Michelle Tibbils: Perfecting Her Way

Michelle TibbilsPhotography can go from passionate pastime to career choice if handled correctly. Michelle Tibbils of Bugs and Butterflies Photography in California knows that well. Always focused on evolving and the best business practices, she learned to juggle art with business structure, time with her clients and time with her family.

"There's not one perfect way to run a photography business, but you can perfect your way…as long as it is right for you," adds Michelle. So what helped her find her way?

Choosing Her Path
"It's not a unique story," Michelle says. "Same as so many mothers, I fell in love with taking portraits once my first child was born." Photographing her son helped her realize how much she liked creating images of children, so she started taking photos of the other children in her extended family. "They'd put the images on their walls, and then their friends started asking if I could photograph their children."

While on maternity leave with her second child, she decided that if she was going to stay in the working world, she wanted to love what she was doing for a living. She returned to her then-current employer (a software company) as expected when her maternity leave was up. However, she began to envision starting a small, part-time photography business.  

Learning Along the Way
Part of Michelle's learning process involved joining PPA. "I didn't have any knowledge of or friends in the industry," she says. "So I wanted to learn more about photography while surrounding myself with others working in it." That led her to register for a women's photography conference put on by PPA in 2005, called Chicks Who Click. During that event, she realized the true value of such supporting camaraderie, and she joined PPA on the spot. A week after returning from the conference, she applied for her business license!

Still, Michelle tested the waters part time first. In October 2005, she began conducting sessions out of her home, using her living room as the shooting space and her dining room for in-person ordering appointments. She built relationships with clients who were referring other friends and started ironing out what worked and what didn't. It was a busy year and a half: working a full-time job, parenting two young children and building her photography business.  

Talking with other photographers during the Chicks Who Click and subsequent PPA events allowed her toCopyright Bugs and Butterflies Photography learn how others responded to certain client situations. At the events she attended, presenters would often discuss mistakes they'd made when first starting their businesses, which helped her build her full-time studio the right way. For example, she heard again and again about the dangers of not pricing appropriately, so she knew to use PPA resources to ensure her prices would lead to profitability.

One of the PPA resources she turned to was PPA's Benchmark Survey, which provides benchmarks (or financial goals) for a healthy photography studio. Michelle even started her business utilizing projection sales because the Benchmark reports clearly illustrated that projection tended to bring in higher sales averages than using proofs or online ordering.

Growing Her Business
Because she spent time learning best practices like those, Michelle feels she was able to avoid some common pitfalls and become profitable her very first year (she started her full-time studio in June 2007). She points to two additional actions as essential to her business success, along with joining PPA and pricing appropriately:

  • Building her business relationship by relationship—Michelle started with basically one family client and grew from there.  She feels she gives 100% to each and every client no matter what they spend. "A client may not spend a lot but talk a ton," she explains. For example, a one-time client who didn't spend much at all has referred repeat clients who spend thousands each visit.
  • Knowing her numbers—From the start, Michelle focused on tracking her finances and making sure she wasn't overspending or losing profits. She applied PPA's Benchmark Survey guidelines to her numbers so she could see what her expenses and bottom-line profit should be and where she needed to adjust. That help was evident when she moved from a home to a retail studio. "There's much more overhead with a retail space, but the Benchmark helped me understand the sales volume I needed to hit in order to have it continue to grow and remain profitable," she says.

Today, Michelle's business is stronger than ever because she never stops learning, always sets goals in regards to her numbers, and keeps looking for ways she can improve, both artistically and in the business sense. "You get the results your business practices are designed to give you," she adds, referring to a saying she bases her business on. And since the business side of her business is solid, she is able to devote more time to photographing her clients' children…and her own. In fact, 2012 has been a record-breaking revenue year for her so far!

Do you want to design a business that keeps getting stronger? Take a page from Michelle's book and get started with PPA events like Imaging USA and resources like Studio Management Services and PPA's Benchmark Survey.

IMAGE © Bugs and Butterflies Photography

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