2011 was a pretty shitty year. Most photographers started feeling the pinch around 2009, but the Midwest (always slow to adapt) felt the rumbles about 18 months later by my calendar. That was the year that my regular, dependable business model started to crumble.
My regular, dependable business model went something like this: start the season off around May, work pretty much non stop until November. During those months, cash was fat. Bringing in 15-20K in the peak months was not unusual, and from years past I knew to bank as much as I could for the lean times in winter. But something always came up…a new car, a furnace gone bad, a kid who got hurt and craptastic medical bills to pay. But the bookings kept coming, the retainers came in and while I wasn’t living large in February like I was in June, it was a living. I wasn’t ever in a bad place at any point in my then 15 year old career.
Until suddenly the bad place was around the corner. Not on my door step, but way too close for comfort. And then the rumblings became stronger, from friends and colleagues. Some were within range of the bad place, some were outside the door and some admitted to have been living there for awhile. Long standing iconic studios in my town closed. The only major camera and equipment stores closed shop or moved to Chicago.
Long-time clients started showing up in my newsfeed with family photos from photographers I had never heard of who claimed to be “natural light photographers” and had twee names like “Strawberry Fields” and they all had a passion for affordable photography and loved sushi and puppies. At first, I kept my head down and kept doing what I had always done figuring this was just like the transitional years between film and digital where everyone had to make big changes in their workflow and procedures. But soon, it was clear that this was not a bump in the road, the industry had really changed. I had to recognize that the tide had turned.
Every artist deep down has a fear that they suck and someday someone is going to figure that out they’ll be exposed for the hack they really are. We all wrestle with that demon in some form or another. In the space of a few months, my demon was fed by a series of 8 wedding consults in a row in three weeks time that did not hire me. Until this time, I was used to a 90% booking rate so I fully expected to book 7 of the 8. Every single one of them cited price as the reason that they did not hire me. This was on top of losing long-time clients to the $99 shoot and burner momtographers and one particular stinging moment when a friend contacted me to photograph her sons photos. After sending her my information as well as a generous friends and family discount she responded with “While we love your work, we put your prices into our spreadsheet and you’re sadly not the most affordable even with the discount”
She put me in her fucking spreadsheet? Is this what I was reduced to now?
Through the next several months I made some stupid decisions because frankly I was scared. Knowing that I am not qualified to do anything but this or work at Target (and I look horrible in red) I took on clients I could should not have, I made exceptions to in-person sales and proofed portrait sessions online to get the sale and I relaxed payment terms.
Looking back, I know now that these mistakes were made not only because I was scared, but because I had never prepared myself for anything like this before. I had by all accounts a successful thriving business. I was doing 30 some weddings a year at a upper end price point for my market, was averaging around the 1K mark for my portrait sales, had associates that I paid a decent wage to. Nothing that I had done had changed. My work hadn’t changed, if anything it had gotten better. My prices hadn’t changed. But everything else had. I had never truly considered that my thriving business would go south because of the economy or made a plan of what steps I would take if it happened.
2012 was marginally better. 2013 was 100% improved and 2014 looks to be a better year yet (crossing fingers and toes) So what did I do that brought me out of the slump?
I sat down and made some hard choices. I figured that all I could do was to stop being scared. I had to take a hard look at my business and be honest about what I sucked at and what I had never planned for. I took a look at people who had been in business a long time and listened to what they had to say. I tightened my belt even harder than I ever had and bought not one single piece of gear in 2 years other than gaffers tape. My accountant was astounded. I had to do all of this when I was feeling bad about myself and my business and photography and that, my friends, was my number one mistake.
Everyone talks about having a business plan. But no one talks about having a “when should I call it a day plan”.
I should have been doing this Every. Single. Year. I should have done it in the heyday of my career and not just in a slump. I still think that the economy/recession whatever you want to call it played a part, but I have no doubt now that I would have not been hit as hard as I was if I had a plan of at what point did I need to end my career as a photographer. When I decided I wasn’t going to go out without a fight, all I could think to do was to buckle down by revising my price list and raising my prices. Along with that came looking clients in the eye and telling them that no, I could not give them a discount because they were paying for the wedding themselves. Along with that came telling portrait clients that no, I could not put their photos online because they were “too busy” to come in for the in-person sales session. Instead of giving more, I resisted more and held out for more.
It was, and continues to be, a bit terrifying. But I’ll be honest less so because I know what’s in front of me and how to prepare when or if it changes again.
Watch this amazing video Transformation by Zack Arias . Get out a pad of paper or grab a friend and do a brain dump. Just get it all out there, talk about the good, the bad, what you sucked at, what you are proud of and what scares you. (I also recommend a tall vodka tonic with a lot of lime, but that’s me). Do it once a year, more often if you can.
Stop letting your business go on without a plan for both success and failure.