What's up, everybody? This is Courtland from IndieHackers.com and you're listening to the IndieHackers podcast. On this show I talk to the founders of profitable Internet businesses and I try to get a sense of what it's like to be in their shoes.
How did they get to where they are today? How did they make decisions, both at their companies and in their personal lives? And what exactly makes their business is tick. Today I'm talking to Brian Jagger, one of the cofounders of a company called Casting Calls America.
Brian, you and I have gotten to meet face-to-face at various conferences a few times over the course of the last year, which is great because I've been able to see your business kind of evolve over time. And now I have the pleasure of having you on the podcast. So welcome to the show and thanks so much for joining me.
Thank you Courtland. It's an honor to be a guest on the show.
Tell us about Casting Calls America. What is it exactly? And how does it work?
So Casting Calls America is a software as a service business that connects casting directors and producers from regional areas to local actors that are looking for acting opportunities.
So basically if you're a casting director in Boston and you're looking to find an actor for your short film or your independent film or commercial etc, then you would post what you're looking for, as far as actors go, on our site.
Then the actors who are registered with our local Boston site would be able to get the notification that there is a role that they may be a match for based upon their age demographics etc. And they are able to then submit through our software to that project.
Cool, so you are like a marketplace connecting people making movies and doing casting with the actual actors looking for these roles.
Yeah, exactly. I realize now that we're a two-sided market place, though I didn't even know what that term was when we got started.
Yeah, give us an idea of some of the basics behind your company. When did you get started? How many employees do you have? How much money are you making etc?
Yeah, so we've been around just a little over four years. It was four years this past June and we started with one site. We do it a little bit different than other companies in our space and other companies in general that are SaaS.
We regionalize it so we don't actually operate one website. We operate 30-plus websites. So each market has its own site. So for example, I was referencing Boston. So we have Casting Calls Boston that Services the Boston market and we have Sacramento Casting which was our first site that services Sacramento and now we're like I said, over 30 sites throughout the country.
So four years ago we started Sacramento, after that we realized that a couple things one we weren't charging very much, we were only charging $5 per user at the time. We are at $7.95 now, but we were never going to make it even pay for itself doing one market but if we copied and pasted it, if you will, the service and the concept to other markets that were also looking for this type of service and we would be able to at least sustain the company. And so that's what we did.
So we started Sacramento and then shortly thereafter went into Portland in New Orleans and then Denver and Phoenix and now we're in 30-plus markets and will be in 44 by the end of this year. And now we have four full-time employees in addition to myself, I have two co-founders or partners that are working on it as well and we have two part-time people.
Whenever I talk to somebody who's building a tech business or a tech enabled business outside of the tech industry, I always want to know the story behind that. How did you break into the film industry and become familiar with its inner workings?
Yeah, so I actually have a background in marketing development and finance and also some political stuff and was doing kind of theater on the side for fun. Just like like a lot of people in community theater and I wrote a play and it did very well, it was an original and got nominated for best original and so I kind of got a little more into it.
Had some major medical issues about eight years ago that kind of caused me to re-do my life, if you will. One of the things I got more into it that time was into acting and so I started doing some some acting projects locally in Sacramento and one thing led to another as far as kind of meeting people on set. And I've coming from a marketing development background.
I was always a networker and so I met people who tell me about other opportunities and I started working, I got cast as a FBI agent on TV show called I Almost Got Away With It. Which filmed down in San Francisco and I was fortunate enough to meet some great people on that set and and I approached it a little differently. I came at it from a professional standpoint versus an actor standpoint. And got to know some of the people and they had a role shortly thereafter.
That was a much bigger role in a different episode of a different TV show by the same company. And they put me in that. So my second TV Show filming was as the primary bad guy in an episode of a TV show called I Faked My Own death. That aired on the Discovery Channel. So that went well and then I got to, just a few months after that I got cast in a production where I got to do a scene with Philip Seymour Hoffman, which was amazing and just kind of started building up and doing more and more acting.
Within a year I was working full-time as an actor and also the same time networking a lot. And my daughters, this is eight years ago so would have been about, my oldest was about 10 years old at the time. She really was excited about what I was doing and she wanted to start doing some acting stuff. So I learned very quickly about what it took to be a parent of a child actor because in California, there's a lot of rules and regulations.
And my daughter got cast on a episode of a show called Smosh, which is a web series on YouTube that has I don't know what they're up to now. I think like 25 26 million subscribers a very very popular web series. In fact, I think they were the first one to break a million subscribers on YouTube. And so as a parent I took her to the set and started talking with the director and he just happened to mention that he was looking for some people for the next episode.
I happened to know somebody that I thought would be perfect based upon my networking and meeting other people and other sets and I recommended them. They ended up getting cast and the director called me after that and said, hey I have another need for the next week's episode. Do you know anybody that meets this criteria? And I did and after about the third time he said why don't we just bring you on as our casting director?
So I came on to working with the Smosh team as their casting director and it was fantastic. I really enjoyed it. It was a great opportunity and I also did a little bit of set work with them as a second assistant director helping when I cast a lot of people but the challenge was and here's where the pain came in, is that I would get submissions.
I was casting a music video and I was getting all these submissions from people and they were sending me their headshots and resumes in emails. And they would send their resume and it would say, instead of Courtland Allen resume. It would say, my resume. Well now I've got to go in I got to change the name on it. I've got to change the image from image 479 to Courtland Allen headshot because I've got to then forward it onto the director for his final approval on the people that I bring in.
So it took me hours to do all this and it was one of those there's got to be a better way to do this moments. One of my best friend's happens to be a database engineer and this is where knowing people already in your life that work out well and I reached out to him.
His name is Brian Heath, an amazing engineer and said, hey, can you help me build something that will make my process of reviewing these submissions easier? So we started working on something and then shortly after about half way through the development. It was kind of, why don't we just make this available as a SaaS instead of just for me and that's what we did.
That's quite a journey Brian. From actor to casting director to entrepreneur. Did from the outset that you might want to someday start a business? When did you first even open yourself up to the idea of becoming an entrepreneur?
When I was eight. I've always been, way back. I've always been on the entrepreneur side as well. Literally I was I was joking with my kids the other day when I was a kid, maybe even younger than eight.
One of one playsets quote-unquote was like my office playset, where you got this package and it had like business cards that were like headlines that you would fill in and you'd write in your name and your phone number on them and it had letterhead that you would do the same thing for. That's how long ago I was interested in sitting at a desk and running my own business.
What was the first real business that you started was it Casting Calls America?
No, actually I had my own. I started my own little ad agency when I was 15 years old. I did stickers and promotional things for local businesses in my hometown.
I went and got my business license and everything from the from the county. That was not a long-term profitable venture but it was something that I kind of learned a little bit right out the gate. Then I had a retail business actually when I was 18 years old. I owned a small video store back when that was a thing, I’m dating myself a little bit.
Actually, I guess I was a little bit older I guess it was maybe 19. That was quite the adventure and learned a lot from that. It was right when things were changing from video to DVD. So it's not the best time to be in the video store world.
Obviously nobody was long for that world, but had that experience and then actually my two partners that I'm with now and I started a business, back in '06 that was also a software company. And that too was not long for this world
What happened there? And what did your company do?
So that was called eJobFairs and I still think it was a good concept. It was more of a timing and technology issue, really. I mean and Brian Keith was the engineer for that as well. We were a, way ahead of our time and b, we were at the wrong time.
So the concept for that was instead of a job fair being at a convention center or hotel or what have you on a Wednesday from 11 to 3. It would be on the website on a Wednesday from 11 to 3 for an area. So it wasn't just this free-for-all. It was very specific. So we would have very specific businesses that would log in and they would have virtual tables, virtual booths at this electronic job fair and they would have a queue and as a job seeker you would log in and you can see who was there and read the job descriptions that they had available.
And if you were interested you could click and start conversation and it would allow you to then be put in there queue and the recruiter from the company would be logged in. They would be able to see who is in there and they could go back and forth between the conversations and be able to interview people basically via chat all in real-time, all through the website, all during the specific times.
Our kind of unique difference was that for the recruiters unlike a traditional job fair where you have to sit behind booth and wait for somebody to come up to you. The recruiters were able to search through who was logged in and look at their resumes and they were able to initiate the conversations and that was our big differentiator for what we were doing.
All that sounds great except for two things 1, we were way ahead of ourselves with with the technology because there was no AWS there was no rampable cloud storage. We crashed, we had so many people having so many conversations. We had some big companies that were involved with us and working with us. The companies loved the concept and loved the idea, we had some technology issues because we couldn't keep up with our own volume.
Yeah. Well, it's pretty ambitious in 2006 to try to build some sort of live chat based system and scale that with only one developer.
Yeah, that was it. it was just, it was just Brian.
A lot to take on.
Yeah. Oh it was so much and I don't even realize how much it was. Thinking back I go, oh my gosh that was 12 years ago. And that was so ahead of the times on what was happening. I mean, he made it conceptually work. It was just we couldn't handle the volume.
It wasn't ready for it and we didn't know what to expect because it was all live login, so it wasn't as predictable as we had hoped. The other challenge is that it was 2006 and right when we were really getting it ready to go is when the crash hit and the last thing companies were spending money on was attending job fairs virtual or not, right?
So alongside your video store business, the second business in a row where the market just sucked and instead of a huge wave that's forming you're actually strapped to some plane that's crashing and burning and plummeting to the ground.
Yeah I still think that it's a viable concept and I wouldn't mind going back to it in the future. Thankfully we're doing some really great things with Casting Calls America to where we're growing and finding more opportunities than less because in the film production world, the barrier to entry is so much less now than it used to be and the opportunities and the need for production is more.
With there being more places for companies and individuals to put their productions on Facebook and watch the videos and YouTube and everything. There's just so much more opportunity on on all ends that I think we're now on the right wave.
Yeah, sounds like that's a much better place to be. Let me ask, how did you find your customers for this online job fair website because that's the part that most people struggle with.
A lot of people build things and then nobody shows up and yet you guys had so many people that your website couldn't withstand the traffic. Where did you find all these customers?
Yeah. So again, we were a two sided marketplace without knowing what that was at the time and with that it was pretty much cold outreach for the employers.
It was it was calling up companies and saying hey. Finding out who the recruiter was and saying, we have a job fair coming up but here's the unique difference you get to initiate the conversations. And that was very appealing to people, to the recruiters. They liked that concept and so we had, I'm trying to think back to some of the companies I remember.
CarMax was hiring, used this to hire for management positions. Wells Fargo used us. So we had some some good companies and for getting the job seekers and I wished this still existed but Google radio was our number-one source.
Google radio. What even is that?
Yeah, so Google actually had a a radio platform where you could buy excess radio time like you can AdWords and it was fantastic. You would tell it what market you want to be in and what your budget was and you would upload your 30-second commercial and they would basically just slide it in to different radio stations that had the excess time and it was extremely effective.
It was very easy to use and I don't know if it was because it wasn't profitable enough for Google but they they shut it down probably 2007, 2008. Shortly after we ceased operations that they they stopped doing Google radio, which was unfortunate because that was a great great marketing platform.
Sounds like the entire deck was stacked against you with that business with everything that you depended on crashing over here.
Oh totally. That's one of the things that scares me now is that we use Facebook and we use Google to find people. A lot of word of mouth on the casting director side, but one, won't say challenge but it's hard with actors to share other resources if they're concerned about it being a resource that could take away from their own opportunities.
So what I mean by that is that if an actor is having a hard time finding a local opportunities, the last thing they necessarily want to do is, this isn't true for all actors to be clear. There are some actors that are very very open about helping other actors but some actors are skeptical to give out that resource and share it with others because they're afraid that that's going to then increase the competition that they have for getting the jobs.
And so word of mouth is not necessarily as strong as maybe another Industries. And again, that's definitely not all actors because there are some that are all about supporting other actors and helping them out.
Going to their shows and and being really supportive but we have to rely on the platforms that are out there, Facebook and Google and other new media opportunities and if all of a sudden one of those goes away that's definitely a concern, well now what do we do?
So what are some of the biggest lessons that you've taken away from the previous businesses that you've run because I know a lot of people learn by reading and it's also extremely impactful to learn by doing.
And I think it's easy once you started a business and you've made some mistakes, you've seen certain things occur that kill your business to I guess build up an immunity to those types of things and not make those same mistakes again.
Yeah I think the speed at which we try to be all things that all times. Everyone I think being a little bit more one at a time. Like we have been now, if we'd started this company with Casting Calls America with a whole bunch of funding and all this, you know, amazing resources.
I don't think we would be nearly as successful as we are because we went basically market by market and built that market. Found the people that were needing our services on both ends. Built those up, made the connections, built a reputation amongst the casting directors that we have a really good software platform.
Whereas before we tried to create this mass schedule of, let's get as many people in as possible. And let's do as many job fairs as quickly as we possibly can without really learning from our mistakes the day before. So we have a problem on Tuesday. We don't have time to fix it because we have another event on Wednesday, another one on Thursday, and we pushed ourselves too hard too fast.
So let's talk about Casting Calls America you've talked about how you were the casting director and that ended up running into all these problems yourself with trying to standardize submissions actors are giving you and you realize there had to be a better way.
When you called up your old co-founder Brian, was he immediately on board or was he skeptical because you guys had already gone through this business that had not worked out?
What we have another partner Kirk who is probably a little bit more of the one who is skeptical because he was also involved in eJobFairs and probably felt the financial pain more than not probably, he felt the financial pain more than the rest of us did as he was more financially invested.
I think that for this, Brian, who is such a skilled engineer, saw it as a challenge at first of okay, how can I make this work to what Brian needs and solve this problem? Then once we did that and I said hey, let's let's monetize this and see if people are interested in it and people were interested in right away.
Then I think he's a very smart guy. I think he saw the writing on the wall very quickly that people want this and they need this. So we have an opportunity here and in theory it would be 'easy' because once we have the main software, we could just duplicate it in the other sites. Of course, the reality is that it's never done, we're constantly updating it.
By we I mean he is updating it constantly, creating new features and adding new features and doing new things so though it's never done but at least now we have it where we're not changing 44 different websites individually. He makes the change and it goes out to all sites. Knowing that that was kind of the model of what we wanted to do, I think was more appealing because of how scalable it was based upon the early success that we had.
Did you know right from the beginning that you wanted to go with this model, where you build a different website for every city?
I think most people starting online businesses would think oh, you know, the advantage of being online is that they can reach everybody in every city. So let's just do a global thing. How did that you should go city by city?
The initial thinking was we just did it for Sacramento because that's where I was working and that's where I needed it. I was casting a project that was filming in the Sacramento area. So I needed a tool that would connect me to Sacramento actors and then we made it available to everybody else.
We needed to keep the price point low enough to where it made sense for people to be a part of it. So because of that it wasn't realistic to try to create a national site because we would then have to do the other model that we talked about that doesn't make a lot of sense, which is go too big, too fast. We wouldn't have been able to market it right or do it right.
Where as when we stuck with one area we were able to really focus on getting users in that area from both sides. So I don't think that we ever planned on it being what it is now and in a good way. But we knew that it would never be sustainable by itself in one city.
We also knew that we had to do it in one city first to make it work. So I think once we've realized that, then that's when we went, okay, this is this is something that's scalable. Let's go ahead and and start thinking about how we do that. So I don't think it was initially the plan right when we built it because it was really going to be more of an internal tool.
Once we released in the one market and saw the response from the one market then we realize that we could that we were going to need to do a national rollout city-by-city.
I think starting small like there's so many advantages to it because not only do you get to learn as you go and not really bite off more than you can chew and end up in the same situation you were in with your job fair website.
It's also just quicker and easier to get your product out the door and I think what kills a lot of early entrepreneurs businesses they have this grand vision of what they're going to build, thinking about two or three years down the road and it takes them six, eight, twelve months to even get their first product out the door.
By the time they've got that done they've already invested so much that if they've gone on the wrong direction, it's hard to fix or if they run out of money then their company is dead on arrival.
Yeah, I couldn't agree more and a lot of it was that trial and error figuring out what didn't work before being able to figure out what did work and went with that model of okay, we don't have to worry about trying to market to everybody by only having one city that we're servicing.
We had one Facebook page and one Twitter account and one website that was just for a regional market so we're not trying to get media coverage throughout the country or trying to get users from throughout the country because being a two-sided market place we needed those sides to connect.
Trying to do that on a national scale, I couldn't imagine doing without millions of dollars versus bootstrapping it from from zero. So that was absolutely the best way to go and I think continues to be the best. Even if we had millions of dollars in the bank right now, I don't think, to do it over again I don't think I'd want to.
I think that this regional roll out and market roll out has been helpful in not only scaling the size of the software servicing but also staffing, marketing tools. We can go with smaller plans to begin with and build up as we as we got bigger. There's a lot of benefits to having that controlled scaling that allows for not just the front end of the business, but the back end of the business to grow at the same time.
It's almost like you're franchising yourself, like you figured out how to make it work in one city and now you're opening up, McDonald's, well Casting Calls America in every other city based on the learnings from your first go.
That's funny. That's exactly how I've referred to it, too.
It's almost like a franchise model except for it's all run from one office or two locations actually, California office and the Idaho office, but that's exactly the mentality is that we do it all, we franchise ourselves.
Tell me about the process of building that original business in Sacramento.
How did you go about building up both sides of this two-sided marketplace and how things changed in moving to other cities since then?
Yeah, I mean with Sacramento because I was already doing a lot of casting and I was working as an actor. I was I was personally on both sides of the marketplace. So that allowed me the opportunity to already have a lot of connections. So I knew a lot of the people that were casting projects. There's a casting director in the Bay Area, her name is Toni Staniewicz.
She cast me a lot of projects and got to know me as a professional and as an actor and so she had me refer people to her before. So I told her about this site. She was excited to test it out and use it. It was one of our first users as a casting director and I knew others that were doing projects. And so I already had that, those connections within my own personal network and already knew a lot of the actors that were in the community.
Got a lot of their feedback too about what they wanted. So being being personally on both sides of that marketplace helped me a lot and having those connections and knowing what we need to build at least for our MVP. Which again was another term that wasn't even in my on my radar but that's what we ended up with. We ended up with an MVP that made it work.
Allowed us to make those connections with the people that we already had, then going on to the new cities. We had to do a completely different outreach because we didn't have those connections. And so we had to kind of figure out well, what do we need first? The jobs or the people?
We quickly realized that we needed the people first. So we did marketing for pre-registration saying hey, we're going to be offering this service, if you're interested, let us know here. You can put in your email and information here. Then that way once we hit a threshold we were able to then start finding the projects that were casting and launch the site at that time.
That's really fascinating to hear about because you've got both sides of the experience. I think a lot of people listening who want to start businesses look around at their current job and what the people that they know and the skills that they have and they don't necessarily see an opportunity to start a business.
And so they end up having to start something from scratch in an industry that they don't know necessarily as much about. And they don't have all these connections and they have to learn from their customers and learn how to market people kind of, from scratch. Whereas you had both perspectives. You had Sacramento where you had this network built up and knew exactly what to do. And you had all these new cities where you're going in and you're starting from scratch.
What was it like in these new cities? How did you for example, figure out that you needed to start by getting the actors in before you started getting the roles and how did you even get these actors to sign up for your list in the first place?
Definitely a trial and error. It was very much and you said you know what to do in Sacramento. I wouldn't go that far but I would say at least I had a baseline of I knew what I wanted as a casting director. And so that's you know, there's plenty of things that we've added since then that we've gotten feedback from additional cast and directors that are at a much higher level than I ever was.
Doing much bigger projects say you don't have this feature and I need that. Oh, I never thought of that because I wasn't casting that big of a project and now we have that feature. Same thing with the actor side. I knew what I wanted is an actor. So it was based on that and then we were able to get feedback once we had users in and I also had the additional benefit of being the parent of two child actors. And so I also had that mentality of how to protect the kids on because there are, you know, inappropriate weird people out there.
So I was able to the formulate that. So at least we had the core product and what people generalized in a medium-sized market were wanting. So when we went to the new cities we already had the MVP plus we got feedback from the users that started in Sacramento about what they liked and what they didn't like.
We were able to use some of that feedback and kind of promoting saying hey, this is what we're doing. This is why we're doing it and this is why it's going to help everybody. Are you interested in pre-read? So that was, probably 90% of the outreach was through Facebook and it was me sending messages to people that were directly involved in the industry in the areas that we were moving into.
We had brand ambassadors that we worked with where we found and identified people that were already active in that community and saying hey, let me do a demo with you and show you what this is all about. Then let you be the champion of this and start introducing it to other people that are in that community that you know and we found a lot of success with that too.
Oh, that's a great question and there's definitely a lot of a lot of things we tried more mass media stuff that did not work for this. I mentioned how much I loved Google radio back in '06, '07.
Well that doesn't exist anymore. And so we tried to look at what terrestrial radio looked like and cost and that just that was not like an idea. Way too expensive for not enough targeting. It just didn't work. The ROI was definitely not there. Really any kind of the bigger marketing stuff we realized didn't work.
What really worked was finding those people that were involved in the community that were already actively engaged with it and saying, we've got this software that makes it easier. There are still challenges with that, that people would question.
This concept is not new in that there's services that have been doing this in one form or another for decades in LA and New York and there's Breakdown Services, a company in Los Angeles that has been doing some form of this for four years. And there used to be a magazine down in LA called Dramalogue that had casting calls in it.
You'd pay for a subscription and they would mail it to your house once a week. And then you would mail your headshot and resume to the address listed in the classified ad in the magazine. And that's how that's how you found stuff. But there wasn't anything like that outside of those markets. A lot of the markets that we're in, they've never seen anything like what we're doing even though it's not new to the industry. It's new to the market.
And so we've had to also not only just provide the service and let them know we exist but we also have to educate them on what we are and what we do and that we're not a talent agency. We don't get you jobs. We're a software company and we just happen to be focusing on this industry. And so that was the trial and error on that communication of explaining, educating plus explaining and I think there's a difference, was definitely a challenge in the new markets as well.
Yeah, when you mention that the mass market stuff didn't work it's interesting to hear that because I can see how from your perspective that's the Holy Grail.
You don't necessarily want to have to be super scrappy and join every Facebook group and try to find a different person in every community, in every city that you come to and talk to them and try to figure out how things work. It's much easier if you can just blast out a message to everybody and magically your website works.
But on the other hand when you have to go the route of talking to individual people and figuring out how the community works and getting them subscribe to your website you end up having all these conversations that you wouldn't have if you were just blasting out a message to everybody. Did you learn anything from the people that you were talking to you? And if so, how did those learnings effect the development of your business?
Oh so much education from those conversations because we would say, hey here's what we're doing and we would find out what people didn't know and what they did know. And we would find out from people that they'd say, oh you're not supposed to charge people to audition for acting jobs and we respond right, we know that. That's not what this is.
This is a software service that allows you to be notified about casting calls and then you can use it to submit to those. The people who are doing the auditions don't receive any compensation they're just using our software and so explaining that and realizing that we needed to explain that was different too because in Sacramento people kind of knew what we were doing.
It's close enough to LA and San Francisco where there was similar services that they got the concept a little bit easier. But these markets that had never seen anything like us, having those conversations were extremely valuable because we knew what we were up against.
Actually what's funny is I now tell people if you hear something on the radio, it's probably not legitimate. At least it's not what it sounds like because there's these acting schools that advertise on the radio. You know, come on audition for Disney and all this stuff.
Usually they they make it sound like it's this great big audition. When really it's a presentation for a very expensive acting school and they can afford to pay for terrestrial radio because they charge people exorbitant amounts to be a part of those programs.
We actually now say if you hear it on the radio for a casting call, it's probably not what they're saying or what they're implying that they are. Not that they are illegitimate, but they're not doing what they are necessarily implying per se.
Having not gone that route instead going the route of having those one-on-one conversations, even if it's through Facebook messenger and saying hey, here's what we do. Love for you to take a look and then getting people to actually have that one-on-one dialogue and saying back to us.
Oh, okay. I'll take a look at it. Hey, I looked at it and I don't understand what this means and having that instead of them going to the site, inserting in a support ticket or something like that. It was more of those one-on-one conversations where knowing it inside and out, Im able to go. Oh, yeah this is how that works.
Being able to read those messages and say okay this wasn't clear. I need to go back and make sure that it is or I need to work with Brian and make sure that it's clear or that we change this or rework it, continues to be valuable.
I mean, it's not like it ever stops. I mean, there's still new people that message us on a daily basis almost now that will say, hey, I couldn't find where this was and we go, oh, I would have never thought that would have been a challenge. Okay, let's make sure we make it better.
I think a lot of people, especially first-time entrepreneurs underestimate the gap between how you think about your business and how your customers think about your business. And it's very easy to sort of have this curse of knowledge affect you when you think what you're doing is extremely clear.
It's extremely valuable. And unless you talk to these people one-on-one and you watch them try to use your website and you talk to them about your opinions and why they will or won't pay you. You're never gonna correct those misconceptions. You just going to build and build and wonder why nobody's using your product.
Obviously you've run a community full of amazing entrepreneurs and you tell me where the fine line is because I don't know that I've found it yet. And that's okay, I started a business because I have a specific problem that I think needs to be solved and I'm already in that field.
And so I came up with a way to solve it and I know that it needs to be solved and I know how to solve it. Then on the other side is I may not know all the problems in that field or all the ways to solve them. So that fine line between the knowledge you already have as an entrepreneur and as a creator versus the knowledge of your eventual user-base.
Yeah and if I had to pick only having one of those I would pick the latter because I think having that personal experience yourself is extremely valuable. It's kind of a shortcut too talking to other people but it won't last forever because as you said, you aren't everybody else.
Other people's experiences might be different from yours. So no matter what as your business grows if you want to build something that's not just valuable for you, but it's valuable for other people. You're going to have to develop those skills of talking to other people. Putting yourself in their shoes and figuring out what they like and that's something that never ends.
I mean if you're the CEO of a big company like Stripe, you're still talking to users and trying to figure out what they look like and what they care about. Even when your companies are $10 billion dollars and every point below that and every point after that. So it's it's hard to draw a line but I think you know, it's it's something that never really ends.
I think you're absolutely right. And I think that if you had to pick on the side, I think you're right. You should pick on the side of what are the end users continuing to feel and they're feeling the different levels. I mean as I mentioned
I had my experience as an actor and as a casting director. That pales in comparison to some of the projects and in performances and roles that we've had posted on our sites since we've launched and that's a good thing.
It's a good thing that we've outgrown well beyond my experience and have had casting directors that are above and beyond and actors that are far above beyond anything I've ever done or tried to do.
And listening to their feedback as well as the people who are just starting out and who don't know anything about the industry and being able to have a platform and a service that can help that entire spectrum. We wouldn't be able to do if it weren't for listening to the feedback that we're getting.
Let's talk about some of the specific decisions that you guys have made and running Casting Calls America.
First I want to talk about your business model because you guys are selling your service, I think you said you charge $7.95 as a subscription service.
$7.95 a month for actors and there's no cost for the casting directors or producers to post on the site.
Okay. How did you decide on that business model? Because you could have clearly gone a different direction.
You could have potentially charged the casting directors. You could have made the whole thing free and advertised or something. Why did you decide on that particular business model?
There's somewhat of a precedent already set with the other services that are doing this in LA, New York etc in that the casting directors don't pay for it, the producers don't pay and that the actors do.
There's some variations of the model, some have it where the agencies, if you have a talent agent, your agency pays a flat rate to have all their talent on a site like ours. There's a few different models and basically for the small markets, I refer to the markets that we are in is everything but LA, New York type of stuff is where were aimed at.
With those markets it made sense to have a really low monthly fee for the actors compared to the LA sites which are more than four times ours, but because there's bigger market and there's a lot more jobs than LA than there's ever going to be in Sacramento, California, we still thought that that made the most sense to stay within the industry norms.
Like I said, I mean decades ago that you paid for a magazine subscription and then you had to pay to mail your headshot and resume. Which by the way cost way more than what we're doing. now and that was 30 years ago but based upon what the market was already doing or the industry was already doing and the markets that we were going into that made the most sense.
What about the exact pricing model? How did you arrive on the price of $7.95?
$7.95 is is our second pricing. So we initially started off $5 a month and we added on features throughout time that started increasing the costs.
So for example, we have integrated in video auditions. So one of the features that we have is where it casting director instead of, this especially helps with these regional markets. Instead of just saying, okay I'm looking for actors between this age range and males and females etc.
They can also say and if you match that criteria, you can do your initial audition right now by recording these lines. It's what they call sides or the lines that they give you for the audition. And they can upload the sides into the into the casting call and say, okay if you're if you're interested, not only can you just submit your profile right now, you can actually read these sides.
Record your audition and upload the video file. Now we have video hosting expenses. We also integrated in a audio audition. So if you're casting for a voiceover project, you can put on there what you want for the voiceover. And the actors can record the voiceover on their home microphone and upload that MP3 and submit that and the casting director can play it directly from their phone or desktop or what have you. So now our we're offering more but our expenses became more.
So once we kind of flatlined a little bit as far as new features went and we had that going for a while. We were able to get a better idea of what our actual costs were and one of our, I won't say challenges but back to my viewpoint as an actor and putting my actor hat on.
When developing this some of these services that do similar to what we do, you have to subscribe before you can even see what the casting calls are available. And I always had a problem with that. I think that it's much better model and much more service focused, if we say listen, if you can create your profile and register your information you can see all the casting calls that are on the site that you're match for, right up front.
That way you can make an informed decision on whether or not you want to subscribe. Part of that is that the image hosting and all the hosting that we do is already part of that. So we have expenses. Even for our free users that are there looking at what the casting calls are.
So once we were established long enough to where we can get a feel for what those costs were between the average user and the video files and everything like that. We realized okay $5 is not gonna cover it so we can't sustain this and keep operating and so we wanted to find a number that was still low enough to be reasonable but enough to be able to cover the costs of operating the service and bring in enough to where we can continue our growth and that's where we came up with $7.95.
Yeah, it's tough to charge a small amount of money per month because even $7.95 isn't that much and I think if you're you know, perhaps a struggling actor, maybe that's a lot to ask.
At the same time as a someone trying to run a business it kind of leaves you in a situation where the only way that you can grow is by just reaching a massive number of people.
Yeah, I mean and that's where the whole scalability factor comes in is that although we're in over 30 markets it's all run from two locations. Essentially primarily, it's one company running it. So that scalability is is really critical to maintaining the lower price point.
If we had to have some sort of physical presence in every city or things like that then it would just be absolutely unrealistic to to charge that little but you're right. For a struggling actor even that can be a bit of a challenge but on the flip side actually some of the feedback I get from the casting directors, especially the I don't say higher end because that's not not what I mean, but the casting directors who are working on bigger projects that are paying higher rates to the actors.
They like that the actors are paying a fee because it shows a level of commitment, it lets them know that these aren't just people who are submitting because they can. They have a paid subscription and they're submitting because they're serious about what they're doing and they're interested.
Let me ask you about your personal life as a founder, especially since you're building a business that really needs to reach a massive scale.
How is your work-life balance been? And how has it evolved since the beginning of your company?
Well, you're asking me and not my wife. So that's a key point because we would probably have different answers. I think it's a lot better now than it used to be. Just this year we brought on some full-time staff in that has helped tremendously.
We have some amazing people that we have found to work with us. That has made a lot of difference in the work-life balance beyond that. It's been, it's definitely been a challenge, you know, the old adage, we are the only people that would give up a full-time job to work twice as much, is absolutely true.
The amount of hours spent working on the business, physically working on it and I think there's a big difference because there's the amount of time that I'm actually at my computer physically working on it and then there's all the hours where I'm sitting watching TV and I'm thinking about something or I'm lying in bed not sleeping thinking about. Oh, I got to send this email tomorrow or shoot, I think if we did this it would make it better.
And every time somebody asked me what I do and I tell them about the platform and they ask me a question that nobody's asked me before now. I'm thinking oh I didn't have an answer for that. I need to have an answer for that question. Or maybe we need to look into that.
So the physical time and the mental time are different and I think the mental time can be even the bigger challenge of always thinking about the business and how I can improve it and make things better. So sometimes I really have to set aside mental time not just time with my family but mental time with my family where I'm not in a position to think about the business or work on the business. I hope that makes sense.
No that makes perfect sense and it's tough because it's easy to not realize that you're spending all of this time thinking about your business and sort of living and breathing it when you're not at your computer even. And I think once you have that conscious realization, you can start to work on it, if that's what you want to do.
How has hiring helped you out? And how have you as a self-funded bootstrapped company, sort of worked hiring in your process because you can really only hire based on the profits that you make and I think that limits some of the decisions and the order that you make those decisions in.
Oh, absolutely.we definitely had to wait for quite a while before we could hire any staff in and bringing in staff knowing that we were going to have to do the price change and doing that all at the same time was a big part of it.
So we knew that okay, we're going to have a little bit more revenue in theory and with that new revenue we will be able to afford the staff but with the staff we will be able to provide better support and more value to our users. And that's absolutely been the case in more ways than I even realized.
For example before having staff we knew we needed a better support system than basically a contact form with how can we help you? And I knew I wanted to find something, some program that was already out there that would do that. But I wasn't ready to do that until I could bring somebody in that would actually manage it and I was extremely fortunate enough to find a individual who had a lot of experience with ZenDesk.
And so when we brought him in, his name's Dale. When we brought Dale in he already had this ZenDesk background, Which I didn't know. I'd never worked with ZenDesk really at all. And so he came in and not only were we able to get it going. I didn't have to learn it myself and then train him.
It was quite the opposite, he basically built it and then trained me and that was so helpful in streamlining our support process. Being able to provide more information to users quicker.
Where they would look at their information and answer questions without necessarily having to wait for us to respond and it was because, not just because I hired the person that was able to take away from what I was doing but because I hired somebody who already had that skill set in their toolbox.
Yeah, let's talk about the people that you work with for a little bit because the same co-founders, the same partners with Casting Calls America as you did back in the past with your business with the online job boards and the job fairs.
Minus one, there was one other co-founder that that's moved on and lives in a different part of the country. That wasn't a part of it's not a part of what we're doing now.
Okay. So how many is ther? Three of you moved on together?
Three of us now.
Okay, three co-founders that you've worked on multiple projects with.
How has that helped you build your business because imagine, you know, not only do you have a history of working together, but you also share in the same knowledge of the lessons that you learn from your previous business.
You're not the only person who's like hey, we need to move slow. Both Brian and Kirk will be like, hey, yeah last time was way too fast. Let's move slow.
No exactly. I couldn't imagine. I listen to your show and read some of the stories and listening to some of these the co-founders. I mean I think it's extremely important. I can see both sides.
I think it's extremely important to bring in different views of people with different experiences, but also having that same or similar experience where we knew what happened and we can easily shut something down. We go or remember we did that before it it didn't work and either oh, yeah, this is different.
Here's why and we know what we're talking about. Or oh, you're right. Let's move on and the conversation's over very quickly. So I think that shared background is very valuable, but I also see where having a co-founder coming in that has a completely different experience. past experience, that would also be beneficial.
But the nice thing about our setup is that we're friends, and we're co-founders and we've known each other far longer than our business relationships, and so I think that that helps in some security too. That if we have a bad day, we don't have to worry about one of us saying we'll forget this. I'm not talking to you guys anymore.
Exactly. Has there ever been a time where it's been difficult for the three of you to align at a decision? Or have been any decisions where you guys are maybe all aligned, but it was still a tough decision to make?
Yeah, I think there's definitely been conversations about different opportunities that we have come at it from different viewpoints, but we're very much, this comes to the film production where I'm a big advocate for people kind of having their role. Staying in their lane.
We have our specialties. I do kind of the industry relations and and marketing part of it. Brian is our engineer and that is his world. And Kirk is more legal, business, financial type of person who does all the bookkeeping and financial stuff. We have our different areas and we come at it very much from a here's why I think it works from my department.
We have those discussions and then we can really come together and go okay, this is either the way to go or it's not the way to go. There's never been a time where we've been like well two to one, we're going to do this. I don't think we've ever moved forward with the decision where we weren't all three of us saying, yes, we should do this or no, we shouldn't.
It's perfect to have your responsibilities so cleanly divided like that and just be able to almost operate like three independent chiefs of your domains.
Where you can go as fast as you can without necessarily needing to powwow about everything and you can take care of your stuff and they can take care of theirs.
It works out very well. Having those those clearly defined roles has made things, I think much much better than some other scenarios that I've heard.
So let's say you had to go, you could go back four years in the past and tell yourself and your co-founders anything. What one thing would you tell yourself in the past?
Oh, that's a great question. That's a really good question. I like a lot of what we've done but I think I would probably go back and say. Well actually I know what it is. It would be on the technology side and it's more of me than it is Brian.
And that's the way we set it up is that each site was completely separately run and as we got bigger we had more requests from users. It just made sense that there be some sort of connection because here we are this company that's operating these, at the time I think, 20 different casting call sites and some of them were within hours of each other if you think of it as cities, but there was no connection between them whatsoever.
And if you're casting a project in St. Louis and you are willing to accept actors from Kansas City or better example, if you're in Houston, Texas and you want to bring in people from Austin or San Antonio or vice versa, you would have to go and post it on each one of those sites. And if you are an actor you would have to have an account on each one of those sites.
We created, and again ‘we’ means Brian has figured out a way to connect the back end. Where a casting director could post on one site and create a posting on one site but also have that posting shared to other sites and accept submissions from the actors that were registered with those other sites without having to go and create a new account and the actors wouldn't have to go to the other site.
That structure was not built in we first designed it. So Brian had to go back and create that structure after the fact and that took considerable amount of time that had we may be waited a couple of months from our MVP would have been able to be a part of it, but we didn't know what we didn't know. And we didn't realize how valuable that was going to be until we realized we really needed it and we didn't realize how difficult was going to be until we tried to do it.
What about the future? Let's say you could talk to your future self. Five, ten years from now. What one question would you ask? What do you want to know?
Are the new brands as good as we think they are?
Okay, what does that mean?
So you and I talked a little bit about this when we were last talking in person, but one of the things that we've continued to do, that I think is important is and I've the way I've I've now phrased it is, don't quit your pain job. What I mean by that is if we stop, if I stop being involved in production, then I won't feel the pain of our users.
And so we do production we have basically formed our own production company on the side that we have a couple projects that we've worked on. We have two web series that are yet to be released that we created. One called Driving Test. That's actually one of Rance Howard's last on camera performances before his passing which was very sad. He was an amazing amazing actor and man.
We just wrapped on a new couple episodes on a new web series starring comedian Carlos Mencia. Doing those productions, in continuing to be involved in productions and helping other people in their productions let us know what pain our users are feeling instead of just being this SaaS company. We're still involved in the original world in which created this concept and created the need for it and created the pain.
So we didn't quit our pain job and so by doing this we realized that there's other places that people really need software-as-a-service in the entertainment industry. And the next one that we're coming out with is Crew Calls America. And Crew Calls America is going to be the same basic concept except for the crew positions for productions.
The makeup and hair people, the camera operators, your grips, things along those lines that you need on set. That's another common pain point that people have a hard time finding the people for and so now we're going to offer that service and we're going to do it the same mentality that we've done casting calls where we're gonna have a crew call site for every city that we have a casting call site in.
I like that. Don't quit your pain job. And it's so counterintuitive because that's exactly what everybody wants to quit.
What's the most painful thing that I'm doing? How do I stop doing that? But I want to grow that's what you need to keep doing. So you keep learning.
And that's where the new ideas for us come from. There's another thing that's very industry-specific called a call sheet and it's the document that the assistant, either the first assistant, second assistant thing on the production side sends out the night before, sometimes earlier, of a production.
That lets everybody know whether it be cast or crew who's supposed to be where and when and that document it's very, for the most part antiquated and so we're developing software that makes it very streamlined. It makes it easier for everybody and actually Brian came up with that because he learned about the pain of a call sheet, which he'd never dealt with before getting involved in the production side.
So even though he, the engineer who never set foot on a set before now he's a producer helping work on these projects and he's learning the pain that's associated with it and getting it and he came up with the call sheet idea because he saw what a pain it was and he was hearing from the users what a pain it was so we have that brand also launching called Call Sheet Maker.
That's awesome. Well, how about we wrap up and why don't you tell listeners what you think they should take out of the story that you've had.
The lessons that you've learned and you know, the special focus on people who are just now getting into the starting their own business or thinking about doing so for the first time.
Well, we didn't say specifically but not comparing yourself to others is a huge part of it because you look at the numbers and not in a negative way.
I mean you look at IndieHackers and the so many great resources on there and you can see what people are doing. Not saying oh I should be there because every scenario is different.
I mean, even our sites amongst themselves within our company are different but going slow for us worked very well this time and building up our credibility, building up our markets building up our user base one city at a time.
Going that route worked for us. It may not work for everybody going slow. But that works for us. Then you don't have to be the 'overnight success'. The other thing would be what we were just talking about with the, don't quit your pain job because boy that has helped us so much by staying involved in the activities that we were trying to help with and coming up with a better ways to service our existing users with new ideas that will help either our existing user base or our existing world of influence.
That's awesome. Well Brian, I've loved having you on the show. Thanks so much for coming on.
Can you tell listeners where they can go to learn more about you and Casting Calls America and all the other things that you guys are working on?
Yeah. Absolutely. actually I would say for me, Find me on IndieHackers. IndieHackers.com/user/brianjagger. I've got my Twitter on there, my email on there, a little bit more about me.
And I’ve become more active in the IndieHackers community, so happy to chat with anybody on there. And then for Casting Calls America, our main site is CastingCallsAmerica.com.
Then we have our sites list on there where you can see all the all the sites that we're on right now, that we have live right now and the ones that are coming up.
That's awesome Brian. Thanks so much for coming on the show.
Thank you so much for having me.
If you enjoyed listening to this conversation and you want a really easy way to support the podcast, why don't you head over to iTunes and leave us a quick rating or even a review?
If you're looking for an easy way to get there just go to IndieHackers.com/review and that should open up iTunes on your computer. I read pretty much all the reviews that you guys leave over there. And it really helps other people to discover the show. So your support is very much appreciated.
In addition if you are running your own Internet business or if that's something you hope to do someday you should join me and a whole bunch of other founders on the IndieHackers.com website. It's a great place to get feedback on pretty much any problem or question that you might have while running your business.
If you listen to the show, you'll know that I am a huge proponent of getting help from other founders rather than trying to build your business all by yourself. So you'll see me on the forum for sure as well as more than a handful of some of the guests that I've had on the podcast.
If you're looking for inspiration, we've also got a huge directory full of hundreds of products built by other IndieHackers. Every one of which includes revenue numbers and some of the behind-the-scenes strategies for how they grew their products from nothing.
As always thanks so much for listening and I'll see you next time.