Your competition can only kill you if you let them

by Outlaw Photographer James Michael Taylor on April 28, 2013

in This is Art,This is Business,This is Life

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“You have a choice. You can grasp that stone of ‘best, better, good, not good enough’ and let it sink you. Or you can put it down beside you and keep [shooting]. Only you can allow yourself to feel small next to someone you believe is bigger. And only you can choose to see in someone ‘higher up’ than you the beacon of possibility for your own [photography] life.” – Sage Cohen, paraphrased from The Productive Writer

There is one way and one way alone that your competition can kill your business – and it’s entirely your fault.

It’s time to make a choice: you’re either going to obsess or observe from this day forward.

Are you going to obsess over your competition – what they’re charging, how nice their art is, which of your potential clients they’re shooting – and place your mental focus and energy outside of what you can control?

Or are you going observe your competition as another of many resources to learn from, and focus your energies on your betterment and what you can control?

Some of the most discouraged part time professional photographers I visit with are facing the challenge of two major struggles:

– Landing their first paying clients or establishing a consistent client base;

– and learning to disconnect their art and success from the art and success of other photographers.

Especially here in the digital age, we artists do not exist in a vacuum – both blessing to our muse and curse to our lizard brains, we are exposed to an unlimited amount of inspiration. This can serve to motivate us, and it can serve to dishearten us, when we see how much potential exists – and how long the road is for us to realize it within ourselves.

We are at our most vulnerable when we’ve finally taken the leap and put ourselves out into the world as professionals – via web site, blog, portfolio, business cards, advertising, or other means – and the phone just isn’t ringing (yet).

These yin-yang balance issues never go away – surely I face them as often as anyone – but with experience and temperament, we can learn to channel these energies into ever-forward progress as both artists and business owners.

Your Clients Are Not My Clients

Market share is your percentage of the total number of dollars getting spent every year on portrait photography in your community.

You’re up against the cheap chains like Walmart and Sears Portrait Studios.

You’re up against the more expensive mall chains like Kiddie Kandids, Portrait Innovations, and old-school shops like Olan Mills and Glamour Shots.

You’re up against other start-up photographers like yourself, inspired by the opportunities for artistic and financial success in the digital age.

You’re up against established professional photographers who haven’t had to market themselves in decades because of their longevity and awareness in your community.

You’re up against Canon and Nikon and Sony and Olympus, all trying distressingly hard to convince your clients that, with the right camera, Mommy and Daddy can make their own ‘professional-quality portraits’.

And you’re up against dozens of other consumer options serving every niche and income bracket in your area.

When your phone isn’t ringing, it’s easy to look at how busy your competition is and lose motivation – and hope.

So where’s the opportunity?

Everywhere.

Everywhere you look – in every industry, not just photography – good folks paying good money are being underserved.

The indifference of the chain studios, almost entirely staffed by teenagers and twenty-somethings who have no interest in the art of photography; only the consistent repitition of what they were taught.

The arrogance of the established professionals, whose high prices, draconian rules and policies leave their clients feeling more like parolees than valued clients.

The bait-and-switch of those start-up photographers only interested in making money – and not creating art or serving clients.

The booked-solid schedules of the truly great photographers in your area, who only can accept a few new clients a year because they know how to always give more than they get.

And not to be discounted, the deep rut of the photography industry that has done nothing to invite the non-buying remainder of the market in the door.

The greatest portion of any market – but for staples like milk, bread, and iPhones – are the folks who buy nothing at all.

You’re going to find your people, the folks who are ready to pay what you ask for the art you’re able to create now, in this landscape of underserved folks deseperate for a breath of fresh air.

They’re out there – and they want to work with you. They appreciate and value your style and art, their budgets line up with your humble pricing, and their personalities are a perfect fit for yours. They just have to get to know, like, and trust you.

You’ll win business with your enthusiasm. You’ll win it with your customer-friendly policies, with the consistent art and experiences you create for your clients, with the flexibility of your scheduling, and with your efforts to reach out to the overall market that has long been disenchanted.

Recognize that the success of your competitors is proof that the market is alive and vibrant – then study where your competitors leave your market underserved. This is where your best opportunities can be found.

Maybe they charge too much.

Maybe their art is old-school and repetitive.

Maybe they force clients to pay, through session fees or minimum orders, for art that hasn’t even been created yet.

Maybe they’re too busy for small shoots.

Maybe they don’t specialize in your niche.

Maybe their web sites are ugly, hard to navigate, don’t prominently feature their phone number, and don’t even say what geographic area they serve.

Maybe they’re marketing to the big 3A high schools, and ignoring the smaller market of the seniors in the two little 1A schools.

Maybe they’re not marketing at all to the local day cares and private schools.

Maybe they’re so established, they’ve stopped trying.

Maybe they don’t sell hi-res digital files.

Maybe they only sell packages.

Maybe they don’t market to high school seniors.

Maybe they don’t market to mothers of newborns.

Maybe they don’t market to pet owners.

Maybe they don’t do volunteer photography for their favorite charities.

Maybe they’re not helping cover local high school sports and theater for their community newspaper.

Maybe you’re fiesty, and going head to head with another photographer in their niche would is just the motivation you need to do your best work.

Maybe there’s a lot more opportunity to break open your market than you thought.

Don’t let your competitors’ success deter or deflate you – take aim at your dream, take stock of who you can study and learn from, then take your butt out of that chair and work daily to improve in art and business and marketing until you are the photographer your competitors envy.

Your Art Is Not My Art

What a strange reaction we have to seeing art far better than ours: first, we’re in awe, inspired, motivated to grab our camera and go be brilliant.

Then, we’re struck with the reality that we can’t – yet – create such art. The lighting, the pose, the expression, the background, the location, the wardrobe, the colors, the moment – all the ingredients that make this feast for the eyes, we don’t yet know how to put it all together.

Creating an amazing photograph is every bit an act of preparation, intention, and preternatural timing, as preparing a five-star meal.

There is a reason there are cooks, and then there are chefs.

Just as there are photographers, and then there are artists.

The beauty in this, is the opportunity – no one ever made head chef without burning a lot of pancakes along the way.

And to become the artist we dream of, on the level of those we admire most, we’ll have to shoot a lot of horsesh*t along the way.

Poor exposures, ugly lighting, unflattering poses, distracting backgrounds, confused expressions, out-of-focus blurry messes – we’re going to screw it all up before we get it right.

As Kanye would say, you gotta crawl before you ball.

Poet Sage Cohen writes in The Productive Writer that allowing yourself to indulge hierarchal thoughts – who’s better or worse than you as an artist – causes your lizard brain to kick into self-protection mode and stop you cold where you stand.

You have to consciously engage this feeling of being a fake, a charlatan, a joke, a rank amateur – you have to recognize this feeling for the displaced protection mechanism that it is and reclaim control over your ego from the Resistance that’s battling you. Pushing through these feelings is a purposeful act of will.

“All you need to worry about (or, rather, enjoy) is your own good, better, and best, because that’s what belongs to you. Do you see yourself making progress toward your goals? Can you appreciate your own tenacious spirit that simply stays focused on where you’re headed? Don’t distract yourself with feeling bad about what someone else is doing when there is so much to feel good about that is right in front of you.” – Sage Cohen, The Productive Writer

Allow yourself to observe and study the most successful photographers in your market, and in the world – learn from them, their marketing, their art, what you see as their best methods for bringing clients in the door.

But disconnect your success from theirs – every photographer walks their own path, establishes their own foothold, and earns the business of clients who uniquely and perfectly fit their art and personality.

There are people out there right now who are ready to pay you for your art and experience, at whatever level that may presently be. The professional portraiture market is a broad one serving all incomes and demographics – through ever-better marketing, and patience, you’ll find your clients.

Your people are waiting.

While you seek them out, use this time to learn, practice, and grow.

Every day that you purposefully improve as an artist and business owner – no matter how small those improvements – you’re opening wider the doors of possibility and success. You’re making real, tangible progress toward your dreams.

Never lose sight of the fact that your success is equally your clients’ success. The better you are at what you do, the greater value you give to those you serve. Your artistry is a blessing to those with whom you share it, and as a professional, your clients are happy to bless you and your family financially.

Being a paid professional photographer never was and never will be about getting what you can out of people – but, far better, giving all you’ve got, and reaping what you’ve sown through your practice, preparation, and perseverance.

You’re all that’s holding you back.

Let Go – and Go Hard.

Next Steps

  • Do you have a favorite photographer? An artist whose work in your niche you absolutely love, that moves and inspires you, and you would one day love to be on the same level as? Go to their web site right now. Find their e-mail address. Write them – tell them you’re an aspiring professional photographer, that you’re a big fan of their work, and ask if they have any tips or resources to share that helped them get where they are today artistically. If they don’t respond in a week, pick another favored photographer. Keep going until you find someone willing to share their experience with you. And then keep going farther – find lots of photographers you love, and ask every one for their best advice. Grow faster as a photographer by skipping the learning curve and engaging folks who’re already where you want to be as an artist.
  • Pick the top three photographers in your market, specifically within your niche, whose clients you would love to court (realistically – don’t aim at the most luxurious boutique in town). Drill down and study everything about them – marketing, web site, artistic style, pricing, call and check out their phone demeanor and response time, do a shoot with them as a client if it’s affordable – and try to find their weakness. If you recognize people from their portfolio or blog posts, ask those folks how they liked working with that photographer – and what they would like to have seen different. This is reasonable and warranted market research – this is how you identify competitor weaknesses and learn how you can better serve your clients (and theirs).
  • Brainstorm session: get out your pen and paper and write down all the ways you can better serve your clients than you have in the past, then how better you can serve them than your competitors. Odds are, you’ll recognize many ways in which you may have been underserving your own clientele. File this away in your Brainstorms folder.
  • This post’s inspiration comes from poet Sage Cohen’s book, The Productive Writer. While specific to authors of stories and books and poetry, Sage gives great advice that can be applied to the fears, production, publication, life-work balance, struggles and successes for artists of all walks.
  • My writing at PartTimePhoto.com exists to serve your needs as an amateur photographer making the transition to paid professional. I appreciate and welcome your readership, and invite you to subscribe to my e-mail newsletter at the top of any page of this site.
  • If anything in this post has spoken to and inspired you, please comment below, drop me an e-mail, or call or text me at 830-688-1564 and let me know. I’d love to hear how you use these ideas to better your part time photography business!

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Meghan April 28, 2013 at 10:23 pm

Thank you! I think you wrote this article just for me. I’m in tears, needed to hear all this! I will write you and thank you again when I am booked and (even more!) blessed.

Meghan

Reply

Outlaw Photographer James Taylor June 4, 2013 at 8:51 pm

Thank you so much for your kind words, Meghan! I’m so glad you’re enjoying the site. Folks like you are every reason PTP exists – I suffered all the same fears and challenges for years and years as I tried to become a respected professional. Only after much wasted time and emotion did I realize I needed to focus inward – not outward – to become the artist and professional I wanted to be. When you take away all the comparisons, the judgment, the discouragement both self-inflicted and external, and you focus on you – on your art, your growth, your development as a business owner, your clients, your ability to create a remark-able experience for those clients…that’s when the weight that’s been holding you back is forever lifted.

Please do write me again when you are booked and blessed! Keep me posted on your successes and adventures, I think you’ll look back in three months and be amazed by how far you’ve come!

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Tamara April 29, 2013 at 3:04 pm

Thank you so much for writing this!! It’s exactly what I needed to hear! I’m just starting up and so full of questions and fears! This was so full of great, realistic advice! This process can be overwhelming at times, but as a single mom of four that fell in love with the art of photography these last 10 years, I’m determined to make it work. All I do right now is post my work on FB and bookings have started. This was truly inspirational and gave me just the boost I needed to get my business cards made and website designed… and to just keep going!! πŸ™‚

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Outlaw Photographer James Taylor June 4, 2013 at 9:03 pm

Thank you for your comment and kind words, Tamara!

I would be happy to answer any questions you may have – if I can, I’m more than happy to help. E-mail me anytime at James@banderaoutlaw.com.

I’m so excited for you! Getting your business cards done and web site out there is a really big step, a hard step that so many photographers get stuck on. We artists internalize so much of our art and our ‘brand,’ it can be paralyzing to really put yourself out there as a professional for hire. We want to be perfectionists with our business name, our cards, our web sites, every minute detail – but that’s just Resistance distracting us. Making a good impression is important, but what our clients truly care about is our art, the experience we create for them, and whether or not they can afford us. Everything else is just storytelling – helping potential clients get to know you and how you can help them.

Let me know when your site is up so I can check it out! And hook me up with your Facebook link as well, so I can give you a Like!

Thank you again for your readership Tamara, and please do keep me posted on your successes and adventures!

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Pink May 2, 2013 at 4:14 pm

Your post came just in time. The hardest and most discouraging part is when no one contact you. Cant help but start having self doubt if i am really good at this or if i am good at all. I have just started out 2-3 weeks ago, i know it is too soon but i am getting impatient. Have done some advertisements, participated in fundraising and done free shoots to get the name out but nothing yet. I know i have to work harder and be patient. Thank you for a wonderful article.

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Outlaw Photographer James Taylor June 4, 2013 at 9:28 pm

Thank you so much for your comment and kind words! I greatly enjoyed visiting your portfolio tonight – your photographs are beautiful! You have a great artistic style, especially lovely with children!

In all honesty, it sounds like you’re doing a great job of getting your name and art out there – don’t default to the idea that you may need to work harder. Patience, of course, is key – there’s no way to know when someone in your market will be in need of your services, and even when they are, it’s even harder to make sure your number is the one they call. It’s all an ever-evolving process of exposure and attraction – making sure your potential clients know you’re out there, and making a great impression on them through your art and marketing.

Money is being spent on professional photography in your market. That’s a given. X number of dollars will be spent on portraiture services in your market this year – the only question is, who are they going to shoot with? I submit they will shoot with the photographer who (best) invites them in the door.

F/8 and Be There – you’re already taking great steps to getting your name out there. It will take time – but keep moving forward. Measure each marketing opportunity by how many potential clients (preferably ideal clients) will be reached and impressive by your marketing effort. Mass media may or may not reach ‘your people,’ newspaper may or may not, billboards may or may not, flyers in coffee shops, prints in pediatricians’ offices, and so on – they may or may not. Seek out your people, the kinds of folks you’d love to work with more than anyone, and find creative ways to reach them, to help them, to be a part of their worlds.

The better you define your market, who it is you want to work with, your ideal clientele, the better focus you’ll have in marketing to those people.

I hope this helps! Your art is lovely, and your clients are blessed by your talents – keep working at getting your name and art out there, because folks truly have so much to gain by working with you.

Thank you for your readership! Please do keep me posted on your successes and adventures!

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Rocio. May 4, 2013 at 3:29 pm

Wow! Thanks so much for those inspiring words. Exactly what I was looking for. Its so hard to find knowledgeable people in the industry who ate not stuck up or too busy for those of us who are just starting out and looking for some wisdom and inspiration. I have struggled so much with ot because all the professionals I’ve cone across believe that amateurs don’t belong and shouldn’t call themselves photographers nor have a right to charge for their photography. Its as if they have forgotten that once they were in the same place.

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Outlaw Photographer James Taylor June 4, 2013 at 9:35 pm

Thank you for your comment and kind words, Rocio! I greatly enjoyed visiting your Facebook page tonight, you have a wonderful style!

Amen – I agree with you completely. My experiences were the same for years and years as I tried to grow my success as a professional photographer. Time after time I’d get shot down and chewed up by ‘established’ photographers who seem to get a sick thrill out of being bullies. And those folks who discourage you, that’s all they are – they fear you, they’re angered by you, they don’t understand you, they don’t want to help you, they refuse to adapt and evolve with their market, their business is suffering and they want to blame you for it.

Do work. Do what’s best for your clients. Serve humbly and work daily to grow better at your craft and your business – always strive to create more value for your clients. Define success for yourself, and don’t let anyone take that away from you. Never forget: you’re the boss!

Thank you for your readership! Please do keep me posted on your successes and adventures!

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Mary June 13, 2013 at 10:09 pm

Wow!! This is exactly what I needed to hear! I just started out and I have been scared about things like this a lot. There are so many questions I have but this article answer a few of the ones that I have! I ‘am afraid of one of the photographers out their that was extremely nice to me a taught me a few things but that she might go back on her word as well! You just inspired me like crazy. Thank – you!

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Outlaw Photographer James Taylor July 20, 2013 at 10:29 pm

Mary, thank you for your comment and kind words! I’m so glad you’re enjoying PTP.

Hop on that motivational energy and let it carry you forward for some great progress! Your work will be a blessing to your clients and community.

If you have other questions, please don’t hesitate to comment or drop me an e-mail! If there’s anything more I can do to help, please don’t hesitate to let me know. And please do keep me posted on your successes and adventures!

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LillyAnn August 10, 2013 at 3:35 pm

Thank you for putting together a “kick in the pants” post. I spend a lot of time reading and learning and not as much time doing. This is just what I needed to read today as the self-doubt and uncertainty of whether or not I am doing things “correctly” creep in. I know I have a long way to go but my business has tripled from where it was a year ago. I have changed the way I follow up with my clients and moved to my own boutique packaging. It always gets frustrating when I have a span of time with no bookings or my phone doesn’t ring. I also have heavy competition in the town right next to me that literally saw my advertisement and said that anyone can pick up a camera these days. I try really hard not to be concerned with it and just do me.
It’s a daily struggle, but if it were easy it wouldn’t be as rewarding I think. Thanks again!

Reply

Outlaw Photographer James Michael Taylor May 25, 2014 at 8:14 pm

LillyAnn, thank you so much for your kind words and your readership! I’m thrilled your getting benefit from PTP.

I greatly enjoyed viewing your web site tonight – it has such a unique and lovely feel to it, like a lovingly-made quilt. Should we ever meet, the Twizzlers are on me!

Perfect timing in looking forward to how to follow up with clients, and not just let the art and sale and excitement fade out of mind. I have a big post series upcoming on the Follow Up, and the post-sale funnel for existing clients. You’re thinking ahead!

Those slow times are sure to come, but there are so, so many ways to get the most out of them: learning new techniques in camera, in Photoshop, in lighting, in business, in marketing, in psychology and sales and communication; reading books on art and business and the art of business; studying your business as you would your art, looking at your web site and social media and marketing materials with new eyes as you grow; doing volunteer shoots to connect with those in non-profit networks; doing fundraiser shoots and events for favored charities (better if favored by your target market, as well!); teaching photography to kids, scouts, home school groups, juvenile detention kids; playing and having fun with your art and ‘portfolio builder’ subjects like friends and family; experimenting; a/b split testing offers online and in your advertising…and much more!

The grognards will always try to discourage you; first, out of arrogant superiority, then, out of fear. With time and your focused effort, you will be earning their clients away from them. Leave their comments on the floor where they belong and let the market decide.

Take pride in your work LillyAnn, you’re a blessing to your clients!

Thank you again for your readership, and please do keep me posted on your successes and adventures!

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