The lack of a well-researched photography business plan is at the heart of every failed studio. You need a plan! The question is invariably — what’s a plan? I don’t know how to make a plan! It’s ok, you’re not alone and I’m here to help. Together we’re going to break down the consequences of not having a business plan, the reasons we tend to avoid the planning process and how we can overcome these obstacles and make a photography business plan that works.
What happens if I don’t plan? (or how do I fail at business?)
Every part of life requires a plan and your business is no different. The difficulty comes with not knowing how to formulate the particular plan that will work for you. Let’s take an example from the image above. The chess image was chosen because most people associate chess with mental strategy, which is what you need in your business. A plan in chess is simply a series of moves that aims to get you a strategic advantage over your opponent. The chess player decides on moves that make the best use of the pieces and space available on the board and simultaneously exploit the opponents weaknesses and ultimately trap the enemy king. Without a plan you will and should lose the game.
What is a Photography Business Plan?
A business plan is essentially no different than the chess example above. You need to know your own assets and deficiencies as well as how your customer (bye the way, do you know who your customer is? We’ll come back to this.) behaves and how you can persuade them to give you their business. When you take an honest accounting of your strengths and weaknesses, the business planning process becomes a much simpler.
One big mistake made by many new entrepreneurs is that of confusing a business plan with a product/pricing catalog. Pricing is of course part of the business plan, but is a far cry from the whole picture. One way to look at this is that your pricing is of little use if you don’t have any customers (again, do you know who your customers are? where they are? what they want? why they would choose you over someone else?). Pricing structure is important, but it is accessory to your detailed business plan.
Photographers cling to the catalog (many refer to this as a website) for several reasons, but primarily because it’s the most visible part of a business and everyone has one. News flash, the key to your business (and fundamental to the Odd Tog mantra) is that you need something no one else has in order to thrive. You should have a pricing structure and that’s great, but pricing is not going to be a benefit to you unless you have a rock-solid photography business plan.
Why don’t I plan?
There are many reasons why photographers and other entrepreneurs fail to plan. Firstly, planning is hard — really hard. Planning in business stresses our mental muscles in ways we may not be accustomed to. In addition, most of us have not seen what happens behind the scenes of any company and so the process of business planning is foreign to us. If you’re formulating a business plan according in the Odd Tog way, you’re also trying to develop a business that doesn’t currently exist — extremely hard and time consuming.
Another very common reason for not planning is thinking that you already have a business plan when you don’t. It’s very tempting to go about your business on a whim and think that your intuition will always guide you along the right path. This thought process is misguided. Instincts you can trust only come after developing sound business skills in the first place, which will only come from careful study, planning and experience. Thinking you already know everything intuitively about your business is a recipe for failure because you deliberately fail to account how each action you take will impact the various facets of your business.
How to Make a Photography Business Plan that Works?
A photography business plan is a personal thing and no two plans are alike. Having said that, it is good to have a base starting point that will help your particular plan materialize. At a minimum, the following should be included in your photography business plan:
- Your Business Goal/Mission (you can’t succeed at something if there isn’t a goal)
- A list of your strengths/interestes.
- A description of your product or service.
- An analysis of your target market/customer.
- A marketing/sales plan
It is important to remember that a photography business plan is as much a process as it is a written document. One of the most important features of the business plan is that it is always improving over time. Don’t be content with lackluster performance. Constantly revisit your plan and make it better as you gain more experience with your target customers. Many photographers assume that if they realize mistakes in their business model that they are doomed to failure. This couldn’t be further from the truth. If you have found a correction in your business plan, this means you are succeeding! The plan is not set in stone, nor is it intended to be. Your experience and research (which should never stop — ever) is what informs the plan. As you progress, your plan will get better and your business will thrive.
Susan Starts a Photography Business
Let’s take a hypothetical example of a photographer starting out the right way. Susan is a stay at home mom that has decided she wants to start a photography business. She’s been photographing her kids for a decade and really has a passion for child photography. She also is very good with children and they respond well to her. She has always taken the lead in the family budget and finance, so the financial and other logistics in the business will come easily to her. Susan has spent several weeks on the internet researching other child photographers in her area and sees that this type of business is very competitive and the pricing is lower than what she would like to charge for her service. This was a deal breaker for Susan and she set out to find a solution.
The Photography Business Dilemma
Susan knows that she needs to carve out a more specialized niche in child photography in order to generate the income she wants. She decides to make a list of all her other skills and interests in and out of photography. The list is long, but one of the items sparks an idea. She had been a graphic designer earlier in life and was great at document layout and design. Susan kept a journal and she recorded each step in her children’s development. To her, it seemed like each stage of her children’s life was its own little story.
Susan decided that instead of just doing a regular photography session, she could sell a session that was designed specifically to tell the story of that child’s stage in life. The final product would be a hand crafted story book themed specifically for this child’s stage in life. This narrative type photography product will be perfect for moms like herself that really value the journey of family and motherhood.
When Business Becomes Fun
At this point the business plan starts to write itself. She has identified a potential product and customer pool for that product. Susan is not savvy in marketing, so she spends the next several weeks researching the ways she can reach customers in her market area. She also spends equal time researching suppliers for her proposed books, making layout templates for the books and brainstorming about what typical narratives for children might look like. She is going to test this out with a few of her friends with kids as part of her market research. Pricing will be finalized once she has gotten specific feedback about her product from her test audience. She writes all this down into a document that she will revisit and modify over time as she refines her product and learns more about her customers.
Every Business is a Unique Journey
Susan’s journey is just one example, but I think it is typical of the journey you are about to embark on. Susan’s initial idea may not work, but the business planning process she has undertaken will inevitably lead her to something that will work if she keeps working at it consistently. The essential truth to starting a business is that there will be many ideas that need to be tested in order to arrive at the product or service that will ultimately succeed. The business plan will also change much more frequently in the early stages of a business than it will once the business becomes more established.
This process is similar to acquiring any other skill. Your abilities will improve dramatically in any field over the first part of your journey. Over time, skill improvements become incremental refinements that, while extremely important are just not quite as noticeable as the early breakthroughs you experienced. If you’ve gotten to the point in your business plan where the adjustments are becoming less noticeable, appreciate that you have a plan that works, but never stop reaching for those improvements that will help your business become more efficient, profitable and fulfilling.
It’s important to remember that there are no guarantees in business or in life. There is a path to success for you and the foundation of that success will be your photography business plan. Ultimately, the plan you author will be of no use unless you put what’s in it into practice. Commit your business plan to memory and make a check list of all it’s contents. Make yourself accountable to it and your business will succeed.
photo credit: Steen Jepsen