Paid to Learn: The Bad Branding of Starting Out Cheap.
Do you know how many different ways you can break a baby on accident? Dramatic example, I know, but branding can have dramatic effects on our businesses. To answer the first question, no, me either, that’s why if I were to get into newborn photography I’d either pay to take the proper safety classes, intern with an experienced professional, or both.
Likely the last option because I really don’t want to break someones baby.
What the heck does this have to do with starting out your photography business cheap though? Everything.
Let’s get a few things out of the way so we can start on the same figurative page.
First, if we’re going to talk about some bad branding, we should probably understand what branding is to begin with, and why it’s important.
What is branding?
A basic definition of branding is: “The marketing practice of creating a name, symbol or design that identifies and differentiates a product from other products.”
So your brand in this case directly relates to your name, your reputation, and standing as a business. It’s going to be the way you run this business that identifies who you are, and what you’re about to your potential clients in the marketplace. It’s also going to be how you set yourself apart from other people who are selling the same service or product as you. Knowing this, it’s no small thing to say that your brand is a big deal, it’s everything for a business. You can figure out a great marketing strategy, do extensive networking and start offering a really impressive customer experience, but all the while that name you build for yourself starting off is a hard thing to shake. Even once you start profiting and doing well, what’s to say you couldn’t be doing better if it weren’t for the time you spent building a bad name, bad price, or bad goals for yourself and business?
“Your brand is a big deal, it’s everything for a business.”
But what is “cheap” and why don’t we want to be “cheap”?
I should clarify before we go further that I don’t hate “cheap”, and to be honest I don’t view “cheap” as any certain number. “Cheap” is going to be a subjective amount based on each photographer’s personal cost of doing business. Every business has different expenses, taxes, and costs associated with breaking even, and then making a profit. “Cheap” is not decided by whatever a client may be able to afford, that’s why a budget is a budget. Photography is also a luxury which means that nobody is entitled to your time or services, we’re here to offer what hopefully amounts to a comfortable customer service experience. Starting off “cheap” or “unprofitable” sets you up for failure early on. You can end up not only working yourself to burnout, but also giving yourself that brand, that name that sticks, that these are your prices.
With that said, once you start charging money, you need to report that income, and hence, pay your taxes, insurance (for gear and liability), and applicable licensing for your particular locale. You’ll want a contract to mediate client expectations as well as to cover your butt in case anything goes off the rails. This isn’t even to mention that charging a profitable wage gives you the ability to give back to clients, to really treat them in a way that makes them feel special, acknowledged, and lavished upon which is huge in giving great customer service.
“charging a profitable wage gives you the ability to give back to clients”
There are a bunch of misconceptions and downright lies about how to start and run an ethical business from the beginning though. Different people can be found giving wildly different answers on what is acceptable to do starting out. It’s in times like this where I like to get a little biblical with “everything is permissible but not everything is beneficial”. Meaning, sure, you might be able to do some of these, and even do them quite profitably for some duration of time. The fact of the matter, though, is that over the long term, these things will inevitably come to be, at the least, a hindrance to your brand, and at worst, an opportunity for legal struggle.
Getting started on the right foot for a business is invaluable. The faster you can get moving forward on the right track, the less time you’ll spend backtracking and trying to dig out later on. So with that said, let’s cover some of the most used pieces of bad advice I’ve heard given to fresh photographers starting out.
The all too common pieces of bad advice.
“My time is valuable so I deserve to be paid immediately”:
This makes the false, and rather arrogant assumption, that your time is not just valuable, but since you’re charging for your service, your time is more valuable than the time the client is spending in helping you hone your craft without any guarantee as to the results. This disregards the students who’ve paid to learn the basic skills and history of the trade via established learning institutions and insinuates that, despite the offerings available, you deserve not only to receive that education for free, but that someone should pay you to experiment on them. Customer service is never going to feel like a priority if your customer feels like a guinea pig at the end of the day.
“Don’t work for free.”:
Never say never - on the contrary, investing your time into learning is one of the best ways to learn without the weight of client expectations getting too high because of money invested. What you consider to be “cheap” could still be considered expensive to a client who is delivered work that is sub-par to what they expected. On top of this, working for free makes you able to give back charitably to causes you support down the line.
“Free and low cost photographers devalue the industry”:
This is flat out false. The clients hiring these people are not hiring you anyway, and your brand and the quality of the experience you provide should be enough to book the clients that are looking for your tier of business. Low cost and free photographers don’t affect you, only themselves. So please stop griping about people who don’t effect you and get back to excelling at what YOU do.
“If your clients know you’re a beginner, they won’t expect much.”
Again, this is covered above with “what you consider to be “cheap” could still be considered expensive to a client who is delivered work that is sub-par to what they expected.” Just because you’re a “beginner” doesn’t mean clients don’t have expectations when handing over their hard earned dollars. This also doesn’t take into account that a business is expected to operate professionally, not just based on what a client expects. A client may not expect your camera to die halfway through their wedding. If this were to happen, a professional is going to move to their backup, or their backups backup, because that’s what charging a livable wage allows for. A client may not consider these things, but they are factored into the cost of a legitimate business. Run an ethical business and don’t be content just scraping by for bottom dollar on clients who may not know better. It’s your job to run the company after all.
The big ol’ conclusion.
A portfolio is what most clients base their hiring decision off of. At the same time, a portfolio is a collection of your best work and doesn’t show the areas you’re lacking in, intentionally showing any potential client only this is misleading. On top of that as soon as money is involved in a transaction you can no longer manage the expectations of a client. You personally may think $300 for all day wedding coverage is a steal and the client couldn’t possibly expect professional results, but maybe that’s the clients budget and they think that $300 is expensive. Your lifestyle doesn’t make “cheap” an objective universally agreed upon amount. In the end, being shortsighted could cost you more than you have.
The issue with these ideas is that they all effect your brand over the long run. Charging cheap now makes it harder to charge a livable & profitable wage later. Clients will have cemented in their mind that your prices are this way forever, and that becomes the new standard for you. Raise your prices by fifty dollars to afford taxes, and all of a sudden clients are put off because you’re becoming “one of those” photographers. All because you warped their expectations of what a livable wage looks like. Photography isn’t a get rich quick scheme as much as you might be led to believe and people charging higher prices are (hopefully) doing so not because they just like ripping people off, but because that’s the cost it takes them to live, to profit, and to save for their futures.