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Author Talk: Sal Cincotta on Improving Your Photography Business

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Publisher Nancy Ruenzel interviews author Sal Cincotta on his recently published book, "The Photographer's MBA: Everything You need to Know for Your Phtoography Business." They discuss the rarity and importance of creative individuals who are also business minded. Sal recounts how he was able to turn his failing photography business into a highly profitable success story in the midst of the recession.

This article is a transcription of the audio podcast, Sal Cincotta on Improving Your Photography Business.

From the author of

Nancy Aldrich-Ruenzel:  I’m here today with Sal Cincotta, the author of the brand new book, The Photographer’s MBA – Everything You Need to Know for Your Photography Business.  Congratulations Sal, great work.

Sal Cincotta:  Thank you very much.

Nancy:  I’ve been looking through the book, and what inspired me most and what I think is an inspirational story that reveals a lot about why someone should listen to you and read your book is because in 2008 you admit your studio only grossed $50,000, and you were hardly making a living, and you were looking down the barrel of foreclosure and bankruptcy.  And then you turned it around, and you put your business degree to work, and instead of trying to emulate what other photographers were doing, you used your business training, and you have never looked back.  I think in 2011, you said you grossed more than $1 million.  That’s amazing.

Sal:  That is, and thank you very much.  There’s not a day that goes by that we don’t realize how fortunate we are to have that happen in the middle of a recession.  So we realized, you know I think I’m like most photographers.  I was a hobbyist, enthusiast, I loved photography, but how do I make that transition to turn it into more than just a hobby?  How do I always pay for my own gear? Photography’s one of those professions where it’s like toys, toys, toys, but you’re always spending money.  How do you make money?  And I think that where most photographers struggle is making that transition from hobbyist/enthusiast to pro, and back in 2008 that’s exactly what happened to us.  We loved photography and we nearly lost everything in our pursuit of that passion, if you will. 

Nancy:  Great story.  Love it. So in doing that, what was, in your view, the most significant leap forward for you in terms of how you conceived your photography as a business?  Was it pricing, branding, building the clientele through marketing, what do you think was the most significant leap forward for you?

Sal:  It was definitely pricing.  I think 99% of photographers out there struggle with pricing.  Knowing how to price their work, understanding the dynamics, if you will, of what goes into pricing.  You know it is psychological.  People don’t understand that.  We don’t just pick a price out of thin air.  You know cars, McDonald’s, anything that goes on in the corporate world, there is an entire science behind price points and how it will evoke certain consumer behavior, certain consumer perceptions about your brand.  That’s where most photographers struggle.  When I came on the scene, there were not many people talking about the business side of photography.  What was going on was everybody kept everything very close to the chest and that’s why we struggled, because trying to figure out how do other photographers do this, how are they pricing it.  Of course, I didn’t want to price myself out of the market.  And then one day, after we almost went broke, we nearly lost everything, that’s when it hit us.  I’m like I’ve got to stop worrying about what other photographers are doing and start running this like a real business.  And that’s when everything changed for us. 

Nancy:  Interesting.  I would agree with you.  With the photographers I talk to, they all struggle with pricing, and you have a whole chapter on how to price.  Could you share some tips there on how to approach your pricing?

Sal:  Absolutely.  The big thing is understanding your cost of goods, right?  COG is something that incorporates… everybody’s well aware of what are cost of goods.  And it’s really easy for photographers to think okay, well if I pay $2 for an 8x10, that’s my cost of goods so to speak, if I pay $2 for an 8x10 well then if I charge $5 for an 8x10, I’m making over 100%.  No, that’s actually incorrect.  That particular chapter goes in depth into understanding your cost analysis and really understanding what it costs to produce an 8x10.  It’s not just the piece of paper.  The piece of paper is the most inexpensive thing.  I’ve got to drive to the photo shoot.  I’ve got to market. I’ve got to advertise. I’ve got to edit that image.  I’ve got to store that image.  I’ve got to have insurance.  I’ve got to have gear and the list goes on and on and on and on.  How do I really come up with that price point and still be profitable?  And that is covered in depth on trying to understand that.  And I think personally this appeals.  I wrote this book in a very high level way, meaning it’s applicable to you whether you’re a wedding photographer, a senior photographer, pet portraiture, whatever you’re into, I think you can actually take the pricing here strategies and apply them to your business. 

Nancy:  That’s great.  Those are great tips.  Tell me, you’re a successful senior portrait and wedding and family portrait photographer in the middle of country, in St. Louis where there is a terrible recession.  How did you go about branding and marketing to get clients, because I know you’ve got several chapters on branding and marketing.

Sal:  The key is finding a way to differentiate yourself in this market.  I think a lot of people think when it’s super competitive the way to compete is to reduce price, and that actually is ridiculous.  That is the worst thing you can do is reduce your price because what you’re doing when that happens is commoditizing your product. What I mean by commoditizing is toilet paper, to me, is a commodity product.  People don’t see value in it – I’m sure there are some people who would make an argument for that – but they don’t really see value.  There’s no discernable difference between your product and the other.  It’s all about low cost.  Well, if you think about the number one low cost provider probably in the world, we think of Walmart.  I didn’t want my photography to be associated with a low-cost provider because then I’m competing with everyone.  I took the opposite approach.  I raised my prices, and by raising my prices I started lifting above the minutiae of the industry.  I needed a way to stand out, and of course high prices are a way to stand out from the crowd, and I don’t want everybody out there to think all I’ve to do is raise my prices and I’m going to be different.  No, you’ve got to raise your prices and support that, and to support those high prices you’ve got to offer superior products, superior service, all of those things that go into that, but that was our inspiration.  We wanted to be the Louis Vuitton of our industry. 

Nancy:  So how do you recommend somebody get started?  Should they really sit down and write a business plan? I mean, you’ve got a business background so what advice could you give there to somebody who decides, you know I love this stuff so much, I’m no longer going to be a hobbyist, I’m going to put out a shingle and be a real photographer.

Sal:  I think the easiest thing to do is put a business plan together, and in the book I try to simplify that process, because when people hear about a business plan, that typically strikes fear in their heart, especially if you’re not a business person.  And so what I’m doing is don’t be afraid of the business plan.  It’s really simple, doesn’t have to be this formalized, college level document.  But it needs to be your blueprint.  The analogy I always give is imagine walking into a dark room and looking for a light switch.  You’re just kind of feeling around, hoping at some point your hand makes a connection with something and that, when it does, it’s the light switch.  You can’t run your business that way.  If you run your business like that, it’s without a business plan so to speak, it’s analogous to being in that dark room with no way to find the light switch.  And you may go out of business, you may strike gold on your first shot.  The business plan insures that you’re marching to that beat, right?  And what goes into a business plan?  What’s your mission and vision statement?  Meaning, do you want to be, maybe you do want to be the low-cost provider, maybe you want to do 2000 photo shoots a year.  OK, there’s nothing wrong with that.  That is, in fact, a business model.  You’re going to be high volume.  That becomes your mission and vision.  That is completely different than a more boutique studio that wants to charge more and shoot less.  These things have to be formalized and put down on paper.  What does your market look like?  What does your demographic look like?  Meaning, are you going after weddings?  How many weddings occur a year in your local market?  Do you know the answer to that?  You’d be surprised how many people have no clue how many weddings are going on and what the average spend on a wedding is.  These are things you have to identify as part of your business plan and, again, it doesn’t have to be complicated.  It can be very simple.  And then, of course, what are your goals for the year?  I’m already thinking about, even though we’re a fully established studio, my business plan is a living document.  It changes every three, four, five months.  We’re looking at it, reevaluating it, and we’re already putting together our plan for 2013.  Businesses have to realize it’s not a write once type of document.  It’s a living document. 

Nancy:  That’s just super advice.  I totally agree.  So how important is social today, because that wasn’t an element of the marketing toolbox for photographers a few years ago.  But I suspect that you’ll say it’s pretty darn important.

Sal:  Yeah, I don’t think you can survive today without it.  And that’s any business for that matter.  This is Business 101.  The social aspect of what we’re doing from a product and service perspective cannot be underestimated.  Depending on what property you’re looking at, we could have anywhere from 4,000 Facebook fans to 12 to 15,000 across our different properties.  But the point is that’s our connection to our client base, and it doesn’t matter if you’re connecting to 100 people or 200 people.  The point is that’s your connection to your client.  No longer are people going to your blog.  Blogs are dying.  Don’t get me wrong, blogs are easy.  Google loves them – all that great stuff for search engine optimization.  However, what happens when you post to your blog, you’re relying on your client to come to you.  That’s just not practical any more.  But when you’re doing Facebook and Twitter, you’re actually able to push info out to your client, and that’s a completely different dynamic for a lot of people, but that’s today and it is the future. 

Nancy:  Absolutely.  In contrast, you have a little section on contracts.  Can you tell us a little bit about that and how important are they?

Sal:  I like to tell a couple of horror stories when I’m talking to people.  The truth is if you don’t have your contracts in order, whether it’s a model release, you want to use images on your website, you want to use images in a book, you’ve got to have that release form for clients.  Let’s say you’re a shoot and burner today, meaning you are photographing an event for a client and you’re handing them a CD.  Are you handing them a release form with that CD because you need to control how they are using those images.  I don’t just give our clients a clean release on their images, not because I’m hiding something from them, but because I don’t want them submitting these to maybe a magazine.  I don’t want them submitting these to a toy store to maybe run ads.  I’ve got to control my images and I’ve got to protect them.  So that’s something that’s easy.  It’s inexpensive but, again, a lot of photographers don’t think about it.  What about if you’re doing weddings?  I can’t tell you how many photographers I’ve met with where I take a look at their contracts and they’re a mess.  Just simple things like being sued.  Anybody can sue anybody today.  We live in a complete litigious society and anybody can sue anybody for anything.  And so I wouldn’t want a client to come back and say well you missed the picture of the first kiss, I’m going to sue you for the entire amount of my wedding.  I’m going to sue you for $50,000.  Hell, pain and suffering, I’m going to sue you for $100,000.  Well the truth is that can happen today.  But in my contract, I state clearly (and I’m paraphrasing) you can’t sue me for more than you’ve paid me.  And that’s reasonable.  Why would I want somebody to put me out of business because I missed a picture of a kiss?  Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to miss any images, but what if I do?  I shouldn’t go out of business. That shouldn’t be the punishment.  And so these are things that you’ve got to do to protect your business. 

Nancy:  You have an interesting story in your book around staffing.  What happens if you’re sick or are in a car accident and that you have in your contract that in the event of an emergency you are going to supply a competent photographer of equal or greater skills to ensure that the event goes off without a hitch.  You tell a story of the father of a bride who was an attorney and who refused to sign it because of that clause.  What happened?

Sal:  It is funny because a lot of my clients are attorneys, or parents are attorneys or they play attorney on the weekend!  He went to that bullet and he’s like “I’m not signing this.”  OK, let me cross it out for you.  I’m just curious but if I get in a car accident the day before your daughter’s wedding or I break my arm mountain biking, you don’t want anybody to show up for your wedding?  And before I could even begin to cross it out, he realized what that clause was there for and he was like “oh, okay that’s fine we’ll sign it.”  I mean, it’s just one of those things where I have to have that to protect myself and to protect the client because things happen in life, right?  I don’t want to be overly legalistic in my contract--it’s a very simple contract--but I have things in there that protect my business and of course protect the client. 

Nancy:  Exactly, yes.  Well photographers are often pegged as artists who don’t instinctively have great business minds or skills.  Do you think that’s really true, or do you think that’s just a stereotype?

Sal:  No I do think it’s true.  I think it’s a left brain/right brain thing, and of course there’s some gifted people out there who are both good photographers and good business people, but the majority are… today everybody’s a photographer and you’ve got to look to how are people getting into photography.  You know it’s simple.  You love taking landscape pictures or pictures of your children, and then people are like wow, you are really good, you should become a photographer.  And then because there’s no barrier to entry, you’ve got these people who’ve got no skill in running a business.  Suddenly they’re being thrust into this business person/entrepreneurial role and they are drowning.  They don’t know what to do.  They love making great images but they don’t love the business side, and I think that’s the point of why, or I think that’s how we’ve become so popular within the professional community is that we’re putting ourselves out there and we’re sharing all this information because I love being a professional photographer, and I’m concerned that if we don’t have more people out there like myself, and there’s plenty other big name speakers out there who are trying to help lift the bar.  If we don’t get more of that then it’s going to become so watered down on what it means to be a professional photographer that there will no longer be a professional photographer.  I’m trying to preserve that, if you will, all the while raising the bar for my peers.

Nancy:  That’s a really good point because with all the tools out there, the tools being democratized so that anybody can shoot a wedding, there has to be a reason to go with a professional.  Your book describes how you can get there as a professional.  So I want to tell you again congratulations, Sal.  Great work.  I am so glad that we were able to publish this book.  It’s going to be a major contribution to the industry.  There’s really nothing like it.  And I want to also give a plug for your website Behindtheshutter.com because I think it’s very unique.  It’s all business for photographers all the time.  So it’s all this great free resource for photographers needing business advice.  So I recommend folks go there, but I first and foremost recommend you go out and buy Sal’s book on Peachpit.com, where you are listening to this podcast or reading the article.  So, thanks Sal.

Sal:  Thank you.

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