The “10x Principle”: The Only Difference Between “Success” and “Failure” as a Photographer

Dubai, 2014


I recently read a book titled: “How Google Works” and came across the “10x principle” that Google apparently follows.

The idea is quite simple, elegant, and powerful: to be successful in any field, do it 10x better than anybody else.

In the book, “Zero to One”, author Peter Thiel (co-founder of PayPal) also touches upon the “10x principle.”

This is how I interpret the differences between the 10x principles between the Google Book and Peter Thiel’s book:

At Google, employees are always encouraged to think of making “10x improvements” to an idea (thinking big) rather than just aiming for mediocre and incremental improvements.

In “Zero to One”, Peter Thiel says that entrepreneurs and businesses succeed by being 10x better than their competition, and creating a monopoly in their industry (more on this later).

The 10x Principle Applied to Photography

I recently did a free talk at Gulf Photo Plus in Dubai on street photography, and a young woman in the crowd asked me what advice I would give aspiring full-time photographers.

I thought about it long and hard and suddenly the “10x principle” came to mind.

Therefore I told her: “If you want to be successful in your photography and make it your living, think about how you can be 10x better than anyone else in your field. Think about how you can offer 10x better customer service, make 10x more creative photos, or offer 10x more value than any of your competition in the market.”

I then asked her, “How do you think your photography can be 10x better than anyone else out there?”

She paused for a second – and thought to herself. She then responded that it was a good question, and she would need more time to think about it.

How to be 10x better than anybody else out there

To be 10x better than anyone else is tricky. But it forces you to think “outside the box”– and to think really big.

I recently heard a podcast by Tim Ferris (author of “The 4-Hour Workweek“) and he said something along the lines of:

“Most people aren’t motivated and inspired because their dreams aren’t big enough.”

Tim also recommended the book: “The Magic of Thinking Big” (which I read before I started my blog, which helped inspired me to get started).

The easiest way to be 10x better than anyone else in your field is to enter a really small niche (where you don’t have any competitors).

For example, when I started this blog on street photography, there were no other blogs on street photography. Therefore it was easy for me to be 10x better than my competition (because no competition existed).

Even now I don’t know any other blogs out there which are dedicated purely to street photography, which helps my blog stay on the top of Google search results and to create a “monopoly” of street photography blogs in general.

The importance of building a “creative monopoly”

Which brings me to the point of a “creative monopoly”. Peter Thiel says in “Zero to One”:

“Monopoly is the condition of every successful business.”

What is a “creative monopoly”? The idea is that you dominate your creative field, that nobody can really compete against you.

For example, Google essentially has a monopoly over the search engine market. Sure there is Yahoo and Bing, but they are minor players.

How can you create a monopoly in your business? Well, you first need to find a unique problem that people have, and be the best at solving that problem.

Peter Thiel expands on this idea:

“All happy companies are different: each one earns a monopoly by solving a unique problem. All failed companies are the same: they failed to escape competition.”

Why is a monopoly necessary to succeed? Peter Thiel says that if you’re too busy in the trenches fighting against your competition, everyone is struggling to survive (and nobody makes meaningful profits to stay alive):

“Competition means no profits for anybody, no meaningful differentiation, and a struggle for survival.”

Therefore by creating a “creative monopoly” in your field– you are outside the arena of competition. You create your own category – and are so good at what you do that you effectively have no other competitors.

Some other businesses that have a “creative” monopoly can include some of the brands: Apple, Nike, Leica.

If you want the “best” smartphone or the “best” laptop– what brand comes to mind? Apple. You think of the iPhone and a Macbook Air or Pro. The iPhone is an incredible device, as people can interchangeably say “iPhone” to mean smartphone (just as they call tissues “Kleenex’s”, even though not all tissues are made by Kleenex).

Here are how some brands successfully utilized the “10x principle” to their businesses:

1. Apple

Apple dominated their field by being 10x better than any of their competition out there. When they first started to innovate: they made their products gorgeous (certainly 10x prettier and more elegant than their competition), they made their customer service 10x better (speaking to the helpful guys at the “Genius bar” in-person instead of being on-hold with random people from India as you would with Dell), they also made their marketing and branding 10x better (you feel sexy and creative owning an Apple device).

2. Nike

Nike still dominates the sports market more than any other brand out there. If you want the coolest shoes out there, you will buy a pair of Nikes. If you play basketball, you want a pair of Air Jordans. If you play soccer (or “football” in Europe), you want a pair of Nike’s. Nike’s make you feel stronger, make you feel like you can run faster, and the swoosh is extremely desirable (much more than any other brand).

3. Leica

There is also no other camera that is as sexy and elegant as a Leica (the Fujifilm x100 series cameras come close, but they’re essentially a Leica copy-cat). The Leica is one of the most coveted cameras out there, because of their simplicity and minimalism (their cameras are probably 10x more simple than any other camera out there), their quality (10x better than competition, hand-made in Germany), and their brand (all of the most famous photographers in history have traditionally shot Leica, think Henri Cartier-Bresson). In terms of price, they are also 10x more expensive than their competition (which gives them a monopoly over the high-end photography market).

How to build a “creative monopoly”

So if you want to be successful and build a “creative monopoly” in your field–how can you do it?

Well, first of all you need to create a great business that will endure in the future. Peter Thiel shares the idea that the value of a business today is tied into the “expectancy of profits in the future.”

Therefore a great company or business must grow and endure (and not die) in the future.

Let’s say you are a commercial photographer or a wedding photographer– how can you create a “creative monopoly” over your field? Well– you can start off by having a “competitive advantage” in which you are 10x better than your competition. If you want to be noticed for your photography, you want to strive to make photos that are 10x better than anybody else out there. Or you can create a “creative monopoly” by shooting in a way that nobody else is shooting out there (either by your process, the camera you shoot with, the medium you work with, etc).

Peter Thiel gives some examples of ways to build a “competitive advantage”:

1. Technology

You can be 10x better than your competition by building something brand-new.

So for example, this blog was “brand new” in the sense that there were no other street photography blogs out there.

If you are a professional wedding photographer– don’t just be a generic “Wal-Mart” wedding photographer. Perhaps you can go super-niche. Cater to hipsters. Do hipster-weddings where you only shoot film. If you shoot corporate headshots, perhaps you can be the person who shoots medium-format and prints out photos of your clients super-big (10x bigger than anybody else).

Go niche– be super-specific. Don’t be too general. If I tried to make this blog appeal to all photographers out there it certainly wouldn’t be as popular as it is now. Can you imagine how boring this blog would be if I catered to wedding photographers, nature photographers, and HDR photographers? By choosing a niche of street photography– it gives me focus on having a “creative monopoly” in the street photography blog scene.

Going back to commercial photography– perhaps you can offer 10x the customer service over your competition. Be super-attentive to your clients, offer freebies (free prints), offer free consultation services, respond to your clients 10x faster than your competition, and hustle 10x harder than anybody else out there. Be 10x more communicative with your clients, and make them feel that they got a great value for your services (give them 10x the value for their money).

If you want to start your own photography blog, think about how you can be 10x better than your competition. Perhaps you can publish 10x the content than any other blog out there (think PetaPixel). Perhaps you can publish less, but make your articles 10x higher-quality and 10x more in-depth than your competition (something I have been trying to do with my longer-form articles on my “Learn From the Masters” series). Perhaps you can have a blog that is designed 10x better than your competition.

Or you can start your own blog on a photography niche which isn’t yet tapped. If you want to start your own street photography blog I highly recommend you to do so, by making it either 10x better than the blog that I have, or make it more specific (cater just to “fine art” street photography, to just “street portraits”, or just podcast based (like Michael Meinhardt’s “Talking Street” podcast)).

2. Network effects

Another piece of advice that Peter Thiel gives is the importance of “network effects” to have a competitive advantage.

The concept is this: the more users in your network, the more useful it will be.

For example, the only reason that email is useful is because everybody else has it. Instagram wouldn’t be any fun if nobody else used Instagram.

So if you are building up a business, you can create a “network effect” in many different ways.

If you already have happy clients, perhaps you can ask for them to give referrals to other people who might need your services. If you have a photography blog, try to continue to build up your community and have assignments, competitions, or feature your members. You can also build up your “network effects” by building up your social media presence (gain more followers on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram) or by building up a mailing list where you provide 10x more useful content and information than anybody else out there.

3. Economies of scale

This is related to the previous point– but the bigger your business is, the bigger your “creative monopoly” can be.

Therefore, think big with your business. Perhaps if you are a wedding photographer trying to build your business– don’t think of yourself being the only photographer. Perhaps you can continue to build up your brand, and then get other photographers to work under your brand. Then you can take more of a managerial approach.

If you run a photography blog (like myself) – you can get more contributors and guest bloggers to write for your blog. As a single author and blogger, you can only create so much content for your audience. The most successful blogs out there have many writers out there.

Think big. Rather than trying to see how you can help and add value to just dozens or hundreds of people, think of how you can add value and help millions of people.

So for example, my blog only has a limited reach. I currently have around 10,000–15,000 pageviews a day (around 5,000–7,000 unique visitors a day). This means I am reaching around 150,000–210,000 people a month (which is still a lot)– but limited.

I am trying to branch out more, by doing guest blog posts, and also creating more videos for YouTube (which has a virtually unlimited reach). At the moment of this writing, my videos have close to 3 million views, and I hope to continue to increase my reach to help even more people out there.

And also as a side-note: the point isn’t to spam millions of people. It is creating a strategy how you can add value to the lives of millions of people out there. Think about how you are also solving problems as a photographer or a blogger out there. The better you are at solving people’s problems, the more valuable you are as an individual in the economy, which will help you become more “successful” (through fame, monetary means, or by status).

4. Branding

Branding is one of the best ways to gain a competitive advantage over your competition.

When you have a stomach-ache and you go to the pharmacy, do you grab the $2 generic stomach medicine? Hell no, you feel like you are dying, and want the maximum relief for your pain. You dish out the extra $3 and buy the $5 Pepto-bismol. There are also studies which show that because we trust brand-names, there is actually a placebo effect and we actually do feel better. Even though the active ingredients in a generic stomach medicine and a Pepto bismol bottle are the same, the Pepto bismol will actually make you feel better.

This might also be the effect of owning an expensive camera (like shooting with a Leica camera). To be honest, I can’t objectively tell the difference between photos that come out of a Leica M240 and a Fujifilm x100T, Sony A7, or 5D Mark III. But when you shoot with a Leica, you feel like you take better photos (because of the power of the Leica brand). You feel more creative, inspired, and “artistic” with a Leica.

This is also sad to say– but if you went to a photography gallery opening with a Leica around your neck, people are going to take you more “seriously” and think you are a “better” photographer (than if you just had a Fujifilm x100 around your neck). Of course this is bullshit (often the more expensive the camera, the worse the photographer is). But once again, this is the power of brand perception.

To take this analogy futher– if you were hiring a lawyer for an important case, who would you trust more: the guy who pulls up in a cherry-red BMW M3 or the guy who pulls up in a silver Toyota Corolla?

If you are hiring a designer for your website, who would you trust more: the hipster designer with a Macbook Pro or the designer with a 3-year old Dell laptop?

So how can you build up a strong brand?

I think one of the most important things is to create trust. In Seth Godin’s book “Permission marketing” he talks about the importance of differentiating yourself from your competitors by building up your trust with your audience slowly and over time, by consistently adding value to their lives, and not being pushy with advertising or marketing.

For example, the reason that people will shell out $1,000+ for one of my workshops is that I have blogged about street photography for over 4+ years, and they trust me. I have built this trust by researching the best street photographers out there, creating in-depth articles that are helpful and add value (while offering it for free), through my YouTube videos, and through engaging my audience through social media. I am fortunate enough that most people who are interested in street photography have heard my name somewhere before.

Once again, if you’re buying a laptop– the specs of a Macbook Air and a similar Windows-based laptop might be around $500–800 different. But you buy the Macbook Air because it makes you feel more creative (power of branding). You’re into Yoga, sure you can buy the Champion athletic workout clothes at Costco, but no– you pay 3x extra for the Lululemon brand because you trick yourself into thinking that it will make you perform better in your Yoga).

Building a brand takes a long time, and requires a huge amount of effort, love, attention, and by consistently delivering things of quality. Creating trust via a brand is like creating trust with a friend. You can’t expect to become best friends with someone just after one meeting. You need to meet them over-and-over-again, through many years, many interactions, by making yourself vulnerable to them (telling them secrets), and also by listening to their problems and their troubles (being emotionally available to them).

Be extraordinary

If you want to succeed over the long-term, Peter Thiel tells us that we need to have an “ambitious long term vision.” He tells us that business is like chess: “You must study the endgame before anything else.”

I think the way I would define “success” in a a business is by delivering 10x the value and help (compared to your competition) over a long-period of time (not dying or becoming irrelevant). Some of the best brands and companies have existed for decades (think Louie Vuitton, Hermes, Chanel).

Focus on the long-term. If you are starting off as a freelance photographer, starting your own business, or your own photography blog– don’t think about quickly making huge profits and gaining millions of followers. Aim on first creating a business, brand, and a presence that will exist for a long time. Focus on long-term survival before becoming super rich or a social media superstar.

How do you create a business that will exist a long time? There are no shortcuts– it requires hard work, sweat, blood, tears, and grit. And there is definitely “luck” involved– but the harder you work, the harder you hustle– the more “lucky” you will become. Realize that you control your own destiny and success.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said: “Shallow men believe in luck, believe in circumstances… Strong men believe in cause and effect.”

So continuously improve yourself, keep educating yourself, and keep growing. Make bold plans, and have “infinite optimism.” Know that in your entrepreneurial endeavors, you will face a lot of headaches, anxiety, cash-flow problems– but know that the future will always be better.

Know that you have agency and control over your life. As Peter Thiel says, “Reject the unjust tyranny of chance.”

Focus relentlessly

Another big piece of advice that I learned from Peter Thiel is the importance of focus. You only have so much limited attention, energy, money, resources, and hours in a day. Don’t diversify– focus all of your energy and attention in what you are good at– and strive to be the best at it you can possibly become.

Peter Thiel says the following:

“An individual cannot diversify his own life by keeping dozens of equally possible careers in ready reserve.”

I am constantly swayed by all of these different business ideas that I have. For example, in the past I have sold products (T-Shirts) – but found out that design wasn’t my strongest point, and it was just a pointless distraction. For me, my primary interest (and where I think I deliver the most value) is through education.

Therefore with my blog and workshops, I want to strive to be the best photographic educational resource on the internet (at least for street photography).

So I have tried to relentlessly eliminate distractions from my life. I have purposefully tried to limit the other business ideas I have to just focus on creating value through education. I try to do this through my composition lessons, through my “Learn from the Masters” series, through my book-reviews and analyses, through my street photography workshops, through my YouTube channel “street photography Go-Pro” videos, my free online street photography video lectures, and through articles like these (education for photographers on marketing and business, you can also read my article “A Photographers Guide to SEO, Blogging, and Social Media“).

There is one interesting story that comes to mind on the importance of focus and simplicity in business (also from Apple). When Steve Jobs got kicked out of Apple, Apple started to have a massive nose-dive. They had too many products on the market, and were too fragmented. They offered too many different models for their computers, and started to create other products which killed their focus (like their failed personal digital assistant). Once Steve Jobs re-joined Apple, he famously drew a 2×2 box and said from that point forward they would focus on the following: Pro/consumer laptops and pro/consumer desktop computers. He then ruthlessly slashed all of the other unnecessary products, and strove to focus on those 4 products.

So for yourself– think about the single thing you are good at, and don’t try to diversify too much. Get damn good at that one thing you do, and be the best at it (10x better than anybody else). Continue to grow, evolve, and learn. Create your “creative monopoly”.

The importance of marketing

There is a common saying in business: “Build it, and they will come.”

Unfortunately this isn’t always the case– sometimes you can have the best product, offer the best services, and yet have no clients. Because no matter how good you are, you need to effectively market yourself and get people to know about you.

In photography, Vivian Maier and Saul Leiter weren’t very good “marketers” of their work. They were both brilliant photographers, but (perhaps purposefully) didn’t market themselves to get their work out there and widely recognized.

Fortunately Saul Leiter’s work was “discovered” towards the end of his life– and before he died he was able to gain a lot of admiration and recognition for his work. Unfortunately, Vivian Maier wasn’t able to enjoy any sort of success or recognition– she died penniless and was only “discovered” when John Maloof found her negatives at an auction sale.

Peter Thiel shares the importance of marketing in “Zero to One” by saying:

“If you’ve invented something new but you haven’t invented an effective way to sell it, you have a bad business– no matter how good the product.”

Therefore you need to find ways to effectively market yourself and get yourself out there.

How can you do that?

If you’re a photography blogger trying to build your traffic, offer to do guest blog posts for more popular blogs out there. List-style posts generally do well (any blog with the number “10” is proven to perform better on social media). If you are a professional photographer, you can ask your past clients if they know anybody else in their network that needs your photographic services (word of mouth marketing).

You can also offer “free” services to effectively market yourself (everyone loves “free”). For example as a blogger, I recommend giving away all of your content away for free (and charging lots of money for personal 1:1 services, like workshops, consulting, or shoots). If you’re a professional photographer, perhaps you can charge premium bucks for the actual photo-shoot, but offer prints or a book for “free” as an added bonus. If you do photography workshops, perhaps you can offer the first session or day for free– to help get people in the door.


In this article I talked a little about the importance of becoming truly extraordinary in your field by becoming 10x better than your competition. Focus on making yourself “exponentially great” and productive.

See the future as being full of hope and be optimistic. Strive to become the best in your field by creating a new niche for yourself, or entering a popular field and gaining a superior “competitive advantage” for yourself by building your network, your brand, and by offering 10x more value and quality than your competition.

Be insanely focused. The sun itself can’t burn itself through thick materials. But if you focus enough of the sun with a magnifying glass (or a laser), you can burn through steel.

Realize that greatness requires a lot of sacrifice. You can’t become the best at everything out there. Limit the type of work that you do, dominate your niche, and avoid stagnation. Continue to grow, develop, and evolve.

Focus on the long-term, and build up your business one brick at a time, day-over-day.

You are great. You have great ideas. Your abilities have no potential. You are a unique individual. There is nobody else out there with your unique combination of attributes, therefore you are already 10x greater than anyone else out there (in one way or another).

Strive to change the world– create something great. Be the best you can possibly be. Become a “creative monopoly” with no limits.

Books related to the “10x Principle”

If you want to be inspired, learn more about business and marketing, I highly recommend the books below:

  1. How Google Works
  2. Zero to One
  3. The Magic of Thinking Big
  4. The 4-Hour Workweek
  5. The 10X Rule: The Only Difference Between Success and Failure

Articles on Photography and Marketing

Below are some other articles you might like related to marketing, social media, blogging, SEO, and photography:

  1. 1,000 True Fans in Photography
  2. A Photographer’s Guide to SEO, Blogging, and Social Media
  3. On Social Media and Street Photography
  4. How Many “Favorites” Or “Likes” Are Enough?
  5. How to Market Yourself as a Street Photographer
  6. 5 Tips How Photographers Can Build Their Online Social Media Presence

Change one thing today

I think information without action is useless. So think about what is one “actionable’ thing you can do today in your business or with your brand.

So what are you going to do to improve your photographic services (if you’re a professional photographer), your photography blog, or your photography in general to make yourself 10x better than your competition?

Share what you plan on doing by writing a comment below, and telling us what you commit to doing!

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