Rebel Uprising Podcast

How to Be the CEO of Your Speaking Business with Dana Corey

The key to being a successful speaker is running a successful business.

That means you're not just a speaker on the stage.

You are the CEO of your business.

But what the heck does that mean? What does it look like to really step into that CEO role of your speaking business?

I am super excited because we have Dana Corey with us today.

This is what Dana does. It is her jam. She takes business owners and transforms them into CEOs.

Prefer to listen?

Why is it Important for Speakers to Step into the CEO Role?

Michelle Mazur:            I'm so glad you’re here because I think this topic of being the CEO is so important for speakers.  They need to grasp that they're not just performers on stage, but they're running a business. Why is it important for speakers to step into that CEO role of their speaking business?

Dana Corey:                    Because being the CEO gives you a bird's eye view of your business. If you don't elevate yourself to CEO, what you really are is a worker bee.

A speaker is like any other business. If you're just doing the work of the business, you're not doing much more than being a freelancer.

Sure you have a little bit of time freedom. You can work when you want. You can work where you want, but you still are just going to work. There's no bigger picture, bigger vision, bigger dream and there's no real lifestyle freedom in being the worker bee in your business.

Michelle Mazur:            I recently read a blog post where this guy was talking about how he left his dream of professional speaking and basically he created a business that was unsustainable.

He was traveling every single week. He was lonely. He wasn't eating. He wasn't getting any exercise, and he felt like he had to do more and more speaking in order to meet his revenue goals.

When I read that article all I could think was “You're kind of a dumbass, dude. You could've created this business differently.”

Dana Corey:                    Yeah, exactly. It's so funny because I read that article, too! That is a prescription for burnout, for getting sick, for being isolated, for losing your relationships –  because it's just you.

I'm not saying you can't be a CEO and have your business based on you.  But if your entire business is just based on you, you really have to think it through.

What does that actually mean? What does freedom mean to you? Are you chasing a number and so you have to work all the time? This guy, he was living out of a hotel room. He hardly ever goes out.

He felt the pressure of having to make more and more money. There was nothing else that he was serving. Either you have to have a vision of what it looks like to be in business by yourself, but at a higher level, or you have to figure out how to create a model around speaking that isn't totally dependent on you.

What Can Speakers Delegate that Allows them to Step into the Role of CEO?

Michelle Mazur:            So knowing that you are a speaker, tell us what are some of the things you think a speaker could potentially outsource that would allow them to step back and take that bigger view of their business?

Dana Corey:                    If all you're doing is speaking, I think that that's really a recipe for exhaustion.

Because in order to make enough money as a speaker, if that’s all you are doing, you have to be on the run all the time. If you're speaking you have a particular message.  

If you then offer services that are congruent with that message then that doesn't require you to be on the road. You can do workshops. You can do classes. You can do coaching. You can do business strategy. You can help people write blogs. Right? Some of the work around those offerings you can outsource. And so speaking as a strategy rather than as an end-all is a much better prescription.

Michelle Mazur:            Yeah. Well, the National Speakers Association, I believe, published an article that says the average speaker earns $25,000 a year from speaking fees, and that includes everyone who's charging $30,000 or $50,000 to people who are charging only $100, (which you should never do) but it's having that multiple streams of income that really makes a difference.

One of the things I do with clients is I get them super clear on how much traveling do they want to do. What do they want this business to look like? Do they want to travel internationally? How long do they want to be away from home? Because if you don't think of that bigger picture, yeah, you burn out, and if you don't have any other streams of revenue, you become a road warrior, and I've done this. I've been a road warrior. I hated my life.

Dana Corey:                    Yeah, yeah. I could totally see that, waking up every week in a different hotel room. In fact, I was talking to somebody this weekend who was a road warrior, and she decided to quit. She has taken herself off the road.

She actually trains people to do her job, younger people to do her job on the road, because one night she walked into the closet because that's where the bathroom was the night before.

How to Start Thinking Like a CEO

Michelle Mazur:            Okay, that's funny, but yeah, that's life on the road.  You're in a different hotel every couple of nights, and it's rough. So how do speakers start thinking like a CEO instead of just the speaker on the stage?

Dana Corey:                    Well, I was thinking about this when I knew we were going to be talking today, and it's so hard to just come up with a cookie cutter answer, “This is how you should do it,” because everybody is speaking about a different thing.

So the place to start is to really look at what is your message?

It goes back to what you talked about: you have to know your message.

What is your message and what are some other ways that you can serve people in that message besides standing on a stage? And is that a model that you can teach other people to go and speak, and you could be the CEO of a group of people who deliver the message? Or are you the only one who's going to speak, and so maybe there's a book, maybe there's a course that you could lead?

So there are different kinds of models, but the whole premise is to stand back from the actual work and look to see how you can design a sustainable business over time that doesn't require your attention 24/7.

Michelle Mazur:            This makes me think of John Maxwell. He trains people to be speakers and coaches, to go out and deliver his message. He has more of that training company model, and then I think of someone like Sally Hogshead of How to Fascinate, and she's the speaker, but she has her assessment, and she has a book, and she has courses that you can take, so even though she loves the stage, she still has other things that branch out underneath that message.

Dana Corey:                    Exactly! And in order to do her assessment, you pay for it, and she explains how you can use it for your teams, you can use it in so many different ways, and every time you do one, you pay for it, right? So that gives her some freedom.

Also, she's not doing her own booking, for sure not doing her own booking. She's not doing her own travel arrangements. She's doing very little of her own stuff except getting up on a stage and speaking.

CEOs Delegate to their Assistant

Michelle Mazur:            Well, and I think you bring up a good point. Those are things, even if you're just starting out, you can think about outsourcing to a virtual assistant.

One of the things I teach my speakers is, “Okay. This is how you research for speaking gigs. This is how you track, and this is how you pitch. Now let's bring your assistant in so you can hand this off,” because I feel like when you're beginning, your focus should be on the speech itself and creating the best experience and selling it.

Dana Corey:                    Right.

Michelle Mazur:            And so you can start really early thinking, “Okay.If I can hire a VA for two hours a week to take some of this off my plate, I'm going to be far more successful in filling my pipeline so I can actually speak.”

Dana Corey:                    Exactly, and I actually have my VA research potential speaking engagements. “This is the kind of audience I want to speak to. Can you work on finding places that I can apply to speak?” And it's great because it would take so much of my time, and instead, I just get emails saying, “Here. Apply here. Apply here. Apply here.” And so that's really helpful.

I will say this, that being a speaker is a business just like any other business, and to really step into being a CEO, you have to build your business from the ground up.

I always think of it as the foundation of a house, right? The foundation's not sexy. It doesn't have any pizazz at all, but without it, you can't build a beautiful house on top, and there are some really basic things to building a business that allows you to have some freedom.

This whole thing about having a vision and knowing where you're going. You have to know which direction you're going to or you'll never get there.

If all you're doing is looking for speaking gigs and speaking, and looking for speaking gigs and speaking, it's like being a hamster. You're just moving around and around and around. Not getting anywhere different, and eventually, you're going to burn out.  

But once you figure out where you want to go, you have to have an actual plan. Write plans.

People think that plans are just like setting a goal and doing something, but really a plan is all about choosing the strategies that you're going to use now, and then seeing if those work, and then if they work, awesome, keep doing them, and if they don't work, pick a new strategy for goodness sake. Right?

You can't do everything all at the same time.

It's kind of like doing science.

You have to test your hypothesis, and then you have to measure the data, and then you have to decide if it's working, right?

And then you move on to the next thing. If you're totally stuck at just doing what's in front of you, then you can't see the bigger picture to see if the strategy is working or not. You can't access anything.

Michelle Mazur:            I love that systematic approach! I feel like, for many speakers, their speech is wrapped up in their identity and who they are because they're sharing their story.  

They are  not asking the question, “Wow, every time I speak, how many people are asking me to speak somewhere else?” Or, “How well is my speech converting as far as clients coming to me?” Or, “How many referrals do I get from that meeting organizer after I gave my speech?”

Because to me, if those things are not humming along with the way they should, then you're always trapped on the hamster wheel, and there's a problem with your speech.

Dana Corey:                    Absolutely. It's so funny that you should say that because I have a new speech that I've been doing around the country, and the first time I did it live, it was okay.

People liked it, but I didn't get any referrals. Fast forward a month and a half and I've done it three or four times now, and the last time I did it, I got four, “Contact me. I have other places for you to talk.”

Just like without even telling them I was looking, people came up and said, “I have somewhere that I would like for you to speak.” That was really cool.

Michelle Mazur:            Yeah, and that's what gets you off the hamster wheel of pitching and pitching and pitching and researching because having those speaking gigs come to you is really the goal.

Dana Corey:                    A lot easier, and a lot less nail biting!

The Challenges of Thinking Like a CEO

Michelle Mazur:            So what do you see as challenges when we start thinking like the CEO? , What challenges crop up for people when they start having a plan and start measuring their success and making adjustments along the way?

Dana Corey:                    Well, one of the biggest challenges for some people is that they start to panic.  They feel like they're losing control rather than gaining control.

Once people really make the shift, they realize how much more ownership there is in being the CEO. But in the beginning, when you're going from just doing everything to allowing other people to support you, to asking for other people to support you, to creating a model that allows for other people to be involved, that transition, the biggest thing that comes up for people is the loss of control, or their perceived loss of control, and then the other thing that happens, too, people get scared, but how it comes out is, “Oh, I don't really want to do this.”

They start talking themselves out of it or feel like they have lost their mojo, or they decide they don't want to be a speaker anymore, or they don't want to run a business anymore because it's just too hard.  

The learning curve from going from worker bee to CEO is hard.  There's a learning curve because if there wasn't, everybody would do it, but everybody doesn't do it.

There are stages of business for sure. The first one is just creating a job for yourself, and some people are happy in that forever. Graphic designers and those type of people, often even hair stylists, right? They are the worker bees.

Then there's the next level where you actually want to run a company, and it's in the running of the company that the freedom is, but just like it took something to get to the place where you had a job, where you created a job, you had to do the work, and you had to learn, you had to up-level your skills, you had to be willing to let go of the beliefs that you had about what it was going to be like or what you thought. Yeah. You have to go through all of that all over again, only at a different level.

Michelle Mazur:            Yeah, and I imagine there are different skills involved.   All of a sudden you have to know how to lead and manage people, and train them to do their jobs, and it’s not easy for a lot of people to do that kind of team building that allows you to step into that CEO role, and trusting, and handing over responsibility. Like, “You are responsible for finding me five speaking opportunities a week.”

Dana Corey:                    Yes. Absolutely, and you have to have systems, right? Because as you get bigger, the systems make it easier not just for you, but anybody who's going to help you.

I work with people who have been in business from anywhere from three to 20 years, right? I had this brand new client who's been in business for 12 years, so you would think there were some systems in place.   

But while we were having our introductory conversation, I asked him for his number. I wanted to know what percentage of his income came from this stream and what percentage of income from that stream, and he couldn't tell me. He had no idea. It's taken him three weeks to get the information together.

Know the Numbers of Your Speaking Business

And so that's a foundation you have to be able to stand on, knowing the numbers of your business, and when I say numbers, I'm not just talking about how much money you're making. I'm talking about how many clients you have, and how often you're getting work, and where is that work coming from? Do you know specifically the buckets where the work is coming? How much? How much income is coming through each of those buckets? I know it sounds really stupid and basic, but it's so important.

Michelle Mazur:            I think speakers are actually worse because when I have strategy calls, I start asking questions like, “How do you want to make money with this? What is your fee?

And they're like, “Oh, well you know, I just kind of gut check.” They do intuitive pricing for their fee. They're like, “Oh, my gut says … ”

And they don't know how much money they brought in from speaking last year. They don't know how many clients they have.

They don't know the basic numbers, and truly, to be that successful business owner, that successful speaker, you've got to know those things, otherwise, you're just treading water.

Dana Corey:                    Yeah, and you're blind. How do you know if you should be speaking more to entrepreneurs, solo entrepreneurs, or corporate C-suite executives if you aren't tracking how much money you're making from either of those channels?

If you do better, you make more money speaking to C-suite execs, well stop talking to the other people and just focus on that channel, right? Yeah. Pretty funny.

Michelle Mazur:            I know. So last question, what is your best tip that you love to give people for stepping into that role as CEO?

Dana Corey:                    I think the place where I always start with people who are really committed to getting bigger and running a company rather than just being a speaker is figure out where you want to be 10 years from now, and then work your way back:  five years, two years, and then a one year jump, what do you have to accomplish within one year that will get you on track to your long-term goals, and then create a plan that starts with strategy.

People are always asking, “What do you mean by strategies?” Well, some strategies are social media. Some strategies are calling somebody out of the blue, a meeting organizer, three times in a week. You're going to do three of those calls a week. Or I'm going to get speaking gigs by going to conferences, right? So that's a strategy, so picking strategies and then creating actions that come from those strategies, and using a paper planner and planning it all out, and then doing what it says day to day. I know that sounds like a really long answer, but it's all part of the same thing.

Michelle Mazur:            I love what you just said because number one, in the speaking world, there is so much hype. There's like, “I made $1 million speaking and so can you. Make from zero to six figures in six weeks with speaking,” and it's like, speaking is a long-term play, If you want to be the next Danielle Laporte, Sally Hogshead, or Jay Baer, and be on those big stages, you have to know that they didn't start there.

So you think: “Okay, that's my endpoint.” Then you start backing up, “What do I need to do this year to get closer to that end goal?”

And I think … Gosh, this is going to sound horrible, but I feel like some speakers just wait around, “I want to be discovered.”

Everyone's going to see my video on YouTube, and it's going to be this breakthrough moment,” and it just doesn’t happen like that.Real success comes from intention, and it comes from being that CEO. So thank you, Dana. Where can we find you online?

Dana Corey:                    Come visit me at my website,, and if you look at my programs and something appeals to you, sign up for a call or you can message me through my website. I'm always open to having conversations.

Michelle Mazur:            Awesome. I highly recommend if you are interested in figuring out how to become the CEO of your business that you chat with Dana because she's lovely!  I think the important thing for you to take away is to have that big vision, and then a goal to get there, because that's the way, you're the CEO, and you have a successful and sustainable speaking business.

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