Seattle Mom Photographer to All Mom Photographers
What I Did Wrong
Starting a business is not easy. It’s not for the squeamish. Especially if you are income dependent. Giving up your day job is frightening. For me, it was incredibly sad. I really loved my job in technology at Starbucks Headquarters with people I admired. It was serendipitous that we lost our spot in the daycare we enrolled our newborn in. I was home staring at my son and pondering, “What will I do with you?” like so many new stay at home moms. In so many ways, I was relieved because I wanted so badly to be with him and watch him grow. I thought no one could care for him as well as I did. I was also terrified of failing and afraid of what staying home meant for our finances.
Do Not Work for Free or Indiscriminately
I needed experience, so I started working for free for any family who would take me. This was mistake number one. There are many photographers who disagree with me on this (and for their own good reasons.) If you are beginning your career, I want to extend ideas to help alleviate the frustrations I had in my first six months. There’s nothing worse than someone telling you what not to do without giving you tangible solution so here are a few of mine.
- Gain Experience: Do a free session, but charge a nominal fee per image (i.e., $5-$10 each). This way your clients have nothing to lose but time. This does two things for you: (1) it conveys that though you may new, you have value; and (2) it also teaches you which images your clients prefer. When you give away a disc of images, you’re walking away from a great learning opportunity. How do you know what they liked? If clients purchase individual images, you’ll find out. It’s a win-win scenario: a great price for them and a learning experience for you. I wish I had done this.
- Select Clients with Intention: When you offer these sessions to potential clients in your niche, don’t take just anyone. Remember, you’re looking for experience. Write down what you want to learn. Do you want experience with toddlers? Newborns? Brides? Make sure you are reaching out to the right audience (e.g., your target market). You’ll get pummeled with people wanting free photography, so you will have your pick! I recommend finding these clients through Facebook. Why? Because you can see the family before agreeing to the session. Don’t forget that you’re building your portfolio, your business, and your brand. What do you want the face of your business to look like? You are offering your time for free so use it wisely, and keep all of these things in mind and remember that your time is valuable.
- Get Educated: Take a posing class. Learn about light. I did not. In my first year, I did sessions and said ‘just play,’ ‘just be you,’ and the worst, ‘act natural.’ This was just dumb. I had no idea how to find light, how to pose subjects, and how to direct my clients. After a year of troubleshooting, I finally took a class and learned how wrong I’d been. Holy cow! I came home from a session after that class and said to my husband, “I was so bossy! That session rocked!” In addition, my clients were relieved to not have to overthink the process or feel awkward. Clients love direction, and I love great photos; it’s a win!
I did not own who I was because I felt shame. And, in retrospect, I regret it.
During our first meeting, a well-known photography teacher in Seattle, with no knowledge of my situation, said to me,
“Remember, you are competing with a bunch of stay-at-home moms who have nothing to do and aren’t worrying about money, so photography everywhere is losing its value with so many people doing it.”
That same week, I read blog after blog that talked about the women who become photographers after having a baby. I felt like a cliche. I was humiliated. Sure enough, I found out I was not alone; there were tons of moms out there just like me starting a photography business. I was a proverbial fish in a bucket–a terrified fish in a bucket. How would I ever stand out? Would I ever be taken seriously?
I foolishly decided I wouldn’t be that mom who posted a ton of images of her kid on her blog and all over Instagram. I noticed so many mom photographers did this. After all, in our world, our kids are the cutest, always available subject, right? I wanted to be taken seriously, so I never took pictures of my child. Thus, the entire first year of his life was only recorded on an iPhone. I had this amazing camera, but I never practiced my craft on my own kid. My pride and desire to differentiate myself from other ‘momographers’ was ridiculous. Talk about biting off your nose to spite your face.
During my second year as a professional photographer, I noticed I was lacking the ability and knowledge of how to take a scene and make it art. So I undertook a one-month challenge and snapped a photo of my son once every day. I took pictures of my child with my awesome camera for the very first time. I had to look at my son in a very different way and see light with a new lens and perspective. I learned to love windows like I never had before, and shoot in a way I was not accustomed to. I flexed muscles I didn’t know I had, and, in the process, I became a much better photographer. This was experience I could’ve been getting all along regardless of whether I posted the images. How foolish was I!
*All images in this post are of my little man. Better late than never!
What I Did Right
Search Engine Optimization
This is critical. Period. Don’t overlook it. I started my photography business with previous small business ownership experience. I had successfully built two other businesses from the ground up, which I later sold for profit. That experience gave me the knowledge of how important my web presence would be if I wanted this business to be just as, if not more, successful. There are a lot of great photographers out there who aren’t getting noticed because they are unaware of how imperative this is to their success. In addition to all of my hard work, I hired a great team (Enhanced Path Marketing) that works on the elements in the background of my website to ensure my business has a web presence through search engine optimization (SEO). Feel free to give them a call and tell them Tilly sent you. They can, at the very least, teach you more than you ever wanted to know about your website. After all, your business is your livelihood, so you might as well invest in it.
Hire People Better Than You
Warren Buffett once was asked about how he became so successful, and he said,
“It’s better to hang out with people better than you. Pick out associates whose behavior is better than yours and you’ll drift in that direction.”
This is absolutely true for the associates I have chosen. Along with the SEO team I hired, I also have an editor for my website, which is a critical piece of my success. While I may be a great photographer, I struggle with grammar and spelling; I tend to write much like I talk. This is not the best approach to captivate a broad audience, but it leads to another necessary lesson: know your strengths and weaknesses. Once you’ve identified your personal strengths and weaknesses, you can then identify those same strengths and weaknesses in your business (SWOT analysis, anyone?). From there, you can begin to outsource areas you need extra assistance in and focus on your core strengths that will build your business.
I was in the Creative Live Studio in Seattle taking ‘Understanding Light‘ with Mark Wallace. He said some of the best advice he could give was to hire an assistant. As a newbie who barely had the money to pay my bills, I raised my hand and asked him how I could get the same effects without hiring an assistant because I simply could not afford it.
He said matter-of-factly, without hesitation, “Raise your prices and hire an assistant.”
I did both. By making these changes, I transformed my brand by enhancing the quality of my photography and deliverables.
Fire Bad Clients
That’s right. Fire them and courteously recommend other photographers in your area who may be a better fit for their needs. I also received great advice from a businessman in Tucson–one I greatly respect–Mr. Garry Brav, who said:
“Ninety-nine percent of your business problems will come from 1% of your clients.” Don’t waste your time on that one percent. It is a very refreshing concept to say, ‘No, but let me refer you.'”
Mr. Brav, the president and CEO of BRL Construction Company, ranked as a top-ten commercial contractor, told me to always say “yes” to success, or “Pour your heart into it” as Howard Schultz, President and CEO of Starbucks said. It’s your business, after all. It will take years to build it, so nurture it and grow it. A business can be destroyed in mere minutes. Treating every customer like gold is a great way to set yourself apart from the competition. Provide handwritten notes, and deliver your product on time or earlier. Go above and beyond to exceed each customer’s expectations. Leave them saying “Wow!”
If you are feeling lost, find a mentor. Enjoy the journey. Now get out there, and do it.
As Walt Disney said, “The way to get started is to quit talking and begin doing.”
If you liked this article you may also like: Mentor. Manual. Mode: Lessons for the Beginner Photographer
For my Dad, WRF, a successful entrepreneur who showed me with hard work and perseverance you can really do anything. Thank you for being an amazing role model. I love you.