Tag Archives: common mistakes

10 Common Mistakes to Avoid When Starting a Personal History Business.

When I  launched my first business venture as a documentary filmmaker over 30 years ago, I wish I knew then what I know now. It would have saved me a lot of grief. I’m older and “somewhat” wiser now and hope that these lessons learned from the trenches will be of help to you.

Here are 10 mistakes to avoid.

1. No savings.

Don’t do what I did. I catapulted myself into the world of independent documentary filmmaking without a dime in the bank. It was gutsy but unwise. I spent several years, desperate and struggling.  Getting a personal history business up and running is going to take at least a year or two of hard effort. Give yourself some peace of mind by knowing that those lean years are covered by your savings. You’ll sleep better at night. 

2. Not charging what your worth.

Lowering your rates in the hopes of landing a contract is a recipe for failure. Once you’ve set low rates, it’s hard to increase them.  You’ll end up not making enough income to support yourself. Overworked and burned out, you’ll eventually give up. Remember you’re a professional with years of experience. Being underpaid does nothing for your self-esteem and nothing for your business.

3. Choosing the wrong business partner.

This is another mistake I made. I spent too much of my emotional energy resenting the fact that my partner wasn’t carrying a fair share of the business load. After a year I got out of the partnership and never looked back. Don’t get me wrong, a business partner can be a great asset but choose wisely.  Look for someone who shares your values and can assist you in areas where you’re deficient.

4. No contract.

You don’t have to produce a “door stopper” legal document. But minimally you need a letter of agreement to avoid complications.  The agreement include a project description, fees, timelines,  and terms of payment.

5. Failing to say ‘no’.

When you’re starting out, it’s tough to say ‘no’ to a low paying job or to say ‘no’ to a troublesome client. You reason that working for something is better than nothing. But time spent laboring for ‘peanuts’ means missed opportunities to land some major contracts. And just because you’re starting out, doesn’t mean you have to  suffer the “client from hell”.

For more on saying ‘no’ check out my previous article The Power of “No”.

6. Doing everything.

I’ll admit I still tend to try and do everything. And part of that is okay. What I like about being a personal historian is that I get to wear different hats.  But  doing everything becomes counterproductive when you take on tasks for which you have little skill. For example, I’m not adept at bookkeeping which is why I have an accountant. And while I love graphic design and have a reasonably good eye, I would always hire a designer for a major book project.

Play to your strengths and hire out to manage your shortcomings.

7. Failing to keep detailed records.

Throwing receipts into a shoe box and then hauling them out at tax time is no way to run a business. I’ve done that! You need to keep an electronic record of your income and expenses on a monthly basis. This not only gives you a means of assessing the health of your enterprise but also provides  accurate records for your tax return.

8. Not putting money aside for taxes.

I know from experience this can be tough. If you’re barely able to pay your bills, setting aside money for the tax man seems like a non-starter. But getting to the end of the year and finding you have a tax bill of several thousand dollars and not a penny to spare is devastating. It can lead to bankruptcy or giving up your dream to take a  job to pay your taxes.

9. Failure to devote enough time to marketing.

Most personal historians I know would rather be cast off on an ice floe than market their business.  Including me. But the truth is that unless people know you exist, they won’t be able to hire you. And your business will fail.

The start up for any business requires extra marketing effort. This means more than putting up a web site, printing business cards, and sending out a press release. The trick is to get out of your office and go where you’re clients are likely to be found.

Here are some previous articles I’ve written that you might find useful:

10. Pretending to be something you’re not.

When you’re starting out, it’s natural to feel vulnerable. You worry that people won’t take you seriously if they know you’re a one-person operation. So there’s a temptation to create a “corporate” identity that projects an image of “we” rather than “I”.   But honesty is the best policy. It builds trust. In today’s world of box stores and indifferent mega corporations, your strength is the personal, caring attention you bring to your clients. Be proud to be a solopreneur!

Also, don’t pretend you’re multi-talented if you’re not. If your cash flow is drying up, it’s tempting to take on a lucrative project even though you’ve little or no expertise to pull it off successfully. You’ll end up with disappointed clients and bruised self-esteem.


Avoiding these mistakes won’t guarantee success. But they’ll make your start up more enjoyable and less likely to fail.

What are some of the lessons you’ve learned the hard way? Please share them. Your experience will benefit all those newcomers to the personal history business.

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Photo by mischelle

Do You Make These 5 Common Audio Mistakes?

Imagine yourself in this situation. You’ve just completed videotaping an hour-long interview. It was  nicely lit and framed. And the interview itself was fantastic! Excitedly you rush back to your editing suite,  put up your interview to screen, and then the shock. The picture looks great but the audio is terrible. There’s nothing you can do to fix it. The interview is ruined!

I know that getting flawless sound all the time is nearly impossible. But you can improve the odds if you avoid making these 5 common audio mistakes.

1. Using the wrong microphone

All microphones are not created equal. The worse choice is using the microphone that comes with your video or audio recorder. These are passable for family events but not for a professional interview.  Built-in mics  pick-up the electronic clicks and whirs of the equipment and are sensitive to any hand contact.

Don’t use wireless mics for interviews unless you plan to spend the big bucks. Inexpensive wireless mics can pick up frequency interference from a host of sources such as cell phones, TV stations, CD players, computers, and PDAs.

Your best bet for interviews is to use a lapel mic or shotgun mic mounted on a stand. This will ensure better sound quality because the mic can be placed close to the subject.

2. not eliminating Background noise

Nothing spoils an interview more than background noise. You need to have the ears of a bat to eliminate unwanted sounds..

Make certain to turn off or unplug everything that you’ve control over. This includes heating and cooling systems,  refrigerators and freezers, radios and music players,  cell and land line telephone, and ticking clocks. Also make sure to close outside windows and the door to the interview room.

Before starting the interview put on your headphones and listen carefully for any stray background noise. If you’ve done your job thoroughly, all you should hear is the faint breathing of your subject.

3. Not using headphones

If you’re not wearing headphones, you can’t adequately monitor the quality of the audio you’re recording. Over-the ear headphones are the best. Spend some money and invest in a good pair. Failing that, anything is better than nothing. Even the earbuds from your iPod will do in a pinch.

4. recording with Automatic gain control

Unfortunately,  most consumer video and audio recorders come with Automatic Gain Control or AGC. While it’s easier to record sound it also produces poor quality.

The problem is that the gain control monitors the loudness or quietness of what you’re recording and automatically adjusts the level. For example, when the interviewee pauses, the AGC raises the recording level which in turn causes an increases in the ambient sound. When the person begins talking again the recording level is lowered. This produces a pulsing effect with the ambient sound that’s difficult to eliminate without time consuming sound editing.

Do yourself a favor and spend enough to purchase a recorder that has a manual gain control. It’ll mean monitoring your audio input continually, but you’ll end up with good sound.

5. Failing to eliminate electronic hum and buzz

Electromagnetic radiation or EMR  is produced by such devices as power cables, computer monitors, radios, and TVs. Placing your video or audio recorder and audio cables next to these EMR sources can result in an audible hum or buzz.

Make sure that all your recording equipment is separated as far as possible from these EMR sources. Even a few inches can make a difference. If that’s not possible, try crossing your power cable at right angles to your mic cables.

the bottom line

Don’t push the record button until you’ve done everything possible to ensure that your audio will be pristine.

Photo by Alper Tecer

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From the Archives: Do You Make These 5 Common Video Composition Mistakes?

Do You Make These 5 Video Composition Mistakes? Poor composition makes a video interview look  amateurish. If you don’t take time to set up your interview properly, it won’t matter how much you spent on your camcorder. Here are the five most common mistakes… Read More

Do You Make These 5 Common Video Composition Mistakes?

Poor composition makes a video interview look  amateurish. If you don’t take time to set up your interview properly, it won’t matter how much you spent on your camcorder. Here are the five most common mistakes.

framing - poor lighting

Subject placed against a blank wall.

Placing your subject up against a blank wall.

There are several problems with this. The first is that most blank walls are really unattractive. It creates the impression that your subject is being interrogated in a police holding cell. The other problem, if you’re not careful with lighting, is that your subject casts an ugly shadow on the wall.  Always pay attention to the background.



bad framing - air space

Background is too busy.

Losing your subject in background clutter.

This is the opposite of the blank wall syndrome. Be careful to place your subject in such a way that he isn’t visually overwhelmed by the background. Try for an interesting but somewhat neutral backdrop for your interview.

Too much space around subject.

Too much space around subject.




Too much “air” space.

You don’t want a lot of space around your subject. It creates the feeling that the space is more important than your subject.


Having  “odd” forms growing out of your subject’s head.

This can create unintended humor. Check for wayward plants, ornaments, or other items that appear to have taken root on your subject’s head.

Head growths.

Head growths.

Not sufficient lead space.

Not sufficient lead space.

Leaving too little “lead” space.

If your subject is facing left or right, you want to frame him so there’s more space in front of him than behind. This creates a natural flow from your subject’s eyes to what he’s looking at off screen.

Blank wall photo by Paul
Backgound clutter photo by Mikel Daniel
Too much space photo by Laurie
Head growths photo by Jehane
Too little lead space photo by Gianpaolo Fusari

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