Building Blocks: The First Steps to Building Your Business

Building Your Business

Building Blocks: The First Steps to Building Your Business with Skip Cohen

Want more information on this article? Get access to video content and additional supporting images. Launch the June issue of the magazine by logging in or signing up for a free account by clicking here. Shutter Magazine is the industry’s leading professional photography magazine.

I want to apply this month’s theme of children to your business. Whether you’re a new artist just starting out or a veteran jump-starting an established business by adding a new service/specialty, you’ve got to grow your brand and skillset one step at a time. Babies learn to crawl before they can walk, and business works in a similar way.

Many of you are still in maternity mode, building confidence and your skills before giving birth to that new “baby.” For this month’s article, let’s assume you’ve built a strong enough skillset and confidence level to give birth. The new business is out there, but the challenge is knowing what to do next.

Just like setting up the baby’s room, you’ve got to set up your business.

  • So many new artists get hung up on thinking they need a studio or office. The truth is, you’ve chosen a career path that can take you anyplace you want to go. While having a studio is always the ultimate dream, you don’t need it to get started. Establish your business through great images, a good-looking website and an active blog to build readership/followers. You cash flow is limited, so plan to spend your money wisely.

One idea I heard recently from an attendee at ShutterFest was sharing a studio. She’s been sharing a studio with three other photographers. She focused on building up her business first, and is now ready to go solo with her own location.

  • Let’s talk about your URL. I believe in using your name to establish brand recognition. I know it’s not always possible, but you want people to easily remember you and be able find you on the Internet. Stay away from clever or not-so-clever names that describe your business. If you can work your name into your cyber address, you’ll make it easier for clients to recall.
  • Your website is about what you sell, and a blog is about what’s in your heart. You need both. Remember, women make 98 percent of decisions to hire a photographer in the portrait/social categories, so share content that’s of interest to Mom.
  • In your galleries, show only your very best images. Every image should be the only image you’d need to get hired.
  • Get yourself a business checking account, business cards, stationery, etc.
  • There are two professionals you need in your network even though you might not need their help immediately: an attorney and an accountant. After all, you wouldn’t have a new baby without a pediatrician.
  • Pricing is one of the biggest reasons so many artists spend their life eating macaroni and cheese. As Sal Cincotta once said, nothing can screw up your business more than bad pricing.
  • Pay attention to all your costs.
  • Look at your competitors’ pricing from the perspective of giving your clients more, not charging less.
  • Offer a range of products/services, including albums, prints, canvas wraps and slideshows. Stuck on what to offer? Talk with your lab.
  • Build your pricing structure in packages. It’s fine to have à la carte prices, but make sure they’re high enough so clients always move toward a set of products.

Let’s talk about brand awareness. You’ve got the “baby’s room” ready to go. Now it’s time to make a spectacular birth announcement. This is the start of your marketing program. Unlike with a birth announcement, you can’t just do one thing.

  • I’m a big fan of direct mail and an oversize postcard to get through the noise your target audience deals with every day. Also consider a partner or two. Partners can be other businesses with the same consumer target or other photographers with complementary skillsets.
  • Get involved in your community. People like buying products from people they perceive as giving back. Don’t be a taker. Take part in fund-raising efforts for nonprofits. Be active in the school system. Use your blog to talk about upcoming and past community events.
  • Own your zip code. Start pounding the pavement and introduce yourself to every business within a 2- to 3-mile radius of your base. Don’t get hung up on your specialty if it’s unrelated to their business. A wedding photographer could walk into a real estate office and make this introduction: “My main business is wedding photography, but I’m active in the professional photography community. I’m happy to help you with any photographic needs you might have at any time.”
  • Use your blog to build relevant content that ties into things going on in the community. Announcements about fund-raisers not only show your involvement but help spread the word for organizers.
  • Cross-promote with other vendors. Set up a program with a florist for something special when they refer a client your way, and vice versa.
  • Create third-party relationships. Design a gift certificate for a discount or free sitting, and give it to a Realtor. Each time the Realtor sells a home, that certificate goes in the welcome basket for the new homeowner. You’re offering something special without undermining your pricing structure since the gift is from the agent to the client. For more on this idea, visit Bryan Caporicci’s blog,, and search for “Doug Box.”
  • Do an open house. You don’t have to have a studio to do an open house or a gallery opening. Just pick a location conducive to entertaining, like a hotel lobby or restaurant. Design it like a wine and cheese party at a small gallery opening.
  • Build relationships with local opinion leaders, including publishers, writers and editors of newspapers and magazines.

Whether you’re a one-person business or you have a small staff, you need a customer service department. It’s about the new baby in the house who’s going to start crawling soon. Customer service is the equivalent of keeping an eye on the toddler, capping electrical sockets and protecting the child from other household dangers.

Here are a few customer service essentials.

  • Be accessible. If you’re working out of your home, I understand why you might not want to give an address, but give people a phone number, URL and email address.
  • Respond quickly. When you’re contacted by a client, it means they’re interested in more information. Stay away from “Comcast syndrome.” Don’t make them wait for a response.
  • Handle problems quickly and never hide from an upset client. Set the tone with your very first words: “I understand you’re not happy. How can I help?”
  • If you’re going to have a few concrete policies, share them in your final meeting before a contract is signed or a sitting is scheduled. Just don’t word your policies so harshly that they’d scare away an IRS auditor.

The first five years of a child’s life are the most important to brain development. Similarly, the first six months of your new business or jumpstart are critical.

Along the way, you’ve got opportunities to grow your business, and, as the “baby” grows, so should your skillset. You’re in a field where you can never stop learning, whether it’s expanding your technique or learning new technology.

Jerry Ghionis once said that the way we start in business is backward. We should all start out as second shooters and grow our skillset as artists. Then, after a couple of years, we’re ready to focus on everything it takes to run a business. Instead, we get our gear, start learning and shooting, and try to figure out how to do business.

Pay attention to that new baby of yours. When there’s a challenge, in the same way you’d take a child to the doctor, seek professional help for your business. There are lots of us out here willing to help. New babies and businesses don’t take off right after delivery.

Take your time. Build your skillset. Build your relationships. Don’t rush success, and stay humble and kind.

Want more information on this article? Get access to video content and additional supporting images. Launch the June issue of the magazine by logging in or signing up for a free account by clicking here. Shutter Magazine is the industry’s leading professional photography magazine.

Get the full story

To read the full article, launch the digital version of the June 2017 magazine.

You might also like:

Leave a Reply

Want more content like this?

Check out our recent posts

on camera direct flash tutorial thumbnail

On Camera Direct Flash Tutorial

Have you tried using on-camera flash for your studio portraits? As a professional photographer, I’ve always been taught to take the flash off camera to create more directional light. In this video of on camera direct flash tutorial for lighting, I will show you how to work quickly and easily using on-camera flash to create some very unique and interesting portraits.

Read More »
5 easy poses for boudoir photography thumbnail

5 Easy Poses for Boudoir Photography

Posing for boudoir photography is always a challenge. In this video, I will show you some easy tips to posing your clients. Not every client is a model – so we need to find an easy set of poses to get them started. Once they get comfortable in front of the camera, you can then work on more advanced poses and lighting techniques to build on for the images you create.

Read More »