From Photographer to Business Owner
Running a smart business is how you get to the point of making a living doing the creative work you love. If you really want to do this work for life, everything I'm about to talk about next is the guide to get you there. But you have to start here. You have to start with thinking how do you want to live your life? Your business is only part of the whole of your life. And I really want you to get that because I see a lot of people, I'd say most people, do it the other way around. They say, okay, I want to do this for a living and I'm gonna make everything else somehow fit into the spokes and hubs of me running a business and it's really hard to maintain that. And it's not so fun. We got into this because it was fun, because we love it, we love the creative spirit of it. So if your business isn't fitting the life you love, you're gonna run into problems. My background, before I became a photographer, I graduated from university with degrees in Mass Communications, Broadcast Journalism, ...
Art History, and American Literature. And what my thought was with that is I was gonna go into a very creative field and I love media and all that sort of thing but by the time I graduated I had so many student loans I took a job with Accenture, which is a systems integration consulting firm. And my first job, naturally, was coding COBOL. Like, it's a dying dregs of the last times people are using this coding language, unless it's made a resurgence, I don't know. I was learning it. It has not made a resurgence, it's been confirmed to me. This is what I was I doing which had nothing to do with what I loved and what I cared about and I was so passionate about. But it allowed me to get the funds I needed to pay off my student loans quickly. And my very first assignment with Accenture, which by the way, if you guys don't know it, it's huge, they have like 150-something, they're working in 50 different countries. I don't know, what's the, I think I wrote it down somewhere. Over 150 offices in nearly 50 countries around the world at last time I looked, so it's a giant company. And they train you. The idea is, you know what, if you don't have these skills, everything I'm saying here, if you don't have these skills, but you're smart and you want to do it, we'll get you there. We'll give you steps to get there until you are a consultant. And we're gonna start charging people for your time well before you're actually a consultant. So smart business all the way around. But what I learned there was my first assignment, I learned systems integration and I learned organizational design. So I learned how to look at the process from end-to-end that people were doing in their business and how to make it better, how to make it more efficient. To say, you know, you're doing five or six things here that don't add to your business anyway, let's scrap that and let's get smarter about how we do that using technology and other things. But my very first job with them was nine months in a power plant, a nuclear power plant in Ohio, southern Ohio, and it was, I had to wear pantyhose and a blue, navy blue suit or a black suit, those were my options, and heels, to go into this radiation plant and go all the way to the basement, literally in the basement coding COBOL in the corner. And if this sounds crazy, this is exactly what I was doing for nine months. And there'd be these orange tubes where they were just swooshing around things that I could have sworn was probably like nuclear waste. I don't know what it was, I still don't know what it was. But as I was sitting there coding COBOL, which I hated, I'm like why have I made these choices. And so, and when you would exit the building, you had to go through an x-ray scan to see how much radiation had been built up into your body since last time you were there. So everyday you'd leave like, seriously, why am I still doing this. But I did that for a while and then I stayed with them for four more years transitioning into systems integration and change management. But by the end of it, I had been traveling 100% the whole time and I never had an apartment, I never had kind of a landing space but I learned a lot about business and I walked in to, we'd moved into San Francisco, I met my husband, I liked him so much. I still like him so much. We moved to San Francisco and I decided I wanted to stop working 100% in everywhere else but San Francisco. I wanted to stay there. And so I walked into the high rise of some building and was talking to some guy who was gonna be my recruiter, help me find positions, and I looked out his window, this gorgeous, big window overlooking the bay, this gorgeous bay in San Francisco and I'm like, before we talk about what I should do next, what do you do? What do you do that you're in here looking at that and it looks really nice. So I became an executive recruiter. He's like, same thing, he's like, okay, you don't know what to do but I will teach you. If you've got enthusiasm and you have kind of an interest in the craft, I can teach you how to do this. And so I worked for this company, it was a 25-year old company, PCN, and I worked there for almost three years and did really well. And by the way, I don't know how much you guys know about executive recruiting but oh, my God, it's a profitable business if you're doing it well, and we were doing it at a good time. And then I left there, we did a four month around the world trip using all our consulting points, came back and started a company for ourselves working with venture capital firms in the dot com area, era, dot com era. It's still the dot com era but when it was really kind of exploding in Silicon Valley and I learned so much about sales but I had zero creativity to my job except for the idea of piecing sales together. And so by the end of that kind of whole stretch I'd learned a lot about business but I was like shriveling up and dying inside because I wasn't doing anything creative. And I hadn't been doing anything creative since I left college, unless you count, no I'd done nothing creative, nothing at all. So I started shooting. My daughter was born, she was amazing-looking, I couldn't take any good photographs of her and so I started to thinking how to get better and I started shooting for friends and family. And this is a very similar path to a lot of people. I was like, hey, people like these, maybe I could do a better job at it, and I shot and shot and shot. And in my first three years of business, I was photographing about, gosh, seven to 10 sessions, portrait sessions a week. I was shooting about 40-something weddings a week. I liked, this is one of the first kind of shots I was started take, this was like the very first inklings of I'm having a style. I like so much about these images. I like the spirit and life and the energy, I like the connection I was getting that I was kind of going for, that I wanted, that I was yearning for. That's a dramatic word, right? Yearning. Go ahead, say it, it's fun, yearning. But I was yearning for this, this connection, this spirit, this life, this expressiveness, these relationships, to be able to showcase this, this authenticity because I felt like stifled not being able to do that for so long. And when I did it I just kind of exploded, like, I'm gonna do all of this. But, what ended up happening is three years in, I was making no money. Like no money. And I was working so, so hard. And then I started doing something. And I'm gonna tell you and I'd like you to look at as a possible boilerplate for yourself. I started stopping and thinking how do I grow a portrait business to actually make money, keep being creative, and continue this ongoing. And I did the same thing with my weddings. So I stopped shooting weddings after about seven years but when I'd started shooting weddings I was something like $900 a wedding for like anything you want. I'll go to your house, I'll do your makeup, like, anything you want. And in the end, I was shooting no more than 15 weddings a year and my average was $15,500 a wedding. By using the exact same thing I was doing with portraits. So it's just started to step back and say, and some of the weddings I shot early on, I actually really liked them. You know how you take pictures early on and you're like that really sucked, why did I think, I took a lot of those. I still take some of those. But I really liked what I was doing creatively, I just didn't have the structure. This is what I was doing. Of course I didn't know this consciously at the time, I didn't consider it, I was too busy, but what I was doing was this. When I actually said, okay, it's three years in, I am crying over my keyboard at three in the morning, again, I am tired, I'm not sleeping, I'll chat a little bit more about that in a second, we kind of just put a halt on things and said, what are, what am I doing right now? I was exchanging about 24 phones messages with the client and this was like 11, 12 years ago, now it'd be a ton of texts, right, throughout the entire portrait shoot process. I would shoot the session, I would spend easily three to four times the amount of time editing a portrait session as I did shooting it. I wasn't aware of that and the reason was I didn't stop and get better at things like lighting and exposure and all the little things that would have really cut down on editing. And I was trying to just fix it all because I didn't want my client to know I wasn't as good as I wanted them to think I was. And I did that for a while. And then I'd upload the shoot to a web gallery. I'd just wait to see what they ordered, if they ordered. I would duck any requests to view images with me and I mean any, I just was so uncomfortable when someone would call and say, hey, can I look through these with you? First of all, I was working out of my attic in my home, third floor. The positives of that is I got to kind of renovate and have this little space for myself. The negatives were that when you came to the door, I had to walk you through my living room, up the stairs, up the stairs to the attic. And what happened in my living room was my children. And what happened on the stairs was my dog, you know. As you turned the corner someone was running down the hall, mom! You know, it's just, it was just embarrassing to me. Has anybody ever felt that way, like to bring someone into your home when you don't have it all together and you're trying. So when someone said can I come over, I'm like, I don't think that's a good idea, just tell me what you want. I eventually would do something where I'd get on the phone with them and look through the images together. And the very first time one of my clients ordered a 16x20, which was the largest print I'd ever sold because I was mostly selling them all on DVD, I didn't know how to even get that far. So, I knew how to print it but I didn't know, like, you should mount a 16x20. So when I got the 16x20 back, I pulled it out of the box and it was like floppy. I'm like, oh, I hope it doesn't bend. I didn't have any packaging for that, I didn't quite know what to do in terms of packaging it. So she came to my house to get it and I'd just put it back in the shipping box it had come with, re-taped it, tried to block out the part from the lab, and then put like a big smiley face on it. And then when she came to the door my dog was barking, the kids were like having lunch, and I just was trying to somehow seem like I was doing better so I just opened the door and creaked it through to her. I'm like, I hope you love it! (audience chuckling) It was a true story, no exaggeration. And I shut that door like just beet red, like, I know I handled that really poorly. And I never saw her again. Like, and I want to say, like, but then we worked it out. No, no. She never called me again, she didn't call back. It was just so weird. Because she was probably like, you're just, you don't know what you're doing. And I didn't! So, I thought, I don't know what I'm doing, let me see what everybody else is doing. And so I looked around to figure out how to price myself, how to get smarter about what to deliver, and what I found is that a lot of people were doing session fees that switched out based on what you wanted, buy the rights DVD, I'm gonna buy the rights, we'll talk about that in a second. And a la carte pricing. Those were kind of what most people were doing. Some people were doing packages. But I kind of started here and drifted all around it. So I would have, my first session fees were this cost in the studio, this cost on location, this cost if there's more than X amount of people, this is cost if you have outfit changes. Now I just, I have one session fee across the board because it's too confusing and I was telling people what I did and didn't want to do. Buy the rights DVD, it took me a couple of years before I realized, I'm not selling you the rights to my images. I'm selling you the rights to reproduce them and there's a huge difference there. So I never sell the rights now. I tried packages. What I found was when I would say, hey, you can have two 4x6's, three 5x7's, and one 11x in Package A, people would only pick out that many 4x6's, that many 5x7's, and that 11x14 and that is it. If they did get anything more than that, they were like, gosh, I guess I can stretch just a little bit. I'll buy that extra, I wasn't planning to, and then it got weird and everything. So I moved away from packages and I finally got to a la carte pricing. We're gonna talk about that later, we're gonna kind of step through a sales session. But a la carte pricing, when it was just these are the prints, these are the costs, let's make it what you love, let's put together what you love, and put a price on that when we're all said and done. That kind of changed the game for me. When I switched to that, I started really seeing genuine profit. But in the schedule where all this was happening, I had set up my business, I had set up my life, I had set up my business, my business kind of pushed out against my life, and I was very clear on a couple of things. I didn't want to kind of cheat my kids of me so I would start work after they went to bed and put in an eight hour day. I knew I had to work out to keep the energy so I did that. I had all the errands that went around with, you know, doing the life stuff. And what I didn't slot in was sleep. It just wasn't on the schedule, ever. And I did this for about three years. I slept three to four hours a night and I don't say that like exaggerated, like, it was three to four hours a night. I once flew up to New York to do, I was part of some article by Fitness magazine where they selected four people, I knew the writer so they selected me and three other people to say how does genetics and lifestyle play into how long you'll live. And I'm like, I'm gonna kill it. You know, I don't eat meat, I exercise all the time, blah, blah, blah. And I came in second place. But literally the write up was everything's right except she doesn't sleep and that's gonna kill her pretty soon. I was like, huh? So this kind of, everything up together made me feel this. Three years in, I mean, I don't say it lightly, I was ready to quit, I wanted to shut down. I hated when people were like, when people would call and cancel a shoot, I was so reprieved, you know, I was so thrilled. And, by the way, if you've ever done this, if you've ever worked really, really hard for something where you didn't feel like it was being valued or you were getting the appreciation, it's not great for relationships either. Like, it was not good for our marriage. In fact, we did a whole relationships course on CreativeLive. You can see it, it's a two day relationship course talking about what an impact this has. So, when you want to quit you have options. One, you can just say it's your developed style. I love this. If at first you don't succeed, failure may be your style. You can just do that or you can kind of stop, halt it, and figure it all out. We pulled out a white board, not this one, this is actually a scene from the very first CreativeLive I ever did seven years ago this November. But we wanted to figure out what was going wrong and so I wrote out the entire process of what I was doing. I would take the call, market, I would shoot, I would process, I would deliver, and that's what I would do. And then I figured out where are the holes? What am I doing wrong? And I realized a few things. First of all, I wasn't doing anything in any order whatsoever. There was no structure. I would just get a call, I would race through that and try to fit it in with the next thing. The other massive, massive realization, and I really want you to get this, massive realization I had when I finally started putting structure to it, when I started saying what am I really doing from beginning to end when I'm shooting a session? I realized that I was gonna do 90% of the work every shoot I did. Every photo shoot I did, I was gonna market, I was gonna field an inquiry, I was gonna shoot it I was gonna process it, and the last part was the 10%, that was the sale. So in every shoot, no matter what I did, I was gonna do that 90% whether I did a sale at the end or not. And I wasn't doing any sales. I would just put something out there and wait to see if they bought. That last 10%, though, that's where 90% of the revenue came in. That last part you do, that 10% at the end, dictates 90% of the whole take home pay part. So even though I'm racing to do that 90% again and again and again and again, when I'm not paying attention to that 10% part I'm shooting myself in the foot. It's way smarter when you put it out on paper to do less shoots and really focus in on that sale. And you get so much more return for that. You actually get a few things. One, you work less. Oh my God, you sleep more. That's beautiful. Way less stress. It is so stressful to always be so busy because your head is full. You're worn down and you don't ever feel like you're gonna catch up. And that combination of feelings is terrible for creativity. It's the opposite of the mindset you want when you want to be free and open and creative. And when all you're doing is racing from the next thing to the next thing, you kind of block out that whole ability you have naturally to do what you love. And the fulfillment part, the idea of getting not only value for your work because it's not about money, right, it's about feeling like the work you did counted, somebody wanted it, you sat down next to them and they actually told you great feedback. You know, that face-to-face thing is so impactful in terms of just feeling like you touched somebody else with the work you did, like it mattered to them, like it will matter for a long time. I was missing that completely in the first three years. I mean, I've had people write things and say things but it's really different face-to-face when you see someone's appreciation. That made a big difference too. And, here's the clincher, one year after I did that whiteboard exercise for myself, I'm gonna leave you on a little bit of a cliff note, cliff, cliff? Cliffhanger! There's no Cliff note to this. Cliffhanger here. Before I had this next kind of oh my gosh kind of end result, when I said I stopped and put everything on a whiteboard, I mean I stopped the massive treadmill thing. So people would call on a Monday, I'd say yeah, yeah, I could be available Wednesday at two and we'd go out and do the shoot because my mindset was if I don't accept anything that comes in as soon as it comes in, it will go away. It was a scarcity mentality. Like, it will never happen again. And so I have to take whatever comes my way because otherwise they'll go to the next person and I'll lose it. Again, not consciously, but that's exactly what I was doing. And so what I did instead was say I don't want to communicate to everybody else that I'm changing everything because I don't know what I'm changing. I just know I want to quit and something has to happen. So what I did was the next time someone called instead of saying I can fit you on Wednesday, I said how about August 1st at five o'clock. I don't know, at a time where lighting's better maybe. And I put that out there and then every time another person would call I'd just put it after that slowly and farther along. But then I took that time period, that gap I gave myself of two, four, six, whatever amount of weeks you need or months you need to stop and work on my business and make sense out of it. That's where that whole process, let me look at everything I'm doing came into focus. And I started realizing that 90% of the times I'm doing all the same things, 10% is where I have to put my effort. Ten percent is where is where I should be putting my 90% of focus because I'm gonna get so much from it. So not only did I get less work, more sleep, less stress, way more fulfillment, one year after I did that, I stopped everything, my profit went up 1100%. Dramatic, like a really, really big difference. And I went into it thinking in-person sales, I feel uncomfortable with that, it's not, I can't bring them to my house because it's chaos there. I had every obstacle in my head as to why it wouldn't work for me and it did and it continues to year after year after year. It's only gotten better. In fact, this is our current space right now, our studio. This is right after we built it out. I'm actually gonna show you a walk through, a whole tour of our space as we built it out but this is my office, which I love, built with a lot of intention. Don't need a ton of space. In fact, it's kind of a smaller space but everything has a spot. This is the back of our space. I have more images in the front but that's not only my awning but the coffee shop that lives in front of our studio that we own that we built out to be part of our studio space. All of that was only possible, and I love where I work, I love coffee, this is coffee. I am excited. Sunday I'm so excited because I get to go there on Monday. I mean, it's night and day from where I was and none of it would have been possible without stopping and working on my business. I know that for sure. So that idea in your head of I can't do it because of this, I can't do it because of this, I can't do it because of this, look at that, really examine that because nobody stops you more than you. Ever.