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From Avocation To Vocation: “How I Turned My Hobby Into A Career” With Magician Daniel Chan

Take less gigs and focus on quality. When first starting I tried to take all gigs and do all gigs, but ended up sending myself on a fast track to burn out. One Halloween weekend I ended up booking six gigs in one day. That day ran from 9 am to nearly 4 am — driving hours […]


Take less gigs and focus on quality. When first starting I tried to take all gigs and do all gigs, but ended up sending myself on a fast track to burn out. One Halloween weekend I ended up booking six gigs in one day. That day ran from 9 am to nearly 4 am — driving hours included — and although I did a good enough job to get hired again by these clients the next year, I was so worn out because I had gigs the day before and the day after. The next day gigs were way less energetic and I probably looked like I didn’t care all that much. Burnout is a real thing — it’s really important to pace yourself or your work will start to suffer.


As a part of our series about entrepreneurs who transformed something they did for fun into a full-time career, I had the pleasure of interviewing Daniel Chan of owner of BayAreaDinnerShow.com and DanChanMagic.com.


Thank you so much for doing this with us Daniel! Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?

I grew up in San Francisco, CA. My parents divorced when I was very young, and I was picked on a lot while growing up. Looking back on the pictures I was a bit of a goofy looking kid. It didn’t help that I was a pretty nerdy Asian kid who acted goofy as well. In Middle School I really didn’t want to be known as just the nerdy little Asian kid so I started lifting weights. I was probably the most buff kid in high school. I also started dabbling around with magic and juggling for fun because no matter how hard I tried fitting in “with the crowd”, my inquisitive nerdy side never quite went away.

What was the catalyst from transforming your hobby or something you love into a business? Can you share the story of your “ah ha” moment with us?

I’ve always had fun jobs. I was a lifeguard, windsurfing and sailing instructor at various summer camps during summer vacation in college. During one winter, I was a ski and snowboard instructor at Snow Summit at Big Bear CA. One season there was a convention going on one weekend where there was a lot of entertainment including a magician and a lot of Playboy Bunnies. As awesome as it was to be a college student surrounded by all these really beautiful women, I was absolutely fascinated by the effects the magician was doing! I ended up following the magician around all weekend trying to pick his brain and figure out his effects. This guy had the ultimate dream job — fooling people, crashing parties, traveling, meeting girls…and getting paid to do it? Sign me up. After winter break was over, I ended up going to the magic shop and picking up a ton of stuff to practice on friends at school and found out I was pretty good. I did my first gig after college while I was working at PayPal. It was for a birthday party and I got really great feedback and people actually recommended me to other friends. When I started getting gigs pretty consistently to the point where I was calling in sick at my “real job”, I started thinking…” hum, maybe I got something going on here”.

There is no shortage of good ideas out there, but people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How did you overcome this challenge?

Remember how I was the goofy little nerdy kid? I had something that most successful people have — tenacity and drive to change. I knew I really didn’t want to do a traditional desk job and I really enjoyed performing magic. After talking with that one magician at the ski lodge, I knew that doing what you love for a living was possible. I had a clear goal in mind and although I didn’t know all the details on how to make this goal a reality, I did what I could do to get the ball rolling.

It took a lot of sacrifice though — I lived at home and much of the money I made I invested back into magic books, DVD’s and conventions instead of going out with friends, dating, eating out…I spent much of my time practicing magic, meeting established magicians and learning literal “tricks of the trade”, and of course trying to hustle those gigs. I never was the type to just sit around and only think what steps I should take — I would get a few steps and just go do it, even if it meant failing a few times.

What advice would you give someone who has a hobby or pastime that they absolutely love but is reluctant to do it for a living?

I think the best advice to give someone is to just “go out and do it”. Try doing what you love on the weekends or on your time off. Call in sick to your day job once or twice a year. Instead of going to travel for your vacation time, spent that week trying to hustle your side gig. Share your dream with family and friends. Find like minded people in your side hustle and talk with them — you’d be surprised to hear about their journey, how their business came to be, and ideas that they got going. And most importantly, don’t let the fear of failure hold you back. It’s really easy to not want to do something because you don’t want to lose the comfortable job and life you’ve got now, but your life could be so much more enriching if you took that risk to do what you love. If you truly love what you do, you’ll make it work.

It’s said that the quickest way to take the fun out of doing something is to do it for a living. How do you keep from changing something you love into something you dread? How do you keep it fresh and enjoyable?

Luckily for me, magic has infinite possibilities and is constantly evolving. I hang out with other people who inspire me and am constantly searching for the next great effect. I really enjoy going to magic conventions and magic clubs and learning from both veteran magicians and new guys alike. This past week I went to Magic Live, an international magic convention that is held in Las Vegas. This convention is really unique in that it doesn’t showcase traditional illusions, but it also features TED-like talks on psychology of misdirection, displays of optical illusions, focus sessions on business…it really covered more than just magic. You don’t even have to be a magician to attend— you just have to love the art…and pay the convention fees, of course. Being surrounded by other individuals with such a love and enthusiasm for the art is contagious — I always leave the convention renewed and fired up to try effects and build new routines. As a result, I’ve got a new show in the works. I truly believe it’s important to spend time with the people are as excited about what they’re doing as you are — it’s not only inspiring, but it’s way more fun!

What is it that you enjoy most about running your own business? What are the downsides of running your own business? Can you share what you did to overcome these drawbacks?

To be honest? My name is on the business and I love how people recognize my name in the Bay Area. I guess it’s an ego-driven thing, but wow, is it nice to be recognized as a performer who’s doing a good enough job to have a reputation that precedes them. I love seeing how all the hard work I’ve done into crafting a routine blows the minds of people I’m performing for.

As for the downside of the business — it’s the boring paperwork side of the job I hate. As fun as it is to crash parties, there’s a lot of planning involved that has to take place. I have to do all copy-writing, scripting, marketing, strategy, fielding calls, invoicing…there’s just a lot of steps to take before and after I can actually perform for people and to be honest, that takes just as much time than the actual magic practice and performance! For me, the hardest part of managing my own business was learning how to let go of my business a little — in other words, outsourcing the work a bit. When I was just starting out and doing a couple of kids shows, I could easily manage taking my own photos, editing videos for promo, designing my own website and copywriting…but as time went on, I realized I was spending more time marketing instead of working on new routines. It was hard letting someone else take over those aspects, but at the same time, those photographers and web designers did a way better job than I did. This goes back to “do what you love” — the passion and skill that these artists have really shines through their work! So yeah, sometimes to move forward, you have to let go of the control a bit and outsource some areas so you can make your product better.

Can you share what was the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?

To be honest, I didn’t have any preconceived notions of what the job would be like. Sure, I knew that the job would entail going to parties and performing and all, but I was also just as certain that there was a lot of “behind the scenes” work like marketing, invoicing, and researching involved. I just took it one day at a time. I guess if there was one thing that I didn’t realize, it would be the importance of knowing companies and networking outside of your field. As a side side-hobby, I love dabbling in stock, and I frequently research about random tech companies. This past weekend I worked for the founders of the most recognizable names in tech and was able to not only talk about the magic trade with them, but was also able to talk a lot about their companies. I didn’t realize how many of the most influential companies in the world would eventually hire me. I’m guessing this was likely not only for my magic skills, but because I genuinely had an interest in their company and was able to convey their product through my magic. My client list is an A to Z of the who’s who in the most recognizable names in the world.

Has there ever been a moment when you thought to yourself “I can’t take it anymore, I’m going to get a “real” job? If so how did you overcome it?

I admit, I was pretty burnt out at one point in my career when I had multiple days that would have anywhere between four to six gigs in a day that would run from 9 a.m. to 2 a.m. at night. A lot of events required me to be there two hours early for set up, some gigs ran two hours late because of other performances. There were a lot of driving involved, I was trying to manage all the calls, the marketing, the follow up when I get home at 3 or 4 in the morning after driving a few hours home. It was rough, I was exhausted, and then I’d worry that I was looking exhausted and not delivering the energy I wanted into my shows…I got so burnt out that I end up joining the Coast Guard Reserves and walking away from a lot of gigs. I had an interest in sailing and boating and I wanted to give back in a different way, so I went to boot camp and “A” school for three months, then gave up one weekend a month to serve.

It was a different experience and going through the military training gave me a new view on how to handle things, particularly stress. Military training was difficult, it’s also very structured, something that I realized I didn’t focus on as much in my business. Joining the Coast Guard Reserves made me think about how I could scale my business and make it not just about myself but about a team. It helped me develop leadership skills so I could bring on more team members and build my business. While my business is far different from the military, the importance of standardization and precision was something I took away from my service in the Coast Guard.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

You know, I didn’t realize just how many celebrities I would come across in this profession once I became good enough where companies were recommending me. I once performed for a lady with Madden as a last name. After the show I joked with her and asked, “Are you by any chance related to John Madden?” She responds with “Oh yeah, he’s my father-in-law, would you like me to introduce you to him?” He was in the audience the entire time and there were less than 25 people in the audience at that time. I didn’t recognize him because I’m not much of a sports fan. Since then I’ve been trying to keep up with knowing celebrities and sports names — even though I’m not into television or sports much — just in case I run into someone at a gig so I don’t miss an opportunity like almost missing John Madden again!

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

There’s an effect where a magician waves around a handkerchief, gestures, then suddenly a dove magically appears out of nowhere. Well, instead of magically producing the dove, I ended up dropping the bird to the ground. If you happen to drop something like the silk, you can’t just bend over at the back and pick it up or you’ll end up dropping everything else you have to bend at the knees, just like when you’re picking up something that’s heavy. This is important advice for anyone in any field — when picking something up, bend at the knees. Not only will your back thank you, and your bird will as well.

Who has inspired or continues to inspire you to be a great leader? Why?

I’m fascinated with Simon Sinek and TED talks on leadership and his book “Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Others to Take Action”. I really enjoy how he inspires others to inspire change in the workplace. If you don’t already know about him look up his TED talks and his content on YouTube.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

I like to volunteer. Many of my clients are philanthropists, so I help them out with their causes and fundraisers. I’m a bit of a local celebrity in some circles so bringing awareness to good causes are just some of the things we do. Also donating tickets to my dinner show is something we do for causes we care about.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Take less gigs and focus on quality. When first starting I tried to take all gigs and do all gigs, but ended up sending myself on a fast track to burn out. One Halloween weekend I ended up booking six gigs in one day. That day ran from 9 am to nearly 4 am — driving hours included — and although I did a good enough job to get hired again by these clients the next year, I was so worn out because I had gigs the day before and the day after. The next day gigs were way less energetic and I probably looked like I didn’t care all that much. Burnout is a real thing — it’s really important to pace yourself or your work will start to suffer.
  2. When you start getting more established, remember to charge what you’re worth. By the time I was doing these six gig days, I realized I was charging too little and undervaluing my services when I had something that was truly unique. In retrospect, I really should have started modifying my pricing structure once momentum built. I was putting a lot of money into the show, advertising, my skills, but ultimately forgot to price accordingly. You can’t charge 25 cent lemonade stand prices when you have a Starbucks quality product and business.
  3. Develop relationships with others in your business and outsource when necessary. As much as I’d love to do every gig and be at every event, it’s just physically not possible. For my field, it’s important to have a trusted set of performers whom you can confidently send out to events and trust who will do just as good as a job as you would. Trust is an important thing in this industry — clients trust that you’re going to make their event a success and you have to trust those who will be going out representing your name to do a good job.
  4. Pace yourself. I really can’t emphasize this enough — as gung ho and on fire you are to charge forward to push your product, you really got to pace yourself or you will burn yourself out. Establish time out for yourself, your family, and friends. Practice self care and keep yourself healthy — don’t let your work consume you. Don’t allow your career to become work or yes, you might just end up hating it.
  5. Focus on relationships and spend more time with family. In the drive to make your dream a reality, don’t steamroll over your family and friends. At the end of the day and at the end of your life, you probably won’t be saying “I wish I spent more time writing up that spreadsheet to make my business bigger”. Work will always be there, but your kids will only be small for so long and before you know it they’ll be moving out to pursue their own dreams. Similarly, your work will likely never leave you (but instead will build up) if you avoid it, but your spouse totally could. Family will always be my first priority — cherish your family as you only have so much time in this world to spend time with them.

What person wouldn’t want to work doing something they absolutely love. You are an incredible inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

Magic kept me out of trouble, and I want to pass that along. I’ve helped those are on the street learn how to street perform. I’ve taught a couple of people who were, by society standards, unemployable. Some had criminal records, some had tattoos, some didn’t want to “work for the man”. I taught them a few magic tricks, how to juggle, and other interesting skills so they could start a different hustle. It would be nice to start a program for at risk youth and do a program in the inner cities where kids could learn that there’s more options to life than the normal 9 to 5 jobs. Entertainment is a career that can get the bills paid and something you canbe successful at.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Your thoughts determine your actions, your actions determine your habits, and your habits determine your destiny.” This is different for everyone…think about it, and be careful what you think about.

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

Thomas Keller. Asides from him being an awesome chef and hopefully getting to eat some of his amazing dishes, he’s also a well known and highly successful restaurateur whose restaurants are known for quality, innovation, and service. If I wasn’t doing entertainment, I’d probably be in restaurant hospitality. Coincidentally, I’m also trying to create a Magic and Dinner Show concept. If Mr. Keller, or any other restaurateur, would be interested in creating an immersive dining experience that integrates magic and innovative dining, let’s talk!

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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