5 Years Later: Lessons I’ve Learned in the First 5 Years of My Career with Jeff Rojas
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In July 2012, I was handed a pink slip. It was the company’s gift for exceeding my sales goals that year. It wasn’t their fault. I was a regional sales manager for a company that relied on government funding; when their primary source of funding vanished, so did my job. That was the day I decided to become a full-time photographer.
Before I became a photographer, I had worked in various industries. When I first moved to New York City, I worked as an account manager for a data recovery company, where I was laid off 87 days into my 90-day period. I worked as an executive assistant at a bank when the housing market collapsed. I contracted as an executive assistant at a private equity company that canceled the contract after two years without explanation. All of this happened within a couple of years. Needless to say, it got old quickly.
I meet plenty of photographers who were born with a camera in their hands. I wasn’t one of those people. I didn’t pick up my first camera until the age of 22. Even then, I didn’t see how anyone could make a living as an artist. The two most creative people in my childhood had full-time jobs to support their creativity. My mom, who’s an amazing home decorator, is a human resources manager. My uncle, her brother, is a union electrician who can draw hyper-realistic images.
They’re the children of immigrant parents. They were taught to follow in the footsteps of their parents: find a 9-to-5 job, collect a paycheck, go home. Rinse and repeat. It’s been that way for generations. That mindset is about playing it safe. It didn’t work for me, so I decided to try something new.
I’m happy to say that 2017 marks five years since I’ve received a W-2. While there are many other photographers who can say they’ve been shooting for decades, I can say I was able to build a business when everyone was doing it for free. On top of that, I didn’t have the years of referrals, portfolio and experience to do so. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not discounting tenure.
I admire those photographers who’ve paved the way, but for every person who had something positive to say, there were two dozen others who said the same old phrase: Things aren’t what they used to be.
That’s not my problem. I say that with the utmost respect. As with any business, the photography market changes. If you’re on the winning side of it changing, you’re happy. If not, you’re pissed. If you weren’t ready for change and failed, it’s not the industry’s fault—it’s yours.
Let’s say 20 years from now, every car manufacturer is making electric cars. Do you blame the automotive industry for the one mechanic who didn’t adapt to the market and had to close shop? It’s not the industry’s fault; he didn’t do his homework. The market doesn’t wait for you. You need to chase the market. I want to provide both aspiring photographers and struggling professionals with the real-world lessons I’ve learned the past five years.
Don’t Expect Anyone to Support You. Just Do It.
As an educator in the photography community, I receive an email at least once a week with the same story: “My family doesn’t support my photography. What should I do?” Simple: Prove them wrong and stop looking for validation.
Friends and family want you to be successful. They don’t want to see you fail at your dreams, so they urge you to take the safe route. There is no safe route anymore. The market has changed. We hear about people getting laid off from their 20-plus-year job every single day. Don’t theorize how you’ll be successful. Prove to them that you can make a living while you’re doing it.
Productivity Is the Ability to Produce
If you’re not producing something, you’re not productive. As a businessperson, if you’re not producing, you’re failing by the second. Spending two hours debating about gear on Facebook isn’t making you any money unless you’re selling your gear. The same goes for watching cat videos, memes, cooking videos. Stop wasting time.
There are 168 hours in a week. If you’re spending 20 hours of that on social media and it hasn’t made you any money, your priorities are off. Time is money. The more time you’re spending on unproductive activities, the more opportunities you’re missing. It’s the very definition of opportunity cost. Figure out how you’re spending your time, and restructure accordingly.
Learn Something New Every Day
I have started reading a new book every couple of days, and I’ve learned so much in such a short time. Find books with a tangible guide to running your business. One of my favorites is How to Set-Up Your Business for Under $1000 by Dan Fleyshman and Branden Hampton. The book guides you through step by step, and does not spend time trying to sell mentoring sessions or other products.
If you’re strapped for cash, no worries. Itunes U has free audio recordings from classes at some of the most prestigious universities in the country. There are so many invaluable free resources available online.
Set Obtainable Goals and Stick With Them
At one of the first workshops I attended when I picked up my first camera, I followed the instructor around like a puppy. After the class, I asked how he was able to turn his love of photography into a career. He admitted that he hadn’t. His full-time job afforded him the luxury of new gear and the ability to be creative. In his words: “It’s impossible.”
Well, it’s not impossible, it’s just really hard. When you’re starting out, every day is like a kick in the head, and you must be willing to stand up the next day and wait for the next kick to the head. This continues to happen until finally, one day, you stand up and there’s no kick. That, my friends, is what it’s like starting a business.
Few will talk openly about it. Running a business is one of the most stressful jobs in the world. You’re in charge of marketing, sales, operations, finance—and then to top it off, you must be the visionary. It’s a lot of effort just to avoid a 40-hours-per-week job. Are you willing to make that commitment?
Earlier, I mentioned the importance of being productive, but productivity without purpose is like running without a direction: You’re going to get lost. I keep a to-do list with me filled with goals and objectives. I know what I want. I break those large items into small pieces and then I know that accomplishing those smaller objectives allows me to commit to a larger purpose.
Think about it like writing a book. Writing 45,000 to 80,000 words may sound intimidating, but if you break that book down into smaller sections, it sounds more manageable. The length of this article is around 1,400 words. If I wrote 30 of these articles or expanded on each element at length, I’d have a great baseline for a book.
Every big goal sounds intimidating until you break it down into smaller pieces. This goes back to my earlier point: If you’re too intimidated to start, then you’re not being productive.
Be Conscious of Your Shortcomings
I cannot manage life without a list of things to do. I know that. It’s the reason I keep a to-do list. It’s the reason I set reminders and alarms on my calendar. If it’s not on my list, it’s not getting done.
When you’re conscious of your shortcomings, you need to create systems to improve them. If you’re terrible at cold-calling, don’t avoid cold-calling. Spend more time doing it until you feel more comfortable. If that intimidates you, create a call script to read from. Have a system in place that you won’t deviate from. Record your calls and learn from listening to them. This is the reason call centers record your conversation—“for quality assurance purposes.”
Don’t hide your shortcomings. Embrace and learn from them.