The Business of Photography: Part 3 Leading (With Tourette's Notes!)

The cab crawled from the Las Vegas Convention Center and The Las Vegas Hilton — now a weird off brand– to the brand new Mandalay Bay Convention Center and Hotel.  It was my first time in Las Vegas, and I stared out the window at the glittering Las Vegas Blvd as the cab (begrudgingly) took the scenic route straight down the Strip.

I’d just finished shooting a job with my dad — he wrote copy for the show daily, I provided the images — and was on my way to a SECOND job in Sin City.  Not bad, considering I’d never had a job in Las Vegas, suddenly I had two, back to back.

The conference photography business was still in it’s infancy and focused on Washington, DC and work on Capitol Hill.  My mom and dad had spit up, and while I spent most of my time developing the business with mom, dad stepped in at crucial times with jobs.  One such job was Ground Zero, another this job in Las Vegas.

Meanwhile, competition was tightening on Capitol Hill as the Washington Post fired all their staff photographers, and suddenly every photographer was freelance.

Rates went from lucrative to begging with a tin cup.  Online news media was just starting to cut into traditional media, and traditional media was bleeding.  (OH, things to come!  Buh-bye haughty Post photographers who think they could do no wrong and stepped infront of you, throwing an elbow without thinking twice.  SEE YAH!  Wouldn’t want to BE YAH!  The only photographers MORE arrogant than the Post photographers work Indycar.)

With that in mind, the two groups I was shooting for in Las Vegas were Washington, DC based trade organizations.  Both hosting executive conferences in Las Vegas, both needing photographers.  Both deciding to hire a known entity — me — versus risking a local (uptight wedding) photographer who they did not know.

I was talking with Dad in that cab about the problems and competition facing Washington, DC photographers, and he mentioned the second group was heading to Orlando, next.

“You realize,” I said, thinking out loud, “that I saw a sale price, non-stop, on Southwest for $69 from BWI to Orlando just last week.  It costs almost that much to park at the JW Marriott in DC.”
 (I hate Marriott.  I will always hate Marriott.  I avoid Marriott whenever humanly possible.)

“Really?” My dad replied, “So why aren’t you going to Orlando?”

And with that, US Event Photos was born.  If my expenses travelling to Orlando weren’t much higher than working in my home town — well, why not?  I lived out in the boonies of Maryland — so if I had a long job — or an early morning job — in Washington, I still had to rent a hotel room (Not at Marriott.).  I had those pesky parking fees.  In short, I still had high expenses, even in my home town.

Besides, I thought, I don’t have the Washington Post problem in Orlando.  (For a major convention city, second only to Las Vegas, their weren’t ANY convention photographers.  SCORE!  I could totally dominate!  Bite me, Washington Post.)   Rates were still where they should be,  not begging with a tin cup.  I could charge local rates, with a minimum time commitment for the client, and make as much or more money than in Washington — and, without the competition.  (Plus I got to travel.  I like to travel.  Anything to get out of Salisbury, MD, the shit house of the Eastern Shore, a moniker given to it by former Governor of Maryland William Donald Shaffer.  Not me.  Though it was a shit house. Totally agree Mr. Governor.)

If that business model worked for Orlando, what about other cities easy to travel to?  What about Las Vegas, or Philadelphia, Nashville or Atlanta?

Later I Googled “ten most popular convention cities”.  Those ten cities became (with a few exceptions that didn’t fit my low cost travel business model) the first cities I targeted for flat rate pricing. One requirement:  they needed to be cities Southwest serviced.

Next, I developed web sites in each of those cities — Atlanta Event Photos, Orlando Event Photos, Chicago Event Photos, Nashville Event Photos, Phoenix Event Photos etc., — and put them all under a parent web site, US Event Photos.

Fast forward a few months, and work started POURING in.  Mom and I suddenly became very in demand, all over the United States.

Did we make as much money as under a traditional business model on each job?  No.  Did we have more work and therefore more profit because of less down time?  Yes.  Think of it this way, and this is the question my dad asked me:  Would you rather work constantly and have great cash flow, with less profit on each job, or would you rather work less, and have more profit on each job?

That’s the $64,000 question.  Of course we all want to work less and earn more — but that can also lead to working zero and earning nada.  (Though my dad often asks why the client can’t just send out the check.  Why did they require work?)

When I first started US Event Photos, expanding on mom’s local Washington, DC based firm, there were no other photographers with this business model.  None.  In fact, most photographers didn’t know how to design a web site, let alone 11.  It was easy to get to the top of Google ranking for specific key words when you have no competition.

Slowly, other photographers started to copy the business model.

PISH POSH you say, “you arrogant little bastard!  No one copied you.”

Oh, but they did.  In fact, one guy took my name — Mike Gatty — and pointed it to his web site.  At the very bottom, he wrote “not affiliated with Mike Gatty or US Event Photos.”

REALLY.  (That one did piss me off.)

And, entire passages of marketing material were cut and pasted by competitors from my web site into theirs.  However, frankly, since they didn’t really understand what they were copying, entire passages didn’t make sense on their site.  But who am I to judge.  (Me, of course!  I judge everything.  I hate Marriott.)

This used to really bother me.  People copying my work were outperforming me on Google, and my own search rankings took a big hit.  That drives down business — the opposite of what you want.

However, I guess if you are a leader, it comes with the territory.  So I suck it up.

But there’s more to leading than just coming up with a new business model.  Leading requires constant reinvention.  Leading necessitates being bold.  Leading means stepping into the abyss and hoping that magical Indiana Jones bridge is really under your feet.

I’m not sure if anyone can teach you to lead.  I do know you can be a successful photographer and be a follower.  Work hard enough, develop a niche people want, research what’s out there and works for you, follow the formula, and you’ll be ok.

But will you be amazing?  Will your clients think they are lucky to have you?  Will you have your choice of jobs, deciding on the ones that are a best fit for you?  Or, will you be relying on Thumbtack to send you the dreg leads from clients who shop only on price?  As I see it, those are your choices:  lead or follow.  Be bold or be timid.

I thought up this series when I was watching The Voice one evening in Tampa.

On the first performer, they did a short bio.  He told his dad he wanted to be a professional vocalist.

His dad supported him, but only if he approached his music as a business.  He went up to his room, and drew up a business plan.  He spent the day calling local night clubs.  He emerged from his room hours later with a bunch of booked gigs.

That singer turned all four chairs.

Another performer, on the same show, had a “day job as a photographer”.

Really?   Most people would kill to have a day job as a photographer.  But who am I to criticize.  “Of course,” he continued, “sometimes I skip a mortgage payment.”

WHAT? (This just pissed me off.  The arrogant little prick.  OH, I’M A BIG NEW YORK FASHION PHOTOGRAPHER.  YEAH, ME!  By the way, I actually suck.  So LET ME SING FOR YOU.  LA DEE DEE DEE DEE DAH….)

In fairness, he turned four chairs, too.

Maybe now he can leave his day job — photography — and be a singer.  Maybe that’s where his passion really lies.  I wish him the best.  (Prick.)

Because I know this.  If you view photography as simply a day job, you’re doomed.  You won’t turn any chairs.

And, it will be more than a few mortgage payments you’ll miss.

Evan McKeel approached his singing as a business.  He turned four chairs and remains (as of this writing) as a contestant on The Voice.
Manny Cabo viewed his photography career as a “day job”, he also turned four chairs.  However, he admitted he makes a better singer than photographer, because that’s where his passion lies.  Um, he got kicked off in the battle rounds.
Oopsy.  Back to the day job.
Here is the search results for “Orlando Convention Photographers”.  A whole bunch of these companies are modeled after US Event Photos.  I won’t get into which ones, but a bunch.  I feel a bit like Hilton after inventing the modern hotel room.  You do know they are the first to come up with air conditioning inside your hotel room, right?  Later totally copied by Holiday Inn.  (However, I’ll say this about Paris Hilton:  that bitch can build a hotel room.)