Let’s address the elephant in the room: there are probably 1.2 trillion pieces of content about running a business. I’ve read maybe half of them myself, and there’s some outstanding information available, but let’s set a goal to create the top mistakes to avoid when you decide to go from hobbyist to professional.
At the start, let’s agree that this sort of list can be and should be modified based on each person's circumstances and the state of the market. What follows are what I consider the most common mistakes for new photographers going into a business that has the highest chances of undermining their effort before it has a chance to mature. Some of this will come across as common sense and some will fly in the face of what is considered best practice. Ultimately, you want to know what not to do rather than what you think you should do based on the example of others. It’s easy to see when someone is successful and try to reverse-engineer the process, but what you never see are the mistakes or lessons learned that almost sunk the ship while it was still in the harbor. Let’s dig in.
1. Remove The Burden of Profit
I coach photographers that are new to the business, and they’re usually worried about getting clients as soon as possible, which is understandable, but what I tell them is to focus instead on learning the business side. There are so many hats to wear at the same time that the last thing you want to worry about is trying to make a living on something that you don't even know how to do yet.
If you can stay employed elsewhere while learning how to run things as a solo-preneur and before needing to make money, then you drastically increase the chances of success. Most start running specials and deals within the first few months, thinking that’s the way to attract clients to build a reputation, but that’s a race to the bottom strategy. Think about it like this: if you’re using thousands of dollars in gear and yet charging $99 for your work, how will you ever maintain those high costs and get anywhere near a livable wage?
The goal is to always provide value, and there’s no value in cheapening the rates you charge for your work. In the Win the Without Pitching Manifesto, Blair Enns talks about needing to provide the highest level of service to clients. To do that, you need to charge enough to not just make some money, but provide funds to accomplish the creative vision. So, you need to allow yourself room for higher fees to deliver exceptional work and make money at the same time. One should not be exclusive of the other.
Avoiding the need for profit also means you have time to think long term about the type of work you want to offer and to what kind of client. The goal is long-term thinking rather than trying to quit your paycheck before you have a viable business model up and running. This doesn’t mean you have to wait until there’s a line of clients at your door, but at least have a process for acquiring them at a strong price point before giving up your financial lifeline.
2. Deal With Your G.A.S.
No, not your flatulence, you disgusting human. We’re talking about Gear Acquisition Syndrome, the need to buy stuff that you don’t need. This alone can kill a new business, because the industry has exploded with trinkets from all over the world in the last 10 years. Not only are camera manufacturers averaging a new body every 12 months, but smaller players have also started to create new gadgets for you. You can now buy pre-made v-flats, strobes that fit in the palm of your hand, and custom-made camera leather straps with your name embossed. There is also the exploding market of knock-offs to make what was once only available to the elite studios insanely cheap for everyone. See the new line of para-softboxes as an example.
You don’t need any of it.
What’s required is a source of light, a location, and a subject. Start with just the minimal components to make your art and only add something that you’ll use at least every other shoot. If it sits on the shelf for six months, then you need to get rid of it unless you can command a very high fee to justify the rare usage. Think about it like this: when you buy something that isn’t needed to grow your business, imagine it as a stack of cash sitting on a shelf that you can’t spend. That’s equity in your business that’s going unused.
This will vary depending on your line of work, but almost universally, you don’t need a rented space to create your art. Portraiture, headshots, and even boudoir can be shot in the smallest of spaces with good lighting. Fashion, commercial work, and automotive can all be shot outdoors or at a rented studio. The difference there is you expense the cost to the client rather than a long-term commitment. Architecture and real estate are no-brainers.
The goal, in the beginning, isn’t to load up on overhead costs because, as stated in number one, you want to focus on creating amazing work with what you have versus assuming you can’t without buying something first. This is the greatest marketing lie ever created.
4. The Long Game
This goes hand in hand with the first three points because the goal is to envision where you want to go before moving on to the more advanced tasks. An example of this is to start running ads before you’ve built a solid portfolio and website to showcase those images. You need to pay the bills and keep the lights on, but that’s what the day job is for until you can transition to using photography to supplement your income.
To approach this from the opposite side, asking for money before your art is ready can be incredibly frustrating and demoralizing. Just because someone offers to give you money doesn’t mean they’ll be thrilled with the results.
Until you have so many successes in a row that you can’t remember the last unhappy client, you’ve got work to do. Consistency in your work is what people pay to have. Yes, they probably like the look they see in your other images, but what they want is to trust you to make them look the same as your other work no matter what the challenges. A professional is professional at all times, not just when it’s convenient and everything works as needed.
5. Avoid the Clutter of Instruction (Including This One)
There are thousands of tutorials, presets, photo groups, styles, LUTs, and more available online. I think it’s safe to say there’s no end to the amount of instruction on the interwebs for photographers. The obvious benefit to this is the ease of access and the democratization of knowledge. Where once, things were guarded like they were government secrets, you can now see how someone lights a subject in real-time.
The negative effect is that there’s no filter to the information. This means, first and foremost, the bar to entry is nonexistent. Anyone and everyone can offer information regardless of their level of experience, and that’s not a good thing. A common practice now is to gain a following of some sort by regurgitating what someone else has already presented. Just re-package by changing the presentation and adding personality, and voila, new content.
If used wisely and with humility, this can work very well, but when was the last time you heard the words "internet" and "wise" in the same sentence? A way to avoid overstimulation and distractions is to be hyper-vigilant of what you’re watching and what you intend to do with it. Is this something that’s in line with your business model? Is this giving you insight into how to dial in your look? Or is it making you insecure and undermining your confidence? Be aware of your intent of consumption and the creator’s motives.
6. Accept the Creativity Gap
If you haven’t listened to Ira Glass’s monologue on the creativity gap, stop now and watch it. What you envision yourself making and what you’re able to create at the present moment are very far apart. To close the gap takes time and countless failures. This is the simplest and best advice for new artists in any discipline. Be patient with your growth and make a lot of crappy work. Again, you’re playing the long game; short-term fixes rarely have benefits down the road. That’s just how it works.
7. Avoid the Four-Letter Word
Lastly, but still very important, is to not go into debt. I cannot stress this enough, as it’s statistically one of the most prominent killers of new businesses in the U.S. That passion and desire to get started is intoxicating, but unchecked, it can lead you to buy without planning. Again, to take photos, you need a camera, a subject, and light. One of those costs money, but the other two can be found roaming the wild, just waiting for you to come along and freeze the moment.
Tying into the first three again, you don’t need the latest gear or what your icon uses to create those amazing magazine covers. The best part here is that your dedication to your craft will guide you on when it’s time to invest in new gear. It will become obvious as you progress in knowledge and skill that what you’re using is no longer able to keep pace, and so, your ability predicates your purchases rather than the latest product release.
As always, this is presented with the knowledge that I’m still learning but that everyone can benefit from knowledge gained through experience.
Have something to add? Drop it in the comments, and always be kind to each other.