How to Stay In Business by Varina Patel
Landscape photographer and pro educator Varina Patel is one of those people we all aspire to be. From the mountains to the deserts, she travels around the globe chasing the light and enlightening photographers near and far. We’ve long been inspired by her incredibly varied and inspiring blog posts, eBooks and workshops, as well as her ability to keep her photo education company running smoothly and in sync with her husband, Jay Patel. We talked with Varina about how to keep your photo business blooming year after year. Here’s what she suggests.
By Varina Patel
Take your business seriously.
Jay and I may be a husband and wife team – but we are running a business together. It’s so easy to lose sight of the goal in the face of the day-to-day requirements of running a business… especially when you have lots of other responsibilities that require your attention. In order to keep things running smoothly, we have monthly meetings where we discuss our plans for the upcoming month. We decide which projects are worth extra time, and which ones need to be scaled back. We look at our sales and financial data and decide where we should focus our efforts. We make sure we are working towards the same goals – and that we are never working at cross-purposes.
Don’t be afraid to change your plans.
Of course, having a solid business plan is important… but plans should be fluid. Don’t be afraid to change your plans as your business opportunities shift. Jay and I are constantly re-establishing priorities as we navigate the ever-changing world of photography. Stock photography was a productive business for us at one time – but as the market became more and more saturated, we found that our efforts weren’t paying off as well as they had been. So, we tested new waters. We taught workshops, wrote eBooks, photographed events, submitted images to magazines… and as our business grew, we found out where we could make the most of our limited time. Right now, our focus is on eBooks and short workshops – and as times change, we will continue to refine our goals and shift our plans to meet the ever-changing needs of our business.
Know your own strengths – and your weaknesses.
I can’t emphasize this enough. It’s important to know what you are good at – but knowing your weaknesses is equally important. Heck – maybe it’s even more important. When you are aware of a weakness, you need to focus your attention on it. Nobody said running a business is easy. If you aren’t good at handling your finances, do some research, take a class, or hire someone to do it for you. If you want to write eBooks but your grammar and spelling is terrible – hire an editor. Need a good website, but you don’t know a thing about design or ecommerce? Call on the SmugMug Support Super Heroes. Ignoring the problem isn’t a solution… and it can cause all kinds of headaches in the future.
Use social media to build a relationship with your clients.
Social networks are incredible marketing tool that offer small businesses like ours an opportunity to be noticed among corporate giants with enormous budgets. We don’t have to spend a dime to connect with millions of people who are interested in what we are offering. Our foray into social media began with our blog. I spent more than a year writing regular blog posts before people really started to pay attention. There were lots of times when I thought maybe my efforts were wasted, but I knew that quitting was the surest way to fail… so I kept plugging along. Over time, more and more people began to comment and subscribe. During that time, I started posting on Facebook too. Pretty soon, I had a pretty solid collection of “fans” who would leave comments and share my photographs. When Google+ came along, I didn’t hesitate. This was a whole new experience. Suddenly, photographers were having in-depth discussions about everything from composition to marketing – and people were adding us to their circles at a fantastic rate. Best of all, we were really getting to know some of these people! They were becoming our friends. They were recommending our work to others, signing up for our workshops and webinars, and buying our eBooks! We met some of them in person, went shooting with them, and got to know them on a personal level. Those experiences took social networking beyond marketing. Now, we are a part of a dynamic community of photographers who exchange ideas and inspiration.
Look for ways to minimize content creation and maximize content consumption.
So yes. Social media is a great tool. But it can be your downfall, too. Don’t let it consume you! The trick is to find ways to minimize the amount of time you spend creating content for social media – while maximizing the consumption of that content. What does that mean?
Well – we only have a limited amount of time to spend writing blog posts, updating our websites, posting on Twitter or Facebook or Google+. And yet – we want to be sure that the content we create is seen by as many people as possible, right? So, if I write one blog post, I want to make sure everyone knows it’s out there. I need to get it to my followers on Facebook, my fans on Google+, my subscribers on Twitter – in short, I need to make sure it’s as visible as possible.
Right now, we create almost all of our new content on my blog or on Google+. Content from the blog on my website is automatically syndicated to Jay’s website and our other social media platforms. (Ideally, a single source of content would be preferable… but Google+ doesn’t provide means for automatic syndication yet. In order to share with our very large audience on Google+, we need to manually share a link or copy and paste content to our streams.) Automatic syndication lets us send out our content to twitter, facebook, and our RSS subscribers without an additional effort on our part. So we create the content once, and everyone knows it’s there. The process takes discipline and forethought – but you can make social networks work for you.
Know your target audience.
Take some time to decide who your customers are. Are you selling prints to art collectors? Writing eBooks for budding photographers? Teaching beginners to use their cameras? Look at your strengths, determine what you want to be doing – and then decide who you are targeting. Jay and I know that our primary audience is other photographers – people who want to learn how to use their camera. So, we target our posts to appeal to those people. We include brief tips in every blog posts. We speak in a variety of forums – sharing knowledge with large groups of people so they can get to know us and our teaching styles… and share our names with their friends. And we are always looking for ways to reach out to the photographic community – even this article is part of that effort.
Make sure you are valuable to your customers.
Maybe this is obvious, but it’s absolutely critical. If you purchase one of my eBooks, I want you to come back and purchase another, right? And the only way you are going to do that is if you really feel that the eBook was valuable to you. So, we work hard to make sure that we pack those books full of information. We regularly go back and review older books to make them better, and we are constantly looking for more knowledge so we can share it with others. Workshops are no different. We want our students to go home feeling like they are better photographers than they were before they arrived… and more importantly, we want them to be confident in their ability to repeat the techniques we’ve taught. As nice as it is to come away from a workshop with some amazing photographs – what we really want to do is teach people to take amazing photographs when they are on their own and we’re not around to help out. So, figure out what your customers want, and work to make sure that you are providing that. Doing so will translate to more clients, more sales, and more word-of-mouth advertising.
Act like a professional.
I think too many photographers forget how important it is to present themselves as professionals. I’m not talking about business suits and corporate accounts. It’s really not that difficult. Start with a well-designed website that works well. Design a simple logo and print up some business cards. Respond to emails and queries in a professional manner – it’s ok to be casual, but don’t be sloppy or rude! And perhaps most importantly, present only your very best work! Don’t just stick photos up there to fill gallery space. It’s better to have a small collection of really great shots than a huge collection of mediocre ones.
Learn More about Photography from Jay and Varina Patel
If you’re looking for more inspiration, photography tips, education and webinar workshops, visit Jay and Varina’s blog over at Photography by Varina. And use this exclusive discount code to get 10% off any eBook order over $20: SMUGMUG314