I had planned to write this post yesterday but my head was in the clouds all day and I just couldn’t focus.
But I’m glad I waited because it afforded me the opportunity to go the art show opening of a direct competitor last night. Before you get any crazy ideas, I wasn’t in disguise, I didn’t slink around the outside of the event, I wasn’t even nervous to be there. In fact, when my direct competitor saw me she smiled big. I smiled big. We hugged big, and spent the rest of the night chatting. Then we went for drinks and dinner afterward. I know, your head is about to explode, isn’t it? Yeah, mine is too, but only because I had one too many beers last night. lol
What I want to do with this post is talk about a) how valuable befriending your competitors can be b) how you can start to go about doing that, c) what you can do to recognize the ones who don’t have your best interests at heart, and d) how you can protect yourself from those who want to take you down.
Before I begin, I have avoided talking about this at any length for a long, long time. I get regular emails asking me “how do you deal with having so much competition in Seattle?”, and hear people’s concerns and fears in forums and direct chats. I also knew that with the start of my workshops in specific cities, there would be even greater concerns over ‘competition’. It’s the topic that people moan about in forums, cry about at night, wish didn’t exist and even try to avoid.
I know, I get that.
But I am here to say that it doesn’t have to be that way!
I am here to share my own experiences and hopefully help those who are struggling with this find more concrete ways to look at and deal with the topic of competition.
I have competitors. Lots of them. Seattle seems to *breed* pet photographers. I’m convinced it’s something in the water. If you do a google search for ‘pet photography Seattle’ you come up with no less than 30 pet photographers in the greater Seattle area alone. When you count the greater Puget Sound area that number doubles. And those are just the ones whose websites are easy to find in an online search. Seattle is a city with a population of just 500,000 people, so that’s a lot of photographers in a pretty niche type of photography for not a lot of potential clients. (See this post on feasibility analysis, something every new business owner should do!).
Well guess what, I have met most of my competitors and they are delightful people! Zachary Folk was the first one I met years ago, and I found him to be a perfectly nice fellow. Then came Nichole Smith, who is now a very good friend, and then Emily Rieman, who I also adore, and Bev Sparks, one of the founders of dog photography in Seattle (you’ve gotta check out Bev’s black and white film work with dogs- she was on the Oprah show for her work ya know!).
And that’s not even including the ones who live and work in the burbs of Seattle who I haven’t even met! I’m only talking about the 206 area code! lol. There is some serious pet photography talent in the city of Seattle folks!
Nichole, Emily, Bev and myself have become friends. We meet regularly for drinks and happy hour, and Nichole and I catch up frequently by phone, email or in person. (In fact we talked for an hour on the phone earlier this week). What do we all talk about when we get together? Business of course. Clients, business issues, new marketing plans, challenges we are having, local industry news, marketing partners, etc, etc. We encourage each other, we support each other, we listen to each other, but most importantly *we respect each other*. (More on that in a minute).
I personally got lucky when it came to forming friendships with these direct competitors, who I now call my colleagues. I met each of them at different events (Emily through email if you recall the ‘on the importance of being original‘ post).
Was I nervous to meet them? Hell yeah!! *Especially* Nichole, whose style and services are most similar to mine, and whose clients are most closely matched to mine.
But you know what? Each of these people I have met I have hit it off with. Some, including Nichole, smashingly well with. All nerves have dissipated within seconds.
Think about it for a second. Here is a person (or people) who already share the same interests as you, whether that be in pets or kids or babies or weddings, or whatever.
They are also passionate about photography, they are also artists, they are also small business owners with the exact same set of challenges. They work in your industry, close to you. They know the same marketing partners, they shop at the same places, they like what you like.
Your colleagues in your city can be some of your best friends because they are *like you*.
It just makes sense that you would be friends with someone who shares your same interests, passions, challenges and likes.
I don’t have words to express how deeply I value having relationships with colleagues in my city. In fact I’m getting a little choked up just thinking about it. I feel connected, I feel like I have people that understand me, not just *virtually* but in real life too. I get to look forward to seeing them at local industry parties, fundraising events, and art shows. I feel part of a local group that provides a very special service to people who love their animals. And that is, in a word, awesome.
The value in creating this little network can’t be underestimated. My local colleagues have become my best allies. I can refer clients to them when I am busy, and they to me when they are busy. We can also refer clients we think would be a better fit with the other person’s business. (I do this every Christmas when clients contact me wanting studio photos for Christmas cards- something I don’t do). We can warn each other about nutty clients (most are great but as you can image there is the occasional crazy pet owner out there), or even difficult marketing partners who don’t have our best interests at heart, we can tell each other about stores or businesses that would be a great match for each other, and help send opportunities each other’s way. We can even help protect each other from ill-meaning competitors or industry professionals who are acting unethically. We can give advice and suggestions when we are needing an objective eye/ear on any number of different things. We are stronger as a team than as individuals. Of course, it is my dream for us all to share a big studio but logistics makes that impossible. (At least for now!).
I take a pause right now to reflect on a group of women portrait photographers in Tacoma, a city an hour south of Seattle, who have an organized group, meet regularly, share their marketing plans, do group shoots together and even have a blog. All direct competitors who have managed to forge an incredible friendship with each other. I have read so many things they have said about how amazing that group has been for each other that it fills me with joy. I have been wanting to drive down and join them for ages, but given that their meetings usually start at 9am, and I am a night person, and it would take an hour drive on I-5 in traffic, it will take a rare day to make it happen. I’m hoping it does still happen though. I’d love to be a part of it.
“Why does this work?” you ask?
Because, these gals, (and my pet photog friends), respect each other. Although we all may do the same ‘kind’ of photography we all have our own unique ‘styles’ . No two businesses are alike. Even with Nichole and I, who are really quite similar, we both offer different experiences for our clients and have different businesses because, and I am going to stress this: WE ARE NOT THE SAME PERSON. Each person’s business is a reflection of who *they* are, and that is what the clients are seeking. Because of this we can safely share and support because in the end we know that each of our clients is choosing us because they love us and who we are. Also, by strengthening our own businesses *and* each other’s businesses, we are strengthening our industry as a whole. Again, we are more powerful as a team than as individuals.
Now, I got really lucky when it came to opportunities to meet my competitors. I know it’s not always easy for things to fall into place like that. But I should also say here that we all network and get out in the community, which is what every photographer should be doing, regardless of their area of interest. When you network you are bound to meet people in your industry, including direct competitors.
Here is what I recommend, for those who are interested in forming a network of direct competitors (or- better called ‘colleagues’) in their city:
1. Get out there and get involved in your community. Meet people, talk to those who have businesses that align with your photography business, get to know people. Become a familiar person. Listen to everything they say. The topic of competitors *will* come up. Start to get an idea of what photographers you might click with the best. Usually this is people with a similar level of experience as you.
2. Now, this is the hard part (gulp). Send them an email. “What?! Are you crazy?! Send my direct competitor down the street an email? And say what?”
Something like this:
“Hey fellow photog,
I don’t know if you are familiar with my biz, but I’m Jane Smith, located over in (neighborhood), and I see we do the same type of photography. (insert website address here- don’t assume they know who you are- that’s arrogant)
Don’t panic, this is a good email! 🙂
I know I may be going out on a limb here, but I was wondering if you would be interested in meeting me for coffee sometime?
I have no hidden agendas, and I completely respect you as an artist. I think you do amazing work. There isn’t anything more that I’d like from you but friendship in whatever form that takes. We could meet for coffee and just ‘see how it goes’.
We don’t even have to talk business if we don’t feel like it. And if you aren’t interested I completely understand- no offense taken! (make sure you give them an easy out if they really aren’t comfortable with meeting).
If you are interested, I am totally flexible on where and when we meet, just name the place and I’ll be there. And if we find we don’t like each other or can’t stand to be in the same room without tearing each other’s hair out and screaming then we can say that at least we tried! (insert a ‘hee hee’ here if that fits your style)
But if we DO get along we could become fast friends. I have a feeling you love kids/pets/weddings/babies as much as I do. 😉
Now, they might not respond. They might never respond. They might mull it over for several days, decide it’s a bad idea and then send you a polite decline. That’s ok! At least you tried. Right? Your polite email followed by their (hopefully polite) email is no big deal in the grand scheme of the universe.
And you never know, even if it doesn’t happen right away, it might still happen. You could meet them at an event when they are stressed and really need someone to talk to, and will remember your sweet email. Or they might continue thinking about it and change their mind. Or if they really aren’t interested then they aren’t the best person to network with anyway, so don’t worry your pretty/handsome head over it.
Of course, if you are really freaked, you could start out by networking with other photographers in your city who do a different type of photography as you, and then work into it slowly that way. Joining your local photography associations may help you come into contact with your colleagues. Although, I really think that if you want to network with your colleagues then the best and easiest and quickest route is an email like the above.
Edited to add: if you are just starting out and what you are really looking for is a mentor, be honest about it, instead of using the guise of ‘friendship’ as a way to get free information from someone who is already established. Some photographers may want to help you, some may not have time. It can help if you wait until you are a little bit more established so the other photographer feels like you can also bring something to the table and the relationship benefits aren’t one-sided. Alternatively, look for other new photographers. You can help each other out in your new careers.
Also, please people, be sure you have not plagiarized the website of the photographer you are contacting. Now or ever before. This can add insult to injury with them, and make their lives miserable in ways you may not understand. “Wait, first they copied me, and now they want to be FRIENDS with me?! What?”. See what I mean.
Now having said all of THAT, things are not ALL peaches and cream in ‘competitorville’. I know this. I’m not naive. 😉
I know there are those who want to see you fail, those who copy you at every turn, those who have done horrible things to you and your business. Those you really do wish would just disappear (and who probably shouldn’t be working in the industry). I’m not suggesting you network with those who are performing unethical business practices. I think being a smart business owner means being both open AND cautious.
While I see the value in networking with colleagues in your city I also see the value in protecting yourself as well. From all competitors, not just those local to you. Competitors anywhere who just plain can’t and don’t respect you and make no bones about hiding it.
How do you know if a competitor is disrespecting you? Well, most of the time it’s pretty obvious, but sometimes not so much.
In my world, a competitor isn’t playing fair or nice when they:
• plagiarize my website or blog (I still laugh about the ‘about’ page plagiarist. For god’s sake people, don’t copy from someone’s about page! lol)
• copy my ideas, *especially* marketing or book or project ideas
• copy my branding
• say things that degrade my business either in a direct or indirect way (like saying they are ‘the best or only’ one to do something in an area when I do it too)
• take help I have given them and use it against me
• lie about who they are and/or what they offer
• clearly try and compete with me at every turn, with little regard to their own business. being ‘reactive’ to my business decisions instead of coming up with their own.
For me it’s generally not one single thing above that gets me, but a combination or ‘overall view’ of what that business owner is like that helps me form an opinion of them.
Here is what I do to protect myself from folks who don’t play fair:
1. For my websites and blog:
Martin Webb no right click (be sure to read the disclaimer as this does not guarantee 100% protection)
Dynamic Drive disable select text
(Of course, there ARE ways around these, which I won’t share here, but IMO some protection is better than none!)
2. I listen to what my friends and colleagues tell me. Like I said above and in my ‘original’ post, when you have friends they watch your back. They can notify you of stolen images or text, or marketing ideas, or even just a competitor acting poorly in general. I have received quite a few emails starting like this “uh, a Cowbelly copycat? link”, which almost always contain some sort of copyright violation.
When you have friends who *really* watch your back, they’ll come back and report even little things to you that you yourself might not have noticed. Now remember I do pick my battles, and it’s also easy to tell your friend “hey, I love you but come back to me only with the big stuff, k?”. You don’t *have* to get caught up in every little detail.
3. I watch my own back. Given that pretty much every aspect of my business was created, from idea to inception to completion, by little old me, I am keenly aware of the things unique to my business. I notice things. I’m a sharp cookie. I try and look at things very objectively. I have the mind of a judge. I think that is important. Keep the emotions out of it as much as possible.
4. I inform myself of the laws. I do research. A lot of it.
5. IF I have a competitor that is really stepping over the line but has yet to do anything illegal, what I do is keep a running documentary of their actions. I save web pages as a pdf (print to pdf), I record links, I record written information. I save dates, I download my web statistics as pdfs. I keep a folder with all pertinent information in it and title it by the person’s first and last initials. That way, IF they ever cross a legal line, and I feel it’s important enough to justify legal action, I have already built a case. I can tell you based on my research that the best way to win a court case is to have documentation. Dated, tangible documentation.
In this case I don’t freak out at every little thing, I don’t even take action. I just silently watch, try to be unemotional about it, and record every piece.
And trust me, it takes *a lot* to get one of those little folders on my hard drive. I am usually a pretty tolerant person. For me it’s more about an accumulation of offenses over time as opposed to one thing.
6. I use resources that can help protect me from various violations.
For website plagiarism there is the wonderful Copyscape.
One of my very favorites that shows you what a website looked like in the past is the Way Back Machine. (This can prove that someone did something even after they have changed the info on their website).
Want to see what the hot shot rock star photographers were doing just a few short years ago? Check out what their websites looked like back then. Want to laugh your butt off at what MY website looked like years ago? Check out how it looked in 2004. Totally embarrassing. Hey, we all have to start somewhere. LOL
7. For competitors who have *already* crossed over the line legally, here are some things I have done and can do.
If it’s a website plagiarism, if it’s minor (like just a couple of paragraphs), I will send them a very simple email with just the two links to the two pages- theirs first, then mine that contains the text they plagiarized. No other text needs to go in the email as it gets your point across. That’s usually very effective in getting the person to change it, like that day.
If it’s an extensive violation, I do a WHOIS search to look up who their web host is. Important note: it is a violation of a web host’s terms of service to use stolen content on a website. You can easily get a website shut down for this. This is what I did with the person whose entire site was made up from content from mine. This is also what my pet photog friends did when we found their stolen images on that other photographer’s site.
So once I have their web host’s name, I then go to the host’s website and search for ‘copyright violation’. Most of the big service providers have a page of information on what you can do if someone has done a copyright violation of your content. There is a very specific yet simple process that you go through and they usually take action within a matter of days, completely shutting the site down. I imagine they would rather shut it down than take any chances on being implicated in a lawsuit, so this is a pretty easy thing to do, even if the violation is small.
If it’s a stolen idea or a marketing plan, I print information on both that contain the dates. If the issue comes up later on, like if it’s a specific art project for a gallery show that might end up being seen by the same people, I have the ammo to show the gallery owner that I was the one with the original idea.
8. I have a non-compete clause that I have my assistants/employees sign. I learned that the hard way after getting burned years ago by someone I thought was a friend.
9. I am very careful with what I publicly share in the way of my marketing plan. I am also much, much more careful about what I share on my blog. I no longer post about things that I am *going* to do, only about things that have *already* happened. I will never again post any information about any unique idea until I am well into it, or it’s already done. I think this is very smart for everyone.
10. I use my gut level instinct. Which pretty much turns out to be 100% accurate. All of the time, lol. It never ceases to amaze me when I form an opinion or inkling of someone that isn’t based on any tangible fact, but gets reinforced by information people volunteer to me without me even having to say anything. It’s like “ah yes, so THAT’S why I had a bad/weird feeling about that person”. Of course, I try not to form opinions about people until I have met them or at least had an exchange with them, but sometimes I just get funny feelings. I think that’s my gut.
Trust your gut. If your gut says someone is great, they probably are. If your gut says something isn’t quite right, even if you can’t put your finger on it, your gut is telling you to beware. Listen to it. Ok?
Other things you can do to protect yourself:
1. To protect your images, register them with PicScout to track when they get stolen. I have yet to do this but it’s on my long to-do list. I just need to get off my duff and sign up. Of course, if you are a new photographer there is little chance they’ll find anything, but if you have been doing it for a few years, especially if you have pretty good visibility, there are bound to be others who have used your images without your permission. In a very twisted way, I’m actually looking forward to using PicScout. 😉
2. Meet with an intellectual property attorney and have them draft a ‘cease and desist’ template letter. If something happens in the future that you see no other resolution to, contact your lawyer and have them send the offender your cease and desist letter. This will usually be done by email AND postal mail and maybe even a phone call made to the party to notify them of the letter. Normally this has a pretty powerful effect in getting the offender to stop. Yes, it will cost you some money up front, and to pay the lawyer each time it happens, but again this is why it’s important to pick your battles.
3. Never have an original idea or cool shoot or great branding or marketing ideas. HA! Just kidding on this last one. But it always seems like it’s the coolest photographers with the most original ideas that end up bringing the most and worst offenders out of the woodwork.
Now, all that said, now that you have the tools above people PLEASE PLEASE DO NOT OBSESS OVER THIS!!
The MOST IMPORTANT thing you can do as a business owner is to focus on YOUR OWN business and try and be the best business owner YOU can be.
The more time you spend on competitor’s blogs (even the ones you are friends with), the less attention you are giving to your clients. Who are the very most important people in your business? YOUR CLIENTS!! Without clients you have nothing.
And if you don’t HAVE many clients, the more time you spend focusing on competitors, the less time you have to go out and GET new clients.
That’s why I am a proponent of:
1. Befriending your local competition
2. Putting things in place to protect yourself and then picking your battles
3. Recording issues while trying to remain logical about it
4. Focusing as much attention as you can on making YOUR business a success, regardless of what the competition is doing.
5. Trying to be the very best photographer you can, regardless of, or even in spite of, the competition.
And here is the thing: COMPETITION CAN MAKE YOU STRONGER.
It can make you a better photographer, a more savvy businessperson, more driven to succeed, and really help you create a fantastic business.
Not everyone is cut out for competition. In fact competition can sometimes bring out the very worst in otherwise normal people. It’s not your job to fix those people who are crazy from competition. It’s your job to be the best photographer YOU can be.
And ultimately, and this is important, if a photographer in your community is acting unethically, they will never be successful. Karma is a pretty effective thing. If you take issue with someone, wait a couple of years. I’d be willing to bet that person just disappears. I’ve seen this happen many times. I have a folder of offenders’ links saved since 2003. Most of those links are now dead.
Like I said before, clients are smart. Very smart. They can spot inauthenticity and arrogance and narcissism a mile away (traits many of the ‘not playing fair’ photographers have), and they will always pick the ones that have the most interpersonal appeal. If YOU are the one that IS playing fair and not copying and are doing good, the client will choose you. You just have to believe that. Ok?
And keep in mind, even if a photographer sounds all sweet and nice on their website (especially if they stole the content from you, lol), clients WILL meet them in email or phone before their shoot, and that is when they decide if they want to work with that photographer. One can only hide true colors for so long.
One last thing I want to say before I summarize this post.
Like I said above, not everyone is cut out for competition. For some people it brings out the worst in them, for others it makes them shrink like a flower in the hot sun.
If you are one of these people then it’s possible that small business ownership is not right for you. There will *always* be competition, regardless of what industry you are in or where you live (If you have little to no competition consider yourself VERY VERY lucky). You can’t avoid it, you can’t wish it away. All you can do is make the very best of it.
You can either choose to be negative about it, which will only hurt your business in the long run, or you can choose to turn in into a positive and make it work FOR you.
Trust me when I say I am no stranger to being negative and obsessing over competition, I didn’t develop these semi-positive attitudes overnight (ha, hardly!!), and I am still no saint when it comes to healthy emotional attitudes, so I get how hard it can be. But I have also learned over time that the more you worry and obsess over, and pay attention to, ‘the competiton’, the harder it will be for you to create a really awesome business you can be proud of. And that is what we all want, right?
So with that, my attitude is:
WATCH YOUR BACK IF/WHEN NEEDED.
PICK YOUR BATTLES.
FOCUS ON YOUR CLIENTS.
BE A GOOD PHOTOGRAPHER.
BE A GOOD PERSON.
That recipe will provide the most positive results and happiest of lives in the industry that you love.
Thanks for reading! 🙂
Next post in the 4-part series: ‘on starting and operating a photography business during a recession’