Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Did the Super Committee Really Fail?

Anyone who actually thought the Super Committee would succeed is a fool. I felt sorry for all 12 of those folks the minute they were named. They were nothing but the scapegoats sent to battle by their respective parties. A group of fully informed Uriahs. We were told they were empowered to make change. They were told that failure would not simply be failure to congress, but failure to country. This was their act of patriotism. Then they were hamstrung by the same ideological chains of party affiliation that have created dangerous deadlock in Washington in growing degrees over the last 20 years.

I’m no fan of the Occupy movement. To me it is a colossal waste of time and energy. How can a movement move with no direction? If it is not meant to move then what is it meant to be? It may as well be the “I’m mad” movement. I’d get that. A lot of people are mad. The “failure” of the super committee makes me mad too, but I’m not mad at them. Is it the bank’s fault? No. Is it “wall street’s” fault? No. Is it big business’s fault? No. Is it democrats’ fault? Maybe. Is it republicans’ fault? Maybe. Is the middle class subjected to an unfair burden? Absolutely. Do we need to do more for the working poor? No question about it.

The real challenge we are seeing all around us is actually a failure of leadership. Elected leaders are so afraid of their various empowering constituencies that they are unable to do what they know to be right. Business leaders have the same challenge. In a world with a 24 hour news feed and quarterly stock reports those who run big businesses are slave to immediacy. Anyone who steps up and calls for the kind of compromise necessary to create real change is drawn and quartered. In a world that refuses to listen reason dies. A western business leader who decides to invest in future growth risks termination when the quarterly reports show diminished profitability. A political leader who calls for compromise is called soft by the party leaders who fund television commercials and re-election campaigns.

The super committee was doomed from the start. It was an extraordinary diversion, cooked up by the president on one side and congressional leaders on the other. It’s sole purpose was to kick the can down the road. Let’s not decide now... We can decide then. It won’t be our fault it will be theirs. Only it’s not their fault. If I’d gotten the call to be on that committee I would have scheduled an immediate amputation and taken medical leave. Listen to the party leaders now... Want to know whose fault it really is? It is the leaders’ fault and it is our fault for funding institutions that demand that ideologies are more important than practicalities. Only we don’t really want to accept that.

If we go back and listen to the airwaves during the budget crisis that spawned the super committee we will hear exactly the same comments we are hearing today. “Less spending” on one side and “higher taxes” on the other. In reality they are both right, and interestingly, they both know they are right. We have to find ways to cut spending at all levels in government and if we want all of the programs that we have been so happy to have, then we need to be prepared to belly up and pay for them. The challenge for the ideologically blind is that that sounds r-e-a-s-o-n-a-b-l-e. Reason is scary.

I’m in the hated 1%. My family makes more than $250,000 per year. So are a lot of my friends. I’d hate to lose my write-offs for charitable contributions and for my Mortgage. Before I give up all that money I want to know that the money I’m paying for taxes is being appropriately spent. The fact is that I may not ever know if that is true. At the very least I want to know that the folks charged with spending it treat that privilege with honor. Right now I’m not sure it is. Perhaps I should start a movement. We’ll call it the “Shut Up and Do Your Jobs” movement. That has the handy acronym of SUADYG. Rhymes with sewage. That’s about right.

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Most Common Photographer Marketing Mistake

I am frequently asked to review photographer’s web sites. I always tell them that they should ask me with caution. I’ll tell you what I think. If you don’t want to hear don’t ask. Pretty simple. It’s a funny thing, but most photographers whose sites I review are actually pretty good. However, there is one big mistake that many make and it’s a simple and obvious one. Luckily its also easy to fix.

Your hero galleries suck.

OK. What is the hero gallery? It is the primary gallery or slideshow that loads on the home page. Common mistakes are too many images, too old images, images that aren’t that great, images that are too large or too small, images of irrelevant people, too many images of obvious models, etc. You’ve all seen them.

It matters. Here’s why. Almost anyone who is interested in your business will start their research on your web site. (read that carefully - I did not say, ‘on your blog’). Why? Because your web site IS your business online. Most consumers will only visit the blog after they’ve thoroughly reviewed the site. I’ve said it before but it’s a good rule of thumb, your web site is your living room and your blog is your family room. Important new visitors all go to the living room first.

When potential clients reach your site you want to greet them with the best possible message. Photographers spend an enormous amount of time figuring out every detail of the way their sites are organized. Colors, branding, text, type style, positioning, content allocation, everything gets viewed and reviewed almost ad infinitum. In many cases though the hero gallery is an afterthought. It shouldn’t be. It is the single most important element on your site.

Most consumers will actually sit through the whole slideshow before clicking through to a page. If it is their first visit (the most important one!) they have come to see your images. You want your very best right up front. Your VERY best. You also want to make sure that slideshow speaks for you. Here are some good rules to go by.

  1. You want your slideshow to draw people into your site, not overwhelm them.
  2. Stick to between 10 and 15 images, max.
  3. Make sure the very first image strongly represents the people you most like to shoot.
  4. Images of women should predominantly be beautiful.
  5. Images of men should predominantly be fun. (I’ll get into why in a minute).
  6. It is OK to intermingle genres so long as they’re in the same vane. (IE wedding and portrait). (Oh - I know I know - this is heresy. Consumers are evidently too stupid to figure out that you might shoot more than one kind of photography so you need separate sites and brands for each one ... OR ... these rules were made up by people who sell sites and branding and they just want you to buy more - you choose)....
  7. Images should not live on your home page for more than 6 months. (they should be fresh).
  8. Images should tell a story about your style and your business.

OK - A few examples.

If I were a wedding photographer my image order would be as follows: (Yes. Just one image for each number!)

  1. Bride Beautiful. The bride is your key decision maker and her biggest question is whether you will make her look beautiful. This should be your best picture of a bride, period, and she better be beautiful!
  2. Groom Fun. The bride cares about beautiful. The groom cares about whether you are going to be a pain in the ass. (sorry - business term there). The bride is worried about what her man is going to think too, so this image is communicating with both of them.
  3. Parents, emotion. Once the bride and groom are comfortable you want to talk with the person who is going to pay the bills. Parents want to be sure that you will capture the important moments of the day. A great image in this category is the Father/Daughter dance.
  4. A great group shot. No one likes to take them. Some photographers are lucky enough to have businesses that don’t require them. However, if there is any question, it’s a great idea to have a great group shot in the hero gallery. It shows your versatility as a photographer.
  5. A great shot of the whole wedding.
  6. A great detail shot.
  7. A great venue shot. (of the venue you most love to shoot in).
  8. A great reception shot.
  9. A great leaving shot.
  10. A great, the parents at the end of the evening, shot.

That’s it. 10 Pictures. Once they’ve seen them I want them to jump in to my more specific galleries. Every one of these images should be gallery quality beautiful. Tack sharp where they’re sharp, soft and sweet where bokeh rules. Perfect whites and balance and perfect framing. Nothing is thrown in just so it’s there.

The other galleries should be arranged in the same way. Never more or less than 10 images. Just enough to give people a taste of what you are communicating.

For portrait shooters I’d actually think the same way. A great hero/anchor image of the person who is the archetype for the clients I most like to shoot. A great shot of my client laughing and a great shot of an important moment. Then I would think about studio, indoors and outdoors. Show the range of light and your command of different textures. Make sure every single image absolutely rocks. Change them out at least every six months.

I think the most common mistake is simply too many pictures. Many times we’re the worst curators of our own work. You want your images to speak to the viewer about your skill, capabilities, style and vision. That will communicate more clearly with them than perhaps any other element on the site.

“Advanced Reading...”

If it were me and I was in this business, I would have printed and mounted copies of each of the first five images with me when I meet with my clients. I would actually hand them the images and tell them the story of the people in the images. These would be signed prints, not an i-device. That’s because the kind of client I would want to attract would be a client who values the art of photography. I would want to make sure they understood that I was an artist who make perfect brushstrokes of their special moments. The stories of the people in the images will remind them of the galleries they’ve already visited and provides an important touchpoint in which I make clear my ability to connect with my clients not just through my lens, but in a personal way as well. (Again, because these are the kinds of clients I would want to serve)...

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Embracing Change. Still waters are dead waters...

Still Water is Dead Water ...

We all fear change. Even those who embrace change do so with a kind of devil-may-care perspective that suggests they conquer natural fear rather than find themselves impervious to it. Change takes us from what is known to what it unknown. It is natural to want to resist it.

The challenge this creates is that change is a hallmark of life. In a very real sense, if we stop changing we die. In fact, the healthiest people, and the healthiest organizations actually seek out ways to change. They understand that all things are in a continuous evolutionary process and that the best way to succeed over the long haul is by not simply embracing change, but by planning for and strategically executing change as a fundamental element of the lives we lead.

So what? I think it is interesting that most businesses that fail fail because they fail to change. The marketplace moves on. Whether we like it or not, consumer preferences change. The most successful businesses anticipate change and work to stay ahead. Some stunningly successful businesses do a phenomenal job of simply following. The businesses that die are the ones that believe that just because this year was successful next year will be too. They are the businesses that think that this year’s accolades automatically translate to next year’s success. And - they are the ones who criticize the changing marketplace (usually because they understand that the change they see means they’re already behind, the world has moved on without them.)

Here’s the challenge of this post for anyone who wants to take it up... What will be different about your business next year than this year? What new product will you launch? What new market will you enter? What new technique will you try? If you listen well to your customers they will take you there. They’ll tell you what they want. Be smart about it. Putting things in a well defined, “idea” bucket and letting them succeed or fail based on customer demand is a good idea. Putting all of your eggs behind the new initiative is a bad idea.

But here’s the other idea. Change isn’t always adding something. Change is sometimes taking something away. A restaurant I know well has this challenge. They’ve been really hurt by the economy. They’re hanging in there, but barely. I talked to the owner a while ago and asked him why he continues to offer so broad a menu. I know it’s costly and there is a lot of waste. His answer was that he doesn’t want to remove things from the menu for fear that an old customer will come and want that particular dish. No business can actually do all things all the time. All businesses have to hone and focus their efforts on the things they do best that intersect best with what their customers want. Sometimes the hardest part of change then is not doing a new thing, but stopping an old thing.

I’ve been white water rafting a few times. I’ll be honest and say that I’m not a huge fan. The rivers scare me. I have tremendous respect for the power of water. When you ride the raft down the river there is a process of frenzied activity - when you’re in the rapids - followed by periods of rest. At times you “eddy out.” Purposefully pull the raft into the still shallows so the guides can survey and plan for a rapid ahead. I have to admit that in those times I wish that we could just stay in the peaceful eddy. We can’t though. If we did we would never get to where we want to go. And so, when the moment comes that we must turn the nose of the boat back into the white water I pull with all of my might. We have a plan. There will be unknowns but working together we can deal with them. When we get through we will feel the rush of satisfaction.

The same is true in business...

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The One Secret to Professional Photography Success

I was in a discussion with some folks the other day about why some photographers succeed and so many others fail. These people mentioned a series of things. Business acumen, economics, etc. I was mostly listening. It’s a subject that is near and dear to my heart since Pictage’s mission is to help professional photographers succeed in as many ways as we can. When I got home I did an admittedly unscientific survey of photographers who’ve emailed me or messaged me through the forums. I looked at sites of photographers I know are doing well. I looked at sites of photographers who are hurting.

These results aren’t universal. There are exceptions to every rule. If you’ve contacted me for help and you think I’m writing this just about you, I’m not. If it hurts do something about it. If it doesn’t this either isn’t a problem for you or you will also fail. That’s ok. 72% of the photographers who start this year will be out of business within two years.

Here’s what I found... earth shattering I know...

Successful photographers take great pictures.

It’s funny, right? And it should be obvious. It’s not though. Sadly. So much time and energy is spent on so many other things. But the most powerful determiner of success is the quality of the images you shoot. Period. Full stop.

Think about it. Do you worry that other photographers might be better? Do you worry about Uncle Bob or Cousin Kerry? Do you know that every time you go out to shoot, no matter what you are going to face, that you’re going to get great images for your clients? If you worry about any of these things then stop worrying about branding, marketing, etc. and go out and learn how to make great images. It is the most important thing you can do as a photographer.

I thought this was awfully simplistic. But when I went back and went through the sites again there was a common theme in what I saw, (at least in what I could see online). Very few of the images really “popped.” They were all good. I just can’t say that I think they were great. I get that this is pretty subjective, but I think it’s important to understand that the client is being subjective too. The client’s measure of great is a wholly subjective measure. Do I feel like I look great?

What defines a great image? Great emotion. Great light. Great settings. An understanding of the power of depth of field. A fearlessness about light and dark. An understanding of the power of natural light. An understanding of the purposes and proper use of augmented light. An understanding of the proper use of the various lens focal lengths and their impact on a subject. It is important to understand that an automatic camera doesn’t actually know any of these things. It is programmed for safe and average. It is not programmed for spectacular.

A modern automatic camera can take solid pictures without much knowledge. That scares a lot of photographers and, quite frankly, it shouldn’t. Clients don’t hire professionals for solid. They hire professionals for excellent. They know their foibles. They’ve seen decent pictures of themselves. What they want from you is nothing short of greatness. That’s why they’re hiring you. Can you deliver? If you do they will hire you again (in a heartbeat) and they will tell all of their friends about you. (probably “steal” a few pictures and put them on FaceBook too!). Conversely, if they feel the job you do is just good enough they’ll likely more or less bury the images away and move on. You’ll never hear from them again.

Great photographers know how to work within a setting to capture what is happening in a way that will translate powerfully to a captured image. If they are shooting a live event like a wedding, bar mitzvah or even a kids T-ball game they understand light and angle and they know the capabilities (and drawbacks) of their equipment. In a portrait situation a great photographer can make a mundane setting extraordinary. They have taught themselves to see light differently. When their clients see their images they will say, “I never would have seen this this way” and they will mean it.

Great photographers also understand that post production is like the seasoning at the end of the cooking process. It’s that last touch of salt, sweetness or acidity that gets the balance just right before the dish is served. It is not the core ingredient. While it is true that the modern professional cameras, capturing images in RAW format provide extremely forgiving latitude, nothing can make up for a bad shooting angle, missed focus or the wrong equipment. As a rule, if you spend more time editing than you do shooting then you may want to brush up your camera skills. (because all of that editing time costs you a lot of money -whether in out of pocket cash or in time).

The business of professional photography is first and foremost the business of taking great pictures. Everything else is secondary. Lots of other things may have an impact on how successful you become, but nothing has anything like the impact of a great image. If that’s not in your repertoire, it’s time to get to work.

Here’s the thing. Being a great photographer is not the only measure of success. Once you’ve nailed great image capture down marketing, connecting with your clients, staying ahead of product trends, etc., are all important. I’ll talk through a few of those in the coming weeks. It’s just that it all starts here and when you think about it that makes sense.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Why Does it Cost So Much. A public service for professional photographers.

These days there is a lot of confusion with regard to consumer preferences for digital file vs printed product distribution. The good news, and the reason I’m not going to address that here, is that both markets are actually growing quite dramatically. (with specialty printed photo products growing at a rate of over 40% per year).

So this isn’t a discussion of whether people want digital or print, it’s just a public service for professional photographers whose clients clearly want prints, but who want them cheap.

I’ve written this specifically so that you can use it whether you are a Pictage client or not. If not, simply replace Pictage with the name of your lab or your site if you’re using another proofing and purchasing environment. (and ask yourself why they don’t do this kind of thing for you!)... You can also replace Canvas Prints with Photographic Prints, etc. I’ll write a separate version for Photographic Albums.

Go ahead - use this. Just copy and paste it. It will make your life easier. Ultimately, that’s what I’m here for.

What to do when your client says, “I just want to print it myself.”

Hey, I got your note. I'd love to send you the digital file but I think there is a misunderstanding with regard to pricing that I'd like to clear up. If I send you the file the cost is likely to be pretty close to the difference between a discount canvas printer and the pricing you see on Pictage (my site). Here's why. The price on Pictage includes a series of prep and editing fees that go into preparing the image to be printed on a format as large as a canvas. I do some of these and Pictage actually does a bunch too. If the file is to be printed by another vendor I still have to do my steps, but I can't guarantee that the image is going to look the way it does when you see it on your computer.

Most people have a hard time understanding this so I'll explain. A printer is not a printer. Printers are calibrated to monitors, etc. Consumer grade canvas manufacturers gear their printers to consumer grade images. Consumers make a lot of photographic mistakes (no offense!) so the printers are designed to even things out. They reduce contrast and saturation, etc. in effect, making the images dull.

I've actually worked with Pictage to calibrate my monitor at home to their printing process and this extends to their canvases. I use them because I know that what I see is what I'm going to see when the orders come back. They do a bunch of other stuff too, like ensure the canvases are properly treated to be resistant to light damage, beefed up frame construction, including all of the hanging hardware, making sure the canvas ships ready to hang, etc.

I hope that helps ... Like I said, if you still want me to provide the digital file for your use in printing one canvas I can, I just wanted to make sure you understood that you probably won't end up actually saving any money. (and if you do you might be sorry!)

Your helpful photographer.

Now, there is some discussion around why you would even want to do this. There are two answers. And again, this is for all photographers whether you use Pictage or not. The first is that for any professional photographer the sale of products related to their photography is an extremely important revenue stream. In fact, most estimates suggest that as much as 1/3 of a studio’s revenue must come from the sale of products in order for the studio to be successful. (there are always outliers, but this is based on the industry average fee structure). So learning to sell these products is important.

Second. The fact is that your client is likely to go ahead and print some of the images you provide to them digitally. They do this because one of the biggest challenges consumers face today is the understanding that it is far too easy to lose track of all the content they have on their computers, etc. They certainly don’t want every image printed (as a rule), but they want the best ones. That’s why the specialty photo products market is growing so fast. When they print through their local cheap printer, the same image compression occurs and it is not uncommon at all for the images to look dull. If that’s the way you want them to see your work, no worries. If not, then this is helpful.

It is here that a professional photographer must make a choice and a lot of it is client dependent. Do you want to provide the service of creating those products or do you want to leave your clients to do it for themselves. If you choose the first path you must learn to sell these products. If you choose the second path you need to make sure you have enough shooting opportunities to fill in for the lost revenue.

The choice is obviously ultimately yours. I just know that professionals are frequently asked why professionally fulfilled products cost a lot in comparison to consumer products and that having the answer above in your hip pocket will be helpful when the time comes.

Tomorrow I’ll create a different version of the response specifically for photographic albums. That one will be generic too ... Cut and paste away.

Monday, September 26, 2011

The lesson of Moneyball

The Lesson of Moneyball...

I read the book when it came out. I didn’t read it because anyone said it was good. I didn’t read it because I thought it would be particularly interesting. I read it because I was flying home from Florida and I didn’t have a book and it was the only one I saw on the non-fiction rack at the airport bookstore that looked remotely interesting. I read the whole thing that night on the plane. It changed the way I think. I saw the movie this weekend and it did the same thing all over. Here’s why.

For those who haven’t read the book or seen the movie the story of Moneyball is pretty simple. Billy Beane is the coach of the small market Oakland A’s. He’s tasked with fielding a team that is competitive in spite of a payroll that is a fraction of his competition’s. His scouts and advisors try to do it the old fashioned way and he knows it won’t work. In a chance meeting with Peter Brand, he discovers a new way.

The story isn’t really about baseball. It is about taking chances. It is about knocking over the apple cart to see if there isn’t a better way to stack the fruit. It is about trying to understand the real cause and effect relationships that make the difference between success and failure and then when you discover they’re different than you or anyone else thought they were, it is about having the courage of your convictions.

The hardest part of this for any business, large or small, is deciding to try to look at the business and its key drivers in a new way. There is a great line in the movie when Beane asks Peter Brand (his out of the box thinking advisor and assistant GM) what he is doing that is so different. Brand says, ‘you guys spend all your time trying to draft players, I think you should be drafting wins.’ It turns out he’s right and when they adopt this method and make the hard decisions about fielding the team accordingly they start to win.

Spoiler alert, if you want to see the picture and you haven’t seen it yet stop reading here...

The team wins 20 in a row. They become the first major league team to do so. Then they lose in the playoffs to the Twins. There are two ways to measure success. There is the ultimate success, a world series win, wealth beyond your wildest dreams, etc. Then there is practical success. In the world of major league baseball the simple fact is that the team with the most talent in all areas is likely to win. They have to put it all together and there are a lot of variables but at some point the math just works that way. So are Beane and Brand failures because the A’s are eliminated in the ALCS playoffs? No. The fact is they should never have gotten to the playoffs at all. To get there they had to beat teams with payrolls many times their size. For the A’s success is a competitive season, not a World Series ring.

You have to measure success the same way in your market and if you are unhappy with what you can potentially achieve, then you have to change your market altogether. That’s a story for another day. From this story the big question is, are you asking the right questions? Are you sure?

Onward ...

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Your Logo Doesn't Matter

Your Logo Doesn’t Matter

Joe Buissink and I are doing a series of seminars (they’re free by the way which is, I think, the right price to hear me but a bargain to hear Joe!) around the country. Joe spends the first hour and 45 minutes (It’s supposed to be an hour and 15 but I never really care. I never get tired of looking at his incredible stuff!) talking about art. I spend the last 15-20 minutes talking about business. People who’ve come seem to be enjoying it and we get a lot of questions afterwards. Many of the questions I get have to do with a slide in my deck entitled, “Your Logo Doesn’t Matter.”

It doesn’t. Or it doesn’t as much as you might think it does. Here’s why that is true. You will never win a client because you have a great logo. Period. No one is going to sign up with you simply because they like the really cool custom typeface or your particular shade of celadon. I know. Shocker. What amazes me is how often I am asked what I think of a particular logo and the amount of time and energy someone may be putting into it.

I call that “Logo Myopia.” Typically you are a victim of Logo Myopia when during the scope of a rebranding exercise you find that you have become completely fixated on the logo. Typical symptoms include dreaming of logo variations, incessant logo doodling, hiring yet another designer because the last 9 didn’t quite come up with exactly what you were looking for, posting your logo to online photographer forums to hear what other photographers think about your logo (a good idea if you are targeting photographers!), etc. Go ahead and take a second and wipe the sweat off of your brow. We’ve all been there. I know about this syndrome because I’ve been it’s victim. It’s almost like you’ve got these blinders on and all you can see is the logo. Oh my God! I’ve got to have the best Logo! AAAAAHHHHHHH!!!!!

Take a minute and breathe. There’s hope. Here’s the thing. It’s true. A great logo, no matter how great it may be, will never get clients to come to you. To be sure. Your logo should fit your brand. It should essentially say something positive at a glance. But that’s about it.

Now. There is one final thing about logos that is important, especially to my many photographer readers. While a great logo will never win you a client, a bad logo will most certainly lose you some. So if your logo sucks you need to sweat it a little. Just don’t let myopia set in.


Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Never lose a client to politics or religion. (unless you want to)...

Yesterday I posted this statement on Twitter: Politics and Religion are the two worst reasons to lose a client. I inadvertently touched off some controversy. (funny how a post that was designed to discourage controversy could do so!) People feel passionately about these things, so I guess I’m not all that surprised. Rather than try to have the discussion in 20 words or less, I’m posting some thoughts here with the knowledge that many may want to weigh in with their own.

First off. Let’s review the statement. Considerate a postulate. (the kernal for a debate). The statement was: Politics and Religion are the two worst reasons to lose a client. Let’s take that apart a little...

I did not say that politics and religion are the dumbest ways to lose a client. There are, without a doubt, many dumber ways. Bad customer service, failing to listen and react to what your clients are telling you (and not telling you). Bad business practices, etc. These are all dumb. However, most smart people avoid these methods for losing customers. It is when our passions engage that we sometimes do things we don’t mean. Like giving people with different passions the impression that we don’t want to serve them because they don’t look or act or think (or worship) like us.

There are people for whom this is not true. There are people who actually think they are right and frankly they may be. These people seem to want to convince the world of their rightness, either so they can convince the world to go their way or just because it feels good to be right. I’m neither that smart nor that solid in my personal convictions. I guess I’ve decided that it’s more important for me to just be the best me that I can be and let others do that too. It is not for me to wag my finger and say they’re wrong. There are lots of folks who seem perfectly ready to step into that role.

Understand also that this does not apply to legalities. When preference crosses a line of legality it is for any contributing member of a society to step up and say, hey, that’s wrong. But when that line is the grayer line of religion or the extremely murky and highly polarized world of politics, I simply prefer to leave the argument to others.

So for me, Politics and Religion are the worst reasons to lose a customer. I don’t feel that I am superior to someone who chooses to believe different things. Therefore I don’t feel that someone who chooses to believe different things is inferior. Why then would I want to put something out there that causes someone to be uncomfortable with doing business with me because their convictions and mine may not line up? Isn’t it better to serve them as a client, treating them with respect and dignity, then to attack something about which they may feel passion? In attacking the thing it is far too easy for the person themselves to feel attacked and it is then that it is likely that any chance for a client relationship is severed.

It is true that politics and religion are about principles. There are those who seem to stand very firmly on their own. I actually do too. It’s just that one of my principles is a deep respect for the sanctity of each person’s experience and the knowledge that finding one’s way is hard enough. I would much rather help those who need it by setting an example through who I am then try to do so through words and phrases born in byte sized chunks over the ether.

So that’s what I was trying to say... I know there are those who feel much differently. I respect that too. If you want to lose clients because of your passions about politics and religion (“if they don’t think the way I think I don’t want to serve them”) more power to you. In that case, then for you politics and religion definitely wouldn’t be the worst reasons to lose a client...

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Marketing isn't hard. We Just Make it Hard.

“Hey Jim. I’m wondering if I can ask your opinion on something?” I get these emails all the time. The most common questions I’m asked? “What do you think of my pricing” and, “How do you feel about my (insert one here) logo, branding, new site, etc...

There are two things that I tell everyone. Number one... Never ask my opinion on something if you don’t want the truth. My friends tell me I should come with warning flags. It’s true. I should. If you ask me what I think and I think something is bad I’ll tell you that. That’s the first thing I say. Here’s the second.

What I think doesn’t really matter all that much. Why? Well unless your optimal client is a 40 something year old, bald, slightly overweight, harried executive who drives a Ford Pickup Truck, is married, has two boys, one in high school and one entering college, who rarely shops, is obsessed with camera equipment but not many other electronics and who spends about 50% of his life on planes and in hotel rooms, my preferences about your branding, pricing and logo aren’t going to do you much good. Frankly, neither will any of the other photo “gurus” who make at least part of a living giving advice to other photographers.

Here’s a better idea. It’s a piece of paper exercise. A sit down with a cup of coffee and an actual piece of paper and a little time exercise. A close your eyes and dream a little exercise.

I want you to think of your ideal client. Form a picture of that client in your mind. Think a little about who they are. This is the client you most want to serve... Now, on your piece of paper write down ten specific traits about this client. Ten things that define who they are.

Here’s an example: “Mom, between 25 & 35, married, works part time, loves her kids, drives carpool, shops at target, listens to hip hop (when no one is looking), is comfortable in her own skin, reads mystery books.” Now give her (or him) a name.

Here’s a little known fact. There is no person named Tommy Bahama. He’s a persona. He’s the outgrowth of a much more detailed exercise just like the one above. Every decision the successful retailer makes is vetted by Tommy. “What would Tommy think?”

Once you’ve picked out your ten traits, think of a few clients who match those traits and make them your own personal captive focus group. When you want to make changes, etc., email them and ask what they think. Their opinion is much more valuable than mine.

Take that piece of paper and pin it up wherever you work. Any time you are working on something related to marketing, take a moment and read those traits again and ask him or her in your mind what you should do. You’ll be surprised how much clarity this will bring in your business decisions!

In the next couple of days we’ll talk about Logo Myopia and a series of other challenges small businesses face. Marketing isn’t hard. We just make it hard.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

In Business Strive for Clarity. You'll Sleep Better

If you strive for clarity in business everything else is easier.

I get a lot of calls and emails from photographers. I don’t mind that. I actually like the sort of constant window into this world that these communications provide. Through them I am aware of the challenges you face and also the victories. Most often though, when someone is emailing me it is about the challenges and a surprising number of these essentially boil down to a lack of clarity. Here’s what I mean...

“Hey Jim, I have this frustrating situation that came up with a client. They hired me for a package that had 4 hours of coverage. They ran behind all day. I ended up being there for six hours. I sent them my bill and they don’t want to pay for the extra two hours. What do I do?”

That one’s pretty basic, right? I asked him to send me a copy of his contract. The contract clearly states that the package includes 4 hours of coverage. It also clearly states that the photographer will try to get all of the important pictures to tell the story, including leaving the reception. It does not state that extra coverage will be billed at $XXX per hour. When I asked the photographer about that he said that was because clients kept multiplying his hourly rate by four and wondering why the basic package cost so much more. Ugh.

In this case I told him that he needed to wave the extra two hours, make sure the client was happy (for referrals), put the clause back in his contract and move on. Lesson learned.

The thing is that I see these things all the time. Second shooters feel slighted when they don’t get to use images on their sites or aren’t paid for setup, travel, etc. Principle photographers get angry at second shooters who do the same things in reverse. Clients get angry with photographers who “nickel and dime” them.

Here’s the thing. None of these issues would ever come up with the business relationships between the various parties were completely clear. There are so many things we choose not to talk about because talking about them makes us uncomfortable. (Especially where money is concerned). But these are the things that we MUST talk about in order to make sure the terms of any deal are crystal clear to both sides.

Here are my suggestions: Pricing. Write it down and send it to them. Have a printed price list that clearly shows everything. Send it via email and the first time you meet with them hand it to them in hard copy. Feel like overkill? Well, the first time you get into a discussion of, “we didn’t know you charged extra for that..” you can point them to the price lists that you both emailed (resend the original email since you are keeping all of the correspondence with this client in a separate folder and it will be easy). Make your, “Oh silly, of course you did” conversation as easy breezy as possible.

Working with vendors, contractors. Have a standard agreement and make sure you use it, every time. Even if it’s a ‘friend.’ (Especially if it’s a friend). Use the same email, hard copy method with working with these folks.

Every time there is a dispute about anything, make a mental note to modify your contract to handle that issue. Sometimes that’s just another point within an existing clause and sometimes it’s a couple of new paragraphs.

Using this simple approach will mean that over time you’re covered and the clarity in your business relationships will lead to mess disputes and a better night’s sleep.

And that’s worth a little work, isn’t it?

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Why Branding DOES Matter. And what Branding really is.

If every client engagement comes down to a fight around your pricing and a desire to discount there is something wrong with your branding.

Take a second and reread that. It’s true.

‘Wait,’ you’re thinking. ‘You always say my logo doesn’t matter.’ That’s right. It doesn’t. So long as it is remotely presentable your logo doesn’t matter one tiny little bit. But I’ll reiterate, if your clients are constantly looking for lower pricing there is something wrong with your branding.

How are those two statements compatible? They are compatible because your logo is only an extension of your brand (and by comparison, an unimportant one). Here’s what I’m getting at.

In the highly projective world of internet communication, your brand is everything you are. It is not your logo. It is not your colors or your cool custom font that you developed that too truly just reflects you. It is these things PLUS everything else you have out there and every touch point in your business. It is your packaging, your pricing, your voicemail message, everything.

And most importantly it is what these things communicate about you to the people who may be interested in contracting you as a photographer. And it is your products.

What do I mean by all of this? Here’s the thing. If there is nothing that someone can only get from you, then anything that you sell can be found somewhere else. Wait, you say, my clients can only get ME from ME. I get that. And the funny hats and glasses and custom designed T-shirts, and all of the other stuff certainly set you apart. But you must understand that to a client that may not be enough. You’re just one highly stylized photographer among a herd of highly stylized photographers.

Ask yourself this question. Besides you, what ONE thing can a client get from you that they can’t get from anyone else? What thing can they NAME that they can get from you that they can’t get from anyone else? When they want to justify spending the extra money what are they going to say?

‘Well, I like soandso, she has a shoot fee and an album and a book and she has online proofing and we can get big prints or canvases to go over the couch. And all of that comes in the middle package that we can get for $5000.

‘Well I like soandso, he has a shoot fee and an album and a book and he has online proofing and we can get big prints or canvases to go over the couch. And all of that comes in the middle package that we can get for $4000.

See what I mean? Sometimes I think we spend so much time on the veritable window dressing of most branding exercises that we forget that it’s what’s written on the pages that will be most important.

Take some time and go out and come up with three things that you can incorporate into your business that are uniquely you. Name them as such. I am not necessarily talking about physical product, but I am talking about something your clients will name and say, “I like soandso, she’s the only person who can provide “nameofthingIloveandwantnomatterwhat.” I don’t care if it costs us an extra $1000. I want that.

When you do that all of the other stuff will fall into place ...



Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Pricing. Understanding your Clients’ Quantitative/Qualitative Decision Points.

“In the last month I’ve talked with five potential clients and not one has booked me. I got an email from the last one saying my pricing was just more than they wanted to spend. Do I need to lower my pricing?”

I get an email like this at least once a week. Pricing seems like the first place everyone goes. I get that. It’s scary. However, it is important to understand that a client’s decision points are based on a continuum of quantitative (or objective) and qualitative (or subjective) impressions. Whether you get the business will depend on how much your qualitative impressions skew the quantitative. This is true for all luxury product purchases (and if you’re reading this you sell a luxury - non necessity - product).

Here’s a worthwhile exercise. Take out a piece of paper. (If you’re concerned about the environment turn over a piece you’re already using- you’re only going to use one - it’s worth it - I promise). Draw a two sided arrow horizontally through the middle of the page. On the left side write, “Quant.” On the right side write, “Qual.” Pricing sits at the end of the Quant side, and Art sits at the end of the qual side. Lots of other things sit in between. It may help to think of it as a scale. Draw a triangle underneath it and see it as a balance that you have to influence in order to get the deal.

It is important to understand that the Quant side has a series of things that are related to you and a series of things that are not. You control your pricing and packages. However, you do not control the other factors. These are things like budget, other obligations, etc. related to the event or session, but they are also things like gas prices, consumer confidence, etc. that we hear about on the news and don’t think apply to us - at least directly. All of these things, and their relative impact on your prospect or client are “weights” on the quantitative side of that continuum.

Whether these issues has an impact on your client will depend on two things, one is quantitative and one is qualitative. The quantitative thing is what percentage of a person’s view of their financial capabilities is this event going to cost? Speaking plainly, is the person wealthy and not miserly? If so, then the issues that have an impact on most people are not going to influence them. The weight on that side is not as much of a burden. (Though it is always a mistake to assume it is not a burden at all).

The qualitative measure is essentially the value the client assigns to the various components in your package. Do they like you? Plus one on the qual side. Do they like your samples? Plus one on the qual side. Do you have something in your package that they LOVE that they can’t get anywhere else? Plus two or three on the qual side.

That last one is so important. Even if that ‘thing’ is essentially just the combination of you and your products and their perceived experience, it is the thing that will make the difference between someone making their decision solely on the quantitative aspects of the decision and being willing to throw those away because they simply must ‘have’ you.

There’s an easy way to know if you have a problem with this. If every prospect comes back and wants a discount and the only ones you are signing are the ones you give the discount then you are not establishing enough qualitative reasons why the client should use you. Tomorrow we’ll dig a little deeper into the things you can do on the qualitative side to make a difference. Until then, draw this little diagram for every prospect you’re currently speaking with. Figure out what their weighting is and then see if there are things you can put on the other side of the scale that might drive it in your favor.

Lower your pricing may be necessary, but it should never be your first decision. It is always your last.



Friday, April 22, 2011

Why I do what I do... And some personal musings -

My morning routine is a little different than most people. I’m up around 5. I eat breakfast at home (a scramble of eggs, black beans, chicken, fresh tomatoes and spinach). Oh! Wait! Major tangent here ...

A little over a month ago, inspired by Kevin Swan, Chris Becker (who I actually think I’m supposed to call just “Becker” but that seems really strange to me so I’m going to keep calling him this if he doesn’t mind too much - which he actually may.. so hmmmm ... ok, seems really weird but - er) “Becker,” and a few others in the photography business as well as by the fact that I serve a world of professional photographers who insist on taking pictures of my fat self everywhere I go, I decided to try out the 4 Hour Diet. I had read the book and talked with some friends who know about such things as nutritional science and with their blessing and the promise that I could lose 20 pounds in 30 days and if I was willing to alter my lifestyle and eating choices in some very manageable ways, not only would I continue to lose weight but I would also keep it off, I set off. (that sentence is positively Faulkner-Esque!) Well, 32 or so days later I am more than 20 pounds lighter. I feel great. I am still fat in my own eyes (the only ones that count) but 200 lbs is in sight and my weekend bike rides are more fun already. So thanks Kevin and, er (still feels weird but I’ll get used to it I guess), “Becker” for showing the way...

Ok, tangent over.

Like I said, my morning routine is a little different. I eat breakfast out of a cup in my truck on my way to the gym. (I know - it’s not safe - yada yada - write the NTSB about it - there are exactly 12 other people on the road at that time and they all know to watch out for the semi erratic Ford F150 weaving its way down the road). It’s about a 35 minute drive. I get caught up on the major news stories (KNX Newsradio here in Los Angeles is an excellent source - though I have to confess I don’t like morning anchor Dick Helton’s style all that much) and listen to some country radio. Once at the gym I “ride” (I guess that’s the right verb) the elliptical trainer for about 45 minutes, stretch, do sit ups (which I hate but which are good for my terminally bad back), and then shower, change and stop by Starbucks for my Venti Pikes, no room, no sugar, before getting to the office, most days these days, around 7.

That may be TMI. I dunno. It’s what I do. The reason I got to thinking about it is because all of this time gives me a lot of time to think. And when I have a lot of time to think I spend most of that time thinking about my clients (all, I-don’t-know-how-many thousand of you). Some days I think about all of the ways I/we suck. Some days I am frustrated that there are many ways that we no longer suck that don’t seem to make a difference. Some days I think about all of the ways you suck. (oops! am I supposed to say that out loud?) But frankly most days I find myself falling into a kind of mental retrospective of inspiration.

One month in to my first year at Pictage (which was exactly two years ago today, give or take a day) someone asked me what I like the most about my job. It was a challenge then and much bigger challenges loomed to be sure. But the reason my friend had asked the question was because he’d seen a change. I was happier. I liked work. I didn’t even mind taking the brunt of so many frustrated customers (frustrated about stuff that happened long before I got here and frustrated about stuff that was still happening). What was it about this job that made me happy?

The answer then and now is an easy one. I love serving professional photographers. Now don’t worry. I’m not going to go all sappy motivational speaker on you. But it’s true. I love what you all do. I am amazed at your vision and your craft. I am amazed at your willingness to give of your time and talent. As a long time blundering student of photography myself, I know how hard many of the things you do actually are. I wish I could do them myself. Some of you have had the time and patience to try to teach me and that’s been great.

Here’s my thought for a (Good) Friday. Keep it up. Don’t get distracted by the storms. That’s such a time suck. We’ll make a deal. You keep pushing and I will too. There are a whole series of pretty amazing things getting ready to jump out of your grandmother’s old Pictage. Most of these will launch in May. What’s going to launch in your business? Why will you be different in June than you were in April? Never stop. What’s next is what’s important.


Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Getting Through to Tomorrow.

A little while ago I published a post on the Pictage forums about trying to look up. I wasn’t really shaking my finger or anything like that, but I wanted to point out that the flow of conversation had really begun to focus on the negative. I’m not a hugely positive person. I’m not prone to seeing the glass as half full. Most of the time for me the glass can be overflowing and I’ll be griping about the waste or predicting where the glass is going to fail, when, and why. It’s in my wiring. When I let that side of me get a grip it slows me down.

I use words like ‘onward,’ and phrases like “what’s next is what’s important” as reminders, as much to myself as to my readers that I need to keep my head up. Forget about criticizing what is so much and focus on the things I need to do to be successful. I have a whole group of people who I’ve surrounded myself with who are extremely good at telling me all of the different ways I suck. An even larger group of folks is really good at telling me how my company sucks. (this group is startlingly large! I’m lucky I’m ambitious and probably a little overconfident!) Fixing these things is my priority. The time I spend griping about these things is wasted.

In response to my thread, Elizabeth Myer, a Raleigh, North Carolina photographer and frequent forum contributer posted this beautiful story...

One evening, an old Cherokee told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people. He said the battle is between two wolves inside us all.

One is Evil. It is anger, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride and ego.

One is Good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, generosity, truth, compassion, benevolence and faith.

The boy thought about it for a moment and asked his grandfather, "Which wolf wins the battle?"

The wise old Cherokee simply replied, "The one you feed."

I’ve since heard this story in a couple of different settings, but the moral is always the same. Which side of the battle are you feeding?

A pretty interesting thought for a Wednesday.


Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Exit Strategy - Long term thoughts in a here today, gone tomorrow world.

Exit Strategy ... Such Big Words I’m Hearing Lately!

It’s funny. My world tends to be a largely financial world that sometimes intersects with photography. (I wish it intersected more but I can’t control that!) I forget that the marketplace I serve - a marketplace of professional photographers - is propagated by business people who focus on photography, but who must, on a fairly regular basis, intersect with a world of business and finance. It simply slips my mind.

Every once in a while though it comes crashing through, as it did the other day when I was in a conversation with a photographer who asked me what I thought her exit strategy should be. Huh? Your ‘exit strategy?’ It was kind of funny really. Two things crossed my mind almost simultaneously (I nearly short circuited myself as having actual thoughts is not a common occurrence and having two at once was severe overload!). One. What the hell are you thinking about exit strategy for? Two: That’s really smart that you’re thinking about exit strategy.

As incongruous as this sounds, both thoughts are actually logical. Here’s the thing. An exit strategy is a smart thing to be thinking about. But the term exit strategy is an odd one for a photography business. Are you looking to exit photography and achieve some value or are you looking to build enough personal value that you can retire? See the two things are really completely different. An exit strategy is a financial strategy employed by a company that needs to plan various transactions or events allowing investors to achieve a return on their investment. These can be public or private stock offerings or sales. (the sale of the company in whole or in part). A retirement strategy is a strategy employed by a business person that ensures income at the point at which they are no longer working, either through savings or through annuity.

I hear from a lot of people who have decided that their “exit strategy” (I don’t know where the term is being propagated but it’s out there enough that someone is obviously using it in the sector - probably in a seminar about how to exit your photography business!) is to do seminars and teach stuff to new photographers. When I ask what the role model for that exit strategy is I usually hear about one or two people. So, from the thousands of people who’ve tried it, two have apparently succeeded in getting to a point where some significant portion of their income is from seminars. But how long will this be the case? The back halls of this industry are littered with the has beens whose message is stale and who no longer offer a relevant message to anyone willing to pay. Once that dries up (and it does so with startling rapidity) where are these people to turn? Back to photography?

Here’s the thing. If your exit strategy doesn’t provide a REAL exit then it is not an exit strategy. It’s an alternative, or supplemental business. Here’s the challenge of that. There’s only one of you. If you are spending lots of time on your alternative business (teaching seminars), then your actual business (photography) is going to suffer. When your photography business suffers you will lose relevance in the marketplace. Then you will have no business. That’s a different kind of exit strategy altogether!

In these times that may be a tough message. If you can’t make money in a photography business and you can’t make money selling your knowledge to photographers how are you supposed to make money? Am I not being fair? Or am I actually just telling the truth?

One of the most fascinating dynamics I see in the marketplace is this one. I cross paths with hundreds of photographers every month. There is a loud, frustrated group who are spending a lot of time and energy trying to change the industry to get it to meet their needs. There is another group though. While the maelstrom wails around them they are quietly building businesses that are quite successful. They have no problem getting clients. They have no problem earning a living. Sure, they’ve been stressed by the macro-economic factors that influence the marketplace, but their response has been to double down and focus on the clients they serve and on making sure those clients are extremely happy. And in the middle of all of it, they’re finding success.

Want to build a great exit strategy? Build a successful business. Figure out how to serve your customers for a lifetime. Keep your head down. Keep moving. Innovate. Respond to market dynamics. Understand the macro climate. Be ready when things are hot to take advantage of looser purse strings. Be ready when things are slow to draw on your reserves. Build multiple revenue streams and never let your supplementary business take more than your supplementary time. Find a way through product and service diversification to serve everyone who comes to you for the service you provide. Build a business that is so successful that others want to come and work with you. Build a business that is so successful that you need others to be able to meet consumer demand. When that starts to happen, you’re on your way.

Stuff to think about for a Tuesday afternoon ...