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My (Almost) $10,000 Mistake Taught Me
That Custom Demos Make A Difference

By Paul Strikwerda

Voice Actor

I was in a rush. I wasn't thinking. And it almost cost me ten thousand dollars. 

The lesson I learned that day has been one of the cornerstones of my success as a voice talent. Before I share that lesson with you, let me ask you this: 

Have you heard of the Calimero Complex

It is named after an Italian/Japanese cartoon character named Calimero, and many freelancers seem to suffer from it. 


Calimero is the only black chick in a family of yellow chickens, and he still wears half of his egg shell on his head. It is as if he never really made it out of the nest. 

Calimero is the archetypical underdog. He often gets in trouble and believes the whole world is out to get him. When the show reaches a dramatic climax, Calimero usually utters the following catch phrase: 

"They are big and I am small and that's not fair, oh no!" 

That's the Calimero complex. 

I can understand why some freelancers can identify with him. Operating a small business in a big world is not easy. We might not wear an egg shell on our noggin, but we certainly wear many different hats.

Being self-employed can be invigorating, liberating - and terribly intimidating. 

Some of us thrive under pressure. Others can't stand it and eventually chicken out. 


Personally, I believe small is beautiful. I love being my own boss. 

And as a small business owner, I do not suffer from the Calimero complex. I'm not afraid of the big guys because I know I have something to offer that big businesses can never compete with, no matter how hard they try. 

I'm not a chain, a franchise or a branch. I personify my product and there's nothing generic about that. 

I might not have offices on five continents, but I do business with people from all over the world. I donít build brands. I build relationships. 

My customers don't have to jump through a million hoops to speak to someone from management. My clients have direct access to the CEO. 


And when they send me an email, they won't get an automated response. They receive a personal message. 

I don't outsource quality control and customer service. I am quality control and customer service. I donít dictate clients what to do. I listen to what they need. 

And most importantly: I don't do more of the same. I customize. I localize. I personalize based on the unique requirements of the job. It's a lesson I learned the hard way. 


One day, an audiobook publisher asked me to audition for a 1,200-page biography. He didn't send me a demo script. 

He only told me what the book was about. His request came at the end of a very busy day and I was ready to leave my studio to meet a friend. 

I usually answer these types of emails as soon as I can, and on my way out, I wrote the publisher that I was interested in the project and I attached a generic demo to my message. 


A few days went by before the publisher emailed me back. He said he'd continue his search for a narrator because my demo sounded "too commercial." 

He needed an international storyteller. Not someone doing a sales pitch. 

Now, I could have left it at that, but something told me I should try to turn things around. Perhaps I could get a second chance to make a first impression. 


I went online to find the book in question and picked a paragraph to read. This time I recorded a custom demo, showing off my multilingual narration skills. 

That same day I received some great news: My new and improved audition was a big hit. The job was mine and I ended up recording (and getting paid for) over 32 hours of audio. 

A few months later, the same publisher asked me to narrate a second book. 


These days, I hardly send out generic demos anymore. When no script is provided, I look at the subject matter and (if published) the name of the client. 

Then I go online and find a press release or an article about the product or service the client is associated with, and use that for my audition.  

This does two things. It is my way of telling clients that I do my homework and that I'm willing to go the extra mile. 

Secondly, clients get the opportunity to hear me say the name of their company and product and "try on" my voice in a context they can relate to. All of a sudden, a simple demo becomes relevant. 


Of course, I don't win every job I audition for. Far from it, but I do know that customization can set me apart from the rest of the pack. 

It makes my entries more memorable and as such, it enhances my chances. And when I ask my clients why they picked me, the custom demo is often cited as the difference that made the difference.  

It does take extra time and effort to do the research and record something special. But that's an investment well worth making. Customers are the life blood of your business. 

Why give them a hotel chain treatment, if you can give them a bed-and-breakfast experience? Being small in a big world can be a competitive advantage!


Paul Strikwerda is a 25-year veteran of the voice over industry whose Nethervoice service features German and Dutch voice overs, translation and evaluation services. Born in Holland, he has worked for Dutch national and international radio, the BBC and American Public Radio. Although 90% of his work is in English, Strikwerda also records in Dutch, German and French. Clients include Novartis, Johnson & Johnson, and the Discovery Channel. He also publishes an informative and entertaining blog, Double Dutch.

Double Dutch Blog:

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Comments (8)
Tom Test
7/18/2012 at 5:06 PM
I do a lot of "warm and authoritative" VO work for hospitals, including a few spots that have won Telly awards. Recently, a nice campaign was posted on V123, and I submitted my read. Now, for quite awhile I have thought about editing a specialized "health care" VO demo, but I have not yet completed it.

So it turns out that I was a "Finalist" for this lucrative gig (along with a handful of others), but never got a call. V123 allows you to include another demo along with your custom audition, and I can't help but think that having included a "health care" demo might have helped my chances quite a bit. I'm kicking myself over it now, since it was at least $3K worth of spots!

So YES, I am a believer in the value of specialized demos!
7/5/2012 at 5:26 PM
Great article, Paul! Recently, I was the client, trying to schedule a meeting with a CPA. Voicemails were left (but a call was not returned) and his email response of "My secretary controls my schedule" was a real turn-off. Why should I be surprised that he would be so unresponsive when I tried to schedule a follow-up meeting? Great customer service is a tremendously valuable commodity and a unique tool we can consistently offer from our self-employment arsenal.
Paul Strikwerda
6/30/2012 at 8:51 AM
Many thanks to all of you who have commented on my story. You've just customized your reading experience and gone the extra mile to respond. That's the spirit!

I often compare the process of customizing a demo to writing a cover letter for a job application. A generic letter does not get you to the top of the enormous pile. A customized letter might not automatically get you the job, but it certainly increases your chances.

It's all part of being client-focused. If you're sending a generic demo because you're in a hurry (like I was), you're thinking of yourself. If you make a special effort and record a customized demo, you're thinking about your client.
Uncle Roy
6/30/2012 at 6:59 AM
Hey Paul - I LOVE part one of this post! Unfortunately I know a few of these guys. Another trait that seems to go along with a Calimero is that they don't seem to take any accountability - it's always someone else's fault: whether about why they're not successful in our VO business, or it's the bank's fault for their being in overdraft (sound familiar?).

The 2nd part of your post is right on (as usual). I helped someone create a custom dating site demo and she/we landed the job, just like you said! Clients want to hear your voice with their copy and in their style. Your generic demo can help them weed out whose custom demo they don't want to hear if your timbre is just not right for their product.

Thanks again Paul! - Uncle Roy
William Williams
6/29/2012 at 5:02 PM

Excellent advice. I tell all my students they are not "doing voice overs," they are starting their own business. And, yes, they are the CEO, the talent, the casting agent, the booth director, the engineer, the quality control person, the advertising manager... Well, you get the idea! You have to take each of those jobs seriously to succeed.

I am sure custom demos are the best. Many clients don't have the imagination to translate the sound of your generic demo over to their project. Besides, I'm sure the client just likes the sound of your voice talking about their products and saying their company name. Yes, it take more time but it yields much better results.

Great advice!

Ken Budka
6/29/2012 at 11:39 AM
Thank you Paul, I appreciate your focus on the competitive advantage we offer as a small business and maximizing this edge with our clients.

The extra mile you reference is often the difference that tips the scale in our favor and a great reminder to do your homework as consistently as possible. Great tip on researching the company and using their own information in customized, personalized auditions.

Thanks again...

Johnny George
6/29/2012 at 11:02 AM
What great advice, Paul. And an extremely great example. I'd offer you a Token "Nugget" if I could throw it that far. Consider my comment your token.

Thank you.

Jim Conlan
6/29/2012 at 10:56 AM
Once again, Paul, great advice. I'm sure anyone who has bothered to do a little research has obtained valuable insight into the project. This applies even to auditions that do supply text. If you're auditioning for an audio book, you better at least scan the whole book before you decide how to handle the sample; it could make a big difference. Also, before you accept an invitation to narrate an audio book, find out if there are segments you'd rather not narrate - extreme sex and violence may not be to everyone's taste, for example.
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