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 ...