There's one question photographers should ask themselves everyday, and that is: What did you do today to build your business? Emphasis on the word “today.” Simple words I first heard while taking a business of photography class a few years back from a noted photographer. And while the class itself droned on a bit and may not have been as compelling as I’d initially hoped for, those simple words stuck with me then as they do today.
It’s a simple enough question. It’s one that any photographer worth his or her salt should be able to answer without much advance notice. Yet while I’d certainly spent my fair share of time complaining about my lack of clients in the advancing weeks, as soon as he asked that simple question, it became painfully clear that I had been doing very little to address the problem.
Links in a chain. That’s all a day is. One more page in a chapter. Chapters that make up a lifetime. And while we tend to judge our lives based on the major plot developments, the truth of the matter is that the actual living exists in the minute detail on the preceding pages.
I recently got the opportunity to shoot for a dream client.
One of those clients I always said to myself, maybe one day once I’m a hardened veteran, famous in my profession, maybe just maybe, one day in the far future, I’ll get a chance to work with them. More of a pipe dream really than a rational expectation.
Yet I booked it.
And though it would be tempting to continually regale the success of the shoot and delude myself into thinking that the destination was the most important part of the journey, it only takes a bit of reflection to know the actual narrative lay elsewhere.
Yes, the shoot itself is the scene the audience will remember. The “say hello to my little friend” moment. The “here’s looking at you, kid” climax frozen forever in time. It will definitely be the go-to story for my parents when trying to explain to their friends what exactly it is that Junior does for a living.
But as any photographer should know, the actual shoot is only the result of what we do for a living.
It didn’t arise out of the blue. It didn’t come as a result of my whining about not having the right work. And a much as I believe in dreaming, it didn’t come as a result of the aspirations wandering through my mind as I sat on the couch, watching my favorite film, and thinking about “one day” while doing very little to actually achieve it.
Instead, the perfect moment came about because I’d spent the endless previous years doing detailed research on the company and knowing every key player coming or going. Those same years I sent physical promo pieces to those aforementioned key players followed up by emails on a regular basis. When possible, I got up from my desk, headed to the airport, and flew to the client’s home base for no other reason than to shake their hand and show them my portfolio in person. Just to be safe, I did the same for the various ad agencies that represented the client. I made every connection I could from the client’s assistant to their fifth cousin once removed. Money and time spent, it’s worth pointing out, with no guarantee of return.
But it doesn't end there. The real story lies in the endless test shoots I did to build up a portfolio worthy of their attention. It lies in the hundreds of shoots I’ve done that didn’t make it into my portfolio, but provided me the technical knowledge and versatility I needed once I ultimately got the assignment.
The cold emails that go unanswered. Links in a chain. The business trips to visit out-of-town clients in person without any promise of reward. Links in a chain. Staying up late at night, giving neither my television nor my dog the attention they deserve because I’m trying, often in vain, to develop a new marketing approach to get the attention of a client. Links in a chain.
It’s not the payoff. It’s the pursuit.
To borrow the words of Dr. Eric Thomas, “You can’t be 21 years old in 18 years,” no matter how badly you want it. Life operates at its own pace and the end result is often not in our hands. But you can put in the hard work, day after day, minute by minute, so that when your opportunity ultimately comes you will be ready for it. And know that the opportunity will ultimately only come because you put in the effort in the first place. Day after day. Minute by minute.
So ask yourself the question. What have you done today to build your business? Not in the last few years. Not a few months ago. But today. Tomorrow, ask the same question. And the day after that.
If you are like the me from a few years ago and have trouble coming up with an answer, time to get to work.
Maybe the hard work pays off. Maybe it doesn’t. But as we all come to know eventually, the hard work is the job.
And it’s the best job on earth.