There are basically two kinds of success stories. People who work really hard, doing all the right things, over a really long period of time - and people who get lucky. Don't get me wrong, people who get lucky, are often smart enough to know how to capitalize on that luck, but the foundation for their success story is still something you can't replicate - luck.
A lot of the success stories we hear about in our industry are the luck kind. We're attracted to these types of stories for a reason - they are far more sexy than the "work really hard" kind of stories.
Here's the problem with obsessing over the "lucky success" stories - no one can teach you how to get lucky. No one can tell you how to recreate their lucky success. There's no workshop, no seminar, no conference, no mentoring, that will make you lucky like they were. In fact, the real problem is that so often, those who get super lucky, are successful in spite of themselves. They can't tell you how to be successful, because they don't actually know.
Yet, photographers spend a lot of money, looking for some kind of formula. They're looking for 5 easy steps to recreate the success of the hottest photography success story. Except there isn't a formula. There's no easy 5 step plan to get lucky. There's no miracle strategy, or radical marketing plan that's guaranteed to succeed. No matter what anyone tells you - it doesn't exist.
Then again, I suppose it depends on how you define success. If success for you is booking that huge wedding, or booking the destination wedding that looks beautiful on your blog (but didn't actually pay you anything), then I guess that's your call. Maybe success for you is having hundreds of photographers commenting on your blog, or coming to your workshop. Perhaps the appearance of success is enough for you. If that's the case, then soak up all the good luck stories you can.
On the other hand, for me, success means one thing - building a profitable and sustainable photography business that adds value to my family. That's it. That's how I measure it all. That's how I decide whether this thing is worth it - because if it's not doing that, I'll go find something else instead.
If that sounds like success to you, here's a few observations. Here are a few principles of business that are true, not just for photographers, but for creative businesses of all shapes and sizes. I don't claim to have a magical formula, so take this for whatever it might be worth to you. I've written about most of these before, but I've assembled them here for easy review.
1. PRACTICE PHOTOGRAPHY. Practice a lot. Practice on your friends. Practice on your dog. Practice on your kids. Take a class, better yet, take two. Take pictures constantly. Take at least 20,000 photos for free before you even think about calling yourself a pro. Learn about exposure, composition, color, and depth of field. I don't care if you shoot film or digital, but shoot until you burn up a shutter. Then, get a new one and shoot some more.
Make photographs. Experiment. Do crazy things with your camera. Learn what it can do, and push the boundaries. Look through photography books and learn how the legends make their shots. Then go out and take more photographs - at least 10,000 more.
2. SAVE AS MUCH CAPITAL AS YOU CAN. Put 3-6 months of living expenses in a savings account before you "launch" your business. Only purchase gear when you can afford to pay cash - and build up your gear as you go. There's no reason to go into debt. After all, the average photographer spends $5K in gear a year. If you put that on a credit card, the average american will end up paying $7-$9K to pay off that gear over 8-10 years. By then, 95% of photographers will be out of business, paying off gear that's only worth pennies on the dollar.
Buy your gear with cash, but get good gear. If you're shooting a wedding, you better have at least 2 solid bodies, a wide, normal, and tele prime or zoom lens, a pro grade flash, and multiple pro quality memory cards. That's not cheap. You can do it without going into debt, but you're talking about a pretty serious investment.
3. KNOW YOUR NUMBERS. Hire an accountant - and listen to what they tell you. Know how much it costs you to be in business. Understand your fixed expenses vs cost of sales expenses. Know how these relate to profitability. You are a business owner - ACT LIKE ONE. Be intelligent and do the hard work when you create your pricing. For some solid help - read the PPA Benchmark Survey. Rationalize your pricing, understanding what it takes to compensate for your time. Know how to create packages, how to move people to action by pricing, and what your margins are.
Many photographers just make stuff up when it comes to pricing, and the end result is - they don't make any money. Often they don't even know they aren't making any money until they do their taxes. Ask your accountant to set up your chart of accounts and use managerial accounting practices.
4. DELIVER AN AMAZING CLIENT EXPERIENCE
Here's the deal. Treat people right, and you develop clients - not customers. Customers are people you treat as though this is the only interaction you'll ever have with them. You take their money, give them their product, and send them on their way.
Clients, on the other hand, are people you invest in. You build a relationship so that whenever in their life they need photography, you're the only choice they think of. Clients are people who trust us to provide services time, and time again.
Clients aren't free. They take work. No one will call you up and simply ask to be your best client for life. It requires a real investment to grow a relationship. Every interaction with a client requires an intentional effort to treat them as the most important person in the world.
We work hard to take care of our clients by doing little things that matter. Handwritten notes, little gifts, extra prints, or a bottle of wine, are all ways we invest in making our clients feel like the most important people in the world.
5. LEARN ABOUT SALES
In a utopian world, it would be effortless to get people to give you money in exchange for what you provide for them. In this land of rainbows, and elves and unicorns, it would just happen. Money would be deposited in your bank account, simply because you exist to do whatever it is you do. You would have a new client at whatever frequency you desire, and never once, for any reason, would you ever have to "sell" anything.
Of course in the real world? Get over yourself. If you think you can build a business that doesn't involve "sales," then you're either a magician, or an idiot.
Start by changing the way you look at sales. I define sales as:
The process of discovering your clients problem, and providing them with a solution that meets their needs.
If we redefine what "sales" means, how does that change the way you look at what it means for your business. How might that change the way you approach booking clients (especially since we've already established that it's difficult to build a business without paying clients).
None of those strategies is about luck. Of course, if you happen to get lucky, and find an amazing client, or get an amazing break, you'll be that much better prepared to capitalize on it, because you'll be building something right.