Thoughts on Becoming a Working Creative

I often have long discussions about photography with people who I meet through this website or through social media.  We talk about the art of photography, about how to see more effectively and yes, we talk a lot about gear too.  Occasionally the topic of business comes up, usually from somebody who is interested in pursuing a career as a photographer and who may be seeking advice.  Last week I chatted with Marco Larousse, from the Photo Podcast Network, about this very thing and thought I would write a blog post to accompany that conversation.  You can listen to our podcast here.

I should start this with a caveat:  I am totally not the guy to write an article about running a business.  I am not an accountant, nor a lawyer, and I don’t have a business degree.  What I do have, however, are decades of experience running businesses, experience that includes a lot of success and a few epic failures. I have run part time businesses while being employed full time, I have run businesses while going through significant life changes, and I have experience making the leap to living as a full time creative. 

So, read everything in this article with that in mind.  

The dream versus the reality… how bad do you want it?

Living and working as a full time creative seems wonderful on the surface.  Everywhere you look you can see Instagram photos of artists working on the beach while on vacation, tweets from people who are editing photos or writing while sitting at their local coffee shop, and videos from artists who are on another glamorous photo shoot.

There is a reality, however, that is not often talked about in these posts:  Running a business is a lot of work.  It truly is the embodiment of the 80/20 principle, with “the business” taking up 80% of your time and your photography taking up the other 20%.  Daily tasks may include bookkeeping, banking, website maintenance, social media updates, marketing, advertising, networking, equipment maintenance, knocking on doors, scheduling meetings, etc.  There are periods that are busy and times that are slow, bringing an uncertainty to your income stream.  Being a full time creative is wonderful, but it is important to realize that the majority of your time won’t be spent making art.

 I still want it.  What’s next?

Congratulations!  I am proud of you.  Now, let’s start planning…

The first thing to consider is that change doesn’t have to happen overnight.  If you want to set yourself up for success there are things to do to make sure that you are starting off on the right foot.  Here are some thoughts:

  1. Get out of debt first, while still working your day job.  Do you owe money on your credit card?  Pay it off.  Do you have a line of credit?  Pay it off.  Reduce your monthly expenses if you can and put that money toward your debt.  Do you need cable if you have Netflix?  Do you need a home phone if you have a cell phone?  Starting a business while in debt is a recipe for sleepless nights.  Don’t do it.
  2. Now that you have reduced your income requirements, create your rainy day fund.  Put enough money into the bank that you can survive for 3-6 months without any income.  Because, there will be periods with no income.  
  3. Start to flesh out your business plan.  Is there a particular niche that you want to pursue?  It could be editorial or corporate portraiture, wedding photography, pet photography, etc.  Research the hell out of it:  What are people doing in your city already?  Who is hiring them?  What are they charging?  How does your current work compare to what they are doing?  How can it bring value to your prospective clients?
  4. Identify gaps in your skill set and invest in education to fill them.  These may be photographic (i.e.  I need to learn how to light better), or they could be business related (bookkeeping, web design, etc).
  5. Obtain the minimum amount of equipment you need to get started.  Don’t go into debt while doing this!  You don’t need a medium format camera and that amazing $8,000 lens your favourite photographer uses to start making portraits.  You don’t need Profoto lights to get started either.  Buy what you can afford, without going into debt, and rock the crap out of that equipment until you can afford to upgrade.  Zack Arias started his business with a borrowed camera, a handful of inexpensive primes, a hotshoe flash, a light stand, an umbrella and a couple of inexpensive triggers.  Now he shoots medium format portraits for the the film and TV industry (amongst other high profile work).  He built up to that over time though, without going into debt.  See point number one.  If you want to shoot real estate photos you’ll need a wide angle lens.  Save up for it.  If you want to shoot weddings you’ll need two camera bodies.  Save up for them.  
  6. Create a portfolio of work in the genre that you want to shoot in.  This will probably mean creating your own shooting opportunities initially, working with local talent to build your portfolio.  Take your time with this, do it well.
  7. Get a business license.  Buy insurance.  Do all of the things to legitimize your business.
  8. Once you are ready, hang out your shingle but don’t quit your day job right away.  It takes time for clients to find you, and even more time for the cheques to start rolling in from the assignments that you shoot.  Are you a new wedding photographer, who is excited because you just booked your first 5 weddings?  Congratulations!  But, those weddings are probably for next year.  Just keep moving forward, step by step.  You are on your way toward your goals becoming a reality.

I made the leap.  Now what?

Once you are going, remember that the amount of success you have will be directly related to the amount of work that you are willing to put in.  You have to keep the train moving down the tracks.  Here are a few things to think about along the way:

  1. Serve your clients well.  This goes without saying, but make the best photographs that you can, be honest and responsive in your communication, and meet all of your deadlines and delivery timelines.  
  2. Build relationships.  Business is all about relationships.  I first learned how to network and work with people as a teenager working retail jobs.  This progressed to working as a paramedic and educator for 20 years.  People skills are everything, they are foundational to your success as a small business owner.  The people you network with, assuming they like you, become your biggest supporters and also potential clients.  If they like you and like your work they will tell others about you, they will hire you, and they can serve as a resource when you encounter a barrier to completing something.  If you aren’t a people person take steps to improve in that area now:  Join Toastmasters, go to networking events, do whatever it takes.
  3. I think one of the hardest things for new self employed people to adjust to is breaking away from the concept of weekly income, or monthly income.  You have to understand the money side of being self employed, especially the difference between the business’s income, your personal income, what you owe the government, etc.  Then, once you understand this, you need to develop a system to pay yourself accordingly.  Let’s say a wedding photographer, who charges $2,000 per wedding, shoots 20 weddings between May and September but only 5 between October and April.  That photographer just grossed $50,000 for the year.  Not bad!  Now, let’s say that the cost of doing business (the photographer’s expenses) brought that down to $40,000.  The photographer still owes taxes on that money though, right?  Maybe that photographer’s income tax bracket is 30% (a completely made up number), so once money is set aside to pay the government they are down to $28,000 net for the year.  Averaged out, this photographer made about $2,300 per month if they paid themselves a salary each month out of the business.  It’s great to make $12,000 in August because that is your busiest month, but how long do you need that money to last for?  Always think about your money over the long term, and always, always, pay your taxes.  Always.
  4. Set aside money for retirement.  You aren’t paying into a workplace retirement fund anymore (and, possibly, never were), so it is up to you to create those savings for your sunset years.  Start a retirement fund now, even if it is a small one, and don’t neglect it.
  5. Here is the hardest part of being self employed:  You need to honour your time off.  This is probably the most difficult thing for self employed people to do.  There is an urge to check your emails first thing in the morning, often before you get out of bed.  There is an urge to work while watching a movie, to fret about the phone not ringing while you are out with your children at the zoo, or to be thinking about that big job next week while you are out with your spouse.  Yes, the struggle is real.  Finding work / life balance is hard, but you have to do it.  We work to support our lives, but when you don’t work a 9-5 it can easily take over if you let it.  I suck at this part, by the way, and I am always trying to improve at it.
  6. You need to make art for fun still.  We fell in love with photography, or music, or painting, or whatever our “thing” is because we love creating art.  There is a risk, however, of losing that joy when you turn your passion into your job.  You need to get ahead of this, perhaps by shooting personal projects or blogging… anything to maintain that joy that you first felt.

Final thoughts

So, do you really want it?  I often joke that I have only had one real job in my life, which I was fired from within a month (true story).  Yes, I worked for a long time as a paramedic, but the reality is that most of my adult life has involved self employment.  There are amazing benefits to it, but only if you are willing to embrace the uncertainty of this lifestyle.  If you aren’t, consider maintaining another career and doing your art part time, simply because you love it.  Let your job be the patron that supports your love of making art.

If you do want it though, I applaud you and wish you all the best.



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