Sunday, December 21, 2008

When It Gets Slow

I spent a good portion of November being much slower than I wanted. In fact, I panicked a bit. Not the January/August panic that happens despite almost 20 years of photography that tells me that those are my slow months. It was a "oh my God the phone isn't ringing, I need new clients" panic. A scheduled rate increase set for January I was rethinking, and I gave serious thoughts to accepting lower paying assignments, and, I looked at my bank account to see how much longer the business would run if the phone didn't ring again.

(Continued after the Jump)

I started with an aggressive marketing campaign, directed at both short-term clients, as well as long term ones. I did A LOT of research (with all my spare time) on exactly the clients that fit those descriptions, and I began a targeted campaign to these prospects. (I have been espousing this solution at each of the places I have given presentations over the past few years). One of the things I haven't done a lot of in recent years is marketing, because we are at and exceeding our capacity to service our existing client base via word-of-mouth referrals.

One of the things that people in the know in marketing will tell you is that you should always be marketing, and I was concerned I'd fallen into that trap. Yet getting "cold" clients has a significant curve to it. Teaching the clients why you're worth what you are, explaining the rights issues, and otherwise just prooving yourself means a lot of effort for a potentially diminished return. This is why, for example, I wouldn't put myself in a pool of 10+ photographers a bride is considering, and when I get a client who wants me to do a site visit to the National Press Club days before the event (I have done hundreds of events there) I give pause to that assignment. These are among the downsides to "cold" clients. When you come via word-of-mouth, you're their photographer, if you're available, and when I get to an "exceeds capacity" situation, then that's not good.

As late November rolled around, a few calls came in for December, and now December assignments this year exceed our average, and last year as well. Further, January is booking up - unusual for a clientele that, 90% of the time, books a week or so out.

What I concluded as I considered why this happened, was that it was all about the election. No one wanted to do anything in DC until they knew what was happening, and the election din had died down a bit. I had thought of that when doing my research, and I looked back at the assignment data from 2000, and realized that that was bad data because that was right around when the dot-com crash was, so it wasn't really useful.

We are now back on track for a normal 2008 (overall), and, armed with many many prospects for 2009, I expect we will be growing our business once again, and we'll maintain the marketing outreach as well. Our rate increase is no longer a question mark, and January is filling up.

I know that people get this idea that doing it free or slashing rates is a solution, but I did not succumb to that. In looking at the bank account I concluded I had 3-4 months worth of operating revenue to sustain the business even if the phones never rang again, and that was before considering things like selling gear, getting a loan, or any of the other solutions. I was committed to maintaining my rates (which are a fair value) up until I shuttered the business. If you're a restaurant and you've determined that it costs $10 to make a dish that you serve for $16, just because you're slow you don't slash the price of the dish to $8 in order to get business. Doing so attracts the wrong clientele (i.e. a non-sustaining one) and then when it gets busy you can't raise your rates back to where they were. The old adage "we lose a little on each sale but make it up on volume" doesn't work for them, and it won't work for you.

One of the clients that came on during the pause was one who, for them, price wasn't a deciding factor, it was just a detail. They booked coverage of a one-hour press conference, wanted rush services and duplicate CD's and proofs, and the entire estimate exceeded $2k. Then, they added on a separate portrait session with lights for $2k+. There wasn't any debate about if the price was too high. When the call for that assignment came in, it was slow, and I thought about reducing the estimate, but I did not, thankfully.

Resist sliding backwards to a client base you might of once had but have now migrated upwards (price-wise) from. Re-group and re-think your marketing outreach. Reduce operating costs, and remain focused. Your business isn't a sprint, it's a marathon. Think long term.

Please post your comments by clicking the link below. If you've got questions, please pose them in our Photo Business Forum Flickr Group Discussion Threads.


Rick Lewis said...

John, I love the insight you give about your business. I am just starting out with a mainly portrait business but still derive inspiration form your Blog posts.

Thanks for sharing!! Your advice is always welcome!


Anonymous said...

This was a really helpful, shockingly honest and heartfelt post.

Thanks John.

Unknown said...

Hey John,

Thank you for another very relevant post. I know a lot of photographers are probably feeling like they are on shaky ground. Fear can cause them to make bad decisions, like you yourself almost did. Thankfully you were able to pull yourself a little further back from the situation at hand and get a better overall view of what was happening and were able to maintain your good business practices.

On a side note, the with all the posts on working for free, I had done a two part blog post. Just the other day, I added a part three. It's a good little anecdote that helps people see just what they might be getting when they go for a offer of something for free.

Check it out:



Anonymous said...

John, I agree with most of the post but I would tell you that, since the earliest days of my career, the advice I've always followed is to have ONE YEAR of operating expenses in reserve (not retirement, etc.) for emergencies. Not three or four months.

Sure helped right after 9/11 to give me a little backbone and not trim rates or usage licences fees.

One year makes it all more comfortable.

Kirk Tuck

Anonymous said...

A great post John,
I can not overemphasize the importance of marketing. For years I was always "too busy to market". This summer I faced the prospect of a precipitous drop in bookings (architecture photography)and was actually considering getting out of the field after 30 years. I compiled a list of past clients and a list of future clients and went cold calling.
I was able to generate enough business to turn a rotten summer into a season of good revenue. Next year looks good also.

The lack of marketing effort nearly killed me. I won't make the same mistake again.

John Harrington said...

Kirk -

Thanks for the note. SCORE recommends:

"If you’re a consultant with low overhead, a quarter’s cash reserve could be enough to tide you over. If you’re in a business with inventory, or if you have employees, you should have a six-month cash reserve."

Since I am closer to the consultant (i.e. no storefront/inventory overhead, and those that do work for me work for others too and are contractors) I was closer to the 25% mark.

Every business is different, with different cash reserve needs. Of course, having a years' reserve is great, but with that much laying around, I hope you have it invested in easily liquidate-able investments.

For me, after 9/11 I lost 25% of my business (since regained), but that was because I am significantly diversified. I know many colleagues who lost 50% and more.

Following my November experience, where we did some cost-cutting, we are now striving for a longer cash reserve period.

Brian Mc said...

Hi John,

Missed your posts this past week. Was starting to think some creepo food shooter from NYC may have come down to DC with a lead pipe!

I also had considered a price increase (since abandoned)for next year and also fall into the trap of not marketing while I'm busy. It's always important but even more so now, and I approach 2009 with much more of a marketing mindset.

Thanks for all the things you give us to think about and act on!


Anonymous said...

Great post John!

When things get slow, it's easy to pull back, but successful business owners know that's exactly the time you need to reach out and get more aggressive. Those are the businesses photographers need to target in their marketing efforts.

You don't always have to cold call either, networking within your regular activities is a great way to find leads. The familiarity with others in your circles makes it a whole lot easier to talk about what you do and how you can help them, or their friends, market their businesses. You show your book to a guy you see at the gym every day and before you know it, you're not only doing work for his company, but the ad agency they use, and all the ad agency's clients.

Turn over every stone you can find, there's a lead under there!

Unknown said...


I've been reading your posts for a couple years now and have always gained great insight into the business of photography. Putting it into practice has been a struggle and now I'm at a place where this next year the rubber's got to start meeting the road.

I'm not anywhere in the same market or client base as you are and honestly do not aspire to, but the principles you lay out are always very applicable (both here and in your book) for business in general.

I am looking into marketing strategies for the first time and honestly it shows in my sales over the past two years. Word of mouth (which I naively thought would be enough) hasn't been a strong enough approach. I've been very tactical in my thinking rather than strategic. Therefore, I need a more concentrated effort on the long haul.

I've read a lot in the past month about "lead generation" marketing, the 80/20% rule, sales letters, the sales pipeline, and sales strategies/techniques, etc...

When you talk about a marketing campaign: which marketing strategies do you use and do you have any advice on what to concentrate on first when starting one's first marketing campaign.

Kenneth L. Kunkle said...

I'm not a photographer, but I found your comments to be equally applicable to my work. It is so easy to start questioning your business decisions when the phone stops ringing, but if you are providing good services to your clients, following a consistent business plan will work much better than running scatter-shot with your marketing plans.

Anonymous said...

I really love marketing... In the past 2 years I spent a lot of time doing marketing...
Right now my working time is this:
20% Marketing, 15% shooting, 30% Photoshop, 20% Archive (stock editorial preparation),5% studying, 5% personal project, 5% travelling.
At the end I see that internet marketing is what pay for me.

Morningstar Productions said...

I know this is purely anecdotal, but I did something these last 2 weeks I've never done in 22 years: I gave every estimate a -15% discount line item. With each estimate I told the prospective client that I know this is a "special" year and I want to do my part to help them fit their budgets. And guess what? All 4 quotes in the last 2 weeks were immediately approved.

Before these 2 weeks not a single prospective client was returning calls or emails after my proposal. I know that I'm on a list of photographers given out and that the others in my market are lower-priced than I am. Even though I'm told that I "come very highly recommended" new prospective clients just stopped responding to my proposals this fall so I tried this out. Each client has thanked me as if I did them a personal favor by giving them the discount. Even with my 15% discount I know my rates are higher than my colleagues in my market., but somehow it is making a difference. Or maybe I just have a rash of quick-acting clients? My perception is that my clients are under pressure to do the same work with a smaller budget and that a small gesture like this is seen as a larger thing than it really is.

Yet, I wonder when I will stop. I supposed when I am making a proposal for a period when I'm already busy then the discount won't be offered. Typically my phones don't ring much until mid-January. Until then the few calls that do come in will get the blue-plate special and I'll be keeping track to see what percentage I book. I just wish I knew if this is really making a difference or not.

Rand Larson

ralswang said...

Thank you for putting this out there. We all have to work hard at building strong business contacts and all the more important in these times. I also want to share a word of caution for us all in the freelance photographic world. This is the time to sit down with your beekeeper and account and know the real number you need to make every month and for the whole year so that you can make sure that you are able to take care of yourself and family. The times we are facing in 2009 have the chance of lasting more than 8 quarters and if that happens now, market we work in be affected in a major ways. I wish all the best for 2009!!!

Anonymous said...

Great article. Hearing encouragement is always appreciated since I am in my first year of business.


Anonymous said...

^^ nice blog!! thanks a lot! ^^

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