It's easy to become self-employed. How hard is it to stay self-employed?
When my daughter was born eight years ago, I decided I was going to quit my office job so I could stay home with her. I did, however, still need to make some money to help support our family, so I did what many stay-at-home moms do and started my own business so that I could have the benefit of working from home and still be with my kids. I'd enjoyed photography since getting my first Nikon in high school, and people had always said I had "an eye" for photography. So... with a camera and one or two photography classes under my belt, I opened my own photography business. Here's my story.
In the beginning (once I got over how terrifying it was to say goodbye to a steady paycheck), it was thrilling. I began shooting portraits (for free or really cheap) for friends and family, and everyone was so excited! My portfolio started to look pretty good, and word began to spread. Bit by bit, I started to get paying clients. Granted, I wasn't charging much, but getting paid $50 for a session seemed pretty great to me! I would come home and excitedly spend hours editing and making the pictures look great. And I loved it!
A year or so down the road, I got my first wedding. A friend wanted to pay me $400 to shoot her wedding. An extra $400?! Whoa, that's a nice extra chunk of change! I need to start doing more of these. So I created some $600-800 wedding packages and booked a few more weddings. I love weddings and I'm feeling pretty awesome.
After my first year of weddings, I'm still loving it, but I'm realizing that I'm actually not making all that much money. Take $700 minus $200 for an album. Figure six hours of shooting, one hour driving, and another seven hours editing. Not to mention the equipment I'm now buying, the educational seminars I'm attending to improve, the association dues, the website fees, etc. I need to start charging more. Will people pay? I'm scared.
I increase my prices. By at least double. I don't get much response, and the friends that once booked me constantly don't anymore because I cost too much. I really struggle with this because I want to be able to provide people with affordable photography, but it's not worth it for me to give up evenings and large chunks of my weekends with my family for very little profit (once you do all the math). I decide I need to start marketing, and purchasing ad space in a local wedding magazine seems to be the best option since, with two little kids at home, I don't have much time to invest any any other types of marketing. I spend $3500/year on advertising. This does bring in several new clients! And they don't bat an eye at my doubled prices. They actually pay them! I'm thrilled, not only at the money, but these clients seem to book me because they love my work, not because I'm the best deal. They're so much more fun to work with.
The next couple of years are really good. There's not a whole lot of people doing what I'm doing. My photographic style is pretty unique, and I'm able to increase my prices even more during this time. After another year or two, my average wedding is about $2500-3200. I don't book tons of weddings, but I book enough that I feel like I'm contributing to our household income, and my schedule is still flexible enough that I can enjoy my time as a mom. I'm not really
Things start slowing down. The past year and a half or so, business has sort of slowed. I can't figure it out. But then I start looking around, and my market is completely saturated with photographers. The availability of digital cameras and some great educational tools has made the industry very easy to get into (which I'm thankful for because that's how I got here), and now there are tons of really good photographers out there at all sorts of price points. I'm no longer really standing out among the rest, and there are other really good photographers out there charging less and giving lots more.
Now I must become 90% Marketer and 10% Photographer. And I should've been all along. That's the secret of becoming self-employed that few people tell you when you start. I've seen incredible artists fail because they don't put enough time into the business side of things. By comparison, I've also seen very average artists become incredibly successful because they're really good at business and marketing. Am I willing to make this shift? Am I willing to do the work of becoming business minded and spend the bulk of my time getting the word out about my business now that all they hype has died down?
If you're thinking about starting your own business, I applaud you. There are few things more exciting than following a dream like that, especially when you're passionate about your craft/skill! Think before you start, though. Does the business side of things excite you to? Are you willing to put just as much (if not more) time into studying marketing as you are your passion? If that doesn't sound like something you'd enjoy, there's still options! Find a job working for someone else that allows you to pursue your art, and let them worry about the business side of things!