5 lessons after $5 million in my photo business
It all started with a love for photography, a (really cheap) camera, and a dream to never, ever go to an office in a suit.
That’s how my tiny creative storytelling empire started.
My studio, Artisan Events, is now well over the $5 million dollar mark—and I can say without a doubt these 5 key lessons after $5M are timeless take-aways for any entrepreneur building a creative business that stands the test of time (and profits).
Happy clients over everything.
Sometimes the most basic business philosophy can have the greatest impact. Putting your client’s success and happiness at the core of every decision you make will help you succeed and grow your business. You must serve them and love on them hard!
Make them feel like you are the best decision they ever made.
Provide so much value, they can’t imagine not working with you and telling everyone they know about you.
Now this is not to be confused with making everyone happy. You won’t ever make everyone or every client happy.
Get over it—if you’re in business you’re going to have some unhappy clients no matter what you do to avoid it. Now, for sure try to avoid it but don’t beat yourself up when it happens.
And you need to make sure you treat every client the same—even the unsatisfied clients. Actually, especially them! Your unhappy clients can and should be converted into your biggest fans if you handle their objections and complaints the right way.
I know without a doubt my photography business would not have lasted two decades if we weren’t obsessed with our client’s happiness and experience.
Slow and steady works. Don’t feel pressure to rush into anything on your journey.
You don’t have to be the biggest, baddest, coolest creative with the biggest (and most-expensive) team, best studio, and the flashiest website to sign $5 million in photo contracts.
In fact, you can and should build your business lean. Rent gear, rent day studios, hire freelancers to build a SMART TEAM—your long game means you’re making profits not just money (and not accruing debt)! So don’t spend it all on sh*t that doesn’t do anything for your long game.
And trust your instincts—if something doesn’t feel right, it’s probably not right or maybe just not the right time.
What should you diversify you ask?
A few key things. Your team, up-sell offers, referral sources, revenue streams—those are key strategic areas to build diversity.
In baby-steps ‘cause you can’t do it all overnight.
You work really hard to find your ideal client. You want everyone who wants to work with you, willing and able to pay you even if you’re “not available”. So, yes, you want an Associate Team. It’s a strategy that helped me grow our revenue immensely using a small, manageable team without overworking myself. And it helped me elevate pricing, pick and choose my clients and so much more.
You also want to offer your dream ideal clients multiple ways to spend money with you. It’s 1000x times easier to get an existing client to spend money with you than a new one. So, yup—you want multiple service offers and products (think up-sells and add-ons like video, framing, albums, etc.).
And please do not forget to diversify your referral sources. You need marketing and sales systems built around paid advertising and word-of-mouth referrals. Do build and nurture word-of-mouth referrals but don’t rely on them—you need to also cultivate paid, reliable client referral sources. And yes, you can do this in a way that brings in qualified clients if your system is set up to qualify them!
Finally you want to build diversity in your revenue streams…meaning, you want different kinds of clients in different niches and offers. For my photography business that meant expanding into consulting and offering custom family archiving & year-in-the-life family albums. This strategy alone brought in over 500K, created recurring revenue, and converted our “photography” clients into evergreen clients that buy from us every year.
You want revenue eggs from more than one basket. But remember, you need to be careful how you diversify your offers and brands so you don’t confuse your ideal clients. I’ll talk about this in another post—this alone is a big topic!
It’s hard work. REALLY hard.
Here we go with the simple but the cold truth lesson. This life—growing and building a successful creative business—is HARD.
It is not for the faint of heart. Long hours. Dedication. Grit. Eating sh*t. Putting your ego in a locked closet. All of these things are mandatory for success. If you’re looking for an easy job—this is not where you should be shopping.
But, it’s also extremely rewarding, highly profitable, and when you use SMART strategies, you can design a business you love with your whole heart around how you want to live your life. That makes the HARD stuff a whole lot easier.
Photography is a small part of the job.
You decide to be a photographer or creative biz owner— hooray!
This does not mean they will just show up, hire you, and the money will miraculously flow.
Finding your ideal client and convincing them to buy on a consistent basis is the biggest part of your job. So, marketing and sales—that’s what you’ll spend a majority of your time doing. And that’s what you have to get really good at—fast. And there are lots of other parts too. You’ll quickly come to understand how small the creative part really is in your biz.
But there is a silver lining—there are creative activities in other areas building your business. Marketing and sales alone are super-fun and big creative outlets. You may come to realize you love them just as much as your original camera-passion-project.
Wherever your photo biz journey takes you—enjoy it. And since I’m allergic to fluff and B.S. you’re now in a better, more informed place than I was when I started my business!