Seven years. That’s how long filmmakers Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos plugged away at Making a Murderer before they partnered with Netflix, and the series became a true crime sensation. While the idea of being an overnight sensation is nice, most big ideas need lots of time to develop. But how can you tell whether your new business idea or project is worth sinking months or years of your life into? Here are seven questions that might help you set your sights.
1. Can I State My Specific Goal For This Project?
While turning a profit (or at least breaking even) is a straightforward goal, some projects require a more specific finish line. For Chicago writer Jonathan Eig, he initially had the idea for a biography of Muhammad Ali in the spring of 2013 but would need to craft a solid proposal in order to sell the idea. “I knew there wasn’t an authoritative biography of Ali out there. I’d gotten a sense that I’d get his ex-wife to cooperate, and I believed that there was a ton of new material out there that hadn’t been seen before,” he says. His eventual proposal netted him a contract by February 2014, and his book, Ali: A Life, comes out in October 2017.
Minneapolis painter Megan Rye began working on a large-scale series that documents her brother’s time serving in the Iraq war in 2003, which led to her first solo show in 2007. For her, the convergence of critical and collector interest is “the gold standard.” While just one or the other, she says, is “nice,” it’s not sustainable to only have critical interest, but “if you only have financial support, your work isn’t necessarily going to be remembered.”
Being able to articulate your goals is also essential for raising money as you go. Rye likens grants, which should be applied for before a project is completed or even fully begun, to the lottery: “You can’t win a grant unless you apply.” And the grant you apply for now may beget more funding down the line. Chicago documentarian Margaret Byrne received a $120,000 MacArthur grant for her film Raising Bertie, which she filmed for six years. The grant hooked her up with the Chicago production company Kartemquin Films and put her on the radar to receive other grants, including one for $50,000 from the Ford Foundation. “I wouldn’t have stopped making the film, but I don’t know where I would be without the support of MacArthur. That’s what made the film expand and enable me to work with Kartemquin.”
2. Can I Break It Down Into Milestones?
When a project is sprawling, it’s important to build in milestones, if only to avoid freaking out. Eig was excited but also terrified at the prospect of writing a definitive biography of Ali. “It seemed like more than one person could handle, because there’s so much information on him out there, with so many people to talk to. You have to follow your heart but also be analytical about it.” To avoid feeling a sense of overwhelmed panic before starting a project, Eig starts small. “I just start with reading some books, and file some FOIA requests.”
For Byrne, the shorter-term goal was to have a 10-minute demo of Raising Bertieto sketch out her characters and the intention of the film. “That will give funders a solid idea of what you’re trying to do, even if you’re in the beginning stages.” She was able to pull one together in four months.
Rye kept her eye on the prize by keeping exhibition deadlines in mind. “Without exhibitions, I don’t know how anyone would ever complete a body of work. You can endlessly improve and tinker.”
In mid-2012, Steve McFadden quit his job as a mechanic to find a more meaningful career. He started Revolution Coffee Roasters that opened in summer 2013. It’s growing and doing well, but slowly. He maintains his sanity by scheduling six-month check-ins. “We’ve planned this in short-term increments so we can evaluate, ‘This is where we are right now, this is what we can budget for, and this is how lean we’ll have to be this period.’”
3. Do I Have Trusted Sources That Will Provide Me With Valuable Feedback As I Proceed?
Katie Mehnert wasn’t sure at first that her idea was a good one. In April 2014, she left her job as the director of competence, capability, and culture at BP to take a career break. She tinkered with an idea she’d had the year before, and in March 2015, created Pink Petro, a social media platform created for women professionals in the energy industry. “The more I started taking ideas from my head and really putting them out there, people were like ‘Yeah!’ And before you knew it we were on. People were calling and saying, ‘I heard you have a new gig!’ and I was like, ‘We haven’t formed a company yet.’”
While it can be tempting to play your cards close to your vest on a project that’s not a guaranteed success, Byrne says, “It’s important that you do not make your film in a bubble.” Getting other perspectives is key for her, because ultimately, “You’re not making the film for yourself, you’re making the film for an audience.” For her, showing several rough cuts of Raising Bertie in Chicago and North Carolina elicited key feedback that helped shape the film.
Rye agrees. “If you’re applying for shows, talking to curators or collectors and no one is interested, you’ll know, ‘Is this going to be a passion project where I’m alone in my basement slaving away and no one will see this?’” Had she not shared her work as it went, her entire life might have been different: The immediate interest her work garnered led to artistic representation. “That project changed the trajectory of my whole career,” one she had assumed would lead to a life in academia, and not as a working artist.
4. How Long Can I Get By On Little To No Money?
“I think I’m a horrible business person,” Byrne admits. By necessity, she chose to turn down other jobs in order to devote herself to Raising Bertie, which didn’t receive funding until four years into filming. While she was able to take on a few freelance projects while filming, making money wasn’t her priority. “In some ways it can’t be if you are taking the time and the patience to tell these stories.”
Eig’s projects involve a leap of financial faith as well. “When you’re in the proposal phase, you don’t know if somebody else might come up with the same idea, or maybe nobody wants to buy it at all.” Even when a project is bought, he says, “There will be years when I’m between signing the contract and delivering that I don’t get paid. One year I made $10,000: That was my contribution to my family.”
With Pink Petro, Mehnert went two years without pay. “I wanted to demonstrate the passion I had for the business. I’m taking a salary now–I’m not earning what I was earning before, but I didn’t set out to replace my income. I wanted to do something that was meaningful. I’m a firm believer that when you’re passionate and you have meaning in your life, the payback comes.”
5. Is My Family On Board With This?
Every married person interviewed for this story cited their supportive spouse as a reason that they were able to chase their dreams. McFadden’s wife has provided both emotional and financial support. “I’ve seen many other business where it became too much pressure on somebody’s marriage and they had to make a choice–either this is going to be destructive to my family, or I have to call it quits. Fortunately, I have somebody that is solidly in my corner and believes in what I’m doing.”
Mehnert’s husband was a little incredulous when she told him her plan for a career change, but she said that the challenge actually strengthened their relationship as they evaluated their finances and needs. “I tell young women all the time, ‘You’ve got to marry right because this is a sacrifice for a longer term opportunity.’ To my husband’s credit, he saw way more in it than I did.”
6. Could I Walk Away If I Had To?
Nobody wants to spend time on something only to have it lead nowhere, but it’s better to pull the plug rather than try to force it halfheartedly. Byrne had to walk away from a source on her current documentary project after following him for six months. “I decided it wasn’t the story that I needed to tell,” she says.
Eig similarly pursued a biography proposal that he ended up dropping. “That was painful,” he says, but a dearth of material, a less-than-promising sales prospective and a simple lack of fondness for his source ended his relationship with his project. He likens a long-term project to dating. “You have to decide, am I going to stick with this girl or not? There’s things you like and things you don’t like, and at some point you get to a moment, I can’t take it anymore, I’m out of here.”
7. Can I Handle A Rough Ride?
Perhaps you just had a baby or endured the death of a loved one. The point is, there’s nothing wrong with admitting that perhaps it’s not the best time to take something on that might cause heartache or stress.
With a long-term gamble, Eig says, “You have to embrace the uncertainty, and to come up with a good idea, you have to go through a lot of bad ideas. You hope those bad ideas don’t take you too far astray, but they do sometimes.” For his 2014 book, The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution, Eig persevered despite his agent telling him people thought the book would be “small to medium-sized” at best. He reasoned, “They could be right, they could be wrong, but it’s an important enough subject, and I will feel good for telling the story, because I think it needs to be told.”