Publicly Documenting My Private Failures

Publicly Documenting My Private Failures

Perhaps this article is a risk to my career by virtue of being too honest, but it's a subject I have wanted to discuss publicly for some time. In the era where social media is the backbone of perception, it's all too easy to feel you can never measure up. This isn't new information and in fact, it's a rather well-trodden path. Even armed with the knowledge, however, I still feel I walk in to the trap of taking the world that is presented to me as the only facts worth knowing. I want to sacrifice my self-consciousness to do my bit to rectify this.

The Prompt

A person I see a couple of times a month, who oscillates between good friend and acquaintance, said to me recently how amazing my career is and how I seem to go from strength to strength. He went on to ask questions which happened to have answers that were very favorable towards me: he asked if I was working with an affluent client that I was, whether I was an ambassador of a brand that I was, and if I was still an editor at Fstoppers, which I was (and hopefully, at the time of publishing this, I still am!). These questions were borne of my social media posts showing recent work and collaborations with brands. Similarly, I've had close friends say how proud they are of my accomplishments and how well I'm doing. I like a belly rub as much as the next, but my unspoken response to praise is always "yeah but...". Yes, I am working with that great brand, but it took months to make it happen and a great many rejections or near misses, not to mention my own shortcomings and mistakes. It then occurred to me that for the most part, professionals' presentation of themselves on social media (where social media is important to their profession) is tantamount to a gambler's bets. That is, you only hear about the wins and never the losses.

Image used under the Creative Commons Zero (CC0) license.

I vividly remember how I felt before I dove head first in to a career as a photographer and writer. I looked at those I knew or knew of whom were already in the industry and thriving and I thought how there's no way I could ever measure up to that. Then you take the plunge and realize that success is even farther away than you thought. It's sometimes desperately difficult to stave off negativity and jealousy when you see your peers rampantly charging from one victory to the next. Until, that is, you speak with them about it (I mean "them" in the broadest possible sense because it truly is universal) and learn about their failures. In fact, as far as I can tell, the more successful someone is, the larger the mountain of failures they are perched atop. There are some great examples of this, but they aren't my examples to give. So, here are some of my unfiltered failures of the last 18 months.

The Misjudged Quote

I can't decide which of these two mistakes haunts me more, but it's a close race. I had been doing quite well with getting new clients yet I was lacking confidence in my portfolio. However, through some relentless networking I managed to get a meeting with a client I would regard as the "end game." That is, the sort of client you dream of working with. They were keen on my work and were interested to hear what I wanted to do with them and listened to my ideas. They were still interested after that discussion and asked me to quote them.

Misjudged quotes for jobs go one of two ways. The first is you over-quote and the client are either instantly put off because their notion of your cost and your quoted cost are far too far apart. Or, they begin to negotiate you down which in my mind is the best case scenario. Over-quoting is salvageable, however, under-quoting is terminal. If you under quote the client either takes you up on it and you realize your mistake and have to take the hit, or, and this is the worst case scenario, they lose all respect and value for your work and decide you're not worth the bother. Well, with this dream client, the worst case scenario happened.

I was acutely aware that I hadn't worked with any clients of their stature and so I wanted to secure the job I was willing to take a bit of a hit on price to do so. I had no idea how big a mistake that was and what happened was unexpected to the me of 18 months ago: they didn't realize I was so cheap and decided it isn't worth the effort to make the job happen. There was nothing I could do. I couldn't increase my prices and I couldn't retrieve the value of my product that I had just lost; the mistake was terminal.

(Since this mistake I have read a lot on price and I recommend "The Psychology of Price" by Leigh Caldwell for those interested in learning more.)

False Dawn

This failure stings in a different way and is much more recent than the last mistake. I was approached by another affluent company which is rare; usually I do the approaching. They were interested in reworking their image on social media and through digital marketing and they wanted to create a library of images to do so. They enquired as to whether they could book me for three months with a sizeable work load every week for that time period and then a discussion afterwards about how to move forward. I came up with a fair quote that made me money, but rewarded the fact that they were hiring me for a large job and the security that it brought. They negotiated over the price and we agreed on a rate that left both parties happy. We then began the planning phase. I spent hours and hours crafting shoot ideas, making mood boards, and having Skype meetings with the client to discuss all of the above. Not to mention the many hours of thought I was putting in to the job while living my daily life. Given this article's title, you can guess a twist is coming. Right as we were due to move forward, my contact went missing. Not "milk carton" missing, more "celeb after a scandal" missing. I rang, I Skyped, I emailed, but to no avail. After weeks of contact attempts and more time dropped, the client called me to say the director had pulled the plug and decided they want to continue as they are for now.

This sort of thing happens to everyone in business, but I hadn't approached the job intelligently. Before I had even sent the invoice, I went on their word that the job was going ahead and dropped tens of hours in to planning and preparation. I don't want to work out how much this cost me by prioritizing the planning of this job over making new contacts and meeting new companies, as well as the usual duties of a business owner.

Image used under the Creative Commons Zero (CC0) license.

Closing Thoughts

These two failures are the more prominent in my mind, but they're not short of company. I took on a big job at a fair rate per image that I offer for smaller jobs. It didn't occur to me until I was in the middle of this task, however, that I hadn't factored in the creativity required to create a large quantity of unique images and as a result I'm quite sure I under-quoted for this. I've taken work I wanted to do for such a low rate that I've actually lost money. I've trusted companies to pay me when working with them for the first time, and then spent hours chasing invoices, including one invoice that is now a year over-due. I spent hours researching and writing an article on a photography-related murder mystery, only for it to not garner the views required to make it remotely worth my while (I earn nothing from people reading this now, so this isn't some cheap ploy to claw back time!). To paraphrase philosopher and meme Michael Jordan, I've failed over and over again and that is why I (will) succeed.

Social media is a relentless procession of achievements and accolades to nobody in particular. And I, as I suspect is the case with most, am guilty of this without any intentions of creating a disingenuous persona; I'm merely sharing what I'm proud of. Conversely, I choose not to share my shortcomings through fear of appearing as if I am seeking attention as opposed to an aversion to presenting balance and the ups and down of self-employment. It is also the result of some embarrassing and juvenile self-consciousness where I wish to be seen as successful. I hope that this article will remind people to see through the guise; social media isn't a measuring tool.

This article might get torn apart in the comments, or fall instantly in to obscurity and never be read. Should that be the case, I'll just add it to the list of failures, so it's win-win for me really. In the most depressing way possible.

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Lorin Duckman's picture

This article deserves more work, not that it's not good, but it doesn't go far enough. Enjoyed it.

Robert K Baggs's picture

1500 words is quite large for an article these days so I cut it down a bit from the 2k+ it was originally. Sorry about that!

Jonathan Klempa's picture

I appreciate that you took the time to talk about failure. From the outside looking in, it does appear as if everyone has it all figured out and are jumping between big brand deals without any problem whatsoever. This article gives me a little bit of hope for myself and a little more strength to push through the rough times. Thank you for posting!

Kyle Medina's picture

Though the article is about failures and everyone has failures. That's where we all are the same. I read a lot undertones of talking about the next guy. So I leave you with this. "Comparison is the thief of joy".

Robert K Baggs's picture

Fantastic quote and one I haven't heard of before. So very true. A guy I know once asked me why I was pushing myself so hard a couple of years ago and I noted that I feel behind where I should be compared to other people. He said something similar to what you just did with the added "whose race are you racing?". That stuck with me.

Paul Adshead's picture

I live by: "Don't compare their chapter 9 with your chapter 2..."

I change the chapter numbers depending on who I'm talking about... ;)

Simon Patterson's picture

You made *those* mistakes? That's it, you're fired! 😀

Seriously, you've described those common mistakes well. I bet I'm not the only one whose stomach churned reading this, as I recall my own similar mistakes. I suspect that the only people who haven't made such errors are the ones who haven't run their own business.

Anonymous's picture

Everyone, as you wrote, makes mistakes. The biggest mistake, however, is being afraid to make them. Given the choice of trying, and making a mistake, or not trying, and learning that was a mistake, the correct choice is abundantly clear.
Great and timely article. I'll be referring it to others!

Robert K Baggs's picture

Thank you, Patrick. If I'm completely honest, I'd say it's only been about 18 months where I've truly bought in to failing being the far richer option to not trying.

Colin Johnson's picture

Talk about yourself again...

Anonymous's picture

Having read the title, you went on to read the article only to say that? Maybe you could tell us a little more about your self?

Oh man- work independently long enough and these all ring painfully true! And to be honest, even after a decade or more I still have fallen into all of the above, one pretty recently. It never hurts to be honest, and plus by putting it out there it will hopefully help a few others to avoid a few of these well-trod pitfalls. There are so many more that can and do get made, but hey, that's all part of the learning process. It's no different for any company either. So thanks for taking the time to write it it out.

I'm not sure that it's worse to under-quote and get passed by, than to have the client take you up on it. That might be the case if said job was going to be relatively short, but when you underquote on a six month project it can end up almost burying you. Also, in my experience, 90% of the time when I find I've "underbid" a job it's almost always because the client has provided either partial or incorrect information. Contracts help, but rarely save you from this situation, even with all kinds of safeguards around "out of scope" or client responsibilities. The burden will fall entirely on you to prove it, and the client has much more leverage. In a recent case my solution was basically to pull the plug at a stage where the customer had the first of three stages in hand, but I still ate a lot of billable hours. Lesson learned... Again!

Robert K Baggs's picture

Tough lessons indeed. My under-quoted jobs that have been taken on haven't exceeded 2 months and it wasn't a drastically misjudged price. A 6 month under-quote is a terrifying prospect.

Indeed- and to be honest, if hadn't been married to a spouse with a generous and consistent salary, that year would have put me under. That said, the work I produced was some of my best and garnered many more job (and better paying ones) after that. So it all worked out in the end, sort of.

The worst part was that I really pushed hard to get the client to pay for all the extra work that the project ended up being, to no avail. They just really dug in their heels, refusing to admit that they'd been less than upfront about how they presented the scope when we first negotiated. You can bet that I when we were done I sure never went back for any repeat business.

Mr Hogwallop's picture

I have three thoughts about your article.

1. Where did you get the numbers that you came up with for the end game client? Did you do any research about them. Did you talk to anyone on the inside who could steer you in the right direction? Often art buyers will guide you thru the process if the company wants to work with you. Not with specifics but with general nudges if you are way off base in some lime items. Also you taking a hit on price to land the gig a pointless exercise. Good clients are willing to pay to get what they want. the value that you put on yourself, to them will never change. If you say you charge $3000, you are the $3000 guy and most likely will not get the $7000 job. They have a $7000 guy for that.

2. Disappearing clients and jobs are sometimes gone with the wind but some do reappear. One that went missing around Xmas time just came back to life. Budgets and priorities change.

3. As a photographer why are you using Creative Commons photos to illustrate your article?

Robert K Baggs's picture

1. I did research within my limitations but I'll admit I could have and should have done more. The last sentiment is something I touched upon and couldn't be more true.

2. Absolutely, this happens to me a lot and I'll cross my fingers it continues to.

3. Two reasons: the first and foremost is that using any of my work in this article seemed odd, detracting and related in someway to the brands I'm talking about that I have purposely not named. Secondly, taking custom 'stock' images of my own is very time consuming so I went for the most neutral option.

Michael B. Stuart's picture

Great read! If it wasn't for the shared mistakes of others, we'd all trip over the same roots on the path. Thanks man.

Diko Jelev's picture

OMG. OMG. I just got both these with one (potential) client. I've lost good amount of hours for preparations while we never signed any contract. The client is big. The money was too. Even worse it was a two of us with a friend of mine, colleague photographer. They quit from our preliminary arrangements like mice.

The way we got out of these was by re-adjusting the prices for the venue and finding support from equipment suppliers. And most importantly by doing the same venue for another customer, but on a very very tight budget. The reason. I need the platform. And it will be hell of a ride ;-)