Innovate or Die


Innovate or Die with Sal Cincotta

This has been my battle cry since my early days on Creative Live. Innovate or die—sounds sexy, but what does it really mean? Before we dive in, I need you to do some soul-searching here. Are you the type of person who just bitches about everything? Do your friends see you as a positive person? Or would they describe you as a bit of a pessimist? I know this is going to be tough for you to be honest about, but it’s crucial to your success—not only in business, but in life.

I find that people who just like to bitch and complain tend to blame the world for all their issues. It’s never your fault. It’s always someone or something else that is impacting your ability to succeed. Basically, what I am telling you is to get your head out of your ass and stop blaming the world for your failures. I was trying to do it in a very new-age, self-awareness way, but here is the reality: if this is you, you are too busy being pissed off at me for calling you out on it. So, I figured I’d just cut to the chase for you.

Here is the thing. The businesses that succeed are the ones that understand they must keep innovating or they will just fizzle out. Our industry is a perfect example of this. Look around at the companies and photographers in front of you today. There is a very high probability that half of them will be gone in 5 years. I can remember 13 years ago, when I started as a professional photographer. Of the companies and educators that were dominating forces then, many are now gone. Why? Where did they go? What happened? I ask this in a very serious and curious way. Why? Because I don’t want to make the mistakes that others have made and suffer the same fate. I want to learn from their mistakes. History is a very powerful thing if used correctly. History is also a very terminal thing if ignored.

So, where does that leave us? Right back where we started. Innovate or die. Here is some insight into what that really means and what it will require you to do.

Stop living in denial

This is step one. If you think that everyone else is the problem and that is why you are failing, why you are not where you want to be in life or with your business, then you, my friend, are in denial. For many of our readers, we live in a free world and free market. You, and you alone, control your destiny. No one else. If you are failing, it’s probably because your inflated ego doesn’t allow you to acknowledge that you are not doing the things necessary in order to succeed.

I have seen this time and time again. A photographer who once dominated a local market suddenly finds that the competition is handing them their ass. Instead of changing or altering course, they are so set in their ways that they refuse to see what’s happening right in front of them. The market is shifting. There are competitors serving a niche that they are not, and they are losing their customers, both old and new. So what do they do? Do they innovate? Update their business? Change their tactics? Nope. They blame the new photographers. They blame the consumers. They blame the camera companies. And they live in denial until the very last stand, when they have to close up their shop. Instead of looking inward and updating their business model, they choose to look outward and blame the world.

If you are not where you want to be, do something about it. Control your destiny.

Look for new opportunity

After 13 years of doing this, I have seen my fair share of trends and opportunities come and go. Through it all, I am always looking for new ways to expand my business and fend off competitors. The easiest way to keep your career moving forward is to look for needs that are not currently being serviced in the industry. Look at your competitors—what are they doing right, and what are they doing wrong? What are consumers asking for? What are they complaining about? Fill that gap! That is the way to keep your business moving forward at all times.

Looking for new opportunities is one guaranteed way to ensure that your business is always looking forward. This is one of the main ways we have continued to grow our company. We spend very little time looking in the rear-view mirror. Sure, we are aware of our history and the things that have gone right and wrong, but we are always looking forward. That is key to any successful operation.

Is there a new product you can offer? Or are you still just offering prints and canvas? While these are great staple products, there are tons of innovative products in the marketplace like metals, acrylics, fine-art prints, high-end albums and more. You can offer these new and exciting products to your customers and get them excited to do business with you. The number-one product we continuously invest in? Albums. This, to me, is the best way to stand out from the crowd.

Listen to your customers

Customers vote with their money. Make no mistake. Stop convincing yourself that everything is ok because one client told you one time that they loved something. The same can be said in reverse—don’t abandon your plans because one client told you they hated something. I try to live my life and run my business according to the 80/20 rule. And most of the time, if we are being honest, it’s the 95/5 rule. I am not going to alter my course of action on anything because one or two people don’t see it the way I do. Listen to the majority of people, not the minority. Listen to the people who are spending real money. Listen to people whose opinions you actually trust. Do you know what I mean here? We all have friends and family who are very opinionated. They know everything about everything, and yet their own lives are a shitshow. Do you know anyone like this? Yeah? Don’t listen to them.

Closely related to this is watching trends. What is happening in the marketplace? Go to trade shows, learn from leading educators, and watch the products that companies are offering. The key here is to change your mindset. This means, instead of walking in and saying, “My clients won’t go for that,” find a way to highlight the product so your clients will go for it.

Change your photography

Whoa. I am sure heads are turning right now. “Change my photography???” Yep. Guys, I got news for you. What was cool in 1980 is not cool today. What was cool in 2000 is not cool today. Trends and tastes change and evolve. I see it in my own body of work. I have changed my style multiple times over my career. Sometimes for the worse, but I can at least laugh about it today. Regardless, It is very important that you continuously look for ways to evolve as an artist. It will give you a fresh perspective on your craft as a whole, and that’s a great thing for sure.

Musicians, actors, writers—all re-invent themselves at some point in their careers. Why would visual artists like photographers be any different? We have to keep learning and growing, and part of that is altering our view of the world through the lens. While this can be painful at times, I can truly say I have enjoyed the reinvention process over the years.

What does that look like? Well, every year, I mark off two to four weeks of time for myself. No clients. Just working on me and my portfolio. This does a few things. First, it allows me to slow down and think about what I want to learn and practice. For example, several years ago, I wanted to get better at lighting and off-camera flash. So, I worked on it for three weeks straight. Every shoot, whether it needed it or not, I found a way to use flash. My skills grew ten-fold. They grew more than they ever could have if I was working with paying clients. All that pressure was removed. I was able to slow down, and most importantly, I was able to take the time to make corrections in the field. This proved priceless in helping me grow as an artist. If you think you are above improvement or that it doesn’t matter to your clients, you are wrong. That will be the beginning of the end for you.

Invest in your business

New camera? Gotta have it! New widget? Yep, I need it. Marketing, business plan, vendor relationships? Whoa. That takes work. I’m too busy for that. Sound familiar? Well, we are right back to making excuses. Here is the reality of running a successful studio. You will spend more time on marketing, networking, sales calls, etc. than you will shooting. Any successful studio owner will acknowledge this. I spend 90 percent or more of my time on business-related tasks and 5-10 percent of my time shooting. I get it—you got into photography because you love making pretty pictures. While that is all fine and dandy, the reality is that in order to keep making pretty pictures, we need to invest in the business to ensure we have clients that will pay us for the 10 percent we get to shoot. You can’t have one without the other.

Most photographers don’t like hearing this. Usually, it’s the ones who are failing in their business. This, by the way, is the most ironic part of this whole thing. You are failing, yet you think you know better. See the utter stupidity in this?

If you are failing or struggling or just not where you want to be, it might be time for you to take a fresh look at your business and ask yourself the tough questions. The simplest is: Why? Why are we failing? Why are we not where we want to be? And if any of those answers start or end with it being someone else, your client, another photographer, the market, etc., you are so off-course there may be no help for you. You are destined to a life of becoming a troll and blaming the world for all that is wrong and bitter in your life. However, I can promise you this: If you take a step back and look inward, you will find the answers. They might hurt and involve some tough love, but you will be looking at actionable items you can control. That’s the difference here. Blaming others takes your power away from you. Looking inward, while painful in the short term, will allow you to control your future. You and you alone will be responsible for your successes and your failures. I like those odds.

Ultimately, remember this: We are not entitled to success. We are entitled to the pursuit of success. Don’t waste that opportunity. It’s an amazing gift we all have. Make the most of it.

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To read the full article, launch the digital version of the October 2019 magazine.

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