Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hello! My name is Gary Ferrar and I’m a professional magician and mentalist. I never thought I would say that, not even after graduating college. But once I realized that I could easily generate income and stand out against the competition, I started marketing myself to high-end clients and corporations. From private penthouse performances for Ralph Lauren and Robert DeNiro to a corporate client roster that includes Verizon, Amazon, Google, Facebook, Uber, Slack, Snapchat, Pepsi, T-Mobile, Morgan Stanley, Bank of America.
I travel the world performing for trade-shows, product launches, and specialize in creating memorable experiences through stage performances, parlor shows, and strolling magic. In my first year, I made $60K and now can make over $40K per month.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I was a college theater major. Yes, one of those kids. I had dabbled in card tricks but was never any more serious about magic than that. Post-college, I found some success in acting but was quickly frustrated in the inability to control my own destiny. Needing someone's permission for everything gets exhausting real quick.
I met someone at an audition, and she mentioned that she performed for pediatric units around NYC through a foundation that would provide some financial incentive for artists. As an actor in New York, I had tons of time so I jumped at the chance. I got approved, brought my cards, and clowned around with kids, making their awful time with a broken arm a little less awful. I was addicted and quickly maneuvered my way into working at 5 hospitals each week. It wasn’t designed to be substantial money, but I was very frugal and didn’t let the foundation know that their subsidy was all I was living off of.
I wasn’t getting rich, but I was getting good. Real good. Where else could a magician find so much real-world experience with such little risk of failure? I learned how to work with a live audience immediately (a skill many magicians lack). I learned how to improvise; how to pivot; how to fail. After a year, I knew I was ready for private work and did some secret shopping for local magicians. When I realized what they were charging, I was blown away. $300 for an hour show? That seemed like an incredible amount of money, especially if I could scale it. So I did. 10 years later and I’ve made as much as $3,000 for an hour show. And here’s how:
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
I started by looking at the industry from a client's perspective. This sounds so obvious, but from a professional magician’s perspective, it apparently wasn’t. Across the board, everyone’s internet presence was lacking client reviews, lacking high-quality images, and majorly lacking in video content (this was 2010). In the massive New York market, I really couldn’t find a single magician on the internet that I would have wanted to hire for a small private event.
If you want to have an enjoyable entrepreneurial experience, choose something that doesn’t require inventory.
I grabbed a friend, and for the cost of buying him lunch, shot some street magic. Some of those first clips still linger in my current promo video (I talk more about Vimeo later.) I learned how to edit, since I couldn’t afford to pay someone, and started booking some gigs.
Gary Ferrar: Street Magic
I also got serious about SEO in 2011-2012. This is right when Google released their Panda and Penguin SEO updates, which punished spammy keywords and weak backlinks which, before these updates, were considered best practices. So nearly everyone got punished except for me, and I floated nicely to the top. That was an opportunity I couldn’t afford to lose, so I doubled down and successfully fought to stay on top ever since.
Describe the process of launching the business.
I’d like to be clear that there was no “launch”. This was a gradual take-over of my life that took about 5 years to ramp up. This approach had tremendous benefits. First, there was essentially zero overhead. I already had some props and only had to pay for my domain and hosting. If you want to have an enjoyable entrepreneurial experience, choose something that doesn’t require inventory.
Second, I was able to constantly improve the quality of photos and videos, as the quality of events I was being booked for increased. Without a physical product, there was no commitment to a specific image. When I first started, I was marketing only to kids, because that was my experience in the hospitals. Here’s my very embarrassing first go at it:
Seeing it now, this page looks awful, but I can’t begin to tell you the number of magicians that didn’t even have a photo of themselves on their front page (or any page for that matter). I also led with a client review (from my first and only gig) on my ‘splash page’ which no one was doing. This little page really got the job done to get those starter shows, where I was charging ~$250 per appearance.
Gradually transitioning from that to a high-end corporate vibe was an awkward and ungraceful process. It required many small steps to not alienate my current market, while still appearing attractive to more ambitious clients. Here’s an example of what that looked like:
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Constant website updates are essential. I’m still always upgrading photos and videos. I want people staying on my site for a long time since I suspect that will always be a huge factor in Google’s SEO algorithm.
Let’s also not forget that I have to deliver a quality show every time. I do that by keeping it simple. I still perform routines from my hospital days, which means I know the material very well. This allows me to improvise and have fun with the crowd. I can anticipate what can go wrong every step of the way and successfully deliver in almost any circumstance. Every time I’m hired for a gig, I’m essentially getting paid to advertise.
Between good SEO and good word of mouth, I’m happy to report that every year, my advertising budget has been $0. I ask every client for feedback after their event and give them links to sites they can leave reviews on. And finally, if an event seems like an annual occurrence, I’ll schedule a follow-up email to go out 300 days later.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Based on every conversation I’ve had, I’m likely in the 2 percent of magicians who are doing even more business due to COVID. Keeping in mind that I was already very successful, here’s analytics for the year.
As you can see, things have really shifted after the initial global shutdown. I can attribute this to a few things. First, I jumped on virtual keywords, virtual photos, and a virtual video as fast as I could, since I knew that staying on top is easier than getting to the top.
People say you need to be in the right place at the right time, so I tried to be everywhere all of the time.
Second, I did every virtual show I could get my hands on for rock bottom pricing for the first month. I knew there was going to be a learning curve, so I wanted to get that out of the way before my competitors. While they were still brainstorming hypothetical ideas and deciding what webcam to buy, I had already done 100 shows and had a teaser video that looked like this:
In addition to thinning the competition tremendously, virtual magic has taken away some major growth hurdles. Since I am the product, I would always have to personally show up at your event to make money in a pre-COVID world. This really put a limit on scalability, which is why I charged a premium. Now, I can perform every hour, on the hour, in any country in the world. And, I can still charge a premium rate, because my service is more essential now than ever, and there are so few quality options for virtual entertainment right now. Virtual magic has been a dream come true for me. My gross revenue is up 20% for the year and my expenses, which were 80% travel, are down by 80%
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
By far, the worst decision I made was my URL. The name Ah Real Magic was created on a whim, inspired by the 90’s Nickelodeon cartoon Aahhh! Real Monsters. I outgrew it very quickly, but always was (and still am) too afraid that the SEO gods will strike me down if I change it. Even my Facebook URL (/ahrealmagic/) CAN be changed but would lead to broken links all over the internet. This could have easily been avoided if I had put a little more effort into thinking about where I wanted to take my business from the start.
I average 250 events per year (though with virtual, I’m already at 400 for 2020). That’s a lot of details to keep track of, and I designed my business for volume before there was volume. I have videos that convey my personality so that people who click through to check my availability don’t feel the need to talk to me on the phone. I have an assistant that responds to 40% of my emails (as me) and a deposit form they can fill out at their own convenience. I really believe my streamlined booking process became a self-fulfilling prophecy. People always mention how easy the booking process is, and eliminating any friction points early must have helped with conversions.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
My favorite tool is Jotform. It allows me to turn over a lot of data very efficiently. By the time a client emails me, with lots of necessary information missing, then we schedule a phone call to cover the missing information, then they don’t pick up so we reschedule, I could have just sent them an easy form for them to fill out on their own time. Jotform is extremely customizable, also integrates with lots of useful platforms. For instance, when someone books me through my deposit form, it will immediately charge their card, email them a receipt, appear in my google calendar with all the necessary event details, and email me a confirmation template.
My second favorite tool is Duda. My website is my entire business and Duda allows for endless customization and the ability to make/update pages quickly. Plus, they care deeply about making their pages as SEO friendly as possible.
Vimeo is my favorite video hosting site. I’ll use Youtube for some marketing purposes, but I love that Vimeo allows you to update a video file without deleting and reposting it. Since my promo videos are regularly being updated with new footage, it’s so nice to not have to reset the view count or change hyperlinks/embeds each time I need to make a change.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
From a business perspective, I’m pretty happy with my fundamental understanding of how things work, so I keep my inspiration to the artistic side of my job. This is not to say that I’m an expert on the business side of things, but I’ve found that compared to most magicians, a little goes a long way. So for this reason, my favorite two books are Steve Martin’s Born Standing Up and Rollo May’s The Courage to Create.
In particular, Born Standing Up hit so close to home. As a solo entertainer, it’s easy to forget that many people are having the same experience you are, so it was wonderful to find something that I could identify with. And Steve Martin actually started as a magician!
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting?
Do everything! People say you need to be in the right place at the right time, so I tried to be everywhere all of the time.
As I said at the beginning, I never thought I would be a professional magician. There were so many failed attempts at other things. I started a theater company, I wrote articles for many publications, I started a secret shopping business for restaurants. None of those things turned into anything, but they easily could have. So keep yourself open to the universe and listen.
Where can we go to learn more?
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