Act Smart! You are a start-up in the new economy

While doing some research for a recent business lunch, I came across a great article written by my dining companion to-be on his lessons learned from leading a successful startup from zero to amazing (my words, not his).

As I read, it struck me that being a professional actor is a lot like leading a startup—and that the lessons from one might be applicable towards the other. Thus, as is my wont, I decided to shamelessly poach any of his applicable secrets for success to share with you. (Full disclosure: I’m totally telling him I did this after the fact, along with sending a link.)

1. Research the existing market for viability (and your niche)  

Once you have your business idea, whether it’s “new food truck” or “comedic TV actor”, the first step is often figuring out if it’s anything anyone wants (and who “anyone” is, exactly).

Frankly, research is my happy place no matter what the project, but for most people, research doesn’t feel like work when it comes to acting. Here’s where you get to justify your binge-watching and movie addiction: how can you know what you’re supposed to be playing, much less how to market yourself for it, until you know what kinds of roles are out there.

The one thing to beware of is vanity traps: both the hubris of “I can play anything!” (you can’t—and won’t) and obliviousness to your type can really handicap you before you even start. The more realistic you can be about the kinds of roles out there, and which mesh with your age, type, range, and skills, the better your chances.

2. Create a thorough (and thoroughly vetted) business plan

There are simple, one-page creative business plans out there that will work for you, or you can get really elaborate. The main questions you might ask yourself are:

  • What are your goals?
  • What are your strengths and weaknesses?
  • Where do you fit into the market?
  • How will you reach your audience/customers?

And the very, very important question of:

  • How will you fund the start-up portion of this venture, and for how long?

Nothing is set in stone; a business plan can and should change with the market (which is changing all the time). But you don’t want to waste precious time, energy or money with no plan. And you really don’t want to waste any goodwill on the part of casting directors, producers, or any other gatekeeper because of unpreparedness on your part. It takes a lifetime to build a reputation and a minute to shred it.

3. Earn (vs buy) market share

From product samples at Trader Joe’s to early-bird pricing on software, when you’re launching a start-up—or any new business—you often have to give away a few things for free to get prospective customers to give you a whirl. It’s both accepted and expected. But a business that basically keeps buying customer loyalty is doomed to fail, and via a long, slow race to the bottom.

As an actor, you may need to work for free when you’re getting started, doing student or friends’ projects, to gain experience and build a reel. Once you have some experience and footage under your belt, though, unless you get selective about choosing only those projects that are going to grow you as an actor, you’re quite likely to find yourself growing bitter instead.

The same goes for paid gigs, once you move into that realm. To establish yourself with new producers or a casting director, it can be a good idea to agree to a free table read, or to take a co-star when you’re chiefly booking guest stars.

However, what works for early-stage startup will destroy the health of a growth-phase startup or mature business. Once you have gained a foothold, it becomes crucial to understand what you are worth, and not give away the store, so to speak.

Here’s where you earn “market share” by being the best at what you do, which not only means having skills honed and ready at all times, but by being the most on-time, the hardest-working, the easiest to get along with, and so forth. I can pick up a customer or two with a loss leader, but to keep them coming back, I need to provide the actor’s version of five-star customer service, all the time.

Is any business plan foolproof? Of course now. Even with a well-conceived plan that you are willing and able to change as needed on the fly, there are so many things outside of our control as artists. Nothing, especially acting, comes with an iron-clad guarantee.

But to steal an old business adage, failing to plan is planning to fail. Take the time to prepare as best you can. It will increase your chances of success, and guarantee that however things turn out, you will own the lessons learned by doing.


BOOK(s) OF THE MONTH: I’m a latecomer to the lyrical, clever, and oh-so-absorbing fiction of Amor Towles, but on a recent trip home to Chicago, I made up for lost time. I started with Rules of Civility,his debut novel about class-conscious social climbing in Depression-era New York City, and immediately jumped into A Gentleman in Moscow, his sophomore novel that follows the exploits of a Russian noble confined to house arrest in a glamorous Moscow hotel in the early years of the Soviet ascension. Both are rip-roaring reads filled with great character studies revealed through detail, dialogue and action. Highly recommended!

Colleen Wainwright is a writerspeaker-layabout who started calling herself “The Communicatrix” when she hit three hyphens. She spent a decade writing commercials and another decade acting in them for cash money. Now she uses her powers for good instead of evil by helping creatives learn how to strut their stuff in a way that makes the world fall madly in love with them.

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