I doubt any photographers became professional because they were excited to run the business, but run it they will. Unfortunately, the importance of savvy business practices is much closer to photographic talent that most like to admit, so take a break from honing your portraiture, and hone your abilities as a small business owner.
For all intents and purposes, being a full-time, self-employed photographer and running a small business are one and the same. While I knew that going in, I admittedly put too much weight on photographic prowess, and too little on running a successful business. How I saw it, if I was taking some of the best pictures in a genre, people had to hire me. That's broadly wrong for many reasons, but rather than discussing why business is more important than most think, I'll instead give some crucial tips I have learnt.
Some of these practices I have learnt through trial and error, with some of them being painful errors. However, some are received wisdom. I consume many books on business every year; I'm deep in to double figures for 2018 already. However, none of these books have been about or for photographers, and yet so much is relevant. My first tip is an even split between trial and... well mostly error, and received wisdom of business gurus.
1. Invoice Before You Do the Work
I always opt for the truth over ignorance, even if it is bliss. However, I've refused to work out how much damage this simple misstep did to my business in the first 2 years of self-employment. I would secure a job, do the work until they were happy, then send over my invoice for said job. I had chosen to forgo my collateral entirely and remove all (self-interested) motivation to pay me. What the companies wanted, they already had, and paying me immediately fell right down their to-do list. You might be tempted to say "well, never mind, you got the money in the end — does it really matter?"
I'm going to generously ignore the fact that cash flow for small businesses — which is what photographers are — is a matter of life and death. Instead, I'm going to focus on time. The amount of time I spent chasing invoices to be paid got to be obscene. I'd carry over "get X invoice paid" from my weekly to-do list again and again. This time accumulates and it's being stolen away from canvasing, shooting, or any of the other myriad tasks I had to do. In one instance, I worked with a small brand in two capacities and they owed me money for both. It wasn't a life changing amount, but it wasn't so little I could chalk it up as a mistake. It took me 18 months to get paid, chasing every week, contacting everyone I could in every way I could, and even having them removed from a platform with which they had one of the two outstanding invoices on, for non-payment. I did a rough estimate — once I finally got the money — of how much time I had put in to it, and if I charged them even a very generous hourly rate, how much they'd owe me. It was more than the invoice.
Invoice up front, and do not lift a finger until you've been paid. Now I ask for full payment before I'll even commit to booking in a shoot. The client always gets their work on time and I don't need to chase any invoices and haven't done for a long time, which makes the whole operation that much smoother.
2. Don't Undersell Yourself
I can't remember who said this next nugget of wisdom, but it's the truth: you'll always be too expensive for someone. We have a habit, particularly very early on in a business, to worry about being too expensive. It's a natural consequence of a lack of experience, and moreover, confidence. This leads to working for fees that are far too low for the effort and time that goes in to the job, and while it can be useful in portfolio building, it's generally poor practice.
Pricing in the early days is tough, but it does get easier. Don't undersell your work just to secure a job, thinking that you'll raise your fees later. It's very difficult to change your price once you have established one with a company. You have given them the value of your work, and they're unlikely to be able to be convinced that it's suddenly more valuable.
3. Solve People's Problems and You'll Always Have Work
This is a suggestion made by myriad authors and business experts, and it can and should be applied to photography. It might seem a stretch at first as the doctrine primarily pertains to building businesses, but it needn't stop there. Whatever area of photography you busy yourself with, find out the problems people have in that area with photographers, and solve them. For example, in my particular line of commercial photography I asked prospective clients and first-time clients, what the biggest problem they have is with regards to photography. I invariably got three answers, with usually more than one of these per client: the first is that their photographer is unreliable, hard to contact, and misses deadlines. The second is that their photographer is inconsistent and their work varies in quality and accuracy from brief to brief. The third is that photographers have lots of different fees they didn't realize, like extra costs for images used in print and so on.
The first of these problems I solve without thinking about because I'm irritatingly organized. The second I would always aim to solve, and as time has progressed and my experience has accumulated, I have developed a portfolio so vast, my consistency is hard to deny. The third, in all honesty, I didn't realize was even a problem people had. But, in keeping with solving these problems, I simplified my price structure even further and made sure that the cost covered everything a client might need. I have multiple brands and agencies I work with several times per year and I put a lot of that regular work down to solving their problems.
4. Give and Thou Shalt Receive
This is a tough piece of advice to articulate accurately. While I don't work for free, I do regularly go above and beyond my station. The most common example of this is setting up business connections with each other for no personal gain. I regularly cross paths with people who will be of use to other people I am working or in contact with. It might be as simple as brand and a magazine that fits their style, or a Kickstarter campaign expert and a start-up looking to raise funding. Whatever it is, if I think I can introduce two people who could be useful to each other, I'll spend time making those introductions and helping them get going.
One of the reasons this advice is a hard sell, is the evidence for its worth is not succinctly put in to statistics I can point to. However, what I've found is invariably the companies and people I go out of my way to help, will reciprocate at some stage or another.
Conclusion and Part Two
I originally wrote out about twenty aspects of the business of photography I wish I'd had a better understanding of when I started, and distilled it down to the best eight for one article. Either I'm verbose or the exposition of the points is a larger task than I thought (they are not mutually exclusive) and so I've decided to split the advice in to two articles.
There are many aspects of business where there is no substitute for experience unfortunately, but at least some of that experience can be passed on to avoid people making similar mistakes. Or, better still, making prudent moves they might have otherwise not have made. My next four points are more on the subject of avoiding pitfalls like prospective clients wasting your time because they just want an hour off for a cup of tea and a relaxed meeting. Time-wasters under the guise of networking are an expensive luxury you can do with out.
To you fellow professional photographers out there, if you could turn that clock back and give your younger self some business advice, what wisdom would you impart?