Building Blocks: So, You’re Ready to Go Full-Time with Skip Cohen
I heard a great line a few years back about knowing when you’re ready to be a full-time photographer: “You’re not ready to go full time until you can’t afford not to!”
In other words, you’ve worked hard building your business, and there’s a revenue stream. You’re building a reputation. There’s demand for your images, and you’re making money. The time to go full time is when you’re losing money by staying part time.
There’s a lot to think about when making the decision to be a full-time professional photographer. Let’s first define some of the key ingredients in making that decision a slam dunk. While the topic might seem to be for artists just starting out, I’m betting there are plenty of seasoned veterans who could use a little fine-tuning in their business.
How’s Your Skill Set?
Years ago I got into scuba diving. Diving is relatively easy, requiring very little skill except being comfortable in the water. It’s not a requirement to even know how to swim. In fact, I have a friend whose wife can’t swim, but she’s an outstanding diver. What you learn when you get certified for diving is focused on what to do when something goes wrong.
There’s an analogy here to becoming a professional photographer. Do you understand how to deal with the challenges that come your way? This isn’t just about what to do when a piece of gear crashes, but understanding the results you get from different lenses, lighting and posing. Do you listen to your clients? When a client suddenly wants a more formal portrait, do you know how to pose and light your subjects? Are you creating images that tug at people’s heartstrings, or just images that anybody’s Uncle Harry could capture?
What Kind of Relationships Have You Built?
Being a successful full-time photographer is heavily driven by relationships, and not just with other photographers, vendors or manufacturers—but also your clients and the community.
A few years ago, I did a podcast with Angela Carson as my guest. She’s an outstanding family portrait artist in the Detroit area. Angela talked about knowing how many of her clients are repeat business. It was around 70 percent each year, but they don’t come back to her by accident. She’s built relationships with all of them. She tracks birthdays, anniversaries and special events in their lives. She keeps in touch with them all year long. She knows exactly how many sessions she needs to book each year to build her business.
Next comes the importance of being involved in your community. Are you involved? Have you worked to build brand awareness and a reputation as someone who gives back?
You want the community to be good to you, so you have to be good to your community. With or without a camera in your hands, you need to be perceived as somebody who cares about the people around you. Be active in community events.
I’ve written about Scott Stratten’s books before, and here he is again. Pick up either of his two books. The subtitle of UnMarketing says it all: Stop Marketing. Start Engaging. It’s an outstanding read and a great reminder that your strongest marketing tool is building relationships.
It’s Not Who You Know, but Who Knows You
Do people know you’re in business? Whether part time or full time, you’ve got to keep reminding people you’re there to help them with all their photographic needs. I’m always amazed by people who decide to go full time without letting anybody know they’re open for business. They hang out their shingle, and when nobody comes through the door, they’re shocked.
This is where relationships, press releases, an effective blog and community involvement all come into play.
You wouldn’t attempt to drive across the county without a game plan. So why would you launch a business without a timeline of events announcing your venture?
- Your blog is a key ingredient. Before going full time, post consistently, at least twice a week. The content of your posts needs to be helpful to your readers. When you announce your change to full-time status, you want people to already know you for your expertise.
- Send a press release to your local paper. Don’t forget opinion leaders in your network, past clients and anybody in your email database.
- Take a serious look at all your relationships with vendors in the community and past clients. A personalized hand-signed letter to all of them is a great way to make an announcement.
Hold an Open House
If you work out of your home, you can do an open house at a restaurant, hotel or coffee shop. The point is to create an environment much like a gallery opening, with wine, cheese and a sample of your images on display. Sending out a formal invitation, whether the recipient comes or not, plants the seed that you’re creating something big in photography and your community.
Own Your Zip Code
It’s the oldest technique in business: Start pounding the pavement and knocking on doors. It’s time to introduce yourself to every business within a 2- to 5-mile radius. This is about meeting people, and it doesn’t matter what your specialty is.
If you’re a children’s photographer and you’re walking into a real estate office, your intro is going to be something like, “My specialty is children’s photography, but I have a great background and just want you to know I’m here to help you with any of your photographic needs. And if I can’t help you directly, I’ve got a great network of people who can help.”
That’s all you need to do. Leave a business card, shake their hand and thank them for their time. All you want to do is make sure they know you’re there.
This couldn’t be an easier concept. Invite everybody who has something in common with your target audience to lunch.
If you’re a wedding photographer and you want to get to know the players in the bridal game, invite a few caterers, venue managers, florists, tux shops, bridal salons, travel agents, wedding planners, limo companies and entertainment managers to a networking luncheon.
All you need is an inexpensive place for lunch, ideally with a private room. Everyone pays for their own lunch. Work out a package in advance with the restaurant. The purpose is to meet each other and talk about the wedding business.
Introductory Promotional Offers
I’m a big fan of special limited-time promotions when launching a new product or business. This is where a call to your lab is perfect. You’re looking for a premium product that has value for your clients without going over the top and killing your profit margin.
Keep the window of participation relatively short. If it’s too long, there’s no sense of urgency to take advantage of the special offer. Again, this starts with a call to your lab for any new products.
I’m lumping everything together: traditional print advertising, direct mail, email blasts, guest blogs and even podcasts. You need a little of everything because you want to essentially show up in multiple places your target audience visits, including what they read and their mailbox.
With traditional print advertising, leverage what you’re spending with the ad rep you’re talking to. In other words, you’re willing to consider print advertising as well as online ads, if they offer them, but you also want editorial support for your launch, ideally a profile story.
The decision to go from a part-time to a full-time photographer is one of the most important decisions you’ll make in your career. Don’t make it a DIY project. Bring in a few people at the core of your network. Talk with an attorney and your accountant. Make sure you have everything needed to launch before you pull the plug on whatever you were doing previously.
I’ve often heard stories from photographers who had a tougher time than they needed to because they just weren’t ready for the plunge. Consider what you need to make a living, especially cash flow, and then take the appropriate steps to build your business.