Entrepreneurs and COVID-19 - Interview with Danielle Benzon of Inspired Coaching (Vancouver)

Please share a bit about yourself as an entrepreneur and what your business entails - brick and mortar store, online, product, etc.

I'm essentially a speaking coach. I trained as an actor and I bring the principles of stage presence and voice technique to everyday and professional speakers. 

I recently launched The Inspired Speakers Academy which was, in theory, a group of offline programs that a group could go through together. That's pretty much on hold until the lock down lifts. I am lucky that I work from home and only rent a venue when I'm hosting a workshop, so I'm not paying rent on a space that is sitting empty, but 95% of my business was conducted locally in person until COVID. I've been wanting to expand online for a while, but I couldn't fathom how the work would translate - it's so much about being in the same room as somebody. It's very physical, it's spatial... I mean how do you assess acoustics over Zoom? 

Before the COVID-19 crisis, how did you work with your regular clients and reach out to new ones. What type of marketing worked best for you? 

I'm a very "in person" person. I've never been the best at traditional marketing. It's something I'm always trying to figure out. I typically meet clients in person when I speak at events or at networking meet-ups or through referrals. I would often subcontract or guest facilitate for other coaches or programs - always local of course because I had to bring people together in one spot.

How has the social isolation required to combat the spread of COVID-19 affected your business? What about this has been hardest for you personally?

When I first heard about it and we all thought it'd just be a few weeks of isolation, I was looking forward to having some time off to clean my office. Instead I've decided to use this time to figure out how to get my business online, which has been on my mind for years now. COVID has turned everything upside down. I've had to put the entire Academy format on hold. I was planning on starting the new intake in September, so I guess that's been rolled back to next Spring or Summer. And of course, all my recurring guest facilitator spots disappeared. 

Amazingly I have managed to continue my advanced program. I have the snow in January to thank for that: we did an experimental Zoom session so we didn't have to brave the weather. Also, because it's a year long program, we'd already been experimenting with one student participating via Zoom for when they're on holiday in another province so they didn't have to miss out. But teaching an entire class on Zoom is very different from teaching a class live with one person participating remotely. The only reason it's working really is that we had a really intensive few months of physical practice that was just wrapping up when COVID hit. Now that I know they're doing their home practice, we can focus on other aspects of the training (like creating videos), and they're still building good habits on their own.

On Being Seen, Consistency and using Social Media

The hardest thing is not being able to make sales. I mean CERB is a great help, but I was just starting a huge program launch, coming out of a long period of not making much money as I built up the academy. So it's frustrating. But the work is done. It'll be there when we can congregate again. I want to pull my hair out because I feel like I've been "just about to launch" for months and months now and it's driving me nuts. But it's been easier to pivot and build something new than I think it would have been if I had a really entrenched offline system.

My "office hours" life hasn't really changed since I already work from home (as does my partner, so we had a good groove going already), but I'm spending SO MUCH time in front of the computer now and at the beginning there were so many Zoom meetings! I'd be on Zoom from 9a.m. to 9 p.m. most days. That was exhausting. I've learned to set some boundaries now.

Have you found new ways to interact with your customer? Have you developed any new products or services as a way to help your clients through this time, or to fill a new need you see? 

Oh yes! I've got a whole notebook of "one day when I go online" ideas, so I've been dusting all those off and filling them out. My apartment looks like a bomb hit it with papers strewn everywhere as I try to get information out of my brain and organized as quickly as possible. The only real online course I had going before this was about creating social media and training videos from home, so I'm looking at expanding that for all the people who are suddenly and reluctantly teaching online. I want to give them some tips that I've learned from creating video content. 

I'm still hosting my regular drop-in for speakers, but I've made it free while it's online and I've even had a few international participants! That was a real experiment. I've always held it locally and I was really worried about how much I could coach a speaker through Zoom, but the technology is so good these days I can tell how someone is breathing and where in their body they're tensing and that kind of thing, so it's been really eye opening. I hope to offer more "online oriented" programs in the next few months to support all the businesses who are having to do what I'm doing. And when things open up again, I'll keep coaching regular speaking online internationally because I now know I can.

What type of marketing seems to be working best for you in this time of social isolation? 

I'm focusing on getting my brand out there and building awareness and trust. I just finished running a free online video creation challenge with Melody Owen of Nutritious Truth and Jennifer Shanse of UpperStory Films. That was amazing! We're doing another one in May. It was so fun and so rewarding to see the participants grow so much in a short time.

I'm also working on creating lots of free online resources to help folks through the hard times. And then when things are settled a bit more they'll know who I am and what I do and when they need me they'll know where to come. Marketing has always been my weak spot, so I'm using this time to learn about funnels and content marketing and all that. I'm still learning, but I'm getting better.

Anything you'd like readers to know about you and your business? Any last words of encouragement you'd like to share with everyone?

About my business? Join the next video challenge! And watch my social media for some free resources coming out soon. I've got a lot cooking.

As far as encouragement goes. Going online is easier than you think, it just takes a bit of flexibility. What I'm excited about is viewing technology and social media in a different way. I think once we all get over the shock of seeing ourselves on screen that we're going to love the intimacy of interacting online. And the possibilities for connection!

Getting Used to Seeing Yourself on Video - Class Snippet

Social media has always had a reputation for being superficial and misleading - posting perfect pictures when your life is falling apart, that kind of thing. Now that we're doing so much more online and doing it so much more consistently, that's not sustainable. We're in each other's homes on the daily, we're seeing each other in our pajamas without makeup. It's wonderful! I'm hoping the fakeness will fall away and we'll just relax into it. I can see that changing so many things about the way we relate to one another: being more real about how we feel, how we look, the whole thing.