Afterexposure Photography

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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.

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