It's fun to pretend that creative businesses are totally dependent on the quality of the creativity offered. It's fun to pretend that all there is to being a "professional" photographer is the credit card prowess to buy the latest gear and to learn to use it at the highest level. If that was all there is to being a (financially) successful professional photographer then pretty much the rest of the economy would shut down because everyone would be a professional photographer.
But the reality of the business is that....it's a business. A business can make a wonderful and innovative product but if they don't bring it out into the market, educate customers about its features and benefits and tell them how to buy it, the product won't sell, the money won't come rolling in and the business will falter. You can be the finest creative photographer in existence but if you don't put the work in front of the people who are in the market to buy the work you won't make money.
I was reminded of this recently. I'd spent a lot of time and attention on my role as a writer of photo books. The launch of a new book requires that the writers have a firm hand in marketing their books if they want the book to succeed. I want the LED book to succeed so I organized reviewers, sent out press releases, called friends who write for newspapers and magazines and wrote about the book on my blog. The book is doing well enough but the reality is that I took my eye off the only ball in the game that really matters to my bottom line. My core business: Making and selling photographs.
And the business started to suffer. Bookings fell off. Income dropped.
As silly as it sounds I had made all the rookie mistakes that I counseled against in my book about the business of Commercial Photography. I had stopped doing coherent and regular marketing. I was coasting on my good looks and that will probably get me as far as driving on four flat tires.
Then I looked at my new, iPad portfolio and realized that I really had two problems. One was the lack of marketing but the other problem (maybe more serious) was the fact that I'd been doing all sorts of different photographs to illustrate a (seemingly) endless line of books and now my portfolio looked like a disconnected hodge-podge of images. I had compensated by tossing in quantity. The kitchen sink syndrome of portfolio engorgment. Disconnected. Chaotic.
Even if my marketing revved up quickly and worked well I'd be shooting myself in the foot by tossing a confetti bomb of discordant images into an art buyer's lap. I wouldn't be pigeon-holed, just tossed in the waste can of failed suitors.
I knew how to fix the first problem: Hard Work. Get the mailing list in shape. Prioritize. Tune up the message and send advertising. I used the image above, shot for an Annual Report project, as my first postcard mailer of the year. It sums up what I like to do. I like to go on location with my big Elinchrom Ranger flash and make images of real people. It's technically more challenging than available light photography and requires good lighting skills. That's a niche. But a big enough one to be profitable.
I know my limitations so I didn't even attempt to do the design work on the post card. I left that to award winning graphic designer, Belinda Yarritu. She applied her skills to a 5.5 by 8 inch postcard and sent it out for printing. I worked on my "Top 100" list of people (locally) that I'd like to work with and, when I finished with that I started on the next list. The top 250.
But that still left the "defective" product presentation to deal with. I was lucky. In the right place at the right time, having coffee with the right person; Lane Orsak, advertising agency owner and creative consultant. I showed him my iPad portfolio over coffee and he actually groaned. Over and over again. I asked. He replied, "You know I like your work but you have way too much in here. It's not sequenced well. It doesn't work together. I hate the names you've given to the galleries. This is a train wreck!!!" Then he added, "I hope you're not showing this to potential clients....."
I must have looked totally dejected and hopeless because Lane took pity on me and grabbed my iPad out of my hands. "Teach me how to use this portfolio program and give me a few days...."
He catches on fast so after 20 minutes of working with the app and taking a few notes he stood up, with my small computing machine in his hands, and walked out of the coffee shop. He looked back over his shoulder and said, "Don't call me. I'll call you when I've got it fixed..."
I spent the next few days sorting, labeling, (hand addressing a few) and stamping postcards. I kept a list and made sure I had follow up telephone numbers and e-mail addresses. And then I got the call. Lane was bringing my rehabilitated portfolio back to me.
Lane had thrown away well over 50% of the stuff crowding my portfolio and it wasn't a butterfly that emerged from that little high tech coccoon, instead it was a bird of paradise. Now the presentation flows and, more importantly, it leaves the prospect hungry for more. We're back in the marketing groove once more and the first tentative phone calls and e-mails, asking for bids, are trickling in. We've got another card in the works and a small, e-mail ad in reserve.
If you get cocky and start drinking your own Kool-Aid, or, if you take your eyes off your core business, the universe will slap you in the wallet. While I'd love it if the sole determiner of my business was my photographic skill I've been reminded that there are a lot of "channels" out there for clients to choose from and you have to work to earn and keep your market share.
Oh drat. This creative enterprise is really a small business. And the physics of small business are always in play. Gravity never takes a vacation.