Brett Hansen explains how he beat out the odds, and achieved success in a business that he is passionate about, believing in himself through all the doubts and skeptics he faced!
Name: Brett Hansen
Tell us a bit about yourself …..
I started practicing puppetry at the age of three years old. I used to love watching anything by Jim Henson – The Muppets, Sesame Street, Fraggle Rock and all of his films. That was, and still is the style of puppetry I love most. I was always a very creative person. I was good at drawing, playing piano and performing with puppets. But I struggled a lot throughout school, both academically and socially. I was bullied a lot, and didn’t make friends easily. Thankfully, I had a very kind and supportive family, so home was my safe space. After graduating high school, I studied animation and film. I always wanted to find work as an artist. To become a puppeteer like the ones working on Sesame Street and The Muppets was one of my biggest dreams ever since I was little. As a hobby, I played piano in several bands, including one that lasted 14 years. For employment, I worked very long hours in minimum wage jobs such as janitor, dishwasher, retail and call centre work, because these were the only kinds of jobs that I was ever accepted into.
I struggled to keep up at work, and I endured a lot of exploitation and workplace bullying (much like my school years). Nobody would ever hire me in more flexible jobs with better conditions and good pay. I never gave up trying to find ways to live off my creative pursuits, but time around my long work hours, and lack of money prevented me to go very far.
In 2012, an opportunity came up to audition for a local production of Broadway puppet musical “Avenue Q” (an adult parody of Sesame Street). I had seen the touring production come through town and loved it, so I brought a puppet along and auditioned. I not only scored a role co-puppeteering two of the characters, I was also asked to train the whole cast in puppetry because I had the skills. This was all on a volunteer basis as part of a community theatre company, but it was an uplifting and rewarding project, and a very high quality production. Avenue Q was the first sellout season that theatre had experienced in decades.
What is the biggest obstacle you have faced in life & how did it impact you?
My mother passed away a couple of years before I was accepted into Avenue Q, which was sad because she always tried to encourage me to get into theatre, yet never got to see any of my artistic achievements. She only ever saw me as a struggler who couldn’t make friends, couldn’t earn enough money and couldn’t get my foot in the door of the arts despite all my efforts. She was always there to comfort me failure after failure. After my amazing six months with Avenue Q, from auditions through to the final closing night performance, life got very dark. Avenue Q ended, and then I was made redundant from my day job. As a third blow, just when I thought things couldn’t get any worse, my marriage ended too. So I was left poor (even more so than usual), lonely, depressed, and didn’t even have puppetry anymore to help me through it.
What would you say are your greatest achievements in life thus far?
Being nominated for a small business award and being flown down to Melbourne to attend the awards gala and win it! Living in the USA for three months of 2016 for professional development, which included advanced, formal training by Jim Henson puppeteers from Sesame Street and The Muppets. Performing a special VIP corporate puppet show in April this year at the Queensland Performing Arts Centre (QPAC) for the cast and company of Julie Andrews’ touring production of “My Fair Lady”.
How did you work through your struggles to achieve the success you have today?
After losing everything, all I had left to my name were a few puppets and the last few hundred dollars of savings. A couple of friends mentioned to me that when I go into Centrelink, I should ask about the NEIS program. The New Enterprise Incentive Scheme is a government employment program for those wishing to start their own business rather than continue filling out job diaries and applying for whatever awful, exploitative jobs were available. Having always known what I was meant to be doing with my life, I picked up the pieces of my shattered life and applied for NEIS. In my pitch, I was able to convince them with passion that this would be a viable business that I could run efficiently and earn money from.
I was accepted into the program at the end of 2012, where I studied a Certificate IV in Small Business Management and Entrepreneurial Studies. The assessments in the course were literally the things I needed to start a legal, working business – all the necessary licenses (bluecard, public liability insurance), marketing tools (website, social media, business cards), profit and loss statement, etc. I had puppet characters that I designed being built professionally, a puppet theatre and sound equipment on order, my own corporate uniform.
Also as part of NEIS, I was teamed up with a business mentor for one year to assist me with my marketing, tax, and all the other things I needed to start getting bookings. I slowly started getting calls and emails with enquiries about puppet shows for birthday parties. Eventually, schools and fetes started contacting me. I have continued to grow the business ever since by continuing to distribute business cards and flyers, constantly updating my website and social media pages, appearing at business networking events, appearing with the puppets at charity events to help spread the brand awareness. The bookings became more frequent, childcare centres and larger festivals started booking me, I was asked to appear on local TV shows and short films with puppets. It grew quite significantly by the third year. My third year in business was when I was flown down to Melbourne to win the BizCover NEIS Change Award at the national Small Business Development Conference.
What is one tip you have for keeping motivated?
Don’t give up. When you’re having a quiet period, enjoy it - because it doesn’t remain quiet for very long. If the quiet period starts to extend and you’re not getting any enquiries or bookings, invest heaps of time into your website and social media. Print more flyers, do letter drops, attend business networking events, meet with friends, keep spreading the word as far and wide as possible. When I’m personally not feeling motivated creatively, I watch Muppet movies. They inspire me.
Who is someone that helped you on your journey from struggle to success?
My current wife Elissa. She is kind, supportive, and just as crazy and creative as I am. She loves the arts, and has helped so much with the growth of this business. I started the business on my own, and honestly thought I’d live out the rest of my days as a lonely but happy puppeteer visiting backyard birthday parties every weekend while working in a call centre during the week. But new love blossomed after my first year in business. And with that came support and growth.
It truly helps to have someone in your life who is like-minded and just as passionate about succeeding and following seemingly impossible dreams as you are. I now work full time in my puppetry business. Elissa says that I still did all the work, but she certainly guided me in the right direction, helped me make tough decisions, and worked with me to make everything more professional. Elissa even helps me perform from time to time, particularly at the bigger events such as Woodford Folk Festival, where we performed three puppet shows every day for the full week event. She also helps me run puppetry workshops at schools.
What qualities do you think are essential in a person in order to be successful?
You have to know what you want. It helps to have known what you wanted since you were a child. You need to be prepared to actively follow your dream and work extremely hard to achieve it. If you think it’s too hard to achieve what you want, and feel like giving up and going back into the regular workforce because it’s easier and quicker, then maybe you don’t want it enough.
I was so poor at the beginning of this journey, I lived on tins of tuna and instant noodles at times. It was worth it. You must not accept no for an answer, or let anybody convince you that your dream or goal is impossible or silly. Friends, ex-partners, employment agents and other skeptics all tried to tell me I was mad and had my head in the clouds. Someone once ripped up my resume with a list of my skills and goals and said, “You will NEVER find work in these areas”. Ignore those people and keep fighting for it. You must not be stopped by any obstacles or roadblocks that inevitably get in your way. Find a way around that obstacle. Keep at it. Keep fighting. It is not impossible! Create your own opportunities! There’s a saying – “If opportunity doesn’t knock, build a door”.
Do you think there are benefits to going through hardships before achieving your goals?
I don’t want to say that every person who wants to achieve a big goal must go through hardships. I wouldn’t wish hardship on anyone. If you can make it work without hardship, that’s great! For me, I feel that those hardships were necessary. I was in a rut anyway. I was miserable in my previous jobs. I wasn’t a happy person. I was always working and didn’t get to see my ex-wife very much. And then I’d come home and we couldn’t even afford to do much in the little bit of spare time we had. I was simply existing. I wasn’t living. And I was always so jaded that I had to work in these awful workplaces while my true talents were going to waste.
Then when our marriage ended and I had no job or anything left, I still at least had hope, and some new found spare time to start again from scratch. I never had any spare time before that. It feels weird to say this now, but the best thing that ever happened to me was losing everything and going through hardships. Sometimes life deals out these challenges and you have to decide whether you’re going to give up or rebuild your life the way you want it to be.
What are some plans and goals you have for the future?
Elissa and I have a huge list of big, bold, innovative puppetry projects to achieve. While the birthday parties, child care centres, festivals and workshops are definitely fun weekly gigs, we have some nice goals for corporate work, film and TV projects and live theatre productions perhaps with a small cast. We’ve been hard at work applying for arts grants, writing scripts and proposals, creating new characters and so much more.
Lastly, what is one piece of advice you have for others to overcome difficulty and achieve success?
Who cares if they think you’re silly or mad? Who cares if they think you’re chasing an impossible dream or flogging a dead horse? That’s their problem. You are the strong one if you push through the challenges and keep your eye on the prize. It is achievable if you work hard at it and never give up.
Brett’s story is inspiring, and is a true example of how if you are passionate enough about something - you can indeed make it your livelihood. Don’t surround yourself with naysayers, and instead fill your life with those that support and encourage your dream.