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Taking control of work and fast-forwarding 10 years in only nine months
Leaving too many things to chance
I’d like to think that my photography business has grown these past seven years because of my hard work and client-focused mindset. But when I recently reflected on the path I took to get me where I am today, I realized I’ve been leaving too many things up to chance and depending too much on word of mouth for new business.
Because of this, my sales revenue has had lots of ups and down over the years. I had 40 clients one year and over the next two years, that number dropped to 15.
Then, in 2018, I had my best year ever. My sales hit a new high. But instead of feeling happy about my success, I was scared. I didn't know exactly what to attribute to my success to.
That’s when I knew I had to take more control over the work that was coming in — because if I had another great surprise year like that one, I could have a bad surprise year, too.
I started my hunt to make changes for the better, and that’s when I found Ilise Benun on Creative Live and her courses, Command the Fees You Deserve and Don't Get Pushed Around: An Introvert's Guide to Getting What You Need at Work.
I wanted to take more control over the work coming in
I saw that Ilise did consulting and thought, “I’ve got to give this a try.” We connected by phone and, soon, began a series of regular calls, where we focused on two main areas: determining the type of clients I most wanted to work with and then going after them.
Through our calls and using Ilise’s “clone your favorite client” process, I was able to identify the clients I enjoyed — small, wholesale home décor businesses — and was reminded of those I didn’t like as much: larger companies, even though they paid the bills.
Our exploration helped me understand how to go after more of this type of work and why it made sense to turn my focus away from other projects, including working with large companies.
Working with well-known brands can be fun, but with smaller companies I can be more involved in the entire creative process and have more control of the final product, as well.
I was able to identify clients I loved — and those I didn’t like as much
With Ilise’s guidance, I changed my focus and began figuring out how best to get these clients to want to work with me. I was fortunate in that I already had one client in this niche. Ilise pushed me to get to know the company even better — find out what kind of magazines they read (and then read those magazines, too), learn their busiest times of the year and how they source their products and, most important, understand their needs and pain points.
I took notes and, on each call, would update Ilise with what I found; she would make suggestions on what to look into next. Soon, my new knowledge made me feel like I had an ace in my back pocket, where I truly understood the wholesale home décor niche.
Ilise encouraged me to get out of my office and go to more conferences and industry events. I don’t consider myself a good salesperson and was worried about what I’d say, but she told me to just be present, observe what’s happening, be open to meeting people and shoot photographs. She walked me through a script to explain how I would use the images for my own content marketing.
I felt like I had an ace in my back pocket
With time and effort, I began to make new, worthwhile contacts using this approach. I got permission from several companies and magazines to shoot their furnishings. Then, I sent out 13 emails and photo sets to creative directors at different magazines and received 10 responses back. I was blown away!
Soon, I got the opportunity to do a photography job working with one of my dream clients, a high-end decor manufacturer. I asked Ilise for advice on how to price the project, and she encouraged me to do a proposal offering three options for the client to choose from, along with messaging that explained why I'm an expert in what I do.
Initially, I was going to charge about half of what I ended up charging. But Ilise reminded me that experts charge what they’re worth! I did end up getting the job, as well as a follow-up project later, and I can’t tell you how good that felt.
Working with Ilise really got me focused on how to connect with people in my target market — using their words and experiences in a way that connects my expertise to their needs. Then I let my photography work reinforce that message.
Experts charge what they’re worth
If I had to summarize the many things I’ve learned working with her, here’s my “best of the best” list:
- If you can't control your highs, you can't control your lows. Realizing my annual sales were all over the place was a real eye-opener. (If you find yourself in the same situation, you know it’s not a good feeling!) Understanding my numbers and the risk of such volatility is what finally jolted me into action.
- Being your own boss means you have to be your own marketing person, too. Photographers are notoriously horrible at marketing themselves. We’ve been told that our photography should speak for itself and that just having a website with lots of photos and contact information is enough. I’ve learned it’s not. You can’t wait for people to find you, and you can’t make it all about you.
- Understand —and I mean, truly understand — your clients and their industries. Make sure you speak to this in everything you do, from your website to your marketing to personal outreach. Resist the urge to talk too much about yourself, because people may tune you out. Focus on your audience and their needs, and watch their ears perk up.
- Vet the clients you want to work with, then whittle that number down. I had a million ideas when I first met Ilise and a long list of businesses I could contact. She encouraged me to narrow my focus, and this helped me be more strategic and reach out in a “white-glove treatment” way.
- You don’t have to be good at selling yourself to find success. I’ll never consider myself a smooth sales operator, but I’ve found a way of selling that’s comfortable for me. Being proactive, genuine and following up like I promised is all the sales skills I really need.
I've been a professional photographer for 15 years now, with seven years on my own. In the nine months I’ve been working with Ilise, I feel like I advanced my career 10 years. And the investment I made in one-on-one coaching is coming back to me in new client work.
Going forward, I plan to keep the momentum going and will be sending out mailers to a broader market. I’ll develop case studies and finish the work on my new website. And I’ll keep attending industry markets, visiting showrooms and making new contacts.
In nine months, I’ve advanced my career 10 years
Ilise has helped make the future I want for my career more specific and actionable. Each day, I know what I need to do to complete my goals. She continues to motivate and encourage me and, most importantly, when I get stuck Ilise offers effective solutions.
Now, I reach for higher-stake opportunities because I know I have Ilise in my corner, ready to provide the right guidance for my continued success.
Aaron Dougherty is a Dallas-based photographer specializing in inspiring photography for home furnishing brands, architecture and interior design firms. He particularly enjoys working with wholesale décor companies doing room-scene photography for catalog work.