Shortly after I had knee surgery in January of this year, I was sitting on the sofa one morning in a rather pleasant, pain-killer-induced fog, trying to watch something on Netflix but, let’s be honest, unable to keep up. So I found myself contemplating life in the way that one does when one is only about three-quarters of the way coherent, and I realized something shocking, or at least as shocking as anything can be in that particular state:
I did not miss working. At all.
To some, that revelation may fall into the category of Obvious rather than Shocking, but 1) I’m not a Type A personality, I’m a Type A++++++++ and 2) I love my job, and I have since I started freelancing six years ago. Then I started Powell Photography three years after that and I loved it even more. Sure, it was stressful sometimes, and around about the 800th wedding photo my eyes would start to cross and I would begin to doubt that I was ever going to look at pictures of anything else ever again, but where other people complained about Mondays, I secretly sort of saw them as a brand-new opportunity every seven days to punch the world in the mouth.
But I had gotten burned out. Actually, I’m not sure “burned out” accurately describes it. You can usually fix “burned out” with a vacation or a change of pace. This was more like emotional and creative bankruptcy, at least where photography was concerned. I told people I’d just had one too many crazy clients, and even though I had encountered my fair share of people whose cheese done slid off their cracker, it really wasn’t them either. The truth is I didn’t know what it was, and I didn’t know how to make it better. So I decided the easiest thing to do was quit. At the beginning of the summer, I turned to my husband and announced, “If I never take another picture for pay, it’ll be just fine.” I figured at the time that the look on his face when I said that meant he was shocked and upset that he would now be the sole breadwinner for our family. But he told me later that that actually wasn’t the case, not even close. Rather, the look on his face was profound sadness, because I am good at photography and I love my clients, and he didn’t want to see me give that up.
Now that I’ve said those words – “I am good at photography” – there is at least one person contemplating calling or emailing me and telling me how arrogant I am, what an untalented hack I am, how I have no training, I have no right, etc., but none of those things are true. I am good at photography, and I am highly trained. Am I the best? No, not even close. Am I the most highly trained? Absolutely not. But I have worked very, very hard, and the glory belongs not to me. When I started Powell Photography, if I’d had a dollar for every person who told me I was crazy, that I would never get any clients and/or that I would never make any money, well, then I wouldn’t have had to take out a small business loan to buy my first batch of equipment. But I worked my ass off, I hustled day and night, I read everything I could get my hands on, I practiced all the time, I took classes in my spare time and I poured a lot of money that I could’ve spent on shoes and handbags into education, training and better equipment. In a completely over-saturated market, I found myself with a loyal enough client base to have not the part-time business that I set out to develop, but a full-time one instead.
…and therein lies the problem: I wanted a part-time business. I ended up with a more-than-full-time business.
For the record, I am not complaining; of all the problems a business owner can possibly have, that is by far the best one. But I consider Mom & Wife to be my full-time, primary job (which, as all of you parents know, is actually a more-than-full-time job), so when it was all said and done, I had not just one but TWO more-than-full-time jobs. This on top of my volunteer and church commitments, to say nothing of trying to have some fun and a tiny bit of a social life every once in a while. Pretty soon, I was exhausted. Not only that, I was sick all the time and the stress was beginning to take a serious toll on my health.
But I didn’t know how to fix it. Without realizing it, I had created Powell Photography: Your High-Volume, Low-Cost Picture Factory where I was shooting several times a week, editing as fast as humanly possible (no surprise, often late into the night), flinging CDs of the finished product at clients and then moving on to the next one.
That’s pretty much what you HAVE to do when you’re first starting out – you need the practice, the portfolio and the word-of-mouth recommendations. And shooting anything and everything is not only good practice, it’s a way to figure out what you’re good at (and what you suck at) and what you do and don’t like to shoot. Problem was, I was no longer “just starting out.” But I didn’t have any idea what my prices should be, I didn’t have a real sense of how good my work was (or wasn’t) and I didn’t really know that you could have any other kind of business and be successful. My husband is a marketing expert, but he doesn’t know anything about the photography industry – he helped me immensely (I credit him with a HUGE part of the success of Powell Photography), but he only knew how to grow the business, not how to make it manageable.
So I just said to hell with it. No, I didn’t say that publicly. But I stopped reading photography blogs, I canceled my subscriptions to all photography-related magazines and I deleted emails about upcoming classes without even reading them. I was done. Out. Over it.
And then along came this stupid photography conference. At least that’s how I thought of it. I had signed up for it months ago and it was coming up fast. When I tell you I could not have cared less about it, that’s an overstatement. The only things about it that even remotely piqued my interest were a few image critiques I had signed up for and the fact that two of my friends were also going. I actually planned ahead of time to skip one day of classes and go sight-seeing.
We had to submit our images for the critiques ahead of time, of course, so I went through my hard drive trying to decide what to submit. It’s divided into folders and sub-folders, so I have, for instance, “Headshots > Madeline 2-19-14″, “Boudoir > Courtney 3-28-13″, “Senior Portraits > Callie 9-28-13″, etc. As I dug deeper and deeper, I realized that my very best images were in just a few folders. Huh.
(The lightbulb just came on for everybody else, right? Sadly, it did not for me.)
However, God went to work on me practically the minute I landed in Salt Lake City. The keynote speaker for the first day of the conference was Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat, Pray, Love. It would take several pages for me to adequately paraphrase her speech, but the gist of it was to be so different as to be laughable. It’s uncomfortable, sure, but fortune favors the bold. (That’s one of my favorite sayings, and it now permanently resides on my bathroom mirror.) Great things simply do not come to those who follow the herd.
The Bible itself backs this up: Try just once to count how many times the phrase “Do not be afraid” is written in the Bible. I’m sure someone somewhere has done it sometime, but whoever that is can count a lot higher than I can.
Be so different as to be laughable. Do not be afraid. Fortune favors the bold.
One of my first classes was taught by Ashley Westphal, an EXTREMELY successful senior portrait photographer from Atlanta, GA. One of the first things she said made me want to burst into tears:
“You are in this room because something besides photography is important to you.”
Ashley was my introduction to the boutique model of business. This post is going to be far too long as it is, so I will give you only the most salient points (i.e., there’s a lot more to it than this):
–You have a much smaller, much more specialized business
–You offer a much higher than average level of service (i.e., it’s extremely personalized)
–Because your business and number of clients is smaller, you can spend more time perfecting a smaller number of more specialized products
–You have a much smaller number of clients who pay more for this level of service and personalization and a superior product
So basically, Better quality, more expensive product = Specialized business + Smaller number of clients + Extremely high level of customer service and personalization
I took a couple of classes on the boutique model, and perhaps my favorite part is that, because you’re no longer running The Photography Factory, you can enjoy my favorite parts of the business:
–You get to know your clients better and develop real relationships with them (which also has the advantage of making them easier to shoot, because folks are obviously more relaxed around people they know)
–Because you can better control all aspects of your shooting schedule, you can give those clients the best possible product
–You can shoot with the products they want in mind. For instance, I am shooting a family portrait session in October, and because I was able to take more time with the mom, I already know they want a huge canvas for their living room. I know what colors they used to decorate their living room and I know their personal style, so I know the exact location where I will shoot their session and was able to advise them about wardrobe. I also know specifically what kinds of shots they want so I can shoot with those in mind.
(And yes! I’m finally going to offer photography products! I’m still getting everything set up and there are a few things up in the air, so more on that later, but I can tell you that I won’t be selling prints smaller than 8×10, and these are luxurious, heirloom quality products, not stuff you can buy for yourself cheaper with a Groupon.)
Will everyone want to pay for this level of service and these products? No. Most people simply want the best deal. Most don’t care about heirloom quality. And some may want exceptional service and quality but they can’t afford it right now. And that’s totally OK. Meg Borders gave a great quote about business:
“People don’t buy what you sell, they buy who you are and why you sell it.”
Who I am is outgoing and bookish and kind of dorky and passionate and loyal and feisty when it comes to defending my friends. I love clothes and fashion and telling people’s stories and making them feel beautiful and helping them see their own true beauty. I love Christopher Guest movies and gangsta rap and I think everybody is interesting. I consider it to be my personal duty to cheer everybody up when it’s raining. I’m part Cordelia and part Care Bear. I think one of the most important things we can do as human beings is make memories.
I sell photography because I’m a storyteller, and one of the most effective ways I can tell your story is to show – literally SHOW – you and the rest of the world who you really are. I also sell it because memories are extremely important to me – they’re why I scrapbook and blog as well as take pictures. My grandmother, who was one of the great loves of my life, died of Alzheimer’s disease when I was 17. She got sick when I was eight, so I never knew her as an adult. She was an artist too, and I have spent nearly my whole life trying to piece together who she really was. I don’t think I will ever truly know as long as I live on this side. I don’t want my daughter or anyone else to have to search that way, and that’s why I want to help you preserve your memories. Not only that, I want the experience of me helping you preserve your memories, of attempting to freeze this moment in time, to be a memory in itself. I want the Powell Photography experience to be on the highlight reel of your life. That’s a big dream for a little photography studio in Shreveport, LA, but big dreams are what I’m all about.
Will everyone want to buy me and why I do what I do? Will everyone think I’m worth it?
But a few will, and those are the clients I want.
Will I make a lot of money?
Maybe. Maybe not. Most people thought I would go broke with the first iteration of Powell Photography and I didn’t, so maybe I’ll be able to make a living with this version as well. We’ll just have to see.
Not too long ago, Blake and I were listening to a motivational speaker and he used that old cliche, “What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail?”
I thought about it. And then I started to panic.
Because I didn’t know.
It was shortly after the second miscarriage and at the height of my creative malaise, so I’m sure depression factored in quite a bit. But after thinking about it for a couple of weeks, I had to admit I was a girl without a dream. I knew what I wanted my life to look like, but I had no idea how to get there. And then I went to Click Away.
In the middle of listening to Meg speak, I knew. This. This is what I would do if I knew I couldn’t fail.
So this is exactly what I’m going to do.
Be so different as to be laughable. Do not be afraid. Fortune favors the bold.