As a small business owner, especially within the 1st year of staring out, things are constantly growing, changing, and evolving. I celebrate successes, lessons are learned from my mistakes, new discoveries are made, struggles are dealt with, and I’m learning new things every day regarding how to better my business. I’ve read (and continue to read!) many blogs, articles, etc. to get inspired and to learn how to run my business better. But the best way to learn most of the time is simply through trial-and-error.
I’m SO very excited to launch part one of my “First Year in Business” series!! This has been something that I’ve wanted to document for a few months now — not only as a personal journal for myself so I can look back, years from now, at how far I’ve come and the zillions of steps I took… but to also better educate my fellow Shoot & Share photographers that are just getting into the business (and/or other small business owners). As a disclaimer, of course this is not the only way to do things… every photographer’s “story” is different and every photographer has their own approach to running a business. That’s what makes each of us unique in our own way.
This series is going to tell my story and give tips along the way on what strategies have worked for me based on my personal experience. SO! Let’s get started! I figured the best place to start Part One of this series is featuring the basics for starting a business… Sorry in advance for the long post but it contains lots of helpful information 🙂
- Create a photography business plan. (These are important questions to ask yourself…)
- Company description — What do you do? How can your service benefit your clients? What are your needs? How is your business structured (Sole Proprietor, LLC, Corporation, etc.)? What are you selling? What is your story?
- Market research — What is trending right now? Where is there a need? How are you different? What do you bring to the table? What can you improve on? Who is your perfect client? How are you priced in the marketplace? Conduct a SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, & threats).
- Marketing strategy & planning — How are you going to promote your business? What different methods will you use and how will you manage them? What are the advertising opportunities? How will you attract clients?
- Set business goals.
- Choose your ideal client. Where will they be located? What is their style? What are their interests?
- Set revenue and schedule expectations. This can certainly vary depending on if you’re doing this part-time vs. full-time.
- Establish business accountability.
- Decide on a business name. When I first started brainstorming the idea of starting a photography business a few years ago I came up with the name “Denton Digitals” (my maiden name at the time). I wanted a name that was creative and catchy. Mistake #1. Although Denton Digitals had a fun and cute ring to it… it wasn’t clearly defined. It was a vague business name that didn’t tell my audience who I was. Then down the road I got married and re-visited my passion to start a photography business and wanted to re-launch my brand but I couldn’t stick with Denton Digitals… I decided to go with the obvious, Allison Shumate Photography. Not only does this business name now reflect who I am (my new married name!) but what I do. This is the very reason I chose to have my name IN my photography business name because there is no question as to who the photographer is. It may not have a sexy ring to it but at the end of the day I’m selling ME so I wanted my business name to reflect that. I wanted visitors on my website to not have any doubt who the person was behind the lens. (Also! I have an added bonus of not having to hassle with getting a trade mark for my business name because my first and last name are within my business name).
- Register a business name. You’ll want to consider how your business name will be used. Will your name be hard to find in a Google search? Is the domain name (website URL) you want available? Does another business have the same name already registered (do a Google search! Check Facebook!)? Is the name easy to remember? Does the name work well with a logo? I would highly recommend to develop a website — this will take your business to another level of professionalism and is a great way to showcase your portfolio, pricing, contact information, etc. (more on this later). If you haven’t already done so, stop what you’re doing, and create social media accounts for your business (Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter, Google+, YouTube, and Vimeo). Don’t spend hours designing them at first; the point is to secure your identity as quickly as possible. Get a business license (if you’re a sole proprietor, LLC, Corporation, etc.) — Register with your local and federal governments for tax, legal and communication purposes. The minute you start exchanging money for your services you need to protect yourself! You don’t want to run into a sticking situation where a client is suing you and/or IRS is knocking at your door… and you’re not licensed to do business in your state/county– YIKES!!
- Setup banking accounts, business insurance, and licenses. This step is quite a mouthful and I could talk for hours about this… the high level overview here is to open an account that is separate from your personal account. This is essential for proper organization so you can manage your finances and track where your money is going. Don’t forget to link your bank account to PayPal so you can easily accept online payments from your clients. Apply for a business credit card (and checking account) — no, not so you can purchase everything on your gear wish list at once and build a mountain of debt!! It’s always good to have one for investments, travel, etc. (only business related expenses) — be sure to get a credit card with bonus points to usage so you can start to rack up those rewards! Save those receipts and utilize www.Mint.com to track your finances — a huge lifesaver! Business insurance isn’t cheap but is an absolute necessity so you and your gear is protected. A business license is a legal requirement — the penalties for lacking a license are severe. Setup a record keeping system to stay organized.
- Sales tax. Once you file a business license with your county, you will have to start paying monthly income tax for the first year or so. If you’re a VA photographer, like me, we have to pay a sales tax even if we’re not selling products. I know… it’s not fun! Don’t believe me? Check it out here. By law we have to tax our time and services. So not only do you need to be paying income tax, you have to charge your clients a % of sales tax and file that monthly (for VA it’s 5.3%).
- Build your brand.
- Find your style. Jot down ideas about a style that fits you. What colors, patterns, and fonts do you like? A great way to do this is to start a Pinterest board of things you like — you’ll start to see a pattern and your brand will build itself in many ways. It’s very important to build a web presence when starting out a business so your potential clients know your legit and can see you work. I started out with a Facebook page since it’s so easy to quickly get your name out there and post some photos… but I wanted to take it a step further and create a website. It’s harder for potential clients to take you seriously if all you have is social media sites building your brand… you want to have a call-to-action for clients to connect with you. This doesn’t mean go out and spend thousands of dollars on a graphic designer. I wish it was that easy for me but with just starting out a small business I didn’t want to dig myself into a hole of debt. I also like the satisfaction of learning how to do things myself and take pride in a finished product. I did reach out to a graphic designer for my logo (via Etsy), however, I built a professional website on my own. It certainly didn’t happen overnight… it took MANY late nights to build what I envisioned for my website. Of course with being in my first year of business I’m constantly updating my web presence to the look and feel of my brand. Don’t forget to setup Google Analytics (it’s free) with your website and blog so you can track visitors!! Once you’ve got your brand setup… order those business cards!! It’s a great leave-behind for clients so they can refer more business your way!
- Build a portfolio. This is a representation of your current and best work that reflects you, your style, and talent. This should be minimal and concise (the best-of-the-best of your images) so your clients can get a snapshot of who you are. Don’t be afraid to reach out to friends and do a few sessions for free to build your portfolio at first, however, the kicker here is to treat them as if they are an actual client (give them the same experience as you would a real client so you can practice your approach). #1 – Your friends will always accept the offer for a free photo shoot. #2: This is a great way for you to get comfortable behind your lens and while directing poses. #3: Your friends will get great images (and if you mess up, no worries! It was a fun/free shoot!), you’ll get images for your portfolio, and your friends will likely spread the word to friends/family of your talent. Don’t forget to practice, practice, practice!!! Articles on how to shoot this or that are great! But the more experience you get behind your lens the better your portfolio will be. You’ll attract your ideal client through images that best represent your style.
- Make a marketing plan. Build your client list — treat each client like your ONLY client. When starting out, word-of-mouth referrals will be your best friend. Create a client workflow, an inquiry sheet, develop a client guide to give tips on what to wear/what your clients can expect, etc. Good marketing focuses on what your client needs (not what you need!).
- The power of social media. We live in a society today where everything is digital, faster, easier. Advertising is a great way to promote a small business, however, it can get costly! When first starting out a small business, take advantage of what is free and just as powerful. If you don’t already have a Facebook business page, stop what you’re doing, open a new tab in your internet browser, and create one. It takes merely seconds to do and you’ll instantly start creating buzz on your business. After client sessions, post images on your Facebook’s business page, tag your clients, share to your personal page, comment how much fun you had… build your buzz! Put yourself out there, take a chance, you have nothing to lose!
- Acquire the right tools.
- Again, this doesn’t mean to go out and buy all the gear that all the pro photogs have! A business can’t operate smoothly without the right tools and products in place. Some will improve the quality of your service; others will improve efficiency. Here is a list of suggestions for items that can help you and your photography business: DSLR camera, 50mm f/1.8 lens for portraits (you’ll thank me later!! It’s incredible for great bokeh and only $200!), speedlight flash, batteries and chargers, external hard drive (so you don’t clog up your laptop!), card readers, camera bag, computer for editing, editing software (Lightroom and Photoshop), web presence (I use Wix for my website and I have a ProPhoto blog), and marketing materials (business cards, notecards, etc.).
- Network! Network! Network!
- Get out there and make friends with those that share a common business interest with you. Luckily, if you’re a Shoot & Share photographer than you have SO many resources available to you and a huge community of photogs that want to help each other build their businesses. Join Facebook groups, invest in a workshop, go to socials, take a photographer that you look up to out for coffee/dinner/drinks to pick their brain.
Well, I hope this was helpful for some of you! I’ll continue to feature other segments for this series down the road. If there is something you’d like me to talk more about then leave a comment below.
I know it may seem overwhelming after reading this because there are a lot of initial steps that go into starting a business… but you can’t create a solid business overnight. It takes time, commitment, patience, and passion to keep going. Create your own story!