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Transitioning from full-time staff photographers to business owners is one of the greatest challenges the LaCour team has faced. Mark, Andrew, and I have experience in editorial, where the editorial staff doled out assignments and the road map for our careers was well-defined. But what happens when that road map is ripped out from under you like a rug? Suddenly, you’re faced with an unfamiliar challenge: charting your own course by becoming a business owner.
We viewed this paradigm shift as an opportunity to pursue entrepreneurship.
Since the term “enterprise story” is familiar to photojournalists, it’s a helpful lens through which to see your transition from staff photographer to business owner. Enterprise stories are created by journalists to explain or contextualize issues or events. Enterprise stories require big-picture reporting and the ability to identify and articulate comprehensible patterns. These are also the skills required to build a business.
A successful business owner, like a successful journalist, cannot just be an “order filler” who simply executes someone else’s vision. They must come up with their own ideas. They must be enterprising, big-picture thinkers who have a vision and can strategically implement their own initiatives.
Being an entrepreneur is the ultimate enterprise story, with a twist. The story this time is YOU.
Our personal journey has been filled with epiphanies, many having little to do with the actual process of photography. Most of what we’ve learned involves important business principles. We’d like to share some tips and tools you can use to make a smooth transition into entrepreneurship.
As staff photographers, we had the security blanket of teamwork to keep us motivated. If we had a bad day, or a bad assignment, there were fellow staffers who helped rally for the next, better opportunity. Plus, there was a newsroom team, helping generate story ideas and assignments to keep you busy. As a business owner, it’s easy to feel isolated and disconnected. There’s no built-in support network. And there’s nobody telling you what to do. That’s why camaraderie is a critical component of business ownership.
We advise business owners to connect and contribute to communities. Forums, like The Digital Wedding Forum and OpenSourcePhoto, are a great option. They are accessible places for you to ask for advice and bounce ideas off colleagues who understand the challenges you face as a business owner. I also think forums can be like virtual watering holes for small business owners. Pull a stool up to the online bar and share stories with other entrepreneurs. You’ll be amazed by how cathartic the conversation can be.
Don’t just get involved online. Pursue personal networking opportunities through organizations such as WPPI and PPA. Both offer valuable resources that will help you avoid years of trial-and-error. Learn from their sponsored seminars, trade shows, and conventions. Having face-to-face interaction with other business owners will help you establish strong relationships that you’ll need as you grow your business. When you need to call someone to discuss a problem or project, you’ll have a group of close colleagues ready to listen and help.
Reach beyond the obvious photographic community to business owners such as event designers, caterers, florists, and cake artists. Other wedding professionals not only relate to your struggles, they also provide business opportunities. Get to know them, express sincere interest in their businesses, and help them by photographing their creations.
The best tip we can share about networking is a simple principle from Seth Godin’s book Tribes: “The first thing a leader can focus on is the act of tightening the tribe. It’s tempting to make the tribe bigger, to get more members, to spread the word. This pales, however, when juxtaposed with the effects of a tighter tribe. A tribe that communicates more quickly, with alacrity and emotion, is a tribe that thrives.”
LaCour has applied Godin’s advice by tightening our tribe of key wedding professionals. Referrals are the lifeblood of wedding photography businesses. Like Seth, we recommend growing your network deeper rather than larger. You’ll see a greater return on your investment in select relationships rather than a cursory investment in a broader audience. We’ve seen a large amount of revenue come directly from a few key vendors with whom we have close relationships.
As a wedding photojournalist, the clients (bride and groom) are your primary audience. Unlike newspaper editors, couples are actually present to witness you working. So credibility is just as important to them as it was to your editors and readers, but now it’s more personal!
The bride and groom will not only remember their wedding through the photos you create, they will also remember how you conducted yourself on the big day. Were you gracious? Were you dressed professionally? Were you hands-on or hands-off? Proactive or reactive? Engaging or aloof? These are important questions to answer as you seek your signature style and begin to approach weddings as a business owner.
Remember, you’re not just in the image making business anymore – you’re in the business of creating an experience. You have a responsibility to your clients to provide superlative service. They’re as likely to remember (and tell their friends about) that as your photos.
Sam Abell said, “Who we are is the most important thing about photography.” While this is true for staff photographers, it’s paramount for photographers who are building their own brand and business. Your brand and your business are directly connected to YOU.
In my opinion, photographers’ most common pitfall is visual schizophrenia. And I’m not referring to anyone’s mental health. Rather, I’ve noticed many photographers lack a strong sense of identity. This leaves them vulnerable to the whim of trends.
In the course of many portfolio reviews, I’ve seen work from photographers that looks like a collection of the best images from a diverse sampling of stylistic influences. Looking through a photographer’s portfolio, I can clearly see a visual history of all the workshops they’ve attended. The problem is that the photographer has so successfully emulated the styles of different industry icons that the collective result is a failure.
A prospective client looks at a portfolio like this and has no clear sense of the photographer’s identity. It’s natural to be influenced by other photographers and to experiment with styles. But when the resulting images end up in a photographer’s portfolio, they usually create ambiguity that can work against marking and sales efforts.
The most successful people in any field stand out because they’ve found a way to express who they are through what they do. This becomes increasingly true in a saturated, competitive market. So, I encourage photographers to ask themselves some soul-searching questions:
So if sales are down, don’t just run out and buy the latest action set or add trash-the-dress sessions. Start with finding yourself. Then the clients will find you.
Establish systems early – The early phase of business development is the best time to establish systems that streamline and automate your business processes. These good habits will serve you well as your business grows. It’s also the time to invest in cost-effective tools to help you pinpoint revenue sources and create a unique client experience.
Manage time or time will manage you - Time is your scarcest resource. You must manage time well or your business won’t grow and succeed. Business guru Peter Drucker said, “There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.” It’s easy to get mired in the busy work of your business. When we started LaCour, we tried to do everything ourselves: sales, shooting, editing, photoshop, shipping, accounting…and the list goes on! We resisted outsourcing and juggled the daily tasks of our growing business. This dangerous path leads to stress!
You will inevitably drop tasks you’re juggling and disappoint clients and yourself. Learn from our mistakes: Do what you do best and delegate the rest! Make a list of each task or action item and decide which you enjoy. If you don’t enjoy a task or you’re not particularly good at it, let someone else do it. Every minute not spent shooting or marketing is business lost. This means unprofitable activities like scheduling, customer communication, and production need to be as efficient as possible. If you don’t think this is a top priority for your business, think again.
There are many ways to streamline administrative activities such as ordering, scheduling, reminders, routine client communication, and production. You can start by creating an efficient workflow, or a well-defined and repeatable process, which enables you to deliver orders on time without taking on additional costs associated with hiring studio employees. There are also online studio management solutions and post-production tools that will manage these activities. It’s amazing what inefficiencies can be discovered by simply taking the time to analyze how you’re currently doing things.
Smart marketing – Since your network is your net worth, maintaining an organized relationship database is one of the best investments you can make in your business. It may sound basic, but trying to grow your business without a relationship database is like trying to drive a car without an engine.
If you want to grow your current relationships and develop new ones, you must keep track of communications with every client, colleague, referral source, partner, and prospect with whom you interact. With a well-managed relationship database, you can easily reach thousands of prospective clients in a single moment. Keep your contacts up to date on events, new services, awards, specials and other relevant information about your business. That way, you will come to mind first when they are seeking photography services.