Talks with Creative Entrepreneurs #1
Here's the first of what will be many discussions with colleagues, friends and other people working in and around the arts as creative entrepreneurs. Tweet us @ErggoUs to tell us about other CEs who interest you. I'll reach out to them and see if they'll sit still for a portrait!
Charles de Montebello is the owner of CDM Studios in the Film Center Building in Midtown West in Manhattan. We've been friends and worked together for about 20 years and collaborated on hundreds of projects together, including two Grammy Award-winning audiobooks with Jon Stewart. Earlier this year Charles started a new project, Portable Stories Series. It's partly about writing, partly about audio, partly about philanthropy. I button-holed CDM to get his thoughts on starting a new venture.
So running a recording studio wasn't enough? What got you thinking about this new project, Portable Story Series?
A couple of years ago I was redesigning our website and digging into our social media. I was trying to think of ways to expand the engagement of my business without having to physically expand. I had also been restless to find a way to do something for organizations I admired. I would walk by billboards on the sides of bus stops and think, "Isn't there a way to give back using the resources at my disposal? I have a studio. I encounter incredible talent every day, and there are internet platforms that already exist for connecting people.” That's when I thought of a monthly short story contest. It would be cool to get a celebrity narrator to perform the winning story. And then I made the connection: Writers. Recorded stories. Charities. Boom! That’s Portable Story Series. Easy, right? Well, no. Not really.
Let's step back a bit. What is Portable Story Series? (And for the sake of time, let’s call it PSS.)
Short version: It’s a contest for short-story writers that benefits charities and non-profits. For a small application fee, writers submit work on a theme. The winning work is awarded a cash prize. We record the story with a celebrity narrator and offer the audio as a free download on our site. And here’s the give-back angle: Alongside each contest-winning story, we feature three charities or non-profits. Download the story, and if you’d like, make a donation to a cause. So it’s a platform for writers, for listeners, and for worthwhile causes.
There are a lot of contests out there. Why is PSS different?
Ours is unique in this way: You can’t read the winning story; you have to listen to it. And that Portable Story is a collaborative effort. Writer, actor, engineer, editor--and finally the listener. Everyone participates in the creative process.
What was the biggest hurdle in getting started?
The biggest hurdle was distilling the idea into something manageable. And that starts with aligning all the interests. Writers want to write. Actors want to perform. Listeners want to hear a well-written story narrated compellingly--and all the better if their enjoyment can serve to help people. If I could keep that clear, the rest would be easy. Or easy-ish.
Then there’s the platform itself: The website has a lot of moving parts. Some disappear for a while, then come back, and some sections need up to four versions. There are moments when we have to announce the contest theme, when we open submissions, when they close. Then what do you do with the pages devoted to the previous contest? Archive it, and create a new page for the present one. This month you have three featured organizations, next month three others. You get the picture.
And that’s just the website. Running the short story writing contest itself. Soliciting the charities and non-profits. Reaching out to busy celebrities and authors. And I thought this would be a "side project"!
So how are you managing?
Well, we’re getting it done. The biggest challenge for us is creating a listenership. (Did I just make up that word?). The organizations we work with benefit from people downloading, donating, and listening. So, we need to find a way to reach that audience. Finding writers, judges, and narrators has been relatively easy. Finding people who want to download an mp3 and load it onto their phone or ipod is harder. We can’t just put the stories on iTunes, which I considered doing, because we’d lose the ability to draw people to our site where they can give back in exchange for listening to the stories. That’s the big challenge that we’ve yet to crack. But I’m working on it.
At what point did you understand what your project really was?
The day I launched. Or maybe even a few weeks later, when stories started coming in.
That’s when I saw that people were noticing us, actually spending their time to contribute stories. It moved me. Here were these people sharing their work with me, and here I was selecting one of these stories and facilitating a collaboration between the storyteller and a talented actor. With PSS as the vehicle, these two artists would create something new together. I realized that my concept would actually put new works out into the world.
What's the most surprising challenge in the whole undertaking?
Social media. I've relied on my colleague Erin Williams, who's just great with it. It requires constant research, constant upkeep. It's also remarkably frustrating at times. You have this expectation that if you can only get your post shared by someone with a lot of followers, you'll suddenly get a lot of followers, which just isn't the case. It's more of a trickle of interest than a tsunami. You have to be really patient.
Was there a moment before you launched in which you said to yourself, "Hell with this! Too much. I'm pulling the plug"?
Not really. I'm stubborn when I get an idea in my head. After almost three years of planning, web designing, and questioning, I got so impatient that I picked a date. I said, "We launch on X day. Period." I was panicked that waiting any longer would jeopardize the whole thing. I'm glad we flipped the switch, but we could have used three more weeks to really do it right. Set up press releases, create mailing lists, and capitalize on momentum properly. No time's perfect.
In the end, what made you persist in moving forward?
I'd invested too much time, money and energy not to see it through.
A lot of people feel exposed when they launch. Did you feel this way with PSS?
It’s weird but there’s almost a sense of post-partem loss. You build up so much expectation around the launch that there’s no way to make all your wishes jibe with the reality of the moment. It’s one moment in a string of others. It’s not the fulfillment of a fantasy. But I would never take it back. I’m proud of what we have thus far.
Biggest takeaway you'd want to share with the creative entrepreneurs out there?
Spend all the time you need to really understand what you're trying to do. It sounds silly, but you really need to know what's motivating you, who your target audience is, and what all the parts of the project are. Then you can start to build your website and your brand. I'm too often an "I have to see it to know if it's right" kind of person. That wastes time and resources.
But how can you plan so thoroughly when you don't know what you're creating?
You have to enlist people to help you focus on your end-goal, people who know how to zero-in on what you’re doing and why. I had to do that with my CDM Studios website. The woman who created it for me, Kat Tepelyan, works on this very thing. And, for me, it was tough. She gave me homework before she would even work with me. She had me cutting pictures out of magazines, finding and writing essays, looking deep into what I wanted to achieve. Only when I’d done all this would she begin working on the site. The result is beautiful. It reflects what I want my business to be - something personal, inspiring, crisp and client-focused.
Visit Portable Stories Series at www.portablestoryseries.com. Listen and give back!