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3 Things I Screwed Up in My New Photography Business

There’s something in psychology called the ‘outcome bias.’ 

It’s the tendency to say whether a decision was good or bad based on what happened afterward, rather than on whether the decision was good at the time it was made.

For example, if the weather forecast is clear and the sky is blue, I’d decide not to bring an umbrella with me on my afternoon walk.  If it started pouring rain later, I might say later that it was a “bad decision” not to bring the umbrella, even though it was a perfectly reasonable choice at the time.

When you look back on your own life, it’s easy to let the outcome bias color your view and let you get down on yourself.  This was a bad choice, that was a bad choice, ugh, look how that turned out, why was I so dumb.  New business owners tend to do a lot of things “wrong,” but it’s important to remember that usually, we did the best we could with what we had at the time.

Still, now that I’m sitting comfortably a few years down the road, there are three headaches I definitely could have spared myself.  I share them partially to have a good Emily-Saliers-eque laugh, and partially in the hopes that someone else can avoid the same troubles.

I should note that these were my mistakes – someone else might do the same thing, and it might actually be right for them.  Just like that cute chartreuse Anthropologie sweater would have been a cringeworthy purchase for me, but might have flattered someone else.

Some things just didn’t go so well for me, and here’s why:

Mistake #1:  Investing in what I SAW, or the visual trappings of a business, rather than an actual business.

Like some of you, when I started I didn’t know what having a photography business actually looked like.  So I spent a lot of time looking at how other people did it.

What I saw was what anyone would see when looking at a blog – well-used Photoshop actions, lovely props incorporated into shoots, sweet blog designs, and what seemed like a host of happy clients.

So I spent a good deal of time in my first year chasing those things – looking at Lightroom presets, browsing props, and fretting over my self-designed blog background.

The problem is, the stuff you see when you look at someone’s blog usually isn’t nearly as important to their actual business as the stuff you can’t see. 

Stuff like a clear business plan.  A solid understanding of their target client and what that client is REALLY looking for.  Skilful behind-the-scenes relationship building with other business owners who also serve their target market.  Impeccable customer service, expectation management, and masterful handling of any client complaints.  A thorough understanding of copywriting, brand messaging, and how people actually make decisions.

All stuff that, when understood, would have built my business a lot faster than that (admittedly awesome) funky chair I bought as a prop, used once, then discarded.

Not that there’s anything wrong with buying a chair -

but I was so new that I had no idea what kind of portraits I was going to settle into.  My style shifted rapidly as I racked up shoots – both personal and paid – and all the props I bought were eventually discarded.  I bought them because they were the most concrete thing I saw when I looked at others.  (Because Photographers. Use. Props.  Right?!?)

But if I’m honest, I could have made do on props borrowed from friends and clients themselves.  There are literally worlds of untapped resources right around us if we look and ask.

Instead, I clutched my new props like security blankets, as if they were some sort of proof to myself that I was doing this “for real.”

I wish now I had just held off and sunk all my money into studying client service and the science of marketing and decision-making, and waited to buy “stuff” until I knew more about what sort of work I actually wanted to do.   Because studying business, psychology, and client service has done more for me than any visually-apparent thing I invested in early on.  And I’m not the only one.

But hey, I know I fall victim to the outcome bias here.  How was I to know that chair wouldn’t help me like I thought it would?  I suppose they served their purpose – they made me feel better if nothing else.

Oh well.  I know now.

Mistake #2:  Not paying myself.

After an initial investment in gear, I chose to finance my business growth via bootstrapping.  (As mentioned in this post on money, bootstrapping just means that a certain portion of your profits from each sale goes straight back into funding the business.  It’s a slow-ish but lower-risk way to fund an expanding new business.)

But, as I am wont to do, I over-bootstrapped a little.  For a long time, I re-invested 100% of my after-tax income back into the business.  Every cent I made went toward software, gear, and education.  (I had other work at the time, so I had the luxury of using the money to finance the business.)

For the most part, this is a good decision.  But – and there’s always a but -

Constantly re-investing money, instead of making even a token payment to myself, facilitated some serious frustration and burnout early on.  I worked and worked, and though awesome things happened, I didn’t let myself enjoy it.

I felt like I existed to serve my business, instead of the other way around.

Yes, I got excited about some purchases, but some necessities are just hard to get excited about.  Shelling out for a monitor calibrator is a little like buying yourself socks for Christmas – yeah, they’re necessary, and you don’t complain, but….well….monitor calibrators aren’t quite as exciting as other things you might buy. ;-)

Much further down the road, I finally “indulged” and took the after-tax profits from a sale and paid for an entire 2-week vacation.  I felt guilty about this at first (gah, the courses I could have taken!  The lenses I could have bought!), but I was shocked at how powerful and fulfilled this step made me feel.  When I saw the impact this could have on my life, it gave me an unprecedented boost and motivation to do more, work harder, and build a business that bore more fruit.

In short, I remembered what being in business was really about.  Not just building a business.  Building a life.

If I could go back, I would have made token payments to myself from the beginning.  Just tiny ones – I wouldn’t have wanted to hobble my growing business.  Truly, I needed every penny.

We’re talking $5 so I could go to Starbucks and get a tall vanilla steamer and recharge by reading a book.  Or an entrance fee to an art museum where I could wander and fill my soul in beautiful surroundings.

Small things that would have combated burnout by reminding me why I was doing this – to have a better life.  To let my business support me.  To allow myself to be fulfilled and enjoy what my business was creating.

It would have done wonders.

Mistake #3:  Reading all photography blogs instead of seeking a balance between photography and business mentors.

(I strongly suspect this contributed to Mistake #1.)

We should study other photographers, absolutely.  Just not exclusively. 

In terms of business, there are limits to what you can learn from other photographers.  First, you never know from a surface view how someone actually arrived at their pricing, how they got their clients, or how they landed that sweet partnership with a local business.  Maybe it was guesswork, a stroke of luck, or some other non-replicable circumstance that won’t really help you.  (Or maybe not.  You usually can’t know – and truthfully, they may not know, either.)

It’s more productive to look at patterns across people, or principles that can account for more than one person’s success.

This particular post is actually quite an exception on this blog.  I actively avoid talking about my own business the majority of the time:  It’s just one data point, a pile of first-person anecdotes, a singular confluence of events that may or may not extend to anyone else.  It can help, sure (and occasionally make for entertaining reading – like the time that toddler hit my camera with a stick).  But there are limits to how much it will help you.

Sure, I’ve used my business as a testing ground for much of what I blog about, but the topics I blog on are backed up by more than just my own experience.  I sift through piles of research journals, re-read things I studied in undergraduate and graduate school, pour over countless volumes on business, marketing, decision-making, people’s biases and eccentricities, make regular use of local and online libraries, and search for themes that come up over and over.

Because one person’s experience is only helpful to you so far as it can represent a principle that applies to many people.

And it’s often easiest to see these principles when they come from someone who isn’t in your industry.

If I were a Big Fancy Corporation, I might hire a consulting firm to help me streamline, say, my golf club manufacturing process.  The consulting firm I hire will probably not be in the golf club manufacturing business themselves – and that’s exactly the point.

Their value to me is that they see principles that extend beyond my own business.  The consultant folks aren’t experts in golf clubs, they’re experts in streamlining, which is what I need help on.  I don’t need someone to just tell me about golf clubs – if I’m in the biz, I already know something about golf clubs.  I need someone with applicable expertise in locating problems, in implementing solutions, in handling people, in finding and eliminating barriers to success.

I would be shortsighted to only look within my industry, because some of the best solutions come from people who can look objectively and not get bogged down by industry minutiae.

Some of my very best mentors have been musicians, government administrators, public health workers, craft shop owners, writers, wall streeters, venture capitalists, real estate agents, and gurus of business large and small.  I learn from them not because they personally run photography businesses – they don’t.

I learn from them because they understand principles that help no matter what I’m doing, they provide untapped paradigms for approaching business problems, and they have a birds-eye view that keeps me from getting mired in industry inside baseball.

Want an uncomplicated, business-boosting tip?  Stop reading all your current blogs for five days, and use that time instead to search out new ones outside your industry.  Or, if you prefer, delete one uninspiring blog (preferably that person you keep comparing yourself to, and feeling bummed as a result), and replace it with a fantastic blog far outside photography.

I wish I had done this from day one.

As we conclude this tour through the Ghosts of Jenika’s Business Past, let’s remember one thing:

We’re going to bungle some business stuff.  Some people, like me, might bungle more than others.  I do suggest that you invest in education, pay yourself, and read widely outside the photography industry – you’ll avoid things that took me (and others) months to sort out.

But when mistakes come – and they will - keep a two-hundred-dollar attitude when working with clients, forgive yourself, and don’t let it bring you down.  Most successful entrepreneurs tried several things and had many false starts before they landed on “the one” – accept that this is a process, educate yourself as much as you can, and make the best decisions possible.

Then share your mistakes with others.  Who knows – it might help someone else;-)

~

Rayleigh Leavitt - I love your perspective on how just because something doesn’t turn out the way you hoped, it doesn’t mean you made a bad decision. Thank you for that!

Loreen Liberty - Did you sneak into my head before you wrote this!? I made all three mistakes. I invested WAAAAY to much into what gear/equipment I thought I needed to make me “look like a professional” and I now have none of those pieces, yet I’m still pining away for a certain F 2.8 lens…sigh. And I find even today it gets distracting looking at blogs, sites, and FB Pages of other photographers… some part of my mind always ends up thinking I need to do what I’m doing different which ends up chewing up time I could use for better purposes such as marketing and more excellent customer service. I’ve finally found some great business mentors and after putting down my camera for a few years, have picked it up again. While I’ve never stopped teaching – the thought of running a studio again is exhausting. It’s tiring chasing your tail which you don’t realize is being wagged by other people!
Thanks for the great article and letting me know I’m not the only one!
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Jenika - ” It’s tiring chasing your tail which you don’t realize is being wagged by other people!” – brilliant quote. Thanks for your comment, Loreen. Glad/sad I’m not the only one who took this path. I’m also pretty sure I ignored people who warned me about all three of these things, but so it is – perhaps a couple of people will read it and sidestep the things that tripped us! :-)

Jenika - Thanks Rayleigh! All your comments make me happy. :-)

Jenika - p.s. I’d be lying through my lens if I said I STILL don’t have a few gear cravings! Mmmmmm some stuff is so tempting. But looking forward to getting them just makes it all fun, as long as it doesn’t stop me from creating with what I’ve got.

bessieakuba - Thank You for your transparency and honesty Jenika! I think the hardest part for me when I make business mistakes is looking back and knowing (or thinking) the client knows that made mistakes when they begin to see me do things differently with new clients.
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Alberto - One of the things that fascinate me most in life is that everyone of us has to do their own mistakes in order to get to a result.
I mean, how many successful photographers are there in the world? Thousands of thousands? How easy would it be to just tell someone who wants to be a famous photographer: if you want to become a master you simply have to do this this and that. And the work is done. A mistake-free digest to a painless success.
But it doesn’t work that way. People grow doing their own experiences, doing their own mistakes and hopefully learn from them and create their own paths. And this is what makes every person and every story unique, that is one of the reasons the world is beautiful.
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Jenika - Totally agreed. And even if someone tells you “here’s how to avoid a mistake” – sometimes the only way to really learn is to make the mistake anyway!! :-)

Matt - Great post. It’s super easy to make mistake 3 and only look at the photography. Thank you for all the great tips you have on your blog. It’s a good mix to go with the image based photography sites.

Jenika - Thanks for your note! :-) I think people are often more understanding when we imagine them to be – everyone knows that businesses grow and change, especially art-based ones. Good luck with yours!

Jenika - Thanks Matt! I appreciate your comment.

Robert Arenz - I always try to stick to my own style, and are sure in the long run it will help you a lot.

Regards,
Robert

Joe - Strong.

“I remembered what being in business was really about. Not just building a business. Building a life.” — what an amazing point. I wish I would have learned it sooner as well.
Joe recently posted..Kristina and Aaron : Minneapolis Wedding Photographs – take 3My Profile

Emily Rainsford - I’m SO glad I came across this article!! I have been waiting and waiting until I have all the right gear and props together before soliciting some free clients to build my skills and portfolio… maybe all I’m really doing is using it as an excuse to allow my fear of failure to hold me back?? Maybe I’ll never have all my ducks perfectly in a row… maybe I just have to take the plunge!

Cales - As usual, thank you, Jenika!

I really love the concept of the “outcome bias”. I have thought about it many times but I didn’t know there was a name and eloquent way of describing it! So helpful :-) And so great in all of life, not just business :-)

Also, I just got keep calm and tax on through your link (or whatever exactly it is called!) so you should get a little extra love, I think :-)

xoxo.
Cales

Helena Atkinson - As a photographer building a business myself, I really saw myself in this post. Thanks for this, I had a good laugh about the props bit as thats exactly what I did and now I dont use them anymore!
Good luck with your business, I am sure your positive attitude will help you a lot!
Helena

Avi Raz - Hiring my friends. Biggest mistake ever.

Joe - Thank You for the Great Advice, I have been in customer service since I started working at 14, now at 39 I would say i could write books on it. Photography has been a passion of mine for a long time, I dove in seriously about 5 years ago wanting to eventually make a go at a successful little business, if not full time at least part time, to me there’s nothing like satisfying customers with services you provide. Technically I believe I am there to really make a push, I just have this huge block in my head I can’t remove, that no matter if 1 million people now have told me my work is amazing, I stil worry it’s not going to be good enough.
I can’t get over that hump, or make that official step and can’t figure out why. I have very base level equipment, all I can afford, but know how to get the most out of it, I know it’s limitations. I just can’t put the 1st foot forward and it’s driving me crazy!!!!!

Jerry Nielsen - This article, together, with these comments, hit the nail on the head!

Jenika - Thanks Jerry!

rebecca - lovely writing and advice. something every new photographer should read.

Jenika - Thank you for the kind words, Rebecca!

David Korman - Can I get some advice, please? Once you determine a target client, how do you let them know that you exist to serve them. I’d like to be the go to guy to photograph the corporate event parties of young successful tech start-ups in San Francisco? Who do I talk to to reach those companies?
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David Korman - Also, I’ve determined that the lens I use is the most important piece of equipment I’ll need to up my quality in a way that I can justify higher prices. So my target now is a Canon 24-70mm f2.8 L-series lens. I’ve saved about 2/3 of the price slowly over several months. But after I drain my account to buy the lens, I’ll need to start saving for a Full frame camera body, then a ring flash, and a better portrait lens. This could take years. It’s very daunting to even plan out from where I stand right now. Currently the people I meet who would hire me are not interested in paying real photographer prices. I should have taken a business class while I was getting my B.S. in Still Photography. Do you have any words of wisdom for me?
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Jenika - Thanks for your comment! You ask a great question, though the answer is much deeper than I could get into in a comment reply, or even a blog post or email. :-D I gave a 2.5 hour webinar on the topic last spring, in fact! If you’d like to grab some one-on-one time with me, we can go over your business strategy and create a profile of who you’re trying to reach and a plan of action for reaching them. I’d be able to be of much more assistance if we sat down together and tailored a plan specifically for you. I do hope you’ll check out some of the marketing posts on this blog – the bottom line is that to attract a target client, show them how you’re going to meet one of their most pressing or most aspirational needs. :-)

Jenika - Haha, this whole blog is full of words of wisdom! Check it out. ;-) It’s admirable that you want to give your clients the best value for their money. You can create beautiful, professional images with a cropped sensor body and non-L lenses if you know how to use your camera well and are smart about gear acquisition. There are plenty of people running awesome businesses and taking professional-quality images with a Canon 60D and lenses like the 50mm 1.4, 85mm 1.8, etc. You don’t have to start with absolutely top of the line equipment. Knowing exactly how to use your equipment (and how to work with people) before you start charging is what matters. Clients care about quality images, yes, but if you understand exposure, lighting, composition, and how to make people feel comfortable, you can create beautiful, valuable, quality, professional images without starting out with the most expensive gear on the market. Good gear makes our job easier and gives us more options/flexibility, but gear doesn’t produce quality photos on its own – we’re the ones that do that.

Joel Knight Photography - Nice blog, I feel know your rights in term of copyright is very important – not many photographers do know about this subject. I’ve written this page ‘who owns the image’ to explain to my clients.

http://goo.gl/eJ022

Ali Peterson - This post is spot on! I’ve made (or am still making) all three of these mistake. I’ve realized the important of educating myself on business, so I often to look to my husband for advice because he’s owned a non-photography business for 15 years. As for paying myself, that only happens when absolutely necessary. Gotta change that! And I’m always looking at other photographer’s blogs (one in paticular) and comparing myself to them, so I definitely need to be told not to do that! Although it can be motivating, it IS distracting & self-doubting too. So, thanks for the awesome post, Jenika…it was just what I needed :)

Dawn Nicholas - Your posts are always so relevent to my experiences as a photographer!

Jocelyn Fisher - Hi Jenika
I had to reply to your reply because I thought you may have been speaking directly to me…the equipment you listed (probably slightly randomly) is exactly what I use. I certainly do see the merit in working with less than top-of-the-line equipment. As you talked about, I do my very best technically with what I have while focusing on the connections and relationships of my clients. I look forward to the day I can invest in better lenses and a higher quality camera body, but I don’t dwell on it.
All the best,
Jocelyn

Barry Kidd - I haven’t finished reading the entire post yet because it’s 2:20AM here on the east coast and I’m about to plob over at my desk. I have however dropped a link back here on my desktop and will come back and finish reading later. So far it’s a good read.

Oh I followed a link here from borrowlenses on — I think G+.

Anyway thank you for sharing, have a great day. I’ll be back later with, hopefully, much more valuable input,

Barry
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