There is nothing "easy" about building a business of any type - photography or otherwise. There's no 10-step plan, no business-in-a-box kit you can buy, and no workshop you can take to guarantee you'll have a successful business. Even still, human beings are drawn to the appearance of success. We're attracted to the idea that anyone can be an overnight success. In reality, there are no overnight success stories - there are only "years of hard work" stories.
In fact, you want to know a secret? Almost every uber-succesful business is the result of two things: a TON of hard work, and a little bit of luck. You can't plan for luck - you can only work really hard so that if you happen to stumble across luck - you're ready.
Even still, so many people seem to think that it can be distilled into 10 steps. There are a lot of people that believe that starting a photography business is easy. If that's you, here's my suggestions These aren't sexy. These are just 10 things you should do before you even think about starting a photography business.
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. FIND SOMEONE TO APPRENTICE WITH. Second shoot a few dozen weddings. Seriously. There's no better way to learn than to learn with someone who has experience. Find a respected photographer and work your tail off. Carry their bags around and set up light stands. Learn how they approach a wedding, how they handle formals, how they manage their clients, and how they create incredible photographs.
I still second shoot a few weddings every year because it's the best way I know to experiment and practice things I can't always do at my own weddings. Even once you've mastered your camera, that doesn't mean you'll have a clue what to do when you show at a high-stakes, high-energy, high-emotion event like a wedding.
3. GET A REAL JOB. You know, the kind that pays your bills. It's unlikely that your photography business will support you for the first 2 or 3 years (if you're lucky). With that in mind, get a job - or keep the one you have. For whatever reason, photographers seem to be eager to quit whatever job they have that puts food on the table. They are in a rush to jump off a cliff and hope that they suddenly figure out how to fly. How on earth does that make sense? Do something to make money - you're going to need it if you're serious about starting a business.
4. 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.
5. HIRE AN ACCOUNTANT. You're starting a business, for crying out loud! You're about to make one of the most significant financial decisions of your life - and you think it makes sense to do it without the expertise of someone who knows how to keep track of your money? Who cares about what new lens to buy if you don't even know if you can afford it.
6. GET A LAWYER. For all the same reasons as you need an accountant. This is a HUGE decision you're making and you want to be sure you set your business up in a way that protects you from liability. Why on earth would you just use someone else's contract? Why on earth would you just make one up yourself? It seems like no big deal until you get sued, realize you had a weak contract, and discover that as a sole proprietor, all of your personal assets are now at risk. Your bank accounts, your home, your life savings - everything. All so you could save a few hundred - or thousand dollars.
(you're still practicing your photography right? You're still second shooting right)
7. DEVELOP A PLAN. How are you going to get clients? What's your marketing strategy? Yes - your network is a great place to start. But how are you going to leverage that to build a sustainable business? Who are the clients you want to work with - and how are you going to get in front of them? Are you going to advertise, do bridal shows, have a website? Write down your plan to market your business.
As you develop a plan, ask yourself why - of all the things you could do with your life - why are you choosing this? Does running a small business fit into your life? Will it provide for your family? Will it help you have the kind of life you really want?
8. CREATE SYSTEMS. The average photographer spends 15-20 hours a week on editing, and another 15 on administrative tasks. Neither of those make you any money. Before you start taking clients, figure out how you're going to organize your processes. Develop a workflow, build a relationship with a lab, decide on products and WRITE IT ALL DOWN. This way you can spend your time doing things that make you money - instead of reinventing your workflow for every wedding. For many photographers, it makes sense to outsource most of the non revenue generating tasks of your business, including your editing, album design, production and even bookkeeping.
(keep making photographs.... lots of them... practice as often as you can)
9. LEARN ABOUT SALES A large part of what you do with your time will be sales. When you meet with clients - that's sales. When you conduct viewing sessions - that's sales. If you're going to make any money doing this - that's sales. If you are terrible at sales, read books (by Jeffrey Gitomer or Neil Rackham to start) or take classes. You might even consider hiring someone to help with this aspect of your business.
10. KNOW YOUR NUMBERS. You hired an accountant - 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.
You know what, I could easily give you 10 more steps before you start a photography business. If you do these 10 things, there's still a pretty good chance that your business might fail. Do you love photography and love creating something of value for people? If so, than maybe it's worth it to give it a shot. You probably won't get rich (contrary to popular belief), but you can do something you love - with purpose.
What about you - what else would you add? Leave your steps below...