6 Brutal Business Lessons the Coronavirus Has Taught Us

6 Brutal Business Lessons the Coronavirus Has Taught Us

The coronavirus has affected most of the world. In the UK, freelancers have been hit hard with no financial help until June at the earliest. Here are some brutal business lessons that we are all going to have to swallow.

Before I go any further into this, I want to offer a bit of perspective. Our jobs are a treat, they are. If photography stops, the world will continue turning. We aren't doctors, delivering food, making food, or teaching future generations. And at times like these, it is worth remembering that. However, we are all individuals with a passion and careers that we want to hold onto. 

Let's Start With a Positive

We are wanted and desired. My phone has not stopped ringing, from big agents to large agencies struggling to be able to create content for their clients. I have never been as in demand as I have these past two weeks. Sadly, I can’t produce a lot of the work, as I am a food photographer, and we simply can’t get the food in the UK at the moment. I also can’t justify shooting food for advertisements when there is a limited supply in the shops for people to eat. 

Clients have sent me kind emails saying that as soon as this is over that they will be looking to work with me again and that they have plans for me. Despite the brutal economic downturn, I am reassured that once this is over, it will be business as usual for me.

Your Gear Is Pointless

When sat at home with a demising bank balance and an empty diary, your latest Canon or Nikon camera isn’t going to do you a great deal of good. If we are all totally honest, most of us could be shooting on a 10-year-old camera system and producing very similar results that only a photographer would gripe about while pixel-peeping. Gear comes and goes, but your talent doesn’t. It might be prudent going forward to focus your spending on your portfolio and your education rather than gear. You can always rent the gear when a big job comes in, and most of them have a budget for kit anyway. Keep a simple get the job done kit at home and see it as a tool, not a fancy toy that has marginal gains over the previous model. 

This week, I have been shooting from home with a couple of 10-year-old speed lights and a Canon body. Nothing fancy and nothing flash. I am still managing to get the jobs are done and deliver what the client needs.

Cash Flow

That last bit of kit you purchased would probably be better as money in your bank account. Let's be honest here: most of our purchases don’t allow us to do anything new. Granted, buying a 3,200-watt light or a fast head for a pro pack can open up doors, but that new lens or camera probably won’t. Looking after your cash flow and making sure that alongside any savings, you have money rolling in and out is important. 

Savings

For UK photographers who are sole traders, there will likely be no financial help until June. If you splashed all of your cash and are living invoice to invoice, you are probably feeling the pinch a little harder than you really should. It is great advice in hindsight, but once things pick up, it is worth opening a savings account and trying to pull together a year's worth of money that will get you by should something else (Brexit) happen. Removing this stress will push your career along far more than new gear. Knowing that you are set means that you can focus on creativity rather than stressing about the money. 

It is great to have time to focus on new styles of photography with a fresh mind rather than worrying about work all the time

Keep on Top of Your Paperwork

In the last 48 hours, I have had photographers texting and calling asking me where they find certain tax codes, when they should have filed certain papers, and who they should be giving their details to. The phone lines are completely jammed right now, so it is a stressful game to be playing. Making sure that your accounts, business property details, and personal details are all up to date with the right authorities is super important. I use the last Friday of each month for this. And if I get a shoot on that day, I move the job forward to the next free day rather than pushing it back to the next free date.

Overheads

I run a very tight ship. There is very little excess spending that goes on both in my business and personal life. This isn't just because I don’t care for material possessions, but because my business needs to be viable, and in the decade that I have been a photographer in the UK, we have had two Brexit issues and a recession to cope with. It is also looking like we are heading into a second recession too. I don’t have loans, kit on the lease, credit card bills, or any other fixed expenditure that I could do without. My gear is purchased used to save on devaluation, and I try to not buy anything that I don’t need to get my job done day today. 

Once the Coronavirus crisis has lifted, the landscape for photography businesses will have permanently shifted. People will have lost their jobs and savings, personal spending will be lower, and advertising will be more cautious, looking for multiple usages per shoot rather than spending on specific medium campaigns. 

Look at what is in your kit bag. Look to see if you can shift some of it and downgrade to used previous models. I am sure most of us could pull a couple of months of bills out of gear that we just don’t need. Going forward, we can all hold our heads high that we are part of a desired and required industry. The last few weeks have certainly proved this to me. The internet is full of people saying that the public doesn’t respect photographers, but recently, I have found this to be the complete opposite. Hopefully, this shift will be something that we can all look forward to enjoying in the following years. 

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22 Comments

Indy Thomas's picture

Very useful post for small businesses ing general.
The reserve of cash is a necessity that most people ignore/avoid or overlook. But this requires a proper analysis of ones business to develop a pricing scheme that actually generates enough cash flow to allow for the build up of a rainy day fund.
The fact that photographers (and the bulk of small businesses) do not do that is a testament to the huge obstacles they face, not the least of which is insufficient pricing for profit.
I have no time for people who claim I am expensive when the point of my business is not offering cheap shoots for cheap people but rather I owe it to my family to make enough money to keep going in the bad times and provide a secure retirement. My clients are not well served by my disappearance when the slightest cloud appears on the economic horizon.

Motti Bembaron's picture

I will word it differently.

Making sure that you have the reserve for rainy days is not about organizing your price list or charging enough. it's about managing what you do have.

For example, not purchasing things you don't need and instead contribute a certain amount every week to a bank account that you can not access with a debit card.

Keep safe.

Indy Thomas's picture

I would agree but my point is more about taking in enough as opposed to spending too much. All the scrimping in the world will not make a business successful if the revenue is constrained by poor pricing.
Pricing is the subject every small business struggles with. Thus it is often poorly planned and the problems flow from that.

Motti Bembaron's picture

Our "life boat" is very small compares to others' but we have one nonetheless. Little by little, regardless of how much earnings came in, we always saved. Managing is not only bringing in earnings but, as you said, managing our expenses.

You are right, not buying "stuff " (like a 1.2 lens instead of 1.4 for example) is exactly what we need to do to secure a good "lifeboat" or a better retirement.

Rod Kestel's picture

The brutal lesson is there are too many humans on the planet, breeding.

That aside, a quotable quote: "Gear comes and goes, but your talent doesn’t." I'm fortunate not to be reliant on a business/wage income. My thoughts for all you facing that challenge right now.

Johnny Rico's picture

You are such a knob.

Rod Kestel's picture

That's a word I haven't heard since my days dealing with school bullies. You sound like one of them.

George Green's picture

No, your comment was just somewhat out of touch. It’s not as is there weren’t plagues decimating 30-50% percent of the European continent during the middle ages (despite the global population being a fraction of what it is now). I can think of several more prominent “brutal lessons” however.

David Pavlich's picture

Should the 'over breeding' have stopped before or after you were added to the problem?

N A's picture

Global fertility rates are decreasing. Population may start to decrease around 2050 according to one source I read. As standard of living improves families tend to have fewer kids. You can see this throughout Europe and parts of US & Canada. The more religious parts of US still have above replacement level birth rate so the population tends to remain stable.

People living longer is going to be an issue. We're less productive in our later years and there aren't enough young people contributing to offset that deficit.

We're too comfortable, don't understand how the loss of infrastructure can affect us therefore completely unprepared to cope with a major upset to our way of life.

I'm GenX and have never experienced any real adversity in my lifetime. No war on our continent, no famine, stable government, stable power grid, stocked shelves at the grocery store. That's most of the North American middle class. Previous outbreaks have been contained relatively quickly. The cold war was ominous but we just got used to it. The effects of the collapse of USSR weren't felt in American suburbia I don't think.

COVID-19 is the first time I've seen this type of global reaction where day to day life of the entire middle class is impacted for an extended period.

Just me's picture

There was plenty of articles about "how you should charge for a shot ?" by the past.
This is a clear example that your price should included a low period of activity and saving should been part of your everyday plan.
I'm sorry for those who where thinking undercutting the market will make them win anything at the end.

This is the time where the one who should not doing such business, will go.

Motti Bembaron's picture

The reality, in the near future anyway, may very well be that those so called "price cutters" will be taking even more of whatever business we might find after all this is over.

I do not do weddings anymore (daycare and schools mainly) but a very successful colleague of mine told me that he had to reimburse almost two dozen events that were to take place this March and April. He is now getting cancellations for May (he does many middle of the week religious weddings)..

Naturally, no one is postponing, everyone is canceling.

Furthermore, he already received a few emails from clients informing him that they just got married in the local Synagogue with two witnesses. One of his client, after receiving almost $20k back from all the vendors joked that she is going to put a down payment on a house, noting that they will be much cheaper very soon.

Harsh but that's reality. I have a feeling everything will be cheaper.

Our services and products will be considered, again, for the short time anyway, a frivolous, trivial.

If you only knew how many low-ball photographers started their awesome career right after the 2008 crash, offering dirt cheap services. For some it will be too long to wait until market is revived again and they also might just offer lower prices, dragging the industry downward.

I photograph daycare centers and I know for a fact that I will have nothing until at least August. Schools, kindergarten etc. are done for this year (and so are all my bookings). When they are all back we will see how many are still willing to pay for our services. I don't have a crystal ball but I fear we will feel the effects of this event long after August.

sam dasso's picture

Voice of reason. All businesses, not just photographers will be fighting for a smaller piece of the pie and yes, ones that undercut will survive.

Daris Fox's picture

One other lesson, don't put all your eggs into one basket. Have multiple revenue streams to cover quiet periods or alternative skill sets to fall back on such as web development, programming or more traditional/complimentary skill sets such as carpentry, electrician, etc. That way you're never going to be out-of-business and have a revenue stream. I pulled out of photography because the profit margins wasn't sufficient for the time invested and instead I now rely on three different skill sets and two alternative revenue streams.

It's taken about 5 years to get here but a decade of planning. Financially I'm secure enough to ride out this crisis. However many of the new 'business who've not had chance to get a toe hold are screwed unless they can generate alternative revenue streams. I know photographers who've tried to sell gear to cover costs but no-one is buying because we're all in the same boat.

Realistically, given how many people are affected we're not going to see a financial recovery and employment for at least 12 months probably far longer. People won't have the cash to do so and those that do will be limited market.

Scott Murphy's picture

I was a clinical microbiologist for almost 30 years before I retired last year and never in those 30 years of working in a hospital have I ever seen a media fueled hysteria like I have seen with this. Not with SARS in 2003, not with H1N1 in 2009 or with MERS in 2011. And by the way both SARS and MERS are ALSO cause by Coronavirus, I bet 99% of you did not know that. According to the NCHS (National Center for Health Statistics) and CDC the mortality rate for Coronavirus is running at 1.35%. The mortality rate for Pneumonia/Flu is running at 7.4%. Which do you think is the greater Public Health threat? Yet we don't hear a PEEP about the flu in the media.

If people would just exercise some common sense and (1) wash their hands frequently and use hand sanitizer, (2) keep their hands away from their face, (3) maintain a distance of 6-8 feet from anyone who appears unwell or is coughing and sneezing and (4) STAY HOME if you are sick and showing symptoms of a respirator infection, people will be fine.

This whole "pandemic" has become politicized and medicine should never involve politics. It is beyond the pale.

Johnny Rico's picture

Your comment is out of touch with the science and reality of the situation. By saying "BuT i'M a MiCrObIoLoGiSt" doesnt give you any credibility when you peddle lies.

South Korea which has broad-sweeping testing and contact tracing puts it at 1.64% CFR, the Flu is .1% and less contagious.

Bernie Bros's picture

The fact is, if we took the same lockdown precautions during every flu season tens of thousands of lives ended by the seasonal flu would be spared each year. Should we do that?

Johnny Rico's picture

It's almost like, it isn't the flu.

Edit: People uneducated enough to not understand exponential growth and percentages amaze me.

Andre Goulet's picture

You seem to have zero understanding about how contagious this is compared to the flu. That's the issue in a nutshell, because it means that exponential spread overwhelms the hospitals, which pushes up the mortality rate. The reason we have all heard about Flattening The Curve is because we need to flatten the curve to increase odds of survival, because then people are getting proper medical care, increasing their odds of survival dramatically! Really, this isn't a huge logic leap.

Catherine Bowlene's picture

Thank you for this! I was genuinely worrying about the future of my job as a small business worker but now I can relax a little bit. Savings are important and I'm happy I have some but it is not the only thing to rely on. I'm trying to stay positive and do work remotely (i.e. editing the photos, doing some Smartshow 3d slides on request and so on). and still I hope the things will go back to somewhat normal soon.

Nathan Taylor's picture

I sadly burned through my savings last year taking care of my dying father. My backup income streams are from working live events and my previous career was in airlines, so plan B, C & D are all out. Fortunately I live in Canada so within two weeks I'll be getting a $2000/month emergency fund.

Jahid Babu's picture

It is very useful information for small businesses. We are now passing very serious conditions without movement.