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latte with sugar - thinking about your business5 Big 'mistakes' when setting up a photography business

Opinion Piece - Why running your own photography business means what it says

Keith often gets asked for advice from people looking to become a professional photographer - their own 'startup' business.

This short article from our collection of 'Photography business articles' is aimed more at those who've tried working for someone else and through choice or circumstance are looking to set up their own photography business.

In the past, Keith has run several businesses and worked for others, often in fairly senior roles. In dealing with small businesses, he's seen numerous mistakes repeated at various scales, that have all limited the survival of new companies and startups in the professional photography field.

Here are five key mistakes that he feels we're -all- too prone to making in small businesses.

The views expressed here are Keith's personal ones...

On your own?

Some time ago I wrote an article covering some of my thoughts about becoming a professional photographer.

It covers things like pricing, training and whether joining a pro photography club (or ‘professional association’ as some prefer to be called) is of real use to you and your business.

networkingArticle - Turning Pro in photography

I’ve been looking at some more of the wider business aspects of becoming a working photographer, and it came as no surprise to find common factors that an awful lot of people setting up their own business don’t always think through in enough detail.

If you have been working for someone else, then it’s a very big leap to set up your own business – there is so much more to consider, even if you were a senior manager at a large company.

It’s much like the differences between renting and owning a house.

The other day I got back from a trip to the US and found a minor water leak – it’s up to me to sort out any repairs or work needed, and deal with insurers and any tradesmen I might need to hire. With a rented house, much is up to the landlord.

An awful lot of startup businesses fail – I’ve been running Northlight images for several years and still have to remind myself of these principles on occasions.

  • Mistakes? - Remember, it's up to you to get things done

St. Georges central, Leicester1 - Passion does not make a business

Yes, I love doing my photography, and the all the other bits I do in connection with Northlight Images. I like writing articles and learning new skills when I’m writing articles and reviews.

Whilst all this enthusiasm helps motivate me, I do remember that the business needs to make a profit.

I need a business model that shows where profit is coming from and where my cashflow is coming from.

Even more importantly, I need actual measures of how different aspects of the business are performing.

I might say that I'm doing a job I love, but underneath that, I need money to live on and develop the business.

You may have noticed the small adverts on many of our article pages – these bring in a steady (and growing) income.

They are what pays for my time in writing articles like this – it helps if you can think of paying for your time, even if you enjoy the work.

If you’ve been working in another business, it’s quite likely that your relationship to actual profits and cashflow have been relatively at arms length. Setting departmental budgets is not the same as a business plan.

  • The mistake? - thinking "I love doing this - people will pay me"

2 - Who’s paying for all this?

When it’s someone else’s business, you don’t think about the cost of those pens from the stationary cupboard. When it’s your own business you pay for everything.

One of the biggest problems faced by new businesses is in managing cashflow.

It often takes a lot more time than you think for the jobs to start rolling in, and then there is the delay between doing (and invoicing) the work and getting the cash out of your clients.

Photography can have some hefty startup costs, if you want to have the equipment you need.

When I set up Northlight Images, I worked out just what it was I needed to meet my initial business objectives. I then added 18 months living expenses on top of that.

As it happened, the business started turning a working profit after 15 months, which was nice…

We still have an approach to buying some types of new equipment, which says, wait until you’ve a job to pay for it. The job pays for the kit and then it starts earning its living.

Some flexibility in this approach comes from writing articles and using the kit for marketing purposes - new toys as my wife might put it ;-)

The print side of Northlight Images is not a major money spinner, but having a number one Google position for terms like ‘Digital Black and White’ and a page one ranking for ‘commercial photography’ are all part of the plan…

  • The mistake? - Forgetting to follow the money - without it you won't get far

3 - What do your customers want? …the plan

viaduct at john o' gaunt, leicestershireI love to produce black and white fine art prints of my landscape photography.

How many people want to buy them? Probably not enough for me to base a business around it.

How do I know this?

Well, I’ve looked at the market for such prints here in the UK and abroad. I’ve spoken to other photographers when touring round the UK and US, to see what sells.

When I first thought about setting up Northlight Images, I looked at various aspects of photography, what I liked, and what I could find out about the market for such services.

This is why Northlight offers the services it does – we are commercial photographers.

It’s a personal choice that we don’t do weddings or portrait work – I also use it as a way of differentiating our specialist offerings in the commercial world.

You need to identify potential customers and find out what they do want, why they want it, and most importantly how you solve their needs and problems.

  • The mistake? - Thinking "I take great photos so customers must want my sort of work..."

4 - So, what is it you do?

champagne reception - corporate event photographyOK, I’m a professional photographer – what does that say to most people?

As I’ve found out, most business people initially think weddings and portraits.

This is one other reason I usually mention we don’t ever do that sort of work – I’m looking to stand out from the ‘crowd’.

  • Apologies if you wanted to be a photographer working in portrait/weddings, but you'll need to find your own niche and message… ;-)

You only get a short time to get your message over, and all too many people concentrate on what they do rather than how they help their clients.

So, I’m a professional photographer who specialises in getting businesses’ messages across to their customers.

I help businesses make a positive first impression.

Think about how your business helps its clients? Concentrate on the benefits rather than the features of what you do.

Oh, and don’t stop this once things start to go well – you need to be continually looking at just what it is you do, and be prepared to change.

  • The mistake? - saying "Look I do this" as opposed to "Look, this is how we help you"

5 - This is not a job

When you work for a company, you are working –in- the business. Even if you plan strategies, it’s not your business.

As a photographer, it’s all too easy to concentrate on the technicalities. Should you use Adobe Lightroom, Apple’s Aperture or good old Photoshop? Would that new wireless flash system work with all your existing lights?

Step back every so often and ask what you are doing? is it worthwhile? could you do more? are you aiming in the right places?

Not to say the techy stuff isn't important - but I also use it as part of the business 'what we do' where appropriate.

That, and all the articles bring in revenue and get me more widely known, which also helps bring in business and increases the value of having Keith Cooper and Northlight Images take the photos for a client.

Keith Cooper, photographerThank you for supporting our site.
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Thanks again - Keith and Karen at Northlight Images

Take time to work –on- your business. I come across all too many professional photographers who rarely ever think about where their business is going and how changes in technology and the economy will affect their business models.

It's no accident that I try and book no more than two paying photography jobs for myself each week.

  • The mistake? - Forgetting it's about the whole business, not just taking a few good photos.
It's not rocket science :-)

I hope these points are of help - they are things I have to remember to do myself. They do not come naturally to many people, it's just that in your own business it's your job to do something about it.

Article History - first published January 2011

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