Don’t be a Starving Artist
Can I ask you a question? If you own a photography business or if you’re just starting one, How many years do you want to stay in business before you fail?
We’ve just released new times for a free web class on this topic! If you find this article valuable, you’ll love our free web class. (Plus download 3 free minis templates.) Limited spots available! View class times here.
Ouch! Now if that very blunt question didn’t take the wind right out of your sails.. then good for you! You might just have the determination it takes to succeed. And you probably have the artistic talent you need, too. That’s the good news! The bad news is… well, have you ever heard the phrase “starving artist.” It’s a real thing. Most photographers know this all too well.
These days you have to be more than determined or artistic to succeed. You need a wicked-smart business plan. You need a proven strategy. And that’s exactly what we’re going to talk about today!
But first, how did you answer that very blunt question?
I know it seems silly, but really consider it. Probably your answer was, “I want to be in business forever! I have no plans to quit — at least not till I pay off my debt, have real savings, and choose to retire of my own free will,” right? Nobody wants to fail. It’s a long, demoralizing and painful experience. It often drains years of life and costs a fortune. Not to mention all the unmet hopes. It’s terrible.
Yet the statistics are not in your favor. Let’s face reality so we know how to respond to it:
Did you know that even in a good economy 50-80% of small businesses fail within their first five years? Many of the rest are gone before the 10-year mark, struggling for years only to lose it all. These statistics represent real people’s lives. We want you to avoid this!
We experienced early failure in our business, too. (More about that soon.) But now — after more than a decade helping photographers grow healthy businesses they love — we’ve discovered many of the secrets to maximizing profits.
Shockingly, the photographers we help succeed don’t do it by winning print contests, getting published, or taking over social media. They do it in a simpler and “smaller” way. They do it with mini sessions.
An Origins Story
We developed our weird “maximizing” mini sessions strategy during hard times. After two years working endlessly to grow a wedding photography brand, we were out of money. It was clear that if we couldn’t figure out the business side of things, we’d be hanging up our cameras and returning to our old jobs as a high school teacher and barista. Our dream would be dead.
We were tired of the starving-artist lifestyle and wanted to build something that could support our family reliably. Maybe we deserved it? I mean, we did start our business during the Great Recession in a small town with one of America’s highest poverty rates.
But we worked hard and served our clients well. We knew we deserved more. So do you! That’s why we want you to know, you’re capable. You just need the right tools, that’s it. After all, this tiny high-poverty town is the same place where we transformed Blume Photography into an official Bulldog 100 Fastest-Growing Business the very next year!
What We – and Thousands More – are Doing Now!
If you know anything about more traditional “mini sessions,” you may be surprised we looked there for our answer. Most photographers know minis as “the bane of the photography industry.” If you ever tried mini sessions yourself, you probably have your own personal horror story to tell about them, too!
A typical mini session model is something like “$100 for a 20-minute session with 10 digital files included.”
You don’t have to be a math whiz to see that those numbers don’t exactly scream “stable income generator.” I mean, does anybody here want to photograph multiple sessions every day (including weekends and holidays) for the rest of your life just to earn an average salary? Count me out!
We knew this model was broken, yet there was something valuable deep within it. We were convinced we could remake it into something at least sustainable!
Actually, we weren’t as brilliant as I’m making us sound. We were desperate! But we were also tired of just imitating the stupid “look at me” social media celebrity game every wedding photographer was playing online. We just decided it was time to grow up. We decided to stop running our business like starry-eyed artists. Instead, we would fall back on the business principles Eileen had spent so much money to learn about in business school. (As it turned out, those timeless lessons weren’t old-fashioned at all. They were genius! Imagine that!)
(Don’t have much time? Sign up for our next web class on maximizing mini sessions. Live for a limited time only.)
So we need to dive into the details of this, right? There is a lot of information to discuss — yet none of it is rocket science. In fact it’s all quite “common sense” once you hear it. Kinda like “why didn’t I think of that” logic.
I will lay out several of those details below and in our accompanying “5 Tips” eBook. Still, this is very limited space we have.
So in the spirit of exceeding your expectations and delivering serious value, visit this link to watch the 1-hour long “Maximizing Mini Sessions” video class totally free right now. That’s how Eileen and I can actually show you each important step in the process.
Anyway, you didn’t just download this eBook and throw it into a “folder for later,” did you? You are actually reading it, which means you’re focused. You’re investing in yourself, and that deserves to be rewarded.
Before you join the video class, though, decide if the potential results of this system are even worth your time:
Our first weekend experimenting with “maximizing minis” earned us $800 per client, or about $8,000 from 10 clients. How would that measure up for you right now? (Keep in mind, we couldn’t afford garbage pickup at the time. So for us personally, we felt like crying — like we’d hit the jackpot!)
Today we consistently generate an average $1,200 print order per mini-session client. Let me put that into perspective — that represents 20 minutes of shooting in our backyard (and the post-processing of course, which we’ll get into).
But listen! There’s a warning here. Maximizing minis is not as “easy” as it sounds. There’s no such thing as a “get rich quick” scheme; lasting wealth always requires some hard work.
We have no desire to sugar-coat this for you. There is a lot of work on the front end that goes into setting up, marketing, and automating a business structure like this. (But at least there are no mysteries!) It took us months to figure out the first time, and we’re still fine-tuning it every single year as we personally work with a small group of 1:1 mentees to implement the system in their businesses. For the record, most of them do not start off earning $1,200 per mini session client right away; on average it’s more like $600-$800.
But as Oliver Wendell Holmes famously said, “There is a simplicity that exists on the far side of complexity.” Figuring something out the first time is hard. But once a proven system is well known, using that system can be set to “autopilot” for the rest of your life!
As a result, maximized mini sessions have become more profitable for us than our luxury wedding business (plus backyard minis remain safe, uninterrupted, and profitable regardless of whether or not there is a pandemic or economic crisis).
Thanks to Eileen’s business degree, we weren’t necessarily starting from scratch. But we knew that if we wanted to build our new model, the first step was to tear down what didn’t belong in the mini sessions we envisioned. We looked intently at every part of the process, from finding leads to final products, and whatever didn’t fit our vision was culled out like a bad photograph.
For example, we asked:
- Why do photographers create artificial limits on how many images they deliver? If our clients have limited options, it also limits their add-on purchases. So we totally nixed the “10 digital images included” as the final product.
- Why not offer basic in-person sales (IPS) — or at least a simpler online alternative? If our real goal as photographers is to provide lasting, heirloom products for our clients and a great income for ourselves, guided ordering sessions are the best way to appeal to high-dollar clients.
- Why not enhance the experience? When our clients see their images with their eyes, they simultaneously remember how they felt in their hearts during their photo shoot. If we want them to love their images, and if we want them to book us again on a regular basis (repeat clients are the number-one way to increase profit margins), they have to first love their experience.
With these kinds of changes, your new-and-improved “maximized” mini sessions allow you to create an experience and a product that you can actually scale. Scale is the critical word for business growth — it means you stop “trading your time for money.” (Keep in mind, time is finite, so it is your most valuable commodity in the world; continuing the pattern of selling it — e.g. payment in exchange for shooting-and-burning — makes it literally impossible to rise above being a day laborer for the rest of your life.)
However, a tangible product that results from a positive experience equals income growth, without increased labor. Work smarter, not harder.
There’s another important detail here. While we may not need to explain to potential clients what a “mini session” is, we probably do need to re-frame their low expectations for minis. In our marketing, we must make a point to explain the real value portraits hold.
Instead of marketing based on price (every photographer in your market is doing that already.. in a great and tragic race to the bottom of the market!), appeal to clients’ internal needs. Use statement that express how you “help families/seniors/women/couples” (whoever your target market may be!) “to fill-in-the-blank.” The blank is whatever need your photographs fill. People don’t need images on paper; they need, for example, to celebrate your milestones or remind your family what’s most important by displaying beautiful family portraits at the center of your home. That’s how advertising should sound. Not “our photos are cheaper than the other guy’s photos.” Does that make sense?
When someone reaches out about our mini sessions, we make it clear that our endgame is not simply handing out digitals or even filling up empty wall space: We want to help every client have a home that reminds them how much they’re loved, a home that fosters connections and relationships. The goal of our mini sessions is to work alongside each client to capture memories and moments that will last a lifetime. To that end, you may want to incorporate a survey within your workflow, so you can find out what emotional ideas and nostalgic items can add to their session — and make this experience priceless!
But that also means we have to market to the clients that appreciate this approach. We have to know where to find them. And, believe it or not, we also have to prepare ourselves mentally for something we may not be used to — recognizing and filtering out a lot of potential leads who don’t fit our ideal client. That’s right. A certain type of client can easily cost you more than they are worth.. or at least more than you can earn. In the video class, we can show you more about where to find those ideal clients (even in smaller markets like ours), and grow confident enough to turn away the wrong clients politely.
We used to think we had to book every lead we got, which meant that when someone raised an objection to our price, our answer was always to compromise, to give in, to make an exception. And that set a terrible expectation for the client, who rightly viewed us not as artists, but as a cheap vendor who would change according to their whims.
Now we think differently: We aren’t simply trying to fill up bookings, but rather book the clients that are right for us — clients who share our values. We’re helping our clients create a visual heritage. And if they value that, then we’re going to be on the same page throughout the whole process.
The practical outcome of a shared-values approach is that you end up with loyal, connected return clients and long-term relationships. And every business in every industry knows, the most valuable asset to your business is loyal customers because you don’t have to market to them any longer. They’re yours.
It all begins with a simple marketing email. First, we reach out to our top legacy clients, who have worked with us in the past. (If you haven’t worked with any clients yet, don’t worry. We promise to discuss ways to help you build a strong email list during our online class, too!) The clients get first dibs on booking for the upcoming minis event. If there are still slots available after that, we email to a broader audience and advertise on social media.
But converting clients takes more than passive advertising (letting the world know that you do mini sessions and waiting for them to call you). Instead, we include a call-to-action in every email and ad, which takes potential clients to a specialized, mini sessions landing page.
The landing page (a custom purpose-driven, private web site) is clear and to the point. It gives our clients a taste of the experience that awaits them and invites them to request a time slot.
These are known as “micro commitments.” Note, we have not asked them to “book” or “pay” yet. Instead, we providing value and asking them to nod their heads if they’re interested to learn more. Is this making sense? Great!
After they make a request they are automatically given a 24-hour window to review the session details, sign the contract and secure their booking.
Between the booking and session day, our clients receive two to three pre-session emails. These serve to build anticipation and also offer us a chance to share some important information, such as:
- What to wear – clients love us for this, and their pictures are always better for it.
- Sample images – which get them excited about their own photos to come.
- Products for purchase – and ideas for where those products could go on their walls at home.
Now you may be thinking, “Writing all those emails, building landing pages, following up with everyone… that sounds like a lot of work!” And you’re right, it is a lot. But thanks to helpful software tools, we are able to automate a great deal of the front- and back-end of the mini sessions workload. Specifically we use:
- 17hats for managing leads and producing automated emails
- StickyFolios for creating custom mini session landing pages
- ShootProof for hosting our online galleries and selling products
The details matter in creating this one-of-a-kind experience. You’ve heard of luxury weddings; we shoot luxury mini sessions. The locations are still simple (from local parks to our own backyard, and we don’t use any props). But we work hard to enhance the client experience wherever we are. This is easy at our studio, but even at a park we can do wonders with a pop-up canopy, some casual seating, a charging station, and a table with cold water and clean towels.
And yes, we thought of the kids, too — they each get to pick a small treat from a prize bucket at the end. If your dentist can do it, why don’t more photography studios do it?
So the stage is set, and then comes the wild part: We photograph back-to-back 20-minute sessions, spaced out every 30 minutes. You can fit a ton into one day doing this, and we used to do that! But now we limit ourselves to just six per day so we still feel totally energized and never worn out at the end of the day. It’s actually fun and fulfilling! We’ll do six a day, 12 in a weekend, and we know that that will generate upwards of $12,000 every time.
Choices to Make
We knew that for our luxury mini sessions to really work, we had to include high-end, in-person sales like we do with our weddings. We were a little concerned about how people would react, since minis have historically been a “shoot-and-share” experience, but we were confident in our product and also knew we had to make it work if we hoped to still be doing business the following year. So we went for it.
Before they leave from their mini session, clients sign up for their ordering appointment (usually scheduled about a week later, done in person at our home or via a strategic online workflow). The very first time we tried in-person sales after a weekend of mini sessions, we earned over $8,000 in print sales alone. And this has proven to be the average sales rate over time for most mentees in our mini sessions course.
When you eat at a restaurant, do you feel like the waiter is force-feeding you? Or do you feel free to choose your own meal, as they simply give you a menu and take your order? We actually enjoy sales now because we have a menu that does the work for us. Other than that, we mostly just shut up and listen. What do our clients want? How can we help them get the right products for their home? They come in and see their pictures for the first time, and we get to enjoy that joy of their immediate reaction. After that, the strategically structured packages we offer sell themselves. So we’re not forcing anyone to do anything. We’re providing solutions to their desires!
When we first started providing guided ordering appointments, we lived in an 1,100-square foot house in a collapsing neighborhood, on the wrong side of the railroad tracks, beside a neighbor who had 18 dogs behind a chain-link fence and a car up on blocks. It was essentially the opposite of a luxury photography studio. We would get a phone call every time clients arrived asking, “Am I in the right place? I think I’m lost.”
So we developed a script: We’d answer with, “Oh, yeah! We’re so glad you’re here! I can see you through the window. Come on in.” We didn’t apologize; we just owned it. And once they came through the front door, we controlled the experience from there.
That was the attitude that later allowed us to build our dream studio debt-free.
Studio or not, you can create a luxury in-person client experience with creativity and attention to detail. Here are a few simple tips:
- Offer snacks and beverages.
- Play on-brand music in the background.
- Light candles or turn on scented diffusers.
- Display your products where clients can touch and experience them.
And of course, if in-person is simply off-the-table, recent advances in technology allows you to offer personal ordering guidance online (what we call Virtual IPS). With lots of experimenting, we found you can perfect this process to keep your sales numbers up!
About half of our clients end up with online ordering sessions, but the sales are nearly identical to what we see in-person. The reason for this, we believe, is that we treat the experience as though it were in-person. Two quick tips to that end:
- ‘Hand-deliver the gallery’ by scheduling a time to meet via video chat. Don’t just send a gallery link via email; join them online, share their gallery link and walk them through the shopping experience via screen-share.
- Offer the same one-hour window you provide for in-person sales sessions. You should only need 15 minutes to walk them through the viewing and ordering if you use our process (before letting them fly solo), but a specified ordering time-frame creates an appropriate sense of ordering-urgency in your client’s mind.
Our print and product packages begin at only $229, but each client spends an average of $1,200 on their order. Our most popular products are timeless items like print enlargements or canvas enlargements, and everything we offer is very attainable. If it’s not our highest sale but our client walks away happy, then our goal is still achieved.
In addition to enlargements, nearly every client ends up adding on a “brag book” – a small, one-image-per-page album that displays 10 to 20 photographs. This usually helps them to reach the spending minimum that allows them to get their digital negatives thrown in as a bonus, which is really valuable. That’s how we end up with those really high averages so that everybody’s leaving happy. And happy clients are always the best marketing strategy!
When families buy products and display them in their homes, it’s essentially marketing that’s paid-for by our clients. I can’t tell you how many families we’ve photographed who came to us saying, “I saw this beautiful collage of canvases you made on my friend’s wall.” It’s one of those things that just keeps expanding exponentially.
During the era of global lockdowns, canceled events, and financial uncertainty that began in 2020, we found this wonderfully flexible mini sessions system to be invaluable in an ever-changing market.
Because we’re directly involved with the students in our courses, here’s how we all together adapted the system to survive and even grow despite challenges that up-ended most photography businesses:
- Socially Distant Minis – It’s not as hard as you might think. Photographing from at least six feet away, posing clients with verbal directions and taking extra precautions to clean and sanitize make for a safe mini session experience that your clients are comfortable with and local communities need.
- Bolstering Small Businesses – we reached out to local small businesses and pitched a partnership opportunity: During those mini sessions, we donated the session fees to the small business of the clients’ choice. They love knowing it helps the community!
- Generating Funds for Charity – When clients log on for their online ordering appointment (having a system to maximize your Virtual IPS sales has never been more important!), they know that we are donating a percentage of whatever they purchase to a local charity working to provide medical care during this pandemic (ours is a local medical charity).
- Keeping Ourselves Employed – Of course we will not be making as much money if we give so much away, but we don’t leave our business up to chance. We certainly will be making a good sustainable income, while helping others that are struggling at the same time. And for that, we are grateful.
So what began as a last-ditch effort by two photographers trying to make ends meet has become the bedrock of photography businesses around the world. With publications like Shutter Magazine, ShootProof, and Professional Photographer Magazine drawing attention to the Maximizing Minis Movement, it continues to grow and change lives!
Does it make more sense now? You can probably start to see how it has carried us and our Maximizing Minis students through hard years, unexpected expenses — and now even global pandemics.
Can we invite you to be the next photographer to step up to the challenge? We have a few free web classes happening this month for those who took the time to read this blog post; so grab your complimentary seat here while it’s open! We’re excited to actually talk with you soon!
Ready to Learn More?!
Take a Free Mini Sessions Web Class from The Blumes!
Discover the Maximizing Mini Sessions movement and get set up for your first high-profit, backyard business! Register for the FREE web class here.
“The free web class is a-maz-ing. And the Course is crazy simple and very well laid out. Phillip & Eileen provide so much supplemental material to help create documents, templates, and everything you could possibly need. They explain the why for all their methods and steps and break it down so that you walk out feeling confident in the process. Stick to their plan – it works!” – Mike Glatzer