The 10 Step Business Growth Plan for Photographers (or any business, really)

If you couldn’t make it to my WPPI presentation this morning, I understand. I remember quite well how my first night in Vegas was too…many years ago ;-) I’ve been speaking at this ginormous photography convention for over 10 years and it just keeps getting better and better. I love the energy, the enthusiasm, the clean air, the food, the less restrictive clothing!

After being in the photography business for over 20 years, and growing 4 different photography related business lines, I wanted to share some of the lessons learned with those just getting started – or looking for a little push to move forward. This is summary of my presentation. If you were an attendee, you can download all the notes and resources I mentioned via this link. Don’t forget the password I gave you!

Step 1: Identify Yourself

One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is to properly brand and identify who I am as a photographer. As soon as I became clear to myself, I was able to communicate this message to my clients and “magically” draw the perfect clients to me. The first step is to look at your company logo, or have someone else honest look at it. What does it make them feel about you? Does it communicate the essence of your business? And yes, you ARE a business and should have a great logo. A common mistake many new businesses make is to assume a logo has to be a fancy way to write their name or incorporate some photographic symbolism. A logo does not have to be literal, it should evoke a feeling about who you are and what you are about. Hire a designer and do it right. It will pay off.

In addition, try my keyword exercise and discover what your imagery is saying to people. Print 10 of your most favorite photos - images that capture your style best, nothing more. Show this collection of 10 images to 10 people and ask them to pick three keyword (from a list you give them) adjectives that describe what the images make them feel. Tally the results from your 10 people and narrow it down to your most popular 3 words. These are your keywords. They should describe your style and it should resonate with you. Often it’s not what you expect!

Once you have your keywords, use them as a guiding force when you design your logo, your marketing materials, your website, the message on your answering machine, everywhere! The idea is to communicate your essence to people as thoroughly as possible so that they know exactly what they are getting when they book you. Once embraced and implemented, this process can literally transform your business.

Step 2: Identify your Clients

Not everyone out there is your client, so don’t feel bad if you can’t book everyone. Once you have your personal identity clarified, work on finding the perfect client match. Think about where this person would shop, what publications they read, who they listen to, where they hang out, etc. Think like they do, not like you do, and figure out how to get your business in front of them. You may have to think out of the box a little, and the hardest part is to not always assume that what you personally like or do is what they do.

Step 3: Act Like a Big Business, React Like a Small Business

One of the best things about being a small business is that you can do pretty much anything you want. You can, and should, change what you’re doing as soon as you realize it’s not working. For example, when I was starting my photo business I would print out price lists on my laser printer just before a client meeting. At the bottom corner, in tiny print, was a version number for that price list. After the meeting, if I felt like something didn’t work or didn’t make sense to my client, I would fix it and reprint it for my next meeting - incrementing the version number. I got in to the hundreds before I finally stopped changing it so often, but my booking success rate grew rapidly during that time. I was taking what I learned from each presentation and using that to make the next one even better.

Being a small business, however, doesn’t mean you have to look or act small in professionalism, or how you run your business. Know your COGS (Cost of Goods Sold), your profit margins, and what you need to price your products and services at to truly make a living and be profitable. Profit is not just paying your bills and salary, but making enough to grow your business, save for the future, and reinvest. All (successful) big businesses think this way, but sadly not all small businesses do.

Step 4: Be A Freak About UFB Customer Service

UFB means Un-Freaking Believable. Before I started my photo business, I spent a couple years selling shoes at Nordstrom. I learned a ton about what great customer service entailed, and naturally applied that to my own business. It became an obsession with me to treat every customer like gold – even if that meant refunding their money if I couldn’t make them happy. I knew for a fact that it was more important for a customer to walk away with their money in pocket, and a smile on their face, then for me to have their money and them be unhappy. In the long run, it always pays to have happy customers, I’ve seen it over and over again.

There is just no point in trying to run a personal, service based business without a commitment to complete customer satisfaction. You must trust that good will and customer happiness pays dividends greater than what you may receive today.

Step 5: Value Your Time

Time management is a sticky point for most business owners, small or large. I’ve learned many tricks over the years to keep myself on track (although I’m far from perfect!) One of the most helpful has been something I affectionately call WIN–WEN. Write It Now, Write Everything Now.

The idea is to use a notebook or your smartphone to jot notes on everything you need to remember. Not just important meetings with heads of state, but little things too that fill your subconscious. Whenever I have a random idea, thought about someone I need to touch base with, something to buy “someday”, or whatever, I jot it down. Get everything down so your subconscious mind can let it go! This frees up energy and space in that brain to be more creative, relaxed, and concise. It really works.

The beauty of using a smartphone is that your notes are searchable, so you don’t even have to remember exactly what you wrote. For example, if a friend says, “You have to check out this band! NeedToBreathe! They are amazing!” So you write down “new band, music, Jed said, NeedToBreathe, iPod” or whatever. Then later you might just recall something about a new band, so you type “Music” in your note search and there it is. If you use an iPhone, Awesome Note is my personal favorite for storing all types of information.

Step 6: Embrace New Marketing

Today, more than ever, buying decisions are very personal and emotional based – especially with photography. People are not buying a commodity, but an experience, an emotional connection, and a timeless gift. Make sure to treat your service and product offerings as such. While Facebook, twitter, blogs, and Pinterest are all valuable tools for marketing, don’t neglect face time. Take a client to lunch each week. Send hand written notes. A relationship built face-to-face is infinitely stronger and more valuable than one built entirely virtual.

Give something back to your clients. Maybe you could write a photo newsletter to share you favorite point-n-shoot photo tips or how to take better photos of your children. Jump online and offer tips and help to your clients and potential clients so they view you as a valuable resource, not just a retailer. Practice random acts of kindness and you may be surprised at where the next sale come from!

Step 7: Sell Emotion, Not Stuff

Part of the appeal of photographs is that they capture a story, hopefully filled with emotion. Share those stories! When you present your images to clients, take the time to explain what happened when you captured that image. Tell them why, who, what was going on. Have you ever browsed through photos in a magazine and not read the captions? It’s hard, right!? We inherently want to know the story behind a photo and it raises the value of the image tremendously when you share it.

You can extend your story telling to your price lists too. They don’t need to be laundry lists of stuff and more stuff. Again, you are not an auto mechanic with a list of parts to bolt on. You are selling an experience and emotion, so make people drool with anticipation as they read what you have to offer. They should be ready and anxious to buy before they even see the price. Hopefully that won’t scare them away – but the chances of them staying are higher if their tummies are growling with hunger for your goods.

Step 8: Live Kaizen

Translated from Japanese, kaizen means “good change”. We need to convince ourselves that change is good and make it a daily practice to be constantly looking for ways to improve. I’m not advocating that you change everything all the time – as that would be inefficient and certainly drive you slightly mad. But. When you see room for improvement, work on it, and work on it as soon as possible. (Remember Step 3?)

One of the most effective ways I’ve found to incorporate change is to change my habits. I think many of us really know what we need to do to change or improve, but steering your boat on to a new course is scary and stressful. We avoid it because it’s uncomfortable – even when we truly sense the change would be for the better. My solution is to make itty bitty changes as first, but simply make them consistent. Build the new habit first, then work on building the quality and quantity.

For example, I knew that I wanted to workout every morning before going to the office, but I hate gyms and I often feel too anxious to get to work in the morning to be able to settle in to a workout. So, I started with committing to only 5 minutes of working out in the morning, 3X per week. Easy! Who could say no to that, right? Once I felt I was in a groove with that, I increased my workout to 10 minutes. When that was a habit, I bumped to 15, etc. Now I work out for 30 minutes, 4-5 days a week, plus I practice Karate and Tai Chi 3-4X per week. One step at a time!

Build the habit first, then build the quantity and quality. It’s as simple as that.

Step 9: Tap the Collective Energy Of Others

When you work alone, the feelings of isolation can be overwhelming sometimes. When I first started, I worked from my spare bedroom, alone at home. By the time my wife got home from her (very social) job at night all she wanted to do was veg out with the TV and I just wanted someone to talk to! That didn’t work out too well. I needed some socialization with like minded people during the day. I needed to get out more often.

I suggest that every small business form a VBOD, or virtual board of directors. Rally up some of your photo friends or other small business owners and make a commitment to help each other out by providing a sounding board, brainstorming meetings, and accountability. Have an official monthly meeting and get together for dinner or a photo shoot. Trust each other and share openly. The key is, of course, consistency. Build the habit first – just meet for coffee at first then work your way up to more involved events. This may very well become the most valuable thing you do for your business longevity. Stay connected and stay Inspired. Which brings me to my final point.

Step 10: Stay Inspired

Being a photographer, or business owner, in my humble opinion, is much more than just making profit. Writer Guy Kawasaki said it perfectly, “Be in business to make meaning, not money”. I have found that being able to use my photography for charitable purposes gives me a sense of personal value and satisfaction that far exceeds my satisfaction from more income. It also gives me confidence that what I’m doing has tremendous value, and I inherently feel more confident selling my services at a fair price to those who can afford it. And, believing in yourself is the first step in getting others to believe in you.

Make time to do personal projects, those that inspire and bring you and others joy and meaning. It is the greatest reward to do what you love for a living and it’s even better when what you love serves the happiness of others as well! Live long and prosper.

Do you have any great life lessons to share? I’d love to hear them! If you attended my presentation, let me know what you thought, or what resonated most with you. Thanks!