Hello, and happy 2016! The start of a new year is the perfect time to reflect on the past, and since it's a great idea to understand where you've been in order to get where you want to go, I'll be doing just that today. I’m using this post to discuss what happened in my photography business over the past 12 months and to lay out where I’d like to take it in the next 12.
Most exciting for me in 2015 was that I managed to triple my income over the previous year by setting some common sense practices and really getting to know the programs that make it easier to run a business; I've listed the best ones below. With the exception of BlinkBid and The Arcanum, the rest of these are useful for any type of business, not just photography, so read on and let me know what you think. And if there are programs you like that I haven't mentioned, please let me know in the comments section.
For me, keeping on top of the business end of things is the toughest aspect of being self-employed. Not only do you have to do the actual work you're getting paid for (a.k.a, the fun stuff), you have to woo clients and keep their projects organized, handle billing and taxes, work on advertising and marketing, and still find time to feed your creative soul. The number of departments you have to head as a small business owner can be frightening, so the first, biggest, and best thing I did for my business last year was signing up for 17hats, an all-in-one business system for entrepreneurs that allows you to consolidate a lot of your back-end workload into one easily-managed site. It’s been a real time-saver for me, limiting the number of programs I have to use for tasks as diverse as:
- Creating a client index
- Lead generation
- Emailing clients
- Compiling quotes for jobs
- Designing and sending invoices
- Billing and collecting payment for jobs
- Time tracking
- Keeping a daily to-do list
- Centralizing my calendar
The 17hats folks are constantly working on improvements, so the site is still a work in progress in some areas and thus isn’t without frustrations — for instance, I can’t connect my Etsy shops to the payment module — but they take suggestions for improvements and allow users to vote on the ones they should integrate first. Their customer service has been fast and responsive the few times I've needed them. If you’re interested in signing up, follow this link for more information. (If you use it, I'll get credit for a free month. If you don't, you'll still get a great deal — I just won't get credit for referring you.)
If you don't need the client management tools of 17hats but are looking for an accounting program that's easier to use than QuickBooks, Wave is a fantastic, free online accounting site that I highly recommend. It can also handle invoicing, payments and payroll, making it a very useful tool when you're just starting out.
Sometimes you need a centralized system for random note-taking that you can sync across devices. For this sort of thing (and for tracking mileage), I absolutely love Evernote. The free version has more than enough storage for me, but there are paid business versions that allow you to add multiple users to the same account.
I really credit having good SEO on this website with my increased revenue last year. People searching for photographers found me much more often in 2015 than they did previously. I began receiving many more inquiries once I targeted whom I wanted to reach. While every inquiry didn’t turn into a paying client, I was very happy with the projects I took on, and most of those projects led to ongoing relationships.
There's a LOT involved with getting your SEO in order (and it's a long process that doesn't pay immediate dividends), but the first step I took was to research my competition — those photographers who could conceivably be hired instead of me for a project. Then I looked at what makes me different from them — how I can better bring value to my target customer — and updated my titles and tags accordingly. I hope to fine-tune it this year to better reach the market I can best serve in tabletop and restaurant photography.
Last year was my second time taking Marie Forleo’s B-School. I didn’t quite complete the program, but I’ve learned incredible, workable lessons for building a business from the ground up through this program. There’s a vibrant community surrounding B-School and participation in it is as big of a learning experience as the actual course work. Some of the other students over-market to the rest of us from time to time, but if you interact with a good head on your shoulders, it’s the best learning experience you can have for the money. Believe me: I've taken more courses and done more reading over the past four years than I can even tell you.
Check out the B-School website here. If you decide to sign up for the course this Spring, be sure to do so through a B-School affiliate, generally a former student who offers his or her own classes or materials when you register through them. It’s no additional cost to you and you'll get a lot more out of it. I joined B-School through Kristen Kalp's affiliate program a couple of years ago and couldn’t be more thrilled with the ongoing support and creative community she’s built on her own.
I have two Etsy shops now — one that sells photo prints and one that sells digital stock photography for small businesses. With the latter, I mainly cater to sellers of stationery, but also sell food stock photography and general desktop images. These shops allow me to add additional revenue streams to my freelance income and keep me in practice during slow periods. I haven't marketed those shops because they aren't my primary area of income, but even so, the extra money they generate is much appreciated.
Photo Shoot Estimates
When you're starting your photography business, or even when you've been at it a while, bidding on a job can be stressful, if not downright confusing. BlinkBid is the best tool I've found for creating photo shoot estimates. It gives you all the categories and tools you could ever need to bid on a project and shows you the going rate for your market so you don't come in ridiculously high or low relative to other photographers. I've found it especially helpful when I'm trying to determine usage rights, which drove me to distraction in the early days of my business. It's still a delicate dance and bidding often involves a lot of discussion with clients to demonstrate why you're the best choice, but this software can steer you in the right direction.
It's so important to stay on top of new developments and hone your skills, especially if you're self-taught, as I am. I joined The Arcanum last October, and have to say it’s been a fantastic learning experience so far. The Arcanum allows you to grow as a photographer (professional or hobbyist) through targeted mentoring, using the time-tested Master & Apprentice learning method. I’ve learned a great deal about commercial food styling and photography from the master of our cohort in just the short time I’ve been with them, and my fellow apprentices are a talented and inquisitive bunch from whom I’ve also discovered a lot.
Signing up on the website is free. Once you’re selected by a master to join the cohort he or she leads, you can choose to accept or decline the invitation. If you accept, you’ll become a member of the Arcanum for a monthly fee (currently $79) with access to the Grand Library — a treasure trove of photography videos across all disciplines. It’s not as inexpensive as a completely self-directed education, but I'm getting to where I need to be much, much faster than I was able to on my own, so I'll happily continue with the program. This has been an extremely efficient way of gaining the specialized knowledge I need, and I consider the targeted instruction I’m receiving invaluable. (Just my two cents.)
If you think you want to throw your hat in the ring but still have some questions, feel free to email me to chat about it. And if you decide to sign up, I’d love it if you’d let me know so I can send you a direct link for an invitation; if you join via my link, I'll receive one free month of membership and you'll receive a fantastic education plus my gratitude!
I’m not one to make resolutions, generally, but I do like to set intentions and goals for the year. Resolutions are generally action-driven — to work out more, to drink less, to eat more nutritious meals — but intentions resonate at a deeper level; they reflect who you are at your core, with actions flowing from them. Christine Kane has been preaching this for years. I've learned from her to set a word of intention for the year.
With that said, here's what's in the works for 2016:
- My intention for this year is Focus. Where I fell down in 2015 was bouncing from task to task and trying to do too much at one time, which resulted in getting less done and less completely than I wanted.
- My financial goal for 2016 is to once again triple my income, which would be a spectacular thing to achieve. I have a few extra irons in the fire, so it's certainly possible, but will take all the focus I can muster.
- I'm working on an online product photography course for small business owners that will get them up and running with professional-looking images in no time at all. I'm contacted pretty often for custom shoots, and while I love doing them, they're not an efficient use of my time and can turn quite expensive for a small shop. For the cost of three or four custom branding photos, my course will teach people how to produce the photos they need with a minimal investment in equipment. If you'd like to learn more about it when it's available, please sign up here for updates.
- Marketing. It's been the bane of my existence till now, but it's a necessary part of business. I'll be taking Marie Forleo's advice and turning it into an opportunity to serve people who need my services rather than sending annoying sales pitches to anyone and everyone.