We’ve all heard those scary numbers before on the mortality rates of small business start-ups; according to the Small Business Administration, there’s about a 50% success rate within the first 5 years, and only about 33% of all new business are still operating within the first 10 years. That’s real info, and to me? That’s scary. I don’t want to be one of those 50-67% of business owners who call it quits within the first 5-10 years, and I definitely don’t want you to fall into either one of those categories either!
So in an effort to make us ALL better business operators, let’s talk about a few mistakes almost every new small business owner makes!
Mistake #1: Trying to do EVERYTHING. You’re a photographer, so people ask you to photograph everything from their children to sporting events to corporate headshots. And pretty soon, you’re exhausted from it all, and because you’re a jack of all trades, you end up being a master of none of them. Rather than half-assing (sorry for the language) two things, I want you to whole-ass ONE thing. Start saying “no” to the jobs that don’t align with what you’re really passionate about! Say you’re a graphic designer, and you really really love corporate branding; maybe that means you need to think about saying “no thank you” to baby shower invitations and stationery. At least THINK about it!
Mistake #2: Failing to charge appropriately. This is killer. You’re new, so you don’t want to scare people off with pricing, which means you end up working for too little. Which means you’re either not bringing home enough, or sometimes, you actually end up PAYING to work in the end. Either situation is bad news.
Do some research- what is your job COSTING you to do? How much time does each job take? Subtract your out-of-pocket costs from the price you’re quoting, and then take whatever money is left and divide it by the number of hours you’re working. Now, what’s your hourly rate? The first wedding I ever shot solo I ended up making an average of LESS than $10 an hour, once you factored in mileage, driving time, prep, shooting, editing, shipping, packaging, and wear + tear on equipment. It was ok at the time because I had a corporate 9-5 that was paying my bills, but if you’re trying to make a living off of a business that isn’t charging adequately, you’re going to burn out real fast.
Mistake #3: Forgetting to treat yourself like a professional. I’ve learned that I need to take myself seriously, or no one else will either. So what does that look like? It means knowing what your time is worth, and NOT offering work for free all the time because “it’s your mom’s hairdresser’s friend and you feel bad charging for them your craft.” Guys, that is not the way to run a profitable or even sustainable business! And profitability + sustainability are what we’re after, right? Right!
To be completely candid, there are only a few people I’ll offer to work with for free, and all of those people are folks who are close enough to me to have been in my wedding. That’s a rule I’ve occasionally broken when I want to, but I never ever ever break that rule for someone who expects me to shoot for free. Does that make sense? (To clarify, I do occasionally seek out opportunities to photograph people/things that inspire me, so I’m not including that kind of thing in the “free shoots” category).
In my experience, if someone approaches me expecting free or reduced-cost photography, to me, that says they’re probably thinking “I don’t really think you’re worth what you say you’re worth.” So I’ve learned that it is OKAY to quote my full rate to people I know personally, and if it doesn’t fit within their budget, to happily refer them to a newer photographer with lower rates. It’s so hard to do when you’re starting out, heck. It’s even hard to do when you’ve been in business for several years. But it’s the smart way to do business! Because in the end, what you’re running is a BUSINESS. And businesses exist to serve people, YOU being one of those people. If your business isn’t making any money, it’s not serving you or your family, which means you’re wasting a lot of time, energy, and resources.
Mistake #4: Failing to ask for help. Whether that’s in the form of friends, your spouse, mentoring, education, whatever, not asking for help when you need it is a surefire way to fail! Recognize your strengths AND your weaknesses- turn those strengths into selling points, and find someone to help you with those weaknesses.
For me, my main weaknesses are a) finance (keeping track of income/expenses), b) taxes (see item A), and c) organization of materials. Matt’s starting to come on to help me with A and a bit of B, we have a CPA to take care of the rest of B, and C? Well, we’re still working on that one. It’s one of those 27-years-in-the-making process.
Mistake #5: Letting your job take over your life. There are seasons in every business when you’ll be busier than others, but consistently allowing your work to consume every waking minute of your life is a really good way to burn relationships. Matt & I knew, when I was still doing double duty with AGP + my 9-5 corporate job, that things were going to be nuts for a while. When it got to a point that I was having meltdowns once or twice a week because I was so busy ALL THE TIME, that’s when we decided it was time to start moving toward me leaving my full-time corporate gig. And that was the right decision for us, because I spent the majority of our first 1.5 years of marriage with my face glued to a computer screen. It wasn’t good for my relationship with Matt, but we both knew it was what was necessary to get to a point where I could afford to leave the corporate world.
After I left Northrop Grumman, that balance got a LOT better. But if I’d never left, and I’d continued to allow myself to spend 80-100 hours a week working without an end in sight, my marriage would have suffered big time. My marriage, and relationships with friends + family, those are more important than a paycheck. So pay attention to how much time you’re spending working, and make sure you’re not consistently missing out on LIFE around you. Work to live, not live to work.