Lessons From a Successful (But Defunct) Photography Business

July 2015

July 2015

Why I Chose to Shutter a Profitable Venture

I started my photography business quickly. I had been shooting for myself for less than 18 months, and soon found friends and acquaintances frequently reached out to me asking about my rates and my availability for client shoots. It was a dream!  I had wanted to be a small business owner for several years at this point, but I hadn't decided which skills to "put on the market". The rise of Instagram and blogging seemed to make my decision for me. People liked my photos and wanted to pay me to take photos of them and their families. 

I left my full-time communications consulting job and dove headfirst into owning and operating a photography business. It was blissful at first. I loved my clients like family. I adored spending hours in front of my computer editing. And, I didn't mind the business side of things, such as taxes and marketing.

However, after four short months in business, I closed my photography work to clients. What happened? If you're thinking about opening a small business, and particularly a photography business, here are the questions I wish I had asked myself:

 

What does profitable mean to you? 

I was making a profit as Kylie Larson Photography. I brought in more money from clients than I spent in business expenses and overhead. Many photographers I talk with stop there: money in > money out. As a trained project manager, though, I am conditioned to think a bit differently. My time, every single hour, is money. I track my hourly rate.

I charged families $400 for a photo shoot. My goal was to make $50 per hour. That meant that I needed to complete pre-shoot communications, travel, shooting, editing, and photo delivery within eight hours in order to make my rate. Ideally, I'd complete my work in less time so that I could have a surplus, and reinvest in my business with additional education, marketing, or gear. 

What I found is that fantastic customer service took a lot of time. I spent at least an hour or two emailing or talking with clients prior to our shoot. I always shot as long as I needed to get the best shots (even when kids or dogs weren't cooperating). And I edited each image I delivered the way I would want it edited for me: to perfection. I spent approximately 12 hours per client shoot. This gave me an hourly rate of $33. 

Many people would argue $33 per hour is pretty good. For me, though, that was significantly less per hour than I hoped for myself. I set my target hourly rate (of $50 per hour) to account for time away from family, continuing education, self-employment benefits (like retirement and health insurance), and company investments (such as marketing). When all was said and done, not much of the $33 was profit. 

Only a few months in I realized I had a profit problem. I either needed to work faster or charge more. I'll spare you the intense thought I went through, but here's the gist: I knew I couldn't give my clients the same great experience by working faster. And, I also knew that I'd have to provide more if I charged more, which would take more of my time. I couldn't make the math work.

What do you do with your off hours?

I'm an introvert. The 9-5 hours take it out of me. At the end of the day I like to retreat. And for a long time, shooting and editing photos was my retreat. It was incredibly difficult for me to consider shooting and editing for myself in my off hours when I had client work pressing on my mind. And with a successful business, client work was always on the docket. 

The photographers who succeed in business are skilled at separating personal project work from client work in a way that I will never understand. When I'm staring at my screen and booting up Lightroom, I can't enjoy my personal work if I feel pressure to edit work for a client. I heard other photographers talk about this struggle, but assumed I'd find my own way around it. But, I did not. 

Are you comfortable owning backups for your backups?

Completely unrelated to my business, I began a path toward minimalism in 2014. My house is by no means austere, but I work hard decrease the amount of stuff in my life. As I started my business, I found the stuff I felt I needed spiraled. 

I wanted to provide my clients with excellent service no matter the weather or circumstances. This led to me purchasing weather proofing equipment and lighting equipment. I wanted to make sure I never had to make clients wait on me so I had two bodies with unique lenses at each shoot—so clients didn't have to stop for my lens changes. I had backup bodies and lenses in case anything broke during a shoot (or, as happened to me, fell in Lake Michigan). I had one million SD cards. Okay ... not quite, but it felt like it. I had cleaning equipment and carrying equipment. I had tripods and monopods. I had so much freaking stuff.

I get the creepy crawlies just typing that paragraph above. I don't know why I feel the way I do, but I feel—in my bones—like less is more. I need to be responsible for fewer physical items in my household or business. And that's very difficult to do as the owner of a photography business. 

Of course, you can be a natural light photographer and you can very consciously choose only select lenses for your type of work. I know there were solutions available to help me minimize the gear. But I felt as if I needed to get rid of 90% of it (or more). And I knew I couldn't provide excellent client products with bare bones gear. 

Does it feel like you're forcing it?

To this day, I couldn't tell you how I knew. But I knew as soon as I was on the photography business path that it was the wrong path for me. Everything just felt slightly like I was faking it. And I probably was. My business didn't feel genuine and I did not see a way to navigate a truer course in that same business role. 

The hardest part of closing my photography business was that I had just told the world that I had opened a photography business. I didn't make a large announcement when I shut the gates, but I had to have the same conversation (with other photographers and potential clients) repeatedly for about a year. Initially it was slightly embarrassing, but later on (as I found my footing in another venture) I was happy to say I took the "fail fast" route. 

Test fast. Fail fast. Adjust fast.
— Tom Peters

Do you realize that it's okay to move on?

Now, about 20 months after I closed my first small business, I'm happy to report I'm busy and happy in my second business. I intended to wind down my web consulting work over the course of six to twelve months. However, when I realized I wasn't going to continue taking photography clients I clung to the web work, thinking I'd just keep going until I figured something else out. And then, I realized this was my something else. And, over time, I made it my own

These days I feel as if I'm running the business I was meant to run. If someone had told me this is what July 2017 would look like I'd be stunned. But, I think it's important to share my story (as briefly as I can) in the hopes that I give others the courage to move on when it's not right. Because "right" is around the corner. 

Just Like That He's 1

Everyone says it. But, when it happens before your very eyes, it feels impossible to believe. One day you bring home this tiny little bundle that doesn't do much of anything, but smells oh-so-sweet, and you've got to figure out what being his mom means. And {what feels like the next day} you're popping the OJ and smashing birthday cake to celebrate his first year. 

I took very few photos with my camera on his birthday because I was pretty busy soaking it all in and spending time with family. But I caught a few priceless images from his birthday weekend. And I can't believe how much he looks like a toddler and not a baby! 

Here's to our second year with the best little guy!

KSL_edit-01313.jpg

Exploring Los Angeles

My best friend moved out to LA a few years ago, and although I visited her in her first year there, we haven't been able to repeat the connection since we've alternated being pregnant and adjusting to new babies. Her youngest is almost three months now and Neil is a hardy {almost} one-year-old so I decided to take the plunge and fly out there this past week. After a few days of time with just her and the kiddos, Greg flew out and we tacked on a mini family vacation to the trip. 

I took advantage of those early morning wake-ups with Neil to photograph the gorgeous hills around our AirBnB. I also learned how to wear Neil in a backpack hold on this trip and I'm excited to shoot more with my newly freed hands! 

My landscape photography setup isn't perfect when I'm traveling with a baby (and I'm okay with that!). Because my hands are often full of baby and baby things, I don't bring a tripod or extra lenses. When I travel I usually just carry my Sony mirrorless and a pancake lens (which has a 20mm crop sensor view). In the future, I'm sure I'll be able to do more with my work, but I'm so happy we've reached a point where I can travel with both a baby and a camera, and everyone leaves the trip having enjoyed themselves. Win win!

In Memory of Francis "Ray" Stanley, My Grandfather

Grandpa Ray with my son (November 2016).

Grandpa Ray with my son (November 2016).

It’s disconcerting to have a one-year-old right now. You see, my grandfather just died and my world feels a bit off kilter. But my son doesn’t understand a giant puzzle piece is missing. He knows that his toys are waiting for him to play with them, the sun is shining, and he’s hungry. So—despite a deep desire to hide under the covers—I’m down on the floor with a train set, and going for walks around the neighborhood, and making little lunches. And if my grandpa were here he’d tell me that’s exactly what I should be doing. My grandpa believed in giving, and laughing, and being with your family. 

My grandpa wasn’t a religious man. In fact, if you asked him about religion you’d probably hear a number of slightly off-putting remarks (he wasn’t a PC-type of guy either). But he was one of the most Christian people I knew. Often he’d start a story with, “I was talking to this bum…” (remember he wasn’t the PC type). And I’d learn that instead of giving money to a person down on hard times, he’d given them a ride to McDonald’s and had lunch with them. That’s how he was. I have no idea how many times this happened, but I suspect it was quite a lot over the years given the number of stories he told me.

After I grew up and called home my grandpa always wanted to know if I had enough to eat and if there was anything I needed. Always. He spent his childhood in the wake of the Great Depression and carried an acute awareness of scarcity. Even after I was in my thirties, owning my own home, and caring for my own child. He asked: do you have enough? Can I get you anything? And, genuinely, he would have dropped everything to provide for me if I had listed a need.

And, Dear Lord, the man had a sense of humor. When I was in middle school we took a large family trip to Hawaii. I remember riding the hotel elevator when a fellow rider complimented his bucket hat. He looked them straight in the eye and told them, “Well… this hat serves two purposes: it protects me from the sun and ... [he took it off his head and turned it over in his hands so it looked like a basket] it helps me pay for this trip.” And he reached the upside-down hat toward the fellow passenger as if asking them to put money in it. At the time, I thought he was downright nuts, but 20 years later I still laugh so hard I cry when I tell that story.  

When I was little, he used to carry me around and tell me, in a the silliest voices, tall tales. In my memories, a billy goat was often involved. I found myself reading billy goat stories to my son this week. And when he gets older I’ll tell him Grandpa Ray loved telling stories about billy goats. And when he asks me about Grandpa Ray I’ll tell him he was the silliest, most generous man around. And he loved him before he met him. And that we are all so lucky to have been loved by Francis “Ray” Stanley.

Summer Fever

Summer makes me explode with creativity. I completely eat up the sun, the flowers, and the beach settings around Lake Michigan. Now that I have more room in my brain I'm starting to play much more with my landscape work. I'm bracketing my shots and layering in clouds in post-production when necessary. I feel like for the first time in a long time my work feels like me. Hallelujah!

Mother's Day 2017

Some say this was my first Mother's Day, although I've felt like a mama since we brought Marv home in 2013. This was my first Mother's Day with both my boys, though. And when my husband asked what I wanted to do for it I told him that I wanted to get a family picture with me actually in the picture. Sounds easy enough, but as the family photographer it's amazing how often I look back on events and find that I wasn't pictured in my own life's events. So, we traipsed out to the backyard and, with my sister's help, got a few images. They aren't perfect. But, this is life with a silly dog and a nearly one-year-old. I love them.

A super cooperative model

Marvin digs his modeling responsibilities. Often, all I ask of him is that he lay down in a cozy spot while I fiddle around with my camera and then he gets a treat. And repeat. It's a sweet job for a happy dog. And, to be honest, he's far more cooperative about my fiddling than his brother right now. I'll be using him as I experiment with new techniques this summer. 

Details: ISO 100, f/18, 1/1000 second

Flower Lady

Back in the day ... if our mom asked us to do any sort of gardening on summer weekends, my sister and I were totally annoyed. There was absolutely nothing appealing about spending our days with plants. 

Nowadays ... I'm a gardening mama. I hop on out to my plants during nap time to weed and water and give them some general love. Isn't funny how life comes around like that?

Details: ISO 100, f/2.2, 1/4000 seconds

I wonder what if ...

Looking at our fire last night (yes we still have a fire going in May), I wondered what the flames would look like with a slow shutter speed. So, here they are at 2 seconds. While, not a particularly momentous occasion for most photographers, for me it was one more way in which I feel as if my muscles are flexing back into creative shape.

I can't wait to get out and work on images of Lake Michigan with a slow shutter speed. I have plans to make a photo trip next week!

Details: ISO 100, f/14, 2 second shutter

Hey there!

First things first, if you're looking to consult with me on web content or small business items, hop on over to Shorewood Studio. That's the home for my consulting work. 

This website is my new creative incubator. I do a lot of fun, creative work over at Shorewood, but I also have other irons in the fire and I want to display those projects as I go along. I also need a place to connect with other creatives. 

In November 2015 two really huge things happened to me: 1) after a careful review of my business, I decided to stop taking photography clients and, instead, focus my business only on web content consulting, and 2) I found out I was pregnant. These two happenings were a double whammy on my creativity. I wasn't getting out and stretching myself creatively with clients anymore, and I really struggled with foggy pregnancy brain. I felt like it took a HUGE amount of effort to focus on the essentials of my consulting business and I didn't have the energy or inspiration for personal photography. 

I took a lot of time off. And I don't regret it. Taking a step back from photography allowed me to more clearly see the role it played in my life. After my son was born, I obviously wanted to document his life, but most of my clicks were just snapshots. And then, slowly, my inspiration started to come back. I started to look at light again and see something new and interesting. I started wishing I had my camera on me when we took walks around neighborhood. I couldn't wait to get back to the beach (my favorite place to photograph). 

I've also started writing again. Often, I associate my photos with a small essay or group of thoughts in my head. I needed a space to record all of this new energy. So, here it is. 

I'm wear many hats these days: mom, wife, artist, entrepreneur, family, friend, mentor, neighbor, random person on the internet, etc. I plan to take on and off those hats here without worrying that I'm not consistently "branding" myself. I want to weave in and out of thought as I move through seasons of my own life. 

Here we go.