Notes Off the Napkin: Smart Startup

Notes-Off-the-Napkin-logo1By Andrew Frame

An excited e-mail dropped in the box.

“Just got word that I have a meeting with three private investors next week to discuss investing in my business,” it started, sent by a Johnny, a colleague I’ve worked with for the last six years. “These people sought me out through my network of friends. According to one email I got, ‘I’ve heard you’ve got some good ideas and I’d like to hear them.’

I have an art director on board, a videographer and a web specialist. I’m sort of freaking because this could be a big reboot to my self employment. Wish me luck and any advice you freelancers might have is welcome.”

He closed with something most every creative has said, “Most companies like what I want to do were begun by former reps and ultimately suffer from the same failures we have all experienced in our line of work. My idea is an employee owned company that is built by creatives.”

About a third of the people in my professional network are freelancers like myself, and though responses came from different geographic locations, the theme was the same.

Albert jumped in first thing, “Try not to be like every other agency in the world. Pay your people on time.” This set the tone that was quite “old-school” in being contrary to current social and political thinking.

How? In society now, we’re strongly encouraged to go into debt. In the United States, we have the television pitches of banks and credit card companies telling us how much better life would be with their products - loans and credit debt.

We have a Congress that allows organized-crime levels of interest charged and penalizes taxpayers for saving while encouraging spending. In fact, our own President on many, many occasions has officially told citizens to help the economy and themselves and “get a loan.”

I see the same thing across the Caribbean, and from my colleagues in free-market economies like the UK and Australia.

I responded to Johnny, “Avoid investors and debt. It’s fine to have them as a safety net, but do the startup with no debt service. It’s harder, but it’ll be all yours. Investors hold the leash and can turn on you.”

Jimbo followed up: “I agree, debt is debt. I have slowly grown my business over the years, piece by piece, building each room myself and adding on top of success. Over time I have a complete functioning post prod facility for audio/video and owe nothing. Plus it was a tax write off every year to invest in my own business! Be careful.”

Albert added from his home studio in Canada: “Echo that. I paid cash (or credit card and paid it off at statement date) for everything in here except my first studio computer. I paid that off in 3 months. Investors can turn on you. I was an investor once. I called in my demand load after a shift in the management style. They had 3 days to come up with $15,000 + interest. Trust me, you don’t want to be on the receiving end of one of those demand load letters from a lawyer. It’s more work and the reward is 100% ownership.”

For a long time I have sought how to balance investors with sole ownership, and Albert put it perfectly. His next comment was business brilliance:

“If these investors have money to spend, then they have connections. Let them bring you clients and pay them for the referrals. If they see value in you, they’ll have no problem referring to you. Secure some annual and retainer clients.

“Pick up some quarterly clients that are easy to service and grow them all. Upsell them on everything. ABC - Always Be Closing. Keep your basket filled with a variety of eggs (customers) of different value. If you lose one, it shouldn’t have a major impact on your business.”

In other words, if someone wants to invest in you, make them put up in the form of referrals that you can commission back to them. This puts all the risk on you, none on them. It also will show you just how much they believe in you, quickly separating the wheat from the chaff.

Roy spoke of living and working lean, so you don’t have to have investors, and how without them, the decision making is yours alone: “Bucolic days can give way to tenuous negotiation through calamitous situations. Live in a trailer, eat canned beans, wear the same jeans. Through it all you are free of unexpected phone calls from persons interested much more in capital... than... creative. I am the only concern I have in negotiations, [while] partners, teams, associates, etc., [make it] tough going in all cases.”

You may have to borrow basic equipment to get started, maybe rent studio time. A good professional starter microphone can be had for under $200, and the Audacity and Ardour multitrack editors are Open Source and free for the download. Linux is free. Audacity and Linux run fine on old hardware.

Get a couple of people that will work with you and sell everyone as a package for customers to select from. And work the phones. Five calls a day, every day on your lunch break. Take a few hours on your day off and make sure demos are polished and your website is updated. Don’t let Facebook and Twitter vampire your time away. Work the phones. It’s far more personal and direct.

There is money enough out there to freelance - voice work, creative service, and post production. It will not come to you. You have to go and find it.

But the money is not in radio. Radio is notoriously cheap and unrealistic on deadlines and turnaround. Radio wants it “free” and “now.” If you think you were whipped like an old mule when you walked into work every day, you’re in for a bigger whipping when you become a vendor that can be dropped for any small reason. And, I lose track of how often we’re approached by a young buck (or doe) that “just wants to do imaging voice work.”

Open your vision to include agencies, television stations, and cable companies. Contact the marketing departments of corporations and look into training materials, on-hold messages and other places the recorded word is used. Once you find a niche, super-serve it.

Do not try to get a company to drop their existing service for you. That’s mean, and playing that way will only make it happen to you. Leave your name and number with a follow-up e-mail and tell them you’ll be interested to hear from them should “the situation ever present itself for a change.” Follow up with regular call backs every two months or so.

Debt is bad. And you don’t need it to take a few years to build yourself a successful business. The quick runner may win the lap, but the steady runner wins the race. Think of building a business as a marathon - not a sprint - and it will help keep your perspective on course.

Clear skies.