Hey everybody!  Thank you so much for tuning in again this Monday for our First Year blog series!  Originally I was going to be writing more about marketing but we had a great question on Facebook a couple of weeks ago from Kelley of Kelley Norcia Photography that has been coming up quite a bit lately and we felt it would be a really great thing to talk about.  I promise we’ll get back to the marketing stuff next week.

So, here we go…

What does it take to get to a point where you are ready to go full time?

Business Mentoring by Bellingham Photographer Joe and Patience

On the surface this seems like it would be really easy answer and it’s one where a lot of people throw out financial figures and the number of weddings or sessions required to get there but it’s a lot deeper than that.  There is a lot more personal stuff that has gone into our transition from part time photography business owners to being full time for the last year.  It wasn’t an easy decision for us to make and I’d really like to talk to you about all of the things that pushed us to a point where we were ready to go full time.

First things first though.  This is going to be different for everyone.  I really wish we could offer some kind of checklist and once you hit all of the boxes you’d be ready to take the leap but in all reality it just isn’t that easy.  I’m going to talk about what it took for us to go full time in hopes that it will resonate with you or maybe offer inspiration to reevaluate certain aspects of your business, your full time job or even some of the mental or emotional parts of making such a huge life change.

I feel like there were three main parts to this for us.  The first was financially based because it would have been a huge mistake to leave our jobs if we didn’t know if we would have enough work to pay our bills and survive.  The next thing that came up was the growth of our business.  At some point you will find that your full time job is limiting your ability to put the time into growing your business.  Sadly, the last part of this equation for us was some personal stuff that took us a lot longer to see than it should have.  In a lot of ways I feel like the personal stuff I’m going to write about in this post should have been the top thing on this list but I was so focused on my other jobs and providing for my family that I was missing the most important thing in my life.  I was missing out on life with my family.

Business Mentoring by Bellingham Photographer Joe and Patience

We’ll start with the financial stuff.  If we weren’t confident that we could make enough to get by for the next several months our leap into full time leap would have never happened.  In all honestly, this was a pretty long process too.  It took us 5 years from starting our business until we hit the point where we really started to consider taking it full time.  All of that marketing through referrals stuff I talked about in last week’s post took years to build.  I know it can be a lot of work but don’t give up.  We worked a lot of really long hours between four jobs to get to the point we’re at now and I want you to know that it is worth it.  

When our income from the photography business surpassed our income from our full time jobs was the point where things started to get pretty serious.  Patience was the first to leave her job a few years ago while I stuck with my full time job until March of last year.  We wanted to make the transition as financially comfortable as possible.  Having the full time job gave us the financial opportunity to attend a couple of different workshops to build our skill as photographers as well as improve our understanding of running a business.

Business Mentoring by Bellingham Photographer Joe and Patience

We also knew it was time to go full time when our mindset shifted from our photography business is getting in the way of our full time job to our full time job is getting in the way of us having the ability to grow our photography business.  This was a major adjustment in our life and one that came with some pretty big sacrifices to the careers we were previously pursuing.  I was in a sales position with Walton Beverage and actually had to resign my position because I was getting calls from the accounts I managed while we were shooting weddings.  I never expected to give up opportunities I had worked so hard for but when it meant that we would be able to pursue something we loved doing so much it was an easy decision.  

Another part of that is the amount of time available to build our business.  When I moved into the sales position I was in it really limited the amount of time I could commit to our business.  It was a huge risk to take when I requested to resign and to move back into the previous position I held but it was completely necessary in order to continue building our business while also enjoying the financial security that the job gave us.  That move allowed me to leave work at work as much as possible so we could focus more of our energy on our business.

Ultimately the business got busy enough that there was no way we could continue to grow without some drastic changes.  When you hit a point where it is impossible to devote more time to growing your business it’s time to take that chance.  This might be a hard thing to see though.  I was working at three jobs, my retail job, the Air National Guard one weekend a month and our photography business for about four years.  There were points during the summer where I was working over 100 hours a week and going months at a time without a single day off.  I should have realized a lot longer than one year ago that this kind of work schedule was having a huge impact on our business’ ability to grow.

There was literally no more time that we could devote to our business because we were stretched so thin.  We had all kinds of big plans and projects we wanted to work on but they ended up sitting on our ever expanding to do list.  It was a terrible place to be and the only way to get through it was to leave my full time job.  You have to look at it in a way where you see what could be getting done and how it could have financial benefits if you were able to focus your energy in one place.  I really think if I was able to look at things this way earlier on it wouldn’t have been so out of hand with the hours I was working.

Business Mentoring by Bellingham Photographer Joe and Patience

All of the stuff I have been talking about has a huge part in knowing when it’s time to go full time but the next part of this is what really pushed us over the edge.

We had worked for years without ever taking a break and when we finally did it was, it was life changing.  In January of last year we took our first vacation since we were married.  It had always been my mindset that if we worked as hard as we could now that maybe we could get far enough ahead that someday we could start to enjoy life.  The thing I was missing completely was that if I stayed on the path we were on I was going to miss out on some of the most amazing things that were already happening.  Abbee and Noah are only going to be kids for so long and it would have been the biggest mistake of my life to continue working at a rate that would have caused me to miss out on their childhood.

Our trip to Hawaii was amazing!  It was the first time since our two day honeymoon to San Diego in 2005 that Patience and I had taken an actual vacation and it was even more meaningful that our kids were able to be there with us.  This trip was the strongest push for me to really consider going full time with photography.  It was the first time I was really able to see what I was missing and to see that if I didn’t stop I was going to lose so much with my kids that I would never be able to get back.

If you’re in this boat I strongly recommend giving it a shot.  If you’re not ready to go full time with whatever business you are trying to grow you might need to make some tough decisions.  If you already have a good job that you enjoy it might not even be a bad idea to cut back on your personal business.  If you’re willing to push through this tough season to get to where you want to be you should go for it.  I don’t know exactly what other people are facing but I know from my personal experience that I there are things I will never be able to get back because I held on so strongly to the “work until it kills me” kind of mentality.  Your family is worth so much more than any job will be.  I know without a doubt that if we wouldn’t had made this change to our life when we did I would regret losing out on so much more than I already did.

Business Mentoring by Bellingham Photographer Joe and Patience

The last part of this big transition was also family based.  Not long after our trip to Hawaii we spent a few days visiting family in eastern Washington.  I know a lot of us get into the daily grind where we see exactly what is in front of in terms of what we need to work on and accomplish but sometimes we miss the bigger picture.  Through our hours and hours working we were missing the fact that our family was worried about what was happening in our work life and really supported the idea of us making full time photography our only career.  This meant the world to me!  To hear my parents talk about how they believed in what we were doing and that they knew we would be successful had a huge impact on me and was the final push I needed to finally make the decision to go full time.

I really hope our experience can help you in making some of these big decisions.  I know that there are some really hard times and that it doesn’t seem possible to give more than you are already giving but if you take a moment to step back and look at the bigger picture you might see that you’re a lot closer than you ever realized.  This was definitely the case for us.

Next week we’ll be going back into marketing.  We hope you have an awesome week.

Check out the other posts in this series:

Personal Fear

Financial Fear

Marketing Part I


Hawaii Vacation Photography by Oahu Photographer Joe and Patience

Hey all!  Thanks for tuning back in!  We’re going to be touching on some the aspects of how we approach marketing this week with even more planned for next week.  Marketing is one of those subjects that seems like a never ending process that needs to be attacked from multiple angles.  It only seems proper that we break it down and try to cover all of our marketing bases.

When we first started our business we were slow.  When I say slow I mean we were really, really slow.  Like three months between inquiries slow.  We didn’t even need to check our email things were so slow. It was because of this lack of business that we figured it would be worthwhile to spend several hundred dollars to put an ad in a local magazine.  That’s what people who wanted to look professional did, right?  We spent $670 and it netted us exactly one inquiry and zero bookings.  A huge part of that failure falls on our shoulders because we did a terrible job with designing our ad but it also taught us a huge lesson.  

Even though we were slow we were getting return clients and more importantly, they were slowly but surely referring their family and friends to us.  What if we took our marketing budget and applied it to the products we were delivering to our clients?  Instead of delivering a Sharpie’d CD or DVD in a jewel case like it was some kind of crappy mix tape, what if we delivered something much higher quality?  The process of going from those sweet mix tape style disks to what we do now was a long one but ultimately we found an approach that suited us extremely well and more importantly, it results in quality referrals.

Another lesson for us wasn’t necessarily something we learned through making mistakes or embarrassing ourselves but actually came from our clients and their previous experience with other photographers.  While there are some amazing photographers out there that deliver an absolutely amazing customer experience there are also a lot of photographers out there that do the exact opposite.  We heard story after story about bad experiences people had with photographers and it always had to do with the experience.  We heard about awkward sessions, photos being delivered months late and in some cases about photographers that never even delivered the photos they took.  The thing that was really crazy about these stories is that we weren’t asking them about the experiences they have had with other photographers.  If people are willing to share these things with us during their sessions you can imagine what they are telling the people they are close with.

Hawaii Vacation Photography by Oahu Photographer Joe and Patience

We are all about referrals.  Our business is about 80% referral with the remaining 20% being from random Google searches and people finding us on Facebook.  Without referrals we wouldn’t even be in business so it seems like a good place to start with marketing.

First and foremost, our approach to marketing is to impress the clients we have already booked.  Our current and former clients are the people that are going to rave about us and recommend us to everyone they know so why not allocate the largest part of our marketing budget to them?  They might not reach more people than that random magazine ad but the people they do reach will have something that magazine ad could never have.  Personal experience.  That personal experience being shared with other potential clients can easily change our status from being one of many photographers being considered to the only photographers being considered.  It’s a huge deal to us!

The following things we do all have a huge impact on our client experience which directly affects our referrals.

Tangible products.  When we decided to move away from our awesome CD in a jewel case look we decided to approach it in a way where what we would want was the focal point of our delivery rather than what was popular in the industry.  This all happened when PASS came onto the scene with sites like Pixieset and Shoot Proof right on PASS’s heals.  While electronic delivery seemed like a great option we realized that it seemed very impersonal.  If we were to receive photos we would love to be able to flip through them in the same way that we flipped through the photos our parents got back when we were kids.  There was something so cool about seeing photos for the first time in print.  Plus, you really can’t beat the experience of actually holding your photos rather than only being able to see them on the screen.

Killing it with your customer service.  This can easily be applied to any business.  If you don’t do a great job with your customer service you’re fighting a losing battle if you want referrals from your current and former customers.  It’s the small things that count.  Respond to people in a timely fashion, do the things you say you’re going to do and don’t surprise them with extra charges on their sessions.  As crazy as these sound they are all problems that people run into.  The saying that any publicity is good publicity is completely inaccurate here.  No matter how great the photos you take are you’ll kill your business if you can’t provide good customer service.

Hawaii Vacation Photography by Oahu Photographer Joe and Patience

Beyond good customer service, why not throw in a few things they aren’t expecting.  Take the time to help them with their wedding timeline and create a family formal list that will minimize any uncomfortable family issues that could cause them stress.  This not only helps them with planning but it will also build their trust that you are confident in what you do.

A few years ago we read “The Guide” by Justin and Mary.  It is a great resource that we definitely recommend.  It was also the first place we had heard about giving couples a date night box.  A couple of months before the wedding we send out this package with our favorite candy, popcorn with our favorite popcorn recipe and our favorite “romantic” movie.  We also include a note asking them to take one night to not think about anything wedding related and to enjoy the movie and each other’s company.  We regularly hear back from our couples about how thankful they are for sending the box and that it was such a great reminder that even though the planning and details are great their wedding is still about the two of them starting their life together.  It’s the perfect thing to show that we really care about them not only as our client but as people that have come into our life.  There’s no better customer service than showing that you genuinely care for and appreciate your clients.

Product consistency.  This is another huge thing that can’t be underestimated in the world of referrals.  You absolutely need to be able to provide work that is consistent with the work that causes people to book you for their weddings or sessions.  If they book you because they like the dark and moody look in your portfolio or in the photos you took for their friends and you shoot light and airy for their session there’s little chance they will be happy with their photos.  More importantly, this lack of consistency will kill your ability to get referrals.

Our approach to building consistency is one of practice, practice and more practice.  Patience and I like the light and airy look so that’s how we shoot everything.  We shot weddings that way, family sessions that way and our personal work that way.  We try to get that look with off camera flash, with natural light and indoors with available light.  We shoot absolutely everything with that look because it’s a look that we love.  There will be times when the light isn’t right or you have to shoot indoors but that shouldn’t be as much of an obstacle as it might sound.  Practice shooting in as many situations as you can.  Find a way to take photos you love in every lighting condition so that you’re ready for any challenge you might face.  This takes an enormous amount of practice but it’s something that will pay off in the long run because your clients will know what to expect and you will have the ability to deliver it.

Hawaii Vacation Photography by Oahu Photographer Joe and Patience

The rest of what I’m going to talk about isn’t necessarily marketing in a traditional sense.  These are all small things that don’t cost you anything at all but go a long way towards building a great client experience.  

Always smile.  This sounds like a little bit ridiculous but we are constantly told by people when we are leaving weddings about how impressed they were with how we handled the stress of family photos or how we handled the stress of the wedding getting behind schedule.  It always comes down to this one simple thing too.  No matter how stressed you are, make sure you’re smiling, acting confident and assuring people that things will work out great.  Like I said, this gets mentioned to us all of the time and it has shown us that people are watching what we do a lot closer than we might expect.

Take the time to talk with the guests at the wedding.  Most weddings have a little bit of downtime and we use that time to take photos of other couples and families that are attending.  Not only is this a great opportunity to get your work in front of a few more people by making sure they are in your photos but it’s a great way to talk to people.  Our industry is almost completely built on personal connection so take the time to actually connect with people.

Treat people as more than just a transaction.  This falls into the personal connection category too.  As a small business owner in an industry that is flooded we feel like it’s extremely important to build a relationship with our clients that is much more than just taking someone’s money and completing the work they paid you to do.  If you want to build a strong referral base and want to work with the same clients again you really need to care about them as people.  Take the time to learn more about them and remember some of the important details in their lives.  We go out of our way to remember where people went to college, where they work, the names of their kids and to figure out what they really value.  I have to stress that this is something that shouldn’t just be thrown into a spreadsheet so it can appear like you care, you really have to care and it needs to show.  This approach is the reason why we are now doing maternity and newborn photos for the wedding clients from 2012 and 2013.  When you approach your clients like this it can turn into a much longer friendship and it’s entirely possible that you’ll be there to continue to document the most important moments in your clients lives.

All of these things together build our customer experience which I feel is much more powerful than a traditional approach to marketing.  Next week I am going to talk a little bit about how we approach social media, working with other vendors and one of our marketing secrets that has had huge success.

Thanks again for taking the time to read!

Check out the other posts in this series:

Personal Fear

Financial Fear