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The Business of Photography Worry 1 vs Worry 2

19 December 2017 No Comment

Everyone thinks owning your own business is heaven on earth.  No boss!  No schedule!  No time clock! No twenty-something, generation-whatever, telling you what to do and acting like you are totally, utterly, contemptibly stupid. Just you and the open success highway!  Nothing in the rear view except a dead-end career as a Walmart greeter.  A future of five star hotels, jets, and exotic locations for extremely cool and sexy clients.

And…yeah….no.  Until you’ve owned your own business, you don’t know.  You can’t.  It’s something, like an orgasm, that’s impossible to understand until experienced.

On one hand, I can’t imagine anything else.  On the other, I’ve learned to live with terror.

Terror.  Daily terror.

When you own your own business, you have one of two worries, concerns that gnaw your brain. 24/7, 365 days a year.  Either, Worry One:  how do I pay the mortgage?  Electric?  Equipment?  Credit cards?  Or, Worry Two:  how do I pay the taxes on all the money I’m making?

Worry One or Worry Two.  That’s your life.  There might be three hours in between the Worries when your mind can peacefully float.  Be prepared, because, at about the two and a half hour mark, you start to realize it’s April 1, and taxes are due in 14 short days.  Worry Two now consumes.

The business of photography is a business.  There are taxes and expenses and banking.  There’s accounting and accountants and lawyers.  There is a constant struggle to make sure you are charging a competitive rate, but one that covers your expenses and creates a profit.  There’s the worry of when to invest in marketing for your business, how to effectively promote, what technology you need, how your web site should look, when to replace your computer, when to buy that new camera, and when to hire your first assistant.  And then your second, third, more.  It. Never. Ends.

Suddenly, you have to be an expert on all things.  Web SEO.  Bookkeeping.  Blog writing.  Travel agent.  Investor.  None of which has anything to do with why you started the business:  to be a photographer.  A professional photographer.

For me, it was a calling.  Like some people experience their need to join the clergy.   Or become a doctor.  I thought first about how much I wanted to be a photographer, and second about whether I could make it professionally.  I just knew it’s what I wanted.  I also knew it might mean I’d never be rich, able to afford all the things I wanted.  I remember writing my family saying, “yeah, I decided I want to try it (photography).  So, I’ll play the starving artist for a while, but… I’m going to try.  So don’t expect Christmas presents.”  I honestly thought that was the future:  being a starving, misunderstood- until -death, artist.  And, I was good with it.

That passion didn’t stop the daily look at my schedule,  wondering how to fill the 365 days, or at least enough of them to keep the worry about Worry Two and not Worry One.  (Taxes vs. Mortgage.)

It’s great to have the passion.  The calling to be a photographer.  But you better understand a little about business, or starving you will be.  (Business Yoda.)

This will be a series on the business of photography.  Basic skills I’ve learned (the hard way) to create a successful career as a photographer.  These are my guiding Yodas.  Learn, and successful you will be.  Don’t learn, and a Walmart greeter you are destined.

Part 1:  Defining a business model, using supply and demand.

So….you’re willing to take on the constant Worry One and Worry Two.  You’ve thought about it, and, like me, the siren song of being a real, honest to goodness photographer trumps the practical.  You’re over the panic.  Now it’s time to decide exactly how you will earn a living, working in the field that’s chosen you.  (The wand chooses the wizard, Harry.)

Here’s a hint:  specialize.  Here’s another hint:  specialize in an area that 1)  has demand and 2)  isn’t flooded with competition.  Basic economics, right?  If you are supplying a service, it’s better to supply in a market where demand out strips supply.  That’s called a sellers market.  For you, that means your worry will be Worry Two:  how to pay the taxes on all the money you make.  It is far better to be consumed with Worry Two than Worry One.  Always make decisions based on keeping Worry Two as your obsession, and Worry One simmering on the back burner.  Worry One is worse.  It’ll always simmer, but you can keep it from boiling.  That’s the best you get, buttercup.

Think about what interests you, but don’t be afraid to take that interest and twist it to fit market needs.  For example, when I got into green screen photography, I was hesitant.  I saw it as cheesy.  Not in my artistic, sophisticated, wheel house.  Stupid.  I was young and one of those twenty something generation whatever‘s that knows EVERYTHING about ANYTHING.

My mom talked sense into me, suggesting I  put my own spin on green screen.  If you think existing services are bad, she said,  reinvent.  Make green screen your own.  At the time, clients were ringing the  phone off the hook looking for green screen photography services.  Big clients.  Firms like Verizon.  AARP.  Discover.  And, it turned out, they wanted what they couldn’t find:  a way to leverage the “new” social media with cool photos.  At the very least, the ability to post photos to participant Facebook from the event floor  No one could figure out how to do it.  Nobody.

The first AARP assignment we did in Orlando, we landed because I cobbled a solution to that problem of Facebook posting.  By today’s standards, it was clumsy and unsophisticated.  But it worked.  And we got the job.  No one had done it, or at least, no one AARP (or myself) could find.  Think about that.  They didn’t really care about the photos.  The photos were just a way to capture social media.  They cared about Facebook.

Another photographer contacted me shortly after the event — one who would later launch a competing firm — and quizzed me how we uploaded photos to PARTICIPANT Facebook pages.  Didn’t I mean, my own Facebook page?  What was I, stupid?  Didn’t I know the difference?  Geesh.  He then hung up.  Click.  Once he realized I wasn’t going to just blurt out my solution I’d spent months working out.

He was fundamentally wrong.  He was wrong to assume we hadn’t invented an solution.  He was wrong to try to steal it from me, if it existed, than he should figure the solution out for himself.

As it turned out, our solution lasted about four months before Brian at Photo Party Upload invented what would become the industry standard, solving this problem for everyone, for ever.  After Brian, upload of event photos to social media was easy.  Before Brian, it was hard.  Before Brian, I had no competition.  After Brian, lots.  But that’s how business works.  And, I happily traded a great platform to serve client’s needs for a little more competition.  More on that, later.

Backing up to that first AARP shoot.  I cared about the photos.  Not much about Facebook.  So, to work for them, I had to figure out how to take their need, solve it, and piggy back my passion onto it.  Use what AARP was willing to pay a lot for, had a big budget for, couldn’t wait to write the check for if I could provide the service — and marry it with my passion.  I accepted to make the sale, I had to embrace social media and photography, together.  I couldn’t do one, successfully, without the other.

Now it seems obvious.  Then, it was a huge step.

And, with that — my career in photo marketing was launched.  At the time, I didn’t even realize it.  But from that point forward, every photograph created (re-branded artwork or image) was to promote something. Some widget. The widget might be a product, an event, or a service.  Specifically, every image was to promote the company’s widget on new-fangled social media.

That was the trade off, for me.  To become a photographer, I had to become a social  marketing specialist.

US Event Photos was a company launched because of supply and demand.  Few other photographers had an interest in photo marketing on the Internet.  At first, I had two competitors.  Two.  Imagine how many competitors  I’d have if I’d of decided to become a wedding photographer?

Because of lack of competition and huge demand, and because of our own calling and obsession, US Event Photos launched like a rocket.  Soon, of course, others copied our business model and competition began.  But that little window gave just enough room to muscle in the business and become instantly viable.

Hurtle one was complete.  But that just means the next set of challenges loom.  There were plenty of sleepless nights ahead.  Years later, when I went for my first mortgage, I’d sit down with a banker, who actually rolled his eyes when I said I was a professional photographer.

A few years after that, someone at the same bank said:  “You know, you’re not really a small business anymore.  Now you’re medium sized.  Time to abandon small business thought and embrace big business thought.”

To go from eye-roll to courtship was a moment of zen.  The next posts will look at the steps and decision in between.

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