Looking back at our teenage years it’s so easy to say, “Yes, plucking my eyebrows into non-existence was a bad idea”, or, “skipping school to hang-out with that boy who would end up being a real jerk was a really bad idea,” or, “driving my friend’s car before I had my license was a really, really bad idea.” Starting a business is alot like going through your teens. While you’re in the middle of it, everything you do seems okay in the moment. But when you look back later, you realize that you had a lot of bad ideas and made a lot of big mistakes. But just like our undeveloped teenage brains, we did the best we could with our undeveloped business sense.
It’s common in our industry for photographers to start their businesses bit-by-bit, rather than doing all of the planning BEFORE they open for business. They’ll start with a camera, a lens and some friends willing to pay. Then maybe they’ll add some fun props, and then they might think about charging a little more, and then they will hopefully realize they should have insurance, and maybe they’ll even learn about “cost of goods” and start selling products! But there often isn’t a plan in place or a good grasp on how to be successful, make a profit, and have the kind of business they want for themselves and their family. Without a plan they often make a lot of mistakes.
In looking back at my own mistakes and some of the mistakes I see my students and other photographers around me making, I’ve created a list to help you avoid some of the common mistakes new photographers make:
Focusing on Shooting Skills at the Expense of Business Skills
This one is HUGE. I see far too many photographers who spend all of their time (which is often limited) learning how to shoot better. Of course that is important. I think you should take pride in your craft and do your best to improve and become truly great at what you do. BUT, to be completely frank, your skill level at the craft doesn’t really matter when it comes to running a full-time photography business. I know a few photographers who do very well, but their work is barely adequate, and I know A LOT of photographers whose work is AMAZING but they can’t seem make a living with photography.
What sets successful photographers apart is their Business skills, things like having a business plan, creating systems that help you work efficiently, understanding how to build a brand with visuals and messaging, understanding who your target client is and what they want, and providing great customer service. I truly wish I had spent more time on these things in my first year of business. It would have saved me time and money and helped me to grow so much more quickly than I did.
Study how to create a stable successful business first, and once you know how to run your business, then you can focus on your shooting skills.
Investing in the Wrong Things
I have at times been guilty of this one, you want the prettiest new thing that you think will make you and your business look great, but in reality will do very little for you. I see photographers wasting their money on things like photoshop actions, gear they don’t need, beautiful props (I’m looking at you newborn photographers – do you really need that extra basket?) backdrops, and business cards they don’t use. But while all of these are fun, none of them are necessary.
What you should be spending your money on is essentials like insurance and an accountant, systems that save you time and stay organized like studio management software (I love ShootQ), and EDUCATION, especially Business Education. Save your money for books, online classes, and the occasional in-person workshops that will help you learn how to profitably run the business you want to have. Once you’ve got that figured, out feel free to buy as many gold sequined backdrops as you like!
Here is your new test before you make a purchase: Can I afford this and do I NEED this, will it make me money or help me reach a business goal? If the answer is “YES!” go for it, if its a “no” you gotta skip it and save for the important stuff.
Not Investing Back into Your Business
This is the flip-side of the last mistake, and is just as common. So many photographers are treating their businesses like a hobby, and taking all of their profit right out of the business without putting anything back in. You’ve heard the phrase, “It takes money to make money,” this absolutely the truth in the early years of business. If you are following the purchasing decision test I described above, then the investments you are making will be worth spending your money on, because they will bring you back even more money
Not Charging Enough
Your low prices are hurting you, not helping you. Inexperienced photographers often try to undercut their “competition” by charging less. They think that by being the most inexpensive photographer, they will get the most business. But in reality they are doing 3-4 times as much work as they would be doing if they priced themselves appropriately. In most cases they are making less than minimum wage.
Now, I know many of you would argue that you are too new, your work isn’t good enough. But if you really believe your work isn’t good enough, should you be selling it at all? The truth is, there are so many photographers out there whose work is good (even if they don’t realize it) or even great, who are charging very little. And I’m sure they all would argue that they are profitable, but if they were actually attempting to earn a living and be truly profitable they would have to be bringing in the same high-volume as a chain like Picture People. To do that you need a team and the systems in place to handle it, and the marketing to bring the clients in. I would guess that 99% of these cheap photographers don’t.
I hate to see photographers giving their time and images away for next to nothing. To be profitable you need to know your numbers. Understand the true cost of the service you are providing, both in actual cost of goods and the hours you spend. Your time and your talent are valuable, charge like you understand that.
Not Running Your Business Legally
For some photographers it comes from not doing your research, and some know exactly what they are doing. In either cases, there are huge risks of not being a legal business, from fines for not having a business license or DBA, to tax audits with fines and payment of back-taxes, and most importantly loosing everything you own to a client who sues.
If your business is not protected legally, you are opening yourself up to a world of trouble. Please check with your city, county and state to determine what licenses you must have for your business, talk to an accountant about the best way to protect your assets if you get sued, accurately report your earnings and pay your taxes, and please get insurance!