3 years ago...I started a business.
September was my 3 year anniversary of being full time freelance photographer, and I wanted to post something different about the journey thus far. Let me start with something positive, photography is a great career, I love it even more now then I did when I started. Photography doesn't look anything like I thought it would, and I'm ok with that. I believe that life is a journey and an adventure, that's what really gets me up in the morning, the adventure of it all. Let me be the first to say that adventure is not always fun, and if you are an adventurer yourself you will know what I am talking about. Sometimes adventures hurt, sometimes they're dirty and ugly and nothing goes right. Sometimes, in the middle of the mud, you stare up at a sky full of stars and realize you get to play in the mud, and mud can be pretty fun.
So Aaron, you might ask, why isn't photography anything like you thought it would be? Well, let me tell you! I think the first, and biggest problem that I had was spelling. I thought photography was spelled P-H-O-T-O-G-R-A-P-H-Y, and I learned very early on that it's spelled B-U-S-I-N-E-S-S. I don't know if I've ever met a photographer who said "I really wanted to be an entrepreneur who invested in a high risk start up company". I have news for you, that's what you are about to do, or you are doing currently. One of the first things I did was create an LLC, that stands for Limited Liability Company! A COMPANY! No one even asked me if I knew how to run a whole company, I just started it. Suddenly clicking a shutter seemed pretty simple compared to everything else I had to learn. I had questions, questions like who does the taxes? Who pays for everything? Who makes sure we don't run out of money? Who is the CEO? What is a CEO? What is a CFO? IS THAT LIKE A UFO?! I found the answer to all the questions, it was me (well, except for the UFO, it's not like a CFO).
That's the first part, the part where you find out you own a company and you're in charge of the company. That's terrifying. There's a second part. And it's even more terrifying. Here's something nobody tells you when you start a company, after they tell you to start a company of course - NOBODY KNOWS YOU HAVE A COMPANY WHEN YOU START IT! So, let me get this straight, to be a photographer I need to start a company? Yes. Then, after I start that company people won't just start hiring me? NO. How the heck am I supposed to run a company if no one is hiring me? Good Question. Who's going to tell people about my company?! You.
Aaron, you might be saying, what's your point? Well, I'm glad you asked, because this is where I started having fun. You get to learn all this stuff! You get to run your own company! You thought you were just gonna click away and suddenly you're developing marketing plans, putting advertising budgets together, setting up networking meetings, you're learning how to write contracts, figure out licensing, find clients, and even making money. This is pretty great stuff.
What have I learned after three years of business? How to stay in business. I want you to succeed at this incredible career, and in order to do that you need to be savvy businessmen and women. Soak up every ounce of knowledge and wisdom you can from the people that you admire and respect, and that doesn't just need to be photographers, in fact I would say it shouldn't just be photographers. Talk to Accountants, Entrepreneurs (like yourself), Lawyers, parents, friends. Learn to ask good questions and listen to people who have paved the way before you. We live in a golden age of information, you can get wisdom for free, you can also get scammed for free, so be shrewd and keep your wits about you. On the last bit let me give you a little advice, there are not shortcuts. Furthermore, shortcuts cannot be sold and bought. If you hear someone say things like "You'll be making six figures in no time and have the career of your dreams while you listen music in your new Mercedes!" or "This software is sure to make you a better so and so!" I would be cautious of those people. A lot of people want to help, and they have great wisdom, but there are a lot of people who make money in the name of "helping".
That was a little heavy, so let's get back to the bit about being awesome. I want to close with some points that I hope will help, tips and thoughts that might get you through when it seems impossible.
1. Stay Lean - In the business world they call this "boot strapping". As in "Pull yourself up by your boot straps!" Notice the fact that there is no one else involved in the pulling up of said boot straps, it's just you. How do you do this? You drive crappy cars when it seems so easy to get a car payment. You use the camera you have instead of the camera you think you should have. You figure out clever ways to get new equipment, I used to buy one new stand with every paid shoot. You live within the constraints of your income. At first that might mean ramen and water, but it's better then a debt collector. STAY OUT OF CREDIT CARD DEBT! This is a vice you do not want to be in, avoid it like the plague. If you use a credit card make sure you can pay it off.
2. Be Realistic - Do you know what the average income for a photographer is in the US? Something like $32,000. Do you know what the average income of a "normal" person is in the US? Something like $36,000. Yup, you make less than everyone else. That doesn't mean you can't make a great living at this, I make a lot more than $36,000 and I'm relatively new in the photography world. I am not saying this to be a downer, I'm saying this so you know what the big picture looks like. Could you live on $32,000?
3. Surround Yourself with Wisdom - People start businesses all the time, people also close business all the time. The numbers I hear consistently are that around 20 percent of new business will make it out of their first year! Don't think you are so clever that you can do this alone. Great people have one thing in common (well, they have a lot of things in common but this is one of them) they are surrounded by GREAT PEOPLE! Your buddy who sits on the couch and says he could start a business if he really wanted to, he's not helping you. If you can't immediately think of people who are wiser than you than you need to look really hard at who you surround yourself with. People who want to see you succeed, who love you through thick and thin and want the best for you.
4. Put in the WORK - It's a lot of work. That's a fact. You have to do that work, all of it. Don't be the guy or girl who sits on YouTube watching tutorials and telling them how they could have done it better. Just go do it better. There is a time and a place for learning and growing, but there is also a time to put your nose down and do some work! There is no magic bullet. You are the bullet, go make some magic!
5. Photography is NOT just pictures - You might be thinking, Aaron you haven't really talked about photography very much. Actually I have, the business of photography. If you have decided to be a full time photographer I am assuming that you know how to take pictures. Fact of the matter is, the photos themselves are only a small part of what will lead you to success, and a small portion of what you will actually do every day. You need to be good at photography, I'm not saying that, what I'm saying is you should already be good at photography before you decide to make a business out of it. You wouldn't start a restaurant where you were the head chef if you didn't know how to cook first!
Hope this helps some of you on your journey towards being stellar photographers and business people! Here's to the next 3 years, now go BE AWESOME!