Actors’ database fishpond.ie hooks big fish in an even bigger pond

Small Business Future ProofAli Coffey, founder, Ali Coffey Casting and Fishpond.ie

Ali Coffey: “I always thought that, if someone is serious about their career, they’ll find €12 a month to spend on membership”

Ali Coffey: “I always thought that, if someone is serious about their career, they’ll find €12 a month to spend on membership”

 

Ali Coffey first joined a children’s acting group because her mother wanted her children to be confident in their opinions, and to be able to speak up for themselves. But it came as quite a shock to both entrepreneurial parents when their daughter quit school at 15 years of age, to pursue her career as an actor.

In between searching for roles, she earned money as a casting director’s assistant, and took a liking to it, eventually working her way up to a partner role. In 2002 she founded Ali Coffey Casting, and the thought struck her that a database was needed to house information on all actors.

“I always thought that someone would just invent it, but it never happened. So I thought to myself ‘Aw crap, maybe I have to do it’, but I was completely broke at the time. Eventually I started a night job in RTÉ doing announcements, to earn enough money to do it, which meant I was working during the day and night: crazy, nurse-like 20-hour shifts.”

“I found these guys in India that would build the website for me, but I’d be paying them €100 at a time, whenever I had it, so it was a slow process. There was a lot of back and forth: they’d tell me that certain things couldn’t be done, and I’d tell them ‘Yes, yes it can be done quite easily. Look at these links.’

I used to call it my really expensive, unenjoyable hobby. But after a year, Fishpond Phase I was complete. It was really amazing for me because it was the first time I had pushed through anything to get to the good bit.”

Fishpond.ie allows actors to create a profile, upload their height, age, experience, profile pictures and show reels. Actors are notified when a job is posted through the website itself, or directly by their agent or a casting director. It also allows casting directors and agents to create an account for free. Coffey made it clear to her casting colleagues that this database would not sidestep their profession, but work in tandem with it.

The site launched in September 2008, and Coffey decided to make it free to use for the first year, then charging €12 a month, which remains the price today.

When the recession hit, she found creative ways of promoting both AC Casting and Fishpond.ie. Recognising that once people registered they would retain them with ease, they sought ways of fishing for new members for the site.

“We held free workshops to teach actors how changing little things in your approach could significantly improve your chance at auditions. The hope was that this would draw people in, and they’d sign up to Fishpond afterwards, which most of them did. We also had loyalty cards for members of Fishpond, which would offer discounts on everything from coffee, to lunches, to make-up, and would offset the cost of membership.”

“For AC Casting, the price of advertising space on television went down during the recession, so some companies found they could perhaps afford to advertise on that medium. We also worked on drama projects for American and Irish markets, so if one area was quiet, the other might throw us up a good script to sink our teeth into. On top of that, I did voice work for audiobooks and commercials. Having a few irons in the fire was the way I stayed afloat; it still is.”

The company also looked at advertising on Fishpond, as there was quite a demand for such a niche market, but Coffey felt the look and feel of the website was more important. “There was also quite a demand from our casting users, children’s agents and drama teachers, to add a children’s site, which we did set up. It took more time because we had to ensure it was secure and appropriate. Signing your kids up costs €6 a month and requires no experience, which brought in extra revenue for us.”

In addition to this, people with previous acting experience returned to the trade via Fishpond, as a possible means of additional income during tough times.

“I always thought that, if someone is serious about their career, they’ll find €12 a month to spend on membership. It’s the cost of two pints, or a fish lunch, and that’s actually how we advertised it.”

“My father said to us that the Coffeys always did well in recessions, and I never took any notice of it until we were in one.”

Spring 2016 will bring the launch of Fishpond Phase IV. “This will allow us to be able to do everything that I wanted to do since the start of Fishpond. Now that the technology has been harnessed, we can create a site that’s bespoke for the casting business, and add a preliminary stage for auditioning that will save actors the hassle and cost of travelling to auditions.”

“If you’ve seen the recently released film Joy, I recognise a lot there that you have to do to run an SME: basically it’s about getting knocked down and picking yourself back up again.”

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