Wednesday, March 30, 2011

What Jim Garner and Joe Buissink Know that You Don't Know. A lesson in differentiation.

In my wanderings I have the privilege of meeting and spending time with many of the industry’s best and brightest. Every once in a while these people are also well known, as Jim and Joe most certainly are. Not only are these two guys solid businessmen and strong proponents of the industry, they are also two of the nicest people you’ll ever meet. I’ve had the privilege of hearing them both speak and I can tell you first hand that if you haven’t you are missing out on two of the best you could hear.

I must confess that I don’t know Jim all that well. He graciously agreed to come (completely on his own dime) to a free one day seminar that we sponsored in Detroit last year. (along with Joe, Bambi Cantrell - another of the industry’s real gems, -Ken Sklute and the inimitable Denis Reggie. Jim’s talk revolved around his approach to selling albums. It was brilliant.

I get to hear Joe speak frequently. He and I travel around the country and present together at Pictage’s UberPugs. Joe speaks on inspiration and photo technique and I speak on business. No one comes to see me. The tears and the hugs for Joe when his talks are over are testament to his heart and his connection to our business. Sometimes I wonder if in the middle of all of that people miss the sneaky smart things he is telling them about how his business works, among them, how he sells so many prints.

I know what you’re thinking. “You’re going to talk about Albums and Prints, Jim?” Is this talk devoted to CashCow and Dog category products? Well, no. It isn’t. Because for Jim Garner and Joe Buissink these products aren’t CashCows, they’re Stars. And that, my friends, is the real value of differentiation.

During Jim’s talk he shows several examples of really beautiful albums that he has created for his clients. These are not small books. They are long and thoughtfully wrought artistic expressions of their special days. As he shows the presentation he talks about his approach and the fact that he gets his clients to spend the whole day with him in order to create not just the book, but the experience that shines through on its pages. For the classic PJ shooter some of these words may seem like blasphemy. A day orchestrated for photography? But that’s not what Jim is doing. He is convincing his (easily convinced) clients that their day should be a full day, not a half of a day.

Why not start out in the morning with breakfast at your favorite restaurant? (just the bride and groom). Why not meet your friends at a poignant place to hang out and laugh. Why not get dressed before lunch and then head for the local hot dog or chili burger place? Why not have a blast for a whole day on such a special day? And why not have your amazing photographer tag along for the whole time?

The brilliant part of Jim’s presentation comes toward the end. He explains that his clients don’t hire him to take their pictures. They hire him to make their book. The books he creates share their special days in ways no one else is showing them. Everyone else has some pictures and ‘here’s an album with your pictures in it.’ Jim’s “Signature Art Books” & “Stories in Prints” approach turns that whole sales cycle on its ear and in doing so makes this product that is so hard for many to sell the focal point reason why clients hire him. If you get a chance to hear him speak do so. I promise that he will leave you thinking a lot about ways to improve your own approach.

Like Jim, Joe doesn’t sell photography services. He sells art. In Joe’s talks he walks people through his client consultations. The core part of the consultation is a session where Joe brings out a stack of mounted 11X14 prints, each one signed. He hands these prints to his clients and he does this amazing thing. He doesn’t talk about the prints. He tells the stories of what’s going on in the prints. He doesn’t show a lot, around 10. Each one is selected because it tells a unique part of the story. Each image is perfect. Each image is filled with story and emotion. But each image is also a signed print. Each image is art. This is really, really smart. Here’s why.

By showing his clients these prints, Joe is establishing the idea in their mind that this is something they can get from him. And because they are signed, this is something they can get ONLY from him. Too many photographers today spend too much time counting on online galleries, iPad slideshows, strangely iPhone slideshows etc., in their selling process. Then they wonder why their clients never think to buy prints from them or want to go to Costco to get them made cheaply. He has two price points. One for prints and one for signed prints. People actually pay more for his signature. They should. He is a treasure and his work is art.

It is important to understand that neither Jim or Joe are coercing these purchases. They are giving their clients an option to buy products that their clients will deem special. Their clients deeply appreciate the opportunity to work with them and in many cases they end up doing so BECAUSE of these products. If you think about it, how many of your clients hire you because of your products? To be sure, they are also hiring a great photographer, and someone they know they can connect and feel comfortable with. (all are important elements of the commercial decision). But most consumers are really unable to tell the difference between one great photographer’s work and another. Differentiation then, must be on the basis of something else. By giving their clients something tangible, something they can name and actually hold in their hand, these two smart guys are also giving their clients an objective reason to choose them. In a business of intangibles, that is pure gold.

Don’t copy their approach, but figure out what you can glean from it that will work for your business, in your region, and with the clients you want to shoot. Not everyone can be as successful as Jim and Joe, but everyone can and should learn from what they are so generously willing to share. The day a client chooses you because of something you have that no one else has you’ll know it has been worthwhile. That is true differentiation.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

A Conference That Works ...

A conference that works ...

As a part of my job I get to (and sometimes feel like I have to) attend a lot of conferences. I’m not an enormously social person so to be completely honest I try to avoid them. Recently though I attended one that really worked. I thought I’d devote today’s blog to InspireBoston. A conference that works because of the people there, the people who plan it and put it on, and also because of it’s purpose.

InspireBoston isn’t organized by an association, a magazine, a company or a group of authors. It’s organized by a group of highly qualified photographers whose life business is to be photographers. They aren’t interested in teaching seminars or follow ons. They’re there to help each other be better. They teach each other (and the other lucky folks who get to attend).

About 200 people get to go. Then it’s sold out. Most of the folks there have been in business for a while. Per capita the highest qualified gathering of wedding and portrait photographers I’ve had the pleasure to spend a day or two with. Everyone is mostly packed into the inn, so everyone eats together, drinks together and talks from early AM (like around 10 - the crack of dawn for most photographers! ;-) The information exchange is frank and honest. People discuss real problems and get real answers or real commiseration. Even the teaching is sharp, no nonsense and practical.

But the reason I love this conference so much is because it is so relevant to its own community. Nearly everyone there was from the Northeast. The teachers were from the northeast. (Am I supposed to be calling that New England?) There was an element of practicality that permeated the content. It can’t help but build community. It can’t help but strengthen ties.

I didn’t get to spend as much time this year with the attendees as I would have liked. I got busy with work things and I was actually also using this as a form of personal retreat this year. But even so, I was grateful for the time I was there and grateful for the organizers, Matt and Enna, Krista Guenin, Paul McNerney and Krystal Prue, Mark Andrew, Carla Ten Eyck and Richard Esposito.

I left thinking about what would happen if people in communities around the country started doing this kind of thing themselves. In every community there are photographers who could teach and photographers who could attend. In every community there is a great little place that would pack people in and make them feel warm and comfy. This model works because the content of the conference matches the needs of the community. The connections are real and useful and lasting. It also works because it’s small. You can’t help but interact with just about everyone.

Great job Matt, Enna and team. Your conference is aptly named, not just for the attendees but for the model. Let’s hope some others are inspired to pick up the torch in their areas and do great things themselves!

Monday, March 28, 2011

Making Your Products Fly, An Exercise. Part III of my Business Basics series.

Today’s post is an exercise. I’m not doing this for me and I don’t think learning is a passive pursuit, so today you’re going to need a pen or pencil and a piece of blank white paper. (I know! Old school, huh?) I got some questions on how to use the BCG Matrix that I included in my last post. That’s great! It isn’t just a picture. It’s a tool. It can be used in any business and using it can make the difference between whether or not a business succeeds over time. As a refresher, here is the Matrix again.

The BCG Matrix was developed many many years ago by the very smart folks at Boston Consulting Group, a premier strategic consulting firm used by large enterprises all over the world. Luckily, it also works for small businesses. I’ve used it since the day that Dr. Roy Adler taught it to me when I was a junior undergraduate advertising major at Pepperdine University. Unwittingly, it got me my first job running a company at the ripe old age of 26. I still use it today.

Remember, any new product is plotted into the top right hand, 'ideas' (?) corner. As that product starts to grow it will usually move into the ‘stars’ category where your clients’ favorite products are. As star products start to lose their sheen, they will fade into the cash cow category, these are products that people still buy, and may buy in volume, but they are not products that people get very excited about. Finally, as sales of cash cow products decline those products will slide into the dog category.

The thing I love about this model is its simplicity. Quite literally anyone can use it. You should(!) and to encourage that I’m going to give you a little home work. Go ahead. Take a break from the computer. Find a quiet corner and a blank piece of paper. (yes - paper - not an iPad or any other electronic device). Draw a square and then divide it into four equal parts (or ‘quadrants’ in model speak). Right a small question mark in the top right corner, a star in the top left, a dollar sign in the bottom left and a sad face in the bottom right. See? Wasn’t that tough? Anyone can do that!

Now. Think about your different products and services. (I would actually suggest that a photographer should do different versions of the model for products - prints, canvases, books, etc., and services, weddings, portraits (by type), commercial, etc.)

Stars and Cash Cows are usually the easiest to fill in. Remember, a Star Product is something you lead with or talk about when you are selling. It is something you know (or hope) clients will get excited about. Typically it is something that makes your business different from someone down the street. If it is a product that is growing (you’re selling more or making more this year than last year) put it in the top of the box. If it is a product that is waning (like the setting moon) put it in the bottom of the box.

Cash Cows on the other hand are products you usually don’t talk about except to mention. They are products that your clients will negotiate price on (knowing they can also buy them down the street). They may be products that are a pain for you to maintain and fulfill. However as their name implies, a cash cow will also generate cash. From a business strategy perspective, their purpose is to be ‘milked.‘ They may be a pain, but your business benefits from their existence.

Ideas are products you have thought of, but that you may have just launched or are thinking about launching. Their soul defining characteristic is that they generate no cash.

Dogs are products you may still have in your catalog, but which generate no cash. The idea of a dog is that you want it to go away. (Not like your fuzzy little happy dog at home!)

A healthy business will have products (and if applicable services) in all four quadrants. Take some time now and map your products into these quadrants. Are their cash cows you want to get rid of? Are you sure? Are they generating money? The strategy with a cash cow is to make them yield as much money as possible with as little work as possible. How can you make them take less work but still yield a healthy contribution to your bottom line? (Also remember that less work isn’t no work. Sometimes the right thing to do is bolster a cash cow with a little thought and energy so it can go back to generating cash for you). Dogs are products that you simply need to bite the bullet and remove from your catalog. Even though you don’t sell them much, they take time, any small business’s most valuable commodity. Do you have at least three or four entries in your 'ideas' category? If not that's a big problem and something you want to work on fixing...

And speaking of time, here’s another way to look at the model. You should be spending the vast majority of your time on the products and services in the top two quadrants. You want to give good ideas a real chance to succeed (and you want to be coming up with new ones). And, you want to continually bolster your star products.

It is an interesting fact that one person’s star may be another person’s cash cow or dog. The difference will sometimes be in the way a product is marketed. We’ll talk about this concept tomorrow - but it’s an interesting thing for you to think about. Are there products in your cash cow or dog categories that you KNOW are other business’s stars? What is the difference between you cash cow and their star? Differentiation. We’re going to talk about that tomorrow.

Feel free to drop me a line here in comments or via email at my first name at Your questions fuel these posts.

Now - model away! (And if you’re courageous enough, send me a picture of your model!)


Friday, March 25, 2011

Don't Be a One Trick Pony, Business Basics Article 2

Don’t Be a One Trick Pony! Business Basics Article 2

OK. We’re going to dive right into controversy. One of the most common teachings I hear in workshops and professional photography seminars (and I guess even books) is that to be successful a photographer must concentrate on one thing. This teaching suggests that the distractions of different genres, for you and for your potential clients, will take away from your hero business and that therefore they should be discarded or at least hidden.

I disagree. Here’s why.

For any small business, the single hardest thing to do is attract new customers. We all get that, right? We crave a phone call and when we have a meeting we have butterflies and when the customer calls and says, OK, let’s go, we have this little ‘yippee’ impulse that wells up from somewhere deep in our souls. This is also, obviously (and increasingly), true for professional photographers.

Once they have attracted a customer, most small businesses do anything they can to keep the customer. CPAs send out reminder tax prep documents and newsletters, even small retail stores continue to market products and services to their past clients. The reason this is important is because the customer who has purchased your services is the holy grail of all marketing opportunities. These are people who have shown through their actions that they both value professional imaging services AND value YOUR eye. If they have done this once, there is a strong likelihood that they will do so again. I’ve never understood the practice of saying to a client, ‘oh, I’m just a wedding photographer, I don’t shoot portraits.’

OK. Now I’ve done it. Some of you actually just got a little mad. Right? I get that. Remember yesterday’s post. There are no absolutes. These ‘business basics’ are general perspective. As Malcolm Gladwell so effectively describes in his book, there are outliers. There are a few studios in any market who are able to just shoot what they want. They have developed a clientele and a business model (with very high pricing) that allows them to be choosy. The problem is that what works for them will not likely work for you. A small business too focused on doing only one thing will likely fail. Another problem is that a lot of smaller studios look up to these ‘more successful’ folks and so these folks are asked to teach seminars. They logically preach what works for them. Smaller studios pattern themselves after that and fail, likely because the demographic/psychographic target market for that level of service in any market is quite small and already being served. (by the guy/gal teaching the workshop!)

If you study marketing and product theory in college you are likely exposed to a model called the Boston Consulting Group Marketing Matrix. (BCG Matrix for short). This is a quadrant model, or one large square divided into four smaller squares. See below:

Using the matrix is pretty easy. The top right corner (?) is called, ideas. These are products into which you may be investing money or time but which do not drive any revenue. The top left corner is Stars. These are products into which you are investing money and time and they are high growth revenue products. (though not necessarily your top cash producers). The bottom left corner is called Cash Cows. These are products that generate income, but they are also products into which you are not investing large amounts of money and time (you’re milking them for cash). The bottom right corner is reserved for dogs. These are products that you are not investing in and which also generate little or no cash. (typically products you’re trying to sunset).

Any very healthy business will have products in all four quadrants. If you are a diverse photographer, you may have family portraits down in cash cows, weddings up in stars and boudoir in ideas. (as an example). This mix is good and it helps you understand what to do with a product in each segment. “I can shoot family portraits in my sleep. I really don’t like to do them anymore but my clients keep calling.” Perfect! Invest as little time as possible in this business, but make sure you’re milking it for the most possible cash! “I’ve shot a few senior sessions and I have an idea that I think could really make these a big money maker.” Great! Make sure there is a viable market for your idea and then make sure you are investing the time and energy it will take to turn this into a Star. Have a product that takes time and doesn’t make money. It’s a dog. Stop selling it and be guilt free.

The matrix can work in big categories like that or in smaller ones. Break down your physical product catalog into each of the quadrants. Make sure you have some stars, (albums or large mounted prints?), some ideas (high end photobooks), and some cash cows. (prints). Take the dogs out of your product catalog.

Then understand that a client once can be a client for life. Put time and energy into figuring out the various life cycle points when your products will once again be attractive. Make sure they remember you. Stay front of mind for them for any of their photographic needs.

This needn’t be time consuming. Pick one of your favorites from their original gallery and send it to them with a nice note about how much you loved your session, in email with a link to your site. Then, make sure your site describes all of the different photography services you provide. I have to be honest here and say that I don’t understand photographers who have a site for weddings and a site for portraits and a site for commercial and a site for this and a site for that! Why? Because your customers aren’t smart enough to be able to figure out that you can actually do more than one thing? Or because you are worried that they will think you aren’t smart enough to do more than one thing? Or is it because whatever web environment you’re using gets piggeshly slow if you have more than one thing?

What if you contract a consumer for a wedding and their mother or father runs a company and they want some commercial work done? If they come to your site and see only weddings what do you think they’re going to do? If you’re lucky they’ll call. If you’re not they’ll search ‘Commercial Photography services’ and find the person down the block. They already know they like you. They like your work. Are you really in a place where it’s ok to send them down the road when they want more? (If you are, stop reading now and go have a cup of coffee! I’m a waste of your time! But only if you are reasonably comfortable that it will always be this way). And what if the next year she wants to do a boudoir shoot for her husband or she’s already done that and the attendant side effect is pregnancy?

Ok, you’re saying, look Jim I can’t always do all these things. That’s fine. You can also be a referral source for other photographers in your community. The point is that in any case you want the option to say no. Your customers will understand that you are busy or that you are unable to serve them in a certain circumstance, but they’d much rather call someone you recommend than fend for themselves on Google. And you want them to call you because that also gives you a chance to chat. You’re a touchpoint. Make that conversation great every time and you will remain front of mind for their future needs. Give them a great referral and you are their resource for life.

For any successful small business it is a much healthier proposition to think of every new customer as an annuity rather than an event. Every one is a gem. Work to serve them for a lifetime and you will build a business that rides through the ebb and flow of economic change. (and a business that will likely have value when it’s time for you to retire).

Assignment: Take some time and really think this through. Scribble out your own BCG Matrix and write your products in. Think about how you treat each one. Are you investing too much in your cashcows or dogs? Do you have any ideas or stars? What about customers you’ve served. Are they in a place where they want more services? Will you be the person they call? What have you done to make sure that is so?

Thursday, March 24, 2011

There Are No Absolutes. Volume One, Business Basics Series

This is going to be controversial. I don’t actually seek controversial topics. Sometimes I think they seek me. They come in the form of things I hear and think, wait, that’s not right. Who tells these people these things? But the problem is that often there is a deep emotional attachment between the student and the teacher and so questioning a teacher’s teachings is suddenly perceived as an attack on their character. I don’t wish to do that, but I do wish to try to share an alternative view... and so, here goes volume one of my new business basics series. (BBP rules apply). (If you don’t know what BBPs are, you’ll need to look at some of my older posts. Hint, they can also be BGPs)

There Are No Absolutes.

I think one of the things that scares me the most in this industry is the penchant for absolutes. What is an absolute? Most commonly, it is statement that doing one thing will always lead to failure and doing another will always lead to success. The absolute is the always. Here’s a hypothetical example:

"I am successful. The key to my success was my new orange branding. If you wish to be successful then you need to have orange branding too. Make sure it’s different than mine. There are a million colors of orange. But orange branding will bring you success."

Ok, that’s pretty extreme right? But if you really think about it, it isn’t that different then a lot of the seminars you attend. Step by step guides and folks who preach specialization, separation or diversity effectively as rules are essentially teaching absolutes. Their audience is typically made up of people who are either just starting out or people who are truly struggling and who are looking for the magic bullet that will make the difference between success and failure. These folks hang on to formulas and methods they hold as gospel and sadly, in many cases this costly advice will lead to the failure of their business.

Here’s the thing. Every business is different. The chances that following one person’s formula will lead to your success are extremely slim. Success or failure of your business depends on a series of factors that will be unique to you. What is the general demographic level of your community? What is their income level? Are you in a rural area or a metropolitan area? How do people make a living? Are they farmers or financiers? A one-size-fits-all approach simply won’t work as their preferences are going to be different. More importantly, YOU are different!

In small business it is also important to understand that your business is predominantly about you. What is your acumen? What do you love? Abandoning something you love in order to specialize on something you don’t in order to make money is a very bad idea. The vast majority of small business people in the United States will tell you that the reason they are in small business is so they can do what they want to do. It is FAR wiser to find a way to turn the things you love into a going-concern then it is to abandon the thing you love because someone tells you it won’t lead to success. Your motivation is your love for your business. The money you make is the fruit of your success. When your motivation is the money you are in trouble.

So what to do? It is what you do with what you hear that makes the difference between a good and bad seminar or workshop experience. No matter how successful the teacher may be (and the best absolutely tell you this while they are teaching), you need to listen, understand the concepts and then overlay those concepts on your business. Build relationships with a few clients who you can sit down with and talk things through. Talk to non-photographers. (By all means talk to photographers too!) It is much more likely that there are tidbits that you can apply that make sense and can dramatically help your business than that a complete overhaul will drive success.

In the coming days I’m going to be taking a look at a series of topics around which there are fundamental misunderstandings in our industry. These will range from differentiation, to specialization, to the importance and purpose of branding. I’m going to be coming at these from a general business perspective and tying the unique variables related to photography into the discussion only for illustrative purposes. Hopefully understanding the fundamentals will provide a foundation upon which better decisions can be made. If that becomes the case, this will be worthwhile.