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What I learnt from starting a production studio

Starting out is tough but stay true to your north star.

By Kellie Riordan

Here’s the top five things I’ve learnt starting my production company Deadset Studios.

1. Starting out is tough, surround yourself with good advice

I started Deadset Studios from my spare bedroom. It’s lonely and gruelling.

So I made sure to reach out to other smart people globally who might have had advice to share. In each conversation, I would pick up a useful piece of wisdom.

The boss at Malcolm Gladwell’s production company Pushkin told me to be careful about only doing fee-for-service productions and to ensure that – while much riskier financially – I was also creating original podcasts.

Justin Dry from VinoMofo came on my podcast Curveball to talk about the time he lost the shirt off his back not once, but twice, and yet still kept going!

The woman behind global streaming giant Kanopy gave me an excellent pep-talk about the highs and the lows of being a founder.

So it’s been very humbling to have lots of great advice and people I can turn to when I’m feeling unsure or need advice from those who’ve gone before me.

Industry leaders shared their wisdom.

2. Incorporate early and get the entity structure right

I started as a sole trader. I wasn’t sure I wanted to start a company, which is costly to establish and to maintain in terms of company tax etc.

But then I did decide to incorporate and it meant a lot of mess cutting some jobs and invoices across from sole trader to my entity. It cost me more in accounting fees than it would have had I done it right the first time.

People advised me to incorporate from the start. I ignored them. Don’t ignore them! And make sure you get good advice on how to structure your entity (propriety limited, holding companies, trusts etc).

3. Operational costs involve more than just the content creators

My time at BDO’s CEO School course has ramped up my understanding of key financial principles, such as the different between revenue and profit, how to manage cashflow, and how to figure out the appropriate margin to charge on each production.

I made classic mistakes but do have a strong grasp of finances.

I made all the classic mistakes when I first started Deadset Studios, such as charging enough to cover staff contracts but not factoring in staff on-costs such as superannuation, not understanding true operational costs including insurance, WorkCover, software licences, licences to sound libraries and editing tools, subscriptions to programs like Xero, buying and replacing equipment etc.

4. Understand your figures and the story they tell

I’m a journalist by trade. I once convinced my school principal that I didn’t need to study maths in year 11 and 12 because I was going to be a journo!

But I do have a strong grasp on finances and that’s been just as crucial in my media career as my craft with words and stories.

At the ABC I was overseeing a multi-million dollar budget and I knew where every cent was spent on each podcast production. Whether it’s with your boss, your accountant, the ATO, or potential investors in your business, they look closely at your profit figures, revenue targets, your margins, staff utilisation on each project, and projected growth.

Data can confirm or challenge hunches.

You need to be confident in your numbers so you can answer their questions.

Remember, data is king. It gives you evidence for hunches you have, or it tells you if you’re completely off-track with your business model.

5. Know your unique proposition to the market

Starting Deadset Studios on my own in the middle of the pandemic meant I said yes to every job that came in the door. I needed the certainty.

But as the company’s evolved, I have become clearer about the sorts of projects we will take on and what we’ll say no to.

Deadset Studios is a premium podcast production house and consultancy, so when clients approach me wanting a cheap-and-cheerful, conveyor-belt approach to podcasting that doesn’t involve quality storytelling or top-notch audio production values, we now say that’s not for us.

Our value is in crafting narrative podcast series, where storytelling, quality scripting, and deep understanding of the power of soundscape is at the heart of what we do.

Stay true to your north star.

Deadset Studios director Kellie Riordan is winner of the 2021 Career Boost Scholarship provided by Women in Media Queensland.

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