Reshaping a business into a model of success
Sandra Burns, CPP, owner of September Blue Photography in Long Island, New York, started her business in 2008 as a part-time sideline. She was pregnant with her second child and working a full-time job in IT. She’d always loved photography and wanted that creative avenue as a regular part of her life.
In 2012 Burns had her third child. That was the game changer. Continuing with two jobs while adding another kid to the mix wasn’t a realistic option. It was time to choose a path. She could stay the safe and comfortable course with her IT job, or she could venture into the exciting and uncertain waters of full-time photography.
Burns chose to go into photography full time, specializing in newborn portraits. Once she committed to it, she was able to ramp up the business fast—too fast in some regards. “I was surprised how quickly things grew once I quit my job in IT,” she says. “I was shooting as much as I could handle. It was really high volume. I was willing to take on a lot at that time because I had left a full-time job and was looking to replace that income. However, the volume of work was difficult, and I found myself barely able to keep up.”
Burns’ sales and pricing structure was problematic as well. Terrified of live, in-person sales, she set up an entirely online sales process, which she conducted through e-mail. It was slow and fairly tedious, with a lot of delays between sessions and sales. Her prices weren’t rock-bottom cheap, but they weren’t based on her cost of sales in a way that guaranteed a certain level of profitability. As a result, when the end of her first year of full-time photography came around, Burns was shocked at how little money she took home. In year two, it was the same situation. “That shouldn’t happen,” she says. “I wasn’t earning what I should have been earning based on the amount of work I put into the business.”
In 2014, Burns couldn’t add any more to her workload, yet her bottom line wasn’t improving. Despite having a background in economics, business, and marketing, she felt adrift when it came to planning for the unique elements that go into a successful photography business. The forecasting and understanding of cost-based selling were particularly large question marks. She recognized she needed help.
Burns booked herself a ticket to Imaging USA 2015 in Nashville, Tennessee. She signed up for the Business Breakthroughs seminar and came prepared with a list of questions. Chief among those was how to adapt pricing based on cost of sales. She also sought help breaking down her numbers to determine where the leaks in her budget were occurring, where she was more profitable, where she could cut her losses, and how to make accurate projections about sales and profits.
A necessary part of her education—and her studio transformation—was intensive training in the presentation sales method. She’d resisted live, onsite sales for a long time, but looking around at Imaging USA she saw that all of the successful studios in her category had one thing in common: in-person sales. Burns resolved to learn about in-person sales and master the associated conversion models.
While at the convention, Burns took several classes on marketing and came away with the understanding that studio branding is a multi-layered enterprise. In fact, that was one of her biggest aha moments of the convention. “I realized that branding isn’t limited to any one thing,” she says. “It involves layers upon layers. You have to carry your brand through everything you do, from your packaging to your website to the materials you send to clients.”
As she considered her branding, Burns started looking at new products to match an upgraded business image. With the wealth of items on display at the Imaging expo, she was able to reshape her product offerings to fit a new direction for her business.
The final step was figuring out how to afford a move to a commercial studio space. Burns started her business with a home studio, but the cramped quarters and lack of separation between family and business were becoming a problem. Working with her Business Breakthroughs instructors, she reviewed her numbers to get a good understanding of what she needed to do to afford a separate studio space. This included boosting her average sale and increasing her net profit to levels that could support the overhead expenses of a commercial studio without dragging down take-home profit.
On the plane home from Nashville, Burns was already writing a plan for her first action items. Branding and marketing materials were at the top of the list. As soon as she got home, she ripped everything off her walls, put up new materials, and mapped out a strategy for consistency in the way she presented herself professionally. She redid her website, updated the home studio’s décor, and revamped packaging. “I really thought about all those layers,” she says.
Next, Burns refreshed her product list to include unique items and high-end options. She focused on adding value so she could update her pricing to improve profit margins and more accurately account for cost of sales.
She also changed the pricing structure to a tiered package system with more options for add-ons. Previously, she’d grouped all of the products into a single package offered to all clients. The new structure includes multiple packages at different levels, allowing clients to move up or down based on their preferences and budget. She left the packages more open-ended so clients can customize them and add items. “The important thing is that I’m no longer limiting my sales by restricting my clients to what I offered in a single package,” she says.
Then Burns took the step that scared her most: She switched to in-person sales. Based on what she’d learned at Imaging USA, she purchased software for in-person sales and began implementing a presentation sales system. She can now show clients how images and products would look on their walls at home. She rolled out the system on a small test case, using a “Mommy & Me” promotion that involved a limited number of sessions over the course of a couple weeks. She implemented her new pricing model with that promotion. The results were strong enough to warrant updating her entire sales process. “Right away, there was a huge difference,” says Burns. “I thought, There’s no way anyone will buy at these prices, but they did, and my sales were higher than ever before.”
Why such a dramatic difference? Because the presentation sales approach works, says Burns. “You are helping them through the process. Clients are willing to pay more because you are more of a guide. That has real value. And it helps the photographer feel less like a salesperson and more like a consultant who is offering a valuable service.”
With new products, new prices, and a new sales process, Burns saw an immediate impact on the bottom line—and her free time. Over the course of the first several months after the convention, she decreased her total number of sessions while increasing gross sales by 35 percent. Each session was yielding higher sales, which allowed her to slow down, spend more time and creativity on each client, and not feel so overwhelmed.
Furthermore, the increased revenues and higher average sale met the target for getting a commercial studio space. So in October 2015, about nine months after attending Imaging USA, Burns signed her first lease on a studio.
Burns now has more time to pursue photographic work rather than spending the majority of her time working on the business. She’s been able to map out plans for growth, including expanding her offerings and training her assistant to be an associate photographer. She’s also been able to focus more on the artistic side of her work, which is paying dividends in terms of image quality and creativity. “I had to focus on the business for so long,” she says. “Now I’m going back to my roots and having fun again.”
Thinking back on her experiences at Imaging USA, Burns can point to the convention as the real game changer in her photography career. “The whole Imaging USA experience lived up to everything I hoped it would be and more,” she says. “I’m dying to go back.”
Jeff Kent is editor-at-large of Professional Photographer.