Carrie Wildes: Engineering a Profitable Photography Business
On a 2004 mission trip to the Philippines, Carrie Wildes was dubbed the "official photographer" because she was the only one with a nice camera. But she had skills, as her fellow travelers soon saw. Back in Chicago, Carrie Wildes struck up a conversation with a studio owner about an apprenticeship. She started assisting at weddings on weekends, while sticking with her "real" job—an industrial engineer in the pharmaceutical industry—as her passion for photography grew.
Building It the SMS Way
Carrie was still doing wedding photography part time when her husband was transferred to Florida in 2007. The move was the catalyst for asking herself if she could make a decent living as a photographer.
"Then, one of my friends gave me the Professional Photographer magazine subscription as a gift, and I was hooked," Carrie notes, saying she joined PPA shortly afterwards. She knew there were (and are!) so many photography businesses out there—some successful, some not so much—and she wanted to avoid the pitfalls and learn from best practices.
She was hard-nosed about the money, too. "Being a photographer is wonderful, but I was making good money already and didn't want to go backward financially."
So, she talked her way into PPA's Studio Management Services (SMS) Business Breakthroughs workshop to figure out her plan. "I didn't meet one of the qualifications for the class, but they made an exception for my work experience and it was exactly what I needed. SMS helped me apply all the things I already knew about business to studio management, and they taught me everything I didn't know about wedding photography."
Most importantly, SMS mentors helped Carrie build a sales and financial plan that convinced her she could make a go of it as a full-time photographer.
In the first year, she quadrupled her sessions. In her second year, her session numbers and her averages grew another 50%. In 2011, her wedding averages increased by 50% yet again, and her associate teams' averages increased by 60%. Plus, her portrait/engagement sales have tripled since implementing sales session processes toward the end of 2010. And this year, she is already 73% of the way to her wedding booking goal!
Those are pretty numbers. What's helped her stay so profitable?
Carrie says that understanding pricing and the costs in the market is key. "Without knowing what your costs are and pricing those accordingly, there is no way you can tell how you are doing," she explains. Of course, you can't forget about the need to constantly improve your quality of work, product offerings, branding and website/blog—or the importance of encouraging referrals. "We have to exceed our clients' expectations as much as possible, operate with a very high level of integrity and provide timely communication—it's all necessary for growth."
And that's why Carrie never lets her guard down. "You have to have goals and a plan for profit, and you have to stick with it. I love what I do, but life’s too short to struggle financially all the time. You need balance."
Putting Manufacturing Principles to Work in Photography
Carrie believes photographers can glean a lot from other industry best practices and is glad she learned to be a sound businessperson first. She's been able to apply many of those skills in her studio! Some of her best suggestions include:
- Major in customer service. Carrie says 90% of her sales come from referrals (she recently had a bride book her sight unseen based on the word of a friend). "Focus first on building relationships and following through," she advises. "Wedding photography is an intensely personal business, but I've heard so many stories about photographers not doing what they said they were going to do. I'm committed to being the one who does."
- Stay lean. Keeping costs low is important to profitability. "While I love trendy products just like everyone else, I only buy what's really necessary," Carrie adds. "Just because you're making more doesn't mean you have to spend more."
- Take business classes. Carrie warns that successful photographers can't live by artistry alone, and she is a prime example of how the right business education can put you on the path to success. "Learn how to price for profit, learn how to cost out products, set serious goals and benchmark yourself against other studios. Whatever you do, learn that!" she urges.
- Stick to core competencies. In order to operate a successful studio, you have to be a photographer, an entrepreneur and a manager. "Most people just aren't cut out to do all three well," explains Carrie, so she advises surrounding yourself with a team and then specializing based on skills. "I'm best at relationship-building, so I focus on sales, while my studio manager takes care of operations."
- She also encourages photographers not to give up the dream even if running your own studio has failed. "If you're not built to be a business owner, find a great studio and be a staff photographer. If you love it, do it…but do it profitably."
- Wring your workflow dry of time-wasters. Carrie cut her teeth on squeezing manufacturing processes for profit and applies those same principles to photography. "Everything you do impacts your bottom line," she explains. "Always look for ways to increase productivity while decreasing costs." Her photography teams (with specialists assigned to what they do best) help here, too. Photographers photograph. Graphic artists design. It helps build speed and consistency in product quality.
- Continually improve. In manufacturing, it's called "kaizen"—Japanese for "change for the better"—and it's the philosophy behind continually assessing every process in your business to make it more productive. Wildes says the same applies to photography: "There is always something to improve."
As you can see, Carrie discovered her inner artist and embraced it with a businessperson's mind for the greatest of results: consistently delivering a creative, quality product and selling it for a premium. In fact, she is now a SMS mentor herself, ready to help photographers who are where she was just a few short years ago. She’ll be the first to tell you to believe in who you are…and never sell yourself short.
To learn more about Carrie Wildes, visit Carrie Wildes Photography. To learn more about PPA business workshops and consulting services like the ones Carrie used, visit Studio Management Services.