This past weekend I was in Virginia photographing for another photographer and her family, and as we photographers do, we just got chatting about business and we happened upon a conversation about business names, and I was sharing how I came to finally name my photography business using my actual name, instead of something catchy or trendy that I tried for while and the difference that made for my brand as I moved from being the photographer for “everyone” to being a more luxury brand and having a really defined clientele and recognizable work.
I was sharing with her about some of the business names I was really in love with when I first started, and we got to laughing- because the place where I was when I first started my business is just absolutely NIGHT and DAY different than where I am today and what my vision is for my brand now, versus what it was when I was first starting out.
Which got me thinking on the drive home about things that I would do differently in my business if I was starting today, and I thought it would make a great episode here on the podcast.
I want to share with you some of the decisions and directions that I made in my business that I can look back and identify as the game changers for me in seeing business growth and open doors of opportunities- so sort of taking a look at what I’m glad that I did, what I wish I didn’t waste time or money on, and then thinking of YOU in mind, I want to walk through what I would do differently if I were starting my business today.
So much has changed since then- the internet alone has completely changed- so while I want to look back and highlight what I wouldn’t change, I want to do it through the filter of what I find to still be relevant today and what I see working now. So let’s dive into today’s content.
The first thing I can immediately see as something I would change or make better when I look back to the first years of starting my business is-spending more time asking myself what was important to me and what I valued in my business, and my brand, and my client experience- instead of getting so caught up in what other people were doing. In the beginning, I was almost operating my entire business in fear of doing it wrong.
Something you will immediately learn if you ever do one on one mentoring with me, or hear me teach at a workshop, or have a business conversation with me that’s longer than 5 minutes-something that I have become so incredibly passionate about is making sure other photographers, or other creative business owners, truly understand that their business doesn’t have to look like anyone else’s.
That YOU can make your own rules and do your own thing.
Just because Suzy in your town is offering these certain kind of albums- doesn’t mean you need to- in order to be successful. Just because someone else is promoting their mini session marathons or their big sale that they are having for an upcoming holiday- doesn’t mean that you need to feel under pressure to create one for your business.
Just because someone else is doing xyz doesn’t mean you’re wrong- to do it differently.
And I think this applies to both big things and small things. Whether you’re trying to figure out what you want your pricing to be, or how to design your website.
In the beginning of my business, I changed my mind so much because I was always jumping to what so and so was doing. And the result of constantly swaying from doing this thing over here to doing that over there- was how hard it was to build a recognizable brand, and have that brand trust with my clients- because in the beginning there was no consistency.
I think that it’s important to try different things in order to find what fits you- especially in the beginning- But what I’m referring to is that I would make these drastic changes- I would say I specialize and offer this kind of photography sessions one month and then 3 months later change my whole website and I was like no wait I now specialize in THIS.
SO the first thing I would change looking back is to spend less time looking at what other people are doing-
And I don’t mean you shouldn’t learn from other people- but what I do mean is all the times that I completely devalued my own vision because I assumed I had to do what other people were doing in order to be successful.
This was one of the game changers for me- when I started asking myself what MY vision was and what kind of business I wanted to build and where I saw myself in 5 years or 10 years and what I wanted to my schedule to look like and what was truly the most important to me.
It was the small decisions that I started to make- the ones that honestly made me feel like a fish swimming upstream in the industry that paid off in the long term. Because they were different and unexpected. It wasn’t just what every else was doing.
I wanted to photograph newborns in my client’s home, and I wanted the mothers that I worked with to be just as much a part of the session as their newborn baby. And that didn’t really exist. I would get inquiries from families looking for a newborn studio. and that just wasn’t something I personally liked or really wanted to offer. I had to build a brand that showed expecting mothers something she maybe didn’t even know she wanted until she saw it.
I wanted my images to be square and not traditionally sized. I wanted to only show black and white on my website. Decisions that to this day, photographers will write me and be like I can’t believe you do that! Clients won’t hire you if you don’t show them color images!
Wrong! I started to make intentional brand decisions that were very well thought out and planned for and those decisions began to attract my ideal clients- the families who deeply valued the work I was creating.
All of these decisions were once the “Ok but no one else is doing this- will this even work at all??” kind of decisions that LITERALLY built the brand I have today.
So I would definitely say looking back, if I were to give my biggest advice to someone just starting their business today, it would be to create your own vision and follow your gut. Create what makes you feel inspired and alive. It’s ok to stand out and be different and do what no one else is doing. Because someday, you will have others asking you to teach them how you did it.
I think that one of the most important things you can do when starting a business today, is figuring out what your unique factor is. As a photographer, I know what makes my brand different than anyone else’s- and what that does- is allow me to be confident that I am not the photographer for everyone.
It creates an exclusive experience for my clients, and it elevates my brand because of that exclusivity- which sets me apart as a business. It takes me out of the never ending comparison game- that whole price shopping level- and my brand attracts the right clients that I desire to work with.
I don’t think you can necessarily rush the process of knowing what makes what you do uniquely yours- whether you are an artist, an author, or a shop owner- so I can’t really say that I wish this happened sooner for me or that I would go back and change how quickly I discovered my unique factor- but I definitely recognize it as a game changer on how my business grew.
I can look at other photographers- even in a similar industry- and appreciate them, support them, root for them- but not feel threatened by them because I am confident that my clients choose to work with ME for ME- and my style, my vision, and my client experience.
One of the most empowering things you can do for yourself as a business owner is remove yourself from the comparison trap and focus on what YOU do and always how YOU can do it better.
You can learn from other people in a healthy way- without doubting every decision you have ever made. That’s why so many leaders talk about the importance of building your business and your brand around your “why”. Which is this idea that you business should be built upon what really matters to you and WHY you chose to build it in the first place. Everyone’s why is going to be different- and every decision you make for your business should be filtered through that business why and that’s how you can stay on track and consistent in your business focus.
Another thing that I would change looking back is going digital with my systems sooner.
Now I definitely understand and remember the days where every single dollar counted and I didn’t have a ton of resources to pour into my business and sign up for all the monthly subscriptions to this and that- but I just absolutely cringe when I think back to how unprofessional I ran my business in the beginning.
I would bring printed session contracts on paper to my clients in these yellow manilla folders for them to sign in person, and I would have these binders for my client files and workflow checklists- I mean no wonder it too me so much time to elevate my brand experience! You hear me mention my love for systems a lot around here- but it’s because I can’t imagine running my business without them.
Having digital systems allow me to work faster, smarter, and be more organized- which in turn gives me more time to do what I love and work with my clients without being a hot mess as a business.
As you hear me talk about all the time- Honeybook is my absolute favorite system for my business- I use it for client communication, session organization, online contracts, online invoicing- it’s super easy for my clients to use AND for me to use- and I can use it from my laptop or my smartphone.
It is hands down one of the greatest tools in my business that allows me to stay organized and offer my clients a professional, branded experience. If you’re a creative business owner and you want to give it a try- use this link here and you can save 50% off your subscription which is pretty sweet!
Another thing I would change about my business looking back is getting serious about knowing my numbers sooner. As a creative, anything numbers and math and spreadsheets- is something I REALLY have to discipline myself with because it can be really overwhelming for me.
That’s why one of the most important things I have ever done is outsource my bookkeeping and tax prep- because I knew it was not my strength- and knowing that a professional is doing it for me frees up my time and my mental energy to focus on the areas of my business that I AM good at.
But it took me longer than it should to be confident in my numbers. One of my favorite people to learn from when it comes to business finances is Shanna Skidmore. I have had the privilege of learning from her at our Fount Collective Workshop numerous years- and I personally walked through her signature online program called the Blueprint Model which she offers once a year online.
The Blueprint Model was one of the best investments I have ever made in my business. If you have never connected with Shanna Skidmore, I highly recommend reading and listening to the free resources that she has made available on her blog.
Confidence in what you charge and why you charge it is such a value in your business. When I first started, I still felt so weird about charging people for photography because I was so new.
So I went online, found a few photographers who had similar work as I did, saw what they were charging and what it included and literally just created a similar price point and package for my own business. Which was so naïve- because one of the things that you have to remember when it comes to pricing is that you have NO idea what the backend of their business is like. You don’t know what their costs are, what their overhead is, what their business goals are- it’s so different for everyone.
And when you base your pricing solely off of what someone else is charging- it will be more difficult to stick to your guns when a client asks for a discount or goes back and forth on whether or not they want to invest that amount. When I know my numbers, I know why I am charging what I am charging. Because I know what it is COSTING me to run a business. Until you understand your costs of running a business, then pricing is just a big guessing game.
For me, I know that a photoshoot isn’t just a two hour session of my time. It’s hours of communication, travel, editing, brand experience, marketing- there is SO much that goes into just one successful portrait session. So when a client is looking for something in a different budget, I have no problem referring them to someone else, instead of feeling insecure and offering a last minute sale, because I know what it costs me to run a business and what I need to charge to do so. It doesn’t matter who you learn pricing from, what course you take, what podcast you listen to, what formula you follow- confidence in your business pricing will truly only come from having a solid understanding of your costs.
Along this subject, I also became WELL acquainted with what happens when you don’t save enough for taxes. I wasn’t charging enough to create the margin I needed to save what was going to be due for taxes- and that year- that one awful never want to have that happen again year- taught me forever the importance of knowing your numbers and setting aside that percentage to pay taxes. If you are pulling your pricing out of thin air without a solid idea of what your costs are- in materials, in labor, in time, AND in taxes- you are doing yourself a huge disservice.
And this was something I technically “knew”, but I didn’t discipline myself to take serious action soon enough to make a change. This is still an area that I am working to make better- and the years have gotten better since I have learned to know my numbers better!
So let’s talk marketing and some practical things if you’re starting your business today. Since starting my own business, so much has changed. The internet is so different from what it was then- with so many new marketing strategies available.
I think back even on Instagram when it first came out- I was definitely not using it to market my business and photography brand in the beginning- and now it is one of my top sources of inquiries from clients who find me on there! It’s so crazy how fast things change and move- and when it comes to marketing your business it’s important to know what’s working, and what’s not working- and that can look different between now and even three months from now!
Gary Vaynercheck always says that you need to stop being nostalgic with your marketing. Things are going to change because technology is always changing, and you can’t get stuck in that place of “Well this has worked for us in the very beginning and it’s how we booked our first big client so I will always do it this way.” It’s crucial to be willing to adapt and grow as technology changes.
When I first started my business, all of the bigger and well known photography brands were Monday-Friday Bloggers. Because Instagram wasn’t around yet- in order to get updates and find out what my favorite brands were up to- I had to read their blog posts! This was part of my morning routine, I had all of my favorite blogs book marked on my computer and I would read their new blog posts each day to see their latest work, read their personal stories-
and that’s how I felt connected to them as a brand.
I definitely don’t think blogging is dead- it’s just a bit different then it used to be. I think the number one benefit of blogging as a business these days is building your SEO (which is what google called Search Engine Optimization) and optimizing your content to be seen on Pinterest. Basically I think blogging is what really helps your business get found online- but I think a lot of that personal connection that we used to experience in blogging is now happening in places like Instagram.
I wish that I understood the power of blogging and creating solid, cornerstone website content much earlier. Even if I was starting my business today, I would still encourage blogging. Putting out a new blog post 5 days a week isn’t something I see as needed anymore thanks to social media, but I do believe it’s still really important towards getting found online.
When considering the question “is blogging dead”- I think the easiest question to ask yourself is- when was the last time you searched for something on Google? Most likely, your answer is a lot like mine, and it not already happened today- it’s happened multiple times already today. That alone answers the question that creating valuable content on your blog is still important. Blogging is different than when I first started, but I think I know it definitely still plays a role in how clients find me online.
Another thing I can think of that I would share that I am so glad I did was invest in a one on one mentoring session with other photographers. I invested in a coaching session with wedding photographers Justin and Mary- and even though investing in something like that when you’re brand new seems like a lot of money to spend, or scary because leaders you look up to will see the behind the scenes of your business- but that investment was such a turning point for me in creating the brand I have today.
I have no regrets in getting experienced eyes on the insides of my business and giving me their advice and thoughts on where I was currently at and where I wanted to go. I think workshops are amazing, I think online courses are fantastic- but there’s an incredible value in that one on one investment from someone who can really speak into YOUR business personally and give you the opportunity to ask the hard questions, and get their honest feedback.
Coaching, Consulting, Mentoring- whatever you want to call it- something that is one on one and allows you to lay out your business and brand in front of someone with experience so they can guide you- is truly invaluable.
So I think overall, looking back over how far I’ve come, if you are starting a business today, I would say it’s so important to discover what makes your brand unique. And that might be something that no one else is doing or sound crazy to other people- but doing something different and unique IS what is going to set you apart.
Stop obsessing over what so and so is doing. Get off Instagram if all you’re doing is comparing your brand to theirs.
You have what it takes to build something incredible. Something that is YOU. No one sees the world like you do- and it’s a mistake to just try to be like anyone else in business.
And when it comes to how technology is always changing, I think overall it’s crucial to stay on top of knowing what’s working, and maybe admitting what isn’t working anymore. And be willing to adapt and change. As a business owner, this was such an important lesson.
I won’t use the internet for my business the same way this year as I do next year- because a year from now the internet will be different and new opportunities and platforms will be available.
And I would say to remember that if YOU don’t take yourself seriously as a business, then no one will. That lesson took me way too long to learn. If you want to be a successful business- then act like one. Do the real work that it takes to build something worth having.
Know your numbers. Track your costs. Be proactive with your business savings. Ask for help and learn from leaders who paved the way and made it happen in their own brand.
And follow your gut. Because No one else can do that for you.
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