Creating a Business Plan for Photographers
Starting any business is a serious undertaking but a photography business is actually one of the easiest type of business to get started in.
After all most photography businesses start with one employee, the photographer and no expensive offices or stock.
A decent camera and a great plan is all you really need to get started and if you’re thinking of being a photographer you probably already have the camera so let’s look at making a great plan for you.
What’s in a Name?
Juliet asks Romeo ‘What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.’
Meaning that if we used the word ‘sore’ to refer to a rose it would still be the same flower. Many photography businesses follow this logic in that they are simply named after the photographer. Aaron Geis Photography, for instance could just as well be Steve Smith Photography if I was called Steve. It’s me and my images that are making my business what it is.
That said, if you want to open a portrait studio with several photographers, or you just prefer to have a creative type of business name that is also possible. In that case I would create a shortlist of ideas and do some market testing. First check to see if there is anyone in your area already using that name and ask friends and family what they think of the various possibilities.
It’s good to start early because you really want to avoid changing your business name once you have your website and social media set up as that can hurt your Search Engine Optimization (how well you rank on Google).
Fail to Plan = Plan to Fail
I don’t usually go for pithy truisms but sometimes they get the point across quickly. If you don’t take the time to create a solid plan for your business you can expect your business to fail. The Small Business Association statistics show that 50% of businesses fail in the first 5 years and only 25% make it past 15 years. If you want to become one of the elite group of successful business owners you will need to put a lot of energy into the business side of being a photographer.
First question: what type of photographer do you want to be?
A weddings and portrait photographer? A commercial and advertising photographer? A photojournalist? Or perhaps a social media specialist?
If someone asks, ‘What do you do?’ Having a clear answer helps them understand what kind of work you might be looking for and it will also help you formulate a business plan to get your business started.
Perhaps you have heard the term ‘elevator pitch’ before. An elevator pitch is a few sentences that explain what your business does in 20-30 seconds.
Today I might say something like, ‘I’m a commercial and advertising photographer working with small businesses of every kind and also corporate giants such as Mercure Hotels, Trivago and Google. One recent project involved photographing all 3000 plus Wessex Water employees for their social media profiles.’
But when I started my business 25 years ago I might have said, ‘I’m a commercial and advertising photographer looking to work with anyone from the small businesses to the corporate giants. Really any business that needs branding images for their websites and marketing materials.’
The only difference really is that I have some big name clients that I can use to illustrate my experience but both pitches are asking for the same kind of work.
A wedding and portraits photographer might say something like, ‘I’m a wedding and portrait photographer. My passion is showing women how gorgeous they truly are’.
Know Your Market
Once you know what kind of photographer you want to be you can start thinking about who your potential clients are and how you can let them know you are available to help them.
Are you targeting particular types of businesses? If so do they have trade journals or other industry specific places that you might advertise.
A photojournalist would be making a list of the various publications that they might approach. A wedding and portrait photographer would be thinking about wedding fairs and bridal magazines and also local magazines and social media.
Research you competition. Who are they and what do they do to advertise themselves. Are they showing up on the first page of a Google search? Do you see them at bridal fairs? What do their websites look like? How often are they posting on their social media accounts? I have a bookmarks folder in my web browser that has links to my local competition and also photographers that I think are really inspirational. Checking in with them every so often helps keep me up to date on what the competition is doing to keep themselves in business.
You also need to know what the market price for your services is in your area. Many wedding and portrait photographers put their prices on their websites, not as many commercial and advertising photographers publish their prices but I was able to quickly find a couple of examples of local competitors who do have published rates that are comparable to what I charge.
I strongly discourage anyone from trying to compete on price in the professional photography market. If you undercut your competitor you just end up undercutting yourself. I understand the feeling that other photographers have more experience and a better portfolio so they should be charging more but instead I would ask you to think of it this way - so long as you are delivering creative and compelling imagery the client is getting the same value from a photographer who is just starting out as they are from a seasoned pro.
Many people mention the ‘imposter syndrome’ when the subject of pricing comes up so a big part of my Apprenticeship Programme is focussed on supporting new photographers in knowing their value.
So, if you’re not competing on price how do you stand out in a crowded field?
By being yourself.
Even marketing managers for large corporations will often make decisions based on personal connections. Once you have all of the building blocks in place you simply need to say, ‘I can do this!’
Will you need equipment that you don’t already have? Are you planning to rent a studio? How much will this cost and where will this money come from?
Even if you have all of the kit you need and don’t plan on renting a studio you need to figure out your Cost Of Doing Business. There will be monthly costs such as Liability Insurance, Software Licenses, Bank Fees and Advertising Costs, annual costs such as Accountancy Fees and Website Hosting, irregular costs such a Graphic Design and Marketing Materials, depreciation costs such as replacing computers and camera when they become outdated. And don’t forget taxes which are sometimes quarterly depending on what type of business structure you are using.
Start a spreadsheet with columns for the various time periods - monthly, quarterly, annually, 3 yearly, 5 yearly.
Then do the math do to figure out how much your annual costs will be.
Monthly costs x 12, Quarterly x4, 3 yearly divided by 3, etc.
Next question, how much do you need to earn to pay for your personal expenses.
Add your costs and what you need to pay yourself. The taxes you will owe will depend on your actual billings and actual costs, you need to work with a local accountant to determine what your tax liability is likely to be. Once your business is cruising along earning you a living the oft quoted 30% for tax is about right but in the first years you may not be earning as much and your tax bill will be less. Or you may be working a salaried job and doing weddings on the weekends and in that case your tax bill for the photography business could be higher.
Ok, now how many weeks holiday to you expect to take? If that would be 4 weeks holiday then you have 48 weeks to cover you costs and pay yourself.
Just to create an example let’s say that you have calculated that your Cost Of Doing Business will be 12000 (insert local currency here) per year and you need to earn 24000 per year. That comes to 36000, multiply by 1.3 to add tax and you get 46,800. Now divide by 48 weeks = 975 that you need to bring in every week on average.
If you set your day rate at 750 the you would need to average 1.3 days per week, in other words 1-2 full days a week.
That’s about right considering that you need time to doing the editing, marketing, networking, invoicing and everything else required to run a business.
When you start to get more work than that you can look at out-sourcing some things like marketing, office work, possibly editing and depending on your business model even some of the actual photographing.
Another cliche term perhaps but once you have a good plan for how you’re going to get started you also need a long term vision to help steer you towards greater heights.
Maybe you just want your business to be healthy and sustainable at the 5 year point. What would that look like? How are you going to get from no shoots per week to 2 shoots per week?
Or you might have certain clients that you hope to work with in the next 5 years. How will you attract them to your business?
Now that you have a clear idea what services you intend to provide and who your target market is you need to set out a marketing plan.
Social media is free and most people are using one type of social media or another so I would say that social media should be part of pretty much every photographer’s marketing plans. If you’re marketing to businesses then LinkedIn may play the larger role and if you are marketing to consumers then Facebook and Instagram may be more important to you.
I design daily posts that combine an image that will work on Instagram (portraits get cropped unless you include borders to create a square image file) with text that is more oriented to my LinkedIn audience. I then post the same image and text to LinkedIn and Instagram, with Instagram set up to feed the post to Facebook and Twitter.
Another cornerstone of my marketing plan is in-person networking. I’m part of a networking group that meets once a month for lunch and I plan 1-2-1 meetings with people who are in my group and also visitors to the group and other people that are recommended by those people. These personal connections can lead to direct sales but also to sales from the ‘word-of-mouth’ advertising they produce.
Next on the list is Search Engine Optimization. That’s the quasi-science of getting your business listing to appear on the first page of Google Search and to a lesser extent on other search engines such as Bing and Apple. Why ‘quasi-science’? Because the results are not exactly repeatable and Google isn’t saying exactly what weight they give to the various factors because they don’t want people ‘gaming’ the system.
What is known is that you want to be very careful to use the same information to describe your business on as many listings platforms (Google My Business, Yelp, Facebook, etc) as you can and that reviews help a lot. There’s much more to it than that but I’ll save that for another blog post.
Paid advertising gets expensive very quickly so it’s probably something that you will only get into once your business is generating decent income, unless you have another source of investable income.
This is only a brief sketch of what you may want to put into your own business plan but from my experience of working with students in a Professional Photography Degree Programme trying to make a complicated business plan with cash flow projections is dis-spiriting and somewhat meaningless until you get going.
On the other hand you don’t want to start off in the wrong direction and make costly mistakes.
I suggest starting a Google Doc with the headings - Name - Elevator Pitch - My Customers - My Competition - Money Stuff - 5-Year Plan - Marketing Plan - and finally Barriers To Success.
Fill in each section with as much thought and detail as you can. For the Barriers To Success part be honest with yourself, what is stopping this plan from happening? Do you need more equipment? More skills? More self-belief? How are you going to remove those barriers?
As I mentioned earlier I have created an Apprenticeship Programme based on my experience teaching in a Professional Photography Degree Programme and on my 25 years in business.
If this sounds like something you would be interested in please contact me using the form found on this page - http://www.aarongeis.com/associates