It is easy to be excited and overjoyed at the growth of your business. The story rings true over and over: Business is booming, the phone is ringing, shoots being scheduled, sales made. But you just aren’t a businessperson. You didn’t realize the chaos that growth would have on your business. Do not panic. Learn from other people’s mistakes and make adjustments before it is too late.
Having a rock solid process for every aspect of your business does not come overnight. For us at Evolve, process is something that has been developed, trashed, redeveloped, tweaked and ultimately beaten until it has the most efficiency rung out of it. Process is there to help keep you from being overwhelmed when the wheels are coming off. Believe it or not, just because you don’t have a book that outlines step by step how to do different tasks in your business, you already likely have process in place. Process for storing image files. Process for responding to inquiries. Process for putting appointments and notes on a calendar. Process for booking jobs and signing contracts. Process for completing client orders and albums.
The list could go on forever, but identifying these areas is step 1. Wringing efficiency out of them is step 2. This can be difficult if you do not like change, but it’s integral to growing your business. Look at each area of what you are doing and ask yourself if there is a better way to do it. What used to make sense when you weren’t as busy might not work anymore. For example, when someone emails and asks if you are available on a specific date, do you respond with, “Yup, I’m available, let’s meet,” or do you have a carefully calculated response that covers the next logical questions they will ask? By just tweaking this small process, you can save yourself from having to respond to a handful of emails, or better, save yourself the time of having a meeting with someone who is never going to be your client.
Without a doubt, I will have dissenters on this topic, but I’ll shout this loud and clear: Work-life balance is a myth when you are the owner of a growing small business. There are too many businesses out there struggling to get from point A to point B, but you want to talk about balancing your personal life? Sorry, friends, you are living in La-La Land. Ride the wave of success you are finding, and ride it now. The opportunity might not be there tomorrow. Set the target and get laser focused. The latter can be difficult when outside influences (husband/wife, children, friends, etc.) are pulling you and creating chaos for you on a personal level because your business has become front and center.
Look for the little things you can do to alleviate issues caused by the monster that is consuming your life—things like coffee dates, an hour at dinner not constantly checking email, creative ways to spend time with loved ones. Just do not lose sight of the fact that you have been given a wave to ride when the odds are overwhelmingly against every small business.
How many jobs did you do last year? What is the percentage of inquiries versus meetings versus bookings? Do you know these numbers? Or do you work from what you “think” they are? When your business is growing, it can become easy to operate off of a gut instinct of what you think is right. However, digging into these numbers—and, more importantly, understanding what they mean—can give you insight you might not realize.
Could removing a certain product from your middle package increase your profit? In many conversations I’ve had with studios, one area they struggle with is in realizing that sometimes there is more profit in their smaller packages because of the cost of goods of what they’ve built into their bigger packages. Another area to look at might be what happens to overall profit if you can increase your portrait sales average by 10 percent. What if you increased all your wedding packages by $500?
What metrics do you track currently? Can you track other useful areas of your business? You will be surprised by the outcome when you really start digging into these numbers. It is also a good way to see how you spend your time. Are you spending 80 percent of your time on something that generates 20 percent of your profit?
While I believe to my core that outsourcing your post-production is one of the best areas in which to start scaling your business, I won’t bore you with an elevator pitch. I hope that if your business is exploding, you already outsource. My concern is that the Business 101 term opportunity cost may not be even remotely on your radar.
Opportunity cost should be part of your general thought process. The vast majority of photographers are one-man shows, and it doesn’t make sense to hire full-time staff that you need to pay 40-plus hours per week, 52 weeks a year. But you can’t do it all yourself, can you? A few years back, outsourcing was a dirty word that implied shipping jobs to India or China. I remember reading a forum thread that made fun of the movement toward outsourcing aspects of your business. But you likely already outsource aspects that you don’t realize. Do you print your own prints? You likely outsource them to a lab. Do you do your own accounting? You likely have an accountant.
Looking at areas where you can outsource doesn’t stop at just the business. How much would it cost to have a yard service cut your grass at your home to save you a few hours per week? Getting back that time would likely be worth it to your business (and maybe your sanity). This is just one area. Look internally at what you do in a given day, week, and month. If you value your time, I suspect you will find many areas where you can regain some of your time.
Last but not least is the biggest problem for a growing small business: growth. It might sound funny, but a business that is growing will find that its biggest nemesis is itself. I’ve touched on different ways to mitigate and ease the pain of growing, but uncontrolled growth is mentally and physically taxing—and expensive. Look to local business organizations, networking, banking partnerships and education.
Whenever it feels like the walls are closing in because of growth, we have a conversation about how to prioritize tasks (when everything is a priority). Most of the time, it goes back to the time-tested “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” Take the time to look for areas of inefficiency, and figure out whether or not you have the time to spend on them.
In working with hundreds of growing studios around the world, I’ve found that sometimes the smallest solution can be the most enlightening—removing the smallest task can be the most beneficial. Almost every photographer starts as a photographer first, businessperson a distant second. Getting better at business has to be on par with any goal to improve your photography.
Just remember, there is no glamour in being a starving artist, and the best photographers in the world will fail if they are horrible at the art of business.