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So far in this column I have touched on general issues of starting a photography business. Now we’ll explore the mystery of profits. If you want to make a profit, stay in business, and retire some day, you need to know your break-even point. Break-even is reached when your income is equal to all your costs: production, marketing, fixed overhead, taxes — everything.
Why is this useful to know? Because every decision you make impacts your costs and/or potential revenue, so you should be evaluating all options in the context of your cash flow and whether you will make a profit. When you print a new portfolio, buy a camera, or advertise in a source book, you are taking a calculated risk that these expenditures will yield jobs and revenue. If you can’t do the math and actually calculate that risk, it’s just risky.
Most of the photographers I know take every job they can, happy to be working and oblivious to the fact that some jobs cost them more money than they will earn. This happens because they don’t know their break-even and are not factoring in all their costs.
You simply must know if you can even afford to take a particular job before you consider it. Sometimes photographers take a loss for a great assignment that will help the portfolio. But if you rationalize a low fee because the job makes you feel better, or think it gives you momentum, think again. Sometimes we are asked to do a job as a favor with the promise that next time we’ll be paid properly. I can pretty much guarantee you that this promise is a lie 99 percent of the time. Especially in this economy.
You can go out of business in a hurry working under the illusion that being busy is the same thing as making a living. More likely you are just churning and burning resources without getting ahead. If things slow down, look out. Instead, be strategic. Your goal should be to make a profit to provide financial security and funding for future creative endeavors. Therefore, each job you accept should fit into what you defined in your business plan.
The next step is to understand your profit margin. This is where you can really refine your goals, focus your mind, and get the business in gear. This often-ignored tool is simple: profit margin equals your net profit after taxes divided by total revenue.
Say your net profit is $30,000 on $300,000 of revenue. Your profit margin is 10%, not so great. Average business margins are around 30%. With that knowledge, you know it’s time to cut overhead, raise your fees to earn more, or both. If you regularly check yourself against an ideal profit margin, you are utilizing a potent tool to analyze your business costs. Now you are starting to take control of your own destiny.
Let’s break it all down another way: Say your total yearly overhead at the moment (Fixed Expenses + estimated Cost of Goods Sold + estimated taxes) is in fact $300,000. That is the minimum amount you have to earn to break even. Now look at your income and how it is billed. If you bill per ad, and you’re getting an average of $10,000 per ad for usage fee, and you shoot about two ads per month, your total annual income is $240,000 — and you are losing money.
Until you do this math you probably think you are skating by because the checks are coming in. You are short and late on some bills, but you are working. But by not making a profit, you are actually way behind and won’t last long. You shot 24 ads at $10K each, but you need to do 30 ads at that rate just to break even. To make a profit you’ll need to significantly cut costs, raise your rate, or both.
Based on your break-even today, and considering your market, forecast a number of jobs for the year that seems conservatively realistic and how much you’ll need to charge to arrive at a 30 percent profit margin. Carve that in stone or on your forehead and aim for it. Now you can be strategic about every job you accept and every dollar you spend. You can keep track of your progress easily and push yourself and your team toward that goal. Profit. Make it part of your plan.