Every now and then we share interviews with inspiring entrepreneurs who have turned their passion into a successful business. Today, we’re talking with Cynthia Shaffer, photographer, author, and creative seamstress. This savvy mompreneur took her passion and parlayed it into a visual playground for all the world to enjoy!
Tell us about your company.
For the most part my business is divided into 3 smaller factions. One third of my time is spent as a photographer, another third as an author and artist and one third as a photography teacher. In 2009, I started authoring craft books and my photography adventure happened naturally soon thereafter.
Since then I have had photographed more than 30 books for various publishers and editors. Additionally, I have photographed several art events, lots of “new faces” for one of the largest modeling agencies in southern California, as well as fine art for gallery books and publicity.
How did you get started with all of this?
Interestingly enough, I started learning about photography out of necessity when I was writing my first craft book. You see, after each project I completed I needed to send my editor a good photo of the project so that she could give me the thumbs-up. I needed to take really good photos so that I could “sell” her on the pieces I had created.
As for the writing of craft books, the publishing company Sterling/Lark saw some of my project and contacted me to be the artist for a new series they were putting together. I authored the first and third book in the Stash Happy series. Soon after, my editor asked me to write another book, Serge it, and from there I wrote 2 more books, Coastal Crafts (May 2015) and Simply Stitched Gifts. I currently have two more books that are in various stages of development inside the crazy world of publishing.
What was your start-up investment?
When I was first starting out, I inherited my husband’s old digital camera and one of his old lenses. After a year or so, I took the plunge and purchased a great digital camera, a Canon 7D, and a really good all-purpose lens, a 24-105mm f/4.
As for the investment in the books I have authored, most of them have been sewing based, and because I already owned several sewing machines, there really wasn’t any start-up investment for that portion.
How long did it take you to become proﬁtable?
The publishing world is a strange one. You work and work and work for months on a book, sometimes up to a full year, and then you get paid 6 weeks after the book is sent to the printer.
When I photograph craft books, each contract is a bit different but usually I am paid when I deliver the job. But of course for the first year or so almost every payment I received I was used to purchase more camera equipment, new studio lights or a new lens!
Where do you ﬁnd yourself ﬂourishing?
I have always loved to teach and encourage and inspire people so when I was asked to teach Photography 101, I was thrilled, but at the same time, it pushed me to really dig into photography and break it down into bit size info for everyone to digest. So yeah, I’d say that I love to teach and encourage others to just start and figure it out as you go!
Where do you ﬁnd yourself struggling?
My biggest struggle is having to charge for my time. I would love to never have to charge for my work, and instead, just play and photograph lovely things and craft and then play some more- for free!
Three business tools you can’t live without?
I never go on a photo shoot without my favorite gear. I shoot with a Canon 5D and Canon 7D, 24-105 f/4 lens and my 70-200 f/2.8 lens and a variety of light modifiers.
I’d like to add a 4th tool, because I couldn’t live without my sewing machine. Sewing is the thing I was really good at, even as a very young girl at the age of 10. To this day, it’s still the one thing I can do almost effortlessly.
If you had to do it all again, what would you change? What would stay the same?
I honestly don’t know what I would change about the beginning process of this business. Not that everything has gone smoothly and not that there haven’t been setbacks, but I feel like there is still time to make changes and adjust my plan to make the business more profitable and more enjoyable.
What’s the best piece of business advice you can share with new entrepreneurs?
Just do it. And say yes! to new adventures, even if it means that you have to research and learn a lot before you can do that thing really well. Within reason, I almost always say yes, and then I figure it out. If I wait till I have it figured out, the opportunity will probably never come my way again. Also, always try to deliver more than what is asked of you.
Anything else you’d like to share?
Be a constant learner. Take classes, put yourself out there and see what happens. Volunteer to do something that is totally out of your comfort zone. And, be kind to everyone, always!
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If you’re interested in some personal tips from Cynthia, you can catch up with her as she teaches at an upcoming business conference, Launch Your Creativity happening April 29 & 30 in Orange, California.
Not too long ago I overheard someone say that photography was ‘a dying profession‘. And for some reason, I just couldn’t stop thinking about it.
It’s true that there are plenty of detractors that threaten to pull business from traditional, professional photographers.
They include, among other things:
- lots (and lots) of competition
- camera phones
- technology and edits making photos easier for amateurs to digitally enhance on their own
- misconception that photography is nothing more than ‘point and shoot’ work
- the misnomer that anyone with a camera is a photographer
- the increase in popularity of stock photos
- the equipment is more complex, more costly
- budgetary constraints
But these emerging roadblocks don’t have to be brick walls.
All professions run unto challenges, and they present in many forms. Instead of throwing in the towel, you just have to forge ahead.
When the going gets tough, some photogs don’t know any better, and think that if they can’t ‘hurry up’ and make money the traditional way, through sessions and shoots, that they’re out of luck (and out of business). And that’s just plain wrong.
That’s why so many new photographers fizzle out before they’ve even had a chance to really spark. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Getting clients is hard enough, but building a loyal following, well- that takes time. And time is money. Because the bills don’t stop coming in when the business is slow, it’s not a matter of failure, but rather, simply running out of time.
Here are some tried and true ways to boost your bottom line, and your exposure right along with it:
Photography is one of the most rapidly growing fields around. With so much competition, having a strong brand is non-negotiable. In my branding business we work with photographers to create a unique brand presence, and that’s helpful for sure. Everything you put in front of potential clients, from business cards to packaging and everything in between, should have a strong, enduring message. Something that’s eye-catching, visually appealing, and instantly recognizable as your own.
A professional brand shows people that you’re deeply invested in your business and sends a subliminal message that you’re serious about your work and passionate about your profession. But, don’t settle for just any brand. And don’t go with the latest trend. Sit down and really consider what you want your brand to say to the world. Make it your very own and keep it consistent throughout everything you do.
Educate your Customers
There are two kinds of clients out there. Those who see the value in what you offer and those who don’t. People are price conscious by nature. It’s up to you to tell them what they’re getting. Most customers who hire a professional understand and appreciate everything that goes into the work, and they gladly pay in exchange for it. Others… don’t get it. They see a pricetag and wince. Their instinct is to flock to the lowest cost option. They wonder why they should pay so much more for you than, say, for a shoot over at the mall. A photo is a photo after all, isn’t it?
When faced with pricing objections, gently help people understand what they’re truly getting in a custom, professional shoot. The time spent (both in preparation and during) a unique session, the artist’s eye that goes into every shot, the painstaking editing to get every photo just right, the impeccable quality that professional equipment provides, the exquisite personalized customer service, and the unbridled creativity that a department store session just can’t match.
Share your work
Put yourself out there. Share your work on your blog, across your social media channels. And don’t be afraid to ask friends, family, and even the clients to share on theirs. People are so visual, an alluring image speaks volumes and is almost always sure to stop them in their scrolling tracks.
Tell a story
It’s not just enough to share your images, you’ve got to pair them with a story. The combination of the two is where the magic happens. A creative title for your post, share a little story (with client permission, of course). People want to know more about what they’re looking at. Feel-good tales are always a hit. You can also enhance your images with inspiring words and quotes to amplify their Pin-ability. Be sure to include a link back to your photo blog, of course.
Get business savvy
Creatives, by nature, aren’t huge fans if the behind-the-scenes, nitty-gritty business side of things. They prefer to spend their precious minutes capturing others’ precious moments. Thankfully, there are some quick work-arounds.
To start, you can create photography documents (like contracts, releases, etc.) and pre-package them into branded folders to hand clients at the shoot. That way you don’t have to piece them together on an as-needed basis. You can also use financial software to lessen the accounting load. (Freshbooks and Quickbooks for Small Business are great tools!)
Your unique shortcuts will depend on your business model, but as with almost everything: there’s a solution.
Yes, you’ve got to spend money to make money, but you’ve also got to be smart about it. Whenever possible, work on a tight budget. Find creative ways to reduce the amount you spend on ancillary items. Digitize whatever you can. When possible send things via email versus print to save on postage and materials. The more you spend, the less you make.
Get a specialty
The landscape is changing. You’ve got to not only keep current, but carve out your own space. Do something no one else does. Or better yet, something no one else can. Find a way to set yourself apart from the crowd.
- create your own one-of-a-kind actions for unique editing finishes
- gather some unlikely props (think antiques or handmade items)
- put together a unique studio environment
- secure the rights to a particular venue
Do whatever you can to develop a signature style. If you’re the only game in town offering something- then you own every client that values it.
Build a following
Of course you’ve got to have people to build a business. But instead of individual shoots, work to forge relationships with each client you work with. You may even consider offering incentives for referral business.
Create Passive Income
Simply put, passive income is money earned through multiple streams. That is, on ventures outside of your actual photography work. Things like the offering of evergreen products, the selling of tangible prints, reselling your work as reprints, and so many more.
Whether you’ve been in the game for years, or just got your first camera yesterday- passive income is a great idea. There’s no one who couldn’t benefit from additional streams of revenue and increased exposure.
I created a resource called Peripheral Vision that offers dozens of pages of passive income ideas, including lots of direct links to some pretty helpful resources to get you started. It’s my sincere hope that this guide will help boost your bottom line behind the scenes, as you’re out there doing what you truly love.
Grab your copy, right here.
It Ain’t Over Til It’s Over. And It Ain’t Over.
The business of photography is not dying, it’s evolving. It’s learning to live in the new space that technology and advancement have created. And that’s a good thing. Change doesn’t have to be scary. It can be an opportunity. An opportunity to do something better and even more creative than you’ve done before.
How will you expand your business to meet new challenges?
How many websites or social media sites are you on each day that have photography that just doesn’t quite cut it?
I see it all the time. Fast and easy to load websites, well written blogs, great Facebook pages….and then, there’s the photography.
I know what you’re thinking. We all have to start somewhere and I certainly agree that in the early days of your business you need to show your fabulous products off somehow.
But have you thought about the kind of message your sending out to your fans or potential clients?
The bigger question…
Is your photography in alignment with your brand and style you’ve worked so hard to create? Does it represent your vision and goals? Have you gone to a whole lot of trouble writing and rewriting for your blog or website only to put up a ‘snap’ up of your fantastic product?
They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Based on what’s happening in social media right now, I believe that that statement has never been truer, especially for small business looking for ways to rock their marketing strategies.
- The unprecedented rise in popularity of Pinterest, which is based on images and does double duty as both a bookmarking and social engagement platform
- The emphasis that Facebook places on images and video in its algorithm for what people see in their newsfeeds
- The new Facebook timelines which are very visual with a large cover image, larger images on the wall, the ability to highlight posts and make images the full page width, and the new albums which allow you to look at full size images
- The popularity of photo apps like Instagram that double as social media networks (and the fact that Facebook just purchased Instagram suggests that the emphasis on images is not changing any time soon)
- The migration of Google’s online photo editor Picnik over to Google+ to allow for easy editing and customization of images right on your Google+ profile (and if you’re heartbroken over that one, don’t fret – you can use PicMonkey instead.