Building Something Bigger Than You with Sal Cincotta
As photographers/creatives, we have a habit of thinking very small. We see the world through our cameras. This is a great strategy when the world we live in is about creating art, but it’s a horrible strategy when we are trying to create, run and sustain a successful business.
This month, I talk about something you may not be thinking about. The thought of building something that is bigger than us is rarely something most creatives think about. They are thinking about their next job. This shortsighted vision will cripple you in the long term. While you are an artist and a creative, you are also an entrepreneur. If you want to survive—and the odds are already stacked against you, with 70 percent of most businesses failing in the first 10 years—you need to start thinking about building something bigger than you, something that will stand the test of time.
Ask yourself this simple question.
The first thing you need to do is ask yourself a simple yet perplexing question: Why? Why do you do what you do? Why did you choose the profession you are in? It might be for the love of art. It might be a hobby turned career. It might be something you just fell into. It could also be, worst-case scenario, just something you are doing to make money.
Keep in mind that we could be talking about photography or that desk job of yours. Why? Why are you doing what you are doing? I left a very comfortable career at Microsoft, complete with stock options, incredible benefits, great work-life balance (okay, that’s a complete lie), etc. You get the gist. I left all this. Why? To pursue my dreams, to do what I love. That’s it.
Notice there is nothing very complicated in my answer. I am not doing this for the money. I am not doing this for any of a plethora of other reasons. It was very simple: Life is too short not to do what you love every single day. Now, let’s not get all crazy here. I am not suggesting we don’t need money, or that I am not motivated by the spoils of money. That’s a side effect of all the hard work. More on that below.
So, the challenge for you is to figure out why. The answer to this will be the driving force behind everything you do. When things get tough, this will keep you going. When everyone around you thinks you are batshit crazy for chasing your dreams, this will be your resolve.
We have to stop this very nasty habit we have as creatives. Stop apologizing for wanting to make money for your services. It’s okay. I give you permission to want to make money. Anyone making you feel bad about that, cut them from your life and business. They are cancer. We live in a world of commerce. Everything costs money. This nonsense about “money can’t buy you happiness” is bullshit spoken by people with no money. Money may not buy you happiness, but it can sure numb the pain. The bottom line is we all have crap we have to deal with in life. Trivializing the fruit of your labor is a copout for most people who don’t like being challenged.
Here is what I want you to do. I want you to challenge yourself to be the best. Be the best at whatever you do. You don’t have to be an entrepreneur. Be the best dishwasher. Be the best toilet scrubber. Be the best at whatever you do. Being the best is always thought of in some glamourous way. We watch the Olympics and see the success of a Michael Phelps and glamorize him. He isn’t apologizing for making money. He isn’t apologizing for getting $10 million a year for being on the cover of a Wheaties box. He works his ass off. That’s the dirty part. That’s the part no one sees.
You too bust your ass to be successful. Stop apologizing or feeling ashamed of what you charge. Charge what you are worth. Our studio is by far one of the most expensive in our area. I have had people tell me point blank, “Wow, you are very expensive.” Yes, yes I am. I am okay with that. I also think we are one of the best. I work hard at my craft. I continuously study, invest in equipment, practice, etc.
With success comes more money. Is it my “why”? No, but it sure is a nice side effect.
The number of businesspeople these days who are just straight-up pansies is incredible. You don’t deserve success. You are not guaranteed success. You are not entitled to success. We all have an opportunity to chase success. It’s what makes this country great. I love when I see photographers get upset because a client chose someone else to shoot their family pictures or wedding. They straight-up get offended. What’s even more laughable is they take to the photography groups and bitch about it.
Hey, dumbass, you know why they selected someone else? Just quite possibly because you suck. There, I said it. Someone had to. It’s not me, it’s you. Accept it. You, somehow, some way, made it easy for them to select someone else. You, and no one else. More than likely you stopped being competitive somewhere along the line. We are in business. Wake up!
Something else to keep in mind, which is true of any corporate job too, is when you miss out on that raise or promotion. Why? Did you make it impossible for them to ignore you? Or was it someone else’s fault you missed out on it? Be kickass at your job, and the results speak for themselves.
You want to be a successful photographer? Then put your big boy pants on and let’s get to it. Welcome to one of the most competitive fields on the planet. Your competition is literally everywhere. Every person with a camera or a phone now thinks they can do what we do. I say, good for them. How about this for an analogy: Just because you went to Sports Authority after watching the NBA Playoffs doesn’t make you the next competitor to LeBron James. You know why? Because he is a fierce competitor. He is going to school you. He is practicing longer and harder than you. He wants it more than you do. Let me guess, you took a picture of your niece at the playground, and so now you are a “family photographer”?
You want this? You want a career as a professional photographer? Then you need to eat, breathe, sleep photography. Learn about flash. Learn about the behaviors of light. Become an expert at posing different body types. Read. Read everything. Practice. Shoot something every day. Not for you? Then sit down and stop wondering why you are getting your ass handed to you week in and week out or why your business is struggling. The answers should be obvious.
Stop thinking like a sole operator.
We artists are guilty of thinking about the here and now in a very singular way. Have you ever thought about the future? Do you want to be doing this at 70? Sure, perhaps as a beloved pastime, but do you want to have to do it? I don’t think any of us do. If you are not thinking about it or planning for it now, then the future will be here before you know it.
Every day I am thinking about how I can build something that is bigger than me. I think about how I can build a team that will grow with me and support our new initiatives. This doesn’t happen by accident. This happens through thought and planning. Something else to consider is that this isn’t a simple plan to put in place. You’re going to plan, fail, reevaluate, reexecute, fail, try again, rinse, repeat. Welcome to being an entrepreneur. In fact, I think I love the ups and downs of being an entrepreneur. It’s a never-ending cycle of problem solving to see what works and what doesn’t. I love being an entrepreneur, and I would never return to corporate America.
If you want to build something bigger than you, stop thinking like an isolationist and start thinking like a person looking to build a team and a business model that is both sustainable and future proof. Shooting into your sixties and seventies is not a sustainable business model.
Just one final little piece of advice to any aspiring entrepreneurs: Be ready to make major sacrifices in the short term for any long-term rewards. If it were easy, everyone would do it. It’s not easy. It’s hard. Very hard. Lots of sacrifices. Sure, I would love to have a lazy Sunday. Sounds amazing. The reality is, in order for that to happen long term, I have to make some sacrifices in the short term. And by short term, I don’t mean a few weeks or months. It’s going to take years to get this where I want it to be.
All too often, people glamorize what being an entrepreneur is all about. It’s fun, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not easy. Lots of hard work and tons of risk go into it. Be sure you are ready for the adventure, and surround yourself with like-minded people. Without those people, the journey will be a much more difficult one.
What is your exit strategy?
This sounds crazy to even think about. “Sal, you want me to think about selling my business?” Yes, I do. Even if you never sell it, thinking about what that exit strategy might be will force you to think about the big picture and to stop running your business like a mom-and-pop shop. Ninety percent or more of you probably don’t have a business plan. Your financials are a mess, with personal and business mixed together, your aren’t incorporated, you aren’t following GAAP (if you don’t know what that is, there is another issue altogether) and you don’t have a Plan B if something were to happen to you. How will your business survive?
Being a photographer and an entrepreneur is without a doubt one of the most rewarding jobs or careers I could have ever asked for. I love what I do. I love it every single day. For all the ups and downs, I just can’t get enough of it. All that being said, there will come a day I can’t hustle the way I do every day. I will need to either exit the business by selling it or ensure the business can operate without me being 100 percent involved. I have to build a team around me. I have to think about this now. Many of you are so engrossed in the now, you forget to think about the future.
I hope this lights a fire under you, and gets you to see the work that goes into building something great. We each have our own definition of success. No one’s definition is right or wrong. It’s your definition to have and hold, but don’t forget that it all starts with one simple question: Why?
Get out there and kick some ass.