How To

How to fail with grace

Air Force Veteran
Jessica in Vietnamese dress
Thai Lady
Most interesting wine drinker

For many years I have been doing portrait, event, commercial and product photography while working full time; early mornings, lunch hour, evenings and weekends were devoted to trying to grow the business, market, and operate with a profit. Two years ago, I decided to sell my house and with the resulting cash finance a real retail studio location. Here's what I did.

1. Sold house, net cash $200k

2. Created budget for 2 years, including expenses

3. Found the perfect location I'd been interested in for years; it was available for rent for $1900 per month!!!

4. Sold the landlord on my business model, and we agreed on tenant improvements that totaled about $13k (putting in hard floors, removing two walls to make a gallery and camera room, track lighting, projection hookup for gallery presentations. Bought three Maheu backdrops and added a boom arm and strobe wall plate for fill lights.

5. Hired a part time marketing person to begin social media stuff; but found out that people in the demographic I wanted to reach simply don't do social media; wealthy people aren't interested in being online.

6. Hired a PR person who was supposed to compensate for tradtional social media gaps by creating contacts, getting into galleries, philanthropic events, etc.

7. Began doing donation work for causes like Soka University, etc. which produced portraits at my cost as a donation for visibilty.

8. Kept doing this "donation exposure" process for two years; fired PR person who wasn't actually making contacts for press that she should have been for $60k

9. Hosted events to try to get visibility; wine mixers and the like inviting key people

10. Meantime did a website with marketing seo, etc. which still provided hardly any inquiries.

11. After two years, decided to pack up and put all in storage, and close the business.

Lessons learned:

1. Funding: The product I wanted to sell was extremely high end; to sell these products it takes 3-5 years of constant branding in very expensive publications. The budget for this should be about $200 k per year so obviously I was underfunded by a huge margin. Need significant (more than you imagined) budget along with the other overhead so that the branding has enough time to take hold. If you were selling photos online likely you can reduce this number, but I was producing the best portrait money can buy...

2. Display/Exhibit is essential: the product I was selling was life sized, physical framed portraits that once seen in person, people say "I had no idea it was this detailed; a website does not convey the depth of the portrait". So again, it was essential to get the full sized physical piece seen by prospective clients. So having a rep to meet with business owners and create a benefit for them to allow the exhibit would be key...and for 3-5 years worth of exhibits in key locations where clients in the demographic would see it.

3. Devote full time: Don't attempt to do this while working full time elsewhere; I was drained from a creativity perspective and my energy to go after new "out of the box" opportunities was limited (going to lunch in LA when the full time job is 30 miles away was not feasible.)

4. Sales Professional: Invest in full time seasoned professional sales person being a representative versus relying on marketing, social media or PR.

Final thoughts:

I proved I could create heirloom portraits that make people go WOW, consistently and with quality. I was not successful getting the marketing and sales engine working, and didn't have nearly enough cash in reserve to last long enough for the fruit of my labor to pay off. So, I will go back to the "residential studio" and operate like I had for years. Since I lost all the money from the sale of my house, I will need to go very slow and keep my operating costs to a minimum, but continue doing this from home. I love the art of people pictures too much to stop.

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5 responses

  • Patrick Westerfield

    Patrick Westerfield gave props (24 Apr 2019):

    Thank you for sharing your story. It got my vote.

  • Lynn E. Harvey

    Lynn E. Harvey gave props (30 Apr 2019):

    Motivating, inspiring and following a Dream...voted!

  • Bob Wall

    Bob Wall said (30 Apr 2019):

    Almost been there, done that myself. Along with a partner, I developed the business plan, scouted locations for the studio/gallery (I wanted to help other local photographers by selling their work on consignment, as well as my own). Financing was the issue.

    Oh well, being a Quality Engineer for pharmaceutical and medical device companies paid better (much better).

  • Lynn E. Harvey

    Lynn E. Harvey gave props (6 May 2019):


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