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It's Not All About The Money

It's Not All About The Money

Tired of hunting for budgets as if they were unicorns? A few weeks ago I wrapped up our commercial pricing guide which is a great reference IF you can get a paying client. As many of us know, sadly, that can be a pretty big IF. Here are a few strategies to help you turn a client with no budget into a winner!

I work with a lot of small businesses. I find this to be very fulfilling work. It genuinley brings me joy to meet with enthusiastic new business owners who have grand ideas and the gusto to take on the world. There is something very energizing about that and maybe it will keep my mind young as I inevitably grow old. I say maybe, because along with the energizing effect, there is also the frustration of an overwhelming wave of potential clients who do NOT have a budget.

Earlier in my career I used to get quite frustrated at the lack of appreciation for our industry and craft. We have all seen examples floating around the web of artists cracking under the pressure and retaliating with scathing emails and the sort. Is this really the best approach however? Over the years I have found that many potential clients actually do not have a budget. They are not trying to leave money off the table and they are not trying to screw you over. They are simply a small business looking to stick around long enough with what little capital they have in a capitalist world. Being a new business owner is as tough a position as being a starving artist, because really, they are one and the same.

More often then not, I find that when I am contacted by clients who lack a budget, they are not so much seeking a free service but a solution. They may not be asking for a solution initially, but whenever it is presented to them, they are always grateful for it. I want to give you examples of 3 solutions that I offer to a client with no budget. Not all clients will take you up on the offer, but some will, and that to me is always better then flat out shutting the door and losing out on an opportunity.

Payment Plan


The payment plan is always the first offer I pitch. Commercial work can get a little expensive sometimes. Creative fees and licensing costs can really add up and for a new business it can be VERY hard to part with that kind of money up front. Many of these small businesses have very tight operating budgets and even minor deviations can wreak havoc.

As fellow business people we can be a little understanding. A client who sticks around is more valuable to us then a one time project anyways. So if all it takes is to break up their expenses and have them pay it off in equal installments over the course of 6 or 12 months, then that is a small inconvenience with a potentially great reward. Your client will be forever grateful that you could be so accommodating.

Putting your client on a payment plan will require you to draft up some paper work to state the terms and conditions of your agreement. You need to do this in order to legally protect yourself in case of non-payment. If you are unsure of local laws regarding this matter it is best to check with a lawyer before you put pen to paper.

Barter Services/Product

Another solution which you can offer to a potential client is a straight trade. Think back to the days when you used to play in school. Every schoolyard across the country has some form of trade happening. Maybe you traded baseball cards, maybe it was pogs, or maybe you were just trying to get rid of that terrible lunch your mother had packed for you. Whatever the case, if there was something you wanted, you tried to trade for it. Unless of course, you were a bully, shame on you then.

Now that we are older we tend to focus on monetary compensation but bartering can still be a viable solution and a chance to challenge your negotiating skills. You can get entirely creative here. For example if you are currently spending $200/month on eating at restaurants, you can barter with a new restaurant owner to host you for dinner once a week for the year. The restaurant owner has his pictures, and you benefit from some delicious food that you would have been spending money on anyways.

Other examples include free printing services, free web design, or even borrowing clothing for lifestyle and editorial shoots. Most clients have SOMETHING to offer otherwise they wouldn't be in business. If what they offer benefits you in some way see if you can strike up a trade for each others products/services. It is a great way to cut your expenses and the client can cut his as well.

Become A Silent Partner


This is a drastic solution but my absolute favorite. Some clients won't have a budget. Some clients can't even be put on a payment plan. Some clients don't have a product or service I need. Do they have ANYTHING I might be interested in? How about a stake in their company?

If you are approached by a client who doesn't have a budget but you absolutely believe in them and their venture it may be worthwhile for you to become a silent partner. A silent partner is generally one who invests in the company but has no involvement in management. I generally choose to be a silent partner because I have little to no desire to manage other people's companies. This doesn't mean that I am completely unaware of how it is being run but I choose to abstain from day to day operations because I have my own business to run. Instead I make an investment and sit in the shadows collecting my return.

In our case, when we say investment, we do not mean it in the monetary sense. We are adding value to the company through our creative input. Our photography work in exchange for a portion of the company.

This is a slightly more involved process. As a potential new partner you are entitled to full disclosure and will need to do your due diligence and research about the new client. You will need to figure out the volume of work you are required to produce for the client. The percentage you take as a partner needs to coincide with your creative input and the valuation of the company.

Unlike the other methods, this one won't have much instant gratification, but it has the potential to pay off big time in the long run. Going this route is a bit like playing the stock market. You can't just do this for every client, just like you can't invest in every stock, and hope that it takes off. It is a game of patience, research, and smart investing. Pick the right clients as you would the right stocks and watch them grow. It can be quite exciting to see the effect your work has on a growing brand and to be part of the initial boom.

Facebook Graffiti

One famous example of such an arrangement was between Facebook and graffiti artist David Choe. David did a graffiti mural in the Facebook HQ back in 2005 and was offered shares of Facebook which at that time were the equivalent of the value of his work. When Facebook went public it was reported that those shares issued to David Choe had an estimated value of $200 million.

Partnerships are very serious legal business and this solution in particular requires a very specific set of terms and conditions. In these situations it is best to consult a lawyer in your area who will understand the full scope of such agreements.

It's Not All About The Money

What I hope you can take away from this article is that it is not always about the money. It's very easy to get fixated on chasing checks and filling our pockets. We are so eager to play the starving artist card when things don't go our way that sometimes we forget to see our clients in a more human and compassionate way. If we can get as creative with our compensation as we do with our work, we will plant the seeds for long term success. Next time you have a client who has no budget, don't turn them away immediately, but rather try one of the above approaches. You might be shocked to see the responses.

If you have any success stories resulting from similar methods please share them with us in the comments section. Till next time! Feel free to visit me anytime at Peter House – Commercial Photographer to follow our work.

Peter House's picture

Peter House is a commercial fashion photographer from Toronto, Canada. He shoots over 10,000 pieces of clothing every year for a variety of lookbooks. Clients range from small local boutiques to international brands such as Target, Winners, and Sears. In addition to that Peter runs one of the most popular rental studio's in the Toronto area.

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Funny you should mention it, because I'm working on a similar deal right now. My potential client balked when I told him my half-day rate (he wants coverage for a corporate luncheon/get together) so I made the suggestion that they pay half now and half later. Hopefully he agrees to it.

Good luck!

I really like these suggestions, especially the payment plan.

Great article! The payment plan works wonders. It's just like a credit card with no interest, have your toy now and pay for it in smaller chunks. It even works on established businesses as well. Not many businesses like to see 10k-20k come out of their account all at once. $2500 a month for 4-8 months is easier to swallow for them. What a payoff for David Choe holycrap!

Hah, David seriously played his cards right at that moment.

Yeah, it definitely paid off for David Choe, but he was actually already a multi-millionaire before all this just from his art and from gambling!

awesome tips/ideas

Great writeup Peter. I initially started suggesting stake in the companies looking to hire me about 4 years ago as a last resort. Depending on the company there are times that I would even say that has moved to my first choice if there is no real budget. It's certainly a risk and some of my clients ended up going under...but man can it pay off big if things go well.

Even a 1% share in a company can be huge if it sells for 20 million. Just have to have a bullet proof contract.

Thanks David! I've become more eager to adopt this method over the last two years myself. I just love the idea of diversifying my income stream and this proved to be a great way to dabble in other business ventures without too much risk,

Great article! I actually just negotiated a payment plan with a local artist for her images. She was very grateful, and happy to not have to sacrifice the quality of images because she didn't have all the funds up front. I hadn't thought of being a silent partner though - that's a great idea!! I'll have to remember that for my corporate clients. Thanks!

Great to hear it worked out so well for you!

Very good article, thanks for giving us another option. I always trying to think out of the box to help my business to grow

nah man, no barter. I get people trying to trade me the weirdest sh-t for photography like high end candles and sh-t. I don't need that. I need actual dollars to pay my rent every month.

Why does your photography business have to be any different than any other business? The day I can go into a grocery store and try to barter for a week's worth of food is the day I will start entertaining barter offers from random weirdos with hairbrained business ideas.

When you get into bartering schemes, you're making it way more complicated than it needs to be. It should be a simple transaction. I do work for you. You pay me. Why complicate it?

Picture this, you have a client who owns a few nice restaurants in town. You shoot food photos for them at 60% of your full day rate. and take the rest at double your perceived value in gift certificates for their restaurants. (say your day rate is $2000 thats $1200 cash and $1600 in trade) You have sort of won in this situation. You can take your clients out to eat, meet prospective ones at these nice establishments. Personally I love trade in any way that puts me in front of or allows me to accommodate my other clients in any way. You could be giving those candles as gifts to current clients or making the ambience of your studio/office better by lighting one..

food for thought, pun intended

This works even better if you negotiate a monthly retainer. I rarely pay for anything when I go out and my perceived value goes up to prospectives.

If they are offering to trade you gift certificates to their restaurant instead of just paying you money like they do with all of their other vendors, it lets you know that they don't respect you. When the truck comes to deliver lettuce and meats, etc., do they try to offer that guy a some gift certificates? No, but for whatever reason, photographers are cool with getting punked.

If you don't stand up for yourself and expect to simply be treated like every other person trying to run a business, no one will respect you. And you only have yourself to blame.

That's a pretty small minded approach. I can kinda see where you're coming from, but at the end of the day, value is value. Trying to equate lettuce and meat to photography is quite the reach. One is a tangible asset directly essential to the basic operation of the business, while the other is much more abstract.

Cash is definitely important, as we all have bills to pay. But, as my grandfather said many times, "there's a lot more ways to get paid than dollars and cents." And, as a previous commenter said, you were going to spend money at the restaurant anyway, so in my mind, it's no different than receiving cash/check, especially if you can negotiate higher than a 1:1 ratio of perceived value:gift certificate received.

Ummm, no, it's just basic business sense. You do work, you get paid. You sell a product, you get payment for that. There is no need to complicate this. This is very basic stuff.

If it were a good business decision to accept candles as payment or trade for gift certificates, then companies like Apple, B&H or Nordstrom would let you trade in bullsh-t like that.

Anyone who is asking you to work for free, or trade some useless crap doesn't respect you or the product you bring to the table. And why should they, if someone is willing to do it for free?

The fact of the matter is that being a working photographer is just like working in any other industry. It might be exciting or interesting at first, but the more you do it, the more it becomes actual work. Work that you should get paid for. And if you have devalued the market by working for free, by the time you realize your value, you have already helped negate so far that it's incredibly difficult to then get paid what you are worth.

I completely agree with Antonio. He's spot on. Want to know the secret to why successful photographers are so successful? It's because they realized it IS all about the money and not about restaurant gift cards.

Speak for yourself. I'm successful and barter all the time...One thing I'm sure to do is ALWAYS invoice for what my regular rate would be, with it 'discounted' on the bottom, so they know what my rates are. You just have to be smart about who/what you barter for. "Bartering" has brought me tons of paying business.

Sorry but I don't like "discount" printed on my invoices.

Guessing you're the guy who never takes advantage or enjoys a deal on B&H on gear, or a free appetizer at your favorite restaurant either. You're better than that...

If you don't know how to turn trade work into more money, you're doing it wrong.

Yep, your photography is a business, just like any other business. Repeat that to yourself as many times as you need to. Your photography is a business, it's a business, it's a business.

But you still don't want to get wrapped up in money. That's dangerous for anyone in any field, but it is very important in photography. Especially with an art like photography, it's value is not simply monetary. When you devalue beauty down to just dollars, you're really hurting your work.

this isn't necessarily a disrespectful thing. if you really think about it . back in the days different business's traded in order to keep operating. If you plan on heading to the restaurant to spend x amount of dollars and the client is offering a different form of payment- it all comes back to the same.(your accounts balances at the end of the year) The writer did not mention that you'd be doing this for every client or putting this out publicly. Only to the ones that seem right for you- in the long run you can benefit more than getting a one time pay.I'm not disagreeing with the fact that $ is important but sometimes you have to think outside of the box. if you reject every client who doesn't have enough budget to pay things all at once. your not gaining anything. On the contrary, if you meet a serious client with a struggling budget and your able to work out a payment plan or a service exchange, you have a greater chance of gaining more than if it was cash. - it all comes down to the strategy you use. I personally enjoy getting paid straight cash but if there is an opportunity to have a magazine run an ad for me for a year in exchange for my service - I would probably do it depending on the numbers.

Well said!

Maybe I should follow up by saying that this is not my business model but it's something I have done and sometimes it's the right thing to do when you believe in someone's small/new business.

Keep in mind: Photographers offer a discretionary service. If the price is too high, the client can sometimes say: " I don't have $2000 in my budget for photography so I won't spend any money on it". Of course it is our job as photographers to show our clients the value of our work, but If they have $1600 to spend, they might have enough of something else to offset the difference. Not everyone will get Facebook shares from a photo shoot any I don't recommend that anyone barters with every company you encounter.

oh boy , you don´t get the point, huh!

I like the idea of using one clients product as gifts for the others. Very clever.

Return on relationship is just as important as ROI

Sounds like it makes taxes a pain in the ass.

I used to NOT agree with you, until I realized I needed a plumber the other day. Then I realized, hey, if a guy can earn $125/hr cash to stick his fingers in my toilet, then why should I be willing to accept "trades" and "credit" when other people are respected and paid for what they do?

EXACTLY. Often these companies, let's say a restaurant for example, will pay the janitor to mop the floors but then they will try to punk you, the photographer, with "barter" or trade for gift certificates or "exposure".

That means they respect the janitor more than they respect you and all of the time, experience and money you have put into perfecting your craft.

You have to keep in mind though that it's a willing transaction between two parties. For some people, bartering is what they want. If they see a benefit beyond the simple dollars with the barter, then it's not a bad deal. Everyone places different value in different things. And yes there are loads of businesses out there who do things like give away free samples, donate time to charities, and take things other than money. To say otherwise is just ignoring some basic truth. I DO, however, agree with you that people do it too much and that there's a feeling in the creative professional community (not just photographers) that what we do isn't worth anything. Which excessive bartering/trading can contribute to. But to NEVER do it or say it's NEVER legitimate doesn't make much sense to me.

Yeah, thats because you needed a plumber that day, because you didn´t want to stick yout finger in your toilet! But people don´t need your pictures….! The ycan do them theirself. Learning or doing something that people need, often gets you paid - art not ;-)
btw. I am a freelancer myself

Very good article! thank you for reminding us, It's not all about the money.

Thank you for this article, Peter! While I have a fair amount of larger clients who I know can afford to pay me top dollar for photos, I also make many exceptions for smaller businesses. I strongly believe in the bartering system and have found that it is a great way to save money on things I would normally be spending that hard earned cash on, without having to deal with calculating taxes and such. The bartering system also strengthens relationships with small businesses to the point where they have later referred me to more cash-paying businesses down the line. Great tips, and thanks again for sharing!

I did the part pay part barter thing last year. I did a photobooth shoot for a high end hotel's Christmas party last year. 80% of my fee was paid with actual money and the other 20% was paid by a one night stay at their hotel. It was a mini getaway for me and my wife that we might not have otherwise done or afford at this particular hotel. Bartering or even partial bartering can be a powerful tool.

Good article and great suggestions. Photography, like many businesses, can benefit from flexible payments and bartering. I see not everyone here agrees but that is the great thing about owning our own businesses. We can run them in a way that works for US.

Besides all different models, becoming a silent partner has one big advantage to all: your client feels, that you believe in his and at least in your own work. By choosing this option you demonstrate to be a part of the future success, not only doing a job, get paid for and forget it. Thinking it the other way round: if you do not believe in the power and importance of your own work, you'll take a risk you couldn't afford.

Haven't thought of a payment plan before.