How to take control of your own photographic destiny:
Preface: Stay hungry, stay foolish.
If you accessed this Photography Startup Manual— you are hungry. You are hungry, and a little bit foolish — in the spirit of Steve Jobs.
To be an entrepreneur isn’t to be a genius. Rather, it is to be a “bearer of risk”. You take personal risks, for the benefit of the collective — for the benefit of society. And of course, for your own benefit — to avoid boredom and purposelessness in your own life.
The only way to “succeed” as an entrepreneur is to mitigate your risk — to maximize your upside and minimize your downside (in the words of philosopher and former trader Nassim Taleb).
I will only share with you advice, ideas, theories, that have been derived from my personal practice and experience. They are principles which have helped moonshot myself to becoming #1 on Google for “street photography”, that has helped me achieve a $200,000USD (combined) yearly income with my partner Cindy, and has helped me find a greater personal purpose in life.
I want you to be skeptical of everything I share with you in this book. Yet, I want this book to be a STIMULUS for you to take massive action, and to take massive risks in your life — to attack the front lines of your personal doubts, in order to achieve personal entrepreneurial grandeur.
PART I: MONEY
In this book, we will tackle practical entrepreneurial and philosophical questions such as:
- How do I make money from photography?
- Do I want to make money from photography?
- If I sell my pictures, am I “selling out”?
- If I pursue my passion (photography) as my career, will it sully my enthusiasm for photography?
- How much should I charge for my photographic services?
- How do I market, brand, and advertise myself and my services?
- What is my end goal in photography?
- How much money do I ultimately need in life?
This book is an attempt to help you find your personal path in photography, life, and entrepreneurship. Treat it as a personal handbook for yourself, that will help illuminate the path for you— as a guide (not as a manual of definitive answers, but once again, just a guide).
1. What is your ultimate goal in photography?
To start, ask yourself:
What is my ultimate goal in photography?
Be brutally honest with yourself. What do you really want? For example, do you want:
Of these things, which do you desire, and which do you not desire?
There is no morally “right” or “wrong” answer here. You just need to clarify your true purpose in photography and your life goals.
Ask yourself this question, and write it down.
2. What do you need money for?
In practical terms, we need money to pay for our housing, food, water, coffee, and WiFi. But beyond that— why do you desire money, or more money? How much money is “enough”?
In photography, we want money to buy new equipment (cameras, lenses, computers, storage) or educational supplies (books, handbooks, manuals) or to use money as a way to inspire our creativity (travel, photography classes or workshops), or ways to share and publish our work (website, printing books or prints, framing).
The common mistake I see photographers think is this:
“If I only had more money to buy that new camera or lens, then I could really fulfill my creative potential.” This line of thinking is as foolish as a chef saying, “If I only had that one new knife or pot, I could finally cook a truly revolutionary or innovative meal.”
As humans, photographers, and visual artists— we need tools to make our art. Yet, we need to know that our tools don’t hold us back. We hold ourselves back.
To truly develop, mature, and advance as a photographer— you must create more pictures. You must find new inspiration and motivation in fields outside of photography. You must study poetry, history, dance, music, theater, sculpture, drawing, painting, science, technology, and engineering. The more diverse and multi-faceted you can make yourself, the more you will creatively flourish.
So friend, for what reason do you really need money?
3. How to make money from your photography
To make money from your photography is simple, yet difficult.
- Simple in terms of the fact that you must charge and collect money for your services.
- Difficult in terms of the fact that it is really hard to have people give you money for your services.
To make money from photography, you need to offer your client VALUE.
I define value as: “Utility and joy given to the client.”
Utility: How is your photographic service going to be useful to your client? What desires will it fulfill for them?
For example, if you’re making a product picture for them, will your picture help them sell more products?
If you’re shooting a wedding for a client, will your pictures bring them joy and memories, that will be valuable to them?
4. On Value
“Value” is highly subjective, depending on your client.
The best way to build value— see the world from the eyes of your client. Placate and cater to their desires, wishes, hopes, and dreams.
5. How to advertise and market yourself
Advertising and marketing yourself is critical. You can have the best product or services— but without the right communication channels, you will fail.
The best advertising is word-of-mouth. But that takes a long time to build up.
To kickstart building your brand, the best way is to create your own website.
I personally recommend bluehost.com and installing wordpress.org. You can design your website to look like a portfolio, you can setup a blog, and put on your contact information, pricing information, and a biography on you.
Social media is mostly a distraction. If you build your platform on social media, you are becoming a share-cropper— one step away from an indentured servant or slave. You don’t want to build your platform on quicksand, or soil that you don’t own.
The simple rule of thumb: You must pay money for the platform or website or service you use.
6. How to price your services
As a general rule, Charge 25% more for your services than you think you should.
The problem is that most of us beginner entrepreneurs undervalue ourselves, our labor, our skills, and our abilities. In order to make a profitable, sustainable, and strong business, you must CHARGE MORE.
It takes a great deal of confidence to charge money for your services. We have been stigmatized and indoctrinated by society that if you charge money for your artistic talents, you are somehow “selling out.” That is incorrect.
Whoever might criticize you for “selling out” are simply failed artists, who haven’t figured out a way to properly monetize their passion.
7. A 3-tiered pricing system
As a general guideline, try to start off with three tiers of pricing.
Have a low priced option, a mid priced option, and an expensive option.
Most people will buy the mid priced option.
Put a higher price point to the expensive and low priced option (once again, 25% more than you think you should). Price your services in a way that you want your client to feel that they’re getting good value for their money. In psychology, they call this “anchoring”— when we buy things on discount, or for less money than the initial price shown, we feel happier.
8. Early-Bird Discount
If you teach workshops or courses, offer an early bird discount. Charge a higher normal price, and offer a discount for a few weeks up to a month before your workshop. This will encourage people to signup earlier, and also will make your clients feel they’re getting a better value.
9. Ignore your “competition”
You have no competitors. Ignore who you might perceive to be your “competition”. You’re in a category of all your own.
If you compare yourself to your competition, you will fail. Why? You’re going to forget what makes you unique, and you’re going to be distracted.
You want to focus on YOUR personal strengths. Only weaklings compare their strengths to others.
Judge yourself according to your own ruler.
10. Emphasize the benefits
When selling your photographic services, emphasize the benefits and the value you will give your client.
Don’t describe what you do. Describe how you’re going to help your client.
What goals of theirs will you fulfill? And what makes you the best candidate for the job?
11. Write in your natural voice
Write how you talk. Avoid stuffy, fake, and inauthentic “marketing” language. We can all smell that BS from a mile away.
You want to attract clients who would like you “in real life.” Thus, describe who you are, what you do, why you’re so good at it, and the benefits you will give your client— just like you are talking.
Practice reading your marketing language outloud. And ask yourself, “If someone else gave me this pitch, would I find it genuine, intriguing, and enticing?”
Follow your own gut.
12. How to build a following
It is very hard to build a following, and it will take you a long time. You might succeed. You might fail. But the more brutally honest, authentic, and the harder you hustle— the higher your chances of success are.
For example, you don’t need a massive following. For me, I only need around 20 students a year in my workshop to make a living. For you, you might only need 1-2 (well-paying) clients to make your living in your photographic passion and art.
Therefore, don’t get stuck in the sucker-trap of getting more followers for the sake of more followers. All you need is a few die-hard fans, who will pay you good money to purchase your photographic services, attend your workshops, or book you for consulting or client services.
Generally, my suggestion to building a following is consistent, steady, and persistent. Imagine a great redwood tree. It steadily adds inches to its height over weeks, months, and years. Eventually, it towers as high as skyscrapers, blocking out the sun.
A river also slowly chips away at the shores of a cliff, over millennia and eons. The slow, powerful, yet persistent force is much more effective than short-lived dynamite.
That means, realize that if you want a financially strong and viable business, it might take you anywhere from 2-7 years. It took me at least 7 years before I felt really financially strong, and confident in my skills and abilities.
Slow and steady, and be relentless.
13. How to profit
To increase profits, either increase your income, lower your expenses, or do both.
For me, I try to do BOTH— both increase income, and lower my expenses.
The sicker mistake: a lot of us increase our income and increase our expenses. This won’t make us profitable.
Generally, cutting expenses is easier than adding income. It is hard to get people to give you money. It is 100% in your control (of course, up to a certain point) how much you decide to spend on stuff.
With camera equipment and gear, be truly honest with yourself before you “invest” in new gear:
Will this new equipment that costs me $XXX dollars … really going to provide me with an increase of $XXX dollars?
In drag car racing, it is easier to strip your body of superfluous weight than add horsepower to your engine. Easier to cut off the roof or take off the front bumper or hood, then to squeeze a few extra horsepower from your engine.
So ways you can save money in your business:
- Don’t rent an office
- Keep your travel expenses low (fly economy, stay at cheap hotel or Airbnb, don’t eat expensive meals)
- Rent equipment for photo shoots, instead of buying it
- Live in a cheaper apartment, or move to a cheaper neighborhood
In terms of increasing income to your business:
- Increase your fees
- Do more paid work
- Only focus on your most income-generating activities, and ruthlessly cut out time-wasting stuff (superfluous emails, meetings that waste time, “networking”, social media, etc).
Also never forget— your time is your life. And the life you trade for your money is precious.
Your life is MORE valuable than your money. You can always earn another $1,000 in your lifetime. You can never “add” another year to your (already maximum) lifespan.
PART II: TACTICS
1. Don’t build your platform in quicksand
Let’s say you wanted to build your own house. Would you want to build it on quicksand?
Another question: if you are a “share-cropper”— working the fields of your master, do you really “own” your own land, crops, capital, and yourself?
I have a personal example: my mom worked as a waitress at a popular sushi restaurant for nearly a decade. She advanced through the ranks, and became head waitress. She helped improve customer service, and as a result, sales. Yet after a decade of diligent service, she got let go. She built up all of that value for her employer, but once she got let go, she had nothing to prove for it. She wasn’t able to build any personal capital or “xxxxx” for herself.
Anyways, the purpose of the story is this:
Avoid building your business in quicksand, or land that doesn’t “really” belong to you.
That means, don’t build your business, platform, or startup on social media.
The rule is this:
If you’re not paying for your platform (website, blog, marketing communication channels) you’re being suckered somewhere.
For example, my mistake in marketing and entrepreneurship was spending so much time, energy, focus, and resources building up my Facebook following. Now, to access more of my fans, I must pay a lot of money to “boost” my posts, to access more of my fans. And as a platform, Facebook isn’t being utilized as much as other platforms.
For example, nowadays most photographers have flocked to Instagram. Yet, photographers don’t realize that Instagram is owned by Facebook (Facebook purchased Instagram for around $1Billion dollars).
The problem with focusing your energy building your Instagram following:
- Eventually the platform will die, and people will flock to another platform
- You’re building your own platform in quicksand
- You will (eventually) have to pay a lot of money to “access” your “own” fans/followers
- You have less control and customization in terms of how to present your work to your followers than if you owned your own platform
- It is hard to “meaningfully” differentiate yourself on a social media platform
- There is no “freedom of speech” on social media. You can get censored easily for “violating community standards” (has happened to me before on Instagram)
All of this motivated me to delete my own Instagram: the best decision I ever made.
Ever since I deleted my own Instagram, I’m more focused than ever to build my own website/blog. Not only that, but I have fewer distractions.
By using social media, you’re constantly distracted —comparing yourself, your progress, and your “like” and “follower” numbers with others. But as a principle as an entrepreneur:
Ignore your “competition”— because you have no real competitors. You are in a category of your own, therefore it is pointless to try to compare yourself with others.
My humble suggestion:
Rather than build your following on social media, start your own photography blog, and website. I recommend using the free and open source “Wordpress.org” platform hosted on bluehost.com or 1and1.com.
And to communicate with your followers, I recommend you to build an email newsletter. With my email newsletter, I have an email “open rate” of around 30%— which is massively more than any “engagement rates” on social media (For example on Facebook, less than 1% of my audience actually “sees” my posts in their over-saturated and polluted feeds). Email is the oldest and most durable form of internet communication, and will continue to be so at least for the next 40 years (email has been used since the 1970s in the popular sense). The service that I currently use and recommend is mailchimp.com.
In today’s world, you must meaningfully differentiate yourself from your competition.
My theory derived from serial entrepreneur Peter Thiel:
Meaningfully differentiate yourself and show/prove your value by being 10x better than anyone else, or exist in a category of your own.
My personal suggestion is this:
Push yourself 10x harder than you think you’re capable of.
Or, elevate your personal thinking, or your personal conception of your limits by 10x more.
For example, imagine how much money you’re capable of earning in a “realistic” sense. Then, imagine yourself earning 10x that amount of money. To think 10x or “moonshot thinking” is to realize you have no limits — man was once believed to think it would be impossible to land on the moon. But in reality, our hubris and our insanely “crazy” view and belief in ourselves has helped us achieve the impossible.
As a practical suggestion, remove the word “impossible” from your vocabulary. You can say “difficult”, but never “impossible”.
“Impossible” is only bound by physics concepts. There are certain “impossible” things in the physical sense — but very few “impossible” things to achieve in the mental, or conceptual sense.
So, friend, how can you elevate yourself 10x beyond what you think you’re capable of?
Now, how can you build your willpower? Willpower is your lifeblood of yourself and your business.
To increase your probability of success, consider this equation:
Probability of success = Number of risks you take without dying
4. Failure doesn’t exist
There is no “failing”— only death in the biological sense.
But, what you want to do is reduce or eliminate your chance of 100% death.
Therefore consider — how can you prevent yourself from going 100% bankrupt?
5. Minimize costs
One of the best ways to prevent 100% ruin is to keep your expenses and costs to an absolute minimum.
Generally smaller biological organisms survive better than bigger organisms. Smaller organisms require fewer resources, are more efficient and lean, and less vulnerable to the laws of gravity (big elephants and animals are more apt to break their bones when compared to a mouse).
6. How bad do you want it?
My personal belief is that almost anything is possible. The question is simply… “How bad do you want it?”
For example, I disdain working on things which I don’t have my heart and passion for. But, for things which I consider insanely important for myself —I will fucking hustle my ass off for.
The secret isn’t to “force” yourself to “work hard”. The secret is to find a life purpose, a mission, that is MEANINGFUL to you —a goal that is greater than yourself. Then, putting “effort” in your work is paradoxically “effortless”— you will be able to move mountains with a finger.
PART III: PHOTOGRAPHY BLOG
Why and how to build a photography blog
If you use Facebook, Instagram, or any other social network —I recommend you to start your own photography blog instead. It is essentially the same thing, except you “own” your own content, yourself, and how you decide to communicate and transmit your pictures and information to your viewer/reader/follower.
Step 1. Register your own photography blog/website
I recommend bluehost.com or 1and1.com as your website host, and WordPress.org as the platform.
Register your own website domain, and I recommend using your first and last name whenever possible.
or if that is not available, add the word “photo” to your domain name:
The reason why you want to add your own name in your domain name: your name is the most valuable “brand” that exists. Your name will stay with you for your entire life — you want to build to the legacy, the valor, and the glory of your name — rather than trying to imbue meaning into some cheesy business name like “Midnight Images” or “Decisive Moments Photography.”
Generally the companies and brands that have existed for a long time (traditionally) have been family names, or the name of individuals. For example,
- Louis Vuitton
- Calvin Klein
- Tommy Hilfiger
- Christian Dior
And when you meet people “in real life”— the best business card to own is:
“Just google me.”
Ideally, your first and last name should become #1 in Google. The way to rank higher in Google for your name is to write relevant, interesting, informative, and empowering information (in your field or genre) on your own personal website or blog. And have more high-ranking, popular, or “legitimate” websites linking to you (Google ranks your website just like how Academic citations work— the higher the rank of the academic who cites you, the higher your ranking goes up).
Step 2. Start posting
Once you have built your website or blog, start posting. Don’t worry about your design — yet. It is fine to start off with a standard blog or website template. What matters the most:
Content is king.
The quality of the information you put out there is critical.
Post information, content, pictures, or videos which would interest YOU.
Be your own ideal customer. Be your own ideal follower.
You will have no idea how to please the masses. But you know what appeals to you.
Therefore, create your website or blog to cater to your personal tastes, aesthetics, or judgements. It is better to create a website, blog, or platform to please you — and then have your audience find you, rather than trying to build a website or platform pleasing a foreign or outside audience.
Be yourself, and let your audience find you. Seek to please yourself, not your audience.
Step 3. Be seen
Okay now, you have your website, blog, or platform.
The difficult part:
How do you get people to see your stuff?
I like the idea of “guerrilla marketing” or “bootstrap marketing.” Which means, to be a hustler, scrappy, and to pride yourself on being the underdog.
Start small, then build yourself up, steadily, over a long period of time.
A human newborn is pretty much non-self sufficient until around age 12 or so. That’s around 12 years of tending for a creature, and being patient — and building up this organism.
Why should your business, platform, or self be any different?
It might take you 10-12 years of being in your business or industry before you start to really make waves. A great redwood tree starts from a tiny sapling, and takes EONS before it reaches heights that block out the stars.
Start small, by sharing your blog posts, website, with friends and family — share via email, text message, messenger apps, or posting to social media. Post to Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, links to your biography in your Instagram, or whatever platform that allows you to link.
But the goal is:
Drive traffic to your own website, blog, or platform.
You do NOT want to drive people off your platform. You want them to stay on your website, blog, or platform.
This is just a brief guide, or a manual to STIMULATE you to action.
This manual is not definitive, and the ideas will constantly change, be in flux, and change as technology changes.
Yet, the principles will remain:
- Staying true to your own artistic vision and voice
- Hustling hard (perseverance, hard work, taking advantage of opportunities that life gives you, and mitigation of risk— lowering your risk while increasing your potential upside)
- Never stop growing, learning, evolving, and creating