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Rachel LaCour Niesen

Rachel agreed to speak on behalf of LaCour Photo, which she founded with husband Andrew and fellow ex-staffer Mark Adams. LaCour’s fast rise is a testament to the success photojournalists can have in the wedding market. Of course, being whip smart and always eager to help doesn’t hurt either. When Rachel was helping brainstorm this series, I threw out some broad topics and was amazed to get all this back.

Ask her about technique, workflow, marketing, or anything else that’s on your mind — I’m sure you’ll be equally impressed. Leave a question in the comments section, along with your website if you have one, and she’ll respond asap, also in the comments, so others can benefit from the good advice.

Rachel LaCour Niesen

As a photojournalist, I have pursued projects focusing on rural communities in Latin America and the Southeastern United States. My work has appeared in publications such as the New York Times Magazine and the San Francisco Chronicle. I earned a degree in photojournalism from the University of Missouri, where I was named one of the Scripps-Howard Foundation’s Top Ten Young Journalists.

When I stumbled upon wedding photography, I quickly traded my front row seat to world history for a front row seat to family history. Along with Andrew Niesen and Mark Adams, I started a wedding photography company, LaCour, which was named among the “Top Ten Wedding Photographers in the World” by American Photo magazine. I’m also a co-founder of ShootQ, innovative web-based studio management software designed to free photographers from the tedious tasks of managing their business.

Click here for a list of all other “After Staff” posts.

As usual, Rachel went above and beyond when I asked for some helpful tips for photojournalists transitioning from the newsroom to the their own wedding photography business. For more advice, ask Rachel a question over at Expert of the Day. Click here for a list of all other “After Staff” posts.
A signature image from LaCour Photo. ©LaCour

A signature image from LaCour Photo. ©LaCour

You are the enterprise story

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.

Camaraderie is Critical

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. More »

Are you keeping an eye on your bottom line? ©LaCour Photo

Are you keeping an eye on your bottom line? ©LaCour

Many of my favorite photographers have built successful careers on being excellent observers. Their images are powerful because they watch, anticipate, and press the shutter at the decisive moment.

But being a keen observer of people is not enough. To succeed in the business of photography, you must employ a careful combination of observation skills. You must be an excellent observer of people AND business. To succeed, you must watch your business –- know it inside and out. As John D. Rockefeller said, “Everything that is watched improves.”

Rockefeller knew exactly how much it cost to extract, refine, and deliver a barrel of oil. He was fully aware of all his costs. Knowing this information –- and acting on it –- gave him a competitive advantage. He knew how to price a barrel of oil to turn a profit.

As a result, he implemented cost savings measures like manufacturing his own barrels and starting his own transport company. By carefully observing the data that mattered, Rockefeller made Standard Oil wildly successful.

The success of your photography business also depends on your observations. Are you watching each area of revenue and cost? What things are you tracking? What systems do you have in place to help you measure and manage your business’s success? Here are three areas that you should be observing particularly carefully.

1. Calculate Your Profitability

  • First, create a price list of all your “items” (individual products and services you offer) and calculate profit margins for each item. By understanding profit margin, you will ensure that you’re making money on everything you sell.
  • An item’s profit margin is based on “Cost of Goods Sold” (COGS). In order to calculate the total profit margin on packages/proposals you create for clients, identify a COGS for each item on your price list.
  • COGS for an item is calculated as the total direct expenses incurred in the production of a good, including the cost of materials used to make that good and the cost of labor to produce it. COGS does not include indirect expenses, like marketing, accounting, and shipping.
  • Knowing the COGS will help you determine which products and packages are turning a profit. Subtract an item’s COGS from its sales revenue to determine the gross profit it earns.
  • Net profit is the difference between COGS and indirect expenses from sales revenue.

2. Identify and Track Referrals

  • Referrals are the lifeblood of many photography businesses, especially wedding. In a good economy, fostering strong referral sources is the most effective growth strategy. In a bad economy, it’s critical.
  • If you don’t know where your profitable referrals are coming from, you’re wasting time and money. For example, let’s say five colleagues in your community are responsible for referring 60 percent of last quarter’s business. Don’t you want to treat those referral sources differently than the florist down the road who hasn’t referred anyone? Tracking your referral sources allows you to invest valuable marketing resources into the right people and groups that will give you new business.
  • Tracking referrals is a detailed process — one that requires organization and automation to be effective. You can use simple Excel spreadsheets to track referral sources and leads. There is also more sophisticated studio management software available. The good news is that both options can be cost-effective for even the smallest studio.

3. Create a Marketing Strategy and Track Your Success

  • Marketing can seem daunting at times, but even a simple marketing strategy can have a beneficial impact on your business. Here are a few things that most successful businesses strategies have in common.
  • First, a contact database. The importance of maintaining an organized contact database can’t be stressed enough. It may sound like a basic tactic, but trying to grow your business without a contact 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, referral source, partner, and prospect with whom you interact.
  • Second is email marketing. Email communication is the name of the game these days. And with the help of your growing contact database, you can easily reach thousands of prospective clients with a single key stroke. Keep your contacts up to date on events, new services, awards, specials, and other important information with emails. That way, you will already be on their mind when they are seeking photography services.
  • Finally, make sure to track your database efforts. Some automated solutions allow you to track the read and response rate for email blasts through easy-to-read reports. Whichever way you decide, be sure to regularly review your efforts to understand what’s helping you drive revenue and what’s not.
Be Part of the RESOLUTION: What strategies do you have to observe these areas of your business? Are there other areas you have found it particularly important to observe?

Rachel LaCour Niesen is an old-hat at WPPI and has taught there with Andrew Niesen and Mark Adams for many years. That might make it sound like she doesn’t understand what a first-time WPPI attendee is going through — on the contrary, Rachel has such a reputation for helping new and experienced photographers alike, we knew she’d be the perfect person to share a few tips about surviving the huge WPPI show in Las Vegas, which starts February 14.

An image by LaCour photography. © LaCour

An image by LaCour photography. © LaCour

1. Start with a Strategy

First-time WPPI attendees are often spotted meandering through the tradeshow with a glazed, “deer in the headlights” look on their faces. Don’t risk being overwhelmed and paralyzed in the tradeshow. Before you leave for Vegas, write up an action plan. Compile a “Must See” list of products and vendors that most interest you. Prioritize visiting those booths first. Then, you can be confident that you’ve visited your top vendors before wandering around the rest of the tradeshow. When you arrive, start by reviewing the WPPI Program Guide and the Tradeshow Map.

2. Take Risks

Human nature is to seek out seminars that affirm our strengths. Rather than hang out in your comfort zone, push yourself by attending classes that challenge your weaknesses. Prioritize attending seminars that push you beyond your comfort zone. Are you intimidated by lighting techniques? Then attend Matthew Jordan Smith’s “Lighting Secrets” seminar on Monday, February 16. Need to boost your confidence in your sales skills? Then attend Corey McNabb’s “Sellification” seminar on Tuesday, February 17.

3. What Happens in Vegas Should NOT Stay in Vegas

Don’t leave your new knowledge behind. One of the biggest mistakes I made after attending my first WPPI was stuffing my notebook into my desk drawer. I never pulled it out again! WPPI is an amazing learning opportunity. Don’t waste it by taking tons of notes that will never be read again. Schedule a “WPPI Recap Retreat” for yourself. Put it on the calendar, block it off so you don’t get interrupted. You will need at least a full day to review your notes and decide how to apply your new knowledge to your business in 2009. You will learn so much at WPPI — soak it up and then implement it! More »


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