Building A Team to Expand and Grow Your Photography Business
One of my big visions for creating a photography business from the beginning really, was this idea of building a team. And I think it was one of my very first projects that I worked on the "California Surf Project" a book, where I realized the importance of collaboration. As I said before, I think in the beginning, I was so tightly gripped onto this idea of me wearing all the hats and the creative control and the control of everything that the moment I realized that I could loosen up that grip, I started to learn to trust, my business started to flourish. And a huge component of that was being able to delegate and learn to put people on some of these crucial tasks that I knew I just wasn't the best at doing. And finding that acceptance in yourself to say, you know what? I might not be the best at each one of these jobs, that's really what it comes down to. And as we expand, as I expand on what it looks like to build a team, I really want you to think and apply this to yourself. I don't...
expect everybody to have as many employees as I do, I don't expect everybody to have the same vision for their career as I do but I wanna share with you where I got to and where I'm at now in hopes that you can find that correlation yourself. And then let's break it down and let's see, what are your needs? What are your desires? Because each person fulfills a very specific role in the studio. My studio now is a old winery, actually. At one point, it was a CrossFit gym and then before that, I think it was an auto shop. And so it's this big steel building. We have quite a bit of space, we have space for books and all of our photography gear and all of our productions right in here. We also have space for quite a few people to work. Now, crucial to my team are about five roles, right? And right now I have five employees that are full-time and then I have a part-time employee as well. Over the years, just as a little backstory, I've actually had upwards of seven, eight employees when business was thriving and going really, really insane. And then I've also had a decrease down to two or three and I've kind of had to do this process a couple times. Some of that being because of my own mistakes, because I didn't grow organically and then some of that being because we just had so much work, we had to bring on some part-time people. It's okay for your business to expand and grow, just like it's okay to watch your bank account do this because that's something that will happen year to year. I would say that in 2020, it's going to be a very interesting year in terms of what we're looking at with our income. Over the years, it's important to realize that your business and your needs will change, and being willing and able to make those adjustments on the fly is really helpful. Which is why what I've found is the more you expand your sort of network of people or people that could work for you, the better, right? In my studio right now, there are really five crucial people. And I wanna start with maybe what I consider to be the most important role and that would be my photo editor, Hannah. Hannah's been with us for about two years now. She started as an intern and then she expanded into role of assistant and then into role of photo editor. And why is photo editor super important and What does that even mean? Let's break this down. So first of all, the photo editor is the person that when I come back from a job and I'm going on to the next job, flying across the world is the next thing, I'm dropping off all the hard drives with Hannah. And I'm saying, Hannah, it's your responsibility to edit, post process, select and get these to the client within this date. And she's also in charge of managing all of the hard drives, all of the images in our studio. It is a massive responsibility. Now, I want to address something here because some people might be up in arms thinking like, oh my gosh, so you don't edit all your own images or you don't do this and that? You know what? It's impossible to expand your business in a natural, real way if you expect to be able to be pushing sliders on every single photograph. In fact, one of the most crucial things I've realized is that the only way to truly allow your business to grow so I can keep doing what I like to do, which is take pictures, is to have somebody who I could teach my process to and allow them to fulfill the needs of the client, why? Because although you might go shoot the job for a week or two weeks, come back with thousands of images, sometimes 10, sometimes 20, we've had jobs that are 60,000 images shot when you're shooting plates for cars, shooting sequences, right? It's gonna require a massive amount of time. All that time that I'm not working, my studio's making less and less money because my time is more valuable out on the road and that's really what I'm trying to focus on. Now, that being said, I want to give you a little disclaimer here and I want to do so as gently as possible. If your work is so focused on the way that you edit the image that you cannot teach anybody else out there how to do it, you are going to potentially get yourself into a situation that is slightly challenging to expand. That being said, if it takes you two, three, four hours or minutes or whatever, to edit every photograph because the process of creating the image is based more upon the manipulation than it is upon the composition, that can be really challenging to grow. And I'm not saying that that makes the art any less valuable, in fact, it might make it more valuable. I'm saying that it will be hard for somebody else to take on that responsibility for you. For me, the work that I do is very, very much created in camera, I try not to create any images that require massive amounts of photoshop. Also, it's done so in a way that I feel comfortable being able to show somebody my editing process so they can take it and they can take it from selection to delivery with me being able to just have slight moments where I'm looking over the images, and that's what I do. I look over the selection, I give a tonal feedback onto what I want those images to look like. Hey, we just did a job for this clothing company, this catalog and they want everything to feel really warm and saturated or they want everything to feel really desaturated and flat. Me and Hannah will discuss that, we'll talk about the look, the tonality, I'll check over and over and over and I'll make sure that it is delivered to my satisfaction. But again, her role is critical. It's probably one of the most crucial things because it's really, for me, what helps move things along and allows me to feel comfortable going out into the field. And another reason that I wanna have you understand that this role is crucial is because it takes the most time to train. This isn't somebody that you bring in and you call up and it's your aunt sister's, father-in-law, who's going and sending photos for you, this is the person that you're spending years with to understand your system, understand your process, understand the way you work. I could give Hannah a photograph and say, edit this the way I would and you'd look at my edit and you look at her edit and it would be the same, right? It's still a Chris Burkard image, it's still a Chris Burkard Studio production, it's still something that we've created but there's a collaborative process. And I absolutely take no ownership in the fact that this is a one man show. This is absolutely a one man, woman, woman, man, man, man show. So we're all out there trying to bring together this vision, that's the photo editor. Now, I'd say the second most important role out of my staff of five is my manager, Mike. Now, I'm kind of jumping around here because I don't want you to think that these are people you need to hire in this succession, we're gonna touch on that in a second. But first and foremost, what is Mike's role? Well, Mike, is a manager, I got to a certain point where I needed somebody to be constantly dealing with the influx of requests, right? And when I get into this conversation of what is a rep, what is an agent and what is a producer, these are separate entities that are outside of my studio. I could have had a manager that operates outside of my studio, yeah. In fact, for a long, long time, my wife was really managing my business for me. She was taking in the influx of emails. She was setting up calls, she was doing all this stuff, but at a certain point, I needed somebody to do that. So Mike's role really, as manager, Mike Sanderford, found him on LinkedIn, his role is to first of all, manage the employees, make sure that we have a harmonious workspace. And he's really managing all the ins and outs of the studio itself, any construction, any changes, anything that needs to be bought and purchased and all that. He's managing the calendar. He's also managing the influx of emails that come in from the info@chrisburkard email. He's also managing a lot of brand relationships and or incoming jobs that then he decides with me or by himself because I trust his opinion, whether it's worth our time to pursue. And he'll either forward that on to my agent or we will manage it in-house, right? Sometimes when there's a job that doesn't have the budget that I know is worth having a back and forth and it's just something quick and easy, Mike will handle that for me. In addition to that, Mike brings me a profit and loss statement every couple months. And that's something that we look at saying, how much did I spend on the credit cards? How much did we make? Right? Why is this important? Because you need to know if you're in the red, you need to know where your bank accounts are at. And to be honest, I'm not really involved in that process. I trust somebody else and I've hired somebody else to give me a report and say, hey Chris, 2007, 2008, you were doing a lot better than you are now, but hey, it's okay, we spent X amount of money improving the building space, so that was an expense, so really we're doing fine. This profit and loss statement is something that can be run on QuickBooks. It's something that credit cards are synced up into and really it's his responsibility to bring it to me. Also, I would say that Mike, in many ways, is the old adage, I guess my right hand man, right? So he's the person who, when I'm gone, he's managing email, he's talking to the clients. He's really me when I'm gone because I need that person who can deal with that for me. So again, we have Hannah, the photo editor, we have Mike, the office manager. Right now, Jeremy, who was an intern and one of the beauties of kind of migrating somebody from intern into employee, so you know, and Jeremy is an assistant by the way, in the office, is that they know your process, they've spent three or four months really doing all the jobs from the very bottom, the very beginning, which is, again, I'm gonna get into this, but the shipping and the receiving and the this and the that, blah, blah, blah, all the way up to somebody who would be going with you on shoots and or a photo editor. So Hannah started as an intern, worked her way up. I really love that process of being able to kind of have somebody that you can trust and having somebody that you know can really handle from the very bottom, every task, every need. So Jeremy now is an assistant and he actually was an intern, then he went back on his own for a while. And then we actually called him up because we had an opening and we hired him back because we're like, this guy knows exactly what we need. And we brought him into the studio to basically handle a number of tasks. But oftentimes, when I go out on shoots, he's one of the people that I'm always bringing with me. His role is really critical to knowing a couple things, how to prep camera gear, clean, prep, look at everything that's broken, look at everything that I thrashed, order new stuff, how to do data backup while on the road, right? And I said, in the beginning of this workshop, I'm not gonna dive into some of the nuances of what that looks like, data backup is something that we could have an entirely other workshop on. So his role really is to back up the data, help me with gear on the road, sometimes it requires driving, sometimes it requires being kind of a producer out on the road. He might be having to have people sign talent releases or this and that. He's kind of my right hand man again, so that I can focus on what? Being creative, being a photographer, being that person who is bringing a 100% of my energy, my hopefully positive energy to the shoot so that I can do my best job and really, that's what Jeremy's role looks like as an assistant. You need to determine what these people's roles are and this is one of the best, most accurate ways to do it. Another crucial person within the studio is Evan. Evan was one of our most recent interns that now was brought on as a part-time worker to really help out as another assistant role. Evan's job again, is to kind of assist Jeremy in those office roles when he's out on the road or to come out with me and help. What I've found is that you can never expect everybody in your studio to work as hard as you, right? That's just the reality. The amount of days that I'll spend out on the road or going out and putting in these long hours, it can be taxing for myself especially, but for the employees too. So I've realized that having the opportunity to bring certain people on certain projects and leave some people in the studio, I really want to give them the time and the opportunity to do so. Now with that, those are really my key employees. And if there's one extra person that kind of comes and goes, that would be the intern, right? Right now we have an awesome gentleman named Kevin. In the past, we've had people from all over the world, all different genders, races, what have you? Been lucky to have probably 30 to 40 interns over the years. And that process is really simple, we aim to bring people in, share with them a lot of really, the business side of photography, the side that they can't learn in a normal classroom somewhere, the side they can't learn on their own. I'm not there to teach people how to use a camera, I'm there to teach people the things that I think that they can't really learn anywhere else. Well, until maybe this workshop comes out. One of the part-time employees that we have is Sam. She's our bookkeeper. And I save this one for last because it might be the best, but understanding that if there's one task that I am terrible at, it's bookkeeping, right? And it's understanding how to go from being this creative, fun, loving photographer, person on the shoot, to having to get paid. Now, why am I saying it like this? Because it's absolutely detrimental to a relationship to be the person following up on getting paid. So to be able to have somebody who's in your court, who's got your back, who is not gonna force you to have to turn on this kind of collector's hat and does that for you, that is so crucial. And when I talk about the relationship between an agent or a rep and a producer and what their job is, you'll understand even clear why it's important, not just on the creative side, but really critical to your relationships to create that level of separation. Now, Sam's job is again, collections, it's to invoice, it's to make sure we're tracking expenses, it's all of these things. So Sam is really the fifth person within this community of employees that I have here. Also, I'm obviously one of my own employees, so is my wife and my wife really handles HR and a bunch of other components to that when we bring on new staff. Beyond that, there is a couple people that kind of help give us business advice, whether that's a financial planner or someone that I trust in that regard. Oftentimes, I'm bringing somebody in to kind of look at things from a 30,000 foot view to give me advice on where we're going and what we're spending and what maybe the financial forecast is looking like. Now, I want you to understand before you really consider which one of these roles is most valuable for you, it's important to really get a grasp on the fact that this is a slow process. I think each one brings a different value and what's important is for you to look at your career path holistically and organically, if you can, and maybe see which one of these people might be the best person to bring on. I know we jumped from this idea of bringing on your first employee to all of a sudden bringing on five or six or seven, that's overwhelming, I get it. But the key thing is that each one of these people, they have a superpower, right? And you're gonna be the power ranger. So this is the goal here is like, what do you need help with? Are you the photographer that's like, you know what? I need to edit all the images myself, that's fine, I don't need a photo editor, but man, the invoicing part of it, it's killing me, right? So maybe the bookkeeper, that's a great person. And I didn't bring on a bookkeeper for a lot of years because I used to have an employee do it and my wife do it and even me at times. And I realized after not getting paid and having 60, 90, 80, 180 day delinquent payments, that I was like, you know what? This would probably be a crucial person to bring on and that was one of the most valuable people. Again, my bookkeeper allowed me to get paid on time. My bookkeeper allowed me to keep my books in line. My bookkeeper also allowed me to have my taxes more accurately captured and my expenses, that was a benefit. My photo editor, Hannah, allowed me to go out and do more work. She allowed me to bring in way, way more income for my studio because I was able to keep working. Now, you don't necessarily need somebody who's this dedicated, four year degree photo editor type of person, I mean, this person comes with really no training. The goal was that I was willing to spend the time to train her to do this role. Now, someone like Mike, he was really the last person that I brought on because after all these other needs were met, I realized that the last thing I needed was to protect my personal time. And my personal time, which I'm gonna talk about later again, is the most valuable. In the end, that's all we have. So somebody to manage the calendar, to kind of keep that level of separation between me and the clients because as a workaholic, self-professed and somebody who has that struggle letting go, understanding that if I could have somebody who could help manage that was so, so crucial, right? Again, one of the things I want you to understand as well is that this is an unorthodox way of running a business. It's important for you to understand that this was my vision, right? Again, I said this before, but bringing in a whole team of people to work together for a common goal was my dream. But a lot of really talented, really successful photographers out there, I'm gonna name drop here, but these are friends of mine, it's okay, the Keith Ladzinskis, the Renan Ozturks, the Jimmy Chins of the world, et cetera, et cetera, they don't operate their business in the same way. A lot of times, for most of us, you're simply going out on a job and you're doing that job and you're hiring out people for that job to fulfill all these roles. And you might have a team of five or six or 10 or to fulfill that job but then afterwards, they go back in their freelance, right? So I wanted to keep a whole team in-house. I wanted to have people on call, so to say, because I knew that there was enough work and that I was again, bursting at the seams enough that I could fulfill each of those things. Now, have there been times where that has come back to bite me? Yes. Have there been times where work has gone really, really dry and, man, this person's hours are getting cut way down? Yeah, as long as you're transparent about the fluctuations of this career, I think that that's an okay thing. And as long as you've taken the time and you've taken and put in the years to know where is my income gonna be? Does it fluctuate a lot? Does it fluctuate a little? And evaluating what you can pay those people. For me, I have one employee that is on salary, the rest of my employees are hourly, but the beauty of this situation is that it's not just me here. And again, I think it's important to realize that when everybody's working for the greater good, that's what allows us to do what we do. And as I talk about the different revenue streams and how to sort of safeguard your business against a pandemic or against a recession, you'll understand that that's really when a lot of these other roles come in to shine, right? Because we're able to rely upon other streams of revenue than just the stuff that's happening that pays a lot of money in these moments when the economy's going really good. Now, to kind of take a step back and look at what point would you want to bring in some of these people? I talked about obviously, the idea of having a bookkeeper that can help you out with this and having a photo editor that can help you out with this. I think it's important to realize are you at a place, and nobody can really answer that for you, where you might want to bring on some of these people? If that role is just somebody to gather images for you, to select photographs for you, it might be something as simple as just having an assistant, right? At the moment that you start to feel and notice that there is not only money being left on the table when you're on the job, but you cannot move on to the next job because you're still busy editing that wedding that you shot two weeks ago or you're still busy editing that other video piece that you did two months ago, that's when I think a photo editor or for those doing video and in-house editor might be really helpful. There is the capability to work remotely nowadays so well. And for me, the way that we do this for review process is typically, Hannah will select, edit all the images and give them a first pass. I'll go back and look through them if I'm here on the computer or I will have a selection put on Google Drive, which is just the preferred system that we use here, and I will go back and give feedback. Once the final selection is done, delivered, ready, we send them off to the client in low res and then they request back what they need in high res or whatever format we agreed upon. I will usually get a paired down sort of Chris's favorite selects on Google Drive that either I will make or Hannah will make, and I will look at those and just make sure that everything is looking as good as possible. And sometimes you learn a lot through that process. I think if anything, there is a real value to taking a step away from your images and letting maybe a month, maybe two weeks, maybe three weeks go by and revisiting them. Man, I was so attached to this image that I shot because I struggled to get it, that attachment becomes a little less. You have this classic phrase in editing, kill your darlings, right? You have to let go of some things you're really passionate about. And what I'm getting at here is that when I was photo editing, every image was the most important image. When you have somebody else photo editing or you have somebody else editing in general, they can take a much more healthy approach to your work and say, these are the best ones, these are the ones the client needs. And you can remove the emotion from it and you can look at what is sharp and what is clear and what fits the brief and what looks great, and not just the photographs that you feel like are the most important to you. Now, I really wanna expand on this concept of creating levels of separation. You've heard me say that a lot and I don't want that to become something that you think I want to be disconnected from my work or disconnected from my clients or disconnected from anybody. But there is such a crucial and important aspect to creating, be it barriers between you and certain aspects of the work that you do as a creative, sometimes whether that's you and maybe the bride that you're gonna be shooting, maybe that's you and the client of the fortune that you're gonna be working for. Now, your staff or your team, for example, they can do that but there are two other really important people that can help you out with that, which we're gonna talk about in our next subject here, which is understanding how a rep works or an agent and understanding how a producer works. And essentially, these people who are in your studio, who are in your office or are in the garage behind your house, where you're working, or hey, maybe this is just you in your bedroom on your floor with a laptop, I've been there, these people are going to be helping you do your job. And again, the goal here is to essentially be hiring them on because they can make you not only more money, but they can give you more peace of mind that you're gonna be putting the best work forward. Now, to really give you a behind the scenes look at I guess, the hacks and the decisions and the turmoil it takes to build a team, I wanna just tell you a few quick stories of what it was like for me to have to do this. And in order to tell you this as honestly as I can, I think we're gonna have to change the setting a little bit. So I don't even know really where to begin here. I think this was a moment where I really wanted to share, like in the beginning of my career when it came to building a team, there were so many mistakes that I made. If you wanna talk about the story of a reluctant businessman, that's me to a T, top to bottom. I had literally no clue what I was doing. I didn't get into this role to be a businessman or manage a team or any of that. And so I think that in the beginning, I made so many mistakes in terms of just trying to figure out who to hire, what people I needed, how much information was too much information to share with team, when do you kind of insulate them from the issues and the problems and the projects? And one of the things I just wanted to say is I just wanted to give a little bit of advice here to say, it's always gonna be complicated. You work with people, you have emotional connections with them. There are months and weeks where I've spent more time with my employees than I have with my family, so you become close to these people. And a lot of times when they move on, it can be really hard, it can be heartbreaking actually. And it can be really challenging to I think in some way, you feel a sense of real connection with those folks. And I think one of the key components that I've always felt is just learning over the years that you need to do your best to be as transparent as humanly possible with everybody that you work with, especially within that inner circle. I would also say to make sure that you have non-disclosures, NDAs in place, so that if for some reason, if a relationship did potentially end bad, that you're protected, they're protected and your clients are protected. I would also say that for me, one of the greatest struggles is always figuring out what to pay and how much to pay and what benefits to offer employees because the reality is there's not a lot of examples out there in the field of people operating like this. There wasn't really a playbook to go by, there wasn't really anything like that. And so, so much of the knowledge came from just years and years of really spending time looking at what other people were doing, talking to friends in the industry, figuring out what they pay people. What's sort of a good rate for assistant fees? What's a good rate for an employee? And then how do you navigate that? Because the harshest thing about it is that what you pay somebody on a salary, really depends upon where you live, really depends upon what are the living conditions in Central California? What are kind of other creative jobs paying there? This isn't LA, this isn't San Francisco, so it's a different paradigm. But when it comes to commercial jobs, those are usually paying the same wherever they are because you're being hired to go out and shoot somewhere globally. And so really, you need to pay them that industry standard rate. For me, I've explored a lot of different options. I've explored salary, I've explored hourly wages in the office. And then when someone goes out in the field, I'm paying them a different fee. I'm paying them this kind of commercial fee that my producer is selecting for them. I've also tried to kind of navigate and understand kind of where some of these relationships end and start within business and friendship and that's kind of where it always gets a little tricky and a little messy. And I think that if there's that kind of sage piece of wisdom, it's just like, understand that you need to be friends first, right? And you need to have that trust and that's really built upon, I think what the people you're working with can provide for you and do for you out on the road. And then beyond that, you need to approach it from a business perspective. Like I am an employer, I am this person's potential boss and I'm looking for certain expectations to be fulfilled. If you work with somebody that you really can't communicate with clearly, where does that leave you? What position does that put you in? Right? That's the hardest thing, is that if you're working again, with your friend or cousin or boyfriend or girlfriend or husband or wife, and you can't be honest about what your needs are, how they're not fulfilling something or what you expect of them, that relationship is doomed to fail from the beginning, right? You need to potentially be able to sometimes be a hard ass and sometimes be honest even if it hurts a little bit. Because the worst thing you can do is get into a situation where that relationship will suffer because something's not being said or you're not being willing to be open and transparent. And I think that that's one of the hardest lessons I've had to learn, is if you truly care about somebody, you truly love somebody, especially in this business, I use that word love because these are small offices, we have a handful of intimate employees. And to be honest, there are times where I've had to let people go, not because of necessarily the fact that the business has shrunk but just because (indistinct) performance and whatnot, but the beauty is if you can keep that relationship intact where you can still work with them in the future, I think that's the sign of a strong relationship. Is being honest and realizing, well, this person is a great person out on the road, or this person is an excellent producer or this person is a really great employee in the office, understanding those strengths and really empowering them. I find that one of the great things is taking time to do reviews after a job, coming back to the office after any assignment out in the field and being like, hey, what worked? What didn't work? What did I do wrong? How could I help you do your job more? And then me giving the reciprocation of like, this is what I need from you, this is what will help me do my job. And really, I mean, as any photographer will tell you, the sign of a great assistant really is somebody who kind of knows what you need before you need it. It's not necessarily the person who can get you the camera the quickest or knows all the lenses that you're using or anything like that, it's honestly the person who kind of emotionally, can feed your needs when you're out on that assignment, whether it's like, hey, sometimes you just are dealing with some stress, you need someone to talk to you, sometimes you need that camera right away, sometimes you need something clean, sometimes you need, who knows? You might need a little caffeine at a certain point and they just kind of are aware of that, that's truly, usually what makes someone great out on a shoot. Now, being able to kind of take that time and look at your employees and the people you work with, at their strengths and being realistic about those strengths and maybe asking them where they want to grow and then trying to empower them and give them opportunities to grow into those positions. I've always found that there's kind of growth period in your career path and I think one of the big fears a lot of photographers have in hiring a staff is like, well, I'm gonna teach people everything that I do and I'm gonna give them all this training and then they're gonna leave, and you know what? That happens and that's okay. And I think if you root your mission statement in something that is about helping people achieve their highest potential, then you'll be okay with that. But the reality is there's no way to ensure that that's never gonna happen. You have to accept those things and you have to accept the fact that I think that you're giving people a great opportunity, a great glimpse into the realities of what the job is like and paint no pictures that you are a perfect human being and that in some capacity, you're going to be able to navigate every situation perfectly. I think that being quick to kind of address our own follies and mistakes, it really goes a long way. So I think just learning to be honest with your own follies and really look forward to the long term growth. Sometimes we're so focused on what somebody might not be doing for us in the short term, that you miss the beautiful opportunity of really having, not only that long term relationship, that long term friendship, but seeing someone be able to grow, expand into the best version of themselves. I've always realized that if there is an employee or a person I work with and they make some mistake, the chances of them doing that again are so low, that's honestly a really valuable person, right? That's somebody who is going to know exactly what your needs are and what your hopes are. And I find that being able to kind of look forward to the opportunity to give a great piece of yourself to these people in order to see them really achieve their highest potential. And this is just a quick moment of real talk while we kind of jump into this concept of building a team. So that was fun, throwing myself under the bus for a second and really giving you the inside look of how hard it was for me to create this team and create this bond as I guess you could say, the reluctant business owner, but what I really want to dive into now is more of this idea of how to protect yourself and how to really keep yourself being creative. And that really helps us to lead into our next subject, which is working with an agent, working with a producer and what their roles are, right? And so let's jump into that one right now.