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The Business of Photography: Establishing a Business Strategy

A Guest Post by Robert J. Mang

The product side vs. the business side

The Business of Photography: Establishing a Business Strategy

Whether you consider yourself selling a service or a product, there are two fundamental sides to most small businesses, including photography businesses: the product/service side and the business/marketing side. Most of our energy goes into the product side (improving skills, learning about new equipment… just trying to get better at what we do). The business side is not studied as often; however, that is going to be the subject of this discussion. The focus of our attention will be on developing a sound business strategy.

OK, so you’re either getting ready to start a photography business, are in the process of getting one off the ground, or you are looking to redirect an existing venture. If you haven’t already, the first thing you must do is write a business plan. Even if you change it a dozen times (which most likely will happen) write one anyway. And keep all the iterations so you can see how it evolves.

A good business plan includes a thorough financial and pricing analysis, but that will need to be a topic for another discussion.

Developing your Strategy – a few basic questions to get you started

Some of the following questions may seem elementary and even academic; however, answer them like you were at a wine tasting: consider what’s in front of you, let your intuition guide you, don’t over analyze, and then write down your thoughts. These items will establish a foundation for your strategy. We’ll pull them together further on in the exercise.

  1. The first question should be (even if you already decided what market segment you are going to target), “What type of photography do I like?” Ideally your business would be built around your passion; but realistically, that may not always be possible, at least not in the short-term. To help you answer this, you should also consider what aspect of photography you think you are particularly good at. Be honest. It may help to solicit the opinions of some people whose input you value.

Also, as part of this, consider what type of photography you don’t like, and what you feel you are not so good at. Say for example you want to do family portraits, but upon this analysis, you realize that you don’t particularly like children who misbehave. You’ll then know that is an issue which might affect your ability to be successful, and it may result in a change of direction. Or, you may need to address this issue and find a solution around it.

  1. The next question you need to ask yourself is, “What am I selling?” Am I selling photography services? Photographs? Fine Art? Memories? When Dominos Pizza started out, they did not think of themselves as primarily being in the pizza business. They were in the Delivery Business, and they just happened to be delivering pizzas. (Maybe that’s why their pizza is so bad, but that’s another story.)
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  3. Conduct a competitive market analysis. Start by looking at what segments are already being serviced in your area. Then, try to determine segments that might be under-served. Next, look for some “unmet needs”. These are opportunities that no one is currently addressing.

Once you look hard at all the photography businesses in your area you’ll probably see some common areas of emphasis, or you’ll most likely see a lot of broad offerings. Try a niche within a broad offering and you might find it easier for people to identify with what you have to sell. A business opportunity can sometimes be a niche that “sits inside” a broad offering. Or, you may find a completely new opportunity that addresses an inadequately addressed segment.

  1. How do you define success? When you are successful what does that feel like?

A SWOT Analysis

  1. From the foundation work above, you can now develop a SWOT Analysis: Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. It’s best to do this by creating a grid with four sections. In the upper left put Strengths, upper right put Weaknesses, lower left put Opportunities, and lower right put Threats.
  • Strengths – simply put, what are you good at (from Q-1)?
  • Weaknesses – what are you not very good at (from Q-1)?
  • Opportunities – what are the under-serviced segments or unmet needs in your area (Q-4)?
  • Threats – what are the internal factors (that’s you) or external factors (that’s the outside world) that might limit your ability to be successful?

For each category, list as many items as possible. Really try to scrape the bottom of the barrel.

Developing Opportunistic and Defensive Strategies

  1. Now, look at your Strengths and Opportunity items (on the left side of your grid), and then develop a list of ways you can capitalize on your Strengths, while at the same time taking advantage of as many Opportunities as possible. These are called Opportunistic Strategies, and when you have an idea that both plays on a Strength and address an Opportunity, then you have a potential are of focus for your photography business.
  2. Next, look at your list of Weaknesses and Threats (the right side of the grid), and then develop a list of ways to mitigate the effect of these. These are called Defensive Strategies. These may take nothing more than occasional monitoring, or if they are significant issues, you may need specific action plans to actively mitigate them.

Factors for Success

  1. Know your Key Success Factors. These are a list of items that are fundamentally necessary for you to be successful (success, as you’ve defined it). Without these in place you believe that success will be difficult, temporary, or even impossible. E.g. do you want to be a product photographer? Well, having a studio would most likely be needed. List as many of KSF’s as you can think of, but try to list them in order of importance, or rate them in categories, A, B, C.
  2. Who is your Target Customer? For this exercise, you should resist trying to target everyone who might need the services of a photographer. Narrow your market segment. Niche segments can be more profitable then broad ones. E.g., Portraits could be narrowed to Family Portraits. A narrow segment is easier to explain to your target customer. They get it. They will understand what you do, and they will be more comfortable coming to you for their specific need that you are addressing.

Now let’s say you identify two segments you want to pursue, but they are somewhat different, e.g., Family Portraiture and Product Photography. You should develop a list of ways these segments overlap (studio, lighting, etc), and ways they don’t (target customer, lenses, etc). I would suggest the best way to market yourself is by completely segmenting your message to each audience, in lieu of say promoting yourself as a portrait + product photographer. The fact that you do both is OK, buy it’s how you position yourself to each target audience that counts.

  1. What is your channel to market? Will you sell direct to consumers or through an intermediary (e.g., a gallery)?

Even though volumes have been written on these principles, if you answer the questions in this brief overview you should end up with a much better idea of how to chart your path to success. At the minimum, you will know a bit more about yourself, your market, your target customer, and your product/service offering. Good luck!

Robert J. Mang is a photographer living in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Visit him at his Photo Blog and Travel Blog.

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