Today begins a three part series on building a successful business plan as a photographer. The topic deserves its own full book, but hopefully these essays will give those of you just starting out a primer on things you need to consider when turning your hobby into a profession.
Everyone knows that step one to starting a business is to write a solid business plan. Of course, I understand that we as artists don’t always do things according to the book, and it is perfectly possible to run a business without a written document. But, personally, I’ve found that a little bit of planning has gone a long way in my being able to not only create art consistently for over a decade, but also to continue to pay my bills in the process.
When you’re just starting your business, you will have 101 different questions to answer and very little information on which to base your answers. It can take years just to settle on the answer to the most basic question: “What will my product be?” Of course, your product will be a photograph/video. But what kind of photograph/video? I’ve written extensively about ways to determine your niche in the past, so for this article, I’ll assume you’ve already done that heavy lifting and are ready to turn your passion into profit.
Of course, human beings can’t live on passion alone. Maybe they can in movies. But when you walk into the bank and ask to deposit passion, you’re likely to get one or two strange looks from the teller and possibly be escorted out by the security guard.
So, what is your plan for sustainability? How will you operate? How do you intend to grow your business? These are the things you need to know before going into business, not after. The business plan will help you define them.
So what is in a business plan? Depending on the complexity of the operation or product, a business plan can be one page or one hundred pages. And there are a multitude of different ways to structure your plan as well so I in no way mean to imply this is the only way. But here are some of the basics I started with that I have found helpful.
What is your business? Short and to the point. What is the name of business? What services do you provide (photography, videography, etc.)? Who do you provide those services to (companies, individuals, a specific market segment, etc.)? Why do you provide those services (to ensure customer satisfaction, to make the world a better place, etc.)? Each of those sentences could easily be built into individual essays. But, for your company description, try to lay it out short and sweet in 2-3 sentences similar to your elevator pitch. It’s just a quick introduction which you will expound on later in the document. Also note that, in the process of writing this document, you may want to start with the questions below then come back to writing your company description at the end once you’ve narrowed your focus throughout the following sections.
What does your company sell? Wedding photography? Headshots? Corporate portraits? Advertising imagery? And within those categories, what specific products do you offer? If you’re a wedding photographer, for example, you might offer wedding photos, wedding videos, engagement sessions, photo booths, photo albums, and much more. Maybe you expand your service to the whole family life cycle and also offer newborn photography, pregnancy portraiture, senior portraits. Whatever it is that you sell, create a comprehensive list here. These are your products. These are the things that will generate revenue. They are, shall we say, kind of a big deal.
It makes no sense trying to sell wetsuits in the desert. Part of running a successful business is selling a product that the market actually wants. Of course that sounds simple at first, but can also keep you up a night or two. I mean, who knew they needed Google until it was invented. Some of the strongest businesses are often built by creating a market need where previously none existed. Actually, perhaps the better way to say that is that those companies like Google or Facebook didn’t so much create a market need as they identified a need that wasn’t previously being served. In the case of Google, being able to get access to information 24-7 at the click of a mouse. In the case of Facebook, being able to keep people connected and extend the basic human need for community building into the digital marketplace. Of course, each of those businesses come with their own shortcomings, but the idea is clear.
Naturally, knowing what the market needs first requires you to know your market. On a basic gut level, you may have an idea that a certain type of photography would be popular in your area or that there is a certain market demand not being met. But your business plan is where you want to dig a little deeper.
Let’s say you want to be a commercial advertising photographer and you have developed a niche for shooting super saturated imagery. Next step would be to get a sense of whether the market you inhabit can sustain that business model. How many businesses (potential customers) are there in within your geographic market that could potentially buy from you? How many other photographers are currently serving that market? Where would you place yourself among that pool of photographers? High end, low end? How is your product differentiated from your competition? Are you selling on quality? Price point? If you are selling on price point, how much business will you need to generate in order to break even? It’s one thing to be willing to undercut another photographer’s prices to win a bid, but if you’re not booking enough volume to make it a sustainable business, you’re not going to be successful.
Likewise, if you’re selling based on quality, you must first assure that you’re marketing to an audience that values quality. There’s a reason they don’t sell Porsches at Walmart. Not that there is anything wrong with Walmart. But if you’re a bargain shopper, the odds are you’re not going to be in the market for a sports car. Just like if you’re a in need of a passport photo because it’s required by law, you’re likely to have different budget expectations than a corporation needing an image to help sell their product.
You need to know that you have a product to sell. You need to know how much to charge for that product to sustain and grow your business. You need to know that there are enough customers in the area willing to pay that price in order to consistently generate revenue.
In Part II of building our business plan, we will move from the prose to the poetry and look into the deeper motivations behind your product and how you can focus those motivations to shape your business.