Let’s talk to the elephant in the room: There is probably 1,200 billion pieces of content about running a business. I’ve read maybe half of it myself, and there is some amazing information available, but let’s make it our goal to create the top mistakes to avoid when deciding to go from hobbyist to pro.
At the outset, let’s admit that this kind of list can and should be modified according to individual circumstances and the state of the market. The following are what I consider to be the most common mistakes for new photographers embarking on a business that is most likely to undermine their efforts before it has a chance to mature. Some of these elements will appear to be common sense and others will run counter to what is considered best practice. Ultimately, you want to know what not to do rather than what you think you should do based on the example of others. It’s easy to see when someone is successful and trying to reverse the process, but what you never see are the mistakes or lessons learned that almost sank the ship while still in port. Let’s dig.
1. Remove the burden of profit
I coach photographers who are new to the business, and they usually worry about getting clients as early as possible, which is understandable, but what I’m telling them is to focus on learning instead. on the commercial side. There are so many hats to wear at one time that the last thing you want to worry about is trying to make a living on something you don’t even know how to do yet.
If you can stay employed elsewhere while learning how to handle things as a solo-taker and before needing to make any money, then you greatly increase the odds of success. Most start running specials and deals in the first few months, believing this to be the way to attract customers to build a reputation, but it’s a race to the bottom strategy. Think of it like this: if you are using thousands of dollars in equipment while charging $ 99 for your job, how are you ever going to keep those costs high and come close to a living wage?
The goal is to always deliver value, and there is no value in lowering the rates you charge for your work. In the Win the Without Pitching manifesto, Blair Enns talks about the need to provide the highest level of service to customers. To do this, you need to charge enough to not only make money, but also provide funds to realize the creative vision. So you have to afford higher fees for doing great work and making money at the same time. One should not be exclusive of the other.
Avoiding the need for profit also means you have time to think long term about what kind of work you want to offer and what kind of client. The goal is to think long term rather than trying to quit your salary before you have a viable and functioning business model. This doesn’t mean that you have to wait until there is a line of customers at your doorstep, but at least have a process to acquire them at a high price before giving up your financial lifeline.
2. Treat your GAS
No, not your gas, you disgusting human. We’re talking about Gear Acquisition Syndrome, the need to buy things you don’t need. That alone can kill a new business, as the industry has exploded with trinkets from all over the world over the past 10 years. Not only are camera makers making a new case on average every 12 months, but small gamers have started making new gadgets for you as well. Now you can buy pre-made v-flats, strobes that fit in the palm of your hand, and custom-made leather camera straps with your name embossed. There’s also the explosive market for fakes to make what was once only available to elite studios insanely cheap for everyone. See the new range of para-softboxes as an example.
You don’t need it.
What is required is a light source, a location and a subject. Start with the minimal components to create your art and only add something that you will at least use every other shoot. If it stays on the shelf for six months, you need to get rid of it unless you can charge very high fees to justify infrequent use. Think of it like this: When you buy something that isn’t needed to grow your business, imagine it as a pile of money on a shelf that you can’t spend. It is the equity in your business that is not being used.
It will vary depending on your work, but almost universally, you don’t need a rented space to create your art. Portraits, portraits and even the boudoir can be shot in the smallest of spaces with good lighting. Fashion, commercial work, and automotive can all be shot outdoors or in a rented studio. The difference is, you are spending the cost to the customer rather than a long term commitment. Architecture and real estate are obvious.
The goal, at first, isn’t to take on the overhead because, as stated in number one, you want to focus on creating amazing work with what you have rather than assuming you don’t. can not without buying something first. It’s the biggest marketing lie ever.
4. The long game
This goes hand in hand with the first three points because the point is to imagine where you want to go before moving on to more advanced tasks. For example, start running ads before you’ve built a solid portfolio and website to showcase those images. You have to pay the bills and keep the lights on, but that’s what the daytime job is for until you can switch to photography to supplement your income.
To approach it from the opposite side, asking for money before your art is ready can be incredibly frustrating and demoralizing. Just because someone offers to give you money doesn’t mean they’ll be happy with the results.
Until you are so successful in a row that you can’t remember the last unhappy customer, you have some work to do. Consistency in your work is what people pay for. Yes, they probably like the look they see in your other images, but what they want is to trust you to make them look like your other work, regardless of the challenges. A professional is professional at all times, not just when it suits them and everything is working as needed.
5. Avoid instruction clutter (including this one)
There are thousands of tutorials, presets, photo groups, styles, LUTs and more available online. I think it’s safe to say that there is no end to the amount of interwebs instruction for photographers. The obvious advantage is the ease of access and the democratization of knowledge. Where once things were kept as government secrets, now you can see how someone sheds light on a topic in real time.
The negative effect is that there is no filter for the information. This means, first and foremost, that the bar at the entrance is non-existent. Anyone and everyone can offer information regardless of their level of experience, and that’s not a good thing. A common practice now is to earn some sort of sequel by regurgitating what someone else has already presented. Just repackage by changing the look and adding personality, and voila, new content.
If used wisely and with humility, it can work very well, but when was the last time you heard the words “internet” and “wise” in the same sentence? One way to avoid overstimulation and distractions is to be hyper-vigilant about what you are watching and what you intend to do with it. Is it something that fits your business model? Does that give you some insight into how to compose your look? Or does it make you insecure and undermine your self-confidence? Be aware of your consumption intention and the motives of the creator.
6. Accept the lack of creativity
If you haven’t heard Ira Glass’s monologue on Lack of Creativity, stop now and look this. What you imagine yourself doing and what you are capable of creating right now are very far apart. Closing the gap takes time and countless failures. This is the easiest and best advice for new artists in any discipline. Be patient with your growth and do a lot of shitty work. Again, you are playing the long game; short-term fixes rarely have any benefit down the road. This is just how it works.
7. Avoid the four letter word
Finally, but still very important, is not to get into debt. I can’t stress this enough, as it’s statistically one of the biggest new business killers in the United States. This passion and desire to get started is intoxicating, but left unchecked can lead you to buy without planning. Again, to take photos you need a camera, a subject, and light. One of them costs money, but the other two can be found roaming the wilderness, just waiting for you to come and freeze the moment.
By tying back to the top three again, you don’t need the latest gear or whatever your icon is using to create these amazing magazine covers. The best part here is that your dedication to your craft will guide you when it’s time to invest in new equipment. It will become evident as you progress in your knowledge and skills that what you use is no longer able to keep pace, and therefore, your ability predicts your purchases rather than the latest version of the product.
As always, this is presented with the knowledge that I am still learning but that anyone can benefit from the knowledge gained through experience.
Do you have something to add ? Drop it in the comments and always be nice to each other.