From Rat Race to Roller Coaster: The Ups and Down of the Home-Based Radio Production Business!

By Lowell Christensen

Editor’s Note: It’s been 10 years since RAP interviewed Lowell Christensen about his journey to build a home based radio production and voiceover business. After setting up his SpotWorks Radio Production website in 1997 and leaving his radio job in 2004, things were going well in 2008, thanks to a growing client base. The interview was conducted in September 08, the same month as a major global market crash and the mortgage crisis hit the United States. The interview was published in October and things appeared to be “business as usual.” As you’ll see in this 10-year update, what was yet to come was another “life lesson” in what it means to be out on your own after leaving the rat race. You jump on the roller-coaster of running a radio production business from home.

The Ride

Wow. 10 years. On a whim, I reconnected with RAP’s Jerry Vigil this past summer. I’d forgotten all about the interview until he reminded me. I revisited the article and noticed the date. The interview was conducted around the same time as the economic crash of 2008, which set in motion another crisis that hit a little closer to home just a couple of months later. The downturn in the automotive industry that followed rocked the advertising world for years. In the United States, the crash was primarily felt by the Big Three (Ford, Chrysler, GM). Had it not been for the government bailout of General Motors and Chrysler and loans to Ford, I don’t know where we would be. For me at SpotWorks Radio Production and most others in this business, radio commercial production for automotive dealers and related ad agencies was, and continues to be, the main source of revenue. It fuels the entire economy as car dealers have always been radio’s biggest advertisers.

In the months that followed, my biggest client (an automotive ad agency) went bankrupt. My second biggest client (also an ad agency) was sold to a conglomerate. Both left unpaid bills from the busy Christmas season. Retainers with other clients disappeared soon after. Over the next two years I experienced a 30% drop in business from my remaining clients.

Recovery was slow. At the time of the interview, I was coming off a record year and thinking that we (my wife and I) had succeeded in building a good income after taking a huge risk when I quit my day job just four years earlier.

Fast Forward 10 Years

I am happy to say that SpotWorks survived, without my having to go back to a radio day job. The lessons I’ve learned have made my advertising agency stronger. Now I’d like to share those lessons and offer tips to those thinking of leaving the rat race. Yes, you’ll have great freedom—no more commutes and pants are optional—but you’re leaving the rat race to jump on a roller coaster, as I learned the hard way in 2008.

What You Need To Know

The biggest lesson I learned is that business will always have its ups and downs. Often, a good year is followed by a less lucrative year. It’s unpredictable. You may enjoy a nice string of good years, only to experience a drop in business that follows its own rules and rhythm. The key is to maintain your cash flow from month to month and not count on continued earnings. Nothing is guaranteed. While I can’t speak from direct experience, I believe running a brick and mortar business with a local market where you can glean and grow clientele is a different beast. Radio production companies like mine that rely solely on Internet traffic can be much more volatile. On one hand, it’s easy for clients to find you online with the click of a mouse. At the same time, it’s just as easy for these same clients to take their business elsewhere for a more competitive price. The same can be said for voice over talent, probably the most competitive segment of our industry.

The Big Secret (drumroll optional, but I do have a dozen variations in my library)

The key to building a viable freelance business offering radio production services has been the same as when I first launched my website in 1997: accessibility. For one, clients need to find you on Google. That takes a well-ranked website. Once that client finds the service they need from you and shoots off an email, the person behind the website needs to respond quickly. Personally, I like to respond within 15 minutes.

Email is KING. Your turnaround time to each and every email is critical to your success. If you are still working a regular job, you must find a way to respond regularly throughout the day. At the very least you need to send back a quick note to confirm the email. Ideally, you should respond with more information, including a quote and a promise of a quick turnaround. Then be prepared to get the work done that evening or early the next morning. Same day delivery is not always required, but if you are going after a steady stream of work from car dealers, same day service is the norm.

Once you’ve grown your business to a point where you can get out of the rat race and ride that roller coaster on your own, accessibility is even more important. You can’t afford to let any potential client slip through your fingers.

To keep with the roller coast analogy, let’s consider the financial ride. Getting one month ahead on cash flow is something most businesses don’t do. It can be difficult. For me, paying voice talent by the end of the month that they voice a spot means paying them before I get paid by the client. But this practice has a major benefit: loyalty, which can make a serious difference in a pinch.

 In terms of conducting business from year to year, 2008 taught me that I wasn’t prepared for a drastic reduction in income. Lean times occur naturally from month to month, year to year, but are far more stressful when the economy nosedives for two or three years. Staying out of debt and putting aside savings for those lean seasons is essential for survival. Clients come and go, but you still have to pay the mortgage.

What Does This Mean For You?

Whether you are working towards going out on your own, or have already done so and want to grow your business, let’s recap:

Website ranking. I had it easy when I started. There was no other full-service production website online. The first voice over talent website beat me by a year, but over the next few years competition was minimal for anyone marketing their services online. Today, Google is not so friendly when it comes to small websites. Learn how to get your website ranked.

Promise quick email response. Then deliver. You’ll beat out those who do not respond quickly. More importantly, you’ll impress your potential clients and stand out from the competition. Be ready to serve!

Set up a schedule to deliver work in a timely manner. Not every client needs their radio production immediately, but by delivering a quality product quickly, you’ll be well ahead of any other ad agency preening for business. A happy client usually brings more clients. Just make sure that you always deliver what you promise. Remember, a great deal of radio advertising is reactionary and happens last minute.

The perfect time to quit your day job will never come. Going out on your own is always a leap. Prepare as best you can financially, but, more importantly, start now to build up that client base. The last three years before I quit my day job, I worked 70 hours a week. I don’t know of any other way to do it.

Prepare for lean times. No client lasts forever. The economy is not always in your favor. Google changes their algorithms regularly. When you’re not at work making money for clients, work on your website. Build content and quality links. Connect on social media.

Everything I know I’ve learned the hard way. When cash flow was good, I used to slack off or coast. When times were lean, I’d become more aggressive and beat the bushes. Desperation is often the best motivator. But desperation mixed with hopelessness can crush you. So be positive. Stay on top of cash flow and prepare for the ups and downs of business. Ultimately, you need that fire, that burning drive successful entrepreneurs have in their gut. Remember, you need to make your business thrive or go back and face the rat race.

Don’t look back. I didn’t and can still take care of business in my pajamas.

Thank you to Jerry Vigil and RapMag for that interview 10 years ago. Since then, the world has seen an information revolution. The ride has been wild, but worth it. Hang in there, everyone!

Visit Lowell’s website at https://www.radiocreative.com/ for demos and more info.

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