on starting and operating a photography business during a recession

This is an expansion of one of my questions on my Q & A page that I wrote back in early March. Some of you may have already read that answer, but if so, please do read this post as well, as it goes more in depth on my answer. 

I have a feeling that out of my entire 4-series posts, this one will be met with the most hate mail. That’s ok, I can take it. Bring it. 😉

Before I get into the nitty gritty of my attitudes about the title of this post, I need to get up on a soapbox first. This has been bothering me for quite awhile, and I just have to get it off my chest. 

I am sick and tired of hearing people’s excuses being centered on the economy. 

I recently read an article that talked about the spike in haggling among Americans. There were many examples, including one about a guy who went into an adidas store who insisted on getting a steep discount on shoes because he was laid off. This burned me up so bad because it speaks to the GIANT sense of entitlement that we as Americans have. Our ‘recessions’ are like most country’s ‘wealthy periods’. Think about that for a second. 

We are a nation of massive wealth even during a recession. And by wealth I mean we all have homes, and clothes, and food, and most of us have cars and gas to put in them. Many of us can even rent movies and buy makeup, and even go out to nice dinners once in awhile. In short, we as American consumers are SO SPOILED!!! It’s like we are the bratty 4 year old kids of the world. 

We don’t have to walk for miles with buckets of water on our heads just to DRINK, we aren’t pooping in holes in the ground, we don’t have to live next to filthy chemical spouting industrial plants or risk airborne diseases every day. We don’t have holes in shoes we have been wearing for 10 years, we don’t have to ride our bicycles 10 miles to work, we don’t have to care for our entire extended family in the same small apartment. We don’t fear airstrikes in the night, our kids getting killed on the way to their grandparents, or whether we’ll be able to eat the next day. We get to have schools for our children, we get to shop at nice stores and get brand NEW clothing, and brand NEW shoes, we get to buy things like soda and chips and candy. Who gives us the right to haggle?

If we can’t afford something, or think it’s ‘too expensive’ (another term that burns me up- whether or not something is expensive is based on YOUR OWN PERSONAL VALUE), then we should be shopping in places that sell things that better align with our values and what we are willing to spend. You know what? I have clients right now who I know don’t have lots of money, but they are spending hundreds of dollars on products from me. Why? Because it’s what they value! 

We really need to get off this communal pity-pot we are on, and start re-evaluating our buying decisions, and focus on quality over quantity (or ‘largeness’- a whole other topic). We need to start being GRATEFUL for all of the amazing things each one of us has every single day. We are exceedingly lucky!!! Quit bitching about the economy people, I mean it. 

Ok, hopping off my soapbox now. Whew, that felt gooood. 🙂

I need to start off this post by saying that I am not an expert on the economy. All I know is what popular media is telling me. The focus of all news is on the state of the economy and the horrible recession. Layoffs, bankruptcies, takeovers, bear market, etc. I have seen more glass half-empty stories in the past 6 months than I have in my entire life. (Quite frankly I’m sick of the media’s fear-mongering, but that’s another blog post). I do want to say that I get that there are many people who have been laid off and/or who have lost their homes, including people I know, and my heart sincerely goes out to those people. This post is not aimed at you if you have lost your home or your job, you all have a right to complain. lol

I have been watching and listening to changes in the economy with open ears, knowing that this year I plan to help educate those who are wanting to start businesses of their own, and that if I am going to teach workshops to a bunch of people and tell them to do something, I have to really believe in it. Otherwise I’m a fake and a fraud and only out for money, and that is so not who I am. Not by a long shot. 

I did a lot of soul-searching during the first 2-3 months of the year, asking myself if it was a good idea for me to proceed with teaching workshops. Every day I went back and forth on it, while in the meantime I was having my best first quarter my business has *ever* experienced (more on that later). I hemmed and hawwed for awhile, trying to make a decision based on assumptions. 

When I realized that wasn’t working I decided to do one of the things I do best: research. I received counsel from those who know both my business, and the economy, best. I researched online, I asked questions. I took it all in. 

Do I think that now is a good time to start a business? 

My short answer: yes. 

Before I give you my long answer, I want to share a story with you.

Back in February I ran into a university professor I know, a man with whom I have worked on various projects relating to my business (yes, I hob-nob with academia- impressed, aren’t you?). This person is both a seasoned business school professor and also a successful business owner himself. 

One of his first questions to me was, naturally, “How’s business?”

“Great!” I said. “Really great in fact”. 

“yeah? Excellent! So you aren’t feeling any effects of the economy?” he said. 

“nope, so far so good. In fact, things are going better now than ever before. But I do wonder sometimes if the bottom drops out if I’ll be forced to get a full time day job” (I think I threw up in my mouth a little when I said that)

“Why is that? Do you think you would have more economic security if you had a 9-5 job?” my professor friend said. 

“I don’t know, yeah, I think so”.

“Actually, no, that’s not right, you have far MORE job security and economic stability as a small business owner”.

I remember scratching my head a bit at that response. I thought he was just humoring me. 

This started a 30 minute conversation with him on why it’s better to be a small business owner than an employee during a recession. This was just the beginning of the shift in my thinking. I finished it off by doing the due diligence on my own to really determine where I stood on the matter. (I am one of these irritating people who has to weigh every single tiny little piece of information before making a decision on something. Don’t ever take me to a restaurant with a large menu- you will live to regret it- I promise).

After doing all of this research I realized that now isn’t just a good time for me to be teaching others, now is the PERFECT time for me to be teaching others. 

Here are the benefits, as I see them, of starting a photography business this year. 

As a small business owner you have the freedom to really determine the future of your business, recession or not. You are not at the mercy of a large company’s finances, or go in to work every day wondering if you’ll still have a job. You don’t have to worry about working too hard or over-performing and getting laid off because you are ‘paid too much’ for your great work ethic. There is only one person who can fire you- you. 

As a small business owner- or in this case I am talking specifically about photographers- you have the ability to work harder, and smarter, and market yourself more. You can figure out where people’s needs and demands are, and tailor your services to meet those demands. You can determine what work needs to be done to see the outcomes you expect from your efforts. You can be flexible, you can adapt, and you can streamline your business to make every effort and every dollar spent work best for you. You have far more control over the income that you make. As an employee you wouldn’t have any choice in any of these things. You are merely a cog in the wheel. 

I could go on and on and on about how small businesses are the future of the country, that they are the lifeblood of the economy, etc, etc. I could tell you about how companies like Google, McDonalds, Disney and Microsoft were all started during bad economic times, I could speak to you about how much farther your start-up dollars go in a recession, but don’t take my word for it, do your own research in google, starting with the term ‘is it a good idea to start a small business during a recession?’.

I also want to talk a little bit about the realities of starting a photography business in terms of timelines. The first reality that I think many employees are unaware of is that it *takes time* to build a business. The statistics state that it takes the average small business a *minimum* of 3-5 years before they break even and become profitable, meaning, before the owners are able to pay themselves a salary.

In my case I am a bit of an anomaly and broke even in the first year because I have always kept my costs so low. But I personally tell people to expect to give it a good 18-24 months of hard work and aggressive marketing and networking with their business before they can expect to be profitable enough to make a full time living at it. Anyone starting a photography business has to be willing to really work hard at it. I mean, really hard at it. 

Do I think that someone with a talent for photography should quit their job tomorrow to ‘become a photographer’? Uh, no.

Do I believe that now is a next-to-ideal time for a person who is passionate about kids/weddings/events/pets and has a talent for photography to evaluate their situations and start building a meaningful career that will be profitable in the long run? Yes. 

I believe, in my gut and in my heart, that we will be (mostly) pulled out of this recession well before the 18-24-month mark that I tell people to aim for. Maybe I am naive, maybe I just like to believe in the power of this country to make changes, and also the ability of the new administration to help us climb out of this hole. But I do envision things getting better, and sooner than people think. (Note: when I wrote this part of this post last month things were different, just stumbled on this news article today, and also this one.)

What this means is that, if a person decides to start a business this year, say, a pet photography business, they will have at their disposal lower prices on advertising, more small businesses willing to do more work with them for lower prices, coupons, rebates and sales on products and equipment, and can really take the time to develop the kind of business that they love, and that clients ask for. They will have a distinct advantage over those who wait until the economy is in great shape. By the time *those* people are starting businesses in 2010, the ones who started in 2009 will be not just one, but two steps ahead. In fact, because of the advantages people will have this year, I’m not even sure I will continue to teach workshops after 2009. There is only a 50/50 chance at this point. 

On the topic of clients, here is how I envision things will go with those who spend money: within the next 6-12 months, people will learn that hording their money only makes our situation worse, and they will start buying again. (Consumer confidence is already improving as of the last few weeks). Keep in mind here that there are lots of people out there who are not being affected by the economy right now, and those will be the clients who spend money during the interim. Those are my clients now. New spending habits will be developed, and people will be taking inventory on where their money goes, and I think, will trend away from big box stores and start patronizing smaller merchants more. They will develop a more meaningful, healthy consumer relationship with goods and services and really see how their buying habits affect the country at large. That is already happening. 

They will be looking for quality over quantity. 

They will want to see the value in what they are buying. It won’t be as much about “how much can I get?”, it will be about “how good is what I’m getting?”. 

Which, IMHO, is how people *should* have been spending money all along. It’s how I personally always have spent money. (Yes, I am bragging here.)

And for those who value high-quality photography, it doesn’t matter how much they make. It’s not about income, it’s about value. (This is lesson #1 when it comes to pricing photography). I currently want a bed that I can’t afford. But you know what? I’m saving for it. And I’m going to buy it. Because it’s what I value. And I will never regret buying it just because it was out of my price range, because I value it that much. Does that make sense?

There will always be a place for custom photography, and, if marketed in the right way to the right people, a photographer can make a decent living even during a recession. I am living proof of this. They key is to target just the right people who place the highest value in what you are selling. 

And in terms of starting a pet photography business, the pet industry as a whole is still burgeoning. Growing and thriving, even in a recession. Photography is just one service that people who adore their pets purchase. When I went to the store yesterday to buy stuff for Fergie, I didn’t even look at the price tags on the things I was buying. I just threw them in the basket. I don’t want to know what the total is, because no matter what it is, I will still spend it. Because I love her that much. People who adore their pets will always spend money on things that honor those family members, recession or no. I have clients right now that I know don’t make tons of money, but they are still dropping a good grip of dough on products from me because they love their pets and it’s just one way to cherish these creatures that they care about so deeply. 

For those photographers who already have businesses, and are struggling right now, I will ask: what are you doing more of or differently now that you didn’t do before? If you can’t come up with concrete, measurable actions that you are taking to get more business, then you really have no right to complain. Now is the time that every small business owner needs to be MORE aggressive in their marketing, SMARTER with the methods they use to reach people, and have a really good, rock solid UPDATED business plan. Business does not come to those who wait for it, business comes to those who go out and get it. Check out this article for ideas that might help you. And here are some more tips on what you can do to help yourself. 

Now, having said all of THAT, I don’t recommend to *everyone* that starting a photography business is a good idea right now (or ever for that matter). 

I know there is a lot of fear out there right now, and I know that fear can be a powerful motivator. Fear about the unknown, fear about the future, fear about personal abilities, fear about all kinds of different things. 

Starting a business takes a great deal of faith. It takes strength of self, and confidence in being able to handle the unknown. It takes a belief that ‘everything will be ok’. (I’ll tell ya a secret here- it *always* is).

Before I started my business, I was filled with fear. It determined my actions. I was in this state for a good 5 years until I broke through it and was really ready to go all-balls-out and tackle the challenging task of starting my very own business and being solely responsible for my income.

I couldn’t have done it before I was really ready, before I got over the fear. It takes some serious cahunas and self-confidence and self-awareness to make a business work. 

I think that for those who are gripped by fear, trying to start a business now, when there is so much the media tells us to be afraid of, is probably a very bad idea. Those who are overly concerned about competition and doubt their ability to produce something that people want, probably shouldn’t start businesses. At times like this it’s just far too easy to give in to the negativity of the world and let it consume you. Starting a business is hard enough without being constantly plagued by self-doubts and overwhelmed with fear.  Of course, that may happen anyway, even to normally well-balanced adults, lol, but it’s a little less likely to happen if there isn’t a nationwide freak-out over the economy. 😉

Ultimately I believe that in this land of opportunity anything is possible and anything can be achieved if you set your mind and heart and time into it. 

One only need to look as far as the Horatio Alger Awards to see the amazing accomplishments of so many Americans who have overcome so many obstacles to achieve and triumph, to really believe that anything is possible. 

What did Walt Disney say? “If you can dream it, you can do it.”

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25 thoughts on “on starting and operating a photography business during a recession

  1. I clicked on a website link and arrived here… not really what I was seeking at the 1st place but I started reading through and couldn’t stop. Excellent Website!

  2. I realize I’m reading/commenting on this a year after the fact, but it’s still so appropriate for 2010. You are spot on with your analysis of the current economic situation and I’m so happy that I didn’t let “fear of the economy” stop me from pursuing my passion for photography. I’m lucky that I don’t need it to put food on my table because I’m JSO but I work at it 7 days a week/16 hours a day right now. I’m happy to do it and feel lucky to be doing it. I hope I can come to one of your workshops someday and look forward to reading your blog and following your adventures online.

    Respectfully and gratefully,

    Terry Granger

  3. I started my own business a year ago and I was able to quit my job! Granted I didn’t make a ton of money at my day job, but it is so exciting being in control! In October I had anywhere from 4-7 shoots a week! If you have the skill go for it!

  4. Couldn’t agree with you more. It’s an excellent time to follow one’s passion, brush up the skill set that is uniquely ours and dive in head first. There is another saying, “when the going gets tough the tough get going”. This economy can motivate us to dig deep, find more, give more, learn more, and be more than we ever thought possible. It also can re-orient us to the necessary notion of service with with a smile, ( which you give us in spades) and integrity. Anyone would be honored to meet and learn from such a wonderful role model for following one’s passion. You are truly inspiring Jamie,and it is a pleasure to know you. You have really learned to “dance in the rain”.

  5. I am a huge fan of your site and blog. You are very inspiring. Any advice for photographers out there (myself) who have debts to pay off but still want to start a business?

  6. I just shared this in the Flickr starting a wedding business forum. It’s soooo good. Thanks for writing this and being so inspiring.

  7. thanks for sharing all your fantastic insights in these “on” posts, jamie! it seems like everytime i visit your blog i realize i have something new to consider…

  8. Great post, Jamie – as always. Other than being great with animals and a camera – you put your thoughts “out there” so well. Good job!!

  9. Jamie,
    thanks for a great article! Lots of good things to think about. I always learn something when I stop by ;^). And I applaud the soapbox. I couldn’t agree with you more.


  10. Wow. You blew my mind. And I agree with you!! You said it all so eloquently. What a great post. Thanks so much.

    I’m glad you said that bit about anything being possible. I’m such an optimist usually. But for various reasons, I needed to hear that today from someone else. 🙂


  11. This is great advice (and I loved your points at the beginning about the recession and how spoiled we are in general– so very true, and we all need that reminder from time to time). I am sending this post to a friend of mine who’s been thinking of starting her own photography business…

  12. Ditto what Amanda said. I was also terrified to start anything up, now things are starting to get rolling and I think I’m finally starting to make the right choices(somewhat). I know it will be a long, hard road to a point but I have plenty of great pet photographers to put on a pedestal and say “Hey, I’ll get there one day.” 😉 Thanks for the support for all of us and for taking the time.

  13. Great post. You are so right, those of us catering to the pet niche are feeling very little effects from the changing economy.

    In addition to folks that crab about the economy one of my biggest pet peeves is people that use the down economy as an actual marketing tool, it sorta boggles my mind. I prefer to treat it as the elephant in the room. The last thing I would ever do is create a product or ad promotion that speaks of a recession. Why remind my clients of something they do not want to think about when considering a luxury item?

    Terrific writing, and brave … ok I don’t want to talk about the elephant anymore:)

  14. Thank you sooooooo much for all of your wonderful posts. I was gripped by fear for a long time with my business, not knowing which direction I should take it, and you’ve inspired me to go for it and photograph what I love the most–animals. Hopefully one day I can make it to one of your workshops!

  15. I think that i was meant to be up on that soap box with you! I agree with you about that 100%! thanks for these great posts Jamie.

  16. thanks jaimie for another thought provoking post. it reminded me of another Walt Disney quote: We keep moving forward, opening new doors & doing new things, because we’re curious & curiosity keeps leading us down new paths. when we’re young, our natural curiosity leads us in many interesting directions – but with age, fear can stifle that curiosity. the key is to harness your childhood curiosity & the belief that anything is possible.

  17. Excellent advice. As I see it, now is the best time for anyone in a creative field because there are more opportunities to try something different, to experiment and grow. If one has the desire, anything and everything is possible right now. Great post.

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