Why you aren’t succeeding as a photographer and 4 ways to change that

January 19, 2017

organized

Doctors are the healers in our society, so when you come across one you trust you listen to what she says. I do at least. My current family doctor is one such doctor and a few years ago, during my annual check up, she sighed, put down her clipboard, and said, “guess what the hardest part of my job is?”

I gave it honest consideration. I assume she’s poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into post secondary education and that there would be a lot of difficult things in her line of work. I made a few wrong guesses before she told me: Convincing people to take care of themselves properly was the hardest thing in her line of work.

That’s pretty incredible, when you think about it. She told me that her ability to properly diagnose a disease is very good but she estimates that only 5% of her patients do what she recommends (regarding diet, sleep, play, exercise – you know, bodily maintenance). She then made some recommendations for how I could be improving my health, which I’ve stuck to as best I can – with awesome results.

Open disclosure here: What I’m going to try to persuade you to do for your business is as unsexy as my doctor’s prescription for more vegetables and less processed meat.

Would you trust me though, if I told you that it would make such an enormous difference in your business that you’ll be angry at yourself for not doing it sooner? Maybe.

Would you be more inclined if I told you that it was the most efficient way to be lazy? Now I’ve got your attention.

First, meet Jay

Jay is “young and dumb” – his own words. Around his neck always dangles a camera. On his wall a photography diploma hangs above his messy desk. In his email inbox are a few offerings for some jobs – head shots, product shots, family shots, whatever. Probably even a wedding or two. He doesn’t even advertise himself. People just dig his work and want to give him money. In a digital world saturated with images, his photos somehow stick out. Despite this, he’s failing. He can’t “pull it together” because the business of running a photography studio just “overwhelms” him (his own words, again). Advertise, develop a brand, taxes, back up systems, book keeping, customer service are not his strong points. “I just like to take pictures” (again, his words).

Meet Greg

I met with one of his professors. Let’s call him Greg. Greg is a professor because his own photography studio doesn’t earn enough for him to shoot full time. Not even close in fact. He prefers to shoot film which gives him a cool niche market and he can actually charge a pretty penny for a wedding though fewer and fewer people are looking for that. Despite him doing very little business lately, he has boxes of receipts and notebooks so heavy that the shelves holding them all dip in the middle. He prefers to do his own book keeping with a pen rather than say, accounting software. Getting ahold of him isn’t easy. He doesn’t text and barely emails. He prefers phone calls and written letters. As I got to know him a little more, the pattern was more obvious: he prefers to do things the way he learned them rather than adapt to changing landscapes. If you tell him that this is the fast track to irrelevant skill sets, he’ll shrug and hang up the phone.

Meet Sylvia

I contrast Jay and Greg with someone who recently bought Sunshine Pro. Her name for these purposes is “Sylvia”. After her purchase, Sylvia had a few questions which she emailed me. Actually, she had a lot of questions and I began to realize how new she was to photography. When I asked her about it, she apologized for asking so many questions and I told her that I didn’t mind. She opened up more and I eventually learned that she’d just gone through a life changing event. After the event, she realized that her life as a certified accountant was boring her out of her mind, so she quit. She also got a divorce, moved to a new city out of state, and even dyed her hair a funky color. YOLO, right? What next? Similar to Jay, she liked taking photos. Without knowing what a RAW file was, without even understanding aperture, ISO or shutter speed, she started taking photos in exchange for money. She learned the craft of photography mainly through CreativeLive and was happily making enough to cover her bills. She had a crop-censor camera, 2 lenses, a flash, and an Adobe Membership (note: that was a year ago, she’s now enjoying a crazy amount of success, and has better tools). She was making a living with a camera, but blushed when she called herself a ‘photographer’.

Why care about these people?

Jay, and his professor, despite all their photography know-how, are both doing worse (Jay had to move back in with his parents). All three of these people are likeable and intelligent, and take great photos.

So, what the difference? Why is Sylvia killing it while the other two struggle?

Well, there are lots of differences….but in my opinion, the difference that really makes a difference is organization. Jay has never learned any organization skills, and his professors organization skills are better suited to the 1980’s. Sylvia, after a career organizing the finances of various corporate entities, knows how to get shit down and kick ass in a very quiet and efficient way.

Think about it like this: In life, if you’re a healthy human, you have 3 main resources: Time, Money, Energy.

Everything you do spends some of your resources. Working Starbucks, for example, depletes your time and energy, but you get some money. Binge watching Netflix spends your time and a bit of money, but not much energy. When it comes to business, you want it to earn money, with minimal expenditures of time and energy. That’s the basic equation. Here, let me give that it’s own paragraph.

In business, you want to maximize money earning, and minimize time and energy spent.

The only way to do that is to be organized.

The photography industry is, as you know, very competitive. Everybody right now is competing to win that international award, to get followers on Instagram, to get to the top of Google–and it’s generally a good idea to market yourself like that.

But getting really, really organized is how to quietly compete with others in a battle that is vital but not well understood or even acknowledged. If you’re organized, you’ll get your business done, you’ll get your money, and you’ll have some time and energy left for your family and thinking up a new creative way to differentiate yourself.

If I’ve convinced you that organization is wildly important, good.

Here are 4 areas of your business, as well as immediately actionable strategies for improving organization:

1) Customer Service:

The importance of customer service is one that Ryan Brenizer, probably the world’s most famous wedding photographer, talks about often when he speaks at conventions. In a talk that I watched him give, he actually said that he outsources his emailing and scheduling because he knows that returning emails promptly was so vitally important to sales that he couldn’t afford to let this fall behind, but that he didn’t have the time to be as responsive as he wanted to.

Since he didn’t have the time, he leveraged another resource: money. Most of us aren’t quite wealthy enough to outsource customer service (and administrative tasks generally), but there are software programs (apps) that streamline customer service and scheduling. 17 Hats is a popular business management program that is relatively easy to organize. It’s somewhat quick and dirty, with somewhat limited options. Better than nothing, but not the best. I recommend this to people who need something set up really quick. Tave is another business management program that I’ve seen more closely. It was designed specifically for photography businesses and is extremely powerful for client communications, scheduling and a host of other useful things. A couple caveats about Tave though: first, it’s a bit expensive (at $50/month, last time I checked) and it requires about 80 hours (or more) of tinkering, inputting, head-scratching to get this working for you. It’s a big, complicated program, and it takes a while to figure out how to pour your business into this vessel. To help, there is a Facebook group that you’ll be invited to join (if you purchase the software) and the community is pretty good at helping with problems when they inevitably surface. Even with the help though, put aside 2 weeks of full time work to get it set up for yourself.

If programs like Tave or 17 Hats won’t work for you (although I maintain that for the money, energy and time you put into it, you’ll be rewarded with more of each in the long run), then you can probably do just as well with free tools like Gmail (make sure to utilize their “canned responses”, for example) as well as Google calendars. Read up on how to use these to serve you best.

2) Finances:

Money is a lot like sex. Everyone wants it but it’s impolite to talk about.

The thing is, countries that provide the most sexual education (including not only health-related concerns, but pleasure, consent and non-standard sexual activity) tend to have fewer unwanted pregnancies and less STD spread.

Likewise, people with a solid education in finances tend to do better with their money. So get good at talking about money. Let’s get educated. You could go do a 2 or 4 year degree in finances, but…don’t. People have already done that. They’re called financial advisers, accountants, and bankers. Set up meetings with these people. If you know any financial people in your life (brothers, sisters, old friends), even better. Wine and dine them.

If you’re not in a position to pay for financial services, there are still options. See if your local government has free resources for small business. Another thing you can do is offer to trade some of your effort for financial advise. Do some head shots, help with their social media – trade your services for some of theirs. Caveat: a lot of the time, people working in finances get a commission from anything you buy through them, so expect to get sold to (unfortunately) and be skeptical about any investing portfolios/services they “offer”.

Another excellent strategy is to find a small business owner (a photographer would be best) and reach out. Offer them lunch at least. Take notes when you meet anybody. Podcasts can also be a great way to keep current (listen while you edit, right?). Being Boss is an excellent resource for small business owners. You can get good at streamlining finances.

3) Staying Current:

There are so many ways to keep current that it’s easy to waste time and money just consuming information. I’ve been guilty of this myself. I used to stay current by via email newsletters, through workshops, by reading trade magazines, and by keeping up with a few blogs. I still do some of this actually. Although better than falling behind, it was an expensive and time-consuming way to keep up with the ever-shifting landscape of technology that affects my business.

I’ve since found that being social keeps me just as up-to-date, saves time and money, and is more fun. I bet this would be even truer for photographers. I can guarantee that there are a bunch of photography groups in your city. Some of them will go out shooting birds or urban scenes, some will meet up over beer and talk about the business, and most of them have Facebook groups where you can ask questions. These meetings are where you want to be. People love to talk about the new toys and strategies that help them win. So unsubscribe to “content” and meet up with some humans instead. Not only will they sift out the best new trends, you’ll inevitably get job referrals from your new crew.

4) The Inter-Webs:

It’s no doubt easier than it’s ever been to run a business. You don’t need the brick and mortar shop, your storefront is digital, can be visited 24 hours a day, and it can fit in everybody’s pocket. That’s great! The trade off for this is that people have come to expect constant access to visually pleasing, easy-to-navigate websites with no glitches. Meeting this expectation is usually the first filter for potential clients. If your website fails, they won’t give you their money.

Assuming that you’re not a webmaster, your choices leading to likely website success are either outsourcing your webwork to good people (recommended) or going DIY. Whatever your case is, I always recommend WordPress.org as the platform to work from. Its being open-source tends to keep it very current (and very free). From there, there are plenty of templates that can be used, some requiring a larger learning curve than others. There are also third-party software companies that create add-ons that can extend your website’s functionality to do anything you want (including my own Sunshine Photo Cart, which greatly streamlines sales, among other things). With WordPress, a good theme, and with Sunshine Photo Cart, you’d have a fairly problem-free and straight forward website capable of all that you want from it. Best yet, WordPress is a platform that plenty of programmers are familiar with. Therefore, when you can afford to outsource your webwork, there’ll be plenty of skilled programmers to work with.

Now get to it

Now that I’ve laid down what I think are, for most people, four ripe areas to start implementing organization, I want to add that I recommend organization for the sake of slack, for the sake of having a bit of fun.

Without organization, you can still probably succeed. You can just work really hard, days, evenings and weekends. Plenty of people do it this way, until they burn out.

Another thing that people do, is always find “busy work” to do (extreme type-A people, I’m talking about you). I don’t recommend implementing organization just for the sake of organization, for the sake of keeping busy. Busy isn’t the goal. Busy is the opposite goal, actually.

The value of organization in business goes back to the simple equation: maximize money earning, and minimize time and energy spent. Bill Gates is famous for saying “I always hire the lazy person to do a hard job because he will find an easy way to do it”.

Be that person for your business.

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