Making Money Doing Improv Or Whatever Else You Love: The December Newsletter from Merlin Works

I make a living running an improv comedy business. I’m extremely lucky to have such a cool job and I get it–there’s no “For Hire: Charming Comedian, Competitive Salary” on Monster.com. In this season of gratitude I’m grateful I have a really cool job. Here’s what I love about my work:

  • I get to do what I’m passionate about
  • I choose who I work with and spend time with.
  • I get to pay talented artist to practice their craft.
  • I help people pursue their goals.
  • I get a lot of positive feedback from students, audiences, and peers letting me know I’m doing a good job.
  • I make my own schedule and am my own boss.
  • I would probably do a lot of this stuff for free–but I get paid for it.
  • I have a sense of mastery over my craft that gives me great satisfaction.

Here’s what’s not so great:

  • It’s not dependable: I stop hustling (or start having babies,) work stops coming in.
  • The buck stops here: A teacher is sick? Someone needs to unlock the classrooms? A difficult student enrolls? Guess who has to step in and take care of business?
  • The hours often eliminate a normal social life and can be a challenge for family life.
  • Work is work. It’s hard to peel myself off the couch and get to work, like anyone else. It also diminishes some of the joy I would get if improv was purely an artform for me and not a career.

Still, the good outweighs the bad and every month or so I get contacted by someone who’s looking buy me a cup of coffee and talk to me about how I got in to the business and how they might too. So I want to share what I’ve learned on my way to full time employment through improv comedy so far (accompanied by the visual evolution of Merlin Works graphics.) I thought I’d save you the cup of coffee and give you my tips for how to get in to the improv business, or whatever passion business you want to be in.

Look off the list. “Improv teacher” is not on the career list. Neither is food blogger or running zip-line tours. I didn’t come up with it after taking a job aptitude test or looking at the list of college majors. And trust me, if I could have majored in improv in college, I would have in a heartbeat. A lot of the coolest jobs aren’t on any list. So explore far and wide. For every cool thing to do, there is someone who gets paid to teach it.

Think about what you want your day to be like, not what you want your career to be. I always think of those poor people working at veterinary clinics. They love animals and spend their days applying medical treatments that the animals basically think is torture. It’s not what they had in mind when they said they wanted to help animals. Since I loved improv comedy, at first my dream job was running a theater. But I found out running a theater is a lot of administrative work, dealing with high-drama people on the most stressful month of their year, manual labor, late nights, being on call, and low pay. And it made my favorite thing–performing improv–a lot less fun.  Needless to say, it was a dream come true–in the worst possible sense. But I did love teaching the classes and directing and performing in the shows at The Hideout, where I started. So when I launched my business, I made that the focus. I still have to do things I don’t like in my business: accounting, admin, marketing, etc. But most of my time is spent teaching and designing curriculum.

Don’t pay your dues. I don’t believe that spending time doing something you don’t like will lead to doing something you do. Doing the things you love will lead you to more things you love. I did improv for 5 years without any expectation of ever getting paid for it. It was just how I wanted to spend my time. And I wanted to volunteer, or house manage or do lights because I wanted to be around the theater, my friends, and the thing I loved. I wasn’t counting the hours as a means to getting anywhere.

Beg, trade, and barter.  I have bartered for so many things: logo design, web design, poster design, t-shirt design (you see a trend here–I can’t design to save my ass!) When I can barter, I do. I’ve also bartered for acupuncture, a hill country babymoon, electrical work in my home, video production and more.

Don’t quit your day job. It takes a long time to get your dream career going. It took me about five years. In the mean time, you gotta eat. So start your passion career on the side and keep growing it until you can cut back your main gig. In 2003 when I opened my business, I was also a personal assistant, after school teacher, and children’s performer. I slowly built my adult improv classes and dropped my less-cool, or less-paying jobs one by one until 2008, I was only doing improv.

Get a sugar daddy. I’m not gonna lie. I’ve had some big advantages that have enabled me to become an entrepreneur. (This year’s internet seems to be all about acknowledging your privilege, so I’m taking the hint.) My parents were extremely hard working and generous and I graduated college without debt. I married a guy with a solid career in computer science and a great house. These things helped me ride out the bumps in my career (and family planning) and get to a place where my creative business was really providing a steady income.

Be ready. Have the website.  Have the logo (my first logo, by Mike Daroos, is on the left.) Have the business cards. Have the proposals and collateral. That way when opportunity strikes, you are ready to see it and capitalize on it. This is my version of The Secret: where focusing on something draws it to you. I don’t think you can control the universe, but focusing on your goals will help you recognize opportunities when they present themselves (they are often in disguise) and take advantage of them quickly.

Fake it till you make it. I felt like I had a pretend business for 3-5 years. It didn’t seem real and I felt like a phony playing a part. But eventually, after a long while, I felt legit and could relax feeling confident in my business and abilities. Turns out, this is actually pretty normal.

Say Yes. (Duh. Did you think I was gonna skip that?) Say yes to stuff, even if it doesn’t seem exactly in your wheelhouse or what you want. or something you are sure you can do.  You never know.

Grow lean. I put down exactly $35 dollars to start my business. I bought the domain name www.merlin-works.com. (I wasn’t sure at the time exactly what my business would be, so I intentionally left the name vague.) I created my first website in notepad typing html long hand. I got free business cards from Vistaprint, (with my free logo from my friend Mike, see above.) I rented space by the hour (and I still do). I didn’t have any big financial investment that wasn’t preceeded by a client commissioning me to do something. I developed curirrculum and programs on-demand. That way I didn’t lose money at the start and have to fold. The only thing I spent money on was training, but I would have done that whether I was going to have a career in improv or not. (see Don’t pay your dues, above.)

Accept help. One of the awesome things about having an awesome job is that people with boring jobs sometimes want to help you because it’s fun for them. Some of the best business consulting I have received came this way and I’m extremely grateful. It hasn’t always panned out, but when it has, it’s been fantastic. (For example, Albert Im designed this post card for me.)

Don’t fool yourself into thinking your extremely thorough research is forward action. This is the advice I would give myself from ten years ago. I was stuck in research mode, not really getting my business started. It was actually a stalling tactic that made me feellike I was working without risking anything or making any money. I needed to learn by doing and testing things out in the market place. It’s okay to put something out there half finished (or not perfect) and fix it up as you go. You’ll have better information about what people want when you start with your customers instead of yourself.

Outsource. As much as you can stick to your core competencies and get someone else to do the rest, whether it is an actual person, a service, or a company.

Study marketing, if you have a chance. Whatever you do, especially if you are creative, you will need to market it. Even if it is just trying to get a job and marketing yourself to your future employers. Most of my on-the-job learning has been in marketing.

Be fun to play with. It’s the first lesson of day 1 Improv 101: Be cool, man. If you are easy and fun to work with, people will want to have you around when the getting is good. My friend Tyler Bryce, Austin Improv Veteran, says this is his advice. Do good improv and have good friends who do good improv, and eventually the gigs will come. And being fun solely onstage is not enough. You need to be easy to communicate with, a strong performer, available, and leave the drama on the stage. Make it easy for people to hire you.

Okay, that’s my advice so far. Mostly stuff I had to learn the hard way. When you become a famous chef buy me dinner at your restaurant, okay?

Shana Merlin
Founder, Merlin Works

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About Shana Merlin

Merlin Works is the brainchild of Shana Merlin: improviser, teacher, and performer. Since 1996, she’s been leading classes that stretch people’s imaginations, push them out of their comfort zones, and make them laugh out loud for hours at a time.
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