Building a business can feel scary and a bit uncertain, especially when you are a “business of one” and don’t always have people to discuss your business decisions with. Luckily there are many of us who have been down this road already. We have done our research, celebrated our successes, learned from our mistakes, pushed ourselves into new genres and price points, built solid brands, and survived busy seasons. So, as a long-time photography business owner, CPA and business coach I would like to share with you a few lessons I have learned along the way.
1. Porfolio building does not equal client building.
It’s important to note that portfolio building sessions usually will NOT build your client base. You have to look at them from the experience element only. Maybe you will gain some long-time clients from your portfolio building sessions, but don’t let this be your expectation. Most people that are attracted to a deal (such as the free photos you may offer as part of a portfolio building special) will keep looking for deals and likely won’t stay with you when you raise your prices.
So take portfolio building for what it truly is: a chance to build your portfolio. Portfolio building sessions are a great way to grow your image portfolio, experiment with new techniques or genres, and improve your consistency. Clients need to know what to expect when they hire you. So, through the portfolio building process you have to first zero on in on: What do you long to create for your clients. What do you want your clients to feel when they look through your portfolio? How will this translate into the images you will capture for them when they hire you?
Further, clients will expect consistency in both your processing style and your voice. You need to be able to maintain this consistency under varying elements, potentially difficult children, frustrated parents and uncertain environments. Practice is key to maintaining your composure under these variable elements.
Keep your target client in the forefront of your mind as you work to build a portfolio that will serve as a strong marketing point for your business. And then when you are ready, move forward into building your client base through a specific, targeted marketing plan that covers all of your marketing channels. (More on marketing in my pricing workshop, The Profitable Photographer)
2. Your clients trust you as the expert.
It is so important stand behind what you create. Know what you want to create. Show it in your portfolio. Describe it in your mission statement and your brand statement and marketing materials. Then when your clients hire you, trust that is what they are wanting you to create for them.
Most clients have no idea what they are asking for. They are not professionals. They trust YOU as the professional. Look at it this way…..when you go to the hairdresser, you trust your hairdresser to get your color or cut just right without questioning her methods because you trust her background, her training and her experience. Same is true for when you hire a plumber – I’m pretty sure your plumber does not want your feedback in doing his or her job! We are in a service business not much different than either of those. We have a skill that we have been hired for and it is our job to perform our service to the expectation we have set forth on our website, our marketing materials, our client communications, and our contract. We set the expectation – not our clients. So try and let go of that pressure to create what you “think” they want, and go with what a) you have committed to providing through your communications and contracts, and b) what you long to create in your creative soul. Because if you are not creating the way your heart longs to create, this business will not be sustainable for you.
You also need to accept that an element of fear and uncertainty will be present in every single photo shoot you do. I still get nervous before each and every shoot that I do. There are just so many variables that we cannot control, yet even with these unpredictable variables we are expected to meet the expectations we have set with our clients. So it’s impossible not to stress about it all! But you just need to acknowledge that fear as part of the creative process and move forward anyway. I have always told myself that day I stop being nervous and a little afraid before a shoot is the day I should probably start doing something else – my fear is rooted in my passion for what I do. So look that fear in the eye, trust your experience, and move forward anyway.
3. Just because you are new does not mean you have to start at a lower price point.
Experience really should not factor in to your pricing. First of all, no potential client is ever going to inquire about your years of experience. All they care about is whether or not they connect with your work, and if they value it enough to invest in. So whether this is your first year or your 10th, it really doesn’t matter. Each year, regardless of your experience you are creating art in the best way you can and it’s either going to resonate with people or it’s not.
Secondly, everyone grows at a different rate. I have seen photographers with almost no experience come out and kill it simply because they are naturally gifted with a camera in their hards, or because they hustle 10 times harder than anyone else in their market, or because they have an amazing marketing game.
Just because someone has more experience than you does not mean they are a better artist. It does not mean they run a better business. And it does not mean that they provide a better client service experience. Your potential for success is no different than them – it’s all about how you bring together your talent, your hustle and your marketing.
So erase “experience” from your pricing calculation. Even when you are new to the industry, your time is just as valuable. And over time, hopefully you will have opportunities to raise your prices even more….but you do not need to “discount” yourself simply because you lack the experience of some in your market.
And let me tell you – those experienced photographers? They do not want to see you charging too low of a price point as this contributes to the devaluation of the whole industry. Clients often don’t see the technical differences between photographers, so , pricing by “skill” and not “service offering” can cause a real devaluation of the market. If I charge $800 for a session and someone who feels their work might not be as strong as mine decides to charge $400 for a similar session (similar service offerings, etc) in the same market, a potential client will see me as overpriced because they just don’t see the difference in product – all they see is same market, same service, different price. And when the market gets devalued, every photographer gets hurt in the end.
Yes, experience comes with time…..but there most certainly is NOT a linear relationship between pricing, success and experience!
4. Busy does not always equal success.
The most important indicator of your success as a photography business owner is not how many sessions you shoot, but how profitable each of those sessions are. Your hourly earnings rate is arguably much more important than your session volume. The industry average is that a photographer only puts about 1/3 of every sales dollar into her pocket after expenses and taxes. It’s also common for photographers to spend 10 hours+ on each session – that’s a significant time investment! So if you shoot 100 sessions a year, but are only earning $100 per session after expenses and taxes, you are earning much less than minimum wage, and that simply is not sustainable.
As I mentioned in #3, it can be tempting when you are just starting out to lower your prices so that you can get more bookings. But this likely will lead to a busy schedule that overworks you for not enough earnings per session, and this can only lead to burnout. It’s important to understand what an hour of your time is worth, and to stick to that. (I cover this in great detail in The Profitable Photographer). You want this business to be sustainable long-term. Working for less than your time and your art is worth is not the path to business longevity.
So first, you need to understand what you time and your art is worth so you can build a pricing structure up from there. And second, you need to find the right volume of sessions to help you reach your business AND your work/life balance goals.
5. You have the power to turn most any client into your dream client.
As we follow successful photographers on social media it is easy to be lured into thinking they have a magic marketing plan that only attracts their “dream clients” – clients that perfectly understand their artistic vision and direction, that show up in perfect clothes and perfect hair ready to show their love for each other with genuine moments of connection. And in some cases, maybe they do.
The majority of us, however, are lucky enough to have “dream clients” only a few times a year. The rest of the time it is about taking the clients that we do have and turning them into dream clients. With effective planning, communication and previsualization you can turn almost every client into a dream client.
You will want to begin communicating your vision for your sessions right from the point of initial contact – your website, your social media and your marketing pieces. And continue this with your lead response, your Welcome Guide, your What To Wear Guide, etc. Work with your clients to help the two of you come to a shared vision for how the session will go. And going back to point #2, your clients trust you as the expert. They want your guidance and advice. I assure you that working with them will enhance their overall perception of their experience with you and their satisfaction with their investment in your photography. Don’t just expect dream clients to come to you. The leads you receive are people who have seen your art and want it in their lives. Work with them to help make this dream possible!
If you’d like to talk business further, and receive my custom start-up roadmap and detailed e-book (taxes, contracts, business structures, marketing, SEO, websites, and more – we cover it all!!!) join me for Business From The Ground Up – live now at Click Photo School. Turn your love of photography into your dream job. No more guessing and wondering what to do next! If you follow the course roadmap, your business will be up and running before you know it, so you can start earning money doing what you love!