Start a business by teaching your craft

Start a business by teaching your craft

In this latest episode of Sound Advice, we chat with Melissa Thom, a seasoned voice actor who has also founded the Bristol Academy of Voice Acting (BRAVA).

We explore how she turned her craft into a lucrative business and discuss the skills she believes are vital for success in the world of voice acting.

Don’t miss this inspiring journey from passion to profit.

Here’s her unfiltered advice:

Here’s how can you get into voice acting

Bex Burn-Callander:

How can I leverage my existing skills or trade to launch a business?

This is a common question many aspiring entrepreneurs grapple with. That’s why, in today’s episode of ‘Sound Advice,’ we’re joined by Melissa Thom. By day, she’s a voice actor, but she has also founded the Bristol Academy of Voice Acting (BRAVA).

This institution serves as a training ground for those looking to master the art of voice acting. Join us as we explore how Melissa transformed her passion into a profitable venture.

Welcome to the show, Melissa, and thank you for being here today.

Melissa Thom:

Hello. Thank you for inviting me.

Bex Burn-Callander:

I’m eager to dive into your background, as you appear to have had an incredibly captivating career. You’ve landed some cool gigs, including providing voices for blockbuster video games like Grand Theft Auto.

Can you share with us how you entered this fascinating industry?

Melissa Thom:

My career began in broadcast radio, a medium that will forever hold a special place in my heart. It was there that I discovered my love for all things audio.

Since then, I’ve worn many hats.

In today’s terms, you might call it a ‘multihyphenate’ career. Previously, it was often referred to as a portfolio career.

I ventured from radio into marketing and startups—a whole different story.

Along the way, I took on roles in PR, served as the head of communications, and eventually, found my way to where I am now.

So, in a nutshell, that’s my career trajectory.

Bex Burn-Callander:

But do you love doing the voice acting, those voiceover jobs that you’ve had? Is that your real passion?

Melissa Thom:

“I’ve been involved in voice acting for over three decades, but it was only after becoming a parent that I transitioned to doing it full time.

The demands of in-person events became too much, especially with children. My progression from broadcast host to voice actor was quite natural.

I noticed that many in the broadcasting community, me included, often stumbled into voice acting almost by accident. You’d be in the studio, and someone would ask, ‘Could you voice this ad for us?’

Over time, it dawned on me that I hadn’t received formal training in voice acting, which opens another discussion about imposter syndrome.

But the beauty of voice acting is its flexibility; you can do it from home, from a hotel room, or even a closet when you’re on the go. It perfectly suited my lifestyle at that stage.

How I launched my voice acting training business

Bex Burn-Callander:

With this multifaceted career you’ve described, was establishing the Bristol Academy of Voice Acting (BRAVA) aimed at providing others a more streamlined path into the industry?

Was that one of your primary objectives in launching the business?

Melissa Thom:

The formation of the Bristol Academy of Voice Acting (BRAVA) was somewhat serendipitous. I didn’t initially set out with the intention to build a robust business.

However, during the lockdown, it became evident that people were seeking alternative revenue streams or even additional skills. While the pastoral life of becoming a pig farmer in Devon might be ideal for some, it’s not a feasible option for everyone.

I’ve noticed that many of us got into our respective fields because we’re inherently creative, but over time that daily infusion of creativity gets sidelined. This is a common sentiment among the people we collaborate with, me included.

Voice acting, then, serves as a medium to reintroduce that lost creativity into one’s professional life. I genuinely believe it’s the best job out there, and that’s fundamentally where the idea for BRAVA originated.

Bex Burn-Callander:

So how did you go about creating this business and why Bristol particularly?

Give us the startup story.

Melissa Thom:

Regarding BRAVA, the business was born during the lockdown. I had just returned to the UK after living in the US for a few years, continuing my work as a full-time voice actor.

The isolation that many experienced for the first time during the pandemic is a familiar scenario for voice actors, as we often work alone in our studios.

Despite the lockdown, our industry wasn’t at a standstill.

During this challenging period, I noticed that many of my colleagues, including those I met at Bristol Old Vic, were struggling.

Inspired by a Zoom catch-up and some wine, I offered to train them in the basics of voice acting. That’s how BRAVA started.

Bex Burn-Callander:

You initially started as the primary instructor and have expanded the team since then. How have you tailored your approach to meet the evolving needs of your students and the industry?

Melissa Thom:

I started as the main instructor and continue to serve as the lead coach. Despite a 50% growth over the last year and bookings till December, BRAVA’s core focus remains on delivering exceptional training rather than social media promotion.

Leveraging my international experience in voice acting, I’ve recruited master coaches who are industry leaders.

Although we’re globally accessible, I take pride in offering specialised, high-quality training to Bristol. Each coaching session is mutually enriching for both our instructors and me.

The challenges of voice acting

Bex Burn-Callander:

What types of voice acting do you cover? For instance, is it different to do voiceovers for video games versus commercials?

Melissa Thom:

Many people are surprised by how complex voice acting is. It’s more than just having a good voice; it’s about strong communication skills and the ability to bring text to life.

Voice acting has its own unique techniques that differ from stage or screen acting. We offer a comprehensive set of skills taught through live sessions, whether in-person or via Zoom.

While online resources can supplement learning, we believe in the value of live, one-on-one instruction.

Bex Burn-Callander:

Ok, so is most of it over the internet though? So you’re not in an actual school in Bristol, this is all happening virtually, or do you have one-to-one sessions in the real world?

Melissa Thom:

Certainly, we focus on three core areas of voice acting, primarily taught through Zoom sessions. This format is especially convenient for our diverse clientele, including broadcasters, actors, and other professionals who often juggle multiple responsibilities.

However, certain aspects, like recording demos, necessitate in-person interaction.

We do offer online demos, but the full experience is best captured in a physical setting. To that end, we have BRAVA Studios situated in my garden. Due to overwhelming demand, we’ve also partnered with additional studios in Bristol to accommodate our growing student base.

It’s essential to provide both online and in-person training. Our master coaches, some of whom come from as far as California, frequently collaborate with Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, utilising their state-of-the-art facilities for our in-person sessions.

This dual approach reflects the realities of modern voice acting. Many voice actors operate from home studios, where they must be adept at resolving technical issues on the fly. Therefore, our curriculum equips students with skills relevant to both home-based and in-studio work environments.

Bex Burn-Callander:

Your journey serves as a real inspiration for those looking to transform their craft into a business.

You’ve managed to operate with minimal overhead by conducting most sessions online and utilizing your home studio for demos. Furthermore, your industry connections have allowed you to partner with other studios, effectively scaling your business without incurring prohibitive costs.

This is a valuable lesson for anyone considering a similar entrepreneurial path: leverage the resources and networks you already have.

Now that you’ve scaled to this point, do you think the time has come to establish a dedicated headquarters? Is the prospect of taking this next step daunting for you

Melissa Thom:

Taking on challenges doesn’t intimidate us—my husband and I thrive on it. To me, this job is more than a job; it’s a dream realised. I have full creative freedom and work with extraordinary people.

Concerning a physical headquarters, if the need arises to transition into one, we are well-equipped to make that happen.

We’ve always been self-reliant, bootstrapping our ventures from the ground up, and I see no reason to deviate from that approach. It’s worth noting that my husband and I have a high threshold for risk.

I don’t want to give the impression that it’s all smooth sailing. We’ve faced hard times, including moments when we didn’t know how we’d cover our next mortgage payment. However, navigating through crises is something both of us excel at.

Essentially, we embrace difficulties as opportunities for growth, and that’s been our approach all along.

Bex Burn-Callander:

Could you elaborate on one of those challenging times you mentioned earlier? Specifically, you said there was a moment when you couldn’t cover your next mortgage payment.

What led to that situation? Was it an unexpected major expense, or did something else go wrong?

Could you share the story behind it?

Melissa Thom:

Life was especially challenging during the 2008-2009 recession. I vividly recall my husband coming home one day and telling me we had enough money left for just one more mortgage payment.

Adding to the stress, I either had just given birth or was on the verge of doing so, and I was also grappling with postnatal depression.

Everything seemed to be happening all at once.

That’s when I decided to enrol in a master’s programme. Although the programme had some in-person components, it was mostly online.

This was a stark contrast to my undergraduate experience in English literature, which required traditional research methods like poring over books in a library.

With my postgraduate studies, I could feed my child and immediately dive back into my coursework online, all without the need to physically search for resources.

Completing the programme in just eight months, I was able to secure a position as Head of Communications at a digital agency. This new role provided the extra income we desperately needed at that critical juncture in our lives.

It may sound like a radical step to take, given the circumstances, but for us, it was the right move and it worked out well.

Learning from your experiences and mistakes

Bex Burn-Callander:

Could you share some specifics about your previous ventures?

As a serial entrepreneur, what other businesses have you founded, and how did you either exit those businesses or deal with any failures?

Melissa Thom:

Well, my entrepreneurial journey began with a business called Audio Enable, which originated from my background in commercial radio.

My husband is incredibly talented and was instrumental in developing online software for podcasting—this was years before podcasting became mainstream. We were perhaps a little ahead of our time.

We also launched a not-for-profit arm of the business focusing on education. The goal was to provide schools, especially those in my local area, with opportunities they wouldn’t usually get.

We partnered with 34 local radio stations, including Global, my former employer, and expanded across the UK.

At that time, the concept of women in business wasn’t as recognised as it is today. I was often the only woman in the room, sitting in the depths of the radio station.

People would ask, “Do we own you?” And we’d say, “No, we’re just here, doing our thing.” The support from my colleagues in radio was invaluable, and many of them are still good friends of mine.

However, we made some mistakes.

We became engrossed in technology development and missed the optimal timing for our business. Had we persisted with Audio Enable, we could’ve been pioneers in the podcasting revolution.

Eventually, my husband started another venture.

While I contributed as a communications consultant, the startup was primarily his brainchild. It was centred on the ‘second screen experience’ and eventually became a part of Twitter in 2014.

We’ve had our share of stress and uncertainty.

We’ve run various ventures, including a digital agency, and sometimes I marvel at how we managed to do so much. Nonetheless, the acquisition of my husband’s startup allowed us to live in San Francisco for two years, adding another chapter to our adventurous life.

Bex Burn-Callander:

That’s truly impressive. You and your husband seem to make an incredible team.

Balancing personal happiness with professional responsibilities must come with its own set of challenges, especially while building multiple businesses.

What’s the secret to making it all work?

Melissa Thom:

It’s hard to pinpoint a secret formula for our success because it’s not as if everything has been smooth sailing.

While it may sound impressive to say we moved to California or that my husband’s business was acquired by Twitter, the journey was far from easy.

My husband and I share a strong bond and a similar approach to challenges: we focus on making progress, even if that means taking scrappy, less-than-ideal steps along the way.

We don’t always have the luxury of crafting perfect plans or documents.

Our shared vision really started when we were much younger, frequenting a small cafe in Bristol. We knew even then that conventional jobs wouldn’t give us the life we envisioned.

We had to be entrepreneurial, and that shared vision has guided us ever since.

We’re not a perfect couple; we have our moments of disagreement.

But somehow, those disagreements serve to diffuse tension and keep our relationship grounded. I wish I could offer a concrete secret to our success, but the truth is, it’s a work in progress.

Positivity, coupled with realism

Bex Burn-Callander:

Is a positive mindset crucial for effective problem-solving and entrepreneurship?

We’ve often heard on this show that maintaining a ‘can-do’ attitude can be a game-changer. It seems that if you believe there’s a solution, you’ll find one. However, if you let doubt enter your mind, it could become a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure.

Would you agree?

Melissa Thom:

You know, the answer varies depending on how you define a positive attitude.

Some call it visualisation, while others term it as positivity.

However, what’s often overlooked is recognising your limitations and knowing when to walk away from something that’s not working.

For instance, when we were running Audio Enable and Radio in Schools, it was decent but not quite enough to sustain us. We operated it for three years before deciding to halt operations. That decision freed up the mental bandwidth to focus on SecondSync, another venture.

It’s essential to assess when it’s time to shift gears, adapt, or, to use an overused term, pivot. That’s what we did with SecondSync; we adapted to the market’s changing needs on a limited budget. And storytelling—being able to connect with people—has helped us navigate numerous challenges.

I believe in positivity, but it must be coupled with realism. Can you realistically deliver on what you’re promising without burning out?

Although we’ve faced burnout and exhaustion, we didn’t get through our journey without some bumps along the way.

Bex Burn-Callander:

That’s valuable advice—knowing your limitations and not becoming overly sentimental about a business venture. I think these insights are invaluable for any founder.

Shifting gears, a bit, you mentioned living in the United States for a couple of years. As a Brit, did you find a distinct difference in business culture when comparing the US to the UK?

Melissa Thom:

I absolutely love America, although I do understand my experience might be different from what most people encounter.

Americans seem incredibly open, and I’ve always enjoyed my time there. The US appears to have a more supportive environment for entrepreneurship; it’s culturally more accepted to start a business. In the UK, there’s often a more limited mindset about what one can achieve.

In the US, people are more willing to celebrate each other’s success. In the UK, success is desired, but if someone else achieves it, it becomes a topic best avoided.

The market in America is considerably larger, offering more growth opportunities for businesses. That said, I’ve also received incredible support in the UK, particularly from the Department of Business and Trade.

Another difference I’ve noticed is that Americans are generally more willing to share contacts and connections, whereas in the UK, this sort of information is usually closely guarded.

It’s not that you can’t get things done in the UK, it’s just that the approach must be different. I should clarify that these observations are based on my own experiences, so they might not hold true for everyone.

Bex Burn-Callander:

Can you envision a strong focus on the US market for BRAVA? Could this be a significant avenue for expansion?

Melissa Thom:

Absolutely. We already have ties with the US—we train there and have relationships with coaches in America. My visit to GDC as BRAVA’s CEO was based on this. So, we are exploring the US market.

Refine your services for success

Bex Burn-Callander:

What are your current goals for BRAVA? Can you give us a glimpse into your future?

Melissa Thom:

We’re celebrating our second anniversary this month, which marks an exciting phase in our journey.

The first year was about market exploration, and this past year we’ve focused on refining our services. In that time, our growth has been significant increasing by 50% across all areas and doubling both our courses and our student base.

We believe that voice acting skills have broad applications in life, and while we’re currently concentrated on providing the best voice acting programme, we have plans for future diversification.

We’ve recently launched a talent database, connecting trained voice actors with various industry opportunities. Our unique approach involves deeply understanding the capabilities of everyone, making casting both seamless and effective.

As for our strategic growth, we’re still in the early stages of innovating our casting methods. We actively seek partnerships and have already formed connections at key events, like GDC, where we had the opportunity to meet and present our talent to Lucasfilm’s VP, Douglas Riley.

Finally, we’re aware of the evolving role of AI in our industry. While it’s too early to say if it poses a threat, we’re proactively exploring ways for our talent to adapt. Overall, this year has been about honing our core offerings, and we’re optimistic about the future.

Here’s how much can you earn from voice acting

Bex Burn-Callander:

For those considering voice acting as a potentially lucrative side hustle, you might be wondering about the earning potential and how long it takes to generate a significant income.

Melissa Thom:

Certainly, the earning potential in voice acting varies significantly depending on a few factors. Essentially, you get out of it what you put into it.

Whether you dedicate 10-20% of your time to voice acting or make it your full-time job, your earnings will reflect that commitment. Being a full-time voice actor isn’t for everyone—it often involves long hours in a recording studio, which can be isolating.

In terms of rates, corporate narration jobs can pay around £250 per hour, with additional usage fees for commercials. While fields like audio drama and audiobooks may not be as lucrative, they are popular among trained actors.

For those incorporating voice acting into their existing skill set, you could expect to earn an additional £30,000 to £35,000 per year as a baseline.

These numbers can climb higher depending on your network, contacts, and clients. Alternatively, you could focus on hourly gigs to boost your monthly income by an extra £1,000 or more.

So, while I hesitate to provide a one-size-fits-all number, these are some figures to consider as you explore this career path.

The costs of training in voice acting

Bex Burn-Callander:

Could you clarify the costs associated with training at BRAVA? Do you offer a single, comprehensive course, or is it possible to select individual modules, resulting in variable pricing?

Melissa Thom:

We offer a flexible approach to training. If you’re looking to become a fully trained voice actor, we have three core modules focusing on narration, commercial work, and character voices.

We strongly believe that mastery in these three areas is essential for professional development. Additionally, we emphasise the importance of having professionally produced demos; it’s not advisable to create these on your own.

While we bring in expert coaches for a well-rounded educational experience, particularly from the United States, the comprehensive course would cost you around £6,000 to £7,000.

However, we advocate for a step-by-step approach. Start with stage one and focus on your narration demo. After completing that, we’ll discuss your progress and whether you should move on to stages two and three.

We tailor our programmes to meet individual needs rather than asking for full payment upfront. This method aligns with our philosophy of providing long-term support and ensuring that trainees acquire the skills they need for their specific areas of interest in voice acting.

Additionally, we offer specialised masterclasses for £120 and host free industry talks, which I personally find quite enriching.

The craft of voice acting is not something you can rush into; it requires time and dedication. I hope this clarifies our offerings and approach.

How AI could disrupt voice acting

Bex Burn-Callander:

You touched upon AI as a potential disruptor in the field.

Could you elaborate on how you’re positioning your business to adapt to the emerging prevalence of highly realistic AI-generated voices? Do you view this as a concern, or are you confident that the unique qualities of a human voice will always be irreplaceable?

Melissa Thom:

The future of voice acting in the face of AI is still uncertain.

While I can’t disclose all our plans, it’s obvious that this technology is a potential threat, especially given developments in the United States. Striking isn’t an option for us in the UK currently, but we’re aware that certain segments of the market may become unstable.

Despite this challenge, we see opportunities arising. Companies are already approaching us for solutions, and we’re helping voice actors diversify their skill sets—although I won’t specify how at this moment.

Many voice actors have experienced a decline in work, so we’re engaging in confidential consultations to explore ways to adapt and sustain their careers.

At this point, I still see opportunities.

I have been hired to revoice ads that were initially done by AI, indicating that the technology still lacks the nuance of a human actor. We’re also collaborating with organisations like Equity to stay abreast of industry changes.

I strongly recommend that voice actors join Equity and explore their new audio information hub, which offers valuable resources.

So, while the landscape is shifting, I believe there are still avenues to explore and ways to adapt.

With social media, fully invest or opt out

Bex Burn-Callander:

Because you’ve started so many businesses in different fields, can you tell me what is the piece of advice you would give yourself way back when you first started that original venture?

What have you learned as a serial founder that you wish you knew at the beginning?

Melissa Thom:

Having the right support is crucial for longevity and success in any venture.

I attribute much of my ability to provide support at BRAVA to the unwavering support of my husband. Being able to openly discuss matters, knowing they won’t go beyond our conversations, is invaluable.

I try to extend this level of confidentiality and deep understanding to the talent we nurture at BRAVA. I call this the ‘circle of trust’: having at least one person you can call at any time to honestly discuss your concerns is vital.

As for social media, it’s a double-edged sword. My advice is to either fully invest in it or opt out; both are valid choices.

I’ve found that intermittent efforts, like the occasional Throwback Thursday post, are not meaningful to me. At BRAVA, we focus on creating content that resonates with us. If it’s not interesting to us, we don’t see the value in sharing it.

In summary, my top tips for success are securing the right support network—be it a single person or a group—and making a considered decision about your engagement with social media. These pillars can be particularly helpful in navigating challenges and fostering sustainable success.

Bex Burn-Callander:

Regarding social media, is there a specific platform you believe stands out as more effective than the rest?

Melissa Thom:

Certainly, discussing social media can be overwhelming. While I’m no expert on the subject, it’s interesting because my husband’s business was eventually integrated into Twitter.

For our B2B operations, LinkedIn has proven invaluable. We also make use of Instagram to showcase our brand’s creative side and core values.

Our following may be small, but it’s a committed community, which I find more valuable than boasting about having millions of followers. A large following is only meaningful if those people are genuinely interested in what BRAVA offers.

So, to directly answer your question: Instagram, LinkedIn, and surprisingly, Facebook have been the most effective platforms for us. Many might say Facebook isn’t useful for their businesses, but it has worked well for BRAVA.

Bex Burn-Callander:

Thank you. I understand that discussing social media can be complex, especially if you’re not a native user. But I appreciate you sharing BRAVA’s experience with our audience; it’s a great starting point.

Melissa Thom:

Oh, thank you. Being a guest on this podcast has been an absolute delight. Your professionalism throughout the process has been exceptional. So, I’m very grateful for the invitation.

Inspired by this small business story?

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Want to know more about Melissa Thom or BRAVA?

You can find out more about Melissa on her website, LinkedIn, or Twitter.

You can also find out more about the Bristol Academy of Voice Acting (BRAVA).