This will be the last (and longest) but most important post in this Do Business BETTER series. If you haven’t read the other two yet then start with the first one here. In retrospect, I probably should have put this one second and Identity Crisis last. My hope is that these posts have been challenging, and honest, and above all, helpful. The stats are that 85% of photography businesses fail within the first 3 years. In an over-saturated market where anyone with a digital camera and a website can claim to be a professional, those out there who are really serious about doing it need to stop and asses their situation and do it RIGHT if they want to be one of the ones that succeed. Are you ready?
There is a saying in the photography industry that owning a successful photography business is 20% talent and 80% business skill. I remember being told this as I was trying to start a business and I just brushed it off. It sounds so…cold! What about passion and artistry and “capturing memories that will last a lifetime!” (insert doey-eyed wonder).
Most of us had similar beginnings…someone told you that you have an eye for photography. You invested in some gear. You started a blog or website. You began shooting your friends and family to build up your portfolio. Once you had a bit of a portfolio built up you decide to begin to charge for your work…
This is all good so far, but there are at least two make-or-break critical points in a photographer’s business where he/she has to put on their big kid business pants and make some tough decisions. Without business skill and savvy decision making at these two crucial points you end up in scenarios like these:
1. Failure to put on your big kid business pants at point #1:
You begin charging a small fee that you think your clients (friends, extended family, neighbors, friends from school, work etc) can afford. Lets say $50-$100 for a portrait session or $300-$500 for a wedding and you give them all of the digital negatives. You still don’t even charge some of your clients because you feel bad, or it’s not hard to do a shoot for them or you “are friends.” A few people pay you for your services but you are having trouble booking new paying clients. You send them your rates and they tell you that those prices are too high and so you offer them a discount. After all you are “just getting started” and don’t want to seem too big for your britches. You also don’t want to loose any opportunity to shoot so you try to work out a deal with each of your potential clients. The problem is that months later your business is still in this phase. You do not understand the role of perceived value and your insecurity about your skill keeps you from establishing its value among your clients. So you can’t seem to book new clients and you barely make any money off the ones you do…which you are ok with…because you are “just starting out.” Your “business” sadly goes on for months or years in this stage and eventually you decide to move on b/c you never made any traction.
***as a side note – the above scenario assumes that you have given yourself time to build up talent worth charging for. If you try to launch a business too soon without first investing in growing your talent then the quality of your work is not going to be worth what you need your clients to pay to keep the business running. Don’t rush this phase. Get your work critiqued by other successful photographers and ask for input on whether your work is worth charging for yet and what those prices should eventually be.***
2. Failure to put on your big kid business pants at point #2:
…You took the advice of a savvy and successful photographer friend on what to charge and you made it through the fear-of-rejection-gauntlet and fired your friends and family as your clients. (Ok, that sounds a bit dramatic but in all honesty you have to be okay with turning down “friends” who want you to do your work for little or no profit. A true friend values your talent and respects that you are trying to run a business and will be willing to pay you for that skill. I remember two crucial experiences for me in the early years of my business…the first was when a “friend” told me that they could not afford what I was charging and that I was charging too much in general ($150). I swallowed the lump in my throat and responded that I understood and referred her on to another newbie college photographer (I did not offer her a discounted rate). The second was when a very dear friend asked me to shoot her wedding – one of my first weddings. I sent her my full new rates ($1500 at the time) and held my breath, sure that she was going to think I wasn’t worth it and laugh at me. Well guess what…she gladly hired me for my full rate!! What a boost to my confidence!)
Back to our scenario…
…You took the advice of a savvy and successful photographer friend and knew better then to undersell yourself. You made it through the fear-of-rejection gauntlet and fired your friends and family as your clients. You did your research on establishing photography rates, you sought the advice and critique of other photographers and you did the market research for your area and set prices accordingly. You were not afraid to say no. You learned how to properly understand and leverage perceived value and didn’t stick with rates that undercut the industry as a whole just to book clients. You began to have a steady stream of paying happy clients who booked you for all kinds of different types of work. You needed to upgrade your gear so you make another investment. You are trying to keep up with your industry peers by offering fancy albums or other products that cost you a chunk of change to provide. You invest in fancy boutique packaging. Invest in more gear. Invest in marketing. Invest in going to WPPA and other big conferences. Invest in bridal shows. Meanwhile, you have not been raising your rates accordingly and don’t really keep track of what is coming in vs what is being spent. You don’t invest in the un-fun things like an accountant or liability insurance and you don’t really understand taxes or accounting so you just wing it (if you pay them at all). You don’t really know how much to be setting aside in taxes as the work comes in so you just hope that it works out in the end. You don’t properly record your expenses. You don’t know what the actual cost of a sale or job is (It’s all digital right? So it costs you nothing right?). You see money coming in and and money going out and so you assume that business is going ok but your expenses are growing while your prices are staying the same but you don’t really have time to research how to do business any better because you have paying client work coming in that you would rather be working on. Deep down you are not really taking your business seriously but you spend a lot of time and energy trying to convince underpaying clients that they should hire you.
Is this as painful to read as it is to type!? I will stop beating a dead horse but I hope that if one of these two scenarios is YOU that you will take a step back, be honest about where you are at and begin a plan of action to get on the the right track. This second scenario makes me anxious just thinking about it! When you are operating a business under this kind of low level anxiety – just winging it – you stifle not only your chances of really running a successful business but you hurt the industry that you are trying to be a part of making it harder for everyone, including yourself, to make a living as a photographer.
I realize that I don’t provide very many solutions in this post and there are problems that I don’t even address. But there are hundreds of resources out there to get you on track and there are professional photographers out there willing to help. Just value their expertise enough to pay them for their time and don’t expect everything for free. The problem is not a lack of resources on the topic – the problem is a lack of willingness to admit the problem and challenging ourselves to grow in our business skill and not just in our talent. I am preaching to myself here. Let’s make this the year that we take ourselves and our business seriously and do business BETTER in 2013.
There are one or two seats left at my beginners photography workshop this Saturday, Feb 2nd. There are also just a few days left to get the early-bird registration rate for the Business and Branding Essentials workshop for photographers on March 2nd.
Here is a list of some other helpful resources that I found compiled by photographer Shanon Holdon.
Better Photo – an excellent site for online classes, inspiration, and learning
Creative Live – a source on online training courses, webinars and vodcasts.
Photo.net – another internet community for amateur and advanced photographers
Flickr – an enormous international community of photographers, and a wealth of inspiration
Understanding Exposure by Bryan Peterson – a fantastic book for learning the technical side of photography
Digital Photography Review – a website for equipment reviews and technical discussion
Adobe Forums – a Photoshop community
B&H Photo and Video – one of the most trusted equipment stores in the country.
Feel free to comment with additional resources that you have found helpful! If this blog post series has been helpful to you please share it and lets challenge ourselves both to better personal business ethic and strengthen the industry while doing so!