Small space, big business

Run a profitable business of any size

When Marnie Clagett, CPP, opened her studio in 2009, the term “studio” was a bit of a stretch—to be more precise, it was a bit of a squeeze. Clagett worked out of a snug 110-square-foot room in her home in Elizabethtown, Kentucky, using the space as a camera room, a presentation and consultation area, and eventually a shared office when her husband joined the business full time.

Clagett would ultimately purchase a live-work space in her town’s historic district, moving the studio to the storefront and living with her family upstairs. However, her experiences growing her business out of a single room in her house taught her valuable lessons about how to operate a professional studio in any location. She’ll be sharing these lessons as a speaker at this month’s Imaging USA. Here, she offers a key points related to building a successful home studio and determining when, if ever, it’s necessary to move into a retail space.

Marnie Clagett
© Bill Clagett
Marnie Clagett

Home studio challenges—and how to overcome them

Perception. There’s a perception by some that a home studio isn’t as professional as a retail location. So it’s up to the studio owner to make that home studio appear as professional as possible.

“It’s crucial to conduct yourself and your business professionally and help clients understand that this is a real business, not just a hobby you’re doing out of a spare room,” says Clagett. This means presenting the home studio as a place of business, dressing and acting the part, and making extra efforts to exhibit professionalism in all aspects of your interactions with clients.

“In our little 110-square-foot space, because our business model was sound and we treated it as a real business, we had clients willing to spend upward of $8,000 in that tiny space. We built relationships with commercial clients that now spend more than $10,000 a year with us. All because we set perception aside and conducted ourselves as businesspeople.”

Space. When you’re working in your home, space can become an issue very quickly. However, there are ways to overcome those space-related challenges if you think creatively.

For Clagett, who didn’t have room in her home studio for a big sales presentation suite with large couches and coffee tables, the keys were scaling down the furniture and making everything movable. She looked for pieces that were shallow so they could be placed along a wall without using too much floor space. She used a small loveseat for client meetings and had chairs and other pieces that she could slide into the room as needed. Everything was lightweight so it could easily be moved in for a client meeting and then back out to make space for a portrait session.

For those sessions, the size of the room presented problems due to the lack of depth needed for formal portraits. To use her preferred lenses, she needed about 15 to 20 feet of space between the backdrop and camera. However, the room only had about six feet of space. So she moved out into the hallway and up some stairs, photographing through the open doorway. “It’s as simple as recognizing that every room has a door,” says Clagett. “You may need to move out of the room. You can explain it to clients by saying, ‘I need a little more distance because of the lens I want to use.’ Let them into the creative process, and they’re often impressed with the innovative solutions you come up with.”

Separate lives. Separating home life and business life is essential if you want clients to take you seriously. “Really, this all comes down to removing any of the distractions of home life so people can see themselves in a professional setting,” says Clagett.

If there are children in the house, Clagett suggests scheduling client meetings and portrait sessions while kids are at school or having someone watch the kids while you’re with clients.

The entryway and walkway up to your house always have to be presentable. Clear kids’ toys and clutter from view. Make sure the grass is mowed and landscaping is in good shape.

Clagett also suggests holding off meal prep until after the last client has departed so people aren’t distracted by the smell of cooking.

Finally, make sure pictures on the walls of the studio area are of client work, not your own family.

“One of the things we do—and this applies anywhere, your home, a coffee shop, wherever—is to set up the space so that the client is only looking at you and your artwork with no distractions in the background,” says Clagett. “Make sure they’re not looking past you into your dining room or kitchen. Instead, focus their view on your professional area with your work on display.”

When does it make sense to move to a retail space?

“It all comes down to numbers,” says Clagett. She lives and dies by the PPA Financial Benchmark Survey, which establishes benchmarks for overhead costs, profitability, cost of sales, net profit, and other important metrics. Using these benchmarks, you can determine when your business can afford to move into a commercial space as opposed to moving just because you want to move.

Because overhead is so much lower for a home studio, it translates to tens of thousands of dollars of savings a year compared to a retail studio. So the question becomes, Can you actually afford a retail space?

To make her live-work retail space affordable, Clagett focuses on two financial keys. First, she keeps her cost of sales down. Second, she makes sure she’s priced correctly. By controlling cost and keeping prices at a profitable level, she was able to keep her average cost of sales to a very low 10% when she moved into the retail studio space. With numbers like that, she knew her financials justified the move.

What about the argument that you could generate more sales or charge more in a retail space? “I think it’s more of a perceived advantage that you can get better sales in a retail location,” says Clagett. “We found that having a storefront hasn’t really changed our numbers. People aren’t necessarily willing to spend more just because we have a retail studio. People come to us because of our marketing and our brand, not because of our location.”

One way to portray a high-end image is to do portrait consultations and sales sessions in clients’ homes, says Clagett. That is seen as a very upscale service, and it moves you away from your home studio into an environment where the clients feel comfortable. “You can create that extra high-end experience by putting in more effort,” says Clagett. “I still go to my clients’ homes for consultations even though I have the retail studio. It’s a service.”

The times—and perceptions—are changing

With technology making it easy to do many jobs from almost anywhere, it’s more of an accepted practice to work from home. Even employees of large corporations are working flex time from home offices. As a result, the perceptions of home-based professionals have improved.

“If other people can work for huge corporations out of a room in their homes, and be perceived as professionals, and make a big salary, then why can’t photographers?” says Clagett.

They can. In today’s market, you don’t need an expensive retail space to be perceived as a professional. And you don’t need a retail space to charge good prices. Charge based on your artistry and your talent and your service, not your location, urges Clagett. When the quality of the work and the experience of working with you backs up your pricing, your clients will respond.

Jeff Kent is the editor-at-large of Professional Photographer.