I should have listened, because I could hear it. You know…that little voice in your head that whispers “don’t do it” and “you’ll be sorry if you do”? I should have listened to it but I didn’t, because that murmur in the corner of my heart that says “it’s okay, it’s good to be nice” was being awfully persistent at the same time. And you know what happens when the fiery heart of a Sagittarius goes up against that cautious little voice, right? Yep. That little whisper was shot down. In flames, my friends. And two months later, much to my chagrin, I’m still feeling the burn.
Here’s what happened, and how I chucked all of my business self respect out the window. As embarrassing as this story is, I want to share it with you because I feel like it could happen to anyone, and I want to help save you from yourself when the time comes. The story is a little long, but hang in there, because you’ll able to see all of the ways I messed this up!
At the end of 2015, I was feeling really good about my photography business; it had been a great year financially and creatively. I was happy with where I stood in my local market and how I had positioned myself for 2016 and I was looking forward to taking the month of December off to spend time with my family. That might sound like a small thing but it’s been something that I have worked so hard to be able to do without taking a big hit financially (I still have a studio lease and related expenses that have to be paid even if there is no cash flow coming in). My average sales had been healthy and so far above my minimum order requirement for so long that I decided that I could probably not even HAVE a minimum order requirement in 2016. Feeling a little bit
cocky CONFIDENT, I created a new session contract, removing the minimum order requirement and decided to sit on it for a while and think it over before I implemented it. No big deal, right?
So, just as I’m getting ready to start my vacation time, here comes an inquiry in my inbox. A gorgeous senior from one of my strategic schools wants to know if I have any openings before the end of the year. She loves my work. She’s dying to work with me. All her friends have booked me for their senior portraits. She was referred by one of my spokesmodels. She really, really needs to get her portraits done before the end of the year. I’m being totally honest here when I say that I really, really wanted to shoot her session; I could already see the gorgeous images in my portfolio, contest submissions…everything. I mean, she had inquired originally in AUGUST and I had been hoping to book her all semester. And now the opportunity was here.
My schedule was full for November and I hadn’t booked anything with my makeup artist for December, since I was taking the month off, so I didn’t know where I could fit her in. Well, except that I had booked my own makeup appointment on my birthday, as a treat for myself. **Cue quiet little murmur in my heart saying, “do this for her; it’s Christmas time. don’t be selfish”** See where this is going? It’s like a tragic comedy from here on out, honestly…excitement, laughter, hope, shock, disappointment, disbelief, anger, resentment, embarrassment. Kind of like a bag of emotional Skittles, all the flavors in all the colors.
Yeah, sooo. I gave my makeup appointment away to the senior and booked her session ON MY BIRTHDAY no less, violating my “set a specific number of sessions per month and establish a shoot schedule” policy. Not only did this lucky girl snag a spot when there wasn’t one, during a month I was “not working”, she even got a discount due to her referral from my spokesmodel. She got even luckier when I realized in my haste to get her booked, while working from my laptop in my living room at 10 p.m., violating my “establish set work/business hours” policy, I accidentally sent her the “no minimum order” version of my contract. I started to panic a little, but not too much, because for the past two years my average sale has been at least 3 to 4 times more than the minimum order requirement and I haven’t sold anything but my top two collections in several months. Pshhhh, I got this, no worries.
Fast forward to shoot day. Hair and makeup is done, she’s stunning and she has a ton of cute outfits. She can’t narrow down her favorites to 3, which is what my contract says we’ll shoot, and they’re so cute and she’s so cute that I offer to go ahead and shoot 5 outfits and work in one more location for a total of 3. No, I was not on crack. Or maybe I was, I don’t know. It’s all a blur at this point. But t here I was, violating my “3 outfits, 2 locations, 1.5 hours of shoot time” business policy. These numbers aren’t arbitrary: they’ve been analyzed and calculated to produce a certain cost of doing business / profit ratio. But hey, it’s CHRISTMAS time. And what does it hurt to be nice, right? I don’t even need to tell you that it ended up being an extra long session that rendered an above average number of images.
When it comes time for her in person ordering session, which takes place about 1 week after her session instead of 2 (because she really needs these before Christmas), it has to happen on a Sunday morning (because her schedule just can’t accommodate anything else). Which, you guessed it, violates my “studio is closed on Sunday and Monday” policy. At this point, I’m finally starting to listen to the little voice in the back of my head that’s whispering “girl…they’re working you!”, but it’s fine, because this will be a little extra cash in my pocket before Christmas. Even if I did have to pay rush and expedited shipping fees (oof) to get her proofs here in time for her ordering session.
I’d like to say that this last part is blocked from my memory, but it’s not. At the ordering session, after watching the senior slideshow and then flagging 34 of 47 proof prints as “LOVES”, the financially responsible person with my senior turned to me and said, “you know, we’re on a fixed income and we can’t really afford much.” Side note: this person owns her own successful business and no lie, drives a Jaguar with a license plate translating to Why Be Poor. And then she asked, “What is the cheapest thing we can buy?” Yes, those are the actual words. At this point, I thought about looking around for hidden video cameras, because certainly I am being punked, right? But no, I earned this all on my own.
I, having sent a contract with NO MINIMUM ORDER REQUIREMENT, pulled out my a la cart menu, that historically no one ever purchases from, and pointed to the Single Print option. In this moment, I silently accepted defeat. Yes, I probably could have tried to up-sell my client, or pushed an album or wall art, but honestly? I was mentally done, and just wanted to wrap things up and go home and rock myself in a corner or something. My client chose a single 8×10 print, and then asked that I mail it to her so she didn’t have to drive back to my studio and pick it up. Really?!? At least here I had the business b@ll$ to say NO.
I know some of you reading are probably thinking that at least I had a session fee and got paid for that, and at $50 for an 8×10, at least I made a little money from that. But let me break this down for you with some basic, non inclusive costs:
Session Fee Income $ 300
Hair and Makeup -$ 125
Shoot Assistant -$ 45
Client Discount from Referral – $ 50
Proof Prints -$ 19
Income Tax Paid – $ 90
Net Profit on Session Fee -$ 29
Single 8×10 Print Income $ 50
COGS (print plus photo mat) -$ 24.80
Packaging -$ 3
Client Discount from Referral – $75
Income Tax Paid -$ 15
Net Profit on Sale -$67.80
Ouch. And this doesn’t even take into consideration other costs of doing business or paying myself (which obviously was not going to happen in this instance). I’ve actually printed this cost analysis and pinned it to my bulletin board in my office as a reminder of WHY – why a minimum order, why I have business policies, and why I shouldn’t just freestyle it when I feel like it.
Booking this client cost me, both in terms of money AND my business self respect. Looking back, I don’t even know how I allowed this to happen. Was I just being nice? Was I wanting to please a potentially impactful client? Was I over confident in my own work and past sales? Did I lose sight of my bottom line and the “why” of all things business? Was I being greedy in wanting gorgeous images for myself? Did my ego get the best of me? Yes. To all of these things. And karma came and kicked me right in the face with a huge reminder that business is business.
Would this senior really not have booked me because I couldn’t get her in until after the holidays? Probably not, but if she wouldn’t have, then she really didn’t value my work.
Would it have been a deal breaker for me to wait until business hours to email her back, when I had the clarity of focus to be sure I was sending her the correct contract? Nope.
Did I really have to expedite my processing time and schedule her ordering session on a Sunday? Probably not. If she really needed to have her ordering session before Christmas, she would have found the time to come in during my normal studio hours to do so.
And finally, that whole “no minimum order thing”? Yeah, not a good idea. Because in spite of all the ways I violated my own business policies, if that had been in place, I would have at least covered all of my costs and earned a small profit.
I’m not saying you can’t or shouldn’t give little extras to your clients or bend your own rules now and then. But we put our policies in place for a reason, and they protect both our business and our clients by setting expectations and standards. By not valuing my own business, I allowed my client to do the same. And by letting my heart rule my head, when it came to the business end of things, I got burned financially and got my feelings hurt a little in the process. After all, I shot her session on my birthday and she couldn’t even buy more than a single print? It all just gets messy when we don’t follow the rules.
And that single 8×10 print that was ordered on 12/11/15 and cost me $96.80 in hard costs and over $600 in lost income? Still sitting in my studio, waiting to be picked up.
The struggle is real, friends…the struggle is real.