INTERVIEW: JONA XIAO
For our readers who don’t know, give us a little rundown of what you do. I’m the CEO of Career ACTivate, which helps actors master the business side of show business. Our team is comprised of working actors who guide and mentor those who want to work smarter in the business. To date, we’ve helped thousands of actors from new to Emmy-winning book more work and make more money acting.
How and when did you become inspired to start a “business of acting” business?
I was helping market a well-known acting studio that provided a lot of traditional acting classes (scene study, cold reading, on-camera, improv, etc.). The students there were talented and getting great training, but were really lost as to how to make their headshots work, how to get the right representation for them, and felt really unclear on how to make a profit from their passion. It reminded me of how I felt when I was first starting out acting and had so much passion but no education on how to handle the business (and thus, I had actually been scammed when I was younger), and wanted to see these actors receive guidance. So, I suggested to the studio manager that they introduce a business of acting class. She asked me what it would cover and the next day I came back with a 9-page outline. She was impressed by how much I had learned when I was working on the business side of the industry (casting, agency, etc.) and she hired me to teach the class at the studio.
You and I actually first met during Career ACTivate’s early days, years ago! Could you touch on your experience during this time of starting the business?
I started off teaching the evening business of acting class every few months. I knew I had a lot of knowledge from working in casting, the world of representation, producing, co-founding a national film festival, etc. that actors needed to know. So, I was confident in the information I had to share. However, I was nervous about my age as almost all my students were older than me and being Asian, I looked even YOUNGER than I already was. For example, I would be in the bathroom right before teaching and I’d have students ask me if I was taking the business of acting class and when I told them I was TEACHING it, I’d see the quick flash of panic appear on their face quickly covered by a big smile and a “Oh great!” Luckily, within a few minutes of me sharing and talking on stage, everyone was furiously taking notes and learning a lot.
I had no idea that class would then lead to me to coaching and creating an entire business; so for a while, it was definitely learning while doing. Sometimes when I look back at the super cluttered website I had designed myself (since I was wearing all the hats as a solopreneur), it would be embarrassing, but then I would remind myself, “If I’m embarrassed, that means things are so much better now and yay for progress!”
If you could go back to the beginning, what would you have done differently?
I was too independent and stubborn to a fault, wanting to do everything on my own. If I could go back, I wouldn’t have waited so long to get support; so this includes teammates, coaches, mentors, and a mastermind community. After all, successful people do it themselves, but never alone. That being said, I try to live as regret-free as possible because I think everything that has happened has led me to where I am now and I’m proud of how far I’ve come.
Could you tell us about a time you found yourself facing an unexpected setback? How did you overcome it?
Some days I feel incredibly overwhelmed by the demands and responsibilities on my plate, which makes me want to crawl into a hole and ignore the world. After a little pity party I remember why I’m doing what I’m doing, to empower others to achieve their dreams. Luckily, I’ve received so many stories about our client’s lives changing for the better that my pity parties can’t last long. Just the other day I was talking with one of our Elite Clients and she was sharing with me how much her life had transformed since joining our program. She told me that her mom was so happy that they invested in the program because of how happy and confident she is in her life now. Before joining the program, she had frequent breakdowns because she felt so lost, frustrated, and confused by the entertainment industry. I got teary-eyed listening to how much she’d grown over the past year and I felt insanely grateful that I got to be part of her journey as I know she’ll make a big impact on this world. It’s seeing that type of life transformation (my “why”) that helps me get through any challenge (my “how”) in my life.
You have described yourself as a “Recovering Perfectionist” (which, after hearing this from you, I have also diagnosed myself as such!). Could you touch on this concept and tell us how you’ve been able to overcome it?
Growing up in a traditional Chinese household, I was molded into a perfectionist almost all my life. I remember coming home and sharing with my parents that I got a 98% on a math test and my dad would ask me (in a somewhat joking/somewhat serious way), “What happened to the other 2%?” They had high expectations for me, and so did I. It’s a shame how many times I’ve seen people not go after something they wanted because it wasn’t “perfect” (myself included). Yet, the most successful people in the world take a lot of action, knowing that it’s not perfect, it’s never perfect. Wanting to get it right, get it perfect, paralyzes people; it’s the fear that what they are doing isn’t perfect. I don’t remember what caused me to change over time, it could have been seminars I went to, mentors I’ve had, or my peers I’ve worked with, most likely all of the above; but I realized I really needed to take action, even if it was crappy action to get to where I wanted to go. Now I give myself reminders that we are all wonderful works of progress, nothing is ever perfect (we are human right?) and I need to take action to get to my goals. But every so often the fear of being perfect creeps back out. For example: I’m scared of sending out a newsletter with a mistake to the actors on our insider mailing list, so I’ll check it multiple times, and ask my team to read it for me. Even after it had been proofread several times, one of our newsletters (sharing a great IMDb tip) also shared about our “home study CURSE.” Whoops, yes that’s definitely a typo as it was meant to read “course.” We had so many people respond saying how helpful the tips in the email were and only one person who brought up the typo. It just goes to show that if you only send out or do something that is perfect, you’ll never do anything, and how can I make a huge impact on improving people’s lives if I don’t do something.
Do you have any rituals for getting yourself in boss mode on days you might feel less-than-inspired?
Oh man, sometimes I feel stressed and overwhelmed and all I want to do is curl up in a ball and nap. What helps for me is actually having deadlines that if I don’t meet them, I’ll be disappointing at least one other person. That is a big motivator for me. So, I start off with some of the easier items on my “get to do” list and that helps me build momentum and confidence to tackle the bigger tasks.
In addition to owning Career ACTivate, you’re also managing a busy acting career, with roles in big budget films (your role in an upcoming Marvel film was just announced!) and TV shows. How do you balance running a business AND acting?
As a type A person, it was at first difficult to delegate some work. However, I’m so grateful to have found really talented teammates that help Career ACTivate run smoothly. This allows me to focus on the bigger picture and also allows me to have greater flexibility and I haven’t really had Career ACTivate conflict with my own acting career. If anything, they support and are a positive influence on one another. Also, my team and I mainly communicate virtually and we don’t have many in-person meetups so I can still be in touch with them while filming in Atlanta, for instance.
On that note, what does a ‘typical’ day (loose term, I know) look like for you – morning to night?
I’m not a morning person so I usually get up around 9:30AM/10AM and check my email which shows what urgent things I need to take care of, which adds an additional layer of motivation to get out of bed. Do not start the day the way I do! Then, I create a “get to do” list for the day so I know what to prioritize. Throughout the day, I’m handling some emails, planning upcoming events for Career ACTivate, communicating with my team, taking a meeting with an industry friend, and prepare for, tape, and go on auditions. Throughout the day I’ll receive notifications from the Elite Clients in one of our Career ACTivate programs and comment on various posts as I love how active the community is. At night I’ll usually get some more work done or play in a flag football league.
What is your least favorite aspect of running your own business? How do you get yourself to push through when it comes time to tackle that?
Sometimes it can be challenging dealing with the naysayers, people who want to tear you down and criticize what you are doing. I hate the feeling of people making assumptions about me which aren’t grounded in truth, especially when my intentions are to help and serve. One of my mentors once told me that if I wasn’t upsetting anyone, then that meant I wasn’t being bold enough or making a big enough impact. It’s when we take risks and make bold statements that criticism inevitably comes, so we should actually embrace it as a sign that we are on the right path.
I know you like to balance your work life with non business-related activities, like participating in dodgeball and football leagues, and hosting game nights (you’re a tough one to beat). Is it difficult to let your work brain go to let loose?
I’ve always been a fan of the motto “work hard, play hard.” My main hobbies are the ones you mentioned and playing sports is a great combination of exercise, stress reliever for me (who wouldn’t enjoy chucking a dodgeball after a long day?), and being in a fun social community. However, sometimes I come off too intense (especially when I play flag football since I’m one of the few female quarterbacks and feel the pressure to perform so others can’t say “See? Girls can’t throw.”). I’ve literally asked some of my teammates to remind me to just have fun if they see me stressed during the game.
What advice do you have for others looking to start their own venture?
Think about what change you’d like to see in the world and what are you passionate about to help make that change. Then, pick a niche, don’t try to reach everyone to start out with. Really understand the problem that your main customers are experiencing and provide them a solution. With pricing, don’t sell yourself short but at the same time make sure you are always aiming to overdeliver so the value your customers are receiving is always greater than the money they are investing. Also, don’t do it alone. Get support from coaches, mentors, and a community that challenges you and helps you grow the business faster than you would’ve on your own.
L.A. LADY CULTURE
Favorite area of L.A.? Venice/Santa Monica beach because I love playing flag football on the sand with my friends in the gorgeous weather.
Favorite eatery in L.A.? My friend Ron’s restaurant SunCafe is an incredible vegan hotspot. I also love SugarFish and Cafe Gratitude.
Menu item we must order there? Sun Nachos (raw vegan chorizo nachos)
Favorite happy hour? I don’t drink often and haven’t been to a happy hour in probably over a year…
Favorite weekend activities in the city? Flag football on the beach and grass. I love to quarterback and I’m passionate about breaking gender stereotypes. I’m a huge proponent for female athletes and think that females should get just as much respect as their male counterparts.
Audio of choice when sitting in traffic? Audio books on mindset and business
Place or thing you want to do most in L.A., but haven’t yet? Going down that huge glass slide in downtown LA.