When I set out my plans to be a photographer over a decade ago I didn’t see the struggle that lay ahead. Now that struggle is behind me the future is bright. I learned a lot of lessons along the way and this is the most important one by far.
The growing pains of many a start up business manifest themselves in working long hours, trying to balance the books, trying to put order and systems into an artistic process and generally being in a state of stressful worry. So why do we do it? Well, 12 years ago I wanted to be a photographer. I had a passion to take pictures and I liked the idea of someone paying me to do it. But somewhere along the line, about 2 years in to my new found career, I realised that running a small business was the career I had chosen and not that of a photographer. I was only a photographer for 1 day in every 6, even though I was working 6 days a week. I was shooting 30 weddings a year and 30 pre wedding shoots as a result. That was just 60 days out of a possible 365 each year.
There’s nothing new in this concept, but to me it was a situation that I hadn’t expected and there was no apparent way out. Julie and I took on extra staff, but we had to work even harder to pay them. We put our prices up but had to put more effort into marketing as a result. It seemed an endless battle to get some sort of normal lifestyle with weekends off and evenings at home away from work. Yes, we were earning good money and a good reputation but family holidays in the summer break were a no no and my dream of being a photographer had become more of a nightmare.
Now I don’t want to be alarmist, if this is happening to you right now, don’t worry, you are not alone. It’s a common situation that affects many photographers and small business owners. The hard work and long hours to get the business off the ground never seem to stop. There are a great number of really talented photographers out there who are in the same predicament as the one Julie and I found ourselves in – Their business owns them. What exactly does this mean. If we were to take 3 months off work at any point during years 2 – 8 of running our own business for instance, our money & client supply would have dried up and our business would have folded.
It doesn’t have to be like that. There is another way. A way of owning the business you have created. To really take ownership of a business it has to be able to run without you. Here’s an example. Take the local corner shop for instance, the owner can employ local staff who like to chat and be part of the community to ensure a regular flow of returning customers wanting to catch up on the gossip. He or she can also employ youngsters to deliver the papers and a part time manager to check on stock, do the banking, and place the orders for goods to be sold. The owner of the business will then have a money making machine that can run without them. The profit generated by one corner shop may not buy the owner a Sunseeker yacht moored in Mote Carlo but owning a dozen local stores might just do the trick. As long as the business model is a sound one it can be easily replicated.
So what about photography? Our clients want us, not other staff to take their pictures, don’t they? Take Gordon Ramsey, when do you think he last cooked a meal for a client in one of his many restaurants? If you go to dine in Claridges in London you don’t expect your meal to be cooked by Gordon himself, even though he has his name above the door and on the menu. However, you do expect to get a meal he would be glad to put his name to and service to match. It doesn’t end with any famous chef you could name either, it is the same in hairdressing. Vidal Sassoon, Toni & Guy, and Nicky Clarke, are three key brands, do you think they still cut hair for a living?
To answer the question posed at the start of the last paragraph, photographers too can own a business. Yervant can go on a world speaking tour in the knowledge his business is in the safe hands of his staff photographers and management team. Now, I hear you say It’s alright for Yervant because he has a world recognised brand. Well, when I started on my photography journey I came across a wonderful photographer and entrepreneur, Francis Dumbleton. She had a high street studio in Cambridge and a team of staff shooting, selling and running the shop. One of the staff she took on, Mark Ashworth is now a fantastic photographer at the top of the profession in his own right. The lesson I learned from Francis is that it is possible to have your name above the door of your studio in the UK while taking long holidays at your second home in the sun. And yes, her name is still above the door.
The trouble with the entrepreneur route to the loot is it can often do away with the photography process altogether. That’s where the creative photographers, (and chefs and hairdressers for that matter) have to put a bit back. They can really make a difference, steering their industry, developing new products, new styles, and inspiring, mentoring and motivating the next generation of talent in the process.
If you want to learn how to develop a photography business that you actually own, Our Evolve programme could be just what you need. It’s far more than just a string of seminars and workshops. It will change your life forever.