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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.
Ross Perot once told me that when he was starting his new company, no one would invest in his idea except his wife and mother. “And that’s why I have 3.3 billion dollars!” he said, with his characteristic ear-to-ear grin. “It’s all about equity son, equity.” His risky hard work paid off, but Ross was also lucky that he had some money from his wife and mother to start out with. That’s not realistic for most people starting a new photography business. You’ll need to use other people’s money to do that, the kind you find in a bank.
In my last column I mentioned writing a business plan and getting an SBA (Small Business Association) Loan. The good news is, the Obama administration recently beefed up the SBA, and there is a new push to give out a bunch of $35,000 loans. What are you waiting for? Write the plan! You might qualify for more.
Tell Them Who You Are
One small problem you might run into is that most bankers know little about photography and are skeptical that there is much money to be made with a camera. They understand restaurants or furniture stores, but they usually don’t get many photography businesses applying for loans. (That’s probably because, unlike furniture store owners, photographers expect money to arrive via magic, without the normal agony of sweating up a five-year income projection.)
In order to overcome the banker’s doubt, your business plan has to be solid, satisfying their need to understand what you are selling, who you are selling to, and how much money you expect to make over a set period of time. They need to be able to asses the risk for the return of their loan. It will help to clarify your vision for your future to the point that you can explain it in a mission statement that is 25 words or less. Tips for writing business plans are all over the internet, especially at SBA.gov.
Show Them What You Do
When I first heard about the SBA in 1993, I was technically bankrupt, having spent my life savings on my first book project. I won’t deny that learning to create spreadsheets and to write marketing and sales stuff was a nightmare. Like being stabbed in the eye over and over.
On top of that, I felt completely out of my element as a photographer going in to meet the banker. Although I’d been trying to build a relationship him over the past few months, I was sure when I asked for this big SBA loan, he would laugh me out of the bank. But I was pretty desperate, with a mortgage, a wife and child, and a ton of debt. I had to try.
On my way out the door for my bank meeting, I did something people might laugh at: I grabbed my portfolio to show my banker. I knew my business plan might not get through, but I was pretty sure I could get his attention with my images of news events, sports, and celebrities. Turns out, I was right. A banker’s world is fairly predictable; lots of numbers. It was a welcome break to go through my work, and it gave me the chance to connect on a basic human level with this critical decision maker. I got the loan — $100K — and never looked back.
Get Them On Your Team
An important part of this story is the concept of “relationship banking.” I had gotten to know my banker over time. It’s important to identify a bank in your town that is actually supporting small business through it’s lending policies — even in this economy — and then make friends with the bank manager.
Build a relationship as you would with a picture editor you want to work with. Take out a small loan, even $5,000 and repay it regularly over three months. Take out another loan for $10,000 and repay that quickly. Build trust. Then bring in your plan, along with your portfolio, and make it happen.
After I got the SBA loan for $100K, and knowing I could get my business going with half of that money, I turned around and asked my banker to put half of it in a savings account and freeze it to collateralize a 50K line of credit. That told him how serious I was and how hard I intended to work. It also gave him another incentive to help me grow into a larger customer. And I asked him to agree that if I handled that credit line properly, that line would be unsecured in a year. He agreed and a year later I had both the SBA money and the credit line, giving me ample capital for further growth: new equipment, portfolios, and serious marketing campaigns.
I learned then that it pays off to engage everyone on my team as a partner in my success — insurance agents, lawyers, and all my labs and equipment vendors. By getting them invested in my endeavors, since they were also relying on me for their business, they all had a vested interest in my continuing success.
This seems obvious in retrospect, but so few photographers take the time to really build relationships with the people they most rely on. A few lunches, gift prints, and keeping people abreast of your new projects and successes can go a long way when times get tough. And if you can get an insurance agent excited about the photographs in your portfolio, imagine how easy that next meeting with an art director will be.
Setting aside the technical skills, the perfect portfolio, the eye, the heart, and the soul that are all so important if you’re going to be a photographer, let’s focus on what you’ll need to be a financially independent photographer. That means setting up a well-organized small business operation that can support your creative endeavors. And the first thing to consider with a business — before the branding, marketing, or anything — is the money. Where will it come from, where will it go, and how much will you need at what times. Whether you’re thinking about launching your first business or already have one, the following information will help you stay solvent and sane.
First, make a plan
The most important thing to do when you’re creating (or updating) a business is to create a business plan. Even something simple will help, and you can find them all over the internet. Basically, you want to create a projection of your cash flow over your next five years. Where is the income coming from? What will your expenses be? How are these both likely to change over the years? Who is your competition?
I know it’s hard to make yourself sit down and do this; I didn’t when I first started and eventually things turned out ok — but I learned some hard lessons. When I finally made a plan, all my decisions were based on my defined goals. I could measure my progress and thereby gained tremendous control over my life and career. The following suggestions will ideally become part of your larger business plan, but they can also be helpful taken on their own.
What kind of business are you?
You’ll need to decide if you want to set up a sole proprietorship, a general (or C) corporation, an S corporation, or a limited liability corporation (LLC). To decide which is right for you, you’ll need to consult with a lawyer, and he’s probably going to want to see a business plan. If a lawyer isn’t an option, there is good information online and at the library, but also consider finding a business-savvy friend to lend their advice.
Yes, you need to learn bookkeeping
It’s best to handle bookkeeping yourself at first, so when you start to grow and hire a real bookkeeper you’ll understand what they are doing and can direct them. Google “bookkeeping” or find a simple text book. Buy Quickbooks or a similar software and read the manual — it’s a pretty good tutorial. Make a Chart of Accounts: a list of income and expense accounts allowing you to track monies flowing in and out. Expense accounts are divided by expenses required to do business, known as Cost of Good Sold, which include anything you spend on production, and Fixed Expenses, which include things that are regular overhead costs like studio rent, insurance, payroll and telephone.
Set up a file cabinet with folders for corresponding expense accounts to keep the paid bills. Once that’s done, create your first projected budget, which will include your best guesses on income and expenses. As you enter the actual expenses and income and review that information, you will really start to learn what small business is all about.
Make reports for Accounts Receivable and Accounts Payable, and set up alerts for when they are 30, 60, and 90 days old. It’s so important to establish a routine where you review your bills and reports on a regular basis so you know what is happening with your business every day. For instance, you should be checking your A/R to determine which are older than 30 days so you can follow up for collection. Never, ever be late on credit-reporting vendors like credit cards.
Make your computer work for you
You’ll also need software to help you run your business. I’ve always used a customized version of Filemaker that incorporates a number of subset databases such as a contact manager and an estimating and billing module. Usually the invoices are then entered by hand into our bookkeeping software, but there are some programs that have bookkeeping built in. And some bookkeeping software such as Quickbooks allow you to make invoices.
If you can find a very cheap standalone program that does everything, great. Otherwise, I recommend keeping it simple with Quickbooks for invoicing and bill paying. Set aside a clear place for incoming bills (some people like an accordion folder), and schedule a time every two weeks where you enter all the bills into Quickbooks. I’ve been told I’m crazy for this, but I also created a spreadsheet in Excell where I can export my important data in a special format that allows me to analyze it more easily. Details on my blog. Once a month you will also need to reconcile your bank accounts. This is not as horrible as it sounds. I have found online banking to be pretty good now, and often bank systems will link directly to Quickbooks.
Where is the money?
Your biggest problem starting out will be cash flow. It’s important to get paid quickly for your first jobs, to pay your vendors quickly so you don’t damage your credit, and always pay yourself first. The temptation is to keep funneling cash back into the business, but if you don’t pull out money for yourself and your retirement from day one, you never will. Incorporate Paychex and put yourself on payroll. Make sure your paycheck includes enough for savings and auto-deduct to an IRA.
Because cash flow is hard at first, you should have enough saved up to cover your overhead, including projected taxes, savings, and marketing costs, for six months, or at least three if you are super-confident. On a regular basis, look at your bank balance and calculate if you’ll have enough to pay your vendors over the next two months — remember that “The check’s in the mail” is ALWAYS a lie. Try to set up accounts with your main vendors that allow you to pay up to 30 days out. If you are really tight, call your vendors and negotiate for more time. It’s better to stay in close contact with them about problems, with a note, a call, a bottle of wine…
Find a good accountant
Finally, you need an accountant who understands all the ins and outs of photography in case you get audited. It may seem unlikely, but I’ve been audited four times and it all went very well because I always report my income. I believe in paying my share to keep the system going, however imperfect. Taxes suck — get over it. It’s a sign you are making a living and that’s a good thing.
When most photographers set up shop, they focus on becoming better photographers, naturally. Few photographers, however, develop even the most basic skills they need to run their own business. They hope to hang on long enough to be discovered before they sink under their own lack of knowledge. That’s like building an intricate jeweled house atop quicksand. (Look in the mirror, repeat after me: “You want fries with that?”)
The “get discovered” strategy implies that someone else will take responsibility for your own financial well-being. Ideally, we’d all be born independently wealthy, have our spouse deal with the money, or find the perfect business manager or agent who can do this for us. I’m here to tell you — snap out of that lovely fantasy! Not. Gonna. Happen. And even if, by the grace of the angels, it did, you would still need to learn the basics in order to participate in the decisions being made about your money. Even the best business managers need your help to help you succeed. You really don’t want to be one of those poor schmucks who got super successful but are now penniless because you trusted someone else to handle all your business decisions.
In my new column for RESOLVE, “Seeing Money,” I’ll be sharing what I learned the hard way about the business side of photography during nearly 30 years in the industry. I started as a fine-art student, moved into photojournalism, built a multimillion-dollar advertising studio with a staff of 15, then closed that monster and reconfigured with a minimal crew and low overhead. Along the way I made and lost fortunes.
I never understood money; money was not my goal. I was — and am — all about making great images. But I learned to respect and understand that money has the power to support my most important work. I hope to help you realize the same thing by explaining what works, what mistakes to avoid, and how to recognize the ways our creative brains sometimes sabotage our own success — especially whenever it comes to managing money.
I am constantly trying to answer the difficult question, “How do you reconcile the conflict between art and commerce?” I give the long answer in my workshops. The short answer is, “Get paid to shoot what you love to shoot.” To achieve that, you have to build a solid foundation, step by step, to financial security.
Many photographers have a lot of fear around money; they think it will dilute their talent and corrupt their values, or they just can’t handle the math. I’ll provide pain-free financial management tips you can apply right away. OK, that statement was a lie — there is no such thing as pain-free financial management. But rest assured that my lessons will be less painful than if you did not learn these skills at all. Plus, you are benefiting from all the pain I’ve already gone through to get where I am today. Best of all, as you begin to learn and apply fundamental business lessons, you will find that you gain confidence and actually begin to enjoy the business part of your photography business.
In this “Seeing Money” column, I will discuss the steps you need to take right now to start (or save) your business. Check back soon if you wish you knew more (or didn’t realize you needed to know more) about: