Up until now we've talked mostly about how to shift your thinking away from the unfortunate standard of the professional artist. However, we can't really talk about how to build a thriving business without addressing the stretches when nobody is walking through the door. In fact, many of us are probably running head first into that season right now.
If you watched the interview I did with TogTools several weeks back you probably heard me mention running out of money early in my career. What I didn't mention is that it happened because I wasn't prepared for the ebb and flow of my new line of work. I was naive and somehow thought that the income would never stop. If you're laughing at that thought, good, you're definitely smarter than I was. See, I didn't know then that all businesses have seasons of excess and drought. Ours is especially vulnerable to these.
Every genre of photography has it's revenue slumps and despite the term "seasons" it doesn't always have to do with the weather. Commercial photographers slow down when corporate budgets are being worked out. Portraits and weddings are generally slow in the winter. The list goes on and on, varying from market to market. No matter what we're shooting or where we are located we have to anticipate these times, and have a plan to at least survive them if we can't still thrive in them.
There are plenty of lists out there on what to do with yourself in the off months. In fact back in July, Fstoppers writer Lindsey Pantaleo wrote a great piece on Securing Business in the Off Season. So rather than revisit the same stuff everyone else has already said...I'm going to tell you what I do with my time when the income goes dark.
My business (like yours) has very noticeable peaks and valleys. In the fitness industry things still tend to fall off a lot around the winter and subsequent holidays. People are with their families and usually indulging in all the food that comes with the season. If they aren't doing that, then they may be trying to add on a bit of size which still means eating more. Regardless of the reason, more often than not most fitness people aren't ready to be photographed. So for a few months I have a lot of time where I'm not necessarily behind the camera. There have been periods of up to four months like this before.
If you thought that a few weeks with no business was rough, think about how happy I was about that stretch.
The first thing I learned to do in the slumps was to work on a projected budget for the next year. If you just went pro this may not be as easy to do as if you had a couple years of data to draw from. I'll address that in a minute. For those of us that do, it's fairly easy to look at your books and come up with the average revenue for each month. If it's been consistent then you can reasonably expect that it will remain so. Then I take the guaranteed expenses and add in a "disaster fund" to cover the unexpected. Looking at those numbers I plan how that income will be spread out over the year. This helps me understand when I need to save, and how much I need to have tucked away by the start of the down time. This process also showed me very clearly why developing passive, residual income is crucial to building wealth...but that's another article altogether. If you're just wrapping up your first year with photography as your only income, congratulations. I mean that seriously. Good job! Since you don't have a previous year to base your budget on, I want you to take what you made this year, subtract 20% of that and assume you will only make that next year if you do nothing different. This way you have a less favorable situation for your budget to be based on. Trust me, it will make you really tight now, but it will make you really happy next year.
Knowing that safety net is set aside does wonders for the stress level when the lull is in full swing.
Looking at myself objectively, inside and outside of the business, has also become a habit in these times. To be clear though, it is something that is also done throughout the year. It just happens that at the beginning of the slow season this is where I start. It's a crucial piece of figuring out what to focus on. Was I working as hard as I could? Was I networking enough? Did I update my site with new work? How's the social media presence? Where did I spend that I didn't need to? And so on. The point of this is to be honest with myself about what I'm doing to fix any problems that have come up...and what I'm doing to unwittingly make them worse. We work in a field of egos that don't understand how blinding pride can be. Of course we should be proud of the work we create, but never to the point of thinking we have no weaknesses in ourselves or our business. There is always someone out there better than you. The hardest day of my career was the day I realized I hadn't been giving good customer service.
Getting organized comes next, which isn't something I'm genetically designed to do. I have always been the guy that just didn't notice how chaotic my own space was. However, I've learned how valuable it is to keep things free of clutter. Be it my image archives, email, physical desk space, or the entire building...I appreciate how much simpler things go when there is order. So I take out the proverbial trash and make both my virtual and physical environments orderly. Believe me when I say that this one is a big challenge for me. Yet when the space around me is clear, I find that my mind becomes a bit more clear as well. It's a great tradeoff.
Coming up with a plan of attack for next year is probably my favorite part of the off season. It gives me a lot of time to not only reflect (and pivot if needed), but to strategize as well. I always start by making either a moderate update to my site, or a complete overhaul. This is mostly culling and updating images, but then shifts into making sure the feel isn't outdated. Honestly it's a huge task and is equal parts fun and irritating. Then I get to move on to the overall plan for marketing and development for the next year. This is probably the most important project during the down time. The site could never change and business would be fine, but without this I'm sunk. It's so important that it can determine not only how long the slow season lasts, but also if it will ever end. It's not enough to have an idea of what to do either. There has to be a plan. For example: If I'm not getting the work I'm truly after, I'll work on spec concepts that will better position me to approach those clients. Sometimes this is really simple, and then other times you'll find me developing an entire campaign strategy to shoot. The ultimate point of all of this however, is to make it so I am more likely to have the product my clients will want. Then the marketing plan ensures that I'm the one they call to get it.
Finally, I make sure to spend time learning. This is usually split between educating the entrepreneur side of me and the kid side, but there is always a big chunk of photographic learning too. This all stems from the initial self-reflection. "Where am I weak and how can I fix that?" Ultimately we want to make sure we don't get rusty, or stagnant when things start up again. Sometimes I'll even go back and rework images from early in my career just to make sure my editing skills stay sharp. Will I ever have to retouch an image that bad again? Hopefully not, but if I can bring those tragedies back from the grave I know I'll be much better at fixing whatever issues I may have on tomorrow's images.
All said, the main thing is to remember to use the down times to improve the busy times. It's very easy to fall into bad habits when nothing seems to be happening. It's even easier to let yourself become negative. It's ok to take a day off when times are slow, you should be doing taking time off anyway! Just don't get sucked down into thinking it will never pick back up. I promise you it will. Stay positive. This business feels more like the tide to me than any other. The work will recede back into the ocean and then, before you know it, you'll be drowning in images again.
Don't give up.