How I Started A Successful Podcast Production Company
Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hey there! I’m Jeremy Enns, the founder and Storyteller In Chief at Counterweight Creative, a podcast production and strategy agency.
We specialize in simplifying the process of producing a podcast for busy companies, entrepreneurs, and thought leaders, working closely to guide and assist them during the launch and setup phase, and then taking on the bulk of the production work once the show is live.
I started the company 3 years ago, in 2016 with one client, making $15/hour and have grown into a team of 10 contractors producing more than 30 shows per week with revenue of over $10K/mo.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I went to school for audio engineering, initially wanting to produce records for bands and artists. After graduating in 2012, I interned at a big studio in my hometown of Vancouver, and while I learned a lot, I quickly realized that I didn’t have the drive (or financial ability) to show up at the studio at 8am and work (for free) until 4am six or seven days a week for a year or more before moving up into a position that might pay $10/hr and actually start getting paid to work on music.
I went home that night, started a profile on UpWork, got my first client three days later, and within six months had quit my landscaping job and was working for myself full time as a podcast producer.
After interning just a couple of days per week for over a year, while also working full-time at a retail job, I quit the internship and put my dreams of working in the music industry behind me. I worked a number of manual labour jobs including landscape construction and maintenance, tree planting in northern Canada, and others before taking a year off to travel, bicycling across Europe, and backpacking through the Balkans, and Asia.
When I came home in the fall of 2015, I went back to a landscaping job making $15/hr and soon after discovered podcasts as a way to make use of the hours spent at work, diving into shows like Smart Passive Income by Pat Flynn among many others as I dove into learning about the world of online business.
After a few months of learning and beginning to experiment with a few half baked business ideas, a friend of mine with a well-known podcast made an off-hand comment about his podcast editor and a switch clicked in my mind. I had spent the past six months or so listening to 50+ hours of podcast content per week, and with my background in audio engineering I had more than the necessary technical knowledge to produce high quality podcasts for others.
I went home that night, started a profile on UpWork, got my first client three days later, and within six months had quit my landscaping job and was working for myself full time as a podcast producer.
Take us through the process of producing your first podcast and launching the business.
When I first started, I catered my services heavily to my client’s needs and what they were asking for. While this was a great way to get clients early on, I soon realized that by creating set production and launch packages, I could charge more, and do more to ensure the success of the podcasters I worked with, as there were often crucial steps that they were overlooking when producing and launching their shows on their own.
Most of the people we work with have zero experience working with audio, and many have limited experience with online marketing and content production of any sort. One of the ways we’ve been able to justify raising rates while also helping our clients get better results has been by incorporating a lot of education into our onboarding processes.
When it comes to getting started, I’m a big believer in moving slowly but intentionally. One of the most common mistakes I see is people quitting their stable jobs and going all-in on an idea that they’re excited about but is unproven.
Many clients come to us thinking all they need is the post production aspect of what we do. The problem is that without understanding how to capture great sounding audio at the source, conduct engaging interviews, structure their overall content plans, and introduce their listeners into a funnel, they’re not going to get the results they really want from the podcast. Expanding my initial services into this educational side of things was a big turning point early on that established me in many client’s eyes as a podcast expert rather than simply an audio editor.
I also shifted from a per-episode billing model to a monthly “subscription” (of sorts) model. In the early days, I was charging as little as $30/ep, which often would take me 2+ hours to complete. Since I had a full-time job at the time and wasn’t chasing every single client however, I was fairly aggressive with my rate raises, upping my prices by $5/ep with every new client I got.
The monthly subscription helped keep my clients accountable to getting me and my team the materials we need to produce their shows on time, keeps them consistently putting out episodes which helps them grow their shows, and allows us to reliably predict our monthly revenues and expenses. But there were issues with how I initially set those monthly fees.
After switching to the package pricing 6-12 months into the business, I was making a better hourly rate, but I was still shooting in the dark when it came to how I had set my prices. I made rough calculations based on how long I figured the tasks included in the packages would take me, but had nothing to really back them up.
It wasn’t until 2 years in that I read a book called Profit First and really understood how I should be approaching pricing. To that point, I had a ton of overhead that I wasn’t accounting for when I was determining my pricing structure.
I had been in decent shape when it was just me, but as I started adding members to my team and outsourcing a lot of the work I had personally been doing, I realized that my current pricing was unsustainable as I transitioned from freelancer to agency.
I started tracking my expenses in much greater depth and basing all pricing by shooting for a minimum 40% profit margin over my costs - which included the costs associated with my own time spent working on any project. Setting prices this way rather than going with my gut has sped up the proposal process, reduced my own stress, and allows me to be confident that we’re profitable on every project we take on.
When it came to start up costs, there were almost zero. I already had the business registered and a website set up for my music production business which I then re-focussed on podcast clients. I owned all the software I needed, and did zero advertising, relying on free platforms like UpWork at the start and word of mouth as we grew.
I didn’t have an official launch for the business, initially applying for freelance job postings and doing cold outreach to potential clients, which grew into a referral-driven business.
For the first year I had almost zero online presence, just a simple one-page website outlining the brand story and the services I offered.
One of the things I had learned during my cold outreach and freelance marketplace application phase was that personality was incredibly important, and that clients would pay a premium to work with people they felt like they connected with on a personal level. So with that in mind, I injected as much personality into my website copy as possible, making jokes, and writing in a style that would appeal to the type of people that I actually wanted to work with.
For a while, I opened all cold outreach emails with something along the lines of:
“Ok, so here’s the deal yo. My name is Jeremy and I guess you could say I’m a bit like a zombie, except instead of brains, I have an insatiable urge to devour audio and spit it out the other side all clean and spiffy! BTW audio is way tastier than brains, not that I know what brains taste like...”
Our personality driven copy on our website as well as on all our marketing channels does a good job of pre-screening people, so that often before we even talk over a video call with a potential client, we’re both feeling really good about the prospect of working together.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Since about the one year anniversary mark of the business, our client-base has grown almost entirely through referrals, of which we have a consistent stream. I attribute this to being picky about working only with clients who we absolutely know are a good fit for us, who know we’ll be able to get results for.
Like most freelancers and business owners, when starting out, there had been clients who I had misgivings about from the start, but decided to work with anyways. While I never had a truly horrible client who refused to pay or tried to scam me in some other way, there were definitely clients that caused more headaches and frustration than they were worth. The problem with a subscription service like ours is that there’s no natural end to the project, and difficult clients could end up being thorns in our side indefinitely.
After working with a few of these types of clients I knew I needed to do a better job filtering problem clients out before beginning to work with them. I examined the clients who caused us the fewest problems and who were the most fun to work with and started noting the attributes that made the relationship work.
Generally we had similar approaches to business, believed in having fun with what we did, surrounding ourselves with positive people, and believed that the work we did mattered to the world. Our prices at this point filtered out most people who were just taking their first steps into the world of online business, but nevertheless I made a point of only working with people who had experience running online businesses, creating content, and had the systems and support team to be consistent with the production schedule. Maybe most importantly of all, our clients are clear on why they’re doing their podcasts, what makes their shows unique, and who their audiences are.
On top of working with clients who are a good fit, I’m a big believer in the value of providing a high personal touch. That involves regular hand-written notes, individualized gifts to commemorate milestones and a very generous referral program of a free month at their current production package for every referral who signs up and sticks with us for 3 months.
To encourage referrals, we share the details with all new clients during the onboarding phase and make sure to remind them about the program as part of our bi-annual customer satisfaction surveys.
One of the results of being extremely selective about the people we take on as clients is that often, the people in their networks are also a really good fit for us as well. We have some clients who’ve referred so many clients to us that we haven’t billed them in more than 6 months, saving them thousands of dollars over that time.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
In the past 18 months we’ve grown from just me to a team of 13. In addition to myself, our team consists of six audio editors, four writers, and two admin people, all of whom are currently contractors scattered across Canada, The US, and The UK, who work remotely, although I’m guessing a couple of those may be converting into part-time positions within the coming year as we continue to expand both our client base and our team.
As with our clients, I’m incredibly picky with who joins the team. I’m a believer that skills can be taught, but culture fit can’t be, and as a result, my first concern when bringing anyone on is ensuring they’re a good fit for our team and our clients. Almost everyone on the team has been referred to me by existing team members or people in my network who are familiar with the work we do and our team’s culture.
I’m also a believer that my first responsibility is to my team, and then to our clients, and that a happy, cohesive team provides better results for our clients. I know a lot of similar agencies hire almost exclusively overseas as a way to reduce costs. While this is appealing financially, I’ve always had a gut feeling that in the long-run, there are intangible factors that come with building a cohesive team with a strong internal culture who are all based in the same geographic region as the bulk of our clients.
Financially, over the past year, we’ve tripled our revenue, and are looking to continue or exceed that rate of growth this year as we continue taking on new production and consulting clients.
Our profit margin is consistently between 30-40% across the services we offer, with an average customer value of $750/mo on an ongoing subscription basis.
The biggest focuses over the coming year are first and foremost to systematize the production side of things to a greater extent than they already are so I can remove myself from the day to day operations of production and work one-on-one as a consultant with high-level clients looking to start and grow podcasts.
Secondly, we’re looking to expand into digital products, packaging the knowledge and processes we use everyday with our clients to help beginner, indie, and hobby podcasters produce and grow their shows more efficiently and effectively.
We’re also really excited about The Podcast Power Pack, an annual bundle sale to help podcasters produce, promote, monetize and systematize their shows. The first Power Pack sale wrapped up in March and we’re looking forward to bringing together and offering a whole new suite of products for next year’s sale!
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
I’ve always been a big believer in the importance of continual learning and education, and starting this business has definitely reinforced that belief. At the same time, there came a point - for me about a year ago - where I realized I needed to tone down my content intake and instead focus on executing what I already knew I needed to do.
One of the other big lessons or takeaways from starting my business has been that I have the ability and perhaps even responsibility to be a leader in other aspects of my life, including my general community. So many of the skills that are crucial to starting and growing a business can be used to help improve the lives of everyone around us. Often all it takes is to take the lead and get the ball rolling on some initiative and others will take it and run with it from there. I’m looking forward to stepping into this role more frequently and with more intention in the coming years.
When it comes to challenges, one of the things that has been difficult but necessary for me has been taking full responsibility for products or client services that fell short of expectations, either my own, or my customers and clients. While in many cases there may be extenuating circumstances, in almost every case where things have failed to meet expectations, I’ve been able to look back and point to areas where I could’ve personally done more to improve the outcome of the project.
One of the biggest mistakes I made was taking my foot off the gas and simply coasting after things had been going really well through the first 18 months of the business. There was a stretch of time where I lost a couple of clients and realized that I was not in nearly as comfortable a position financially as I thought I had been.
While this was a stressful few months, it was a necessary lesson and forced me to re-examine everything about my business and marketing, and led to a more diversified set of services, and a stronger focus on improving my lead pipeline.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
The list of tools for the production agency side of things is fairly concise. We share files between our team as well as with our clients through Google Drive, communicate through Slack, and use Trello for project management, although we’re looking to move over to Teamwork in the near future for a better dashboard.
For online marketing we use ConvertKit and LeadPages regularly, and have our podcast community on Facebook. I’m also a big fan of Typeform for surveying clients, customers, our audience, team, and much more. I’m basically a survey nerd and would create them all day if I could...
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
I’m a big reader and podcast listener, so it’s hard to pick specifics, but I’ll give it a shot.
In terms of books, Profit First* was a book that really changed the way I approached the finances and profit margins of the business, including how I was billing clients. *Built To Sell was another book that, after reading, completely changed my mindset and approach to the way I was building my business and instilled a passion for systematizing everything that we do. Lastly, as a creative, both Big Magic* and *The War of Art were really influential books for me in terms of understanding what it takes to be successful as a creative in business.
When it comes to podcasts, I’ve listened to hundreds of different shows over the past few years, but some of my favourites, include Smart Passive Income* from Pat Flynn and *Akimbo* by Seth Godin. I’m someone who takes inspiration from a lot of places, and so while not specifically business related, I really enjoy *99% Invisible, Stuff You Should Know, and Revisionist History.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
When it comes to getting started, I’m a big believer in moving slowly but intentionally. I waited to quit my day job until I was making just as much from my freelance podcast production work as I was from my paycheck. One of the most common mistakes I see is people quitting their stable jobs and going all-in on an idea that they’re excited about but is unproven.
Without the pressure of needing to earn a paycheck from your new venture you’re able to build things the right way from the start, be picky about your timing, pricing and clients, plus you’ve got a steady source of income which you can invest into your growing business.
I also think it’s important to know what you want from your business from the start. For me, I knew I didn’t want to be doing the actual production work forever, and so I made a point of documenting the various aspects of what I was doing from the beginning so that it was easier to begin shifting those tasks off of myself when the time came, and could be sure that they would be done well.
I’ve seen a lot of people work themselves into businesses that they don’t actually like, simply because they didn’t start with a clear vision of how their business would fit into the broader context of their lives, and how they would fit into their businesses.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
We’re always looking to connect with audio editors who use Pro Tools and have worked on podcasts before, as well as writers for writing up show notes/blog posts for the shows to work as contractors.
We also may be looking for a dedicated Operations person in the near future. If you fall into one of these categories, we’d love to chat!
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Counterweight Creative has provided an update on their business!
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