How to triple your income from speaking

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Looking for practical advice and training from the world’s most successful speakers? The Speaker Lab Podcast features business tactics, tips, and strategies from the world’s most successful speakers. We post transcripts of every episode as resources to help you build your speaking business.

Grant: Hey, friends – welcome back to The Speaker Lab Podcast. Good to have you here with us today. I’m excited to have a good friend of mine who is back to give an update and he’s had some big things happening.

So let’s kind of talk about where you’re at now because when we met at the time I was in the speaking world and was still speaking quite a bit. And over the years you’ve been interested in speaking, we’ve kind of crossed paths. You live in Dallas most of the time. And so I had done a couple gigs down there and we’d meet up and you’ve reached out a couple times and shared your interest in speaking. We kind of talked that through and it seemed like you kind of dabbled in it. But then a couple years ago right before COVID, you decided to go all in on it. And then COVID slowed everything down for a minute, but catch us up on what the past couple of years have been like in your speaking business.

You’re trying to figure out, you know, those early stages of who am I speaking to? What am I speaking about? What’s that problem that I’m solving? I’m making some pivots and iterations, but I mean, you’re hitting some serious traction now, which we’ll get to, but kind of paint us the picture here of what the past couple years have been like.

How it Started and How It’s Going

Jake: So the funny part about the past couple years is I invested in and started running down the path in 2016 after just occasionally groups reaching out to speak. And then in 2017 I went through your program. And it was like, oh, this is the business side. In 2018 I did five to eight gigs, maybe half were paid. And then 2019 was “boom, let’s go” because I finally was catching the leads. And so 2019 felt great. I think that first full time year, I probably did $65,000, which isn’t a big deal from like an overall speaker industry. But that first full year you’re still competing and building that brand. And I was like okay — maybe I can get a living on this.

End of January of 2020 I’d already doubled that in contracts —obviously all of us remember what happened about two months later. But I still was able to grow it. But my business still grew and I could pivot to virtual too.

I had lost gigs in 18 and 19 for not having a book. So I wrote my book, published the book in 2020 which opened a ton of doors and just tried to keep the momentum. 2021 was a little bit more growth with carrying over older contracts and still getting new ones. We know how awkward the landscape has been.

A lot of groups weren’t doing in-person in 2021. I was like, I’ll fly anywhere in the country. Pretty much from the end of 2020, I was anywhere that wanted in-person, I would go. So 2021 was good, but I felt really good about 2022 for a few reasons. My book has been out for a year and a half. At that point I was feeling like I was really hitting into the niche. Everything that you were on me about because my inbound is so diverse because of the brand I’ve built, I really started picking narrower lanes and identifying what problem to solve that paired with the book. The book got in more hands, I was getting on more stages, more people seeing it just kind of hit the right momentum to where the end of last year into this year from a speaking income, I tripled last year’s income this year. And we’re recording this in August, so there’s still more opportunities throughout the year to see what else we can do this year. And that’s not including the coaching and consulting I’ve brought in because of speaking.

Grant: Wow. All right. So you tripled that. Is there any number that you can share with us? What number are you comfortable with?

Jake: Yeah, so this year if I don’t book another gig, we’ll be at about $300,000. And so part of that, there’s a few things that led into that one. Uh, getting really narrow on who I’m going after, what problem I solved for the two to three industries that really worked for me, understanding that being on a bunch of stages, whether it’s a lower paying gig a couple years ago or getting paid well, and then doing well on those stages and working the referral process off of it really the last three years.

Over 50% of my business has been repeat business which has been awesome and pretty rare. But it’s a lot more corporate and so those two paired really well together. And then finally, my business coach, Carrie Wilkerson, was like, you need to stop. I was taking some lower fees because I just wanted to get reps. In my head, I thought, I need reps. I need to be in front of more people, whatever it takes. And she said, well, yeah, but you’re getting really good gigs and you’re doing really well and getting referrals, you don’t need to take lower paying fees.

You’ve got to change your mindset around that. And so that paired with a client, which is funny and led to the other part of the story, but they asked what my fee was for the event. I told him and he said, “The next time you ever bill me for an event, I want you to double that.” He said, “You haven’t even spoken to us yet, but if it’s not $15,000 (I charged him $7,500), it’s a disappointment.”

Well now I started building momentum and taking bigger shots. And so now I’m consistently over the last three months booking anywhere from $12,500 to $20,000 a gig. And part of that was just having the confidence to ask for it. Part of it was I have the track record that if clients are rebooking me, I’m doing a great job. And so I should know I can bring that value. And so all of those kind of came together this year to where I’m not probably doing a ton more gigs than I did last year, but I’m charging substantially more. So that’s kind of been the mentality of how can I be more strategic with the clients I work with? The things I take on knowing that I’m going to ask for a higher dollar amount, because I want to work with less people so I can go deeper on those relationships.

Grant: One of the brands that you’ve been known for that you have built again outside of this is this idea of competing every day. And you have an apparel company around this. And it’s something that I know you really teach and preach. So I’m curious as your businesses evolved over the past couple years, what’s the mental journey been like for you as far as building up the confidence that you can be a speaker, you can charge more, and you do deserve to be here. How has that mental process played out over the past couple years?

Jake: Yeah, it’s really interesting. You kick yourself after the fact for not making the mental shifts earlier. Really mindset shift has been around it, but just understanding when clients allow me to reposition and reframe a message, when clients are rebooking me, it means I’m bringing value. And if I’m bringing value, I deserve to get paid what I am worth. And if they feel, they’re going to pay me an amount and then want to book me again for it, then I’m adding that much value to their organization. Then I need to start looking at it with all the organizations I work with and obviously working some with their budget, depending on who they are, but streamlining it much more effectively. So that’s been a big piece. The bigger challenge honestly, has been on the apparel side because I started selling t-shirts out of the trunk of my car.

The brand is very tied into who I am, but I’ve grown and I’ve stopped caring if we become a multimillion dollar apparel company and started looking at the apparel as just making a little bit of money and if we can just grow year over year. Especially knowing it provides an outlet to create speaking leads for me as well as additional chances for me to reinforce the messages I teach from the book, the podcast, and the stage on a t-shirt. It helps me build that longer relationship with somebody that maybe a year from now they get put in a position at their company where they can hire a speaker. So I’ve let go and now am asking, how can I help people build this competitive mindset in whatever form? That’s really been the biggest shift.

Grant: Yeah, I want to go back to 2017 or so you and when you jump in with The Speaker Lab, you join one of our programs and get after it and then can fast forward five years and at this point it sounds like you’ve generated, cumulatively, maybe close to a million dollars in speaking fees, consulting, coaching — which is crazy! Has that five year journey — did you anticipate that, or has it exceeded your expectations? And then also, I guess, what would you say to someone who’s listening and thinking, I’ve been following The Speaker Lab for a while, I’m intrigued and I would love to do this, and I wish I would’ve started five years ago, but here I am today. And so kind of talk us through what you would say.

Why Mindset Matters

Jake: So I think I’m still below my expectations because I want to be that “million a year” speaker. I’ve got some cool opportunities where that’s very close, but what I would say is, I had an advantage in the fact that I built a brand and a business that was very consumer facing. I would say that gave me somewhat of a platform. But the disadvantage of that is it wasn’t the same audience who was going to book me. So even though I had people that followed me, most of them at the time when I started speaking, weren’t the people hiring me. One person was here, one person there. I think 2017 and 18, I got maybe three gigs, and it was less than $2000 for fees total. So I like to say that you can look at where I’m at now and think it must be nice or wish I’d started, but I can tell you my attitude when I got to The Speaker Lab was that I have got to learn this, I’m going to put this in practice, and I’m just going to work it. And I’m going to try this outbound thing and I’m going to start reaching out to folks and I’m going to figure it out — and I need a niche. And it took a while, but I just kept the conversations going. I have groups now that some of them have tried to book for a couple years and we’ve just had ongoing conversations where we agree it’s not a fit for this year, but let’s still get next year. We just keep working it.

So for someone sitting on the sidelines, the best way to do it is get in and start working in the system — everything you all (The Speaker Lab) is teaching is a hundred percent applicable and works. There’s no timeline because the timeline varies on how good you are at communicating what problem you solve to the right audience. How consistent are you at that? Not only learning the work, but doing the outbound and getting on stages and getting reps and being willing to look a little bit foolish on stage on your first gig that you’re nervous about, but you have to get in front of people.

Ask yourself, What did I do today to move the business? To move my career forward, it can be as little as sending two emails out to two different meeting planners or associations, or spending 20 minutes just working on a story that you want to tell on stage. And so that’s what I always go back to is that process. And don’t worry about the end goal, wherever you’re trying to get to, you have to compete every day. What are you doing today to get a little bit better and just work that process, knowing that your team is incredible.

There’s just so much information that people who don’t take action and don’t “ask” are completely leaving on the table. And that leaves you in a bad position later because you wish you’d started five years ago. And then in five more years you wish you had started five years ago or 10 years ago. Groups are having events. People are excited to be back in person. This is a great opportunity to get reps and really start to build that career.

A Career-Changing Opportunity

Grant: Yeah, very true. If you do the work, you plant a lot of seeds and you may not see anything happening, but that doesn’t mean nothing is happening behind the scenes. And all those adages we say all the time here on the show — we tell students it works if you do the work and you’ve put in the work and you (Jake) have reaped the benefits because of that. So huge, huge props to you.

So let’s shift gears for a second. We’ve alluded to the fact that you were invited to do a gig that has now kind of evolved into something certainly much bigger. So talk us through that evolution – what’s happened and what that has led to.

Jake: So most of my work as a speaker has been doing a keynote, occasionally doing a workshop or a breakout, and that’s it. We’re the mercenaries. We come in, we deliver the value. We leave. I did a little bit of one-on-one coaching for some sales professionals on the side to kind of build the habits and systems. So in October I got booked to do a keynote in Florida with a group, and after the event, the CEO pulled me aside and said, “I want you to do more of that with us.”

And I asked, like another keynote? And he said “No, no, no. I want you to coach me. And I want you to coach our team on these things you’re talking about.” And I was like, I don’t really do that. In my head, I’m thinking, long term I want to build out a system. So I was like, let’s have a talk in two weeks, and so two weeks later, we get on a Zoom call. And he’s like, I’m one hundred percent serious on this. I want you to do this. I think you can do this. Even if you’ve never coached someone like me -and he’s incredibly successful – he was like, this is me telling you, you need to level up. And I laughed because I was like, cool. Throw my own stuff back in my face. So then actually I talked to you, I talked to Eric (Rheam), put together an offer and so we started that arrangement in January.

I would go spend two days on site with their team. I would do small breakouts and workshops, teaching them habits, teaching them mental performance, teaching them how to build this competitive attitude and mindset in your daily processes. And about three months in, he started casually recruiting me.

I kind of laughed and told him he couldn’t afford me, because in my head I knew where I wanted to go with speaking. And he’s like, let’s have the conversation. So we had it for about three months. And he came back with an offer to be a fractional executive.

So essentially their head of performance. And I’ll be in charge of KPIs and coaching their team. In addition to still keeping all my speaking opportunities and gigs, he said I could still run and compete in that space every day. Still go speak, just come into the office a couple days a week. And then eventually, if this works long term, we’d love for you to be based out of south Florida where we are.

So we went back and forth, talked to my wife. The revenue level was too much to say no to at the time, mainly because it created an opportunity to speed up our long term goals. But additionally, in my head I saw it as a no lose situation. We got a six to eight month courting phase to say see if it worked with their team and still going out and speaking, and then as the company is continuing to grow, if I am in your C-suite and one of your top two individuals — if we end up taking this company on its current pace from a 10 million a year to a 100 million dollar year organization, and I’m head of performance, how many doors does that open for me on the speaking circuit? Because that’s something I don’t have. I’ve never been in a corporate role. I’ve never been in a C-suite position. I’ve always been the entrepreneur building it on my own. So that changes the dynamic of the type of conversations I can have, which further raises who I can get in front of from a conversation standpoint.

And we saw it as a test, if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. It’s a great learning experience. So it’s giving me a ton of content. So I just started with them as a fractional executive, I’m still traveling once a week, sometimes twice a week, to go do keynote with clients. None of that changes. The only thing we have an agreement on is a non-compete with any direct competitors. And so it’s kind of fun. It’s a really cool opportunity. And the mindset that we talked about earlier has shifted because now I’m even pickier on what gigs I want and what gigs I’ll go after, because my travel and how much I’m doing is so much more full that I’m charging a higher number.

And in most cases I’m not coming off of that higher number unless it’s an opportunity where I could build something long term, because I don’t really need it at this point.  I’m incredibly excited about that, but that all came out of me doing a ton of speaking gigs and trying to get better and working the process.

Grant: That’s crazy, man. So again, in summary, a client you started working with almost at this point a year ago or so, and they say, “Hey, we’re gonna keep bringing you back” to the point of, “Hey, can we hire you and ultimately be able to kind of have your cake and eat it too.”

You get to go deeper with this one particular client. That’s going to help build up your resume and give you some credibility with other potential clients you may work with. But at the same time you can continue to do 40, 50, 60 speaking gigs a year. They’re cool with that. They’re aware of it. And so again you really get the best of both worlds. So what’s the downside here of doing something like this?

Jake: Yeah. So, the only downside we actually looked at is would it slow my momentum because it cuts down the amount of stages I’m going to go after, and I’m not going to be on as many. And that’s just from an awareness standpoint, however, Why do you get on more stages? Well, to get a bigger audience, to command a higher fee, to build bigger, get in front of bigger clients. And I’ve kind of cut that out because now I have a substantial salary and bonus structure with them as a part-time executive and I’m still not giving up speaking. So I get to keep the momentum. So it really was not a downside other than the extended travel on the family side as I’m going back and forth. It’s kind of the mentality Carrie challenged me with, that instead of going after 50 gigs a year at $10,000 to $15,000 a pop, what if you went after 5-10 and built longer relationships where you could really incorporate change.

Turning Opportunity into Possibility

Grant: So obviously in this situation, it kind of came about organically and over a period of time, it’s not going to be one of those things that all of a sudden will turn into this career opportunity.

But for someone who may be in a similar spot and thinking, I’ve done some speaking, I’ve done some consulting, I’ve done some coaching. Here’s one particular client on my radar that, maybe I’ve done a couple of repeat things. If we have a good rapport, good connection. I’d love to do more with them. Go deeper in the trenches with them. How would you go about navigating those conversations? You know, what could that look like? Any advice that you would have now that you’ve kind of gone through it over the past six months or so.

Jake: Yeah. And, actually I’ve done it with a couple of other clients on a smaller scale, not to where I’ll step in fractionally, but did a keynote, did another keynote, did a leadership development program with the team over the next 8-12 months. So it really starts with nailing the first gig. Once you have that relationship, then follow-up and ask, “What are the biggest pain points you’re still seeing in your team or one the things that we talked about in the keynote where maybe either you’re feeling friction or wanting additional help?”  Get some insight from them of where there are opportunities and then say, “Oh! That’s fantastic. Well, you know, if you’re interested, I’d love to talk about maybe how we can extend the life of that 60 minute keynote into a six month working relationship. And I’ll take you through X, Y, and Z model to help your team.”

Most of us speakers, I’ll be honest, when you’re first getting going on this, you don’t create the curriculum until you have the gig. You know what the client wants, you know what problem they have, you know your content. And then you ask what it would look like to make a 12 month program out of it, and then on a smaller budget, if I did a four month program for it, and then you can give them both options and we create something. So it’s all about just asking and getting to the root of it vs. getting the gig and following up in a year.

Grant: So how did you figure out what pricing would be with this primary client, but some of those other one-off 6 or 12 month contracts that you’re doing?

Jake: Yeah. So doing it wrong and realizing you’ve under priced yourself for the amount of work you’ve done — that’s a great way to learn it. The other is, you (Grant) were a valuable resource. Erick (Rheam) was a valuable resource, and a couple other speakers in our network that had done this kind of thing. Just talking through everything I needed to think about that. I probably wasn’t thinking about when I was putting the outlines together and then putting a number on there that I kind of did it as a menu. And when I put a number out there I wanted it to excite me because if I was going to invest this much time and energy, I didn’t want it to be a low number and I’m kind of dragging into it.

The menu allowed me to talk to clients and ask what things on the menu should we pull out that weren’t essential for them? So then as I decrease that number to maybe get where they are, I’ve also pulled out a lot of the responsibilities and tasks that I would’ve done no different than what I do with the keynote.

Here’s my fee. Here’s everything that comes in the keynote. Your budget’s a little bit lower. Okay. Well, I’m gonna take this out and take this out and maybe take this out and then you feel good about it because you feel like you’ve removed a lot of excess responsibilities for the event. And I’ll create an opportunity on the back end to talk about consulting.

So that’s one way to do it, but I’ve found it’s tougher initially because you’re creating all the content the first time, but now I have all that content and curriculum. So then it’s an easy change for any other company. So you have to know going in the first one that you’re going to put in way more work than you will in the others, but you’re going to build the outline that becomes way more repeatable in the future that you can then just tweak and customize with each.

Grant: So with the keynote, it’s pretty standard for the most part. You’re going to have 5-10% customization, but do you find whenever it comes to the consulting/coaching packages, that’s the big menu item and then we can chop off some items from there, depending on what they’re looking for, or is it always going to be custom or how do you approach it from the beginning?

Jake: So the large group in Florida was pretty custom. We went in with an agenda, but then as it started going, they saw opportunities for additional coaching. So we put a high-level curriculum calendar together, and that kind of went in one window and out the other. Once we started working together and I was able to add some value in other areas where they really needed help. Given what they were paying monthly, the time commitment was a little less work because it was more interactive. Most of the clients have the high-level content and pieces there already, I just kind of do a little bit of customization on it. And what I’m trying to do right now personally, is build out 12-18 months of evergreen type content that I can record and have the online library and then be able to license out to groups.

So I think your consulting should kind of be the same thing. You have the same core principles always on repeat, you just may package them a little bit different depending on who the client is.

Virtual Speaking, the Recession, and What’s Next

Grant: Let’s wrap up with this — a couple questions. One is, as we look toward the future, you mentioned, we’ve gone through a pandemic a couple years ago that really birthed virtual which wasn’t a thing prior to. I’m curious how virtual is fitting into your business both now and into the future, but also, as you alluded to, there’s been a lot of talk recently about a recession, potential recession. Are we in it? Are we not? Are we going toward one, is it gonna be worse? Like what are you kind of seeing there?

Jake: As far as virtual and the economy and what the future of your business — so even though I get to see your beautiful mug right here on Zoom, I am not a virtual fan, solely, because for me I’m a very high energy guy when I’m speaking, engaging the room, and it takes even more to do half of that on Zoom.

It’s very exhausting and also I feel like most everybody’s kind of Zoomed out. So I’ll only do Zoom for a special client or what I’ve started doing is packaging as a way to extend additional speaking opportunities and increase the revenue of a fee. But it’s rare that I’m doing a stand alone virtual program anymore.

The only one that I’ve done in the last six months was for a client in DFW and they literally booked me a month out. They were like, “Hey, we have an event. It’s virtual. Are you free?” I was home. I was open. They wanted me for 30 minutes. They had a decent budget. I said, absolutely, let’s do it. It was one of those, like you have nowhere to be, the wife’s out of town. Yeah, let’s do it. They followed up literally the next day and booked me for their in person event in September. So that was a pretty good choice to make.

But for the most part, I’m only looking at virtual as a way to add on additional value to get them even at a higher fee. So that’s where I look at it as kind of a menu item to build on. And I know some people, they love virtual, they want to stay on it. I just feel like getting referrals and getting repeat business is much harder in the Zoom setting because you don’t get the pre-event and the post-event interaction with people that you do in live events. And that was the one thing I saw the last couple years is I had some killer Zoom presentations, and I know that sounds super arrogant, but I felt like I crushed it. The event planner thought I crushed it, but I got zero interaction with the people other than that window. And I didn’t get referrals out of it.

Grant: Very cool. So what are you thinking that the future of speaking looks like in terms of the economy – being in sales and leadership?

Jake: In good times you want the sales to keep going and find a way to get above your competition. And when the economy and everybody’s struggling, you need sales to generate revenue. So the markets I’m in tend to work really well, regardless. It’s kind of like my friends that are in the booze industry, everybody drinks when they’re happy and they drink when they’re sad. So — a sling product. But I think on the whole, there’s a mix. I think there are a handful of industries that are seeing struggle. I mean, retail, I’m seeing it on that half of my business with cost and everything else, but I think that paired with the built up anticipation of everybody wanting to be back together.

Maybe not even this year, but next year, I think you’re going to see the demand for people getting back together in person. And I’m just hearing that from clients that are doing their first in-person event this summer and this fall of like, you know, we thought it hasn’t quite been the best quarter, but like we need to be around each other again.

And so there’s a really good opportunity. The thing I’ll go back to on the economy and everything else — if you can solve a problem for a company that helps their people perform better, help them sell more, help them grow, gain market, share, work better — there’s always an opportunity for that, because no matter what the industry says, you can position yourself of how you can help that organization in that booming or that slower economy.

So that goes back to the most important thing of knowing the problem you solve, know the market you serve, work that process and then get really good at telling that story. And so I don’t necessarily worry as much about another recession and people aren’t doing as big events. Okay, cool. We’ll do Zoom again. We did it in COVID. Maybe I’ll have a little time. I’ll work on the next book. All of those pieces come into it, but when you’re the speaker and you’re focusing on the solution, you can create those opportunities and it’s really cool for those in this community.

Everybody’s business is different. You have to find what works for you, but if you can solve a problem, you’re able to help those companies regardless of the market.

Grant: Very good. Jake, we appreciate you taking a minute, sharing your insights, your journey with us, congrats on this new gig. Truly you’re a serious inspiration to speakers. If people want to find out more about you, where can we go?

Jake: Easiest place is competeeveryday.com. That’s the hub for me. And then any of my stuff, find me on LinkedIn. Find me on Instagram @jakethompsonspeaks.

Grant: Awesome. Thanks brother. We appreciate you.

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