Million dollar questions are for gameshows | Brand value and your business

Recently I’ve been thinking about photography holistically – things like, how does my job contribute to society in general, and what’s my business most valuable asset in the eyes of my clients? That seems like a reasonably easy question to answer, but at the root it is far more complicated than taking beautiful pictures or capturing memories. And as I was tackling those large scale questions, I came to a quiet realization that it isn’t the big questions that need answering – it’s more the thousands of tiny questions that contribute to the big ones. These are the small decisions you make hundreds of times a day that you don’t even realize you’re making. Branding is all about addressing those implicit questions to connect with your audience in a more meaningful way than just stating the facts. When people say things like “You have to define your audience.” What they’re really saying is that you need to communicate what you do, who it’s for, who it isn’t for, what they do with it, why they want it, and how they can get it in the span of as few words as possible. That isn’t really a single question to be answered – who, what, and where are fairly straightforward, but the why has so many more implications attached.  Why does someone hire a photographer? To celebrate a life event? To announce a change in lifestyle, circumstances, or location? To feel good about themselves? To preserve memories of a growing and changing family? To represent themselves and their career to the public? Because they enjoy their surroundings at a certain time of year? To mark a milestone? And many more reasons.

When we look at why people invest in creative services we understand where the value lies – and value is largely dictated by culture. So that being said, when you look at ‘market’ you really aren’t connecting with what creates value for your business – the people who connect with you on a fundamental value level.

Ok, so if that’s true, then there isn’t a single question to answer that will have customers knocking down your door, there are many, many simple everyday decisions that you can answer that will help your clients fully understand your value – things like, what’s hanging in your living room right now – is it a 5 year old family photo of your kids as toddlers? How much do you love your linked in profile photo – does it really represent you in your best light? These are not tangible concepts, and have to be demonstrated both intuitively and repeatedly in order for the ongoing success of your business. Value is not a set once and forget it kind of thing – it’s a process of show and tell.

 

 

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I may never be Instagram famous; and other things my mother forgot to tell me.

 

Today I had an awesome coffee date with a fellow photographer. I try to do personal meetings and errands on Mondays so that I’m not stuck at home on the first day of the week. I find that if I feel a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction on Monday, it sets the tone for the rest of the week, and one of the major things that gets my satisfaction levels up is getting together with other creatives. We chatted about lots of things, from IPS and marketing, to personal care and photography software, but one of the major themes that came up in one way or another was metrics of success; no doubt, photographers of all skill levels struggle with measuring all the ways in which we judge our own success, and it’s a great topic to discuss with someone who operates in your area and specialization, since you share the same market anthropology. That got me thinking about how I measure my own success, right now, today. I have already hit my fiscal target for 2017, but there are so many more factors to think about than pure numbers.

Are my clients returning to me?
What percentage of leads actually book me for services?
Where are my clients coming from?
What is my average profit per session, and which type of session is most profitable?
How happy are my clients with the quality of my products and services?
Am I happy with the quality of my products and services?

That’s a lot to think about at once. And notice I didn’t even mention social media, because I’ve been quietly failing to launch on that front for a long, long time. To be honest, I don’t think I’ll ever be Instagram famous, so it’s fortunate that that’s not high on my priority list. I wouldn’t mind the clientele it would bring in, though.

I’ll end this post with a thought from my upbringing, since I did mention my mother in the title. One thing she couldn’t tolerate from her children was ignorance. As a kid, when I messed up royally (thankfully this happened very few times), I often resorted to crying, “But I didn’t know!” in order to absolve myself from the responsibility of my actions. My mother, being the most infuriatingly correct person I’ve ever met, would give me a hand putting the pieces back together (literally, or figuratively), look me in the eye, and say, “Well now you do.”

My point is this: We all have the information we need to succeed, or a way to get it.

So go get it!

What if nobody cares?

I recently had a conversation with a friend of mine who is also in a creative profession, who wanted to start a blog and asked for me help. She asked me, “What’s the best way to get traffic to my blog?” Believe me, I’m not an expert in web analytics or SEO, but I do okay for myself, so I started out with basics, and we chatted a little about all of the things involved in growing and maintaining your online audience. After discussing all of the work that would go into this pet project that she wanted to take off she said,

“But there’s always the possibility that no one will care.”

To be perfectly honest, there is a greater chance for an online business to fail than succeed. There is so much content out there. So much competition. So much noise, and advertising, and mass marketing, and I could go on…

But the important thing for us to realize is this: If you believe in it, you can put into words why this thing that you do is important (aka your mission statement – if you don’t have one, you need to write one ASAP, at the very least for yourself), and you have the motivation to keep pursuing it despite adversity, then it is worth doing. It is worth doing, because anyone who thought “Wouldn’t it be cool, if…” made something that they and other people now take for granted.

Necessity may have been the mother of invention in a pre-digital world, but today enjoyment is.

To put this back into a practical space, if you’re a photographer looking for more clients, and you think to yourself, “Wouldn’t it be cool if…I could do family portraits on a mountaintop.” or, “Wouldn’t it be cool if…I livestreamed my senior sessions.” or, “Wouldn’t it be cool if…I throw a party for all of my clients from last year.” Whatever it may be that interests you and speaks to your audience – show them who you are, give them the experience that only you can give, and support your goals through the content that you put out there! Because the one thing I know for sure is that no one will ever care if they never got a chance to.

Why all of my dresses have pockets

It is no secret to anyone who knows me personally that I am not strong in the organizational department. It takes all of my ‘organization units’ to keep my business organized for my clients, and everything else falls where it may (including my laundry, literally). Some people would tell you that’s a typical personality trait of a creative person, but I tend to disagree. As much as I would love to flatter myself and buy into the ‘chaotic creative genius’ stereotype, the truth is that organization is a skill like any other, and one that can be learned and improved upon with a little hard work and effort.

I’ve been organizing my closet for a couple of weeks now, bit by bit, in between editing and social media and blogging and all the other good stuff we do at our computers, particularly the ‘work clothing’ section. I shoot weddings as well as families and business portraits, so I have a range of clothing, from maxi dresses to pant suits, that needs to be both comfortable and look great for me to blend in at the event or location that I’m working. Therefore, all of my dresses have pockets.

This is not because I love pockets. In fact, I kind of hate pockets. I do not want to wear anything on my body that I don’t absolutely have to, including accessories, but pockets are super handy to put lens caps, lens wipes, business cards, kleenex in etc. This is not an ode to pockets, but moreso an ode to practical women’s clothing. I think in 2017 designers finally figured out that women need to work and look good at the same time – what a concept! So, thank you Banana Republic and many others, for acknowledging that a blazer is not necessarily a great choice in 99 degree weather, and putting hidden pockets in your summer dresses. Good on you!

So, here’s my best tip for you unorganized creatives – if you don’t feel organized enough in one area of your life, find the tools that help you by design. Whether you have to buy, make, or simply use the tools you already have but don’t, let your system take care of keeping you accountable for the things you lack. Case in point…only buy dresses with pockets.

Doing things you don’t want to do, but have to because you’re a small business owner

DIY is a popular trend these past few years, isn’t it? I know when I say DIY, visions of burlap table runners and mason jars immediately come to mind, but that’s not quite what I’m talking about. I’m talking about small business DIY, which means roughly that in addition to your job as photographer, you are also a studio manager, graphic designer, accountant, media manager, public relations manager, sales consultant, legal advisor, and many more things that have very little to do with photography itself. Now, some small business owners prefer to refer these tasks to their specialists, and some small business owners dream of the time in their careers when they can afford to make that a reality, and some other small business owners will never allow a third party in because they prefer to have total control over how their business runs and all the tasks that come with that. I’m not advocating for any of these approaches above another, but what I can say for sure is that there are always things to be done that you really don’t WANT to do.

For example, I really don’t want to send reminder emails for clients with overdue balances. I mean, I don’t want to have clients with overdue balances, but that’s not up to me, so therefore I have to send emails about overdue balances (well really, my super awesome client system Tave sends them automatically, but I still don’t like monitoring them)! I also don’t want to mop my floors or fold laundry, but here we are.

I recently listened to a podcast about time efficiency, and one of the most interesting points was made by the guest – his take home point for me was this – you don’t have to want to do something to do something. I mean, we all knew that, didn’t we? Yep. But here’s the kicker – there’s this cultural assertion that if you’re self employed then you must really enjoy everything about your profession, because that’s why you work for yourself and not someone else, right? It’s contradicting the unspoken opinion that if you don’t like what you have to do to achieve your goals, then you must be in the wrong field.

There is so much language and messaging around ‘finding your passion’ and ‘following your bliss’ and ‘doing what you love’. Self employed, work from home, side hustling women in business have the destructive habit of idealizing their career for their public image – I am ALL for keeping the difficulty out of your expression when you’re helping your clients have an enjoyable experience, but let’s be real – some parts of the job are downright BORING or tedious or just NOT your thing.

Anyway, the lead got a little buried, but what I am trying to say is – if your tasks are challenging you, and your work is enjoyable, you feel inspired about your craft and your industry – hang on to those moments and let them carry you through the mundane tasks, the technical details, and the things you hate doing with a passion. Or…just hire an accountant already 😉

Sowing Seeds for later – thoughts on client interactions and more.

I don’t know about you, but relocating my business has got to be the one biggest advantages that I unknowingly gave myself, albeit not by choice. When we picked up and moved to another country (one where I didn’t have the ability to work right away, but that’s another story), I had 2 options: cry about losing my client base, my network, my SEO that I had worked so hard on etc. etc. , or open my eyes to this new opportunity. I watched, listened, observed, and waited. What was the market like? Who could I reach out to? Who was I inspired by locally? What were the best business practices being used in this market? Who was thriving, and who wasn’t? Why?

It’s amazing how much you see when you aren’t directly involved. Not to mention, instead of fixating on your business goals, you start to pick out themes – concerns and worries of your clients and friends, self image issues, what makes people desire or complain about luxury expenses like trips and photo sessions. Building that cultural perspective back into your client experience changed the way I do business. I am constantly asking myself what my clients want (as people and as photo subjects), instead of thinking about what I want to shoot, and why I want to shoot it. Of course I’m not saying you should go away from what you want to do by taking on a style or genre of photography that just doesn’t suit you, because that never works out well either – but knowing what your clients are looking for out of their experience and keeping that the primary goal makes a world of difference to maintaining your positive brand image (and your client base!) in the long run.

This is not new. But just because you did it once when you were setting up your website and your marketing tools doesn’t mean you’re done. Are you keeping your past clients engaged in your current business? If you aren’t, what are some ways you can create that value for them so you are the first business that comes to mind when they think X Photography?

Busyness = Business?

Spoiler alert: You might have already guess that the answer is no. Busyness is not the same thing as Business, especially when it comes to running a small one, maybe even a sole proprietorship or a single member LLC. Even more so when you don’t contract out your administrative tasks, accounting, marketing, or other tasks that a specialist might take care of, the to-do lists can seem never ending and at times quite daunting. When one person carries all of the responsibilities of the business, there might not even be time to think about why all of this busy work is actually not as productive as it is perceived to be. After all, if there is work to be done, then things are going well, right?

While it’s true that more work usually means more income, this doesn’t take into account the efficiency of the business or the profitability of individual products and services that the business offers. Take for example a photography business that offers both weddings and portraits – a wedding is a higher dollar figure booking, but comes with a higher cost of acquisition, greater overhead, and more time investment, whereas a portrait session brings in less dollars in revenue, but has relatively less overhead and less time investment after the fact. If you were to calculate and factor in the cost of acquisition and the time cost of these two types of bookings, your pricing structure might look extremely disparate (well, at least mine does!) Finding and correcting inefficiencies in your pricing structure is a way to make your business more financially efficient.

Why mentoring matters – what you can learn at every stage of your photography career

What comes to mind when you think of mentoring? Probably someone at the beginning of their career, or perhaps a new or struggling business owner. Like a new baby, a new business requires a lot of time and attention, more assistance in the transition from one stage to another, and access to the help of a more experienced business person can greatly impact the success and growth of a business in the midst of rapid growth and change. As your business gains momentum, seeking the help of a mentor may drop in priority compared with the more exciting and time consuming tasks you experience as a result of your increased demand. And lastly, as an established photographer, mentorship may seem completely unnecessary if you remain satisfied with your clientele and workload. But if we take an objective view of how mentoring, and being mentored affects the photography industry as a whole, some impactful ideas about supporting our profession emerge.

Here’s a quick breakdown of how mentorship affects the stages of the photography business:

New Photographers:

  • Gain information about best practices and industry standards (I once had a photographer tell me “There are no industry standards in photography” which couldn’t be further from the truth! Educate yourself at every opportunity.)
  • Avoid making financial and client management mistakes as a result of inexperience
  • Learn professional techniques and processes in a non-critical environment

Growing Photography Businesses:

  • Make peer and industry connections that expand their professional networks
  • Gain insight into their specific professional strengths and weaknesses and recognize opportunities to improve their business practices
  • Solidify and validate key aspects of their style and brand

Established Photographers:

  • Leverage their experience to influence new and growing photography businesses
  • Ensure the future success of the industry by supporting and improving best practices and relaying education to new and growing photography businesses
  • Maintain relevance by incorporating the new and innovative concepts and technologies of emerging businesses

Okay, so let’s put these big picture ideas into practice. Where and how do you go about finding yourself a mentor, or when should you take on someone to mentor?

If you are looking for a mentor to assist and support you:

  • First define your business goals – who can help you reach those goals? Do you need a business coach, or are you looking for a technical specialist?
  • Create a budget – write a concrete financial plan including how much are you willing to spend to gain the knowledge that will allow your business to return profit from that investment.
    • If not monetary, what kind of value can you offer to your mentor in return?
  • Be clear with your expectations – do you want this to be a short term, long term, ongoing, or open-ended relationship?

Why you should be mentoring other photographers:

  • Creating a more deeply engaged community of professionals strengthens the public perception of the profession as a whole
  • Engaging with new talent who recognize and value their own potential re-energizes stagnant business models
  • Open dialogue and information sharing lessens the spread of misinformation and undercutting.

What are some other benefits of mentorship that you have experienced?