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The Pufferfish Principle

 

Every freelance has to start somewhere. But is there a way to fast track your career and start attracting those bigger names or well paying clients earlier on? Perhaps by appearing a larger and more established concern than you already are? f2 believes there is. Appearance and perception count massively in business – even more than actuality at times – and it’s a trick we’ve christened The Pufferfish Principle. To pull it off requires not just the ability to take a stunning photograph, but some pretty clever marketing too. Not every freelance can be a whizz-kid at the latter, and that’s where f2 comes in: we’ve canvassed successful photographers to pick up some tricks of the trade that reveal the important role client perception plays in making a success of your chosen career. And as we discover, it’s not just bigger is better. Appearing smaller – therefore seeming to offer a more bespoke and personal service can have its advantages too

 

Wedding photographer Victoria Grech made an interesting career switch from the world of banking. Although she turned pro just three years ago, with a business head already on her shoulders, she’s been able to do what many freelances don’t, and build a formidable team around her. This has enabled Grech to broaden her range of services to include Hollywood-style cinematography, and market herself to a more upmarket client base than was possible during the first six months when she was on her own.

“Compared to banking, where I was used to having a huge support team around me, the emphasis is now on myself as a brand”, reveals Grech. “I did start out as a one-man-band, and in some ways that’s easier than managing a big team. But, having seen people filming on their DSLRs, I added cinematography to the services I offer last year. Traditionally, video makers have got in the way of photographers at weddings and vice versa, but I saw it as a business opportunity and a way forward. I knew that, if I found the right people, we could together work as a team in the best interests of the client.”

Grech’s team now comprises one full time retoucher, five second-shooters, and up to 15 freelance video people that she can call on, including three video editors. “So I have lots of people to keep in contact with”, she laughs. “It’s been a huge jump from three years ago.”

Before Grech set up on her own, she had been ‘second shooting’ for 1½ years with a more established photographer – and it appears that helping out with a going concern can prove invaluable, both in building your confidence and boosting business when you eventually step out from the shadows. “It’s a great way to learn on the job”, says Grech. “Without the pressure of being the main shooter, you have time to be more artistic.”

Things have changed a lot for Grech in her first three years. Her first website and branding marketed her as a typical £800 wedding photographer, and she felt she didn’t stand out. “Six months in, I rebranded myself”, she says, “and the only way I thought I could change the perception of my business was to go for a luxury market.”

The rebranding took three or four months, and Grech worked with a graphic designer on a proper logo. “It’s good to find people who are really great at what they’re doing and collaborate with them, rather than trying to be a one-man-band”, she says. “I know money’s an issue when you start but, for me, the investment really paid off.

“My website today is very simple. You want your clients to be able to look at your branding, and have that immediate sense of who you are and what you’re about. You should be able to look at a photographer’s home page and tell how much they’re charging, or at least have a good guess.”

Grech’s website is hosted by theimagefile.com. “It helped me change my website around”, she says. “Its MD, Howard Butterfield, is very supportive. Theimagefile.com is great value, and helps me make money without my having to do anything. A photographer needs that.”

Grech feels that there are both pros and cons to pitching yourself as a bigger company than you actually are. “You can say, ‘It’s not just me, we have second shooters, and a business with people who are really great at what they do’”, she says. “However, you can also flip that and your pitch can be, ‘We’re really bespoke. We work with a small number of people and you get a lot of my time.’ But it’s always best to portray yourself as a business rather than as a photographer. Even if you can’t afford to have full time employees, there are lots of people out there who will retouch your photos, allowing you more time to work on your brand, your marketing and sales.

“To look bigger or more established than you are from the outset, spend money on your website to make it look good. But there’s no need to spend a fortune. It’s the small things that count. For example, think about when you buy an item in a lovely clothes shop, and get given a receipt in a little envelope. The weight of paper you use in your paperwork can also make the difference between something feeling inexpensive or expensive.

“Then it’s down to customer service, how you make the client feel when they make an enquiry, plus having branded email addresses rather than just @hotmail or @gmail. It doesn’t cost a lot to get your own email address. You want to strive to be the best that you can.”

Another obvious route to appearing a bigger fish than you are – and a free one at that – is social media. “I find Twitter great for industry connections”, says Grech. “Every time I’m at a wedding, I’ll tweet the hotel and say what a great service it was, and they will re-tweet me and remember who I am. Twitter is now a must have for anyone starting out, and it’s free. Just watch it doesn’t take over your life!”

Another freelance social photographer and videographer doing remarkably well after just three years in business is graduate Ian Martindale, 26. In contrast with Grech, he remains a one-man-band, but like her saw the moneymaking opportunities of offering video alongside stills. “I got involved in student television and video productions while I was at university in York”, he says. “Photography had been a hobby of mine before, so it made sense to combine the two when I graduated and was looking for work.”

Martindale attributes at least part of his success to the streamlining provided by his use of Light Blue software, the dedicated business tool for photographers that takes care of the day to day admin - in effect acting as a virtual assistant or secretary.

“Light Blue has enabled me to look very polished, very branded and consistent in how I present myself to clients”, he says. “My invoices carry my branding, I can see who owes me money and who’s late paying; and I’ve got workflows set up associated with each different type of job. When you’re juggling several commissions in a week, they all have different demands and deadlines, and the program enables me to feel confident I’m ticking everything off.

“I also have a Twitter account and a Facebook business page, the latter more for my wedding photography. Clients do consider me a bigger business than I actually am through use of these tools. The polished impression I am able to give means clients have that little bit more respect for me.”

Martindale has recently started blogging, in tandem with rebranding his website with the aid of an established photographer. “He has helped me with my business development, too”, he says. “He has associate photographers. Although I’m not one of them, it’s nice to have that support from your peers.

“When I started out, Light Blue Director and top wedding photographer Tom Catchesides also acted as a bit of a mentor. It’s all been marvellous, really. Light Blue let me start on the right footing, both in terms of being organised with contact details and the where’s and when’s, and with quoting for jobs. The software has held my hand. And, in terms of trying to grow your business, it enables you to give your clients a consistent experience.”

Guernsey-based social photographer and specialist print lab owner John Fitzgerald has been in business 30 years, so has plenty of experience juggling many plates in order to run a successful business. He appears happy to restrict his social photography to clients on the island, while wanting his lab to reach as large a clientele as possible, thus needing to appear both bespoke and corporate in different arenas simultaneously. He achieves this through the use of his website - or rather, websites.

“To try and limit the social photography side of the business to the island, we have a local address that ends in .gg”, he explains, “whereas we think that might put people off the laboratory, so we have www.fitzlab.com, which is much more internationally recognised. We followed the example of the huge millerslab.com in the US, and we use the same software as them, so the professionals’ perception of us shouldn’t be any different.

“Over here in Guernsey, people's wperception of photographers is that, rather than a company or a team, we’re all independent people. It’s very much someone working out of their front room. I don’t know if clients prefer it that way - it’s more what they’ve got used to.

“I have a team of four, including me, but that’s mainly so we can run a lab as well. And then we occasionally take on a couple of additional staff, depending on the workload.

“As regards the photography, a prospective client’s first point of contact will be my team mate Rachel, then they’ll speak to Emma on the accounts side. It gives people the impression that there’s a bigger team looking after them, even though it’s only me who goes out and takes the photos.

“People still like a personal service, which they don’t always get from bigger companies. In some senses, it doesn’t help to be seen as too big, because in clients’ minds that’s a bit impersonal. We like to be seen as a personal, friendly company that you can always get hold of.”

Fitzgerald’s staff use social media for marketing on the photography side, “and it can work”, he notes, while for his print lab, he prefers LinkedIn to the likes of Facebook.

“The profiles of people who use Facebook in our area tend to be young women between 18 and 30, which isn’t a lot of use to us as a laboratory”, he reasons. “Also, being seen as an established photography business isn’t so important with the youngsters; as long as they like your style of work and the service they get, you’ve won the battle. If I told them I’d been doing this for 25-30 years, they might have the wrong perception of me being an old git – so the staff, who are much younger than me, handle the initial enquiries and sales side, and I’ll come in on the planning meetings. We put a package together that looks like it’s done by an organisation that knows what it’s doing.

“If you want to get anywhere in photography, you need to talk to people, and try and associate with an established photographer who doesn’t feel threatened by having yet another photographer come onto the market. I’ll always talk to photographers who want to know a little bit more about it, and try and guide them, because my philosophy is, if someone’s paying them to take photographs then, in terms of quality of image and service, they should try and provide the most professional service they can. It’s not just about ‘I’ve got a digital camera’.

“Try and get yourself up the Google rankings, and have a good web presence – which is more important than a Facebook presence. That helps enormously. You want something that’s going to pop out in your customers’ face straight away and give them your signature image.”

Social freelance Karl Stancliffe has worked with the www.imagefile.com on his website and marketing, although his background in IT has also helped. He’s been in business for eight years, and for the last 18 months has been co-running his company with his wife, with the ‘smaller is better’ approach working well.

“One of the biggest marketing tools we have is our personal touch”, he says, “because ultimately we’re dealing with emotional times in people’s lives”, says Stancliffe. “As we’re there throughout the wedding day telling their story, we get incredibly close to our clients. Otherwise they don’t relax. If they want to cry, they shouldn't feel that they can’t. It shouldn’t be hidden away from me.”

Therefore, if Karl was perceived as a larger business, he believes his ability to strike up a close working relationship with his client might be lost.

“Although having said that”, he adds, “our marketing has to be quite far reaching and substantial in order to gain the volume of business we’re looking to achieve, which is what a lot of small businesses forget. We don’t have a shop, as we work from home, so a lot of marketing is done via the internet, with our websites as our shop windows. And surprisingly, little things like changing the colour of a background from black to white on our wedding site make a huge difference in how we’re perceived and the feedback we get.”

Stancliffe and his wife run four websites – partly for better search engine optimisation, and partly because their range of services has broadened, so more sites made sense logistically.

“Our wedding website has a little mention of portraits”, he says, “which sends people across to our portraits site – www.photographyforlife.com – which in turn points back to our wedding site. Both of them also point to a photography training site we’ve set up, which was pitched at the amateur market, but is now targeting professionals too.

“Our fourth site is a shared marketing tool with fellow photographers and high-end suppliers in the region, whereby we give incentives and gifts away to our brides. So, if brides book a service from us as a group of suppliers, they get given a password to the website for access to discount vouchers from all the others. Everybody wins. Everybody who gives a gift within the group gets something, because they get referral business.

“This came about because we were looking to improve our networking. Especially in an economy where marketing costs are quite high, anything you can do for little or nothing is worth doing. I got to meet all these suppliers regularly at wedding fairs or was working with them at each wedding, so I suggested the idea to a few of them and got lots of nods. We then decided we needed a platform. I didn’t want it to have my branding on, because that would be unfair – it had to be neutral, so a fourth website was born.”

Interestingly, Stancliffe’s wedding packages are named after well known shoe brands, which he believes helps make a connection with his target audience – the female of the couple, aged 25 to 35. “We’re slightly more luxury end”, he says. “We’re not offering the cheapest product in order to maximise profit, and that actually helps our sales. We offer a mid to high-end service.

“We build a trust level with our clients, and when we ask why they book us one of the things they appreciate is the fact that we’ve not gone in with a hard sell. Experience counts – making mistakes and correcting - in that it brings a level of maturity, which people unconsciously look for.”

Husband and wife team Ted Cunningham and Kim Geddes’ Margate-based social photography business Immi Photography, has been running successfully for nine years. They put some of their longevity down to undertaking lots of different shoots, not just weddings – so they have steady business throughout the year. The result is, they have such a breadth of work to show, that clients marvel at the fact that it has all been shot by a husband and wife outfit. In other words, yes, the business appears bigger than it is.

Cunningham tells us they also employ a third person, who mans the phones, and who the couple are also training up to shoot. “But it’s not just about taking a photo”, he adds. “Your clients’ perception of you in business is a huge thing.

“Number one, our business premises always look fantastic. We try to create an impression of a lifestyle that others might be envious of, and almost the idea that we don’t have to work too hard, which is a total lie.

“Number two, by doing lots of different shoots, it appears as if there are more photographers than there actually are. Weddings are huge for the summer, come the winter boudoir becomes popular, while newborn photography is all year round.“We’ve positioned ourselves more as a family outfit - so our first contact with you is either wedding or baby, and we have a really good turnover with that. Yes, people might additionally appreciate the fact that we’re a husband and wife team, but another huge advantage when shooting child portraits is that we have kids ourselves, so can totally empathise.

“I hear a lot of people talking about, ‘Fake it until you make it’, but I think that can trip you up. Looking bigger than you are can be a disadvantage too – particularly if you then can’t live up to the billing and turn out the work. I’ve even heard of instances of photographers passing off images, even stock images, as their own, to look more impressive, but then getting caught out and sued.

“I also believe it’s no longer important to have your own studio or shop in order to look ‘professional’. If you can produce a certain standard of work, it’s forgotten that you don't have your own studio.

“The tricks of the trade are really marketing and sales - your photography is the one thing that’s there for all to see. We’ve found a niche we’re very comfortable with. We’ve made our sales pitch a lot more homely, and have watched our sales go up, but it’s fair to say we have had to change massively and avoid the trap of holding onto what we were doing before the recession.

“Luckily, we’d become very established. The longer you’ve been established, the less marketing you need to do, because you get repeat clients.

What also counts for a lot these days is getting to the top of Google, so we’re having our website redesigned to help with optimisation. We want to sell the fact that we’re one of the better, if not best photographers in the area, and we’re good value.”

f2

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This article is taken from Vol 6 No 7. THE BUSINESS 22. The Pufferfish Principle.