As many independent professional photographers can attest, there’s a certain freedom that comes with running your own show, on your own. You’re beholden to no one. You call the shots. And the business lives or dies based on what you alone decide.
But that can also be a problem. If you’re good at what you do, then you’ll eventually run into the classic dollars-for-hours conundrum. As a “solopreneur” you’re always trading time for money. At some point, your income tops out based on what you can charge for your time. And what happens if you can’t work? Can the business survive if you’re not constantly there to nurture it?
Sabrina Starling, Ph.D., author of the “How to Hire the Best” series and co-host of the “Profit by Design” podcast, says these are common issues for independent professionals looking toward the next steps for their businesses. The question is whether to stay solo and face the inevitable limitations that come with independence or make the leap to a business that has its own inherent value, something that can operate independently from you if necessary. If you’re ready to build a business with its own value, then it may be time to think about a smart growth plan.
The question of how is a primary impediment to growth. Photographers tend to jump to the how, and use that question as a deterrent to growing their businesses. How do I train someone to shoot in my style? The truth is, you don’t need to do that, but let’s set that aside for a moment. Instead, start with the questions of what and why. What do I want out of my business? What do I enjoy most about my work? What sort of lifestyle do I want? Why is it important to have a business that can function without me?
After you’ve answered the what and the why, the how questions become more practical and operational instead of self-doubting.
For example, think about your creative process. Undoubtedly, there are things you do that make your work unique. However, not everything you do to create an image is unique. There are certain procedures you go through that are common to many other photographers. How could you train others to help with those procedures so you can focus on the elements that set you apart?
Even more relevant, consider where you can offload tasks that aren’t related to the creative process, which is where you may spend most of your time. Handling administrative tasks, scheduling, and bookkeeping, for example, can drain your energy from where it’s most beneficial to the business (such as creating amazing images).
“Find opportunities for bringing on people who enjoy these activities and are good at it,” suggests Starling. “To control costs, they can be virtual team members, part-time employees, or contractors. Bringing on these people will help you build a business that is more sustainable and help you focus on what will make you more successful.”
If you’re going to grow, you have to charge more to cover the cost of adding team members and implementing new systems. You also need to charge enough to account for entrepreneurial risk, your time, and your expertise. You’ll have to stop charging based on your time and start charging based on the infrastructure built into your business.
Starling recommends using the Pareto principle, also known as the 80-20 rule, which (roughly paraphrased for the purposes of this article) says that 80% percent of consequences stem from 20% percent of causes. In the case of photographers, 80% of your revenue will come from 20% of your clients. Once you identify the top 20% of clients, you can delve into the dynamics of that market segment. Ask them what they value most, and then restructure your offerings to focus on those elements. That will help you develop a business with a defined sweet spot. In many cases, if you increase revenue from the top 20% of clients by 25%, then you will have replaced the revenue from the bottom 80% percent.
“The implications of that are huge for the solopreneur who is stretched thin and has no time to focus on growing the business. It allows you to comfortably let go of the clients who drain your time and energy, and focus on what will profitably grow the business,” says Starling.
Systemization is critical to effective growth—and small business management in general. Take what your top clients appreciate most and start systematizing those elements so you can provide a more consistent experience. Creative pros often resist systems and structure because they feel systematization impedes creativity. But it’s the contrary. Systemization frees up mental energy so you can be more creative.
“We’re kidding ourselves when we tell ourselves that we’re going to remember everything we need to do to be successful,” says Starling. “The more we take on, the more likely we are to forget things that are important in our process and the more mental resources we have to spend trying to repeat past results. However, when you systematize, you have a reliable process that makes your work more consistent from client to client.”
These measures are particularly relevant in difficult financial times, such as the situation faced in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis. When you’ve systematized your business to achieve its best work and you’re charging appropriately, then you have more flexibility to scale up or down as market conditions demand. Solopreneurs tend to operate at max capacity, so when difficult financial times hit, there’s little room to increase revenue or make other necessary adjustments. It’s also harder to resist price pressure when the economic forecast turns cloudy and the loss of any business could be devastating.
“Smart growth is defined individually,” says Starling. “It depends on what you want out of life.” Most people say they want more time and more money. Others want to spend less time on the business and more time with family. Whatever your personal goals are, they should guide your plan for smart growth.
The common denominators should be a focus on profit (rather than gross revenue) and on a sustainable structure that can operate without you. That means growing your business while conserving resources and systematizing to the point where you can step away for an extended period without things crumbling in your absence.
The ultimate goal should be creating a business that can be eventually sold or passed along to another generation. “What value do you get out of this business that you spent years building?” asks Starling. “If you have a business with a really defined sweet spot in an area where you are unique and if you have systems in place so the business can run without the business owner, then you’re going to stand out in the marketplace.”
Jeff Kent is editor-at-large of Professional Photographer.