Being your own boss has some great benefits. You get to set your own schedule, you don't have to ask anyone's permission to take the kids to Disneyland, and best of all, you get to make money doing something you love (the ultimate dream). However, starting your photography business isn't all it's cracked up to be. I had grand dreams of being able to travel to exotic locations and photograph beautiful people and places. So far, that hasn't happened.
My goal is not to deter anyone from starting their business and putting their camera to work. Of course you should pursue this. But like so many uneducated entrepreneurs, I had no idea what it would be like on the other side once you get past the honeymoon phase with your camera and your new business cards with raised spot gloss. Instead of writing another article about how great it is to be your own boss and how to quit your day job and pursue your passion, I'm going to be writing about several unspoken challenges that many early entrepreneurs face and how to avoid or overcome them.
It takes longer than you think
The first thing I had seriously unrealistic expectations about was how long it would take to actually get going. I honestly thought that within 3 months of hanging my “Open” sign, I would be able to quit my job and shoot full time. Boy, was I wrong. In fact, I've been open for business for going on 2 years and I still have a day job. In fact, I project that I'll still have a day job for another 2 years.
I remember joining a Facebook group and reading stories from other photographers saying that after 3 months they were able to quit their jobs. One person in particular said he considered himself a full time photographer after just 5 weeks of starting his business. “Why isn't this happening to me?” I thought. I must be doing something wrong.
It's also hard to hear any one of the dozen podcast interviews where the photographer says, “I shot my cousin's wedding and then 5 of her bridesmaids ask me to shoot their weddings and then we got so busy my wife quit her job and then I quit my job and here we are shooting $20k weddings in Fiji!” What we don't hear, and what people often forget, is that it took 5 years or more to get to that point. It's rarely as simple and straightforward as people remember it.
It takes time to get going. I was this close to giving up completely after 6 months of marginal success, thinking that no one wants my services. Now that my expectations have been adjusted, I'm dug in deep for the long haul and I'm learning some patience. Please don't give up after a couple months when things are still slow and it seems like your business is broken. I truly believe that opportunity is out there and it is just a matter of time before it finds you. We just never hear about the photographer who worked on her business for 5 slow years because those stories aren't sexy. But they happen the most often.
Staying up until 2am or waking up at 4am
The next point is how much of a time sink starting a business really is. I cannot count how many times I've stayed up until 2am or woken up at 4am. I have to do all my business stuff outside of my day job hours and outside of my family hours. I have a wife and 2 little boys that need my presence. So in order to work on things like website design, write blog posts, watch tutorial videos, or edit photos, I have to do them after my family goes to bed or before they wake up.
If it's just you (no spouse, no kids), you might have more time to work on this. You'll have to give up other things in your life, which we'll talk about later. Sometimes you'll stay up late or wake up early and just stare at your computer thinking, “I should be doing something but I just don't know what…” This part is really hard to deal with; not knowing what to do with all the time you have. It's easy to think, “Ah, screw it. I'm going (back) to bed.” I've done that. I can't count how much time I've lost because I didn't have a plan.
To make the best use of this time I recommend creating a list of 3 or 4 things that you can work on. This will help you avoid that 4am thinking, “I have nothing to do, I'm going back to bed.” I have a notepad on my desk where I will jot down ideas and notes for the next day. A typical note could say, “1. IP Article; 2. Edit photos for Debbie; 3. Watch 1 hr training video.” This way I have a plan and I'm not wasting time or getting distracted by Facebook or Imgur.
Missing out on family time
When work calls, you have to pick up. You don't have the luxury to choose your own hours quite yet. Because if you aren't willing to take a twilight portrait shoot that a prospective client wants, they will find someone who will. I have missed numerous bedtimes with my boys, family dinners, get-together, BBQs, parties, you name it, in the effort to build my business and my portfolio. I remember taking a job over an hour away and missing out on an annual family party that I was really looking forward to.
A lot of people say with enthusiasm, “Well, sacrifices have to be made! You are trying to realize your dreams!” And that's great and all, but come tell me that when your 7 month pregnant wife has to make dinner, clean up, and then bathe and get 2 boys ready for bed by herself for the fourth night in a row because you're gone taking photos. I've sat in the car and cried knowing that pursuing my dream was a harder sacrifice for my wife than it was for me. Sometimes going out and taking pictures just plain sucks.
If you have a spouse or partner who is championing you along, it is important to make sure he or she understands the time commitment this requires. Arguments happen because expectations aren't managed appropriately. Talk about how you can balance out the act of raising kids, maintaining the household, and/or strengthening your relationship. My wife and I have agreed that if I am going to miss bedtime because of a photo shoot then I will get the kids ready in the morning (make breakfast, get them dressed, etc) so she can sleep a little bit more. Also, we have dedicated 9-10pm as the hour we spend together talking, watching a show, or just sitting on the couch in the silence of a house put to bed. I will take a break from editing, writing blogs, or anything else to spend time together during this hour.
Other hobbies fall to the wayside
As I mentioned before, you'll have no time to do anything else. You'll even feel guilty when you try to recreate with the 1 hour of free time you've found this month. You'll think, “Ah crap, I can't watch another episode of Supernatural, I've surely got business stuff to do…” I've got a Steam library full of video games I haven't played and I love playing video games. I love gaming so much I even took a week off work (before I had the idea to start a business) when my favorite game came out (Starcraft II). I have a Netflix queue full of movies and shows I have yet to watch. I have a Kindle full of books I want to read. Instead, I am too busy working on my business.
Luckily, this is a sacrifice that probably won't bring you to tears. When it comes down to it, I'd rather have a stronger business than drive around the streets of Gotham in Batman: Arkham Knight (in my Steam queue). Many of the other things you love to do will no longer be a priority. You'll find yourself staying up until 2am editing photos instead of binge watching Longmire. While this sacrifice does suck (I do miss playing video games) it doesn't suck that much.
I have found that holiday weekends when I have time off from my day job make for great times to catch up on my personal hobbies. Because I photograph the real estate industry, agents like to take the same holidays and I'm often not booked for shoots those days. During these long weekends I can play several hours of video games. Friday and Saturday nights my wife and I often stay up until 1 or 2 in the morning watching movies. I've also learned to use my previously underutilized time more wisely. I listen to audio books on my commute to work instead of turning on the radio. If anything, starting your own business will help you find creative ways to get more things done in the same amount of time.
Being scared to succeed
I feel this concept has to be experienced to fully understand. When I thought about starting my business the only thing I could think about was being super successful, quitting my job, and driving off into the sunset.
Instead, when I think about success now, I get anxiety. Success rarely comes all at once; instead, it trickles in. Eventually, I'll get to the point of being so successful I'll need to quit my job but not as successful as to pay for private health insurance. Is this success just a fluke? Will you have 2 weeks of being super busy and then find yourself in a slump? What do I do now? Lisa needs braces!
When you fail, you go to your safe, regular day job. When you succeed you have no idea how you are going to make things work because all the sudden you are working towards an unknown future. Health care, client management, time management, budgets, taxes, second shooters, hiring an editor are all things that need to be figured out. The journey to being successful is terrifying because there is no way to plan for it. You don't know when success will happen to you.
My best advice to overcome the anxiety of success is to be financially prepared for it. Every financial planner will encourage you to have no debt (credit cards, car payments) and 6 months of living expenses in savings. This will help buffer you when you get to the point of needing to quit your job but still not making enough money to fully replace your income.
At first you are so scared of failing. Terrified that the person you just cold called for the first time will reject you. Terrified that the wedding you just shot, and got paid good money for, will turn out horribly. Soon though, you'll learn to take rejection in stride and you'll have enough confidence in your shooting abilities that even if you make some awful mistakes you know enough about Photoshop to correct them so the client won't even notice.
But when it comes to success, you'll lose that rush as well. The first time someone calls you out of the blue for a shoot you are so pumped! The first time you upsell someone on a 16×24 print you want to shout with joy. But the 10th time that happens, the win doesn't seem as rich and delicious. Everything starts to mellow out; the highs aren't as high and the lows aren't as low.
If you start to experience this, go back to why you went into business. You can start to make subtle changes to your direction to better reflect what you truly want to be doing. This way you can look forward to work every day because you are shooting in the way that truly makes you happy.
I love shooting atmospheric and emotional interior shots. I'm trying to build my portfolio to reflect that style. Just this last week I had a client tell me “I love the work you did on [this shoot]. I want all my listings to look like that.” It put a smile on my face because I didn't get into the real estate photography business just to stand in a corner and take a picture; I got into it to create an image and this client wants me to do just that. You will lose the rush that comes from success but you'll be happy knowing you are doing work you want to do, not work that just pays the bills.
Crushing defeat at every turn
Nothing worth doing is easy. If it was easy, everyone would have made millions selling their iPhone photos of babies and the Grand Canyon.
Instead, you are knocked down a notch on almost a daily basis. Your Facebook ads are met with tepid results. Your killer brochures you spent 3 nights perfecting are hardly given a glance. Your carefully crafted website doesn't display well on mobile and you only realize that 3 months after it went live. The one big photo shoot you thought was going to wow the pants off your client is returned with complaints about boring compositions and lack of “pizazz.”
At this rate it seems like you'll never get traction. It is so hard to find a groove that not only works, but works for you and your brand. You don't want to scrape the bottom of the barrel and offer mini sessions for $65 like every other guy on Facebook, but nothing else has worked. You will want to give up on a weekly basis.
Take the advice of Taylor Swift and shake it off. The most common trait of all successful entrepreneurs is persistence. There's nothing this community loves more than to see one of us make it, from the bottom of bottoms to the top of the pots. Jim Harmer himself is rooting for you. He said in episode 226 (27:47), “I love hearing people that are going out and making stuff happen themselves.” So when things get rough, go on and brush your shoulders off.
Rejection, rejection, rejection
It's hard not to take rejection personally. I'm not just talking about being turned down for a shoot because “we already have a photographer” but also having your ideas rejected; your color schemes, your compositions, your artistic vision. It hurts to put a lot of time and effort into editing photos, and think they look pretty dang good, only to be told by your client, “They look gloomy.” I still get nervous that a client will say “Eh, I don't like these. Thanks for trying but we're going to look somewhere else.”
It's hard to pay $1000 to set up a booth at a bridal show and print $500 worth of brochures and cards to only have 10 people stop by and talk to you and none of them call you for a shoot. It's hard to see the poor results of your Facebook ad: 3,500 impressions; 14 clicks. This is part of the crushing defeat you will see on a daily basis. It's almost as if you are throwing your time and talents into the abyss, never knowing what's going to happen.
You will even get rejected by those closest to you. You will ask someone for help, to be a model for a bridal shoot or to photograph their amazing home to help build your portfolio and they'll say no. They'll say “I really wish I could, Kirk, but I don't think I'm what you're looking for,” or they'll cancel last minute with a lame excuse when you schedule a shoot with them.
Focus on your champions when this happens. Turn to those who are rooting for you to succeed. There are several Facebook groups out there for whatever kind of photography business you are trying to start. Turn to your spouse, partner, parents, friends, or others that are cheering for you. They will help you out. My aunt let me practice my real estate photography on her house. She also knows some rich people and made arrangements for me to have a portfolio building opportunity to shoot a fancy house on the foothills in a rich neighborhood. Use these people as your foundation and keep going.
Remember, not trying will put you in the same place as rejection but you won't have the chance to learn anything. If you get rejected, learn why it didn't work and make improvements for next time.
No profit for the first 1 or 2 years
One of the biggest myths about starting and running a business is that you will all the sudden have Scrooge McDuck levels of cash lying around. Most people think, “I can make some serious money off this camera!” And while that's true, it is highly unlikely you will see a single red cent in the first couple years.
When you first get started you will learn about everything you don't have but desperately need. When I started shooting real estate I only had a camera, 1 lens, and a tripod with a ball head. I learned I needed a speedlight as well. Then I need 2 more speed lights with stands. Then light modifiers, a more powerful strobe, a remote controller, a tablet, a drone, a couple Pelican cases, a carbon fiber slider, a painter's pole, a geared head, and hundreds of dollars in online training and videos. Not to mention website fees, subscription fees, printing fees, gas, taxes, insurance, that odd camera mount thing I saw on a Facebook ad…the list goes on and on.
Most of the money you make will go right back into your business. And while reinvesting in your business is a good thing, your personal checking account has nothing to show for it. Sometimes my wife asks me how much of my last shoot I will actually get to keep. “Well,” I say, “probably not much. I have 3 Facebook ads running right now, I have my annual website fees due in 2 weeks, and I need to buy a client gift for Julie who just hired me for a 3rd time this month.”
The sad truth is the first couple of years in business won't give you any money. You are working to keep your business alive. And yes, while buying new gear and training and paying for “business trips” all from your business account is exciting, it still doesn't mean you are “making money.” I don't think I've actually paid myself a single dime yet.
For those starting a business on the side of a day job, this is ok. You can take your time growing your business and you won't have to make horrible sacrifices to pay the electric bill.
“If you want to be successful like me…”
You will get free advice everywhere you turn. Some of it is absolutely terrible. One guy tried to tell me that I could make extra money by upselling home owners with a photo of their house on…get this…mugs and mouse pads. He was 100% serious.
Mugs and mouse pads. Sheesh.
The worst advice I hear, and have fell prey to, is when listening to a podcast with a hotshot photographer telling the world about how they use this piece of gear, software, or marketing strategy and the host says, “Oh wow, so with ______ you're able to make $__,___ per year? That's incredible. We'll put a link to that in our show notes.” And then every photographer is running to do whatever it is Mr. 15 Years In Business is doing, thinking that will be the trick that brings in the clients. I got hustled to pay $50/mo for client management services because I was so ready to be successful like this photographer who uses it. Luckily I was able to cancel after 2 months.
One of the most common examples of this is gear. For some reason, photographers loooooooove to ask other photographers what gear they are using, like it matters at all. Beginner photographers will run out and buy the most expensive glass, carbon fiber tripod, and drone money can buy. But their photos aren't any better because of it. It's like eating a delicious dinner at a fancy restaurant and asking what stove the chef used to cook it. In a professional environment, that fancy stove outperforms all other stoves and is a necessary component of a highly productive, experienced kitchen. But that doesn't mean putting one in your kitchen at home is going to make a lick of sense. But that's how we sell ourselves on the idea of getting the same fancy thingamajig as this successful photographer.
I like to call this the Uranium Analogy. Uranium is one of the most energy dense substances on Earth and it can be extremely useful for making clean, cheap energy. Or it can kill you. The problem with listening to interviews or sales pitches like this is that you are being sold Uranium but you don't have the supporting infrastructure to handle it properly and make electricity from it. So instead it slowly kills you and your business and you can't figure out why. “I'm doing everything Grant Cardone told me to do!” you think to yourself, “So why am I still struggling?” Well, because Grant sold you Uranium but you don't have the power plant to harness it.
I'm not saying that they are trying to swindle you with snake oil. Uranium does everything they said it will and more. Rather, these successful photographers and business people have spent years in trial and error, finding what works and what doesn't work FOR THEM in their professional environment. Now, 1o years after they started their business, they've discovered that they can triple their efficiency with this specific thingamajig. It so convenient to think that all you have to do is apply their methodology and you'll get the same results. Sadly, it just isn't that easy. You have to find what works for you. Of course you should listen to the interviews, but don't jump on top of every idea they have and run out and buy everything they are using.
The second part to this is business coaching. I hear every successful business person talk about how they couldn't have made it to where they are without their expensive, $1,000/mo business coach, and that everyone should have a business coach. Again, this is Uranium. Business coaches are really good at making successful people more successful by providing course corrections of 1 or 2 degrees at a time. Early business people like myself, looking for direction, won't find much use from a business coach. Again, think about that fancy stove. I could pay $5,000 to have a professional chef stove installed in my kitchen but I simply wouldn't have any use for the precise temperature control, the heating drawers, and the infrared broiler. All I'm making is scrambled eggs and Hamburger Helper.
The other problem with the business coaching industry that I often see is the attitude of “if you don't succeed it's because you didn't work hard enough. My program is guaranteed if you put in the work.” Most coaching programs have a no refund policy so you can't get your money back if you feel the coaching wasn't helpful. I joined a coaching program because they sold me on the idea of being able to quit my full time job in 6 months with their help. When I paid my dues and jumped in I was disappointed to see gimmicky marketing ideas, poorly written copy, and a Facebook group that had little participation. I quit after 3 months, and no, I didn't get any of my money back. Was it my fault because I didn't try hard enough or was it the coach's fault for having a low quality program? Only a neutral 3rd party can decide.
My intent is not to disparage the coaching industry. In fact, I would love to find and work with a really good business coach but I understand I am several years away from that being a useful part of my business development. I strongly recommend anyone who is still in the early stages of their business to carefully consider a coaching program before making an expensive commitment. I've seen friends drop $400/mo on coaching programs for 2 years and they are not any closer to realizing their dreams.
Many programs offer a 30 day trial that gives you full access to everything offered. Take advantage of this before fully committing to any program to see if it is a good fit. Ask specific questions about your personal circumstances and your industry, location, and demographic. Just because a wedding photographer who was successful in Australia starts a coaching program doesn't mean he or she understands unique aspects of the United States market. Ask for the contact information of several current or previous clients so you can reach out to them personally. If the coach can't give you specific answers or is unwilling to give you contact information, you're probably better off without them.
When you start your business, there are no warp gates and you can't skip levels. There is no magical thing that will make you successful overnight. Time is your best friend because you have more of it than you know what do with. Spend time thinking about what you are doing and where you want to be going. Do research on your own. Set yourself up for a slow simmer instead of a flash boil. There's no trick to this, it just takes perseverance and patience. The best business coaching I've ever heard for an early entrepreneur (that wasn't even coaching) was from Mike Kelley in one of his “Where Art Meets Architecture” videos. He said something to this effect: “You will take a lot of crappy jobs when you first get started. If you have time at the end of a shoot, take a few shots that are just for you. Put those in your portfolio. After a while, you'll be hired to take shots just like those. But it takes time. Years, in fact. You can't rush it.”
Realizing your dream job might not be your dream after all
The most depressing thing you can come to realize is that what you thought was your dream, isn't your dream after all. But this can also set you free. You might find yourself burning the candle at both ends, long into the night for 2 years, and realize none of it is making you happy and it isn't what you wanted to be doing with your life after all.
Another possible side effect of turning your hobby into your career is that you no longer love your hobby. I had mechanic friends who worked on modifying their own cars, that started their own mechanic shops (or worked as a mechanic). It turned out, the last thing they wanted to do was work on their project car after 10 hours of working on everyone else's cars. “The best way to kill your hobby is to get paid to do it,” they'd say.
Most of the interviews I heard don't talk about this. Instead, bubbly photographers talk about how much they love love love photography and can't wait to get up and do more of it tomorrow and how lucky they are to make a living shooting photos. But I'm sure there are at least an equal number of ex-photographers who started their own business, hated it, and now work as software developers for a tech company.
Be aware that this might happen to you. But don't be sad if it does. Be happy that now you know; you gave it a shot and it wasn't for you. And perhaps you are more of a part time photographer (at least for now) than a full time photographer.
Starting your own business is difficult, exciting, challenging, frustrating, and rewarding. Anyone who either wants to make money with their camera or thinks they have what it takes to make money, should seriously consider looking into starting their own business. And for right now it doesn't have to be with the goal to quit the day job you hate. It can just be to make a few bucks on the side and learn a little about running a business.
I love having my own business and despites all the frustrations, set backs, and arguments I've had with it, I would do it all again. When people are on their death bed thinking back on their life I'm pretty sure no one has said, “I sure wish I never tried to follow my dreams.” Even if it doesn't work out, you can still say that you gave it a shot.
I hope I was able to help prepare you for what may be to come in your journey of starting your business. These are topics I rarely see talked about outside of a few short sentences in an obscure Facebook post. If you have any other examples of set backs you've seen in your journey of starting your business, please let us know about them below.
For more great advice about starting and running your photography business, check out these other articles on the Improve Photography Network:
How To Run a Photography Business and Balance a Day Job by Deb Mitzel
5 Tips for Running Your Photography Business Like a Business by Bryan Striegler
Start a Photography Business with No Start-Up Money by Aaron Taylor