First, Here’s The Bad News:
Professional photography is a lousy industry. According to the US Department of Labor, median photographer earnings in 2013 was $29,280.
What makes the industry so bad? Take your pick:
Zero scalability: With a photography business you are simply trading your time for dollars, and you have a finite amount of time. Compare this with a retail store that can sell more items, or open up more stores. An online business like Google has nearly limitless capacity. A manufacturing business like Apple can open up sales to more and more markets/countries around the world and build more/different products. You, on the other hand, can only shoot a limited amount before you run out of time or drop dead from exhaustion.
Zero barriers to entry: Every day you probably see a dozen new photography businesses open up in your area. Photography businesses are ridiculously easy to start. Since just about 100% of new professional photographers started out as hobbyists, they already have the gear, Photoshop and a computer. And photography web design companies make it cheap and easy to start a website. How about a beautiful website design, free domain name, blog and hosting for $8 a month?
Zero equity building: Most entrepreneurs start a business with an exit strategy in mind. How are they going to cash in on their hard work? It may be an initial public offering, it may be getting acquired, but in one way or another the entire point of the exercise is to build a valuable property that can be monetized. Now let’s look at Sally Smith Wedding Photography. On the day she decides to call it quits, what exactly is there to cash in? Nothing. Maybe she can get a few thousand dollars by selling her gear, but that’s about it. There’s no business to sell.
Now, How About Some Good News:
You can still run a great business, even in a lousy industry.
It’s hard to imagine an industry worse than professional photography, but if I had to name one, I’d pick the airline industry. The airline industry sucks for a few reasons:
Extremely high capital expenditures. A single Boeing 737 (one of the most common planes in the industry) costs anywhere between $52 million and $87 million.
Extremely high labor costs. Skilled pilots, mechanics, ground crew and air crew are expensive and labor disputes are common.
Extremely high fuel costs. Not only does fuel cost a lot, the price is always varying, making it hard to plan and/or expensive to hedge.
Extremely high vulnerability to exogenous events. Weather, air traffic control delays, terrorism, you name it. A big negative event in any of these things can cause millions of dollars in added costs and/or lost revenue.
The result? It’s hard to name an airline that hasn’t gone bankrupt. Let’s just look at a few of the big names that have gone bankrupt in the past 20 years:
Pan American World Airways
America West Airlines
TWA (Trans World Airlines)
So just about every single airline that you’ve ever heard of has gone through bankruptcy. Some reorganized and reemerged, others simply disappeared.
The bottom line the airline industry sucks rotten eggs.
And yet, there’s Southwest Airlines.
If you invested $10,000 in Southwest Airlines in 1990, your investment would now be worth $508,667.
How did they do it? Why have they thrived while almost every other competitor has gone bankrupt? There have been many, many articles written about the success of Southwest, so I’ll just give you some highlights:
They treat their customers well. How about “bags fly free?” The last time I flew Southwest, the pilot announced that our flight saved $3,300 in fees by not charging for checked bags. Flight changes are easy and relatively painless. And they move fast.
Efficiency. Southwest turns its planes around faster than any other airline, which allows them to fly nearly one extra flight per day per plane compared to their competitors. Everything is standardized they use a single plane (the 737) on all their routes. This saves on maintenance time and training. Their simple point-to-point routes means that they have the fewest percentage of lost bags in the industry,
Happy employees. Southwest has never had a strike, despite being the most heavily unionized company in the industry (87%). The employees are on a mission to provide excellent customer service. You’ll never see an airline employee smile more than you do with Southwest. Happy employees make happy customers.
By doing simple things: running efficient operations and treating their customers and employees well Southwest has managed to thrive in a lousy industry.
It sounds simple yet it’s easy to lose sight of. You can succeed, even in a lousy industry.
Now, getting back to your photography business. Is business not what you hoped it would be? Are you struggling competing with all the newbies in your market? Phone not ringing? Running any business is hard, but trying to succeed in a lousy industry is even harder.
If you’re doing great that’s awesome, you’re probably doing the right things! If you’re not, what are you going to do about it? Complain? Spend a few hours today online reading camera reviews and lens-sharpness charts?
You’re going to have to reinvent yourself. Learn from Southwest Airlines and do what your competitors aren’t doing. Kick yourself in the butt.
Phone isn’t ringing? Then get on the phone and make some calls! When was the last time you met a wedding planner for coffee? When was the last time you got together with some other photographers to talk about cross-referrals? When was the last time you met with a realtor who could give out some of your gift cards to families who just purchased a new home in your area? Get off the internet and get on the phone! I guarantee you your competitors aren’t doing this.
No shoots because it’s the slow season? Then start shooting! How about collaborating with a local wedding gown designer or bridal shop to set up some awesome winter bridal fashion shoots? Split the cost of hair/makeup with the designer. Make it a production that turns into an epic blog post and portfolio material.
Influential bloggers in your area? When was the last time you called them and offered a free headshot session?
Still have a 2008era website? You know, one of those Flash-based template sites that don’t work on an iPad or iPhone? Get going now on making a new, awesome site that’s also optimized for mobile.
Only write one blog post a month? Or less? Writing blog posts is one of the best ways for customers to find you. Get going.
Sitting alone at your desk all day without talking to anyone? Call some other vendors (florists, planners, DJs, caterers, cake bakers etc.) and put together your own Mastermind group.
Do you know most of the financial planners in your area? Why not? Have you called them to meet for coffee (yeah, I know, I’m big on coffee)? They have the same target customer base that you do affluent clients. They’re always looking for gifts for their clients, but gifts are expensive (e.g. $75 for a fruit & cheese basket). Why not see if they’ll offer one of your portrait photography gift cards to any client that opens a college savings plan?
How about you try to stop asking for stuff, and instead start giving. Grow your circle and find ways to help them. Why not do a photo shoot of one of the caterers in your circle? Make it magazine-worthy. Blog about them with links to their site. Shoot portraits of them and their food. Help them put together a blog post for their own blog linking to your site, of course). Make them look like the best caterer in town. When you help others it will all come back to you.
The new year is always a good time to kick yourself in the butt. Stop moping. Stop wishing. Stop wasting time. Be the photographer that makes a great income despite being in a lousy industry. Just get out there and start making things happen!