A couple of months ago, I got several emails from other photographers within a week of each other, all asking the same question: how did you survive moving your business to another state and basically starting all over again?
At the time, I thought it was so strange, because to be perfectly honest with you, I didn’t at all feel like I had really succeeded in the whole business of “starting over.” I was actually feeling pretty discouraged. When we first made the move from Utah to Alabama, I didn’t give a whole lot of thought to what I would do about my business. (Frankly, there were much more important things to think about.) I had made the decision to quit my “Plan B” job at Starbucks, so there was no safety net to fall back on anymore. No steady paycheck (regardless of how measly it was) to relieve me of the pressure to start making money right away. So those first few months we lived here, I was kind of unsure of what to do with myself, and a little depressed. At least once every single day I questioned my decision to forgo a “real job” for a career path paved with uncertainty and risk. I felt like I would never be able to get back up off the ground and start over again.
In Utah, I had JUST gotten to a place where referrals and inquiries were coming in on a pretty steady basis. I had a whole lineup of weddings booked. I had a core group of clients-turned-friends who were singing my praises to everyone they knew. I was finally feeling comfortable. But in hindsight I see that maybe that comfort was holding me back from making important decisions that would have the power to change my life and my business in a drastic way. Maybe I needed this move, this fresh start, to step back and examine my business from a new perspective and to be forced to spend a WHOLE lot of time alone, thinking about things, dreaming, and planning.
But none of that is really comforting to a person who, in the middle of it, feels like their legs are buckling beneath the weight of their doubts, fears, regrets, and insecurities. It’s not consoling to someone who can’t see far enough into the future to know that it will all turn out okay, and that eventually the inquiries will come, the clients will hire you, and your business will once again be chugging merrily along.
So today I wanted to offer up some practical ways to deal with making a big move, because it’s hard enough to get used to a new city and make new friends without also having to rebuild a business essentially from the ground up. I’m no expert, and I’m certainly no psychologist, but as a person who has to constantly fight self-inflicted fear and discouragement, I do know that these things have helped me in some pretty dark hours. So hopefully, if you find yourself in the same position, they will do the same for you.
I want to start by saying that I see building a photography business as being a lot like planting a garden. You have to plant seeds, a LOT of seeds, in order to see things grow. And the thing is, they won’t grow overnight. You also have to have a lot of patience. But the payoff is so worth the work of planting those seeds and the countless hours of waiting for them to sprout from the ground.
As far as what those seeds are, they could be a number of things. Here are a few that I’ve planted:
- Facebook ads : I know what you’re going to say. “But I don’t have an advertising budget, silly! I just moved here… I don’t have paying clients yet!” Well, surely you saved up a couple of hundred dollars or so before you moved. Right? Right? But I hear you loud and clear. You don’t want to spend that money. Neither did I! When we first got here, I immediately started looking into advertising opportunities. You know, to get my name out there and all. But all of my options (like running ads in local bridal magazines and vendor directories) were SO expensive. Not to mention the fact that I don’t really feel like my brand aligns with the look and feel of most of them. The beauty of Facebook ads is that YOU can determine your marketing budget, and you can target an audience really specifically. For example, I run ads for about ten days at a time, on and off again, and I set my budget for $5 a day. I then pay only when someone actually clicks on my ad and goes to my Facebook page. The cost per click will vary depending on what parameters you set, but for me to show my ad to males and females, engaged, ages 18-35, living in a 50 mile radius of Birmingham, the cost is generally around $1 per click. However, Facebook will keep showing my ad over and over again until I max out my daily budget, so there may be some 20,000 impressions every single day. That’s a whole heck of a lot of exposure for a measly $5! I’ve done several different methods of paid advertising, but Facebook has by far been the easiest, most flexible, and most successful.
- Reaching out to local photographers : This is actually one of the first things I did when I moved here. I spent several hours browsing the internet to find photographers who had a similar style to mine, and who I felt like I could be friends with. I then simply emailed them, saying something to the effect of “hey, I hope this doesn’t sound totally weird, but I’m new to the area and would love to meet up and buy you a cup of coffee sometime.” I think all but one of the girls I emailed replied almost right away and were so super nice and welcoming and enthusiastic. One cup of coffee has often turned into a 2-3 hour chat fest. Establishing these relationships is really important for several reasons. One, when you first move, you’re probably not going to have any friends to hang out with, and when you’re not working in a 9-5 office environment, it’s easy to isolate yourself and feel really lonely, really fast. And I’ve found that isolation usually turns into depression– NO GOOD. You need those friends to motivate you to get out of the house and just be around other people. Seriously. Secondly, they can often give you a little heads up about what to expect in the local industry– what vendors they love to work with, where the best shops and restaurants are, who to possibly avoid, etc. Third, chances are they’ll be needing second shooters for their weddings, and good second shooters who are available during a busy wedding season can be hard to find. And second shooting those weddings will be good for you, because if you don’t have any booked yourself, it will keep you busy and on your game until you do. And the time will come when you need a second shooter, or someone to lend a hand in an emergency situation, and you will most definitely appreciate having a solid network of peers to turn to. And you never know who could become a close friend. I met Kelly, who I’ve already become super close with, just by sending that one little email.
- Taking on side projects : Just because you don’t have a full calendar for the upcoming wedding season doesn’t mean you should just sit around and twiddle your thumbs until work magically falls into your lap. You have to constantly be pounding the pavement, looking for opportunities to network, shoot for fun, and just get your name out there. There are a couple of projects I took on earlier this year. When one of my friends sent me a link to Carrie Rollwagen’s Shop Small blog, I was instantly intrigued. I love the idea of promoting local businesses, so I sent her an email and asked if she might like some help on the photography end of things. I offered to do some head shots for her and possibly go out to the businesses she was featuring to shoot them for her posts. She was so sweet and enthusiastic, and because I put myself out there, it led to an opportunity to get one of my images of her published in an upcoming issue of Birmingham Magazine, as well as TONS of opportunities to get out and talk to other small business owners and make valuable connections. I also recently started another project, Bham Bride, with my photographer friend Kelly, which is pretty much a wedding-specific version of the Shop Small blog. We go out and talk to local vendors (a lot of them smaller, lesser known ones), and we also do research and try to stay up to date on all the latest happenings in wedding world. This is fantastic because, as with the Shop Small project, it’s a GREAT excuse to network, and it also motivates me to stay on my game and be informed about the kinds of things my brides are interested in and want to know about. Bonus? It’s another way to potentially drive traffic to my own site, and you can NEVER have too many of those. I will say this about taking on side projects, though: Make sure that you’re willing and able to stick with it for a long time, especially if someone else is depending on you to deliver images and other contributions. It’s great to establish new relationships and find ways to stay busy, but the last thing you want to do is get a reputation for being flaky and unreliable. It kind of defeats the purpose of doing things like this in the first place!
- Freebies and giveaways : This can be a touchy subject, and I would warn you to tread carefully when it comes to doing freebies, contests, discounts, and giveaways. In the beginning, especially on days when you feel really discouraged, you will probably find yourself so desperate to shoot something, anything, that you think offering a whole ton of discounts and freebies will be the answer. Because no one will hire you unless they’re getting a bargain, right? I say, WRONG. In fact, I think you should do just the opposite. Maybe before your move, you got stuck in a place where you weren’t charging enough but were too scared to raise your prices for fear of losing referrals. If that’s the case, then this is the perfect chance to start fresh with a pricing structure that truly reflects the value of what you have to offer. I know, I know… it’s scary. But guess what? When I moved to Alabama, I made a bold move and doubled my prices, knowing that I should have been raising them long before that, and people have been booking! Pricing is one of those issues that I could never cover in a single blog post, and I certainly am no expert (in fact, I question my pricing structure pretty much daily), but I will say that when you charge what you are worth and are unapologetic about it, potential clients will begin to perceive your brand as being more high-end, more valuable, more worth it. I mean, how many times do couture designers do discounts? Hardly ever! But there are people more than willing to pay the price, because they see the value in the product. So be confident! Now with that said, I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with doing special deals and offers, but I would follow a couple of guidelines. One: Do them infrequently. A giveaway or discount is a fun surprise if it’s offered once every 4-6 months. It’s expected if it’s offered once a week. No one will want to pay full price if they see you doing a freebie all the time, and you’d be amazed how quickly you can become “the discount photographer” in someone’s mind. That’s a hard reputation to shake once you’ve got it. Two: Make them fun for YOU. During the winter months, I found myself getting really bored, because most people don’t want to do portrait shoots when it’s cold outside. So I decided to give away a free session to a couple, because I figured that if it was free, I would probably have more people willing to do it. Sure enough, I got tons of entries and had trouble narrowing them down! And one of the couples actually just ended up booking me for their wedding next year. So that had multiple payoffs…. increased exposure (people spreading the word about the contest), a chance to stay busy and flex my creative muscles and have something to blog, AND a couple who was so pleased that they hired me. And finally: It doesn’t always have to be about photos. Why not do a giveaway now and then for a gift card to Starbucks or iTunes or a really cool local restaurant? Sure, you’ll have to shell out a few bucks, but you’ll probably attract a much broader audience than engaged girls or moms with young children. And really, you never know who that one person will be who might end up hiring you a year from now when they need photographs for something.
Now, once the seeds are planted, there’s no guarantee on when you’ll see a return on the investment of your time, energy, and money. Honestly, I would say in most cases, it takes AT LEAST a year to get the ball rolling again. It stinks, I know. But there are other things you can be doing to ensure that when those clients DO come your way, you’ll be able to take care of them and get those CRUCIAL word of mouth referrals (because honestly, what a client says about you to friends and family trumps any advertising effort you make on your own). Here are a few things that have kept me busy, focused, and motivated during really slow times:
- Get legit : This is by far the least fun part of being a small business owner, but it’s probably the most necessary. You need to take care of all those pesky legal matters, like getting a new business license, learning about your new state’s tax laws, opening a new bank account, changing your address on all of your bills and marketing materials, possibly changing your phone number (still haven’t done this one- oops), etc. You WILL spend a lot of time at your local city county building, so you’re just going to have to get used to it, unfortunately. On top of all this, you’ll probably have to take care of personal paperwork as well– getting a new driver’s license, a new license plate, etc. It’s just no fun. But you’ll feel SO much better once you’re settled in and you can sleep at night knowing that the IRS is not going to come banging down your door. I would much rather take the time doing all this than running into trouble later. You should also update all of your online accounts with your new info (i.e. your Google Places address, your SEO keywords and whatnot on your portfolio site and/or blog, your new location on Wedding Wire and any other free listing wedding site like that, etc.). And just make sure that your website looks amazing. If you find yourself with a lot of extra free time on your hands, spend that time updating your portfolio and polishing your online presence since you will now be putting forth so much effort to get people to your site. You only have literally SECONDS to make a good impression, so make it count!
- Blog, blog, blog : Blogging (and other social media like Facebook and Twitter) is a big deal. I realize that I probably don’t need to tell you that at this point. But I see my blog as an essential tool to building my business for so many reasons. For one, I prefer to it to Facebook and definitely to Twitter because here, I am in control. I know that sounds cheeky, but it’s true. Here, I’m not limited by character maximums and by someone else’s layout and interface. I can show huge images that haven’t been mangled by Facebook’s uploader. I can write anything, and you’re not forced to read it in your news feed. You have the choice to come here, so I feel like that if you choose to come here, I should make it worth your while. This means blogging consistently (if there’s a blog out there that isn’t updated at least once a week, I probably stopped reading it a long time ago). Readers love new, fresh, valuable content, whether that’s images from a recent session you shot, a personal post, or FAQ posts like these. Another bonus to blogging frequently is that Google LOVES it. It’s a super easy way to build your search engine rankings, and when you’re having to start from scratch with a new location, you will need all the help you can get to re-optimize for that city.
- Keep negativity OFF the internet : It’s true. There will be some really, really tough days. But I would strongly encourage you to stay OFF the internet when you’re feeling particularly grumpy. Remember that what you say, you can’t take back, and once you’re feeling better, you’ll probably regret it. You really never know who out there is reading, and if you’re constantly complaining about clients who never call you back, or whining about not having anything to do, or making overdramatic statements about how you’re just going to quit and get a “real” job… then guess what? You get a reputation for being negative, bitter, and desperate. And believe me when I say that no one wants to hire a negative, bitter, desperate photographer. You’re much better off calling up one of your photographer friends and venting to them (chances are, they need someone to vent to also). They’ll be able to actually understand what you’re going through, talk you down, and encourage you. Next thing you know, you’ll be feeling much better…. and THEN you can go share your heart out on Facebook! :)
- Wow the clients you DO have : When those first few clients start trickling in (and they will!), make sure that you’re going out of your way to really blow them away with your service and the quality of your product. Everything from answering phone calls and emails promptly to sending thank you notes and small gifts to having a lightning fast turnaround time to providing a really fun experience will get you far. And don’t be afraid to ask for those referrals if you feel that your clients are really pleased. Ask them to tell all their friends, or to write a review on your Facebook or Wedding Wire page. These first few clients are absolutely crucial, because they have the power to spread the word about you like wildfire… and you want it to be a good word, not a bad one!
- Never stop learning : So you have a lot of free time on your hands? Instead of moping around and wasting time on Twitter, use that time to continue your education. As a photographer and businessperson, your learning should never end. So head to the library and do some reading. Spend some time in forums and brush up on topics and techniques you’re unfamiliar with. And use every opportunity to practice, practice, practice, whether you’re shooting your dog in your living room, the blossoms on the tree outside your window, or your best friend. Because when those clients come, you want to be at the TOP of your game, not in a slump and out of shape.
Wow. I take being longwinded to a whole new level! But hopefully you were able to get a little something out of this this. More than anything, you just have to remember that you’re not alone. You’re not the only one who has been through this. And it WILL get better, I promise! But only if you have the right attitude and the patience to see those seeds you’re planting blossom into beautiful things for you and your business.
Have any other questions? Please don’t hesitate to shoot me an email! I love chatting with old AND new photographer friends! And if you found this post helpful, please let me know by leaving a comment or sharing with your friends!