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A guest article by Steve McConnell
I’ve been toying with an idea of writing an article, in which I share some ideas on how to start a successful photography business. Every time I think about writing it, I realize that I wouldn’t know what to write. I just don’t think that the entrepreneurial journey for an aspiring photographer can be boiled down to a set of step-by-step tips which can fit neatly into a blog post on photography business mistakes.
There are just too many variables (business nuances, possible changes of direction, personal problems, market issues, artistic visions, industry influences, technical developments) which can be put together in an infinite amount of ways into a business strategy that may lead you to reach your goals.
However, I think that there’s a fairly universal set of potholes which are likely to derail your ambitions as a creative entrepreneur unless you steer the business ship neatly around them. It is with the aim of highlighting these potholes that I decided to write this article. I hope it enables you to put your dream together in your own unique way, while raising some red flags around things that may trip you up.
Let me give you some context. I started my family photography business almost two years ago. In the first year of operation I managed to grow it to a point where it became my part-time job. In this, my second year, I’ve grown it to a point where I’m working at it full-time, my fiancé works in it part-time, and I employ a part-time retoucher to help with editing.
We’re busy. However we’re far from being as stable and sure-footed as I’d like. Every dollar counts and every day a dozen priorities have to be juggled in a way that ensures the worker-bee stuff gets done and the bigger picture (no pun intended) ideas are considered, planned and executed.
Looking back at the business decisions I’ve made, there were some which helped us grow (niche marketing, focus on online channels, partnerships). There were also some decisions I’ve made, which held us back significantly. These are the ones I’m going to share with you in hopes that you will avoid them on your photography journey.
This may be a contentious point. Let me qualify my words here – when I say “established pros”, I mean photographers who have been in the game for 10+ years, who were around in the film era and who most likely built their business by selling big prints, renting a studio and advertising in the Yellow Pages while promoting themselves through industry partnerships.
I’ve found it immensely difficult to get advice from these folks that is relevant and works in today’s business world. The few times I have taken on their advice and steered my business in the direction they suggested, I regretted it and had to reverse those decisions.
My take on it is that many established pros suffered a business downturn in the last few years. As a result, many turned to teaching. Thing is, their downturn happened mainly because their businesses were built on principles which expired. Yet, they’re teaching those exact principles and strategies to the new generation of aspiring photographers.
I’m not saying that all established pros are not worth listening to, of course not. I’m saying that I personally should have used more discretion in evaluating their advice and rejected more of it, instead of trusting them based on the number of years they’ve been in the game.
A few months ago I finally admitted to myself that I suck at face-to-face sales.
My background is in marketing, which has been helpful in creating branding and business strategies to bring customers to the websites and ensure they have a great experience there, hopefully leading to a sale. But this skill has also become a crutch, because I’ve become reliant on people making their purchase online. If a potential customer called with intent to ask questions (or, God forbid, challenged me on price), I’d collapse.
I decided it was time to get comfortable talking about prices and learn how to articulate my value proposition in a way which catches people’s attention. At the end of the article I’ll share some resources that helped me.
Learning sales was important because it helped me get comfortable with customers on the phone. It changed my perspective on who I am when I answer the phone – I went from being the guy who helpfully provides information about our prices to being the guy who engages potential customers in a dialogue which aims to deliver maximum possible value to them.
I started off with the mindset of “I’m an artist. I’m here to create photos. People hire me for my photographs, not for my phone manner or for a card I might send them for Christmas.” I believed that if I focused on producing great photography, that alone would ensure my customers were happy. I did hardly any follow-up before and after the shoots, and I did little else for my customers, except shooting.
I was inspired to change my opinion about on this when I bought a new Apple laptop. It was the smallest detail that flicked the switch for me – a little plastic tab which sits under the laptop and makes lifting it out of the box easy. I’m pretty sure if I bought another brand of computer, I’d have to either jam my fingers between the device and the box to pry it out or flip the whole thing upside down and let gravity do the work.
Not so with Apple. There was a distinct sense of being taken on a journey, even before the Mac was switched on. It made me realize that my customer’s photography journey with me, starts long before a shutter is pressed.
I made it one of business priorities to design, and constantly improve our customers’ experience at every touchpoint with the business. I want people to feel like they’re immersed in a branded experience which begins the moment they arrive at the website and continues long after the photos are delivered. I’m paying attention to things such as:
I want them to feel like everything is being taken care for them and no matter what goes wrong, they don’t have to worry about it.
Our business had a nice surge of growth towards the end of last summer, and then it stopped. I’m not saying it just stopped growing. It literally all stopped. I forgot that people might not be as keen to be photographed in windy, chilly months as they are during the summer heat.
Being prepared for the winter slump will help you avoid a scenario in which the bottom falls out of your business and you have to hock camera (and maybe unessential body) parts on E-bay.
I’ve lived a fairly ascetic existence for the past two years. My focus has been quite single-mindedly on business. I’ve eliminated just about everything from my schedule which was not business related. I’ve hardly been out. I haven’t spent much money at all on clothes or fancy food. Working for weeks without a day off has been the norm.
It was a conscious decision and a necessary one, because I wanted to grow the business quickly. I was hungry for it and I knew that I’m the kind of person who isn’t very good at doing a number of things at once, so I couldn’t afford to be distracted. . This meant cutting ties with most of my catch-up friends (you know, the people you ‘know’, but in reality you really don’t) and not seeing some of my best friends for months and years at a time.
I don’t regret doing it, but I do regret not managing it better. For some people in my life that I do care about, I kind of fell off the radar. I was simply afraid of having a heartfelt conversation with them and telling them that I needed to disappear for a while because there’s something important I had to do.
I’m not entirely comfortable being in a position of dispensing advice because I don’t feel like I’ve fully cracked the code yet. In many ways, I’m living a dream I never thought possible. However, in the context of what’s possible as a creative entrepreneur, I’m still very much a beginner.
However, there are people in this world who have repeatedly created modern, lean businesses which are turning a healthy profit by creating amazing customer experiences. Let me conclude by sharing some resources that I’ve found invaluable:
Here are two resources which have helped me get comfortable on the phone with potential clients and increase my sales dramatically: S. Anthony Iannarino’s The Sales Blog and Blake Discher’s Webinar On Negotiating.
If you’re a photographer and have already set off on your entrepreneurial journey, I’d love to hear about the challenges you’ve run into.
Those are normal issues to run into and are very much part of the journey. Please share the details in the comments below.
Editor’s note: of course the opinions expressed in this article of those of the author, based on his experience. If you have a differing opinion or addition tips to add please do so in the comments section below.
Steven McConnell is a Sydney-based entrepreneur and photographer. Together with his fiancee, he is behind two startups – Steven & Irene Photography and Arielle Careers. When he is not photographing, his focus is on empowering creatives to make a living by doing what they love. You can catch up with him on Google+.