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By Mariah Ashley

Author's Note: Required Reading! The Go-Giver, by Bob Burg and John David Mann. A little story about a powerful business idea.

Thumbnail image for louboutins.jpgI was alone in the upstairs bedroom. Amanda (the bride) was late getting back from the salon so I spent my time photographing her dress and invitation. Her mother kept popping in with other things she thought I might find interesting, among them a pair of fabulous Louboutin sequined heels.

"Oh, fancy! Shoes are like porn for women," I joked cradling the shoe near my face.

"So true," said Amanda's mom, with a chuckle. "Everything about this wedding is a little over the top. (nods toward shoes).

"But Amanda is such a good girl, so smart and hardworking. She's such a humble and sweet girl. I just want this to be an amazing day for her."

Amanda's mom left me alone with the shoes and my thoughts. A few days earlier I listened to a podcast by former Imaging USA speaker Jeffery Shaw. He interviewed author Bob Burg on his national best-seller, The Go-Giver, which describes "giving as the most fulfilling and effective path to success."

Burg and co-author John David Mann map out the Five Laws of Stratospheric Success all focused on giving instead of getting. Intriguing! Trish ordered me the book and I devoured the parable in one sitting, highlighting passages like a mad woman. Since then I haven't been able to think about much else besides adding value to my clients lives, with the exception of thinking about how much I was dreading photographing Amanda's wedding.

When Amanda first contacted me, she had just experienced what she described as a "bad engagement session experience" with another photographer she had originally booked to photograph her wedding. She wanted to talk to me about that experience, get my opinion on whether or not her expectations had been unrealistic, and discuss the possibility of having us photograph her wedding instead.

I think we can all agree that if there was such an award, Kanye West would be in contention for the prestigious "Most Obnoxious Person on the Planet" honor. Yet, if there's one thing this year has taught me, it's that there is valuable insight to be gleaned from even the most insufferable sources. Don't think Kanye can teach you anything about your photography business?  Well, hold onto your leather jogging pants people because you are about to get schooled.*

* A reference to Kanye telling the press that it was he who brought leather jogging pants to Fendi six years ago and was flat out denied. To quote Kanye directly, "How many [expletive] you done seen with a leather jogging pant?" Too many to count, Kanye, too many to count.

Last week I had two objectives. The first was to create welcome boxes for our four new clients. I figured I would complete that task by lunch time, freeing up my afternoon to dive into my second priority which was blogging our last wedding of the season. Sadly, when 4 pm rolled around I found myself making a dash to the post office with my four boxes just in the nick of time. I felt so frustrated with my slow self! The urgent voice in the back of my head (born of one too many lectures about maximizing time and streamlining workflow) makes me feel like I am always playing  beat the clock.

Could I streamline my welcome box assembly? I considered the steps...

1. Bake (from scratch) a batch of our signature Snap! Vegan Salted Oat Cookies. Sprinkle in a few choice swear words when you realize you are out of vanilla, craisins, almond milk, etc.-- take your pick because there's always something missing! Run to the grocery store for said missing item.

2. Cool cookies on racks, beating back family and business partner as they attempt to consume the cookies that are supposed to be going to clients. Keep one eye on your computer screen and one eye on the cookies while you attempt to complete step 3.

3. Go to the PPA charities website and start donating. (We donate $240 for every wedding we book to Operation Smile).  A separate donation form has to be filled out for each new client. Print out a receipt for the donation to include in the welcome box.

4. Hand write a note to each client explaining the awesomeness of Operation Smile, and the awesomeness of them booking us so that we can donate to the awesome cause.

5. Wrap the gift (a set of pewter heart shaped measuring spoons) with fancy wrapping paper and ribbon.

6. Package the homemade cookies in a bag with luxe ribbon and custom cookie recipe tag.

7. Assemble boxes with confetti paper, spoons, Operation Smile card and cookies.

8. Hand write (another) thank you note on our special letterpress thank you cards and nestle it on top of the presents.

9. Tape the Box and fill out a mailing label.

10. Run to the post office to mail the package--fresh baked cookies need to be eaten straight away after all!

croissants.jpg

Ideas I came up with for trimming some time from my welcome box assembly included; store bought cookies... out of the question! I'd sooner eat Kanye's leather jogging pants. Besides, the snap cookies are addictive, they've been tested. On the scale of addictiveness you have cigarettes, then heroine, and next Snap's vegan salted oat cookies. I guess I could skip the hand written note part, but I really love receiving a handwritten note. Doesn't everyone?

Putting the cookie conundrum on the back burner, I dove into my next project, blogging our last wedding of the season. Surely I'd crank that right out.

Wrong, this took me two days. Is taking two days to blog a wedding an outrageous waste of time? There's a popular "blog every day" movement among some photographers, but I wonder how to create a quality post if you have to churn them out daily. Again I considered my steps.

1. Carefully choose 85-100 photos. That's a lot of photos for sure but that's what it takes for me to successfully tell the story. I am VERY picky about what shots make it onto the blog. They must be flattering to the client, flattering to the other vendors involved and flattering to us because if everyone is flattered than everybody wins.

2. "Jazz" the photos. That's a technical term we use around here for photoshopping. Every single photo is retouched, jazzed with an appropriate photo shop action, sized for the blog and watermarked.

3. Rename the photos for SEO and upload them to the post.

4. Write the post. I find a clever or sentimental quote and share some personal thoughts about the couple and the wedding. Then I mention the other fabulous vendors. Finally I tie it all together neatly with some expert advice or a funny behind the scenes peek.

5. Post the blog, share the link on Facebook, and notify the bride and the other vendors involved that it's up. Hurray!

6. Take a nap before my head explodes.

Maybe there are some things I could trim here too. Less photos? No jazzing? Skip the personal writing which takes so much time? I suppose... NOT. Doing so would feel like sacrificing quality.

I'm really happy with the QUALITY of my cookies and I am happy with the QUALITY of my blogging. More importantly, so are my clients. Here's the thing about quality: most often it takes a long time to achieve. This is where our friend Kanye's valuable lesson comes into the story. Kanye was recently schooled himself by the Association of French Bakers in what can only be described as the most sarcastically perfect reprimand in the history of lambasting.

It seems Kanye wrote a song that really pissed off the French. The offending lyrics were from the song, "I am God" (no, actually that's not the offensive part).  The part they took umbrage with was these lyrics,

"In a French-ass restaurant
Hurry up with my damn croissants"

I know! The nerve, right?! The scathing letter from the bakers to Monsieur Kanye West was lengthy, so I'll just give you a few of the more biting and poignant bits.

Certainly, you are not a man to be satisfied with pre-made croissants from the baked goods case reheated and tossed out on a small platter. No -- you had demanded your croissants freshly-baked, to be delivered to your table straight out of the oven piping hot.

The croissant is dignified?--?not vulgar like a piece of toast, simply popped into a mechanical device to be browned. No?--?the croissant is born of tender care and craftsmanship. Bakers must carefully layer the dough, paint on perfect proportions of butter, and then roll and fold this trembling croissant embryo with the precision of a Japanese origami master.

For us mere mortals, we must wait the time required for the croissant to come to perfect fruition, but as a deity, you can surely alter the bread's molecular structure faster than the speed of light, no?

Hee-Hee, that last line was my favorite! You've got to hand it to the French, they really know how to sling an elegant insult. Much like the treasured croissant, the Snap! experience is multi-layered;  flaky on the outside, tender in the middle and worth waiting for.

It may take me all day to send four welcome boxes to new clients, but every one of my clients sent a thank you email for the delicious cookies and gift. Every one of them said they felt warm and fuzzy about donating to Operation Smile. I even had a bride tell me recently that she makes Snap! cookies once a week for her groom because... you guessed it... he's addicted to them. That kind of feel good customer loyalty and branding is priceless.

I feel the same way about blogging. We don't post everyday but I've had clients tell me they look forward to the posts and savor reading them, just like a good book. Would you feel compelled to savor something that you could have every day? I know I wouldn't. I've never been there, but if I do ever make it to Paris, I plan to savor me a few croissants and I'll wait patiently to get them.

The next time you find yourself beating yourself up about how much time you've spent on designing your website, networking with vendors, or creating a kickass album design remember that quality attracts quality. Take another page from Monsieur Kanye West's book because, after all, he attracted Kim Kardashian. Guess it works in reverse too.

Just sayin'.

 

                

What having our hearts broken taught us about our ideal client

The other day Trish and I had a meeting with a potential bride (Annie) and her mother (Ruth). They were two smartly-dressed, funny, warm, interesting ladies. The most endearing thing about them was that they work together as a mother/daughter dynamic-duo realty team. During our meeting, we laughed, we chatted, we shared ideas and inspirations, relating to each other on a sassy-ladies-in business kind of level.

Annie and Ruth were planning a big fabulous wedding at a fantastic venue with a fancy wedding coordinator we love. We thought to ourselves, now these two are our "ideal clients!" We could have spent all day chatting with Annie and Ruth, in particular picking savvy business lady Ruth's brain about what her "ideal client" was like.

It's safe to say we fell a little in love with Annie and Ruth and when they left, we found ourselves staring longingly at them as they walked away, calling out with a hint of neediness, "Don't be strangers! Bye-bye... Call us!"

The problem with falling in love is it puts you at risk of rejection. Unfortunately, it turned out that Annie and Ruth weren't as "into us" as we were "into them." One-sided love never works out, and a few days later after our date meeting, I got a "Dear Snap" letter from Annie. It was the usual, "It's not you...it's us" excuse.

WHY Annie!? Why Ruth?! What is it about us that drove you away?!!! WHAAAA!

This question kept me awake, so I felt compelled to email Annie back and ask her... casual-like... why she decided to break our hearts go in another direction? Exactly what did the other photographer have that we didn't? Perkier Albums? Curvier frames? Tell me Annie, tell me what I could have done differently!

Annie was gracious enough to return my email. She reiterated it wasn't us, they loved us. Our albums were indeed perky and our frames curvy, but what really turned them on was slimmer packages. The other photographer was cheaper more budget friendly. That's it. Budget trumped our deep personal connection and charming personalities, end of story.

goat photo.jpg

While Ruth may not have given us a deposit to shoot her daughter Annie's wedding at that meeting, she did give us something invariably more valuable, a little gem of advice. Remember how I asked Ruth about her ideal client? Her answer gave me pause then but really got me thinking after she dumped me.

She said, "My ideal client is one that pays me. If I only worked with clients that I loved, I'd have like five clients and that doesn't pay my bills. I keep my eye on the prize. Being able to work with all kinds of people affords me a nice home, nice vacations and the ability to plan a nice wedding."

There's a lot of photography talk out there about "Finding your Ideal Client"--a concept that has always kind of confused me. What is my ideal client? I thought sassy, funny, fashionable Annie and Ruth were ideal, but I was wrong about them.

Seemingly, some photographers "ideal clients" get married in a field and have rustic-barn-Anthropologie-type receptions because all their photographs contain those elements. Other jet-setting photographers seem to only photograph tall, thin, fashion forward model-types who marry in European vineyards and/or castles because all of their photos are taken in European vineyard and/or castles with unbelievably beautiful people. Others yet seem to only photograph really creative tattooed people that seek alternative venues like abandoned airplane hangars.

Why then, on any given weekend might I find myself shooting a wedding on a boat, or in a moat, or with a goat? It makes me wonder, how can moat, boat, and goat clients ALL be my ideal clients? Is it weird that my weddings are so varied in style, location, and budget?

Here's where we circle back to Ruth and her gift to me. The common denominator with the moat client, the goat client, and the boat client is that they were all really excited to hire us. Eureka! Mystery solved...my ideal client is... wait for it... a client who is really excited to give me their money in return for us doing a really great job.

For whatever reason our photos, bad jokes, lack of fashion sense, or quirky personalities speak to them. They feel comfortable with us, confident we'll do a good job and are happy with their decision. Our clients are tall, short, big-boned, skinny, type A's, artsy types, fancy, down-to-earth, educated, hard-working, old money, blue collar, funny, shy, preppy, alternative, silly and serious. They are all of these things and more and I am grateful for their differences. I don't want my photographs to all look the same, the same type of venue and the same type of people in the same type of lighting. That gets really boring really fast. Besides, I'd like to shoot 40 weddings this year. What are the odds of finding 40 clients who want to have goats at their wedding?

A few days after Annie and Ruth rejected us we had another date meeting. (Gotta get back on the proverbial bicycle, right?) Had I been thinking along the old "ideal client" lines, gauging clients on their shoes or their venue, I might have missed out on a nice booking. This wedding was to take place at venue we are unfamiliar with and with vendors we don't normally work with. The couple was kind of quiet and shy, the conversation was a little awkward and the meeting brief. In times like that it can be hard to muster the razzle dazzle, but you know what? This couple was interested in our photography and had taken the time to come and see us. They deserved a little sparkle and we happily gave it to them. Although the meeting was brief, the shy bride told us we made her feel really comfortable and she would be excited to have us photograph her wedding... oh, and where should she send the check?

Ideal clients? Yes, without a doubt.

 

BY: Mariah Ashley


I did something so unconscionable, so objectionable, so very scandalous that I am trembling as I type this confession. No sense in dragging things out. I'm going to rip this indecent Band-Aid off in one quick tug. 

I, Mariah Ashley, wedding photographer being of relatively sound mind and body, do hereby declare that I took two entire weeks off, in July, at the height of my busy season, to take my family on an epic summer vacation adventure. 

(Audible gasps heard around the photography community)

There, I said it. I said it and I am not (entirely) ashamed that I did it. 

Judge me not ye slaves to Photoshop! Untangle thy chains tethered to editing stations and hear my words...

If you leave it, they will come.

On the last day of Imaging USA in January, Trish and I attended a seminar about creating balance called Life. Photography. Business: How Women Can Balance Them All. I think it was a great talk to end our Imaging experience. We had been hearing so much about faster workflows and generating more business that it was a nice reminder that business is not everything and that taking time to enjoy life is important too. Of course intellectually we all know that, but personally I find it really hard to fit "Enjoy My Life" into my daily schedule. 

Trish and I have been full steam ahead since Imaging. We've been plugging away, making changes, keeping expenses low, boosting our web presence and marketing like mad. Basically implementing everything we learned while we were in Atlanta. And I have to say, progress was slow. Painfully slow. Horrifyingly slow. Considered getting a second job slow. 

Every email we got, every time the phone rang we'd hold our breath and wait. I was getting so good at holding my breath that my second job could be in professional pearl diving. 

Then around June I ran out of steam. I stalled right out on the tracks. I was the little engine that wept. I couldn't stand to ask myself one more time if we'd finally reached a tipping point, if we were on the up-swing, if we'd arrived. Please dear God, are we there yet?

Well, we weren't "there yet," and since we weren't going anywhere fast, I decided I'd go on a vacation. For two weeks. In July. 

I had in tow my husband, my two kids and two grown stepchildren. The Brady Bunch version 2013: In Hawaii, saying no to picking up random Tiki statues and incurring a Hawaiian curse, but saying yes to surfing lessons for six. I put a "sorry we're on vacation, we'll get back to you when we get back in town" message on our website, email, and voicemail. Then I did the unthinkable--I removed the email account from my phone so I wouldn't be tempted to peek at the beach. 

Are we there yet.JPG
This is where things get really insane. You might want to sit down. I did not lug along camera, not even a point and shoot. The only means of documenting my trip was my iPhone. Holy Macadamia, that's nuts. 

For two weeks I snorkeled, baked my pink skin under a tropical sun, surfed, skateboarded, swam with sea turtles, drank rum punch, laughed, made delicious dinners for my family, explored and slept. After about day two I forgot I even owned a business. By day three I forgot it was day three. I didn't even think about work again until the plane ride home and that's when the dreaded reality set in. 

I was leaving Neverland and heading back to Nevergoingtomakemybusinesssuccessful Land. I returned on a Friday and avoided turning my computer on until Monday morning. Monday morning I avoided opening my email until Monday afternoon. Monday afternoon I opened my email and found not cobwebs but 50 friendly messages from excited brides. They said things like, "Hope you are having a great vacation!" and "Can't wait to hear from you when you get back!" I had incurred the opposite of the Brady Hawaiian curse; I had incurred a post-vacation blessing. 

We had worked for six months implementing all of the great advice we received at Imaging. We sweated and fretted, and tweaked and planned and then just when I couldn't take another second of hoping to see the results, I left it. Left it alone to percolate. I had been leaving my family alone for six months because even when I was with them physically my mind was on my business. Being with them mentally and physically saved my sanity and allowed my watched pot to finally boil. 

Taking that vacation was our tipping point. The calls and emails are flooding in, the calendar for next year is filling in nicely, and I've stopped holding my breath. Now when my inner whiny voice asks "Are we there yet?!" I can say "Almost... almost." 

About the author:
Mariah Ashley is co-owner of Snap! Photography in Rhode Island. She is blonde, loves to bake fruit pies, wears flip flops way past the summer season, should have been born in the 50s, paints and writes when the mood strikes her, is mother to Jacques and Vianne, vacations on Block Island, is vegan, never has proper or stylish outerwear, fears frogs and toads but loves turtles, has really skinny legs, personal Style- Bohemian Chic, wants to own a VW van and learn to surf someday, grew up on a cranberry farm and is happiest when snorkeling is happiest when sipping a rum punch under a palm tree. 



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