Lessons From a Successful (But Defunct) Photography Business

July 2015

July 2015

Why I Chose to Shutter a Profitable Venture

I started my photography business quickly. I had been shooting for myself for less than 18 months, and soon found friends and acquaintances frequently reached out to me asking about my rates and my availability for client shoots. It was a dream!  I had wanted to be a small business owner for several years at this point, but I hadn't decided which skills to "put on the market". The rise of Instagram and blogging seemed to make my decision for me. People liked my photos and wanted to pay me to take photos of them and their families. 

I left my full-time communications consulting job and dove headfirst into owning and operating a photography business. It was blissful at first. I loved my clients like family. I adored spending hours in front of my computer editing. And, I didn't mind the business side of things, such as taxes and marketing.

However, after four short months in business, I closed my photography work to clients. What happened? If you're thinking about opening a small business, and particularly a photography business, here are the questions I wish I had asked myself:

 

What does profitable mean to you? 

I was making a profit as Kylie Larson Photography. I brought in more money from clients than I spent in business expenses and overhead. Many photographers I talk with stop there: money in > money out. As a trained project manager, though, I am conditioned to think a bit differently. My time, every single hour, is money. I track my hourly rate.

I charged families $400 for a photo shoot. My goal was to make $50 per hour. That meant that I needed to complete pre-shoot communications, travel, shooting, editing, and photo delivery within eight hours in order to make my rate. Ideally, I'd complete my work in less time so that I could have a surplus, and reinvest in my business with additional education, marketing, or gear. 

What I found is that fantastic customer service took a lot of time. I spent at least an hour or two emailing or talking with clients prior to our shoot. I always shot as long as I needed to get the best shots (even when kids or dogs weren't cooperating). And I edited each image I delivered the way I would want it edited for me: to perfection. I spent approximately 12 hours per client shoot. This gave me an hourly rate of $33. 

Many people would argue $33 per hour is pretty good. For me, though, that was significantly less per hour than I hoped for myself. I set my target hourly rate (of $50 per hour) to account for time away from family, continuing education, self-employment benefits (like retirement and health insurance), and company investments (such as marketing). When all was said and done, not much of the $33 was profit. 

Only a few months in I realized I had a profit problem. I either needed to work faster or charge more. I'll spare you the intense thought I went through, but here's the gist: I knew I couldn't give my clients the same great experience by working faster. And, I also knew that I'd have to provide more if I charged more, which would take more of my time. I couldn't make the math work.

What do you do with your off hours?

I'm an introvert. The 9-5 hours take it out of me. At the end of the day I like to retreat. And for a long time, shooting and editing photos was my retreat. It was incredibly difficult for me to consider shooting and editing for myself in my off hours when I had client work pressing on my mind. And with a successful business, client work was always on the docket. 

The photographers who succeed in business are skilled at separating personal project work from client work in a way that I will never understand. When I'm staring at my screen and booting up Lightroom, I can't enjoy my personal work if I feel pressure to edit work for a client. I heard other photographers talk about this struggle, but assumed I'd find my own way around it. But, I did not. 

Are you comfortable owning backups for your backups?

Completely unrelated to my business, I began a path toward minimalism in 2014. My house is by no means austere, but I work hard decrease the amount of stuff in my life. As I started my business, I found the stuff I felt I needed spiraled. 

I wanted to provide my clients with excellent service no matter the weather or circumstances. This led to me purchasing weather proofing equipment and lighting equipment. I wanted to make sure I never had to make clients wait on me so I had two bodies with unique lenses at each shoot—so clients didn't have to stop for my lens changes. I had backup bodies and lenses in case anything broke during a shoot (or, as happened to me, fell in Lake Michigan). I had one million SD cards. Okay ... not quite, but it felt like it. I had cleaning equipment and carrying equipment. I had tripods and monopods. I had so much freaking stuff.

I get the creepy crawlies just typing that paragraph above. I don't know why I feel the way I do, but I feel—in my bones—like less is more. I need to be responsible for fewer physical items in my household or business. And that's very difficult to do as the owner of a photography business. 

Of course, you can be a natural light photographer and you can very consciously choose only select lenses for your type of work. I know there were solutions available to help me minimize the gear. But I felt as if I needed to get rid of 90% of it (or more). And I knew I couldn't provide excellent client products with bare bones gear. 

Does it feel like you're forcing it?

To this day, I couldn't tell you how I knew. But I knew as soon as I was on the photography business path that it was the wrong path for me. Everything just felt slightly like I was faking it. And I probably was. My business didn't feel genuine and I did not see a way to navigate a truer course in that same business role. 

The hardest part of closing my photography business was that I had just told the world that I had opened a photography business. I didn't make a large announcement when I shut the gates, but I had to have the same conversation (with other photographers and potential clients) repeatedly for about a year. Initially it was slightly embarrassing, but later on (as I found my footing in another venture) I was happy to say I took the "fail fast" route. 

Test fast. Fail fast. Adjust fast.
— Tom Peters

Do you realize that it's okay to move on?

Now, about 20 months after I closed my first small business, I'm happy to report I'm busy and happy in my second business. I intended to wind down my web consulting work over the course of six to twelve months. However, when I realized I wasn't going to continue taking photography clients I clung to the web work, thinking I'd just keep going until I figured something else out. And then, I realized this was my something else. And, over time, I made it my own

These days I feel as if I'm running the business I was meant to run. If someone had told me this is what July 2017 would look like I'd be stunned. But, I think it's important to share my story (as briefly as I can) in the hopes that I give others the courage to move on when it's not right. Because "right" is around the corner.