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Investing in Your Photography Business: IS it normal to not make money your first year?
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The Ugly Truth : Red is Normal the First Few Years of Business

by liana on September 30, 2009

Welcome to a new addition to BananasEDU: The Ugly Truth about Photography Business!

Think running a photography business is all fun, glamorous, camera-happy bliss??  Think again!  It’s grueling hard work, it’s a BUSINESS and not just an art.  The average photographer is lucky to bring in the same salary as school teacher,  for a lot more hours worked!  In this series I’ll be shedding light on what it’s really like to run a photography business.  I’ve been in business for over 10 years and have had lots of failures and few successes along the way too.  I’m currently one of the only working pros to teach managerial accounting, finance, and business planning to other creative entrepreneurs.  It’s a beautiful thing to do what we do, but the truth can be ugly!

For our first topic, I’m going to answer a question posted on the “nice photography forum”: OpenSource Photo.com.  A great place to chat with other wedding and portrait photographers, and industry folks.  Join a group of us at OSPSouth in October if you can!

Question: I’m just curious to know people’s experiences with the first year in business. Most of the money I bring in I use to buy a new lens, flash, templates for products, ticket to a conference, etc.

Because of this, I haven’t really paid myself much at all. Almost all of my profits have been used to build up my business. Was it like this for anyone else?

The Ugly Truth: To be completely honest, it is COMPLETELY NORMAL for a small biz to be in the “red” the first 1-5 years of being in business (depending on the business).

In my opinion, a photography studio should be able to provide an honest salary to the owner by year three – otherwise they might need to take a SERIOUS look at their #s and a new approach.

Of the few hundred studios I’ve helped out these past three years (teaching photo biz boot camps, etc) – I see the #s for Every Single One of Them. The #s back what I’ve stated above.

Expect to pretty much work ALL the time – four shifts a day – both ON and IN your business for the first year or two to get your business up and running and systems in place. Also expect to do it all for FREE. Yep, you get to work for free while you invest into thousands of $$s of photography gear, websites, education, marketing and other assets and overhead. You better make sure you REALLY love photography and know that often 70% of running a biz it is NOT shooting related before jumping into this business.

Starting a small business is a catch-22. Your first few years in business when you have very little $$ in sales, you also need to spend the most on expenses. Once you get to year three, four, five and beyond… you really don’t need to buy, invest, replenish as much. Your sales are higher (hopefully) and your expenses are significantly lower (if you’re smart). Then, your business can cut you a check each month for a salary. Yeah! If you’re an average photography studio, you’ll bring in less than a school teacher. If you’re beyond average you’ll aim for something higher like 50k instead of 20-30k! Remember that we only really get to keep about 1/3 of what our sales are. So for every $1,000 a client hands you… you only really get to keep less than $300 because we’ve got to pay Uncle Sam too.

My best advice is to learn your #s early in the business and hire a good support team (accountant, bookkeeper). Make sure you are actually making $$ off of every shoot or sale. Trust me, I’ve seen lots of cases where photographers had NO IDEA for years their #s were our of whack and they were loosing $ every time they did a photo shoot. This equates to the photographer PAYING the client to photograph them, and loosing more $ the more they work! Eeek! It’s heartbreaking!

Set systems up so you spend less time on the day-to-day stuff and more time growing clientele and working ON the business!


Join us in Austin, TX November 17-19th for an intense look at your own #s at Photo Biz Boot Camp.  Only a few spots left!
If you have questions you’d like to submit for The Ugly Truth, please do so by emailing us at info@photobizbootcamp.com, or comment below!

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The Ugly Truth : It Takes Money to Make Money
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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Elena September 30, 2009 at 7:18 PM

Awesome topic. Planning ahead and being realistic and… keeping your day job, at least for a while, is very important for the beginners…

Evelyn Perez October 20, 2009 at 8:04 AM

Thanks Liana for posting this!!! This makes me feel much better and normal, that I am working for free while I am building my business. Thank you for you openess. God Bless you.

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