RB (Richard Botto) of Stage 32 and Michele Meek of NewEnglandFilm discuss monetizing your online brand as an entrepreneur/creative.
In Part 1 of this interview, RB talks about his business Stage 32, a social networking and education platform for filmmakers, producers, writers, and other creatives, and his recent book Crowdsourcing for Filmmakers: Indie Film and the Power of the Crowd.
Here, we swap the interviewer and interviewee, and RB interviews Michele Meek about her business NewEnglandFilm.com, an online magazine, industry directory, jobs board, and film festival. In this candid exchange, RB and Meek discuss developing your competitive advantage, creating an online persona and brand, and monetizing your business as an entrepreneur/creative.
Michele Meek: We just had NewEnglandFilm’s 20th anniversary party and panel, and that was super fun, very validating.
Richard Botto: So, twenty years, I mean unbelievable. Congratulations—and you use the word “validating.” Did it take twenty years for you to feel this validation or was it something that you’d been feeling along the way?
MM: Well, I’m going to be totally honest because as you know that’s the only way I know how to operate.
RB: Way to be.
Meek: I started NewEnglandFilm out of a need for myself and for others twenty years ago not knowing where to find other people in the community. My background was in print, and so I thought I’d start a print magazine. But at the time, I didn’t have the advertisers to do that, so I started it as a website thinking I would eventually turn into a print magazine. And then, of course, I realized that was a moot point, that it actually made more sense online.
NewEnglandFilm has in some ways been so remarkably successful—people really love it. And our 20th anniversary event was one of those moments where we created this great panel discussion. People were writing me afterwards and coming up to me and saying it was the most honest and useful panel discussion they’ve seen.
And yet I have always personally struggled with how to monetize things. I have these great ideas, and I’m able to go from the idea phase to actually launching something useful and tangible—not everyone can do that. But then I’m sort of looking around. I don’t know what to do next. So, maybe it was the 20-year thing, but I suddenly realized wow, to have run a business for 20 years is remarkable.
But to have run a business for 20 years and eeked out as little as we have is also pathetic. And, you know, to some extent I feel like it’s time for me as an entrepreneur to think about whether this turns into something bigger, or do I use it to start something else? I mean, I really am facing that kind of critical moment of like wait, this is great and people love it, but, you know, I need to make a living.
RB: God, I love everything about that answer. I love the honesty. I so get it. Now, let me ask you. Do you have ideas for monetization or things that you think your community would like? And if you do, do you think they would be best served as an extension of NewEnglandFilm, like a premium model that has this particular product or this particular idea within, or to have an offshoot and say, I’m going to launch this offshoot, so come check it out.
Because here’s the thing, you really for 20 years crowdsourced a community of people who, I’m sure a million different times in a million different ways, thought, Michele runs this thing, she’s an unbelievable person, she’s doing such altruistic things. So, if you said hey, this is what I’m going to go do now, I hope you’ll follow me and I hope you’ll go spread the word, they would go do it. So, the question becomes, do you have the idea of how to monetize it?
MM: So, maybe this is true of all entrepreneurs, I’m not sure, but I like to do a lot of things, and I like to do a lot of things at the same time, which is a good and a bad thing. I like creating content, books, and articles. And I love teaching. So far, I’ve kept that separate from NewEnglandFilm, and I lately have wondered, does it make sense for NewEnglandFilm to launch an online workshop site? But there are organizations like Stage 32 and Creative Live doing online education, and I don’t want reinvent the wheel.
One thing I worry about with the NewEnglandFilm community in general is whether it’s just too small of a community for it ever to be a really big enterprise, you know? I mean for years people have emailed us and said, I’m moving to Florida, Arkansas, even New York—is there something like NewEnglandFilm.com there?
So, I think there has always been a need that’s wider than NewEnglandFilm, and yet there is something useful in it being really local because, as you know, some of this work is virtual and national but at the same time, you’re in your local community. And when you say I’m making a film in Boston, and I need a DP—what I need is a DP that’s here. I don’t need to fly out a DP from LA, you know.
RB: Where do you want to see New England Film go, what’s the ultimate goal for you?
MM: The thing that I keep coming back to for me, personally, is that I get energy from being able to help people get to the next level. And when people say to me, I found my job on NewEnglandFilm or I found my partner or, that panel gave me useful insight for years to come, things like that are what make me feel like I’ve done something worth doing. And so, it’s about impact for me, I want to have a positive impact on people’s lives. And not just in terms of money, but in terms of happiness.
RB: Ok, if I go to the NewEnglandFilm community and ask what’s Michele’s brand—what would they say?
Meek: NewEnglandFilm or me as a person?
RB: No, you, as a person. Or you as the head of it.
Meek: Well, I think that people know me as someone who’s very honest and earnest. I always put integrity first, for better or for worse. I will always ask the hard question to myself or someone else, and I’m not going to shy away from something that’s difficult. And I also don’t make compromises. And I think that that’s one of the reasons why maybe it’s been harder for me because I’m competing in a world where people will make any kind of compromise. And what I mean by that is, NewEnglandFilm.com doesn’t do sponsored posts, we don’t do advertorial.
And I think that the other thing I’m associated with is supporting women in film, because that has been really important to me.
RB: And if you were going to do an online class or webinar tomorrow, what would be the first one that you would want to do that you think your audience would connect to or would want?
MM: Well, this event that we did Stepping Up Your Film Career was a topic that resonated with our audience. Because it wasn’t just if you were a newbie and you want to know how to break into the business. It’s really all of us, including myself, who are trying to figure out how to take it to the next level. And, you know, we sold out the event and then we had over 150 people on the waiting list.
And I think that people in general are interested in success stories and the keys to a success story so it can be replicated. And I think people want to get an honest look at the state of the business today. I have students who want to write feature scripts, for instance, and yet there are a lot of people moving to television because there’s more potential there. It’s the question of are you creating a project that’s really something that’s marketable?
RB: I think you’re 100 percent right. I do think it’s that you’re trusted. I mean, I talked to you for five minutes, and I knew who you were. You’re exactly who you put out there. You’re very honest, very real and direct, which is great. My feeling is that’s your brand—you’re a trusted voice. You sold out this 20-year anniversary event. Why did it sell out? It’s not just the topic. It’s because you’re running it, because they trust you to run it and they trust that they’re going to come down there and it’s going to be worth their time.
So, my thought would be why not try one online course? Why not film something that’s an hour and half, or maybe an hour. Charge $29 for it, and put it on your personal website. I wouldn’t put it on NewEnglandFilm. Market it, of course, on NewEnglandFilm, but I would say, hey guys, after over 20 years of doing this, I’ve gotten to know many of you and to hear the struggles and the things that concern you and the things that matter to you. I’ve decided to start filming some educational classes that will be pertinent and timely. And I’m going to house them on my site because I’m trying to promote my brand as someone who cares and somebody who gives. And people will respond to that.
And what you could say is even if you don’t purchase it, please spread the word. I think you’re going to be shocked by the response. And really, what is it going to cost you to try it, right? Nobody’s going to know whether it works or it doesn’t work, you know what I mean. I mean obviously if it works, you’re going to do more.
MM: You know, it’s so funny to me to when you suggest using my personal site. I’ve been doing the online stuff for so long, I’ve seen the full circle. When I started in 1997, it was a very personal thing, like I’m Michele, reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. And then we reached a phase where you were supposed to hide people behind the scenes to look like a bigger enterprise than you actually are, because you can look huge on the Internet and nobody knows that it’s just like a couple of people working out of their apartments, you know? And now we’re back to the point where, like you’re talking about with Stage 32 and how you greet every single person who comes to the site. I even noticed in your video on the homepage about Stage 32 you’re the voice in it, am I right?
MM: …and it’s about you, your profile is pictured in there. Your personalized entity and the brand are tied together.
RB: It’s a balance, let me tell you, and this is where I feel like you could really excel. Hear me on this part, because there’s no bigger truism than what I’m about to say. I don’t like letting people into every friggin moment of my life. But, I have this brand, and I’ve got to keep building this brand. So, for example, I never used to do like things like Instagram stories and stuff like that. Do I see the value of it? Absolutely.
I’ve had people in my circle who run businesses outside of film that, and have very big social followings they’ll say you can give them insights without giving them access. So, for example, I love to cook, right. And people like will come over and they’ll be like fuck dude, you’re cooking this gorgeous looking meal, let’s take a couple of pictures—you don’t have to take pictures of who you’re eating with, you don’t have to take pictures of your home. Take a picture of the plate.
And I’ll tell you what, I started doing stuff like that and the response to it has been overwhelming. Because you’re making yourself human to a large group of people. You’re not just a guy that’s sitting there all day doing Stage 32, Stage 32, Stage 32. And all of a sudden that serves double duty in a lot of ways. What it does one is it shows that I’m out there. I’m on the hustle, and I’m on the grind which is what I preach every day.
I totally appreciate when you said, I want to monetize it, because I get it. You know, there’s two ways to do it in my opinion. The first way is to figure out either one or two or three premium models for what you’ve already established. But, you might alienate some long-time people. Or, you go extend your brand. And I guarantee it’ll have the same effect when you go to those same people and say hey look this is what I’m doing over here. They’re going to go fuck, yeah, I’m all in on that. What you do is the same thing like I did with that list of a hundred. Make a list of 20 of your closest advocates and say hey, I’m about to go do this and put this thing up. When I launch this will you please go out on there on my behalf and talk about how great it is? And they will.
MM: I think that sometimes people don’t realize how much work it is to be an entrepreneur.
RB: They just, they don’t.
MM: I remember one time mentoring someone in an informational interview, and he was saying, I want to start a business, but I don’t want to do this part or that part. He basically only wanted to do the fun part. And I said to him, I wish you the best of luck, but my experience hasn’t been that I get to choose which aspect of being an entrepreneur that I do. I’ve learned how to do accounting. I don’t have any interest in accounting. I’ve learned how to do sales. I don’t want to do ad sales; I never have. So it’s all these things that I didn’t realize that I was going to have to build skills in. But I have, you do, especially when you’re starting something from the ground up.
RB: So, true. I mean, people don’t realize not only do you end up learning things that you never thought you were going to have to learn in your lifetime, you end up doing them for a long time, and you end up becoming experts in them even though you hate them. And those are the first things you can’t wait to pass off.
MM: I think most people just kind of give up because they didn’t realize it was going to be so hard. And I mean if you talk to anyone who’s successful—almost everybody has to make their own way to some extent.
RB: We started at the beginning of this conversation talking about if you’re a creative, then you’re an entrepreneur. It’s your work, it’s your brand, it’s your everything. Okay, well if you’re an artist or if you’re a creative in this business this is abso-freakin-lutely a business of no. You’re going to hear no all the time.
And I think a lot of people get paralyzed by the negativity or get paralyzed by a lack of response. And, as you said, even if it’s a micro failure or if it’s a failure on a great stage, there’s that feeling of oh my god it’s just not going to work. It just might be…look it’s information, use it.
MM: I think it’s really interesting to think of all creatives as entrepreneurs, which is really very true. What does it take to make it, you know? It’s about commitment; it’s about persistence.
RB: I think it’s a full commitment, I think it’s about investing in yourself. Networking and relationship-building needs to be half of your job. And the key word is “job,” because I treat it like a job. I make sure I spend about an hour a day networking even if I have to get up early or if my schedule’s so jammed, I’ll spend two hours on the weekend trying to identify people I want to connect with or building relationships I already have and asking people how they’ve been and what’s going on with their families, what’s going on with their projects, things like that.
But then the second thing I did early on was invest in myself. Remember when I was talking about when I went back to writing? I decided, I’m going to write my ass off, I’m going to work on that constantly and every day. And then I’m going to start making relationships. And I’m going to save money. What I’m going to do is I’m not going to go out with my friends and spend $30-40. Instead, that’s $30-40, I’m setting aside to my screenwriting fund, or whatever I want to call it. I was going to go to dinner tonight, nope that money goes here. I get Starbucks every day, it’s 5 bucks a day, nope that’s 150 bucks a month, that goes over here.
And what I did was, I took all that extra money that I was spending and I put it into a little fund. And then that fund was used to get quality feedback on my writing, enter contests that gave me access if I won—contests that got me to decision makers, people who can move the needle— and to take courses that I knew were being taught by people that are qualified to teach.
MM: I think that’s another clue to success as an entrepreneur/creative because relationship-building happens because you follow through. It’s not just that you follow through by emailing people and saying, hey, how are things going. You have to follow through when someone wants you to do something, when you promise to deliver something. I mean, you’ve got to show up and actually get things done. Otherwise, you quickly lose those relationships, right? I mean you squander it.
RB: It’s so true because people will ask me all the time, and say, I’m trying to get traction on social media, I’m trying to get traction on Stage 32, and I’m just not getting people to respond to me. I’ll go and look at their accounts and everything is look at me, look at me, look at me.
I say in my book that when you sign up for social media, you’re basically being handed a microphone. So, there are some people who that take that microphone just start shouting into it. They just start saying, look at me, look at me, look at me, look at my project, look at my stuff, look at what a genius I am.
But the smart people will say, how are you? What are you working on? Or ask someone a question about their project, why did you decide to do that, why’d you make these choices? So, you know, in short that is coming from a place of selflessness.
And, you know, we just talked about this idea of how do I get a competitive advantage. Well the way that you get a competitive advantage in creating an online persona and an online brand is if you start out by coming from a place of selflessness and by asking questions of other people, sharing great content, bringing value.
MM: In light of what you’re saying, it makes me especially glad that we decided to go for this two-way interview.
It’s a lesson that I learned really early on too. When I started NewEnglandFilm, I was trying to understand the film industry and figure out how to make contact with people. Well, it turns out, if you are a journalist or you’re running a publication like NewEnglandFilm, all of a sudden, I had something to offer. I wasn’t contacting filmmakers and saying hey, can you tell me what you do, so I can benefit from that knowledge? Instead, I was saying, I’d like to learn what you do and share it with other people so you get promotion. And it became more of give and take.