Do you own your business ~ or does it own you?

Mar 26, 2009 | Business | 10 comments

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.

Taken with the Pentax 10 - 17mm zoom fish eye lens.

I took this shot with the wonderful Pentax 10-17mm zoom fish eye lens last week in Manchester. Once you are a photographer, it's in your blood and your passion to shoot pictures will always be with you, even on the way home from the pub.

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.

Another 11pm picture taken with the camera resting on a wall.

Another 11pm picture taken with the Pentax K200D camera resting on a wall.

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.

The sky was black to the naked eye but with a 30 second exposure the Pentax sucked in loads of detail.

The sky was black to the naked eye but with a 30 second exposure the Pentax sucked in loads of detail.

To show you just how good this little camera and lens combination is here is a 100% crop of the picture above.

To show you just how good this little camera and lens combination is here is a 100% crop of the picture above.

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?

This picture was taken with the Canon 15mm fish eye lens on the new 5D mk2 camera.

This picture was taken with the Canon 15mm fish eye lens on the new 5D mk2 camera. I don't normally do bendy pictures but from time to time I revisit this lens in particular.

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.



  1. Michael McGrath

    Creating a niche – like shooting Medium Format film B&W portraiture , at weddings , in studio , on location , the executive at the desk , that is the only way to do business now for a Pro Photographer up against the Digital Army parachuiting down all around us from the trees …God help therm , they are making nothing but fools of themselves !

    I like the idea, though , Damien , for me to become an entrepeneur at 63 , to end up the Richest Man in the Graveyard .

    • damien

      Hi Michael,

      Entrepreneurship is not all about the money, it’s about the freedom knowing that your life can be fulfilling without the need to do the daily grind just to meet the bills. I asses ones riches in terms of happiness rather than bank balance.

      Cheers, Damien.

  2. Kevin Jones

    Hi Damien,
    A very interesting article, and indeed true, regarding the hard work required to start and progress a successful business.
    Further to meeting you on the 1 to 1 tutition at my studio, and again at yours for 1 to 1 with Marko, I have taken a totally fresh look at my business. Starting from a blank sheet, I have now redone the studio, changed my marketing to reflect the new style I have developed after your nudge in the right direction. I have changed the way I deal with my customers, and the rewards are starting to come in, each sitting now generates three times the value of the old systems, I am now attracting a better lne of clientele, which in turn creates more leads to equally lucrative clients. I have started using Kaliedoscope as may main supplier for presentation options. All the changes rolled together have taken my business upmarket, and despite the so called “Credit Crunch” I have increased my turnover compared to last year, even though I have had fewer customers through the door.
    The workflow shown to me by Marko, means I spend less time in front of the computer, and more time with my family. So thanks for putting on the right track and I will keep you informed of the progress, the money spent on you was in investment well spent.



  3. Paul – Portrait & Wedding Photographer

    Damien, a really refreshing article that says it exactly as it is. I went full time at the end of last year and the business side does seem to be more time consuming than the creative side.

    With the recent surge in part time and full time wedding and portrait photographers on the scene, a great product is THE thing that will set you apart from the competition.

    So far the only outsourcing I do is album assembly to South West Photo Mounts, but in doing so I can spend another day or so marketing or shooting.

  4. damien

    Hi Pat,

    As I mentioned to Kevin in my comment above, it will be your product that drives the marketing. Here is a simple guide to success…

    1. Develop a great product.
    2. Set a price that represents value to your potential clients and delivers a good profit margin to you.
    3. Put your product in front of as many potential clients as you need in order to generate the required number of leads.
    4. Convert those leads into sales.
    5. Deliver the goods and exceed your customers expectations at every stage.
    6. Repeat the process making sure you always deliver the wow factor.
    7. Become an entrepreneur and follow your master plan using the law of attraction.
    8. Retire.

    Sounds easy doesn’t it. No1 is probably the hardest step.


  5. damien


    The ‘overtaking their lives’ bit is the hardest to manage when resources are limited and business growth is needed. It isn’t going to be a doddle but it will be a fun journey if you have leadership and a direction. The one obvious key to success is a unique and fabulous product. The better your product the easier it will be to find customers.

  6. damien

    Thanks for your kind words Chris. With any new business there is going to be a period of extreme effort. There is a light at the end of the tunnel if you look for it.

  7. Pat

    A very intriguing article Damien especially as I have just taken the plunge to go full time on a leavers package. However marketing to find the jobs needed to pay the bills does seem to be the main thrust of what needs to be done now. And if you can’t afford for someone else to do it you have to do it yourself.

    So I am very interested in how one can own the business without it overtaking their lives while they’re establishing a name for themselves…

  8. Kevin Mullins

    A great article Damien. I’m just starting out in the photography world but have been running my “other” business for eleven years now. I’ve not employed people, simply because I don’t want the complexities that go with it, but I have contracted out my work that clients have asked me to do to others – and yes, it is very effective and gives you a break. The key thing, in my mind, is being able to break past the “money” thought. Using other people costs money, but we all know you need to speculate to accumulate.

  9. Chris

    One of your best articles yet…………the ability to describe just how many of us are feeling, but with the comfort of knowledge that what you have achieved is achievable for all of us. And your last paragraph is oh so true.


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