Between 2004 and 2015 I worked for a series of pretty big companies. When I say big, I don’t just mean in terms of numbers of people working there, but also the sophistication of the operations that come with managing staff and their well being. From a dedicated line manager, learning and development programmes, skills training, to annual reviews and formal personal career mapping, it all meant as an employee you certainly weren’t alone. You had direction and support.
You had to work hard, and you had to make things happen yourself of course, but at the end of the day you did have a big machine around looking out for you in many respects. Indeed at one point I managed a team of 8 or so people, who would look to me for guidance and support, and I remember vividly looking after them (or certainly aiming to!) in a caring and nurturing way. They could count on me. I wanted to create a sense of team and togetherness, and with that a real sense of camaraderie.
I had some great ‘bosses’ over the years, many of which I’m still friends with now and I greatly respect. They were there to pick me on a bad day, champion me and ultimately get the best out of me.
Jump back to 2015, when I left the London ‘rat race’, I was suddenly my own boss and the feeling of freedom was pretty immense and exciting. I still do thrive on it and I do enjoy it. I love using my days as I wish and I love making decisions quickly and autonomously.
However it’s become more and more apparent to me recently that when we are photographers, running our own business, we are at the opposite end of the spectrum of what I described from my days working for a big company. For those of you that have had a past life working for a company you will hopefully relate to this.
In many respects, and we often (rightly so) focus on the amazing benefits of being self-employed but I wanted to pen down a few things that I’m aware now are the ‘cons’ (if we’re talking ‘pros and cons’). I say these not to deter anyone from being a full time photographer, but more to highlight these and encourage us to seek help.
1. There is no accountability
For most people, me included, the idea of being free of a ‘boss’ and that feeling of being micro-managed (“have you done this yet?”, “I want this by 9am on the dot”, etc) is an idea a lot of us dream of. However I do think that the lack of accountability can be an issue. On our own it’s easy to drift. To drop our standards. Put things off and make excuses (we’re all good at excuses for sure). I do sometimes, just sometimes, miss that weekly catch-up I’d have more my boss on how I’m doing. So he/she can challenge me, but not also provide some advice and possibly kick up the backside.
We all can start a year with good intentions but ultimately if we don’t do what we wanted who is there for us to report back to. Of course there will be exceptions and some incredibly disciplined souls, whom of course I applaud. But for most of us this ability to do as we please can be dangerous.
Before I suggest for a second I’m one of the aforementioned disciplined souls, I can firmly set the record straight that I’m not and I wince at how I’ve fallen short in what I set out to do for both businesses I now run. It’s something I want to tackle this year.
2. We all have blindspots
Speaking of advice (see point 1) I think this is something I do wish I had more of. It’s so easy to trundle along and just go into autopilot. Especially for wedding photographers in peak season – we survive by having a very consistent pattern of actions that get us through each wedding and the delivery of the images and then on to the next one. We have our way and that’s it. We don’t have time (or the inclination) to make changes. So it’s no surprise before too long we can have blindspots.
Blindspots are simply areas of what we do that perhaps aren’t quite as good as they could be – I guess they could be deemed weaknesses. Maybe it’s something we do, or we don’t do, do too much of or we overlook. The absolute best of us will have blindspots. No-one is immune.
We might hope that our customers might feedback but on the whole I think most couples are very happy with their images from their photographer and also not jumping at the chance of upsetting the apple cart.
In a big company these blindspots would get called out. (I remember well getting colleague feedback in annual appraisals!) There’s no two ways about it – it’s always uncomfortable to digest but when we rise above our ego it’s hugely powerful to see yourself from someone else’s perspective, learn from it and adapt accordingly.
3. We can feel lonely and discouraged
I am someone who really thrives off encouragement (and I think a lot of people do too). I sometimes look back longingly at those times in my 20’s when I bust a gut at work and I got a praising email from my boss afterwards, that really positive review with wonderful feedback from your peers and that all important promotion you’d strived for (argh the endless quest for the next job title!!). It’s funny but sometimes I wish I had that still a little teeny bit.
You see it’s just us we don’t have anyone putting an arm around us and saying “you had a great year” or “you’re doing really well, keep going!”
As a slight aside my hypothesis is that photography awards continue to be as popular as ever (bravo the clever people who have recognised this and creating profitable businesses of them) as we all, as photographers, will that inherent human desire for recognition. In the absence of a company around them where they can be heralded in front of the staff (employee of the month?!), get that big promotion or pay rise even, industry awards fill that vacuum potentially. When you think about it it all adds up.
4. It’s all down to us, and us only
When you work for a company you still get paid at the end of the month, even if you did a semi lousy job. Of course you couldn’t do that forever, as you’d soon be shown the door, but fundamentally you get the point. You will OK if you have a slightly off week, or even month. There are other people around to ensure the company still makes money. The machine keeps rolling. On most part you are part of the machine, not the machine alone!
When you’re a one-person business this couldn’t be more the opposite case. Every single penny you earn, you really do earn! No-one else gave that to you. You had to the photography and deliver the product to a satisfactory level that payment was given by the customer. But that wasn’t all you did because in reality you did far more. You created a company that people chose to buy that service from and chose you over a myriad of alternatives. That doesn’t just happen. You made it happen. Every single bit of it. Which is worth pausing and giving yourself a pat on the back for doing in my book!
It’s easy to paint a picture of being a photographer as freedom, lie-ins, working wherever we fancy and non-stop fun, but there is evidently a pay off.
The challenges, of which some I’ve listed above, are at the heart of what DEVELOP was set-up to do and ultimately provide a solution for.
I see a real need for that extra support – even more so in some ways for photographers who have been business for 10/20+ years. There is no doubt the huge power of an external set of eyes on what you’re doing. There is also a lot of positive in just having someone to talk to – who gets your life as a photographer and gets the intricate dynamics.
Ultimately I aim to offer a savvy marketing and business head to all my photographer clients, but even if I didn’t tell them something they didn’t know (which of course is not the aim!), at the very least they will have a friendly face, encouraging person on the other end of the phone, and cheerleader for what they’re doing (and putting their heart and soul into it!)