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The Power of Saying No: How to Establish Your Value

In an industry where supply is abundant, saying "no" to work can feel both counter intuitive, and suicidal for your business. The truth is, it has quite the opposite effect.

Recently I've written a lot on the business of photography and some of the changes, mindsets, and improvements I have made over the years. Some are subtle with effects that grow, some are more profound with instant impact. One piece of advice I've not yet given is a little of the former, and a little of the latter: the power of saying "no".

The early days of any business are difficult. Not only do you now need money from a fresh venture, it's important as a metric of both success and justification of your decision to pursue it. The results of that sort of desperation tend to pull you in two opposite directions simultaneously. On the one hand, you'll get work. If you're industrious enough, and hungry enough, you'll find opportunities in the surrounding area. The opposite direction is that the work isn't often a good thing in this case. You'll likely be taking on any and every job offered to you, with no regard to your own value because, well, you don't feel as if you have one yet. The difficulty is, this desperation can put you in to an infinite loop.

By taking all jobs of any description, almost always with low pay, you can get trapped in being busy. It might look good to others, it might even feel like progress to you, but it's counter productive. To make ends meet, you need lots of these jobs. Your reach will be limited, and therefore you'll be swimming in a small pool and taking what you can get. Your time will get consumed for low returns, and due to the low returns, you'll need to take anything you can get to increase your income, which takes more of your time ad infinitum. Another consequence of this cycle is raising your prices. You'll be attracting low budget clients who will seldom be able to afford or willing to spend more money. This is exacerbated by your setting your price point low to begin with and as any one in any business will tell you, it's incredibly hard to convince someone who has paid a certain amount for a product, that it's suddenly worth more.

Nick van der Wall (Afrojack) for FAULT Magazine at Champs-Élysées, Paris.

I managed to break this cycle by specializing in a few areas, but a consequence of that was more empowering than I ever imagined; saying no to work did more for my career than any of the times I'd said yes. Turning down work I didn't want had expanding results and benefits. Occasionally there would be an instantaneous pay-off, sometimes it would be delayed, but either way it was almost always beneficial. Here are the three that made the most profound impact:

  • I had more time to canvas for the caliber of clients I wanted.
  • I wasn't working with undesirable clients (by which I mean demanding for low pay.)
  • Many prospects increased their "maximum" budget to meet my rates.

The first of these is obvious, but underrated. If you're constantly busy, it's difficult to control the direction in which you grow. You're likely to get more work in the same field by word of mouth and repeat jobs for past clients, but your income and trajectory is unlikely to change. Furthermore, you're not going to have the time to change it. The second benefit of saying no sounds harsh, but it's true. I've worked with some companies who are so well-founded and prestigious that I was nervous about how demanding they would be. They were all fantastic to work with and appreciated good work. However, the clients with no budget tend to have the highest demands, and are always trying to squeeze more out of you. The jobs end up taking even longer than you could have factored for, locking you further in to the cycle. I would rather do some work for free (for charities or good causes for example) and then my paid work for clients I aspire to work with, than low paid jobs where your fee can forgo respect and boundaries.

The third was an interesting consequence that could appear at odds with the second benefit. Some potential clients have budgets allocated for multiple jobs — most do in fact — and thus they're just trying to save in any area they can. When you say no to them, a common and best case scenario goes one of two ways: they either raise their budget for a photographer to meet your rates. Or (and it might be a little callous to say, but the outcome I prefer) they hire someone cheap and find out first hand just what sort of results peanuts yield. I had a company aggressively haggle with me over price and tried to apply pressure with the tight deadline for the shoot and the importance of the campaign (they were haggling against themselves there). We couldn't agree, so I wished them luck and they hired someone cheap. The campaign was never used. This outcome is great for you because they will appreciate your over-delivery, constant communication, and high quality results when they come to hire you.

There are many other ways in which saying no to undesirable work (both in pay and in job brief) can enrich your career. You may have heard many people say that accepting low paying work with the promise of better paid work down the line is a bad idea (it is). One of the reasons for this is if you do a job for $500, you're the $500 photographer. If a miracle happens (it really is that rare) and down the line the person or company now has a $5,000 budget, they're going to want a $5,000 photographer rather than "overpaying" the $500 photographer. There's no offense to be taken here; it's just business. If you originally turned down that $500 job and quoted far higher, however, you've established your worth going forward, should they have revised budgets for whatever reason.

The message of this article can be summarized from just that sentiment, and if you remember only one thing, make it the following sentence:

You don't set your value by being hired for a job at a certain rate, you set your value by saying no to anything below that rate.

Lead image by Tom Swinnen via Pexels

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Mick Ryan's picture

I got very busy and was missing out on opportunities so I decided to revaluate my approcah. Instead of evaluating what I thought a job was worth to the client I evaluated what I thought it was worth to me. I ditched doing events for my clients (only shooting my core business of corporate and inudstrial photography). The results were 50/50. Some of my cleints I haven’t heard from since and the others paid my new charges without questions. It was an eye opener. And I really don’t miss the work that hasn’t come back.

Bill Wells's picture

Who is guy in the picture? No mention in the article. It doesn't look like you.

Robert K Baggs's picture

Sorry, I forgot a caption. It's my photo of Nick van der Wall (Afrojack) for FAULT Magazine at Champs-Élysées, Paris.

Deleted Account's picture

I say no to B2C customers and don't do events. (Unless they are events by existing business customers)
In the past I did work for private individuals, but more often than not I put in more time that needed to just pamper their needs. Weddings and events took up my precious weekends and I wasn't resting or enjoying the family as much as I should.

Result is, the consumers that do approach me know that, and are actually willing to pay more. Leaving me to pick and choose what I would like to do, not what I have to do. Rather odd.

Simon Forsyth's picture

Very well written! I wish more photographers were aware of this!!

Alexander Petrenko's picture

Great summary of Seth Godin/Tim Ferris podcast published here before. Wish I read it before and spend less than 1 hour for getting the same ideas.

Robert K Baggs's picture

I've not read much on Seth Godin but I'm a Time Ferris fan. His philosophy is a little more hands-off than I would like to be, but the principles are gold.

michaeljin's picture

Before doing this, make sure that you are actually able to back up your prices with your quality of work.

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

I don't disagree with you Michael. But, a true professional will usually be ready before they feel like they're ready. As in I'm better than I think. Suffering from the imposter syndrome.

Robert K Baggs's picture

Wholeheartedly agree with both. I think the safest formula is to charge an amount that is more than worth your time, then over-deliver. Imposter syndrome gets us all!

John Ohle's picture

Robert, I have been 30 years in the business and this is about the best advice I have ever come across.

Robert K Baggs's picture

Wow, high praise, John. Thank you; glad you enjoyed it.

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

" it's incredibly hard to convince someone who has paid a certain amount for a product, that it's suddenly worth more " <-- This is the key to business.

Bartley Wilson's picture

Nicely, written Robert. Being a photojournalist and a former card-carrying member of the National Press Photographer's Association (NPPA), I had to learn how to price my work and be selective about the jobs I took if I wanted to pay my bills and eat well.

For 3 years, I took just about any job, many of which didn't pay very well. But I was my own worst enemy. I simply lacked a written GTM (Go to Market) plan. Once I focused on that, my advertising changed and so did my compensation.

Teaming up with local ad agencies was a big help for me. Plus I created slick, minimal brochres and post cards and mailed out 150 every month to new businesses listed in the Book of Lists in the local Business Journal. Joining the Chamber of Commerce "business after hours," was another big help. Get out there, meet people, hand them your business cards and get cozy with local and national ad agencies.

Darren Loveland's picture

This is a great point and I think it's applicable to all genres of photography. I had a client about 2 years ago that brought in a huge volume of work but paid very little. She literally said "I bring in tons of work for all my vendors so I get the cheapest deal." After some basic math, it became clear that 1-2 jobs from my standard clients equaled about 4-5 jobs from the cheap client. When the cheap client wanted to drop prices even more it was my long-awaited sign to move on.