This topic started from a question I received over in the Photoboss Facebook community. I thought it was an amazing question. Kirsten asked, “If you would start your business from scratch with all the knowledge you already have, what do you wish you would have done or maybe have done differently or wish you would have done. What’s the best business decisions that you ever took?” I love this question and wanted to answer it fully.
I’m going to be sharing with you 7 specific things that I would do if I was starting a business in photography today in 2020 (and beyond). I am going to share some things I would think about more than others. Some things you might be worrying about needlessly that I would not worry about if I were you. Let’s dive right in!
I know this topic is going to be helpful for the photographers that are wondering what I focus on next. It can feel like there are a lot of things that you could be focusing on when starting a business. You don’t want to waste your time.
When thinking about these answers, I imagined I was opening a brand new photography business in 2020 while keeping all the experience I have today. I’m trying to think what kinds of things I care about, and just as importantly what kind of things am I not going to care about. That’s where these answers came from.
The first thing I would do is stop emphasizing gear so much. It’s easy to fall into the gear trap and to believe it’s the biggest thing holding you back. This is a common pitfall of photographers, and I totally fell into this as well. I believed that I was one lens, one flash, or one piece of gear away from “making it.” Now I realize that was ridiculous and is not the complete picture. It’s like I couldn’t see with 20/20 vision (ha! Get it?). I was hyper focused on the gear I didn’t have… and the gear does not make the photographer, the photographer makes the gear. I heard people say things like what I’m telling you here when I was starting out and honestly I didn’t believe them.
I believed that gear was central to my success when, in fact, being a photographer is more running a business than photography itself. That might be an unpopular opinion, but it’s what I’ve found to be true.
If I could go back, I would find one good quality camera body, one good quality prime lens, and get to work. Master that. I would not be obsessing over off-camera flash triggers, fancy gels, and studio equipment.
Instead of gear I would focus on education because you can’t do better until you know better, and when you’re in the beginning of your business you don’t know. I look back and I realize I didn’t know a lot of things, and it was crucial for me to invest in business knowledge.
As photographers, we’re running businesses. What I’ve seen after seven years of being in business is that the people who embrace the business side fully are the ones that make it. I’m sure there are some exceptions to this where someone could be very creative and not really worry about marketing, their finances, or all the nitty-gritty, and yet still somehow make it, but I think that’s the exception to the rule for the most part. You have to educate yourself and pour into investing in books, podcasts, mentorship, and attending workshops.
If you don’t have the money to invest into education YouTube is a fantastic alternative. You could also go to your local library and rent books that are on pricing, sales negotiation, and what businesses need to know in order to thrive and stand out. The good news is that there are a lot of ways to gain this education for free or extremely affordably. Put a strong priority on your education as a creative small business owner.
The next thing I would not do is not worry about ads. Even listings like The Knot and Wedding Wire are expensive listings that I thought you needed in order to be successful as a wedding photographer. This is specific to wedding photography, but I think we all have the equivalencies of this in all different photography fields. Instead, I would focus on relationships because the relationships that you make are the ones that are actually going to come back tenfold. I don’t just mean following the right people on Instagram or liking people’s posts, I’m talking about getting face-to-face with real people. That was some of my best invested time in my business.
If you’re starting out with zero connections at all, this is one thing you must prioritize. I know it doesn’t feel scalable and it doesn’t feel like the best use of your time to try to get someone to meet you for coffee but it was probably one of the best investments I made to make some connections within my industry and within my local area with other professionals.
When reaching out to people, I was just going into it in hopes to make true connections and friendships. I wanted to see what I could do for them and not just what they could do for me. Networking was one key way that I very quickly got around running expensive ads
Let’s say that you just started your photography business (yay!! Congrats btw!). Maybe you’re thinking it’s not really a full-on business yet it’s kind of a hobby. Well that gets really messy. It gets messy contract-wise, it gets messy relationship-wise, and it gets messy on the back-end of your business even financially. One of the BEST things you can do is to treat it like a business (however humble the beginnings may appear) from day one.
The other thing that happens when you start treating this like a real business is that you change your mindset about all of your decisions that go into your photography business.
The sooner that you say to yourself “This is happening, this is my business even if it’s on the side” (or even if you have a day job), is that other people start to see that you’re taking your business seriously too. This is a definite insider tip: people aren’t going to take you seriously in your business until you do first.
The next thing I would do sooner this time around is build an email list from day one. Oftentimes people are hyper focused on vanity metrics, for example, getting engagement on Instagram. That’s wonderful, and it has its place in business, but it’s not the point. “Likes” do not pay my mortgage.
If I have an email address it’s like I can go around Instagram and Facebook, and whatever algorithm they’re running that day, and I can get into someone’s inbox. That’s valuable and the further I get in business the more I wonder to myself why did I not do it sooner.
One non-negotiable for me is creating weekly content for my ideal client. This was true of my business in 2013 and it’s true today in 2020.
So would I do this if I were starting over? Absolutely. I would show up for them in a simple way either in a video, podcast, blog, or on social media. I would always direct them over to an email list. If you have an email list of people that are interested in what you’re doing you have someone to sell to. That is in your control. It’s in your camp. Whereas, Facebook and Instagram can decide whether or not they’re going to show your post. They’re already not showing it to most of your followers anyway, but they are the ones in control. Whereas, when you have an email list that you own, you’re far more likely to actually get in contact with the person who raised their hand and said I want to hear from you.
If you don’t have an email list right now, go get started on a free software, (for example Mailchimp) and begin today.
The next thing I would do is I would take faster and imperfect action. I’m one of those people that don’t make moves right away because I want it to be the right move. I want it to be something that I don’t have to fix later and don’t want to make mistakes.
I get into what I call “analysis paralysis” where, at a certain point, it’s no longer research, it’s just procrastination. Start making mistakes and be okay with making mistakes, because if you make a mistake you learn something. You have your answer. So much of business is testing. I can’t tell you if you need to run a video ad. I can’t tell you if you should do IGTV or YouTube. You have to try that out for yourself and look at the data. What I’ve learned is that taking action a lot faster, before I feel ready, is huge and leads to big results.
If you’re a wedding photographer and you are wondering how you can build your clientele, I actually have a free guide for you. It’s all about how I booked my first clients before I had any experience in wedding photography. You can get that for free here and you guys can get your hands on that. It’s a must download if you’re interested in wedding photography for your business.
This is a big one! The next thing I would not do is worry so much about what other people think of the decisions I’m making in my business. It’s like the analysis paralysis that we just talked about. Wondering how things are going to appear to my friends and family as I’m building my business and in that awkward beginning stage was a waste of my time and energy.
What I’ve learned is that it doesn’t really matter what other people think. Seriously! They’re not really thinking that much about me anyway. People are a lot more likely to be thinking about themselves. For example, if you’re wondering what your Aunt Susan (or that girl from high school) thinks about your new Facebook page for your business, who cares! Do it anyway! Take the action because it’s wasting your time. It’s absorbing your mental energy that you could be pouring into your business. That’s something that I would not do if I were starting my business in 2020.
The final thing that I would do is find a community in this world of photography ASAP. This might possibly be the most important tip. Starting and running your own business as it takes off can become lonelier and lonelier because you might quit your day job or you might not be in school anymore. You might be working from home, and while yes, you have clients – it’s a different relationship. You start to have all kinds of questions, and just you want to talk to someone who gets it, who understands what it’s like to have great clients, or a problem client or not really know how to answer a client question.
The sooner you can find that community the sooner you’re going to grow. It’s important to surround yourself with peers that are shooting for the same goals as you and who are challenging you to chase your dreams. Find those who will keep you accountable. I know that there are a lot of communities out there and some of them are more accepting inclusive and supportive than others.
When I was first starting out I found that having a mentor or another photographer that I could ask questions was a game changer. This is why I founded my community that’s a free private community on Facebook called Photoboss. I wanted a place for photographers to come to and ask questions where they wouldn’t feel stupid and they didn’t feel like anything was too basic of a question.
I hope that these seven do’s and don’ts help you out with your photography business. If you want to read more about how I grew my photography business you can do that here.
What is something you would do differently today if you were starting over? I would love to hear from you.