12 Aug 2013 Going Pro Update – Three Years In! (Podcast 383)
It’s just coming up to three years since I incorporated Martin Bailey Photography K.K. so today I update you on how things are going, what adjustments I’ve made to my business model, how things are shaping up, and a little bit about how I see us proceeding over the next few years.
This episode is something that I’ve been thinking of doing for a while now, but choosing to do this today was because of a mail from listener Mark Sippola, who incidentally, I’ll be seeing in Iceland in just a couple of weeks now, for our two week tour and workshop. In Mark’s mail he asks…
“Now that you have been a full time photographer for a few years, I am wondering if you might talk a bit about the reality of going pro compared to how you thought it would be. I.e. prior to taking the plunge, from what photography related tasks did you think your income would be derived, compared to the reality of the situation.
Did you think that most of your time would be spent creating and selling prints, and then realized that the tours were your bread and butter which allows you to then spend time on making pictures? Did you ever even consider that you would be creating ebooks prior to meeting David DuChemin? I guess I am just wondering if it has turned out the way you imagined it would, how you spend your time attending to the business etc.”
Well, thanks for the mail and the topic suggestion Mark. This is definitely something I’ve been meaning to talk about, so let’s do this. I did a few Going Pro episodes as I set up the business, and there have been a few over the last few years as well, but first, let’s recap on how I got to this point in time, as it’s important to understand where I’m coming from with this stuff.
Although I’ve been doing photography for some thirty years now, I started to get serious about it, buying an SLR camera when I moved to Japan in 1991, which is 22 years ago now. When I look back, a lot of my early work was pretty crappy, although I think I had a reasonably good eye, and was pulling the occasional nice shot out of my assortment of lenses.
I had always been into landscape work, since walking in the hills of Derbyshire back in England in my late-teens, early twenties, but with some areas of Japan having such abundant wildlife, I decided to buy my first decent long lens, the 100-400mm, for my first trip to Hokkaido in August 2003, exactly 10 years ago now.
I’d been using a really old 100-300mm lens and having some fun photographing birds in parks etc. so I was already starting to get the bug, but I’d always thought that wildlife photography was a much more elite genre than it turned out to be. This first white L lens brought me the versatility and quality that really opened up a whole new world of photography to me.
I would probably have shot this differently today, but here’s my first wildlife shot with the 100-400mm lens. This is an Ez0 Deer on the edge of the Kushiro Marsh in Hokkaido. Don’t forget to click the images for a larger view.
So, my passions started to evolve, and I found myself more and more heading to areas of natural beauty for wildlife photography. Of course, if there is some drop-dead gorgeous landscapes to be shot, I still enjoy that as much as ever, but whenever possible, I started shoot wildlife, often toggling between the two as lighting conditions dictate.
That’s kind of jumped us along in the summary of my background, but during this time, I’d registered the martinbaileyphotography.com domain, and had started to work on a gallery, and then I added the forum that the spammers have now destroyed, and then the second big turning point, was starting the Podcast in Sept 2005.
I had gotten a lot from the online photography community and wanted to give back in some way, but of course, there was always the idea that using my images to walk people through techniques and artistic discussions, would result in extra eyes on my work, which is never a bad thing if you are trying to build a name and a brand. That wasn’t necessarily why I started this, but I quickly realized that this is what was happening.
Mine was the third photography Podcast in iTunes, with my friend Chris Marquardt of Tips from the Top Floor and Brooks Jensen’s Lens Work Podcast already podcasting regularly, and they were indeed part of the inspiration for this Podcast.
The listener numbers and community started to grow, and before long there was talk of doing my first Hokkaido Workshop, which happened at the end of January in 2008, almost two and a half years after starting the Podcast. I was joined by five wonderful participants from around the world, many of whom remain good friend’s. The tour ended up costing me a few hundred, but I wasn’t too concerned. It was a start, and I soon realized there was no going back.
Due to feedback from participants, the Hokkaido Tour grew to include a three day visit to the Snow Monkeys, before going on for a further nine days in Hokkaido, forming what we now affectionately know as the Winter Wonderland Tour. It became a regular yearly tour, now twice each winter actually, and has enabled me to share the beautiful wildlife and landscape of Hokkaido with coming up to a hundred participants now.
I also started to hear from people that needed a photographer in Japan for assignment work, and I found myself using up all of my paid leave from my day-job to do my tours and assignments. The pivot point came when I was asked to help with the photography group on my first voyage to Antarctica. This was around the time I was waiting for my Japanese Nationality application to come through, and we ended up postponing my Antarctica trip until the next year, because it was possible I’d not have a passport right when I was supposed to be down there, but I was not going to have enough paid leave days to do both Antarctica and my Hokkaido tours, as well as the assignment work I was getting.
The decision was already made of course. I’d worked towards going full-time for a number of years, and the amount of time and energy I was devoting to my photography was starting to affect my day job. I found myself shifting tasks onto other managers in my team, so that I didn’t get too busy and have to stay late. I needed my personal time for my now increasingly more demanding photography business, so it was time to cut the cord.
It was exactly three years ago now, in August 2010, when I handed in my notice, and started to put the gears in motion to incorporate Martin Bailey Photography K.K. Every so often people are surprised that I’ve only been in business for three years, but that’s not really the case. I’ve been submitting tax forms and running the business as a sole proprietor for six years now. I’d also built my brand, and was going to hit the ground running. The incorporation was a major jump forward, but not really the start.
Back to Mark’s Questions
Before I jump back in to answer Mark’s questions, I’d like to point out one caveat, and that is that my path has been somewhat unique and probably doesn’t apply to most photographers thinking of taking the plunge to full time. There are certainly lessons to be learned here with regards to building your business as far as you can while still in the comfort of your nice safe day-job, although you should check with your company first, in case doing the sort of thing I did could get you into trouble.
Mark asked though, if things have gone according to plan, and in general, yes they have, but there have been a number of realignments, some big, some not so big.
From the start, the tours were going to be a major part of my business. I was already successfully running my Winter Wonderland Tours, and with more time through the year without the day-job, I always intended to introduce more. After only being at home for around 12 days from Sept 5 until the end of the year last year though, I realized that I was not going to be able to leave my wife alone for such long periods of time again.
I did my Pixels 2 Pigment world tour, which was great, no regrets, but then headed down to Antarctica for seven weeks almost straight after that, then did a two week private tour in Japan starting the day after I got home from Antarctica. Each of these projects was incredible, and I would not have changed last year for anything, but it was tough, even though my wife was able to join me for the private tour.
I’ll get back to why this is important in a moment, but for now, let me touch on a few other aspects of my business that Mark asked about.
Fine Art Print Sales
The creating and selling of my fine art prints has continued pretty much as I’d expected. Orders will come in sporadically, but this was never going to feed me by itself. It’s almost like a nice side job within the business. I’m generally too busy to print for myself, which is a problem when you love printing as much as I do, so it’s almost like a nice breather when I wake up to find a print order has come in. I never expected to make a killing on print sales, and they’ve stayed pretty much where I thought they would, although a few more sales each month would be nice.
Craft & Vision
Mark also asked if I ever even considered that I would be creating ebooks prior to meeting David DuChemin? The answer to that is absolutely. Writing ebooks was always part of the plan, and to be honest, when David asked me to write my first ebook Making the Print, I had to think for about a three hundredth of a second, if I really wanted to sell ebooks for just $5, but I knew of course that Craft & Vision was going to get my books into the hands of way more readers than I would reach by myself, to it was pretty much a no-brainer.
I had planned to start doing ebooks from the start, and was already studying inDesgin so that I could do my own layout, but being able to write for Craft & Vision was a huge step forward for me, and I’m still very grateful to David and the team for that opportunity and their continued support.
Not Enough Hours in the Day
One thing that did not go according to plan, is the amount of time I thought I’d have once the day-job was out of the way. I had literally been doing two jobs for a number of years, and fully expected that once I didn’t have to haul it into the office every day, I was going to have a lot of time to work on marketing and accounting, strategizing on the future of the business, and also have lots of time to go out shooting personal projects.
I had also planned to put more time into marketing myself as an assignment and commercial photographer, but the truth is, there still aren’t enough hours in the day to do what needs to be done. I get up at 7:30am when there is no reason to get up earlier, and I work through to 7pm in my office studio. The plan was to spend more time with my wife in the evenings, but although I go downstairs and we sit together on the sofa, the reality is that I’m still working until around midnight every day on various projects that I’m into.
If I’m not planning a future tour, I’m working on something like setting up a credit card merchant account, that I just got done recently. Once that is done, there is complicated back-end web site work to be done to enable me to take orders in multiple currencies, which WooCommerce doesn’t support right out of the box. I’ve just finished putting together a page to start taking bookings for my 2014 Iceland Tour, which I’ll touch on later, and that took me most of my Sunday.
I dedicate Monday’s to Podcasting. If I haven’t had time to work on something in advance, I spend a few hours on a Monday morning, often also part of the afternoon writing out my manuscript, then I like to get it recorded and in the pipe before I go down for dinner at 7pm, but this is pretty much a full day’s work each week.
When I’m working on an ebook, I like to put by a few weeks of block time, and I am also now writing two columns for each issue of Craft & Vision’s PHOTOGRAPH magazine, which takes a nice chunk of time when I sit down to write.
I like to stay on top of my accounting, so that when we go and see my accountant once a month, I don’t have to spend too long preparing for that visit, but most months, I find myself a little behind, and usually have to dedicate half a day here and there to catch up.
My wife is our number two employee, and helps with some of the accounting work too, and she’s also a pretty good photography assistant too, but another thing that hasn’t gone quite according to plan is that I’m so busy with all of the other work that I do, that I really haven’t been able to make time to market myself to try and bring in more photography assigning work.
To bring all of this together now, what I quickly realized is that to do a proper job of running this business, keeping accounts in order, working on the back-office stuff, working on new tours and actually going out to run those tours, and then doing my Craft & Vision writing and fulfilling the occasional fine art print order when they come in, is a full time job and then some.
As much as I enjoy the assignment and portraiture work that I do occasionally through the year, I’m not actively seeking that sort of work. If someone is kind enough to contact me, I quote a price based on my required day rate, and if that works for them, I give it 200% and provide a quality product, but I have so much other work to do, I’m not really pushing this.
This I think was one of the major direction changes. My current business model centers around the tours, on which I also get to shoot my own work. That work gives me plenty of fresh imagery to use in my Craft & Vision ebooks and articles, that I write between tours, and that is seen by lots of people, and some of them book themselves onto my tours. You can see that this in itself is turning into a self-perpetuating cycle.
In addition to my Japan winter tours, the plan is to try and do one, at most two tours in the other three quarters of the year. This gives me time to do the writing, marketing and back-office stuff between tours, and as I get the other large tasks that I’ve been doing out of the way, I’m looking forward to getting more time for personal projects too, which may well be in the form of reconnaissance for future tours, which will also feed the self-perpetuation cycle.
Purveyor of Future Memories
Of course, I have to stay on top of my game. Not only do I have to be sharp enough to be able to teach people about photography, both on the tours and via this Podcast, but if I’m not shooting images that people find attractive, I can’t close the loop and the cycle falls apart. No one would sign up for my tours and my ebooks and articles wouldn’t work if my images are crap, so there’s no room for complacency or sloppy work.
You might remember from old episodes though, that my mum used to say to me “if a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well.” That has stayed with me and shaped who I am. I actually had to be taught to do some jobs at the “good enough” level, because I sometimes spend too much time on something that doesn’t need to be perfect. When it comes to my photography and my tours though, I never want to settle for good enough. It’s definitely worth doing, so I’m going to give this my all for as long as I am able to keep doing it.
It’s hard work, but like David duChemin says, there is a big difference between our work and a job. I no longer have a job. I left that three years ago. It’s funny though–I’m working harder than I ever have, and I don’t even have a job!
I love my work though. I love doing the tours. There’s something very special about being in a beautiful place with a group of photographers all passionate about their craft. I’m going to keep it to a manageable number of tours each year though, as I need to leave room for my writing and other work, and because I have to do the tours properly. There’s no room for “good enough” when you are the purveyor of peoples’ future memories.
Will We Be Hiring Staff?
I wanted to touch where I see us moving to in the next few years. Of course, I’ll remain flexible, and if I need to change course, I will, but the current plan is to continue to continue to write while I build out my tour schedule. and finish up those big tasks that I knew I had to get done, such as setting up the credit card merchant account that I talked about in last week’s house-keeping section. There are always going to be new tasks to keep me busy, and I know that some of you are probably wondering why I don’t take on extra staff if I’m this busy.
Well, although things are going well, right now I’m managing. My wife is our second employee, and she works hard on a part time basis. Sure, I’d love to have an extra pair of hands, especially one that can speak English and handle customer questions and take tour bookings while I’m traveling, but taking on permanent staff is a big responsibility. For the time being, I think I’ll be outsourcing tasks, until it makes more sense to have someone on the books.
I started to do this to a degree a few months ago. As you might have noticed, I’m bringing all of my sites under one roof, simplifying things a little. For a while now I’ve wanted to get rid of my old gallery, which had really just become an image repository. The problem is that I didn’t start posting the Podcast episodes with their images to my blog until episode 190, so I have been reliant on the old site to continue to make those images available.
On an episode of TWiP that I was co-hosting, I mentioned that I was about to post this task on Elance a crowd-sourcing site where you can hire people to do all sorts of jobs, and on hearing this, the ever resourceful Michael Rammell who you’ll know from the MBP Community on Google Plus, offered to help with this. I’ll be paying Michael for his time of course, and he’s already steamed through the first sixty episode posts. In the coming months we’ll see the remaining 130 episodes posted, and that will then free me to remove my old gallery completely.
It’s about 65 hours worth of work, so it will take some doing, which is why I very much appreciate Michael’s help. I was lucky with Michael shouting up as he did though, as he’s a smart guy with great technical skills and plenty of ambition. I’m sure there are plenty of horror stories of things going wrong outsourcing tasks like this though, so as I continue to need things doing, I’ll proceed with caution.
Get a Good Accountant
I also wanted to mention the importance of getting a good accountant. I’ve worked with accountants in the past, and knew that this would be an important part of building a business. The last three years have confirmed this for me. There was a service I used here in Japan to send out a request for a proposal to work with us as our accountant as we set up our new business. I received a number of replies, and selected the person that seemed to best match how I wanted to work, and I have been very happy with him and his team.
We paid $200 per month for the first two and a half years. This was like their starter pack for new companies. As revenue grows, we’ve had to increase this to $300 per month, for the general accounting processing, and then we pay extra at the end of our fiscal year for getting everything ready to submit to the tax office, so all in all they probably cost us around $6,000 per year, but the value they bring to us is much more than that.
I wouldn’t have had a clue about the many tax benefits that we can tap into as a corporation, and I would have fallen into a few traps too, because I wouldn’t have known what I needed to avoid. A good tax accountant is definitely worth investing in, and if you can find someone that will start off relatively cheaply as you build, that’s great. Unless you have had training yourself though, this is something that I definitely advice you outsource from the start. By the way, when I talk about the accounting work I do, I mean recording our transactions and keeping our records in order for this guy to do the real work.
Full Steam Ahead!
So, to wrap up, as I mentioned, things are going pretty much according to plan, with the exception that I’ve chosen not to pursue assignment work as much as I thought I would, and I’m working carefully on the balance of tours and writing, along with the on going back-office tasks and the fine art prints etc.
I’m really not worried about the lack of assignments. It was always going to be hard to really make this work, and if I had wanted to make that the core of my business, I probably would have been too scared to leave my old job. I had already built a great foundations for the tours and workshops, and when you consider that I’d also been writing for this blog and creating the Podcast for a five years by then too, I was also inadvertently building a foundation as a writer and educator.
This reminds me of one last thing that I should mention, and that is building passive income. The ebooks take some time to write, and produce a nice pay check for the first few months after release, but then as the monthly income from each one drops, it becomes a nice source of passive income. You know that the codes I sometimes give you for products, such as Nik Software or B&H also turn into a source of income. These affiliate payments are not a lot, but it all mounts up. I may not even be enough from affiliate revenue to pay our accountant some months, but it’s often close, so that kind of takes care of some of our running costs.
As I said at the start, my business model somewhat unique, as it has evolved as a result of me starting to share my thoughts on photography via the Podcast, and being in a unique position to offer tours in Japan, have certainly helped. My business model is so unique that you might argue that I’m not even a full time photographer, but I’m nothing, if not a photographer. The photography forms the core of this business, and my life. It will always be that way. I’ve just built a business model that doesn’t necessarily mean that I shoot directly for money each week, but it’s proving to be a successful business all the same.
I hope this has been of some help, especially when you consider how resourceful we need to be these days to make a living from photography and it’s now very complex ecosystem.
As I mentioned earlier, before we finish, I did want to quickly mention that I have just opened the page to start taking booking for my 2014 Iceland Tour and Workshop, from September 22 to October 3! I’ll be in Iceland from August 24 this year, in just a few weeks, and will be trying very hard to update you about the trip as I travel, but I’ve also just locked in on the 2014 dates, so I’ve opening this up for booking as of yesterday.
I’m teaming up with local expert Tim Vollmer again, and we’ve extended the trip by an extra day, to a 12 day tour, giving us 10 full days of photography. You can now find all tours that are available for booking under the Tours & Workshops menu above.
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