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The PRO-Files: This One Thing Can Save Your Studio

In a recent conversation with Michael Mejia, a commercial photographer and chair of the photography department at Laney College in Oakland, CA, I asked about the challenges of preparing young people for a career in photography. In particular, I asked what sort of business education is going on in photo school these days. He told me that his program is beginning to address the peculiarities of running a small business by integrating courses from elsewhere in the college—things like bookkeeping and social media marketing. These topics have not traditionally been addressed in many photo programs, leaving generations of photo majors wondering about the basics of running their new business. 

"I hear from former participants in our program,” Mejia says, "that the one thing they wanted was more business support. There is a broad range of shooters between entry level and pros. Getting them to the upper levels in imaging and business demands new thinking."

The One Thing

Thinking about business is not always easy for photographers. In large part, that may be attributed to our “right brained” way of problem solving. Mejia says, however, that we can—and most definitely should—address the business issues that we’re occasionally uncomfortable discussing and do it in a more logical manner. 

“Photographers want to take pictures,” he says. "I cannot think of one photographer who first picked up a camera with their right hand, a dollar sign in their mind’s eye, and a business plan in their left hand. In my close association with some 50 San Francisco and Los Angeles photographers, I know no one who likes looking for work, billing, paying bills… They would all rather have a rep and a bookkeeper and just take the pictures. Anecdotally, the more successful shooters I know come from business families. That says something about culture. If you were raised amidst a constant awareness of customers, clients, civic entanglements, business stresses and the agility and facility with such things, you are way ahead of the curve.”

He continues, “For those of us who weren’t, it takes years to develop that disposition and a thicker skin. Some never develop beyond a simple mercenary model. Some flounder around hopefully succeeding by the brilliance of their pictures. We need to be mindful that the creative drives we have find their form in a uniquely personal fashion: vision and methods expressed through an idiosyncratic and constantly changing mélange of inspiration, wandering, feeling out, shape shifting, adapting, taking advantage of serendipity… Image-makers learn to trust that. Business? Very systematic, with externally defined demands for success and lots of sharp edges. We do not participate in that well with our natural proclivities nor, and this is important, our sensitivities. We need to learn to change hats.”

Thinking practically, I asked Mejia for one piece of sage business advice that he shares with students and young graduates. Expecting something fairly high minded, I was surprised when his answer was surprisingly straightforward:

"Invoice quicker. Because the sooner you send an invoice, the sooner you get paid." 

Yes, this simple advice on maintaining positive cash flow can form the foundation of a functioning photography business. It’s such simple advice, and yet I know from personal experience that some of us are not so great at it. Sometimes we sit on invoices for scheduling reasons (we're so busy shooting, for instance) while just as frequently it’s for no reason—we're just not “in the mood” to deal with billing. This is an inherent problem with right-brained thinking in the left-brained world of business. We aren’t always concerned about getting paid first and foremost, but more often we should be. Without cash flow we’re sunk. 

“The sooner you invoice,” Mejia says, “the sooner your 30 days starts. Having a finished job sitting on one’s desk for weeks isn’t helping to move things along. Computers make it simple; it’s silly to let things sit. If you finish a job on the 2nd and sit around for another week, it could be the middle of the next month—or later—before you get paid. What about your supply and talent bills? Are you floating money for the agency?"

How To Do It

Implementing standard operating procedures and policies—such as requiring a down payment or preparing the invoice outline at the time of bidding—can make it easier to handle these tasks much later when the job is complete. And if you’re not in a position to hire an office manager or outside accountant to take care of these things for you, you’re probably going to be doing it yourself. First, make it easy and use an online service such as QuickBooks or Freshbooks to make invoicing fast, easy and accurate. When invoicing is fast and easy, you’re less likely to drag your heels on billing. 

“One of the ways to keep cash flow moving and timely,” Mejia says, “is to set up billing structures that are efficient. Formatting the invoice, accurate purchase orders (POs), immediate details as the experience is still very fresh, inputting info in advance, keeping track of expenses and changes and being comprehensive… Much as the image workflow can be efficient, billing can fall into that framework. It means that invoices go out quickly.”

Aside from simply starting the “Net 30” clock ticking when you send an invoice sooner rather than later, there are other benefits as well—particularly for those photographers who are less than 100% confident when it comes to talking about pricing and billing in general.

“One added benefit,” Mejia says, “is that the agency [or client] is still aglow with the service and we are still at the top of their minds, so attention is more focused and supportive. At the other end, an invoice that is not paid is often simply in some ‘pile’ somewhere. So when you make the call, ‘Hello, I am Michael Mejia and I was hoping to get some attention on an overdue invoice,’ the index of the date of submission and the 30-day agreement are facts that fit in an existing process and processor. At that point, POs and dates have some weight—as does the grace with which one does this."

This Is A Business…There’s No Need For Apologies

“This leads to another feature,” Mejia adds. “Some of us are a bit apologetic about asking for our money. This is something folks new to business need to come to terms with. The process functions around an agreement that is already in place within systems set up at agencies [or clients] to pay you. We have performed our service, now it is time for the business to perform their payment. They can do nothing until you bill them. That fulfilled, we simply encourage the forward movement of process—not the question of value or payment. We need not be uneasy or frantic or beg and berate. We simply promote a timely process that we started with our timely submission.”

In other words, the client expects to be invoiced for the services you’ve performed. They don’t mind, really! Your ability to provide excellent work with above-and-beyond service has almost nothing to do with the cost, particularly when all of the terms of the agreement have been ironed out in advance. Photographers need not fret when we send our invoices. As Mejia says, we’re simply allowing the mutually agreed upon process to roll on to its natural conclusion—getting paid. 

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.