm up in the morning with auditions. Then I get back into the groove after my lunch break with any other auditions that have come in. And finally, I close out my day with any other auditions that might have come in.
That sounds like I audition a lot, but it really isn’t that much. I’m very selective, and there are times, almost daily, that there have been no additional appropriate auditions come in.
But for heaven’s sake, don’t put off auditions for a day or two, no matter how much time the client/agent gives you.
To quote a current client the first time I sent him an audition: “(Expletive deleted) if what you sent me, as fast as you sent it, is what you do, we’re going to have a wonderful life!”
CHARGE WHAT YOU ARE WORTH
No client has the right to establish your value and your rate. Frankly, not even the union has that right (And really, they don’t do that. They just establish a base rate). You are the one that should decide what rates you work for.
I’ve never been to a doctor that let me establish his/her rate. I’ve never been to a gas station that let me establish the rate I was going to pay. Never gone to a restaurant, looked at the menu and said, “Nah, that’s not what I pay for pommes frites. My budget is half of that.”
You establish your rate and your worth. When you work for less than an acceptable rate you say to the client, “I’m not worth what you should pay for this project.”
I’m not angry or upset at you for doing that. You are not a threat to my business if you do that. It doesn’t really matter to me because I wouldn’t work for that lowball rate anyway. I’m just embarrassed for you. You’ve undercut your worth and you’ve enabled a client to cheapen his work. If you are even a halfway decent voice talent, you can and should get what you are worth!
I recently had a potentially new client that wanted to hire me for half of my rate. She said that’s what they had paid in the past and that other voice talents were fine with that rate. I suggested she contact those voice talents again because I just couldn’t work for that rate. Yesterday, I got an email from her saying that her client had approved my rate and they were ready to proceed with the project.
My point is that you are the one that should establish your rate. If you don’t have the confidence in your talent or value, you will most likely undercut yourself. This is where connections and relationships with other voice talents and agents are so important. What are your peers charging and getting for similar work? Ask! Be willing to walk away if the rate is too low. And hold on to your self-worth.
The old excuse, “Hey, $25 is better than nothing,” is simply baloney. If you are marketing to that client crowd you are in the wrong store. Think about it this way: if you can get $25 for that job, you can most certainly get more for it. I know several voice talents that work for those kind of rates, and say they are happy. But if you plan to grow your business, you have to move beyond that low-ball mentality.
By the way, in my experience it is the lower paying clients that are often the hardest to collect from. Learn from my mistakes.
So, there are some thoughts on staying in business. No doubt you have a thought or two to add. Please do! Part of what makes our voiceover community so great is the willingness we have to help and encourage each other.
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Dan (Daniel Eduardo) Hurst is an experienced bilingual (English and Spanish) voice talent operating out of the Kansas City area. His business extends internationally, with clients including Maserati, Boehringer Ingelheim, British Petroleum, Kimberly-Clark, McDonalds, Volkswagen, Telemundo International, Shell, Hallmark, TransCanada, and many more, along with his national work for numerous infomercials, ESPN, MLB, and the Golf Channel, among others. When he’s not working, he spends time cheering for losing sports teams, getting kicked off of golf courses, and cursing his boat motor. For more information go to www.DanHurst.com