Jay Cole quit his corporate job to focus on his passion full time. Due to his skills in business and marketing he was able to start a unique photography company that shoots hundreds of people per year. Here he explains how you can do the same by finding your niche and thinking creatively.
I’m a retired Corporate Executive who knew what I wanted to do ever since I was 9 years old and assembled my first computer. That is until I picked up a camera 35 years later. When we adopted our daughter in 2006, I didn’t want to get left out of the mom/kid photo sessions that my wife and sons did while I worked at the office. I bought a digital camera, read a book or two and the rest, as they say, is history.
When Aaron contacted me to write an article, I was a bit surprised. I am more of a senior/sports photographer than a classical photographer. Aaron had collaborated with us in the past on some of our more interesting ideas and we’ve continued to chat off and on since then on lots of different topics.
I took a deep look at what I could offer to the Phlearn community for this article that people would be most interested in. We do some unique sports portraits, fashion-based senior pictures, but nothing extremely creative or awe-inspiring. So I said if someone was to talk to me about one thing, where could I offer the most value. So here it is…probably not what you are expecting on a photography/Photoshop site.
I’m a classically trained software guy. I worked as VP of Software Development for a Fortune 20 company with 200 developers and a $350 million revenue stream. I don’t say this to impress you, I bring it up to give you a perspective of where my thoughts and ideas come from. We had to compete with guys in a garage to some of the most predatory companies in the world. One great truism came through. Marketing and sales are king. And more importantly, being different is the best way to sell yourself and your work.In two years, we’ve gone from nothing to shooting over 150 seniors last year and almost 200 gymnasts per year. Our average sale is near $1700 per senior and $600 per gymnast.
Key to Success
I can’t say “BE DIFFERENT” enough, and it merits repeating. The cheapest photographer, the best photographer, the one with the most looks, etc does not win. Rarely anyway. The person who can effectively differentiate themselves in the market wins and they can demand much higher prices than the market average. They don’t win everything, but they can thrive in their niche. There are so many “success formulas” out on the market for photography businesses. The old guys give you a set of hard and fast rules. If you try to compete with their rules, you’ll lose, they are more established and their infrastructure, marketing, etc demands a different approach than a startup.
You need to look at what absolutely makes you unique in the market. What unique quality do YOU have that very few other people have? You need to let the market know it, over and over and over again.
The biggest mistake is to say you are 20% cheaper or you have better lighting. Even worse is to focus on differences that your clients don’t care about or don’t understand. An unsophisticated client can’t differentiate between hand retouching and more lazy Gaussian blurs on skin. If you’re shooting for magazines it’s a bit different. If you are trying to win on better technical merits you’ll lose again or you’ll find yourself constantly competing on an ever-shrinking price and margin.
Don’t get me wrong, we have to have good work. If we don’t, the clients won’t perceive value or benefit to shooting with you. But with good, unique work, the value of your work goes up. Why? Because there is nothing to baseline it to. Let me use an example from our market; Seniors.
Most senior pictures involve a shot in a letterman jacket, then some outfit changes, then regular senior pictures. Guys generally hate senior pictures and our competitors avoid marketing to them because girls are where the money is spent. In my case, the unique advantage was I’ve played almost every sport there is. I know the games, what plays are “cool”, how to stage the situations and I know how to explain what I want to the athletes. Our sports portraits are a combination of simulated action shots and sports magazine cover photos.
We charge 3x to 5x the market rates for our images over our competitors. Why? Because we don’t shoot letterman jackets and the closest thing they can compare our shots to is a Sports Illustrated athlete cover shot. How much is that worth by comparison?
Guys come to us for sports shots, not senior pictures. Their parents get senior pictures in the process, but both are happy when a typical guy wouldn’t care where his mom took him, and now he does.
From The Client’s Perspective
In the end, a client can tell some difference in an image, but they don’t know you’re more precise in your lighting and your ratios are correct. The can tell the difference only if your work is much better or way different. Much better is harder and harder to achieve these days. They can “feel” the photo is better but they don’t necessarily know why nor do they know how to ascribe a value to that difference. Being totally different, eliminates a lot of that typical pricing pressure you get if you’re just “a little bit better.”
Another example is our work with gymnastic clubs. Again I asked myself what I have that’s unique over other photographers. I have a daughter in gymnastics but that wasn’t enough. The typical gymnastics team photographer gets $20 to $30 for an 8×10 and might, if they are lucky get $40 per person they shoot. Good ones get $60 to $80. The event photographers make even less.
I knew there were very few photographers with my corporate experience. I also have an extensive background in branding and internet marketing. So when we sign a gym or dance studio, we package it as a fund raiser, a branding effort, or a social media marketing effort to build fans and teach them how to market to them. Oh, and by the way, we do photos too. When I’m working with a gym I present the following facts:
- We just raised $2,000 for the last gym we did
- They have their athletes covering their walls, which helps with retention of their customers
- We grew their fan base from 100 to 2000 fans in 2 weeks, and we taught them how to market and grow customers in that fan base
- Their parents want us back in 6 months for another shoot
At the beginning of the sales session, I show the sample photos for 2 minutes and then another 3 minutes at the end. They may say “we have a photographer” but once we’re done they say “oh you’re not a photographer…at least not like him”. The images are much different than the typical sports club photos which are typically shot with a blue backdrop and two umbrella’ed strobes. We bring in four photographers and tons of lights to make it an event for the club.
Our average sale per client for an event is $600+ dollars. Some orders exceeding $2000 per client. Can you do this? Maybe, if you have a good marketing background. But it doesn’t matter. You have something UNIQUE TO YOU that very few photographers have. Find it, exploit it, and sell it. Don’t just copy my approach or the guy down the street.
What to Spend Your Time On
This statement may make some of the artists here mad, but being different is MORE IMPORTANT than your photographic skill in making money and growing a client base. I know that’s hard to hear but it is true. It was true of the software I used to write and its true of any product or service you sell. Clients care about benefits, NOT technical or artistic competence.
There are some easy ways early in your business to differentiate from the big players while you figure out your market position. They have big costs into their studios, they have to keep scale high to make a profit. The old saying goes “your greatest strength can be your greatest weakness and your greatest weakness can be your greatest strength”. For example, not having a studio can be thought of as either. It’s up to you on how to turn it into a strength in your market. Here are some simple tips that can give you a bit of differentiation right out of the gate.
- Shoot weekends and week nights (big studios hate to do this)
- Shoot on location and make sure the client knows why that’s better than some studio that thousands of other clients have shot at.
- Market outrageously. Often time, the bigger competitors have a fear of “putting off” their client base so they stay safe in their messaging. For example, we shoot teens like fashion models. They wear fashion outfits, pose a little more sexy and adult. But when you see our picture in the yearbook it stands out. Do we put off some customers? Yes. But we attract others. We can’t be all things to all people, that’s a prescription for disaster. We throw girls in fountains, cover our athletes with mud, hire a Cirque Du Soleil school to train our models for a photo shoot and more. Anything crazy or different is always in the forefront of our mind.
- Use Facebook to establish a personal relationship with your clients and prospects. Invite them into your life. Be a friend, not just a vendor.
Sorry for the lack of photography material, but honestly, marketing is the one topic I think I can help people with the most. Aaron has the photography/Photoshop covered more than adequately.
Best Advice I Can Give
- Have fun. If you aren’t having fun get out and find something else to do with your life.
- Be different, not just kinda, I mean really different. Make sure people know why and how.
- If something is hard, do it. You should love and embrace it. Charge for it, and more than likely your competitor won’t do it. Figure out how to make the hard stuff easy and you can make some really great money.
- Use Photoshop. If you don’t, with the improvements in cameras and tools, you’ll be out of business in 3-4 years as the amateur market matures. Very few serious photographers can make good money without it. Outsource it if you have to. I believe Photoshop is giving a new platform for the classical artist. You don’t commission paintings of your family because it takes too long and costs too much. But Photoshop is making custom art more affordable and it can be created in a much shorter period of time.
- Know your margin and profitability. Understand it inside out. Profitability is more important than revenue for long term growth. With that said, revenue makes things much easier in the beginning but not at the expense of profitability.
- Understand the customer groups you are targeting. Segment it and market to each segment uniquely. One marketing message does not fit all. We market to boys different than girls, different than moms. In fact, we market to sports different than music, different than senior pictures.
- Don’t be afraid to walk away from work. Don’t just chase the money. It dilutes you and it makes you mediocre in all areas. Specialization will get you more money in the long run. It’s tough sometimes when you just need to pay bills. If you don’t want to do a certain type of work or you just don’t like doing it, quadruple your rates. The sad thing is once you do that, you often get more work.
- Don’t ignore all the rules and advice given. They are usually there for a good reason. But ask why you need to follow it and what happens when you don’t. There is generally a set of implied premises with every piece of great business advice. Make sure the premises are there for you, if not, you may find a totally new way of doing things.
- There are lots of talented and smart people out there. They are smarter and more talented than I am for sure. If you think you’ve figured out something no one else is smart enough to figure out, you’re dead wrong.
- Execution and consistency in the long run is more important than skill and creativity for long term success. If you’re late on deadlines, produce inconsistent quality in your work, it kills your chances for additional work with existing clients. You will always have to attract new clients which is a much more costly proposition. Clients also pay more for reliable contractors and services.
- Merchandise your product. Having great print products or digital products is the best way to scale. If you shoot and get paid only for your time, you can never scale beyond your hours you have in a year. Selling product with your photo shoots will make you more than your hourly rate ever will.
Whenever I do short presentations or mini articles like this, I feel as if I don’t do justice to what it is to be in business. There is no magic pill but hopefully this will get you thinking creatively and help get you out of a rut if you’re stuck in one. And more importantly I hope it helps you make more money and get more work…that would make me very happy!
Feel free to email me if you have any questions. You can find my contact info here. And best of luck to everyone out there on your marketing. It’s truly an amazing thing when good marketing hits the market.