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.