Creator or Maintainer? Why Entrepreneurs Leave the Businesses They Start

Entrepreneurs are puzzle solvers: they see a whole where others see pieces…they see opportunities where others see obstacles…they see gold where everyone else is just looking at hole in the ground.

It’s not just having a vision, although that’s certainly part of it. It’s more an innate need to create. coupled with the ability to pull various pieces together in a way that others often don’t understand, even after the fact. That’s painting the picture with a fairly broad stroke, of course, but it’s not something that would be argued by most people–up to and including entrepreneurs themselves.

But while entrepreneurs are fantastic creators, they often aren’t good maintainers. They may be able to build a successful company, but tend to be less skilled–or perhaps simply less interested–in actually running that company.

So why do so many entrepreneurs seem to lose interest with whatever it is they create? Part of it is based in the same qualities that makes them great entrepreneurs in the first place: that ability and drive to build something out of nothing. But creation itself is the reward: once that is accomplished, they often get bored and start itching for a new challenge.

Again, that is a generalization that doesn’t apply to everyone. Some entrepreneurs–Mark Zuckerberg comes to mind–run the company but continue to push the boundaries of innovation. But entrepreneurs as a rule don’t seem to be good at the day-to-day of treadmill of running a business. There are some fairly common reasons as to why this is–things that all entrepreneurs need to be aware of:

“Where do we grow from here?”

Starting a business and making it a success usually requires a perfect storm of conditions: opportunity, market timing, financing, and more all have to come together in order to make it work. Entrepreneurs are master of recognizing how these individual pieces can come together into something greater than the sum of the parts. The problem is, what next? The world at large is expecting another miracle, even bigger than the one before.

But it’s hard to keep capturing new lightning in the same bottle. Steve Jobs managed to do it, but it could be argued that his greatest successes–ipad, ipod, and such–weren’t his goals. They may’ve been significant leaps along the path to building a company now worth over a trillion dollars…but that was never really his end-game, either. He was ever looking beyond devices to how computers as a whole could seamlessly serve mankind. He never seemed to be trying to top his successes, because he hadn’t yet reached his ultimate goal.

Others have struggled trying to leapfrog their initial success. Amazon, for example, is America’s marketplace…so how does a company keep growing after that? The company’s most ambitious attempt has been Alexa. There are currently some 50 million Alexa-capable devices out there in the consumer market place–that sounds like a success story, right?

In terms of market saturation, yes; unfortunately, by most accounts, Amazon isn’t making much of a profit per device sold. And since it’s hard to image people trading in Echoes like they do smart phones every couple of years, Amazon considered the devices themselves a type of loss-leader to usher in the next new wave of retail: sales over voice-enabled devices.

According to a USA Today article a few months back, purchases made through Google Home, Amazon’s Echo, and the like are projected to leap from $2 billion to $40 billion by 2022.

To date, however, it’s been like a party where no one received their invitation: according to The Information–citing reliable accounts from Amazon insiders–only about 2% of the people with Amazon’s Alexa intelligent assistant have made a purchase with their voices so far in 2018. Of that 2%, roughly 90% didn’t try it again. That means that the percentage of owners who do any kind of ongoing voice shopping is considerably below 1% … statistically, it’s pretty much 0.

So in Round One, Jeff Bezos created a business that succeeded where no one saw a market; in Round Two, he saw a market that–as yet–doesn’t seem to exist. Oops.

“Don’t bother me with details!”

Entrepreneurs are drawn to doing that thing that others wouldn’t even consider: can we get the public to buy an electronic tablet even though so far it has no real application except playing solitaire? That’s the kind challenge entrepreneurs thrive on. It’s much more of a rush than dealing with the thousands of ongoing details that go into keeping a business going.

And that is just the normal stuff, when everything is going as planned. What about all the other “out of the blue” things that wreak havoc on a business? Things like natural disasters or new OSHA requirements or discovering your company is getting pounded by friendly fraud. For people who live for goal achievement, it’s like putting all your resources into treading water. Hard to see the appeal in that.

None of which is to say that entrepreneurs are right or wrong–only that there is a different mindset. This is something that all would-be business owners need to consider carefully before getting started: are you a creator or a maintainer? Either is fine, but being both is rare. Put your effort where your talent lies, and surround yourself with competent people for the rest.

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How Your Broken Flash Is Killing the Environment

How much gear do you have?

Admittedly, being a pro photographer doesn’t require as much equipment as it used to, and unless you’re developing silver gelatin prints, what we do use has a much smaller footprint.

On the other hand, what we use now can also be pretty awful for the environment. More specifically, what we throw away: as we have moved to an increasingly digital process, we are generating more and more electronic waste. In 2016 alone, according to one study, close to 45 million metric tons of e-waste were created. University of San Diego’s Electronics Recycling Center reports that e-waste represents about 2 percent of the totalwaste in a landfill, but nearly 70 percent of all hazardous waste—and it’s getting worse.

What is e-Waste?

The term e-waste refers to all electrical and electronic equipment or parts that have been discarded by its owner as waste (without the intent of re-use–handing your old flash down to your kid brother doesn’t count, natch).

For photographers, that could mean anything from used batteries or bulbs to monitors, printers, or photovoltaic panels. Even things we don’t necessarily think of as equipment can be bad when tossed: fans, postal scales, calculators, routers, cell phones: face it, as Americans, we love our tech … right up until the time something newer catch’s our eye, and that toy we couldn’t live without yesterday becomes tomorrow’s hazardous waste.

Of course, that’s not all on us–there are roughly 90 million iPhone owners in the US alone–but photographers do use a lot of tech, and we can be as guilty as anyone of simply chucking it when we’re done. But seriously, what else can we do? Besides filling our homes with a ton of electronic paperweights? Plenty, as it turns out. Just like all our other trash, we need to think in terms of environmentally sound management of electronic waste and make efforts to minimize its adverse impacts on human health and the environment.

With planning, we can substantially reduce waste generation through prevention, reduction, repair, recycling, and reuse–just like we do with other waste.

Cutting Down on eWaste

A Google search for things like “electronics recycling” will usually turn up multiple disposal options in your area. Some specialized businesses only handle e-waste, selling anything salable and parting the rest into specific categories. It’s the easy way to safely and responsibly dispose of your old tech. If it happens to be a non-profit, you may even get a tax deduction.

You can also recycle simply by passing along, like to that kid brother we mentioned earlier. Or, if it’s working, donate your tech to a shop that sells used items back to the community. You’ll need one that specializes, though: Goodwill or Salvation Army centers generally don’t appreciate old electronics that have no general market value, like CRT monitors.

In fact, if you do find an e-waste center that offers pre-owned tech, you can save even more money by shopping there first if you need new equipment. Not only does buying used save you cash, it helps maintain the cycle of avoiding landfills.

It’s Time to Rethink Old Tech

With so much consumption of new technology in our country and around the world, it has become critical to make our tech use more sustainable by raising awareness levels, specifically in the area of electrical and electronic equipment disposal. And since we, as photographers often use more than our share of such devices, we should be leading the charge.

So think twice when it comes to getting rid of old tech. If you can avoid throwing away old items out of convenience, you’ll doing a big favor for yourself and the environment.

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Pro Photography Business: The Sad Harsh Truth

One question I often get from would-be pro photographers is “How do I get started?”

There are multiple ways to interpret that question, but mostly I can look in the eyes of the asker and have a pretty good idea of what the person wants to know. And generally speaking, it’s not the question he or she should be asking.

Too often, what they mean something more like “How can I set up a business so that I can quit my crummy day job and be free?” In which case I start talking about carts going before horses. If your rationale for starting a photography business is wanting to lie around your fabulous Soho loft while picking which jobs you want to do out of the hundreds of people who are banging on your door and begging for your services …

… yeah. No.

That’s not just photography, that’s any small business. And most people have at least a clue that striking out on their own will require a lot of work. Creatives, for some reason, seem to have trouble with that concept. Too many of them seem to believe that being your own boss is simple (Hah!) and highly profitable (HAH!).

Well, here it is: the cold, hard truth. Unless you are an absolute phenom and have been written up in Time or Variety, nobody outside of your immediate family cares about your work. Sorry. That’s reality.

So instead of worrying about the money aspect of it right off the bat, I try to convince would-bes to concentrate on their craft. Do it in your spare time. ALL your spare time, not just the corners where you’re not hanging with friends or playing video games or posting cute pictures of kittens on social media. If you want to be a pro photographer, you need to live and breathe photography.

Develop your eye first. If people want to pay you to take pics, great–if not, take pictures anyway. Keep taking pictures until you have to struggle see the world without a lens. Post your work, print your work, whatever it takes to be seen. Keep filling your days and nights and weekends behind a camera until you barely have time for anything besides your job and your photography.

If you’re at that place, you can start advertising for clients. You’re not ready to run yet: now you’re in a holding position. Because being a great photog is only part of the equation: sadly, unless you’ve got family who will support you, you’ll probably need to hold on to that day job until the money starts trickling in.

You see, it’s not enough to spend all your free time taking pictures. You have to spend all your free time getting PAID to take pictures. And that’s when you can start seriously thinking of putting in your two-weeks’ notice.

Even then, your days are going to be full. You have a business to run–and the product you sell is YOU. You’ll need equipment, a location, and probably an assistant. You’ll have to think about credit cards and debit cards, whether you’ll accept Paypal, what kind of hours you will keep.

There are a lot of “what-if”s involved: what if you have a slow month and can’t make the rent? What if you get sick two days before the big wedding you’re supposed to shoot? What if your client is unhappy and asks the bank for a refund on his or her credit card (yes, banks do that). What if, what if, what if?

Scared yet? Good.

Because going into business for yourself is a scary proposition, and it doesn’t get any easier by ignoring that fear. Like most things in life, the best way to ensure success it to look at the problem square-on, weight pros and cons, and make a decision based on how hard you’re willing to work to be able to do something you love.

And that’s where you start.

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4 Marketing Mistakes Photographers Should Avoid

Do you want more customers for your photography business?

Before you answer, let me throw this stat out: according to the National Retail Federation, customer returns accounted for more than $260.5 billion in lost sales for U.S. retailers in 2015 alone. Obviously, the services we sell aren’t exactly retail merchandise, but it’s still worth paying attention to the numbers.

So let me clarify: you DON’T simply want more customers. You want more GOOD customers. How do you find them? Well, the easiest way is to have a lot of happy customers in the first place … and one of the best ways to get those is to avoid these common marketing mistakes photographers make:

1.       Relying on discounts. Sometimes offering a coupon or discount makes sense (I’ve had great success with Groupon), but it shouldn’t be your first tactic, and you should never make it a way of life. The reason we want more customers is so we can build revenue streams; if you start pulling in a bunch of clients at a lower rate, you’ll end up doing a lot more work without making significantly more money.

Cut-rate pricing devalues your brand: if you were worth more, you’d charge more, right? That’s what people think. You’re not going to build a stable of loyal, long-term customers on a reputation of being “The Cheap One.”

2.       Using cheap/generic marketing materials. Remember those old Hallmark commercials where people would flip over a greeting card to see is you “cared enough to send the very best”? Nowadays, people are checking the backs of business cards for the VistaPrint logo, to see if you’re the cheapskate who’d rather have someone else’s ad on your card than pay even the discounted price. So don’t be that guy (or gal).

The collateral you leave with potential customers speaks volumes about you and reflects on your work. A cheap–or, heaven help us, homemade–card or brochure indicates that you are less an artist and more of a pedestrian. Until you do work for them, that card is all that clients have to remember you: make sure you’re leaving them with a good impression.

3.       Marketing in the wrong places. A supermarket bulletin board is NOT a viable marketing medium. Sorry. Have you ever hired a professional by tearing off a perforated number from a “community services” board? Yeah, didn’t think so.

When it comes to something as personal as family or wedding photography, potential customers impact … not the number of a random stranger hanging between ads for lawn care guys and lost kittens. Try offering a discount on family portraits to a local business (or 2) on the condition you can hang a framed pic from the session in their office or waiting room. Much more personal, much more effective. And while we’re on the subject of marketing mediums …

4.       Forgoing a website. No, no, no. In this day and age, people are searching for services at all hours of the day or night. Maybe they’re on the office computer, or on their phones in traffic, or on a tablet while in their PJs. Whatever, skipping the online portfolio is simply NOT an option anymore.

And don’t try to get away with a few posts on social media, either; there’s not that much of a link between having thousands of followers and gaining new customers. Think about it: posting on Instagram is fast, easy, and free. So you can bet every single one of your competitors are already doing it. Use social media for keeping in touch with current customers … not as a way to gain new ones.

 

Making any of these mistakes isn’t the kiss of doom, of course, but they are methods that will make reaching your goal much harder. Invest in professional materials and mediums to gain more and better customers … and eventually, those customers will bring others to your doorstep.

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A Lovers’ Quarrel with Wedding Season

I’m getting revved up here for wedding season. After all my years in this business, I have to admit I approach May and June with mixed feelings. On the one hand, there is that unmistakable feeling of “Didn’t I just do this?” It’s a cliché, I know, but time seems to pass more quickly as you get older, and as the years flow into each other you really start noticing the repetition. After a while, doing wedding photography gives me that same feeling I get when listening to hardcore bluegrass music: no matter how good the band, after the 3rd or 4th numberI start thinking “Um … yeah, this is great and all … but do you know more than that one song?”

I reluctantly confess that I have to be careful at most weddings to make sure I’m not going into auto-pilot. Could I phone it in? After more weddings than I can even count, sure. But I would hate myself, and that isn’t what people pay for. I try my best to do even the most traditional shots with a bit of a flare. The customer is always right, right?

But now and again (and more frequently within the last few years, it seems), I get the couple that wants something different for their wedding album. OK, yeah, sure, some of the ideas I would politely call stupid (“You both want to dress as vampires, you want all the shots in black-and-white, with hand-colored blood? Seriously?”); some were dangerous (you’re not getting me to jump out of airplane at all, let alone with a $4800 camera. Who am I, Robert Spence?); and some were simply offensive (“Look, what the groom’s party does with your bride the whole night before the wedding is your business … but if you want it on film, you’ll need to talk to someone else.”).

With all that being said, there are still people who want to remember their wedding as unique because it’s their wedding … not because they turned it into a sideshow. And when it comes to that, one of the best gifts a bride-to-be can give her photographer is a personal shot list.

Now, when I say that, I am not talking about Googling “wedding shot list” and doing a copy-and-paste into an email. I get a lot of those, and honestly, the only thing that keeps me from taking the job and shooting every shot I can think of EXCEPT the ones on the list is pure professionalism.

Well, that and an unwillingness to admit how petty I can be. But I digress.

The truth is, there really are only so many ways you can shoot a wedding: no matter how creative you want to be, there are still going to be a LOT of traditional shots. Which makes it even more relevant to find those shots that make the wedding personal.

What if the band at the wedding is the bride’s younger brother’s first paying gig? What if the groom personally carved the punch bowl out of a block of ice? What if the bride’s grandmother hand-sewed 600 beads to create her veil? Or what if the location is the exact spot where the groom’s parents met?

I’ve had all of those scenarios show up on different shot lists. The ice bowl was gorgeous, the wedding locale was picture-perfect, even 24 years later, and the band was incredibly … adequate. But I paid special attention to all of those features, because they were personal.

And the veil? The beads weren’t all perfectly aligned, and honestly it was a bit short. But when you saw the arthritic hands that created it, well, it was enough to make you cry. My favorite shot of that entire wedding is one showing those hands cradling the hands of the bride, with just a slight glint haloing off the engagement ring.

Yes, I’m bragging. You would, too.

My point is this: as photographers, I feel most of us are more likely to sense when the Emperor has no clothes. In other words, that perfect shot living in the client’s head doesn’t really exist. But at the same time, we see things the world at large tends to miss. Without sounding egotistical, the best advice I give potential clients is, Tell me what you think you want … then TRUST ME.

I’ve done this before.

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Five Things to Remember Before You Open Your Own Studio

I’ve touched on this sort of thing before, but it certainly bears repeating: being a photographer and running a photography studio are not the same thing. They’re not mutually exclusive–many people do both–but being good at the one doesn’t inherently make you good at the other.

 

Don’t believe? Try switching it around. Think of someone you know who is a whiz at accounting or business management … someone who is good at business. To your knowledge, the person has never touched a camera that didn’t also feature a ringtone. This Ansel Adams Wannabe comes up to you and says “Hey guess what! I’ve decided to open a photography studio!”

 

You: That’s great! I didn’t know you were a photographer!

AAW: Well, I’ve never tried it … but I know how to manage books and balance a ledger and everything. I figure the rest I can just pick up as I go!

 

It sounds crazy, right? Being good at business isn’t enough to build a successful photography studio. But the reverse is true, too. So as a public service, here are a few things I wish someone had told me before I opened my studio:

 

1.       You don’t get to be just a photographer anymore. When you open shop for yourself, great photography is your product. But there still needs to be machinery in place so people can get to your product.

Even before you take that first picture, you’ll find yourself juggling a dozen or more roles: CEO, Appointment Setter, Marketing Director, Brand Manager, Customer Service Rep, Bookkeeper, accountant, Collections Guru, Window Washer, and more. Oh, and somewhere in there, Photographer.

Your mad skills will be what people see, but the sooner you understand you’ll to need skills in multiple areas, the sooner you can start getting better at all of them.

2.       Of all your skills, “people skills” are the most important. At the end of the day, photography is a people business. Even if you primarily shoot natural landscape or urban images, your clients–the ones you have to deal with to get work and to get paid–are going to be people. Consequently, the better you can work with, listen to, and take care of those you do business with, the more success you’ll see.

3.       Referrals are your life’s blood. Word-of-mouth testimonials make up the most powerful source of new business for photographers. People are much more comfortable trusting the recommendation of a friend than a web ad or direct mail flyer. That means part of your job is to make your current customers WANT to refer you.

It’s not enough to do outstanding work: you have to actually encourage people to talk. That doesn’t necessarily mean a formal referral program: sometimes it can be as easy as letting folks know just how much you appreciate them telling their friends about you.

4.       Getting into new gear can kill you. I have a friend who’s into cycling. She rides on weekends, maybe once through the week–yet she has thousands of dollars’ worth of cool gear. She’s constantly drooling over magazines and catalogs–she calls it “bike porn”–looking for her next purchase.

I know a few photographers like that, too.

I know, I know: it’s easy to get caught up in buying fun and exciting new toys “for business”. Better lenses, better lighting … it’s all simple enough to justify, but there comes a point of diminishing returns. I’ve wasted god-only-knows how much money over the years buying gear that ended up collecting dust in a corner somewhere … so be careful with those extra expenses.

5.       When it comes to your own horn, Toot! Toot! Toot! OK, nobody likes to brag. But the simple reality is that even in the age of social media, nobody is really going to care what you’re doing unless you give them a great reason to. And that, in a nutshell, is the definition of marketing.

Portfolios are necessary in our line of work: showing people what you’re capable of is probably the best way to tip them over from being a contact to being a customer. Thing is, though, if no one knows you exist, they’re not going to look at your stuff. Get out there and market yourself, and let your portfolio market your skills.

 

Running your own photography studio is fun and rewarding. Just remember to test the depth of the waters before you take the plunge.

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