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.
“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.
“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.
“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?