Building a Business That Supports Your Dreams: Part 2 with Phillip Blume
It’s probably the best definition of entrepreneur I’ve ever read. The meme is a hilarious yet insightful commentary about those of us crazy enough to pursue our dreams as business owners: “Entrepreneurs—the only people in the world who will work 80 hours a week to avoid working 40 hours a week.”
Does that describe you as a photographer and business owner? For some of us, with travel and the stress we bear 24/7, even an 80-hour workweek sounds like a vacation. If so, you don’t need me to condemn you as a workaholic. I’ve been there. I’ve felt the wave of guilt after tuning out my young children’s pleading voices just so I could push through another evening of editing and emails.
The absurdity of it all takes me back to the biblical verse that says “we stand condemned already”—we stand in real danger of sacrificing so much for success, we might not realize we’ve sacrificed everything and everyone who was worth succeeding for. It’s what I call “Scrooge’s fate,” and if you read biographies, you’ll hear the sad refrain again and again in the last words of lonely millionaires. Looking back over their lives, they realize they condemned themselves to one big, lavish, filthy-rich failure.
I don’t wish that kind of soul-destroying failure on you or anyone, and especially not on myself. No. It’s time for redemption.
In last month’s issue (Part I of this series), I described how my wife, Eileen, and I built a business that supports our dreams and values. Rather than consume us, Blume Photography now breathes life into us. It allows us priceless time with our family, provided for the adoption of our third child, supports our personal projects and gives us time and resources to do pro-bono work attacking poverty here and overseas.
How did we arrive here? We began our photography business with one camera and low expectations, in a small city that boasted America’s highest poverty rate. Now our mom-and-pop studio is a fast-growing, award-winning business with the world as our market. Were we just lucky? Did we have all the right connections, timing and resources at our disposal to make success easy? Clearly not.
As we discussed last month, it all comes down to replacing your pipe dreams with a defined vision. This is the “it” factor that the most successful individuals and companies have in common. Vision with a capital “V” is what guides your many business decisions in one strategic direction and connects you deeply to clients.
This month, I detail three practical and time-saving changes we made to our studio’s workflow that finally allowed us to focus on vision, and that help us pursue our dreams every day.
Let’s just get this topic out of the way, shall we? For some reason, as Eileen and I travel this country teaching photographers, we get more pushback on this simple idea than anything else—especially when it comes to outsourcing image editing. But it’s really just a classic case of needing to admit you have a problem before you can fix it.
Every business book I’ve read says the first rule of business growth is to focus your personal energy only on what you specialized in. Outsource the rest. You’re just one person!
If you think you specialize in everything, you’re wrong; you are mediocre at everything, and you now need to focus your energy on becoming great at something. That one thing we should focus on and excel at is, you guessed it, photography. This doesn’t mean you have to become the world’s best photographer. In fact, artistic ability will take you only so far. The key is to collaborate with people who are more efficient in every other area where your business has a need.
We began by outsourcing our image edits to Evolve Edits. As a control freak and perfectionist, I empathize with photographers who have a hard time relinquishing control. After all, editing is part of your brand, right? Well, kinda. We need to keep in mind that basic exposure correction and color balance are not artistic—they are objective “fixes” to our in-camera errors that anyone can do, yet they consume enormous amounts of time. Because of the number of weddings and portraits we shoot, Evolve’s Premier plan was unbeatable, and their consistency and speed surpasses ours. But even if you use an in-house intern, don’t color balance another photo yourself—ever!
Whether you want to grow a studio or increase your income as a one-man band, start by outsourcing little things. Anything someone will do for minimum wage, let them do it. Your time is worth more. Outsource your website design. Hire a pro to design your logo. Heck, hire a house cleaning crew and lawn service. Not coming from money, I confess I felt lazy letting someone else clean our house at first. But remember, it’s not extravagant if the net result is more income. It’s a good business investment.
- In-Person Sales
Artwork sales was another area we steered clear of in the early years of Blume Photography, to our own detriment. Those were lean years, barely making ends meet. Still, we didn’t consider in-person sales as an option. We aren’t natural salespeople, we didn’t have a place to do sales meetings and we were totally against what we saw as pressuring clients.
Our point of view finally changed when we were invited by former clients to celebrate their first anniversary with them. It was a huge honor, especially since we knew them only in a professional context. We brought them a gift, a simple 12×18 print from their wedding.
We were caught off guard when they reacted emotionally to it. They had received digital wedding images from us, but they never got around to printing a single one. None of our couples had. We realized our couples were gaining nothing of lasting value out of all our hard work. And even if they could have produced quality artwork themselves, it still would’ve cost them while gaining us nothing.
We decided that every wedding package we offered would include a wedding book for our couples, something their children would value as much as they. We implemented in-person photo viewings at our then decrepit little house in a bad neighborhood, mainly to help couples design their wedding books and guarantee they received them promptly.
Those meetings changed our lives. Pricing and packaging is a complex topic for another time, but suffice it to say: When you show quality samples and give your clients the simple opportunity to invest in something that is valuable to them, they will. We didn’t have to pressure anyone or use any of the tactics we loathed, such as overdesigning wedding books to sell extra pages or withholding digital versions of images until minimums are met. Those methods leave a bad taste in clients’ mouths. Instead, by using positive reinforcement (special art packages the day of an ordering appointment), our weddings quickly rose from an average $2,800 booking to sometimes $10,000 after orders.
To this day, we use only Lightroom (no additional specialized software) to show images. And for destination couples who can’t visit our studio, we use ShootProof galleries and meet clients online via Skype. We find the basic human connection, rather than emailing them a sterile link to a gallery, allows us to average online artwork sales nearly as high as in-person. No excuses! You can do this in your home (even if it’s as small and dirty as ours was) or at a comfortable coffee shop—now. The additional hours you spend are well worth the new hourly rate you’ll receive. Almost 70 percent of our current income results from artwork sales alone.
A crucial change you can make to your business today is automation. Photographers sometimes go years (until hitting rock bottom) working around the clock on emails and social media updates. All of us are trying to drum up more business. Then, once we finally get an inquiry, we go into overdrive trying to keep them interested. The game becomes quite disorganized very quickly.
Email is the best place to begin automating, because it’s the biggest time sucker. Are you replying to business emails the way you’d respond to a personal letter, typing out a new and unique response each time? Talk about inefficient! Yet this is so commonplace. Every time you write a client, save the text of your reply in a document and give it a name. For example, the first email text you save might be called “Wedding Inquiry.” Now simply copy and paste this reply, along with all its links and attachments, to every person who inquires about your weddings. Maybe add one personal sentence to connect with them. Sounds basic, right?
But it gets more complicated. What about the client who responds by haggling over price, or would prefer to schedule a consultation for a different place, or wonders about military discounts? And what should you say if you don’t hear back from a couple you really connected with during the consultation? If they book, how do you thank them, schedule their engagement shoot, collect payments, and gather all the details for their wedding day?
Eileen and I have spent eight years creating, saving and tweaking emails that communicate exactly what we want clients to know, exactly when we want them to know it; other photographers even use our templates. Equally important, we found studio management software with which we can build workflows to send these emails at the right time. And not just emails, but also contact forms that automatically enter new clients into our system, interactive questionnaires we can study before an event and more. If our wedding business couldn’t occasionally run on autopilot, we would never have the time to speak at conferences, travel overseas or just kick back and relax.
There are many systems out there. We tried half a dozen before we found one that worked well. Transferring our data from one failed system to another was a lot of work. We feel extremely fortunate that the systems available now are far superior. We recommend photographers research and test-drive ShootQ and 17Hats to find which works best for them. These are the most robust and intuitive systems we’ve found. Or, if you’d like to start smaller, even ShootProof (traditionally for online photo galleries) now integrates clients, contracts and email templates. Amazing stuff.
The best time to get automated is now. Don’t say you’re too busy. Sure, studio management software takes time to set up. But it will transform your current chaos into controlled peace of mind. There is absolutely nothing better than knowing you are up to date on everything. If you’re like me, even time off isn’t relaxing when you have unmet deadlines and unhappy clients crowding your mind.
In the video below, we look at one final change that helped our business take flight: delegation.