Afterexposure Photography

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[b]ecker's Crash Course

What a ride that last two days have been! Calgary was host to Becker thanks to the efforts of Patrick Kornak, (and Svetlana, and crew) and the Saturday presentation was a blast. And so was Friday night group meet. And so was Saturday night post-event… and I’m sure that the Sunday gang is going to be just as jazzed as we were to connect with fellow photographers, hang out, and ‘get it’.

I still haven’t distilled all the info and made it part of my DNA yet. It’s still percolating – some of the practical stuff is right at the top of my conscious mind – and some is bubbling around in my sub-conscious, making those all-important associations with everything else I know and am.

But I can tell you the experience was worth it.

I think the most important lessons were those about connecting – and not just with other photographers – but with customers and vendors too. That was a biggie; and not because it was something new to the audience, everyone knows ‘networking – yeah it’s important’ – that’s NOT it. It’s more about the quality and experience of those connections that has the biggest effect.

And there was a TON of info about the mechanics of why and how he does business, but that really serves more to illustrate the underlying philosophies, and in return how those practical things enable him to deliver consistently solid value every time. Nice.

Oh, and it was (just) warm enough for us to run outside and get a real-time example of how he works with subjects – even if he only has seconds to do it.  He shot a newlywed couple for 5 or 10 minutes, and then our headshots – all 90 of us – something like 2100 images in all – in the other 20 minutes. And not once did he say ‘smile for the camera’ – he didn’t have to! Again, nice.

Here is an iPhone / thebestcamera app image of him in a race against frozen fingers:

@thebecker - work'in it

@thebecker - work'in it!

So an open call to everyone who attended – from either day – I’ll see you at the [b]school.

And if you don’t or can’t join there, keep an eye out here – there will be a group meeting in a couple of weeks – comment here or email me if you’re interested in some of this kool-aid.

… and if you are trying to place my name with a face – I’m the Pentax shooter who wore Hawaiian shirts 😉

Wizards and Charlatans

I like to have some ‘think’ time every day, and lately that’s been during my lunch hour. Today I was thinking about how I process, or more accurately, DON’T process my GTD lists as regularly as I should.

One thing that came to me today is that my internal mental future-vision lists don’t match my Real Life lists and don’t match my GTD lists. If GTD is supposed to reduce stress imagine what happens when the lists don’t match… TOTAL STRESS.

I’m fairly laid back, so stress isn’t always apparent. One of the places that my stress shows up is in procrastination. The more stressed I get, the more I don’t address what’s stressing me. I’ve noticed this is really cyclical, so it takes a while to build up and then it becomes this major Catch-.22 situation.

Today’s ‘think’ session was like that.

At first I thought I could tweak my processes; I have a good system for yearly/quarterly/monthly goal setting, but translating that to a repeating weekly habit of GTD and project work is hit-and-miss. So off I went to Google to see if there was something about GTD that I was missing.

This lead me to a post and video by Merlin Mann, over on 43folders. What’s spooky about this little side-trip is that his post was exactly about seeking guidance on the web, and how at some point it’s not really productive; it becomes a distraction in itself, and one that the purveyors of these sites would rather you be a repeat visitor, than graduate and no longer return. His other point was that maybe instead of seeking advice on ‘something’ you should just do ‘something’ and thus gain actual experience doing, instead of gathering all kinds of fluffy meta-crappus about ‘something’.

At this point I knew I should actually just look at my lists and see what was wrong; if there was a pattern to the mismatch between lists.

I looked first at the plethora of lists in my primary software app for GTD, called ‘Remember the Milk‘. I looked at the list titles. I looked at the kinds of thinks these titles suggested. And the pattern became apparent.

Most of my lists are either ‘Personal’ or ‘Professional’. In other words the lists are clearly one or the other. The ones that were neither were @someday lists that had become catch-alls for postponed creative ideas, projects, and dreams.

Looking again, I noticed another feature… ‘Personal’ really means ‘Family Obligations’ and ‘Professional’ really means ‘Work Obligations’. Huh. ‘Obligations’ was the topic of a discussion (well, rant I guess) that I had with my wife about lifestyle, career, and the ‘stuff’ of modern life.

So my lists had become a kind of crutch just as described by Merlin as a kind of procrastinating auto-pilot destination that we can go to when we have ‘fear of doing’ (or the other dozens of fears we might have), instead of ACTUALLY DOING what was important.

I knew then that what was wrong with my lists was that they were externally focused. They were oriented to satisfy others, to ensure I met my obligations like a good little drone. I gave inadequate weight to my own wants and needs, not giving myself permission to do what I must to be creative. To be different than I am. To allow my inner vision of what life could be manifest itself as ACTIONS.

Ok, so that was kinda deep. Well for me, anyway. Not that I’m shallow; I just tend to stay at the near end of the pool in most of my interpersonal interactions. Back to the story….

At this point I posted a question to twitter:

Fill in #3: Personal, Professional and ___ ? A: It depends on how you define #1 and #2. Hint: It’s a huge miss in pop culture.

And got back the PERFECT answer from a new follower, @mattjamestaylor:

@afterexposure passionate? That certainly is missing a lot today and it starts with ‘P’.

It’s a perfect fit, because what’s missing in my lists are my passions. Like photography. Not that I don’t have a zillion items in a dozen lists about photography, but they are all related to the launch of the business side of photography – not about ACTUALLY being creative.

And I think if you do some searches of your own you’ll find that ‘Personal and Professional’ are often the ONLY TWO categories ever discussed, offered, implemented, or expected to exist in the pop-psych-webs of self-help and productivity books, articles, software, and the rest of the meta-tweetin’-blogotubes.

So what happens if we have Passions, Personal, and Professional? That’s kinda tidy, right? Passions are for YOU, Personal items are for your non-workplace relationships and activities, and Professional is for that super-serious “Don’t laugh cuz’ this is bidness and it’s serious” (to mangle a quote from Tom Peters).

Except maybe more categories isn’t what I needed. What if I needed fewer? What if I only really need one?

What if your Profession is your Passion? What if those around you also feed, nurture, and support you, and your Personal life is less distinguished from your Professional life?

What if by being actually concerned how well you deliver service to your customers, and took delight in helping them by doing what you really like to do and are passionate about – wouldn’t that be a harmonious way to live? To do what you enjoy, with people that value you and your creativity? Wouldn’t that be a magical state above just competently managing to-do lists?

And what if that was your brand identity? What if you were bold enough to be your brand, because you were the best example of what your brand-ideal was?

What if that were me?

Web hosting: You get what you pay for!

Well, it’s renewal season around the ranch, and I had the most interesting experience with GoDaddy.

I renewed my domain name (afterexposure.com) with them; the price was right, and I had no prior complaints about their dns or registration process.

After I paid, I noticed I had a ‘web hosting credit’. Huh. Neat, I guess I could use it to pay for the web hosting with them, which was also up for renewal.

So I selected my domain, and applied the credit. It said something about taking a few minutes to show up in the control panel, so off to bed I went; visions of two more years of cheap web hosting dancing in my head.

The next day I was sad to see that the hosting credit wasn’t applied to my site, but had created a new, blank site. Ugh.

So I email customer support… no dice. The reason: hosting credits can’t be used on a renewal of a web hosting package…. WTF? That has to be one of the stupidest things I’ve ever heard.

But lucky me, I have another hosting company for a different domain in the .ca TLD, so I emailed them:

“Hey, can you split off part of my hosting package for a second domain?”

Their answer:

“Sure, just send us the domain name and we’ll set it up. Free.”

W-O-W!

So I did, and they did. Within the hour they had sent me the new DNS entries, and shortly after that I had instructed GoDaddy to use these new entries… and -POOF-, I was in business on the new site.

They have a self administration page, so re-creating my email address was a snap. And I ftp’d a holding page to test it out; it’s all there.

The name of this wonderful hosting company?

namespro.ca

I pay a little more than I did at GoDaddy, but not by much, and I get full control; not like the template-based ‘WebSite Tonight’ crappus (that’s latin for ‘crap’, FYI) that I was using.

Now I just need to nail down a decent web site editor…

Biz Plan, Part 2

Finally, time to look at the business plan again. My timing for these posts is a bit off, but that’s more to do with trying to pace my progress here in an inverse way with what’s going on at work. A few months ago all indications were that we would wrap our projects up and be gone by now. Today, it’s more likely we’ll at least get to complete the projects, which satisfies my techno-geek self. Will I still be there in the new year? That’s still not clear, so while I have time I need to complete a bit more groundwork here.

Homework Check:

Last time I left you with some jobs to do:

– Find out what others in your area charge for what you want to be doing. Here the range is $2k – $6k per event

– Gather costs – for yourself and your business. It will help set a realistic monthly budget for both, and you can estimate a good monthly salary.

The Math:

Really, it can be as simple as Income – Costs = Profit

I think a lot of folks screw this step up and make it more complicated (and unrealistic) than it needs to be. For example, you could make some assumptions about a new business, like Profit = Zero, and the math gets much simpler:

Income = Costs

If you compare the results of the homework, it should be obvious that your monthly costs are going to need to be balanced by your income. I don’t know why, but this is a surprise to some people, and they make a bunch of arm-waving noises about how this doesn’t apply to their situation, or some sort of magic should happen in six months, or they plan to land some big deal in Year 2….  … yeah, whatever. Ain’t happening. Not in a solid plan, anyway.

Specific to photography I see lots of ways to spend money; gear is the obvious choice, but so are conventions, printing marketing materials (business cards, photobook samples, glossies…), auto expenses…. and accountants and lawyers to help you with the leftovers… remember to jot those down too.

Now, one thing should stand out, at least it does for me … all of the things that hobbyists wince and whine about, like the cost of good equipment, are much less than the #1 line item of cost in the plan: your own needs! Your cost of living is going to vary, but if we pick a round number as an average, I bet $5000 a month is about right. I could go to $10K, and use more rough ‘order of magnitude’ estimation (a true life skill … taught to me in university, in astronomy class, of all places!). But $5k splits the difference between $1k and $10k, and it’ll make the math easier later on.

Let’s add up some costs.

Salary (or repayment of shareholders loan, or dividend, or whatever your accountant wants you to call it): $60K

Gear: New body, new glass, new computers, software, monitors, printers, that wireless thingy…. oh, allright… $15k. No? Ok, $20K. Believe me, it won’t matter, it’s rounding error.

Taxes, fees, insurance, various and assorted bloodsuckers: $10k

Conventions, Marketing, and ahem ‘fun’ stuff: $5k (it’s year one, so suck it up!)

Where are we? About $100k. Now, slap 50% on that, because one day you’ll want (or need) to retire. See, I told you that $1500 lens would start looking like rounding error!

Are we done yet? Well, not quite. We don’t have the actual shoot costs yet; the ‘cost of good sold’. Assistants, consumables, travel, food, disk space, print / production items that are bundled into the package prices…

Package Prices? Say what?

Ah… and there is where all these costs go – into quotes based on uplifts to the package price. So you can develop a package price, but it’s going to be a ‘no frills’ package, in fact you may never tell anyone what it is, because really, it’s the base cost of a shoot that you MUST cover, or go broke.

For example, if you know that you are going to have 50 ‘Event Cards’ for guests to take home, so they can find images that they can buy prints of online, or even buy the photobook of the event from… there is a fixed line item of cost. But if you don’t shoot events, maybe just a hundred cards a year is ok.

How does the math work then?

For something like $160k of annual fixed costs (notice how that number keeps creeping up?), spread over 10 months (because you won’t be working for two of those months… remember Wayne Cotton, and his Success Calendars!)… you have simply $160k / 10 months = $16k per month, as a base cost.

Since months are handily divided into four weeks (of about 4 days), you are looking at about $4k per week, and about $1000 per day. If you really wanted to, you could estimate this as $100/hr (including travel) as a minimum.

But that’s a bit eager, don’t you think? How about if we only shot 50% of the time? After all, you won’t be 100% booked (and shouldn’t be…. that’s another post…!). That would DOUBLE your shoot costs. So really, $4k per event might cover a small wedding. But a bigger event, with a 2nd shooter, some ‘included’ things … that could easily be an $8k shoot. And how does that stack up with Homework item #1… what others are charging? For me, it’s right in the ballpark. I love it when a plan comes together!

And when you realize that your costs are covered you won’t be thinking about paying bills or eating cat food.

You’ll be mentally free to take really rockin’ images. After all, that’s why you got hired, right?

So, are we ready to go get our Amex business card and buy everyone a celebration dinner and write it off?

Errr… no.

This isn’t a business plan… at least not yet.

Homework

This one is much easier; given you know what you could charge, and how much you cost, lay out the next 24 months. For each month draw your salary, but be realistic on income. I’ve done this step, and it’s frightening. If you don’t have a war-chest now, my advice is don’t start until you do.

As a template, I did this for my projection:

Month 1 (January 2010): Zero income

Month 2 (February 2010): One event

Month 3 (March 2010): One event

and so on. I ramped up my income from zero to ‘normal’ over the entire 24 months, and even in the 24th month I didn’t assume to be 100% booked, because of the cyclical nature of wedding date selection.

And 24  months @ $16k/month cost …. Yikes! Yowza! That’s $384k!!! And I haven’t booked a single wedding yet! No wonder so many small businesses fail!

Well, without some spit and polish it’s still not quite a business plan, but it is an eye-opener!

Visualize it. Dare ya!

I mentioned yesterday that if you visualize something, it will happen.

Today I’m the proud owner of a darkroom.

Yup, just like that …. *poof* and it appeared.

Well, actually I was Googling around for a developing tank, and found a classified on kijiji … a guy about a mile away from me was selling a complete darkroom setup. A phone call later and I was on my way.

It was like this weird light surrounded me and a voice said “This one’s for you!”.

I like when that happens. I should visualize more. Like an actual room to set this up in, for a start…

And the homework from yesterday? Due Monday. I have a darkroom to build.

Getting ready to write your business plan…

Ok, quick recap: There are only three steps in my world domination startup plan to transition to full-time photographer:

  1. Preparing the Business Plan
  2. Preparing for Business
  3. Marketing the Business

The first step, the Business Plan, might be the most overlooked from what I’ve read online. All the administrivia of starting a business is in step 2, so it’s just plain boring (I know – I’ve already written the draft for it, and it needs serious help). Number 3 is a cakewalk, because apparently everyone is selling marketing and appears to be an expert in it. Besides, it’s fun and exciting, and you get to ‘write off’ all that cool stuff… right? (Answer: No, not so fast….)

This business plan is going to drive the thinking and the documents (think: contracts, usage rights, etc) in step 2,  so it’s important to know what your focus is going to be. Just knowing that you want to be a photographer isn’t enough. You need to know what kind of work you enjoy – or you risk being driven away from the very thing that got you started. Ultimately the business plan should show that what you are going to do has a good chance of succeeding, before going too much further in the other steps.

Example: Photography

I’ve been investigating different styles of photography, experimenting with each, to know which I’d enjoy doing, and what kinds of demands each would place on me in terms of time, investment, and effort for return. Your likes, market and decisions are going to be different than mine.

For example, I do free shoots with models on ModelMayhem.com. Fun, yes; but a full time paying gig? No; by definition, these ‘TFP’ (Time for Prints) are exchanges of time between participants. Without additional investment and a niche style to offer it’s not likely to turn into a revenue stream in the market where I live. Portrait and beauty photography is at best a component of the business, but in a limited fashion market I don’t see doing occasional runway and designers seasonal catalogs as full time work.

Food is totally different; I’ve even purchased special serving dishes that are modern and non-distracting. If I could make a decent living shooting nothing but olives and toast, I’d do it in a heartbeat. But the reality is that a few hundred dollars for an afternoon shooting plates as they come off the line of a local restaurant doesn’t happen frequently enough to be a sole source of income. Again, something I could do, but not something that is going to be 80% of the business.

Nature photography is something else I like, mainly because I get to hike in the mountains to do it. But the kinds of shots that sell are those requiring a significant investment of time and effort, and I consider a form of art photography, there may not be a client commissioning the work – so the return on the investment may not happen for some time.

Weddings and portraiture are a common bread and butter operation, but would I enjoy them? A local model connected me to a couple she knew that needed a free wedding shoot; they had blown their budget and hadn’t considered hiring anyone for their wedding photos. I’ve heard all the cautions about not shooting your first wedding solo, but after discussing this with the couple and showing them my portfolio of non-wedding shots, we decided to go for it. They agreed with me that it would be nothing if not fun, because the alternative would be to rely on the snapshots of family and friends only. I absorbed as much knowledge as I could in the month I had before the ceremony, and it looked like I wasn’t going to enjoy it at all…

But guess what? I did enjoy it! The shooting was fun and relaxed, as was the whole day. Now when I read of photographers that don’t enjoy weddings I wonder why…  Bridezillas? Challenging shooting locations? Tough schedules? Isn’t that part of the challenge? Anyway, I knew I could safely add wedding photography to my interests; I may or may not shoot them solo again (with a second shooter, or as a second shooter would be nice…) but it’s something I know I can do, and I know how much of a time commitment it is, too.

So I know what I can and can’t shoot and still keep my sanity; but could I still pay the bills?

Homework:

Find out what others in your area charge for what you want to be doing. But don’t just price shop; seriously consider what you like and dislike about their style, their price structure, and where you think they sit in the market. Simply emulating someone who low-balls price because their spouse supports their ‘business’ with a full time office job salary is a formula for disaster!

I did this and found that the range is pretty broad; and I’m not talking about the $500 craigslist shooters, either. The low end is around $2000; and there are a few whose non-upgraded rates are double that; so assume triple once a few options are chosen.

Costs are another thing to gather… if you don’t know what you need to live on per month, then it’s time for a monthly budget. Because I’m already self-employed I’m careful to not overspend; getting to the end of the year and finding out that you still owe the taxman $15k is no fun at all.

Tomorrow:

We do the math!

Ready for a business plan?

Ok, quick recap: There are only three steps in my world domination startup plan to transition to full-time photographer:

  1. Preparing the Business Plan
  2. Preparing for Business
  3. Marketing the Business

The first step, the Business Plan, might be the most overlooked from what I’ve read online. All the administrivia of starting a business is in step #2, so it’s just plain boring (I know – I’ve already written the draft for it, and it needs serious help). #3 is a cakewalk, because apparently everyone is selling marketing and appears to be an expert in it. Besides, it’s fun and exciting, and you get to ‘write off’ all that cool stuff… right? (Answer: Not, not so fast….)

This business plan is going to drive the thinking and the documents (think: contracts, usage rights, etc) in the next step,  so it’s important to know what your focus is going to be. Ultimately the business plan should show that what you are going to do has a good chance of succeeding, before going too much further in the other steps.

Example: My Focus

I’ve been investigating different styles of photography, experimenting with each, to know which I’d enjoy doing, and what kinds of demands each would place on me in terms of time, investment, and effort for return. Your likes, market and decisions are going to be different than mine.

For example, I started doing free shoots with models on ModelMayhem.com. Fun, yes; but a full time paying gig? No; by definition, these ‘TFP’ (Time for Prints) are exchanges of time between participants. Without additional investment and a niche style to offer it’s not likely to turn into a revenue stream in the market where I live. Portrait and beauty photography is at best a component of the business, but in a limited fashion market I don’t see doing occasional runway and designers seasonal catalogs as full time work.

Food is totally different; I’ve even purchased special serving dishes that are modern and non-distracting. If I could make a decent living shooting nothing but olives and toast, I’d do it in a heartbeat. But the reality is that a few hundred dollars for an afternoon shooting plates as they come off the line of a local restaurant doesn’t happen frequently enough to be a sole source of income. Again, something I could do, but not something that is going to be 80% of the business.

Nature photography is something else I like, mainly because I get to hike in the mountains to do it. But the kinds of shots that sell are those requiring a significant investment of time and effort, and I consider a form of art photography, there may not be a client commissioning the work – so the return on the investment may not happen for some time.

Weddings and portraiture are a common bread and butter operation, but would I enjoy them? A local model connected me to a couple she knew that needed a free wedding shoot; they had blown their budget and hadn’t considered hiring anyone for their wedding photos. I’ve heard all the cautions about not shooting your first wedding solo, but after discussing this with the couple and showing them my portfolio of non-wedding shots, we decided to go for it. They agreed with me that it would be nothing if not fun, because the alternative would be to rely on the snapshots of family and friends only. I absorbed as much knowledge as I could in the month I had before the ceremony, and it looked like I wasn’t going to enjoy it at all…

But guess what? I did enjoy it! The shooting was fun and relaxed, as was the whole day. Now when I read of photographers that don’t enjoy weddings I wonder why…  Bridezillas? Challenging shooting locations? Tough schedules? Isn’t that part of the challenge? Anyway, I knew I could safely add wedding photography to my interests; I may or may not shoot them solo again (with a second shooter, or as a second shooter would be nice…) but it’s something I know I can do, and I know how much of a time commitment it is, too.

So I know what I can and can’t shoot and still keep my sanity; but could I still pay the bills?

Time for the math… tomorrow!

The Business Plan

There are two parts to the business plan itself; a written description, and the math that backs it up. I generally work my plans in reverse, starting with my financial outcomes and working backwards through the math, the assumptions, and the constraints until I get a handle on what would have to happen to meet my objectives.

My basic assumption in preparing the plan was that it would take two years to go from zero to a stable goal state. I define this ‘stable state’ to be when business has grown such that revenue is equal to costs. If I exceed the stable state in real life, great, but if the math proves that the stable state is a challenge before I even start, then I know I have to tweak the variables first (or abandon the plan for now…!)

Starting with some round numbers, I listed all my costs… including my salary. I know what my personal minimum monthly budget is,  so that was easy. I included gear, technology, and categories for auto and studio expenses. Once I saw the bottom line the studio was the first to go; while running a studio is possible, shooting events like weddings and leaving a studio empty is financially unattractive. Yes, I could hire someone to ‘mind the store’, and even hire studio shooters for walk-ins, but the first few years are going to be stressful enough on their own, and I can rent studio time if I need to. I threw in budgetary numbers for marketing and networking: $12k, and if you are starting from scratch you’ll need all the fees to set up a business – about $6k.

I then created notional shoot packages for the various styles, and 24 months of estimated costs and number of bookings for each, starting from zero bookings and increasing to a stable state.  I know from using Wayne Cottons Success Calendars what a realistic % of available time is; by setting the bar to this number I know I won’t achieve a stable state by working 8 days a week, and hating it…. it’s 50%, by the way. This gives me a ‘Day Rate’; if pressed for a number I know I can simply divide this number by 8 to 10 hours for an hourly rate; or multiply it out for longer terms projects, like weddings. And I know that if I’m charging this rate and I’m 50% booked I’ll still hit plan. This may sound overly padded, but remember that giving up at least one day a week to non-client administrative tasks is a minimum the first year; count on more time to set up vendor accounts and network with others.

Using an example rate of ~$1000/day yields wedding packages in the $2500 – $4000 range; which is in line with the wedding photography market here.  At the low end it gives me time to work with the couple before the shoot; to attend the rehearsal if the venue is new to me, and time to prepare the proofs and produce the final images. At the high end I have time for a risk-reversal engagement shoot and no-hassle photobooks for the couple and their parents. I could price them lower to fill my calendar and still hit my targets, but at the expense of keeping current with the best vendors for the materials I need; technology, album printers, web services… you can see where that road leads!

Working from this rate I can set the pricing of other packages accordingly. Single photoshoots of a half-day: $500 plus ‘team’ expenses for assistants, make-up, hair, styling, and location. Headshots are even simpler; filling a whole portfolio; more complex. I do consider the revenue streams of additional images sold as stock, or to family and friends of wedding couples, but I don’t include it in the plan at this point; simpler is better!

Next up: The heavy lifting – or – Everything you were afraid to ask about setting up your own company, but really, really need to be aware of.

Baby Steps

If you’ve strung together some of the posts here, or from my twitter ‘tweets’, you’ll know I’m working through the planning, opening, and marketing steps of my photography business. It’s a fun process; certainly challenging, sometimes confusing, and potentially overwhelming.

To cope with that I’m treating like any project I do (I’m a project manager in ‘real life’) which means it has the usual boundaries; a scope, a schedule, and a budget. In plain english this means I have a deadline to do things – and I plan to run out of things before I run out of money.

I’ve often said that to avoid the paralysis of planning a project, you should ‘just start’. I usually start with the most basic of plans – a skeleton plan – and I flesh it out as I go. If I’m having a good week I take some time, usually Friday mornings, and look at where I am, and what’s next. If I don’t think that there is enough detail, or if any individual step takes longer than an hour to do, I usually break it up into smaller steps. This lets me work on it as I have time – which is almost never in 8 hour chunks.

I’m starting this with only three BIG steps, so it doesn’t get much simpler. At the end of each step is a simple question: “Should I keep going?”. This lets me pause at the end of any step, limiting my investments of time, money, and commitments if the answer is “No.”, and figure out if I can make it a “Yes!”. Here they are:

  1. Preparing the Business Plan
  2. Preparing for Business
  3. Marketing the Business

How far have I gone with my efforts so far? Well, farther than I’ve written about in the past, but not as far as I’d like; I’m still not 100% done with the first step, and I’m about halfway through the second step, at a point where I need a complete business plan before I invest any cash. Of course the third step is where all the fun is, so I’ve dabbled in it, but committed very little.

At the end of the last step I should have a calendar full of paid work before me, a plan for the next couple of years, and pretty big grin from being so darn successful. I think it’s pretty important to be able to visualize yourself in the future, too. It may be a silly mind trick, but it works for me. Every time I repeatedly visualize some future, I somehow get there. (I’m still waiting on the hover-car, though…).

Next time I’ll put some meat on these bones, and describe each step a bit more.

Splitting Atoms II

In a prior post I wrote a bit about possible changes that might take hold in the photographic imaging business, specifically in the world of content creation, and the effects of microstock image warehouses and photographers and models that shoot ‘for free’.

Some would argue that the availability of high quality equipment has made this possible; the rise of the inexpensive dSLR and the enthusiast shooter. Some might point to sites like Model Mayhem as the root of all evil for making trade shooting available to the public (and by ‘public’ I mean ‘aspiring models’, as opposed to ‘professional models’ that don’t flake out on shoots… but that’s another rant…). Some might point to the internet as the great ‘leveler of markets’, where price information gets confused with value information, and chaos ensues.

I would argue the inevitably of it all; in fact, I would argue we haven’t crested yet (or troughed, if you are a glass-half-empty type). I think we haven’t seen the bottom of the price curve.

The crest, at least as far as past experience in other industries has shown us so far, happens when we can outsource the content creation, but use the internet as the medium… no agency, no face-to-face meetings, and sadly, no client lunches to write off. I would see this as half way between stock shooting and a commissioned shoot; with the client requesting only the general parameters of the image content, and letting the ‘market’ deliver the service.

Note I said ‘service’, not ‘experience’. That’s a key point in Pine’s video from TED about the next split in industry as a whole. Of course it’s happening now, but it’s not pushed out to Jane & John business owner in a big way.

So what’s this have to do with splitting atoms?

In a previous life at IBM (yeah, about as far from creative photography as you can get… no wonder I quit!) I participated in the creation of services, and one important thing we did was to identify the value of our people and their roles within the processes we used to deliver our services to our customers.

The key activity was to split what was previously seen as an ‘atomic’ element – usually a person – into two parts; their innate expertise, and the humdrum stuff that we could stuff into a process that anyone – or any computer – could do.

This splitting of person from role is the important exercise. If you let the people focus on the creative stuff, and encapsulate all the supporting the processes into a web-accessible format, you could open the door to a new niche of industry; one where the client can get high quality content for a much lower price, and the creative team is much more focused on creating, rather than unprofitable administrivia.

There is also the flip-side to Pine and his notion of ‘the experience’; there is great value in delivering something special to the customer directly; this is evident in successful photographers that continue to command high prices and have a style with great market value.

A final thought; it’s not important which side you choose; or even to choose at all.

It is only important to know which side of the coin you are working on.

A photobook cheat sheet

Back in June I shot a wedding, and at the same time photobookcanada.com was having a promotion, so I thought … ‘What the heck, let’s try printing their wedding as a book!’. I’m glad I did… one of things I need to do is build better estimates of the actual amount of time it takes to perform all the post work, and assembling a whole book was an unknown to me. Short answer: it took more time than I thought… (more on that later), but the results were great:

Take a few wildly out of focus images for page background shots.

Take a few wildly out of focus images for page background shots.

I organized all the print-resolution ‘Picks’ into a folder, fired up the free layout software they provide (you could do your own .pdf if you like), and started the process. I tried a few things at first to get used to the software, which is a breeze to use, and then settled in for a full-day edit session. I wanted to know how long it would take, start to finish, for a 40 page book (which, by the way, is not only the minimum book length, but it’s also a tight squeeze for the ‘Big Day’, so count on using more pages).

I also wanted to try out all the possible layout options; white background, image backgrounds, and a couple of their ‘canned’ backgrounds. I wanted to know what would happen to the middle of an image of a two-page full bleed image (answer: bad things!). I wanted to know if the edges of an angled inset image would be smooth or jagged (answer: very smooth!). Do white image borders still look corny? (answer: yes!).  I had a LOT to try out.

Lots going on: An image background, and some angled insets.

Lots going on: An image background, and stacked and angled insets.

I knew the result of trying so many things would make the book, taken as a whole, slightly inconsistent from page to page. But it would let me use it as a sales sample tool… prospective couples (who am I kidding – it’s really just the brides) could hold it in their hands and get a feel for how the decisions they make would look.

The first mistake I made was choosing the less expensive softcover book; go for hardcover; after all it’s what the couple will be choosing for their book, although the extended family might opt for softcover versions. Although the paper and image qualities are fine, the softcover is attached to the rest of the book with a slightly different binding. It does mean that the cover won’t be creased when the book is opened – which is great – but the deep, tight binding means the pages don’t lie very flat, and a lot of image is lost into the spine. Also, the hardcover binding option they offer just looks damn cool, so that’s what I’ll order next time.

The cover is lying flat, and the pages loose almost 1cm of image into the binding, so beware!

The cover is lying flat, but the pages lose almost 1cm of image into the binding, so beware!

I made a special effort during the wedding day, knowing that I’d be needing additional images for the book to use as backgrounds, to ‘shoot everything’. How well did that work? It’s harder than it sounds. I went to the hotel room the bride and bridesmaids were using to get ready, and didn’t think to shoot a table of room service trays of food – it was just messy. Later, when I was laying out the book, I realized what a fantastic background that would have made for a page of fun shots. After all, they obviously had fun eating it, but there would be no photo to help them remember it, and food, taste, and smell are such powerful memories!

I ended up using a swatch of the wallpaper as a background, and it worked out ok, but I can still see that half eaten slice of pepperoni, taunting me…

Wallpaper as background; I decided to use sepia images for a complimentary look.

Wallpaper as background; I decided to use sepia images for a complimentary look.

Some obvious things to check are red-eye and resolution. I had a couple of red-eyes in the crowd shots; nothing major, but I can’t believe I missed them. Once the ink is on the page the only red-eye tool that is going to fix it is a Sharpie!

The other thing to watch – and their software will help you with this – is image resolution. You really don’t want to approach the minimum resolutions for any of your files; I had some small crops that didn’t survive being printed large, despite the software confirming they were ‘ok’. I should have manually up-rezzed them myself first. The print process emphasized the jpeg quantization matrix in one of the monochrome images; thank goodness it wasn’t the bride! You can always confirm the final calculated image resolution with their software, so don’t worry too much; it will protect you from make really blunderous errors.

Source material is from a 14.5MP Pentax K20D, and APS-C sensor. There is plenty of resolution for a two-page, full bleed spread.

Source material is from a 14.5MP Pentax K20D, an APS-C sensor. There is plenty of resolution for a two-page, full bleed spread across two 8.5" x 11" pages.

It took about 12 hours to do the entire layout; I suspect that should fall to 8 hours for 40 pages next time, and perhaps 5 hours for 50 pages as I improve the workflow. If you add the extra prep time for background and detail images, and the postproduction time on the proofing, uploading, and ordering, it should be ‘about a day’ to put the book together, using the flow of events to guide the chronology of the images.

Floating sharp inset images stand out nicely over intentionally out-of-focus backgrounds. This background was actually a shot of the centerpiece that didnt make the cut.

Floating sharp inset images stand out nicely over intentionally out-of-focus backgrounds. This background was actually a shot of the centerpiece that didn't make the cut.

When I thought I was ready to print I had a couple of questions for their tech support; they use a live person on the other end of a 1:1 chat window. Although typing is slower than talking, it does mean that swapping URL’s is possible. And the fact that I was conversing with an well informed person at 10pm MST was just awesome!

The first question I had was finding the final trimmed crop marks. This was important because in my layouts I wanted some of the inset images to bleed right off the page. To see the crop marks you have to start the upload process, and the first step is the creation of a temporary Acrobat file that shows the real crops.  The file has the word ‘Proof’ across all the pages, so you can’t just print it yourself, you have to go to step 2, which is to ensure that you’ve actually proofed it, and then you can upload it, and provide payment info.

Proofing tip: If I had printed the Acrobat proofing file I would have chosent to make these inset shots about 50% bigger. Against the busy detail of the dress macro shot they get a litte lost!

The second question I had was more of a puzzler – what about color management? The short answer – “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”. If you use their software to do the layout, they take care of it, because you’re basically using sRGB jpegs on the input side, and their software (and printer) on the output side.

No color-balance worries here; the DJ's lights weren't going to show in the early evening light, so I gelled some strobes to add some punchy color.

I chose the slow-boat shipping to save some $, and the wait was agonizing, but the book did arrive well protected; in a plastic sleve, wrapped in soft foam, inside a corrugated cardboard mailing box that was just the right size. Again, impressive!

The only quality issue (that I haven’t bothered to call photobook about, because it’s soooo minor), is that one of the pages is rippled in the middle, as if the quantity of ink was too high and the paper became wet. It’s so slight that it can only be felt; under normal light it can’t be seen. If you look at the page edge-on, into a light, the slightest of shadows of the ripples can be seen. I’ve heard great things about photobooks service, but for this slight an issue I’m not going to give them a call. But if you are a tactile person you should probably check each page individually when you get your books.

I would still like to try out some other photobook printers for comparison, but if I had to print a book right now, I’d have no reservations about using them again. The images I’ve used in this post were intended as samples for my web site, and were shot pretty wide open on purpose; if you want to see more samples,  head over to photobookcanada and have a look at what other formats and styles are like.

I hope you’ve liked this post, it’s a bit long-ish to cover the material in one shot, but I think it’s deserved in this case.

For me this is what makes wedding photography worth it; its like bottling a moment of distilled happiness.

For me this is what makes wedding photography worth it; it's like bottling a moment of distilled happiness.

Splitting Atoms

On Sunday I had a few parallel discussions regarding some possible future business models of photography.

My contention was that it should be relatively simple to add a ‘customer’ account type to sites like modelmayhem.com and inject some ‘industry’ into the ecology.

I wasn’t ready for what happened, but it shouldn’t have surprised me! I got a couple of quite different responses, but most were, on balance, negative.

One member of MM, The Devine Emily Fine, had posted this link to a TED video which I think encapsulates the ‘ether’ that my ideas exist in.  It’s a good watch, all the way through … go ahead and watch it … I’ll wait here.

I believe that the way customers engage creative professionals could change. It should change because those that offer a service will likely be challenged, while those that offer an experience should thrive.

This obviously works for retail / consumer oriented photographers; one of my favorite wedding photographers has created his entire brand about associating his customers with an exciting experience.

So why not let this creep into ‘the industry’?

Why not offer a path that enables clients, who otherwise would not have the production / art direction capabilities on their own, the ability to purchase creative services via the web?

The answer I got was “Well, we did the market research and no one is interested. They want to continue to go to a bricks-and-mortar agency”. Well, pardon me, but … “Duh!”

That has to be right up there with the predictions of “5 computers in the world” or “640k of RAM is enough”! Of course it works… today… because they are operating in today.

But press the fast forward button just a little, and do you think that long-distance outsourcing might happen? – just as it has for every other industry? It would be arrogant to think that what you do is so special, so unique, that no one else could ever do it. (As an aside, China and India graduate more geniuses every year than the whole US graduates students… yeah, you’re sooo special…). So create a unique experience of it, and offer it to the world. It works for this guy, so why not the rest of us?

So get ahead of the curve. By splitting the creativity away from the mundane functions of the participants in a creative endeavour, and giving those mundane functions a Web 2.0 ecology, you should be enabled to focus the right talent on the creative aspects of a project, casting, or single assignment for anyone, from anywhere. Add a bidding and staged payment system (a la eBay / PayPal), and you are most of the way there.

I’ll stop my rant here, and let this percolate for a while…

Do You Feel Lucky, Punk?

Well, do ya?*

(* or how not to fail at photography, project management, and life, and use GTD, PDCA, and your desk calendar in your quest for world domination.)

The title words (or something pretty darn close) were spoken by Clint Eastwood in the movie ‘Dirty Harry’, which was set in San Francisco, which is an excellent locale for todays (slightly stretched) metaphoric subtitle.

Fisherman’s Wharf

Every year we go to San Francisco, sometimes for the RSA convention (in real life I used to be a firewall guy, and still am an all-round IT type of guy). And every year I see vendors selling (and failing), and I see RSA attendees implementing (and failing), and I see speakers attempting to instruct (and generally failing – there are notable exceptions like Chris Hoff and Co. – his koolaid got kick) – but I digress.

So what’s with all the massive FAIL? How can vendors not sell, customers not do projects well, integrators totally blow it, and speakers fail to make a point (what WAS the Symantec keynote guy on, BTW? Anyone? Anyone?)

Little hint: None of them had a working strategy; no plan, no do, no check, and no act. Just buckets of repeating fail. It’s like there was an ACME truck parked out back, selling buckets of the stuff.

Which is all a shame, because San Francisco is a terrific place for photography. Everyone who goes there can get interesting shots like the one at the start of this post. But that’s a topic for another post…

A whole bunch of posts ago I posted about how to Get Things Done. And I promised an update on how well I’ve been doing at using these methods at kick-starting the business side of my photography square in the behind. With the beautiful city of San Francisco as our backdrop, and the now-immortal words of Dirty Harry gently suggesting that luck may not be enough to cut it, let’s delve in.

My strategy is still this:
1. Just Start. Beginning, middle or end – doesn’t matter, just start for Pete’s sake!
2. Use GTD to capture the maelstrom of ideas and things-to-do and bring order to chaos.
3. Use Success Calendars to ensure I keep balance to my life.
4. Apply a little “Plan-Do-Check-Act” to the whole thing – once I figured out where I’d actually started from.
Before all this I had a dozen items in a single GTD project. Now I had over two hundred! For you GTD geeks out there, implementation-wise I switched from a gmail based system to Remember the Milk (RTM) when I got my iPhone. It JUST ROCKS!
Lesson: A dozen disconnected items in a GTD/RTM list do not form a business plan.
I kinda knew this; in ‘Real Life’ I build business cases for projects all the time, often to the point where I understand the nuances of the business drivers better than the people I hand off the completed projects to. But I had no ‘seed material’, no templates, and I knew this information was out there.
Off to the library I went, and found a ton of books on photography as a business. Too many, actually. After skimming most, and reading a few, I decided that I had osmotically absorbed the pattern they were laying down. Why the library? Why not Google? Simply because the act of creating a book shows a pretty high degree of commitment to the subject material by the author. The internet … no so much.
And then, as often happens for me, I did ‘feel lucky’ and found ‘189 business building ideas for photographers‘. I chalked it up to ‘Chance favors a prepared mind’, or with a modern spin: ‘Chance favors the connected mind’ – since I’m pretty sure the list was delivered via Twitter.
The list seemed great; there were many items in that list that rung true; either I knew them already, they were common sense, or were new to me, but not far fetched. The only issue was how disjointed the list was. Enter my favorite slicer-dice, the spreadsheet!
After a few hours and a couple days of mental gestation, I realized the only way to cut to the meat of the list was to approach it with my strategy:
1. Just Start: I copied the list into a spreadsheet to easily apply organization to it.
2. GTD it: Treat the list as an entire GTD Inbox in need of processing. It turns out there are between 5 and 7 projects hidden in those 189 items.
3. Add to each item a ‘color’ from the Success Calendars:
  • Blue – as in ‘blue sky’ – to step back, take stock, and plan.
  • Red – as in ‘red tape’ – all the admin ‘crappus’ (that’s latin for ‘crap’)
  • Green – for ‘green machine’ – money making items
  • Yellow – ‘mellow yellow’ – downtime!
4. Sort the results as ‘Plan-Do-Check-Act’, and also do a P-D-C-A on the whole enchilada.
And that very last step – the PDCA – is what this post really is.
For starters there are some blue, a few yellow, one green, and a TON of red items in that list. I won’t detail it because it’s subjective, but it’s mostly administrivia.
Once the items were sliced into colors it was trivial to send lists of multiple items to RTM as an email. Just four emails later and I had imported the entire set of 189 items into my GTD system, already into their lists, bypassing the Inbox.
From there I knew I wanted to refine the blue planning entries because they also represent the ‘Plan’ of PDCA, and I knew I could start with those right away. So if it wasn’t a pure-blue item it was moved to another list.
It was also pretty plain that a LOT of items were ‘@online’ so I ended up with a ‘Photo – Online’ list and a ‘Photo – Web Sites’ list; one for online activities, and one for the web sites where I can control the content, like this blog.
I also started stuffing lots of items into the Someday list – there were a lot of items that might be good if you have 20 years of experience as a working photographer, but that’s not me…. but Someday… maybe.
The other lists are for Admin, Biz, Learn, Marketing, Networking, and the ‘Kit’ – the portfolio, business cards, and tear sheets we all need to keep together.
That whole process took less than an hour.
From there I took some initial stabs at further breaking down the items into Strategic, Tactical, and Operational goals, because some of them were direct suggestions of what to do, some were more quite ‘fluffy’, and some seemed to glue the two together.
This led – finally – to executing the first item on the blue list, which was item #91: Set 10 goals.
Ok, you can stop laughing now – it’s not nearly as infinite-loopy as it sounds. But it IS a enough for a post of it’s own.
And where does this leave me, in a day-to-day w
ay?
  • Every day has a color (from the success calendars), so I know which task lists I should be working on that day, and I’m not stuck in planning mode. I’ve already started to attack red-list items on red days.
  • All the Someday stuff is now safely out of the way, but not forgotten.
  • When it’s a yellow day I know I can walk away and enjoy doing something else without guilt or distraction, and if something pops into my head, I have my GTD inbox with me (RTM on the iPhone).
Now, about the lack of Green days where I actually make money at this …. that’s something for another post too….

Getting Things Done

I did a half dozen little jobs today to move forward with the business. And I know I have a half dozen more tomorrow. And I know that I’m doing the right things at the right time; more or less.

And I know that I didn’t forget anything. That’s important, because I can really only focus on the weekend; during the week I can get a few things taken care of; but if you recall the method of Wayne Cotton, it’s hard to switch gears and have both a Green Machine and a Red Administrivia day combined.
Last post I promised to connect this to David Allen; if you don’t know much about him or his methods called, loosely, ‘Get Things Done’ or GTD, zip over there and look around. His stuff works.
A long time ago I was working in what I thought was a high stress job, and the manager asked why I was so wound up. After describing feelings of being overwhelmed with a ton of trivial tasks, he suggested I write everything down, even though I cautioned him it might slow me down. He just smiled and pointed to my empty notepad.
That night I got a great sleep, because I wasn’t still trying to mentally juggle a thousand little details in my brain. I could actually let go, relax, and sleep.
For the last 20 years or so I’ve been ‘Writing Things Down’ – which has a slightly different sound to it than ‘Getting Things Done’, doesn’t it? One method just records what to do – the other sounds like it might help you actually do them. Turns out, it does!
I discovered GTD while browsing Google for a better way to track all the collected ‘fluff’ of some of the projects I was managing at the time. Fast forward to today, and all of the details of starting a business – now that’s a LOT of fluff to track.
I did notice something though, GTD was never intended to be a project management method. And it isn’t, but it’s a great compliment. It give the rigor to what one PM I’d worked with called ‘Daily Status’, which was his way of driving a lot of activities quickly without micro-managing. So be warned, GTD won’t run your project, but it will seal up a lot of those cracks that things seem to fall through.
I use the notions of the yearly and 90-day success calendars of Wayne Cotton, and I keep the Red, Green, and Blue days productive and the Mellow Yellow Days relaxed because I know that if I maintain GTD lists, I can let go when I need to and re-engage quite quickly.
And that is todays tip: Maintaining GTD lists with contexts that are ‘color coded’ like Cotton Systems Success Calendars. Simple, huh?
Of course I’m so dang busy all those Yellow days are turning quite Red with all the ‘fluff’ of starting a new business…. so remember to check how you are actually spending your days and how you planned on spending them, too!
The next posts I’ll focus more on the meat of what I’ve been doing with a few more examples of process-and-method – but a LOT more emphasis on the business side of my photography!

Putting the T back in TFP

TFP, or ‘Time For Prints’ refers to a model working for prints instead of money, and nowdays it’s sometimes called TFCD – althought even that is a little dated (where the model gets a CD), since it’s easier to just to put everything online (I use zenfolio). I still like putting finished product on CD or DVD just for the more permanent nature of the media, but that’s another post.

But back to the premise, which is a growing confusion of the terms collaboration and TFP. If TFP is meant as a form compensation acceptable to the model for their time (the magic T in TFP), then a release should be signed by the model and the photographer should be able sell the images at a later time. But I see a lot of collaborative work being done (heck, I do 99% of my work as collaborative) with no releases, and no hope of anyone getting anything published and making an income.

I think we need to transition part way back to TFP, but create a shared profit model whereby if the photographer sells an image, the model is also compensated. They can work out the percentages and the structure, and then let the machinery of stock photography work out the dollars and cents for each participant.

Any takers?