by Joshua Hudson

One of the biggest weaknesses of any small business is in its willingness to adopt a “mullet strategy” for its business plan: “all business up front and all party in the back.” In many cases, small businesses (especially wedding photographers) create a professional website with a few great images and start operations without the necessary infrastructure to operate as full business.

What is missing in the mullet strategy is the depth of experience of the business of photography. Too many photographers are hobbyists who not only lack the depth of photographic experience, but lack the depth of business experience to provide a full service to their clients and themselves.

CLIENTS

“A good portfolio does not a professional photographer make.”

Shoot enough images, and you are bound to find 10, 20 or 30 images that will impress a potential client. However, first impressions are not what a photographer is hired for. They are hired to create a complete documentation of images with the consistent quality of those few images throughout the wedding.

A professional photographer should have an expert understanding of his craft and his gear. While it is true that many photographers can shoot mediocre photos and pass them off as professional, that is always the plan of a mullet strategy of “just make the sale with good enough products.”

“Good enough” is the trend of a mullet-head: low-end editing and presentation with poor product quality control of products going out. The name of th game is to under deliver with a hope that the client will never notice. If you want to test if you are using a mullet strategy with your clients just ask yourself, “are my prices set purposely below the competition so I can get clients? Am I giving the client what they deserve or what I can get away with?”

If the answer is yes to either question, then you are probably running your business like a movie set—it looks like a town, but it is really just a bunch of facades to look like one. Face it, you are a mullet-head.

SHORT-CHANGING YOURSELF

“He who fails to plan, plans to fail”

The second aspect of a mullet strategy is more dangerous than short-sheeting your clients: it is short-sheeting yourself.

Do you have business insurance? Do you figure in your time accurately by adding in the hours of editing and marketing? Do you budget in your stationary, phone, electric, etc.? If you answered no to any of these questions—then you are DEFINITELY running a mullet strategy.

Running a business without business insurance can save $500-3,000 a year—until something goes wrong. Then it may cost you $150,000-300,000 in legal fees and fines. There is a reason why they call it insurance: you need to protect your business and your family. Don’t think that calling yourself a LLC will protect you if you are really a sole proprietor. Many lawsuits will go after the business and the photographer— if you claim to be a company, you may end up being sued twice.

Hiding time spent editing for clients and marketing your business in your ledger is essentially “cooking your own books.” It may look like you only spent 8 hours working and that $800 wedding was $100/hr in your pocket. The reality is that you spent time with clients, preparing for the shoot, time marketing to find clients, time editing, etc. It more realistic that you spent 80-100 hours on that wedding client, and spent significant funds on that wedding. When the real energy and expenses are figured, it is more likely a $800 wedding only earned you $7-10/hr.  Don’t let greedy eyes fool you— that steak dinner check in your hand is probably only worth a trip to McDonalds.

Many home-based wedding photographers consider their family phone and utilities to be free to their business. What business in the world would get that kind of financial break? Does Bob Nardelli plug  Chrysler into his house’s power grid? If he did, wouldn’t he charge the company for that electric bill? Of course he would. Those expenses are not free, and eventually comes out of your personal earnings when you don’t put those costs into the bill of your client.

These are part of the expenses of running a business. No one is getting richer by pushing one expense from the business to personal column on your expenses. The time and resources still need to be made. However, the mullet strategy dictates that as long as expenses are coming out of pocket instead of out of the business—they are free. This is only true if you consider that it is free to the client and not the photographer.

THE RESULT

“A man found a dollar in his pocket and thought he was a dollar richer than before: but it was his pocket and his dollar!” (Joshua Hudson- “The Foolishness of Photographers” 2001)

A “business up front and party out back” philosophy may get a small business some clients, but it is unsustainable for a long-term commitment. That $800 wedding done cheap was not all profit. The wedding “done on the cheap” cost exactly the same as the more expensive properly budgeted wedding. The only person that came out ahead was the client, who received hundreds of dollars in services that came out of the photographer’s pocket and put the photographer’s business at risk financially and legally.

Instead of fixing the problem, many photographers try to solve their financial losses by surging into more mullet economics. They cut insurance, marketing, quality printing, etc. The clients are able to still get the same mediocre service, but the photographer ends up have less and less investment into his business.

So what is the solution?

Stop being a mullet-head. Look at your business in a traditional business model. Mullet strategies aren’t doing anyone any favors to the client or the photographer. A mullet-head photographer doesn’t earn money, and no matter how much they love what they do, if it doesn’t make money what is the point of having a photography business?

In addition, a client of a mullet-head is not getting what they think they are paying for. While they love paying less, they still expect that they are pay less for the same level of basic professional services. They expect that the photographer will provide the highest level of quality imagery. They expect that the photographer will be insured, pre-site their wedding, edit images and maintain good customer service.

Seriously look at all expenses and the profitability of the business. Is the fun of photography worth the realistic profits of the market? Does the photographer have the business acumen and professional ability to create a self-sustaining business model? If the answer is no, then like the mullet—the business will disappear off the market.

With that being said, mullets are tricky creatures. Everyone knows they are horrible, and yet there are people out there that keep trying to bring them back. There are die-hards who defy convention and vow to keep the mullet alive regardless of how ridiculous they are. The choice is—are you a mullet-head?

WHAT IS MY PHOTOGRAPHY WORTH?

There is a simple equation to determine what your photography is worth

(Client Experience x Photographer’s Market Confidence) – Business Expense = Cost of Photo

FIGURE OUT THE BUSINESS EXPENSES

There is nothing I can do to help you change your client’s expectations and experience with your photography. Like the bard said, “I may not know art, but I know what I like.” Every client is the same way.

There is also nothing I can do about a photographer’s confidence. I have seen amazing photographers give their work away because of low self-worth. I have seen horrible photographers turn their wedding business into a used car dealership and “ego” their clients into a $5,000 wedding package.

I believe in offering fair value for services. If I have done my job, I will have images that the client will believe in. I will go home feeling that I was adequately paid for the effort I gave my bride and groom. I will be proud of my work, my business and myself.

A photographer that overcharges his work, based on his salesmanship and not his photographic ability incurs bad kharma and a while his bank account might grow, his soul becomes bankrupt. And this is true even if the clients never notice the difference.

DETERMINE COSTS

The first question in pricing your images should be “How much do I need to charge to recoup all my expenses?”

All too often, beginning photographers undervalue their work because they fail to consider the real expense of materials and labor. For these “weekend warrior” photographers, $500 in the pocket is all profit (especially if this is just extra money added to a 9-5 weekday job).

Unfortunately, even if you are just shooting “on the side” you still have expenses. That $500 isn’t pure profit. There are all sorts of expenses that must be considered.

Gas to and from the event

Time spent meeting with clients

Wear and tear on camera equipment (who will pay to have worn out gear replaced?)

Consumables (batteries, tape, etc.)

Wardrobe (You can’t show up to a wedding in shorts and a T-shirt)

Your time (this is really important. Many part-time photographers end up working for less than minimum wage when their expenses are deducted from the paycheck. Is it worth the trouble at that point?)

Insurance. (If you get hurt, your day job won’t pay your bills. If your wedding is ruined because of a computer surge, you can get sued).

Computer equipment

Web site (hosting, domain names, design, upkeep, editing time, etc.)

The list can go on for a long time. In the end, it could take several dozen $500 weddings to pay off just the equipment you need, and we still need to deal with marketing.

When you have worked out all the costs of shooting a wedding, add 35% to take in consideration forgotten expenses and marginal profit. Put this number in your “Business Expenses” portion of the formula.

THE MARKET

Another consideration is the market. Obviously the cost of living is different in each area of the country. A $100,000 house in Pittsburgh might be a mansion, while $100,000 wouldn’t get you a sublet to a closet in a Manhattan studio apartment.

There should be information online and at your local better business bureau on the average costs of weddings and services in your area. A common belief (held by brides) that wedding photography should average 10% of the total wedding expense. This should give you a starting point.

The next step is to start looking at the other photographers in your area. Many of them will have their prices on their Web sites. If they don’t, then call them and introduce yourself! Be honest about who you are and why you are calling.

Some photographers see every other photographer as competition, but most would rather see you price yourself appropriately and keep the “market” prices competitive. Low balling the competition only serves to deteriorate the overall sense of value of everyone’s work.

Be honest in your self-evaluation of your skill as a photographer. Then ask many of your friends to look at a variety of sites and be honest as to their evaluation of where you sit in the market. [note: have a thick skin for the really honest ones, and be suspicious of those “nice” friends who always praise you.]

Do not forget that you also need to evaluate your business as well as your skill. You need to be able to provide good customer service, quality prints, high-end wedding albums, address concerns and issues, and keep everyone happy for months before and after the wedding as well as during the wedding. You will need to be sure that you can control the environment during formals, and be unobtrusive during the wedding ceremony.

Once you have done your research, plug in your estimated place in the market in the “Photographer’s Confidence” portion of the formula.

CLIENT SATISFACTION

This is the hardest portion of the formula to figure out. In fact is it all just a guess (especially at first), but this is a ranking system of how well you think your clients like your photos and “WANT” you to shoot for them. Are you “in demand?”

This number should always start at “1” when you start your business. Your place in the market must be higher than your expenses to be profitable (or at least break even). This is a baseline of your business. As you see your client satisfaction number get higher, you can then make adjustments to your pricing accordingly.

Here is an example: Two photographers Bob and John start separate wedding photography businesses. Bob and John have the same gear, the same expenses, the same reputation in the community, etc.

However, Bob was very good at pleasing his clients. The end product was the same and the service and products matched exactly, but something about the connection he made with his clients made them raving about him to all their friends (at least more than John’s clients who may have been an older crowd with less single friends to influence).

John, in the meantime, we very skilled with the Web and was able to drive more and more new traffic to his Web site to find new clients. John also volunteered at his church and made a lot of connections that way for new weddings.

At the end of the year, a very popular Bob shot 25 weddings and John shot 28. Bob was already booked for 30 weddings his next year and John had booked 43.

Should Bob and John’s wedding prices remain the same or go up? Should they go up equally? What happens if they raise their prices too much? Will they lose customers? What happens if they don’t raise them at all? Will they lose profit?

Bob figured that 23 of his 25 weddings raved about his work to friends and he booked 15 weddings by Word of Mouth (WOM). Bob also booked his other 15 weddings just through his Web site. Bob figures that his Client Satisfaction Number should be determined by his WOM ratio (25/15= 1.6) and his decrease in unsolicited bookings (15/25= 0.6). Averaging those numbers together, the new Client Satisfaction Number for Bob is 1.1.

Bob decides to increase his costs.

John had a different formula. He increased his bookings from 28 to 43 weddings. He is reasonably sure that his prices are too low because of the demand for his work. He knows that if he increases his prices too much he will be out of the budget of many clients. He could just look at the increase of business as an indicator of demand (43/28 = 1.5) but he feels that his extra time and effort building his Web site popularity and his community relations is taking up a lot of effort and expense (which will figure into his Business Expenses section). He has decided to use the 1.5 Client Satisfaction Number and add his estimated marketing costs to both his expenses and his market value (putting the cost of marketing directly on the clients expenses).

John decides to increase his costs as well.

If both John and Bob make their goals in booking wedding clients, then they will have proven that they were right. If the weddings stop booking—then they will need to make more adjustments.

It isn’t important that you discover the secret formula to pricing. It is important that you have a way to measure your success and develop a way to keep measuring and evaluating your business.

WHERE TO CHARGE THE CLIENT

When I first started shooting weddings as a real business, I found that where we price products influences how clients respond to the photographer.

My research showed that the average Pittsburgh wedding costs $25,000. That gave me a starting point of $2,500 for photography (not including wedding album).

The initial plan was to offer a full “one choice” plan of image ownership, shooting, etc. I wanted to be the Henry Ford of wedding photography, “You can have whatever you want as long as you want THIS.”

It didn’t work, and I booked very few weddings, but I was a weekend wedding photographer still, and made most of my income shooting photojournalism.

The next year, I started offering lots of choices for the clients. It was a very extensive menu that confused and confounded clients. Within weeks, it was obvious that wasn’t going to work.

I had to take from scratch and look at what the clients saw as value and what the clients were expecting to buy, and I came up with a great product line and services. The only problem was that I needed to adjust where the value went.

At first I charged $1,750 for wedding photography and $250 for a wedding photography CD. Albums were $500-2,500.

When I shifted the prices to $1,600 for wedding photography and $400 for a wedding CD, I immediately doubled my clients in six months. It didn’t matter that my album prices had risen to $750-$3,000.

Adjusting the prices again ($1575 and $450) for the economic recession has kept my flow of clients.

My point is, that once you have a good idea of what you should charge for your services, you may still need to make adjustments in your pricing to find the right psychological worth of the images.

This also holds true for increases in prices. There are times you will find that increasing your prices will add to the psychological client satisfaction of the images. If it costs more, it is worth more. Just be careful not to price yourself out of the market.

CONCLUSION

Is my formula the way you should set up your business? I can’t answer that. However, whatever you decide to do, it should be based on a plan to retrieve measurable results.

“You can’t improve it, if you can’t measure it.”

I have spent entirely too much time, money and energy trying to master my craft in marketing. As a public affairs expert, I felt that I knew everything that I needed about marketing. Well, the truth is that PR is about building relationships and branding perception and marketing is … well about sales and branding desire.

So what does any red blooded American do when he wants to learn? He goes to the Internet. When he still isn’t satisfied, he starts at one end of the Barnes & Noble shelf and works his way from A to Z.

After many hours of reading, I can honestly say that every marketing guru has accomplished one task common throughout every book: they were able to milk very simple statements into hundreds of pages of “blah blah blah.”

So I am going to help everyone out. I have distilled 12 marketing books to the important message you need to walk away with. Once you read the outline of the book, I hope that you save your money and just skip the book. Or–for those who like a challenge– go out and read the book and see if you didn’t walk away with the exact same concept.

The one point that you will NEVER see a marketer or advertiser mention is the most important aspect of business and the only one that salesman can’t control: that good businesses are founded on good products.

Brand Simple
By Allen Adamson

1.    What is your business strategy?
2.    What does your brand stand for?
3.    Can you deliver on the promise of the brand idea?
4.    “Search All towns, you’ll see no statues of committees” D. Ogilvy
5.    Don’t be all things to all people
6.    People should listen with their guts not their ears
————-
Essentials
By Tom Peters

1.    Enthusiasm begets enthusiasm. Technicolor words beget
Technicolor responses.
2.    Meaning not marketing
3.    Who are we (25 words or less)
4.    Three ways we are unique
5.    Dramatic Difference
6.    Ask, identify yourself, keep your word, talk it up, shrink it
down, “Verb” it, rehearse your message, be people.
————-
Me, Inc.”
By Scott Ventrella

1.    QOL Index
a.    Relationship
b.    Health
c.    Spirit
d.    Emotion
e.    Intellectual stimulation
f.    Career achievement
g.    Finance
————-
All Marketers are Liars
By Seth Godin

1.    First impressions are rarely made on first contact.
2.    People make judgments in a moment and resist change.
————-
How to Get Your Point Across in 30 Seconds or Less
By Milo Frank

1.    Have a one sentence premise that addresses the need of the
client with “what, who and how.”
2.    Have a hook
3.    Ask for the close

————-

Cool Hunting
By P. Gloon

1.    Cool is defined as fun excellence.
2.    Cool provides for needs unrealized.
————-

Let them Eat Cake
By Pamela Danzinger

1.    Old luxury is about stuff
2.    New luxury is about experience
3.    Products must deliver passion
4.    Exclusive is luxurious.
————-

Instant Marketing for Almost Free
By Susan Benjiman

1.    By useful
2.    Be Smart
3.    Focus on the customer not the business
4.    Love at fifth sight.
————-
“QBQ!”
By John Miller

“No excuses—everything is your fault. Fix it!”
————-
“Flipping the Switch”
By Jo Miller

1.    Bad attitudes hurt business
2.    Take responsibility
3.    Positive thinking helps creativity
4.    Do for others what we don’t have to.
5.    By trustworthy.
————-
“Secrets of Great Rainmakers”
By Jeff Fox

1.    Rainmakers have no competitors. You can’t control the
market—just you inside of it.
2.    You can’t sell beer sitting at your desk. You have to get out there.
3.    Remove price from the vocabulary.
————-
“Goals”

By Brian Tracy

1.    Don’t blame others
2.    Responsibility, control, happiness are a relationship triangle
where each effects the other.
3.    Set deadlines and keep them
4.    Identify detractors and remove them.