Whether you're in Paris, Stockholm or pretty much any state in the U.S., you've likely heard the voice of Dave Steele.
With over 30 years of experience behind a microphone, he knows the voice-over work industry like the back of his hand. But beyond the talent, it’s his work ethic and dedication to clients that set him apart. Read on to learn more about his entrepreneurial journey.
When did you first start your voice over work?
I started doing voice-over work back around 1995—but with moderate success. I created a couple of audio commercials with a friend imitating the voice of the original “Visa, it’s everywhere you need to be.” They were very successful; I won an advertising award but I quickly figured out imitating other people was not going to get me where I needed to be. It took me a number of years to find my own style and by 2000 I finally started to see some success. The voice over industry isn’t easy, it takes a long long time to establish yourself and build a sustainable client base.
What were you doing before working for yourself?
I started in radio when I was a freshman in high school and then went to college for a degree in electrical engineering. After college, I quickly found myself back in radio. I was running radio stations all over the country as a program director, bouncing around from location to location.
So, what was the transition like going from a full-time gig to working for yourself full-time?
Once I had kids, the radio world wasn’t stable enough to maintain a reliable environment for them. At the same time, my voiceover work had really started taking off. There’s a saying in radio: ‘If you haven’t been fired you haven’t been in radio long enough’. Twenty-three years in radio was enough for me. That was the point I pivoted into working for myself full-time. And there’s been continued growth ever since.
If you could travel back in time and give your 2000 self some advice, what would it be?
Slow down and enjoy it. Entrepreneurship is not a race, it’s a marathon.
- Slow down and enjoy it. Entrepreneurship is not a race, it’s a marathon. Continue to plug away to the finish line, wherever that line may be. Don’t try to go too fast and outgrow your current capabilities, that never pays off and you’ll find yourself in a losing position.
- Do what you do, and do it well. Create and own your unique style. In this particular type of business, it will carry you farther than trying to bend to everyone else’s wants and needs.
- Underpromise and overdeliver. Your clients trust you with the success of their brand. If they need something and you’re their voice—you better be there for those people when they need it.
Those are solid insights. What type of challenging situation have you gleaned these insights from over the years?
Oftentimes, challenges in my industry are entirely new problems that you’ve never faced before. I’m constantly researching and trying to figure out exactly how to accomplish new tasks. For me, it’s more of an art form than any kind of mechanical calculation. For example, maybe someone isn’t looking for a movie trailer style voice over we want the guy next store who’s angry at his neighbors and wants to move.
Also, my work can be very objective. My idea of how something should sound might not be the same as yours. A good writer not only has a solid grasp of the English language, but they also have a clear idea of the other elements of a project in their mind—the music, the look and feel. So if all I have is a script, I don’t know what was running through someone’s head when they wrote it.
And it’s not just the writer who has an opinion. There’s the producer, director and others who have a say.
Sounds like a lot of cooks in the kitchen—how do you deal with this?
There are a lot of stakeholders involved in most projects and everyone has their different opinion. The way I interpret copy is sometimes nowhere close to the way the writer intended it to be. It’s all perspective. You need a tough skin because nothing will ever be exactly how each person wants it. There’s always going to be a lot of back and forth in order to satisfy everyone. If you can’t take criticism or get discouraged easily, this is not the job for you.
Constant feedback, transparency and communication is key to doing good business.
How do you set yourself apart from others?
When my clients come to me with a problem, I work with them to solve it, not just to meet their expectations—to exceed them.
Don’t think for a moment I take every piece of work that’s floated to me. There are business categories I flat-out refuse to work with at this point. It’s because I just don’t want to be ‘that guy’ that does medical commercials for example (7 hours of disclaimers doesn’t interest me *laughs*).
How can a freelancer get to a point where they can feel confident about turning down work?
You have to remember: Sometimes turning down work actually gets you more work.
You have to remember: Sometimes turning down work actually gets you more work. Carving out your niche sets you above the next person that might do anything for anybody under any circumstances no matter what. Only accepting the work you value will actually add value to your brand.
What’s the biggest threat to your industry at the moment and how are you working to overcome it?
There’s a huge influx of inexperienced talent driving down the price of voice overs these days. So many of them are starting to use lower end technology and devaluing the art of the voice over by undercutting the seasoned pros. I think value is terribly forgotten nowadays.
I just keep focussing on delivery high-quality voice work in a timely manner. When I was in radio using voice over artists, one of the most infuriating problems to me was sending out copy and it taking days or weeks to get back the material. So, my voice over work ethic is that if I get something today, there’s a 95% chance you’ll get it back the same day, under any circumstance. Sometimes I’ll be recording until 10, 11, 12 at night.
Sounds like a long workday! Where can you typically be found when you’re working?
I work exclusively from home in my soundproof studio. On a rare occasion, I may go on-location to do some live announcing, but I generally don’t do that too much.
Where might we recognize your voice out in the world?
I’m the voice of USA Sevens Rugby. Every year, they go with the big dramatic sports voice and that’s the delivery I’m used to. This year, they came and said they wanted a low-key, storytelling voice… but they still wanted it to sound exciting for the sport of Rugby. As you can imagine, this is a tough thing to deliver. It took a lot of pre-reading, re-reading and reciting the scripts. I’d walk around the house talking to myself for hours!
Your work ethic is inspiring. Tell us more about the values you lead with.
First and foremost, I stand by this mantra: ‘under-promise, over-deliver’. If the client wants something, they are going to get it (and then some). Whether that means providing extra takes or alternative options that they may never even use. But the idea is that my clients will never say I didn’t give them more than expected. I want my clients to respect the value they’ve gotten from me and feel it was worth the money they’ve parted with.
When do you fit in the ‘life’ piece of work/life balance?
Publicly, my studio hours are 9-5 Monday through Friday. But if you’re a client of mine, you’ll have a phone number you can reach me at 24/7.
As far as balance goes, I’m doing pretty well. Especially compared to my life in radio, moving from city to city for 25 years. Everything for me is pretty well balanced. Good family, great wife, super kids. I get to work at home and spend time with them whenever I want. I also have the luxury of taking time off whenever I want. I have a couple of surprise train trips planned for the summer to take as a family. I truly wish I could tell you where these destinations are but they are a surprise!
I’m truly living the dream. I get up and talk into a microphone every day. It’s a fun job. I don’t need any motivation to get up and do what I do each and every day.
Life sounds good! So what’s next for Steele Imaging?
There’s always something next. I just don’t know what it is… the possibilities are endless and I’m open to them all. I’m comfortable where I’m at and I don’t need to rush forward into unbridled success and fortune. Although I’m in no hurry to peak in my career, I’m interested in taking the opportunities if they are the right ones. I just want to continue and sustain the slow and steady business growth I’ve been experiencing so far.
about the author
Amanda is a content editor at FreshBooks, writing and producing blog content to help small business owners achieve their goals and enjoy (yes, actually enjoy!) running their business. Amanda’s background in education and customer support makes her a natural communicator who loves empowering others to succeed. When she’s not writing and editing content, Amanda takes her dog, Jonny, on adventures searching for the best coleslaw in Toronto.