When the phone rang last Monday it hadn’t yet occurred to me that I should be worried. I hadn’t traveled to China or Northern Italy and nobody I knew was sick, so the impact of coronavirus (COVID-19) seemed still seemed very far away. But in the short time it took the client on the other end of the line to cancel three days of photography I had a revelation about trickle-down economics. A single corporation’s revised travel policy can ripple into hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of lost revenue for vendors across the country.
Economics may pale in comparison to the life and death issues so many people are dealing with, yet they are a viable concern for the solopreneurs and small business owners filling the ranks of professional photography. It’s too soon to know whether we’ll eventually look back at this as a momentary hiccup or the catalyst for massive social and economic upheaval, but regardless the prospect of an economic downturn of any duration should give us pause.
How should professional photographers deal with the challenges of a slowing business environment? When fewer customers are spending on weddings, family portraits and other luxuries and our corporate clients cancel the events we photograph or cease hiring the executives that drive our portrait business, how should we proceed?
Everything Starts With A Plan
Failure to plan is planning to fail. So says Benjamin Franklin and according to small business expert and former business coach Ron Ameln, he’s right. The best course of action is to begin planning for a worst-case scenario long before it arrives.
“Have a contingency plan in place for dealing with a slowdown,” Ameln says, “like maybe a market segment you’ve been wanting to tap into but haven’t yet, or cash set aside for a rainy day, or even an employee you might be able to lay off temporarily. When we work on our yearly plans and forecasts we always have a contingency in place. What will we do if this happens or that happens? What would we do if we lost 20% of our business overnight? Tough to figure that out in the midst of it happening though.”
“If I'm a photographer and I always worked the education market and law firms,” he says, “maybe I try accounting firms right now—a market segment I’ve been wanting to tap into but haven’t yet. I'm throwing more balls up in the air at a time when the balls I already have in the air aren't working really well for me.”
Once an economic slowdown is in the rearview mirror, it’s imperative on a going-forward basis that photographers structure our businesses to ensure enough profit to withstand economic shocks.
“It's probably harder as a solopreneur,” Ameln says, “but if you have a company and you have employees, you're trying for a certain percentage of profits at the end of the year. The average business has like 5% profit. There are a lot of accountants who believe that really you should shoot for 10% profit, and so that's where you should set up your game plan for the following year. After your salary is done and after you're paid, you're going to have a profit, and you want to have 10% because then it gives you that wiggle room to handle things.”
“Now if you're a solo person and your profit is your salary,” he adds, “try to set it up so your expenses are as tight as possible so you can get as much salary and profit as you possibly can so you can have that to fall back on if things don't happen.”
Market Your Way Out Of Trouble
Business coach and author Ilise Benun has a long history of helping creative professionals navigate the travails of business. The first thing she recommends photographers do in times of trouble is to call marketing to the rescue. This, too, should be in place well before economic challenges arrive so that turning up the volume is easier when it’s necessary.
“You shouldn't have been doing nothing to promote yourself,” Benun says, “because if you're starting from scratch that's the biggest problem. I do think that ramping up, amping up the marketing is essential. To my mind, this is going to be really good for some people and really bad for others.”
“Having a plan actually is not a backup plan,” she continues. “It's a plan that is already running, already in place. The three tools that I emphasize are strategic networking, targeted outreach and high-quality content marketing. So if you're already doing those things, then you just adjust them for the times and the market and the message.”
Thoughtful marketers may be concerned about appearing to prey on the fears of others amid times of health scares and economic crises, but Benun says so long as the intent of the outreach is genuinely helpful there’s little need to worry.
“I'm advising people to be helpful,” she says, “because everyone is a little concerned about being perceived as exploiting it by marketing into it. But the reality is, from my point of view, it's an opportunity for some and the opposite for others. It’s the tone that matters. We don’t want to be tone deaf to what’s happening, so we want to acknowledge it—sometimes euphemistically, sometimes head-on very bluntly. But I think as long as it’s presented and perceived as helpful then it won’t be perceived as exploitative.”
Choosing The Right Targets
Along with the typical belt-tightening and minimizing of debt, when times get tough many business owners choose to branch out into new arenas. A photographer may consider renting out his studio more frequently, for instance, or targeting a new type of customer through expanded outreach. While these are certainly viable options, Ameln says they wouldn’t be his first priority. Instead he suggests focusing on current products and existing customers.
“I'm all for the diversification part,” he says. “If you say ‘I don't do the education market but darn it times are tough, I'm going to go out and get education!’ Well, you can do that but it's going to be a lot harder than if you just circle the wagons first around people who believed you in the past—existing customers and past customers. They're either already doing business with you or they believed in you enough at one point in time to write a check. There's a belief system there, so it's going to be easier to get them to buy something from you than to go out on the street and talk to some guy who doesn't know anything about you to get him to buy something from you.”
“Try to reach out to them,” Ameln continues. “‘Hey, I did so many shoots for you this year. I have a great idea. What about this shot?’ You're trying to entice them to do more business. And then the people that you've done business with in the past that you haven't heard from, you're going to reach out to them and say, ‘Hey, remember when we did these shots? I've got a great idea for you. What if we…’ Everybody loves ideas. Now, you have to have a good idea to go to these customers with. It's hard to say, hey, just give me some business."
“If you need business quickly,” he adds, “really circling the wagons around people who have trusted you in the past and who valued you in the past enough to write you a check is much easier than trying to go out and get new business. Because you don't have to do the whole song and dance anymore. I mean, if people have done business with you, they've been in your studio, they know who you are. So it's easier than going to a marketplace that you've never been in and saying, ‘Hey, trust me to take your photos.’ That’s also why it's so important to have a really good database of past customers. Because you want to be able to market to them and reach out to them later.”
Don't Price Yourself Out Of Profitability
Business coach Benun says it’s the topics of marketing and money that give her creative clients the most trouble. In many cases, she says, they worry about pricing and so choose to lower rates across the board in an effort to drum up business. This is a mistake for multiple reasons.
“I think in general,” she says, “pricing should be as case-by-case as possible. Because some clients value your services more and are willing to pay more. Some clients don't know the difference between high quality and low quality and therefore can't pay what you might want to charge. So in general, I do kind of teach people how to love the money conversation and do it well so that they can get the best deal each time rather than doing what I consider to be the easy thing—which is having a rate sheet.”
A willingness to adjust prices every time also allows a seriously struggling photographer to accept work for a rate below their norm if it keeps the lights on another day. There’s a sense in the photo community that work of a particular caliber warrants a particular price no matter what. Such an inflexible approach may work when business is booming, but that thinking—along with an unwillingness to negotiate—makes it more likely that a photo business may die stubbornly on that hill. There’s nothing noble about going out of business. There are no atheists in foxholes.
“It depends on how much you need it,” Benun says. “What do you have on your plate at any given moment? What else could you be doing instead? Sometimes, it's better to say no to the low paying project or client and put that time into your marketing so you can get better ones.”
For photographers struggling with finding time to work on their businesses rather than in them, a minor economic slowdown may have a silver lining. Finding the freedom to update a portfolio or revamp a website, to make those cold calls or design the next postcard… when the phone isn’t ringing, now’s your chance.
Addressing Serious Problems
With advance planning and the wherewithal to execute, hopefully photographers will avoid existential trouble amid the pressures of the next recession. But should the situation turn dire, if the business is struggling to find any footing, the emergency action plan is found in the advice above.
“If you're in distress and you're about to go out of business in six months,” Ameln explains, “there's no time to develop new relationships and new customers. When we would go in and help companies in crisis, the first thing we would do is try to cut expenses as much as we could to give us a little more time. That means laying off people, not buying things that you don't have to buy, everything. We're trying to get as long of a runway as possible. Because once you run out of runway, you're done. Try to cut expenses as much as possible and then hit those past customers and current customers to try to get more business out of them because that's our easiest path to new business. And then if that didn't work, we would work on diversifying into markets we haven't done before.”
Ilise Benun is a business coach and mentor in Savannah, GA who specializes in helping photographers and other creatives handle their business. Learn more about her services at marketing-mentor.com.
Ron Ameln is a former business coach and the current President of Small Business Monthly, a publication targeted at entrepreneurs and small business owners in St. Louis, MO. Learn more about him and his publication at sbmon.com.
About The Author:
William Sawalich made his first darkroom print at age ten. He earned a Master's Degree from The Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, California. Along with portraiture, still life and assignment photography, Sawalich is an avid writer. He has written hundreds of equipment reviews, how-to articles and profiles of world-class photographers. He heads up the photo department at Barlow Productions in St. Louis.