Running a Business for Pleasure, Not Profit

Running a Business for Pleasure, Not Profit

Modern business exists for one primary purpose: to maximize profit. In this article, I’ll explain why, for the past six years, I’ve run my business in the opposite spirit, often knowingly leaving money on the table.

A few weeks ago, I wrote an article on licensing. In it, I explained that I used a pricing strategy that would encourage more work rather than trying to extract the very maximum from the job. I said that I would rather make $100,000 per year doing 40 jobs than the same amount doing 10 jobs. This is because I love the work. As I expected, some commenters could not accept this, as it is the antithesis of what a business school would teach.

In the 90s (and sometimes in 2019), the mullet was a popular hairstyle. It was neat and smart from the front and left long and wild on the back. I like to think of my business model as the mullet approach: a professional, clean cut image from the outside, but free and easy going once you’re working with me.

During my last job, I worked with models, assistants, and a retoucher. As the photographer, it fell on me to subcontract these support roles. In other words, I hired the talent and then billed my client for them.

When putting together an estimate, I pushed to get an amount for the talent that I felt would be fair return for their work. On completion of the job, I paid the talent exactly what I had quoted for them without adding a markup. Everyone who heard about this was shocked. It seems like it is standard practice for photographers to charge more than what they pay their talent.

View of Greenwich and Canary Wharf from the Royal Observatory in London. All of the London images in this article were taken for Visit London, a client who I've worked with over five years using the principles from this article.

Just to be clear, I believe that a laborer is worth their wages, and sourcing this talent is labor. Instead of paying the talent less than I had quoted for, I covered my “labor” in a fee that I listed as production and made this clear to my client. This amount was significantly less than if I had skimmed from the talent fee, but it was fair remuneration for my effort.

Many a business mind has said to me: why don’t you get a quote from your talent and then just inflate that amount by 25 percent for yourself? For the way that I run my business, if I could get extra for the talent, then I believe the talent deserves it. Isn’t it ironic that we are told to raise our fees as high as possible for our clients, and then, those same people advise us to pay our suppliers as little as possible?

The Albert Bridge, a historic crossing of the Thames between Battersea and Chelsea in London, UK. Photographed for Visit London.

For my business, maximizing profit is not the primary objective. My objective is to create an economy around what I love doing in a way that leaves everyone involved feeling happy and fairly rewarded, including the client.

Now that I’ve run the business for six years, I’m wondering if concentrating on this objective has actually led to long-term sustainability and a higher total income. I’m sure that in my first year, I could have made a lot more money by being more cutthroat, charging clients more, and paying talent less. Now, in year six, when most of my income comes from repeat business from happy clients and successful collaborations with talent, I believe my income would be significantly down had I been pushing to maximize profit.

Here are some practices I’ve put into my business that decrease short-term gain but help towards long-term profitability:

  • I use a royalty fee licensing model. This is specifically for the convenience of the client. I make it easy for them to use the images.
  • I pay my suppliers as much as I can get for them.
  • When an “act of God” derails a shoot, I take the hit and re-shoot under better conditions.

My client would have been satisfied with the previous image, but I knew I could do better with more favorable weather. I returned at my cost on a sunny day and was able to create a far superior set of images.
  • If I don’t quite deliver what I quoted for, I adjust my invoice to reflect this. For example, if I estimate for a full-day shoot and it only takes a half a day, I bill for half a day.
  • I treat clients like people, not money bags. This means I occasionally take them out for drinks, I buy them Christmas gifts, and I express my gratitude.

All I ever read on online photography forums suggest that the client is the enemy: they’re constantly trying to squeeze the poor photographer for as much as possible while paying as little as possible. My experience has not been this at all. Many of my clients are now good friends. My clients work with me to help make both of our businesses as successful as possible. Sure, I’ve had a few bad clients, but they are the exception rather than the rule.

Trafalgar Square, the location from where all distances to London are measured, i.e. the center point of London. Taken for Visit London.

Since I’ve been offering professional photography, I’ve devoured every tutorial on photography business I could get my hands on. Almost without fail, they offer some version of the following advice: charge more, minimize expenses, invoice immediately, make the client take the risk (e.g. contingency plans for weather), and maximize profit.

These are all good disciplines to get into, but hopefully from this article, I’ve offered an alternative to striving for profit. The mullet approach: an approach that presents a human side to running a business. One that may even lead to better long-term success.

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michaeljin's picture


Jonathan Reid's picture

I asssume this is tongue in cheek so I’m giving you the benefit of a thumbs up.

regan albertson's picture

Karma's a mutha___ and you will be remembered and recommended on the real acts of professionalism and kindness, and excellent images. I'm convinced by my experience that the more dog-eat-dog environment that you're in, the more important it is, to deliver well, personalize and take care of your clients.

Jonathan Reid's picture

I’m sure this doesn’t need to be said, but I concur, 100%

Xander Cesari's picture

I'm looking forward to another interesting and exciting comments section!!

Marçal Font's picture

I'm 100% with you on every aspect you mention. I started proffessionaly in 2001 and I'm really happy with the results. I do comercial photography and 85% is studio work. My clients are very loyal to me and I treat them as good as I can. It's also important for me to know that quite a few new cllients asking for a quote tell me that my fee is too hi for their budget, so I'm not too low on pricing too.
I shoot almost every day. It keeps me in shape and I'm not too worried about getting new jobs.
Feels good to know someone sharing same principles.

Jonathan Reid's picture

Happy to see the longevity of your business - 18 years, that’s really impressive!

Owain Shaw's picture

An important article with some really good points about how business as a human relationship should be done more often. We're all people trying to get by, and I'm glad to read that you're showing it's possible to treat both client and supplier, as well as yourself, fairly while getting business done.

Jonathan Reid's picture

Thank you!

steven martine's picture

Exactly my business philosophy the past 15 years.... best advice given to me as a 15-year-old grunt in a studio... "they'll never hire an asshole twice..." and with that... I've had/am having a good career......

Jonathan Reid's picture

Great quote. Happy to hear that business is good.

Studio 403's picture

Bravo! I applaud this photographer for his ethic. Notable. Most of my work I do for fun and free. I have been taken advantage of to. That is on me. In a free market one can charge or not charge and add profit points to any fees from a sub-contractors. I like his approach. From my own experience, greed has not been my friend.

kai mollerud's picture

Finally, someone who gets it.

The photography industry is chock-full of people giving bad advice: "NEVER let a client add an instagram filter", "NEVER work with a model again if they cancel on you abruptly", "Charge more, deliver fewer photos"...

I let people use images however they'd like (they can even sell prints, I only ask for a cut if they are going to sell a LOT of them), I'm patient and forgiving of people, and I communicate closely with my clients to make sure they are getting what they want.

It's taken some work, but now that I have a strong reputation I get a ton of repeat customers, and most of my new customers come from work of mouth suggestions from my previous clients. Being nice to work with, and not trying to squeeze money out of people at every turn will make you personally, and financially successful.

g coll's picture

Agree. Join any FB wedding photography group and you'll see a high percentage of really bad advice and opinions. For example "You must never supply the raws". Bloody nonsense. Of course you can supply them - just charge appropriately. Too many absolutes in the photography industry.

Jonathan Reid's picture

Thanks Kai. Glad that business is going well for you. I love your attitude.

Ian Oliver's picture

Pricing is tough and I don't believe there is any one strategy that works for everyone and every situation.

I'm fortunate that I was able to 'retire' fairly young and pursue things that are of more interest to me like photography. I'm not trying to live off of my photography career so I can price low for things that I really want to do and I don't have to take any jobs purely for the revenue.

I am also much more free to refer people to other photographers because I don't need the business and I'm a non-threatening assistant because I've no interest in stealing business from other photographers. I would actually much prefer to help others be successful than build up anything for myself at this point in my life.

That is much different than my prior stint as a pro photographer when I was living off of it. While fashion was my focus, I could also shoot a box of Tide detergent like nobodies business. Need to shoot 40 swimsuits on 3 models on a grey background with 'uncreative' lighting for a Sunday circular? I'd do it.

As things progressed I did charge 20% more for crew that I hired. This had nothing to do with paying them less than they were worth but everything to do with the amount of time I had to invest in finding people, scheduling them, rescheduling when they couldn't or didn't show, and sometimes incurring costs of paying them even when the client had not yet paid me. It's very different to show up at a shoot that an AD or someone else had done all of the legwork for and was taking responsibility for and my doing all of the legwork myself.

Finally, there's a lot to be said for doing something that you enjoy and enjoying what you do. Chasing after money is not actually very fulfilling. One great example is a friend who's a dentist. After a few years he began to cut back on his practice until he was effectively part-time at about 25 hrs per week and did this for a couple of decades. He obviously could have earned a lot more money had he pushed things like most dentists but he was quite happy, lived a fairly low stress life, got to spend a lot more time with his family, volunteered for community stuff through his church, and when he retired he said he'd not have changed a thing even though his friends had more stuff and bigger houses (and more divorces, problem kids, etc.).

Anyway, great article.