Interview: Writer, Brand Manager and Public Speaker Annie Franceschi On Learning How to Tell Your Greatest Story
A few years after college, Annie Franceschi made her long-held dream of working at The Walt Disney Studios a reality. But a few years later, she left that dream job to pursue a career as a solopreneur. She founded her company, Greatest Story Creative, a brand management company that specializes in helping people and businesses "tell their story", launched a career as a public speaker to workshop ideas and strategies with business owners in person, and wrote Permission to Try, a #1 Amazon bestseller book that provides advice on how to invest in yourself and try something new, based on her own professional and personal experiences. Read on to learn more about her winding journey to and from Disney, the process of starting her own business, and the mistakes and lessons she’s learned along the way.
What kind of artist would you describe yourself as?
I think the thing that immediately comes to mind is a writer. I've always had all these different interests, but I always come back to writing. It's always been the thing that is the core of who I am. It’s what I've studied. I was always good at English, that was always my thing. I could always write something creative and I was always a creative kid. I think writing was the way I communicated that. But I'm also a very visual person. So I've sort of become a self-taught artist in terms of graphics and web [design]. I used to think I couldn't do that stuff because I thought an artist had to go to art school, or had to be trained in all those things, and I'm self-taught. But I was just always the kid that was making stuff. So I think the kind of artist that I am is a writer who is just really passionate about finding ways to tell stories. To tell other people’s stories.
For me it just will always come back to writing. I am a writer, first and foremost. That’s where it all stems from, but there's all these other elements too, because I design things and create things. I’m a creative, but writing is probably the core that it comes from.
Storytelling plays a very big role in your life, both personally and professionally. How did that love affair start?
It's interesting because I'm not actually a big reader. The thing I read most now is business books. But growing up and even into college, I did not read, even though I was an English major. I majored in analytical thinking and writing. That's how I saw it.
I thought I was going to go into screenwriting. My connection to storytelling came from going to the movies with my dad. I think we've seen over 1,000 films together. Movies, for me, were not an escape like they are for a lot of people. They are where I'd go to see myself. And to see the human experience and that we’re all a part of something bigger. I love movies that make me feel something. 90’s romantic comedies were my thing. You've Got Mail and Sleepless in Seattle, you know, everything Tom Hanks.
That was sort of the entry into storytelling. And then one summer, I think I was fourteen or fifteen, I picked up a book at Barnes & Noble called The Screenwriter’s Bible. I'd had this idea for a screenplay about a chef who is terrible at cooking. His dad wants him to become a chef even though that's not really his path, but he keeps trying anyway. It was called "Spilled Milk". After reading The Screenwriter’s Bible, I basically thought, "Well, I can write a script." And I wrote a script in a week. A 93-page, feature-length, properly formatted screenplay. I went on to write three more in high school and then I wrote one more in college in a class. They're all terrible, but they're all movies I would have wanted to see. And I think that was where I combined those two things [storytelling and screenwriting].
It wasn't ultimately what I was meant to do though, because what I realized as I started living life is that I couldn't think of fictional characters anymore. But that was a good thing, because it lead me to non-fiction, which is telling people's stories. I don't have to come up with what's great about another person. I can get to know them and build a story around that. That's what I know how to do now.
Many artists have dreams that are the end-all, be-all. "I have to be Beyoncé. I want to be on Broadway. I want to be Steven Spielberg." Your dream was to work at Disney. And then, come to find that it wasn't what it was cracked up to be. You got your dream and then decided to leave it, which is a side of the story that you don't often hear. There’s a lot to ask here, but let’s start with how you found yourself at Disney.
It was a lot of paying your dues sort of thing. So right out of school, I got a job as an executive intern. When I was at Duke, I studied literature and minored in film-making. We didn't have a film-making degree. My first summer, I worked at Discovery Channel on their corporate communications team and then I worked the next summer in London for Tandem Films. I did script coverage for the first time and I was their first intern.
How would you define script coverage for those who don't know?
Script coverage is what a lot of interns and assistants do in Hollywood. Many executives do not have time to read a screenplay. So, the lower level people read the script and then write a book report, essentially. It’s like an analysis of the summary of what happens in this script and what I think about it. "Here's why I think it's worth looking at" or "Why you shouldn't bother with it". It's sort of like making a SparkNotes versions of these scripts.
And so that was my entry into analyzing scripts for marketability and their production value and that sort of thing. That was the summer I was in London and then the last summer, going into my senior year, I worked at New Line Cinema, when they were still like 600 people. They were still sort of an independent studio when I worked there. They had come out with Hairspray. I was an HR floater intern, so I worked in all the departments. It was cool, because I got to work on executive desk, making calls, that sort of thing. Then, I graduated and moved out to LA. I moved out that July, got a job by September.
So you moved to L.A. without a job?
Oh, yeah. It's hard in LA, because you have to be on the ground. I’ve had friends who are driving in LA, they get a phone call about a job. They pull over, call the person back, they've lost the job already.
But in September I got a job as an executive intern. Which was the second assistant to the president of Lionsgate Films. It's legit, but no benefits, and you're the assistant to the assistant. It's an internship, but it was paid. You have to start somewhere.
How did you live in a city that's as expensive as LA with a job that paid, as you describe it, peanuts?
I have a really supportive dad (laughs). I wasn't financially independent for years.
That's good to know. It feels like TV and movies romanticize it, like in Sex in the City, where Carrie Bradshaw’s character was paid next to nothing for years but she lived in Manhattan and had a closet full of designer shoes.
No. My dad helped me for about three years. The first job I had, I think it was like $8 an hour. I almost want to print a sign and be like, "Girl, look how far you've come."
Anyway, I worked at Lionsgate. It was right as they were getting The Hunger Games, which was in turn-around at the time. Somebody didn't want it and they gave it up. I can't remember which studio. I was there the day the creative exec came in and said, "We have to get this now." The job was supposed to be six months and then I was supposed to move up. And it didn't work out. Six months in was March 2009, which you may remember was when the Great Recession hit and jobs were in a really bad place. So, I hung on a couple more months, but they gave me the blessing to look around because there really wasn't anything to do at Lionsgate. I was networking a lot and I had connected with this woman named Maggie Malone, who is the Director of Development at Disney at Disney Animation. I connected with her because she was the daughter of a professor I'd had at Duke. So, I'd gotten dinner with her, and it wasn't even that that got me into Disney, it was following up. That’s the secret. I did a nice, short and sweet follow-up to say, "Hey, I'm still looking. You know, if you hear of anything . . ." And it was just at a time where they had offered a job to someone on a feature film and the person had backed out. So they were like, "Well, let's consider Annie" and I got interviewed and hired for a role at Disney Animation.
That was my first job there. I was hired to be the assistant to the producer and directors of a movie called King of the Elves, which is based on a story by Philip K. Dick. It was the creative team that had done Brother Bear. They were really sweet guys, great bosses. I really enjoyed working with them. I worked with them for six months and then the project was shut down. Which happens actually more than you would think. But my bosses were let go from the company and I was left without a job. I had just given up this job at Lionsgate that could have been great and I was laid off nine months later. So, I thought, "What am I going to do?"
I had met with a recruiter months before, when I knew I was going to lose my job at Disney Animation, and I said "This is who I am. This is what I'm all about. If you hear anything let me know." And I happened to be temping one day when I saw her again, months later. Again, with the follow up. She goes "Annie, I have a job for you. We have a brand new department. I'm going to call you." And she calls me and they have a brand new department called Franchise Management (it has a different name since then). Long story short, even though I’m at the assistant level, she puts me up for two different coordinator jobs and I ended up on a live action team.
So, that's how I got into Disney. It took getting laid off, even after I got hired, to get rehired into a much better job. I had a much better salary at a much better opportunity, and I ultimately got promoted to assistant manager before I left. That's what started the roller coaster of it all. A little bit of the secret is knowing people. It's a networking thing. But it's really following up though. It's being really clear about your story and what you want and following up. Persistence wins the day.
Can you explain the transition to realizing that you no longer wanted to work with Disney, or rather no longer wanting to work in a corporate field, and the transition into thinking outside of the "dream" that you originally had?
It's a complex thing. It started when I got married in June 2012 and I stopped worrying, "Is he going to put a ring on it? What's going to happen?” I was thinking about the here and now. Once we got married and I got to think about the rest of my life more, I was like, "What do I really want? And is this making me happy?" I really felt like I didn't have enough creativity and creative control. The wedding stoked that fire for a while, because it had given me this creative outlet. But that was over. So, what am I doing now? And I was actually in a not good place with work. I wasn't at the dream job place yet. That came later, through hard things.
Basically I got married in the summer and by the fall, November, I decided to start a blog called anniemade. The idea was that I was going to sell these little flower bouquet pins from my wedding. They're on AnnieFranceschi.com and I still have not sold a single freaking one (laughs)! I started a blog to support that and sharing my story, which was cool because I had my own creative outlet again. I had blogged my wedding invitations, which were these little storybooks, and by March, early February, this bride named Bridgette emails me out of nowhere. She's getting married in Savannah, Georgia and she lives in New York. She loved what I did with my wedding invitations and she's like, "Can you help me tell my story through my wedding programs?" I said, "Uh, sure?" I had learned how to design invitations and stuff by doing it for my wedding, because I had to. So, I took her on as a client and it was so much fun. It was really rewarding because it was her wedding. That's going to be part of her life for the rest of her life and that was so cool and exciting.
I was doing that on the side and meanwhile at work, it was not going well for me. I was in a weird spot, because we had merged with another team and that made me the low coordinator on the totem pole. I was put on the projects nobody wanted to work on. It was really tough because I was in a catch-22 position where I was on these titles that nobody wanted to pay attention to or give any dollars to but yet I was expected to show what I could do. I was just really frustrated and feeling like I could never win. I was in tears, feeling like I was getting the short end of the stick. And one day I got pulled into my boss's office and she said, "I've got to tell you, I’m a little concerned. The head of our department is kind of worried about you and doesn't feel like you're necessarily performing. And doesn't know what you're working on." I just felt devastated by that information.
I was really frustrated, because what do you guys expect me to do? You don't give me anything to work on. I'd been on the team for three years at that point. I'd gotten so much good feedback about who I am and what I can do. But yet, I felt like I wasn’t being given an opportunity to show and contribute in a way that really served my skill set.
What I said, which I felt was such a risk at the time but had to be said at that point, was, "Look, it's like you guys love me, but you have no idea what to do with me." It was the nicest way I could say it. It's nothing offensive to her, but it's like, you tell me all the time how great I am, but you don't put me in any place that I can really show you or contribute. How am I supposed to survive and thrive if I don't have anything to work on? You're telling me that I'm not working on anything? I know. I know I'm not working on anything. That's what I'm trying to tell you. Just give me something to sink my teeth into, you know? I just want to show up and offer value. And she really heard me. To her credit, she was like, "Let me think about how to handle this. And I appreciate you sharing that." She's couldn't have been nicer about it.
So, next day, she came in. She talked to the head of our department and they had worked out a great idea and she said, "Annie, what if we restructured your role and instead of you working on specific movies, you work on all the movies. But you do the writing and the design part, which is what you're really good at." I was like, "That sounds amazing." The head of my department loved the idea, and that afternoon, I got called in her office to work on a big presentation, which were always the things she cared a lot about, because it connected the whole company. Suddenly it was like we were besties. This person who, I thought, was going to fire me, loved me because suddenly I had value. I think she always cared about me. It's not that. It's just that I was in the wrong role. So that's what turned a bad, horrible situation into a dream job.
Well, work got better. And work was great, it was on a high note. And I was like . . . it's not enough. I don't want my boss's job. I want to have a family life and the way things are going, I'm going to have to work. I won't ever be able to do my own thing and I'm starting to really enjoy that. I hadn't thought about becoming an entrepreneur, but the seeds of that idea were sort of getting planted. Having done this work for Bridgette for her wedding, it was like, "Wow. That is lasting." The work I was doing [at Disney] was cool, but it wasn't changing any movie. I was just communicating about the movie. I was living in the car, and Gus [my husband] was too. And the cost of living was high and we were like, "Well, if we were ever going to jump ship, this is the time. We don't have kids, we don't have a mortgage. If we're going to make a change in our lives, we have to do it or we're going to get stuck here."
It took getting everything I wanted to be sure that this was not a crazy decision. But I realized at the end of the day that I need to be happy. I need a creative job that I am good at that adds value to other people. That new role, it didn't add enough value. It was cool, but it didn't go far beyond me. Going back to that little girl, I was always making stuff for other people. I'm not the self-expression artist. I’d be bored as crap if I was just making stuff for me. It took looking at all of that for Gus and I to say, "We're making this wheel's up decision," and I left on the highest note of my career. Everybody was happy. I cried bittersweet tears and I drove away.
It was good because when do we leave things on good terms? I got to see what it'd be like and say, "I'm really proud that I hung in there." I'm really grateful for the experience. I learned so much that I use all the time as an entrepreneur. I don't regret a day of it. But I don’t regret not staying one more day. It was the right decision. I went back two years later and some of these people are still having the same complaints and concerns, and I have a different life.
I could argue that it takes more courage to leave when things are really good, because you have no idea what's waiting for you. It could be horrendous on the other side, but you’re taking this huge risk and this huge leap and just praying it works out.
And then you moved back to North Carolina? How soon after that did you decide to start your business?
I had already been thinking about the business when I left and I had this vision of, "Well, no one's telling stories in weddings. No one's writing stories about weddings." I thought I'd help real people tell their story. It started with weddings and events. I had this thought, even right before I left that, "There's something about helping you celebrate and live your greatest story." I had the name and everything. I got here in September of 2013 and I thought it was going to be a side thing. I thought I was going to spend years growing it. It’s hilarious, I thought I was so brave and crazy to give up this job and be like, "I'm going to go have this creative life." And what did I do the minute I did that? Get really conservative again. I was like, "No, no, no. I can't put myself out there. I have to do this thing on the side to be responsible and go get a job." So I started Greatest Story on the side. It started in September, but officially on October 13th. It was supposed to be a side thing for a while, probably years, because I was so afraid. I just needed it to make money before I would ever jump. And I had no idea how to register a business and pay taxes and all those things freaked me out. So, I did the safe thing and applied for jobs. But it was the best decision to change the business to be full-time. I needed to put 100% into it. That's something I've learned about myself. I can't do anything at 25%. I just know "go". You just have to know yourself. Some people really can build it that way [by working part-time]. I’ve heard stats that actually people do a lot better if they transition, if they build something on the side.
I was at the point that I felt so creatively beaten down. I’m such this creative person and I hadn’t made anything in like five years. That's the irony of the film industry, right? I went to the most creative place in the world, working on the most creative films, and yet most of what I did was not creative at all.
I'm sort of now powered by this. By going back to the Annie I used to be. I had almost completely forgotten about that person until I started that blog and had that bride come to me and remembering that I used to do this stuff all the time. And now people pay me for it, so it's great (laughs).
You talk about launching your business with absolutely no experience on how to run a business. How did you learn how to be an entrepreneur? It sounds like you taught yourself how to be an entrepreneur the same way you taught yourself how to be an artist.
For me, I think it's like when you learn math. You have to learn math with context. You can't just solve problems. That's how I learned Adobe Illustrator. You learn everything through trying. You're not born with any of this knowledge. You have to learn it somehow. And no, I don't have an MBA, but I'm a champion of ideas. Trying things out and thinking about how they're positioned and what's the smartest thing to do.
I'm good at not trying anything for too long. Like, try it, see if it works. If it doesn’t, do something else. Don't be married to any one thing. If you get inspired, follow that inspiration and think about how you can be more strategic. That's really a good fit for entrepreneurship, so I fell in love with that through trying and growing my business, and year over year, it's increased by like 45% every year. The growth has been through changes. My business model has changed and just not being wedded to, "It has to be a certain way" has really allowed it to be flexible. I've learned how to scale it and I've just been asking the right questions all along. Is it because I haven't failed at things? No! I’m still currently failing at some things (laughs). But it’s really life-giving to just try stuff.
I started my newsletter, "Skip to Action", back in December of 2015 because I went back and looked at all my ideal clients over the past two years and I realized, "Oh, my favorite clients are first-time entrepreneurs." They were like me, a couple years ago. So I should be sharing what I've learned about this stuff. And by me sharing it, it has helped me make myself more aware and challenged myself to write every week. I've written like 75 articles or something. But that's how I figured it out.
I also have become really good friends with other women entrepreneurs. I've been part of a mastermind group and it’s been important to see other women in particular growing their businesses and becoming friends with them. I was on a Duke panel for innovative women and one of the questions was, "In a male-dominated field, like entrepreneurship, how do you manage being a woman?" And I was like, "Hold the phone. Entrepreneurship is male-dominated?" Like that was news to me. Because every single entrepreneur I could think of practically was a woman. And a kick-a** woman. Many even have children. That's what's been modeled for me in this area. Even people I work with, who now have gone on to run agencies and things like that, they are kick-a** women.
So, I wrote a post called "65 women entrepreneurs in North Carolina and beyond." And it went crazy viral, because everyone was like, "I'm on this list. I'm on this list." I just listed all the amazing women I know, and I got to 65 and I said, "I have to quit, because I have to go to bed." It was great. I mean, I think that's the thing: there are really great role models in this area. I’ve met great mentors and I never believed in coaching before, but I had a crisis in my business last year and I met a coach who could help me.
When you talk about coaching, what do you mean by that?
I had seen this woman named Adele Michal, speak and she had said, "I help women make more money and I help them do it in an authentic way." My thing is: I hate sales pitches. I hate sleazy sales people. And so I was really nervous [when pitching] but I was wondering if I was too soft. What was my value? What was my story? I could help other people tell their story, but I wasn't owning mine with confidence. Because I was sort of like, "You could buy from me…Or not." (laughs)
She showed me that that wasn't the way to be. The better way to be, for me, is like a doctor. You come to me and you're experiencing symptoms in your business and I'm here to help you get better, right? I'm going to help you put your best foot forward. I'm going to help you get better. If your doctor said, "You could need me, or not", you don't buy it. So, that was one of the bigger problems that I had. She even gave me insights. For instance, I was emailing my proposals and I didn’t have any people getting back to me. She said, "Annie, you sell your business through speaking. Why don't you give these proposals over video chat and present them?" I did that and I got a yes on the spot the first time I tried it. My first ever co-hosted event happened right after I did this. Long story short, with the things I learned and the re-centering and the confidence I got from working with her as a sales coach, last year was supposed to be my worst year ever. It was on track to be my worst year ever. But I made more in that year, mostly in that last six or seven months, than I made in the two years I was in business. It was bananas. So, I hired her monthly. Obviously (laughs). I did not believe in coaching before. I did not believe it. But, it’s not like she does the work. I didn't have a strategic partner in this business. It's just me. I really needed that objectivity and someone who could help me where I was weak. She helped me get my groove back. She's great. Working with her really turned my eye to when you get to the level that you can invest for your business; it's a great thing to do. I just didn't believe it. I was like, "I have to do everything for free. I can't spend money." And it almost killed my business. She was worth every dollar I paid her.
A part of what we do at Indicoe is demystifying what it means to collaborate. How would you define collaboration?
I guess I would define collaboration by saying two heads are better than one. Putting great minds together creates something better than any one person could create. You know, where are my skills? And where are my weaknesses? How can someone else complement that? And what can we create for others? That is sort of how I think about collaboration.
Would you say as a creative person, as an artist, and also as an entrepreneur, that collaboration factors into your day-to-day life a fair amount?
It does. I want it to more than it has. I think I have had to be my whole business. Doing the writing and the design and the admin and all of everything. I have had to be really strategic and have boundaries. And a lot of people have started to be interested in my business. I'm also very protective of that, because I worked really hard to build this business, so I'm very careful about who I collaborate with. I just read this book: Real Artists Don't Starve by Jeff Goins. I picked it up one Friday and I read it by the end of the weekend. It's great. One of the things he says is that there's so much value in collaborating and building community and that's how you grow. I need to do that more. I think I need to be a little more trusting. I've been a little too guarded about it.
A lot of artists are. Whether you’re an artist or an entrepreneur, there's a part of yourself in it. Your work or your business is a separate thing, but there's a part of yourself in it and you don't hand it over to just anybody.
It's your baby. In many ways, it’s a fragile thing. But I always tell people that a business is a living organism. It's like in Annie Hall, when Woody Allen says a shark has to keep moving forward or it dies, and he says that relationships are like that. I think that businesses are like that too.
All that to say, I think collaboration is very valuable. I think that's going to be one way I really need to grow my business and grow organically because relationships will matter. I think I've done a good job of building intentional relationships and I'm starting to realize that collaboration is another way to add to that community aspect.
You build stronger relationships with people. Not just, "Oh, yeah. We're friends" and that sort of thing. But to see those referrals come in, see it building good partnerships so that we're passing clients back and forth. Collaboration is a great way to build a business like mine, I just need to be braver about it.
If you had any choice in the world, who would you choose to be on your collaboration dream team (living or dead) and why?
I really want to hang out with Tom Hanks. And Steve Martin. Those are my guys. Like if it was Tom Hanks, Steven Martin, and Robin Williams. We won't get s*** done (laughs). They are all really gifted. But I think realistically on a project, people like Austin Kleon. Jeff Goins. Miki Agrawal. I don't know her, but I read her book and if I could pick her brain for a while . . .
I also really like Jason Zook. He made $1 million by starting this campaign where he wore anyone's name or logo on a t-shirt for a year. He also sold his last name twice. It was really cool. He's really smart and he's really creative about his life. It’d be those guys. I like people who are all about creativity and living your life in a different way. That or the Muppets, you know?
If you were talking to someone who's a creative or art-based and looking to expand and really launch a proper, professional career, what concrete advice would you give? What's a piece of inspirational advice you would give?
I think good concrete advice is stay out of debt. I think that that's really important. I started my business with $40 of my own money. I've never put any other kind money in the business. I don't use business credit cards. It's totally debt-free. You don't necessarily have to spend money. There's some businesses that do, but you also have to be very careful. Don't get into a business that's a ton of money if you really can't back that up or if you can't live with the debt. If you could stay debt-free, do it. I think that that's something a creative person just doesn't think about.
For me, I’m creative but I'm also strategic. So, when I got all this information about how to manage money, it changed our lives. We left LA in the black, because we were very creative. We sold all our furniture instead of moving it to North Carolina. We just bought it again later. Then we bought a car in cash the following year. We put 20% down on a house. You know, you don't have to do things the way everybody tells you. Being in debt is very fashionable but it is very foolish. To the extent that you can, avoid it. So, I think that that is very concrete advice. Stay out of debt.
The piece of inspirational advice that I love to give, that I really believe in, is that the secret is not really a secret. It's one foot in front of the other. That's all it is. If I got up and stopped moving every day, nothing would happen in this business. Does everything I do work out? No. Does everyone say yes to me? No. Does everyone buy the stuff I have to sell? No. The ratio of yes’s to no’s is always going to be low, but the people who win are the people who get up every day and keep moving forward. You put one foot in front of the other when you go to that business class or the workshops, like what I do. I always tell people "You've already done the work today. You've already come out and put one foot in front of the other. What are you going to do next? Where's the next foot going?" That's all you have to be thinking about. It's persistence.
I think people don't realize that and they don't ever start. They don't ever take the first step. That is the best advice I can give. I see people wait for years and decades of their lives. They wake up and they're so much older and they're in the same situation that they hate living in. It doesn't have to be that way. We're all so afraid of the uncertain, but the reality is we need to fear the status quo. That's my 100%.
To read more gems from Annie on taking the leap when launching something new, read her book Permission to Try, available as an audiobook, ebook, and paperback. And visit Greatest Story Creative to learn more about Annie’s upcoming projects, branding services, and consultations to help you tell your own story!
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.