Episode 10: How to Be a Boutique Photographer Without a Photography Studio

with Sarah Petty

EP 10

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How to be a boutique photographer without a photography studio

We’re convinced our clients will have sticker shock when they see our prices, and then see our studio or lack of studio. Today, I’m going to show you how you can be a boutique photographer without a photography studio. And if you’ve had a studio on your vision board, but haven’t taken the plunge yet, I’ll share how to know if you’re ready to take one. 

I totally get how you’re feeling right now about wanting a studio. I was the same way– a mom who made photography my hobby, shooting mostly outside with only natural light because I didn’t have a photography studio. But I live in the Midwest and started to realize that in the winter, it was difficult to shoot outside and make any money. Not realizing what I know now that I could have easily shot at my client’s homes, using a window in natural light without hauling a bunch of equipment. But I didn’t know that yet, so I convinced myself that I needed a photography studio. I started by creating a little studio in my basement, full of broken pieces of furniture and random strollers and things. I hated it, and I didn’t feel professional. It didn’t last very long. 

I just really wanted to have a studio. So went to my CPA and he asked me if a photography studio was really important to get more business. And that’s when I realized that maybe I didn’t need a photography studio to be successful. Does it give you credibility? Absolutely. Does it create awareness? Absolutely. But it’s not going to stop people from driving down the street to come to you– that’s what marketing does. A photography studio isn’t the only thing that justifies our artwork being worth the higher prices we charge. 

What to Do If You Are Set on Having Photography Studio

Here’s the thing, it’s a catch 22. You can’t afford a studio until you have clients, but you need clients to help pay for the studio. Well, here’s the rule of thumb: you can allocate about 10% of your overall sales toward overhead. So for example, if in the next year, you’re projecting to do about a $100,000 in total sales. Keep in mind that doesn’t include sales tax so don’t ever count that in revenue because it’s not your money. You would have $10,000 to spread out over the 12 months for your overhead, your rent, plumbing, heat, and air conditioning. 

Now, how do you know what you’re going to do in business the next year? That’s the question, that’s the game. If you’re brand new, it’s reasonable to project no more than $100,000 in your first year. Typically, a fast-growing company grows 20% a year. If you grow four years in a row at 20%, that makes you what’s called a gazelle, and it’s really hard to do. If you grow too fast, you don’t necessarily know how to manage the workflow and the clients, and how to get it all done. Which is why sometimes growing too fast can hurt you too. So when I see people jumping in and committing to a photography studio before they’re ready, all I know is it’s going to put so much pressure on your family, on yourself, and then you panic because you can’t pay the mortgage. 

You could trade with somebody who has available space like a developer, a realtor, or a builder. Maybe they have remnant space that they can’t rent and maybe they need photos of all of their properties, and they would trade it for you either for a couple of months in the winter, or a couple months to get started, or just a pop up studio for a special promotion that you’re doing. But there’s always a way if you have tenacity. And I really believe that. The good news is you don’t need that studio to get you there. It’s not a magic bullet. And we all know build it and they will come. It happened in a movie with former dead baseball players coming out of a cornfield in Iowa to play baseball. That doesn’t happen in business. And I’m thinking you might not want it to anyway. 

So know your numbers before you jump into a studio, but let’s go back to that. The good news is you don’t have to have a photography studio to get you there. You just really don’t because there are things you can do to build your brand, so that you can be boutique, so that you can command the high prices. You can serve your clients at a high level.

What can you do if you don’t have a photography studio to create value and still be boutique, even if you’re brand new first. First let me talk about that word value, when we wrote the book Worth Every Penny, we were really careful not to use all these super marketing words that are so squishy, like value. People always say, “Oh, you need to create more value.” It means in simple language that people will think you’re worth more. A studio is one way to create more value, but there are a lot more ways. As long as they’re finishing that sentence with, “But you’re worth every penny,” you are a boutique photographer that is serving your client at the highest level. I want to share with you four important things that you can do if you don’t have a studio to create that value.

Number One Rule of Boutique Value

First, all of your communications must be better. You can’t just be average and vanilla and check the box. People hire us before they see the images that they’re going to buy. They’re buying something that doesn’t exist yet. So when I talk about service marketing, it’s different than product marketing. You’re judging these businesses by things you don’t know yet because you haven’t experienced what you’re buying. Might be a referral, that’s obviously the best way, but people are judging everything. The biggest thing I want to address with communication is your design. Potential clients judge your logo, your design of everything, your marketing pieces, your website, your emails (if you’re using a Gmail address, stop it–  you look like a hobbyist.)

If you have printed pieces and you’re using a cheap, poor designer, you’re telling people, “I’m a low-end photographer.” Great design creates value. In my business, we create marketing pieces. We call them dog whistle pieces to attract the right clients. They’re printed on gorgeous paper, professionally designed the copy’s written by a professional copywriter that gives people goosebumps when they read it. That’s how I attract people who value photography. And it says, “Boy, she’s not going to be cheap because this is gorgeous.” 

If you don’t have money to invest in pieces like that, don’t do them half way. Go out and learn how to talk to people and hustle and make partnerships. Because printing things poorly does more harm than it does good. It can be expensive for quality design, but can you trade with a designer in your market? Can you find some high quality templates and start there with them 80% done and then customize them to your business? Heck yeah. You can use those resources if you have those abilities. But the key is if you want to be boutique, you have to have professional design. That’s number one, everything you put in the world is getting judged. So it has to be better.  

Systematize What You Say to Potential Clients

Number two, what you say to potential clients is way more important than not having a studio. Your ability to share the importance of what you do when you talk to people is what creates value. You have to tell them what makes you different. This creates value. Does it mean you have to get your prices off your website? Yes. Because you actually have to talk to people to tell them what you do. What makes you different? Why your prices are worth what they’re worth. Is this uncomfortable? Of course, it is. Can it be learned? Yes. Learning to talk to people is a skill. It’s not a talent. It’s not something you are born with. 

So learning to talk to people and just telling them what’s awesome about you, and why they want to do business with you is what you have to do if you’re going to be boutique. And listen, if you’re not good at it, just know it’s worth getting good at. It’s worth getting good at talking to people, and it’s something you can learn. You’re not born with it. You can learn it. That’s the good news.  

How to Serve Your Clients, Without a Photography Studio

Number three, your system has to serve your clients better. If you don’t have a studio, you can go to your clients’ homes and take appropriate samples, measure, look at their mantle, and show them their artwork to scale in their room, with the perfect size. 

It makes the decision making so easy. She holds their hands until everything is perfect. This creates value that is serving your clients. Years ago, I sat down and I spent days creating a system that serves my clients from start to finish. I wrote down every detail from the second they called until the final artwork was picked up. And then I’ve spent 17 years more, refining this process. You can do this too. Sit down and create an amazing process from the consumer’s standpoint. And when you fail, you have to fix your system. But the key is you have to have a smooth system that keeps your clients thrilled, also known as boutique. When you convert from shoot and burn to boutique, it’s not simply charging more for the same thing. It’s so much more that shows up in your service.  

Showing Up in Your Community

And fourth, show up in your community. Charitable auctions are huge– being able to give to auctions, and build your business by building charities at the same time is one of my favorite things. We give to a ton of things because it builds my business. But one year New Year’s Eve, a man walked into the studio and he said, “I’d like to buy something for my wife for New Year’s Eve.” We started talking to him. And he said, “I see you at every charitable auction I go to, I see you there. And I want to buy from you.” And so we were like, boom, this is our ideal client. He loves what we do. He wants to be a part of the community. So I’m just making conversation and I told him we’re raising money this month for children with cleft palates, Operation Smile.

And he said, “Oh my gosh, my son had a cleft palate. And we were able to afford the surgery for him.” And he pulls his checkbook out of his pocket and he writes a check out for $1,000. It was the best ending of that year. Here we were New Year’s Eve getting ready to start with a fresh, clean slate and it couldn’t have ended any better. 

So when you work with charities, when you’re raising money and you’re a part of the community that creates value. Does it mean you have to go out and talk to people in your community, and build relationships, and grow your business and get outside your comfort zone? Yes, it does. But look, I have so many students who are introverts that learned to do it. And you can too. You have to do the hard things to get better. So start taking those baby steps.

Now, look, I’m not telling you whether you should or shouldn’t have a studio. What I want to make crystal clear is that you do not need to have a studio to be boutique. To have the life you want, where you make money. And you’re able to put family first. 

The things you have to do are creating better marketing communications with professional design, ironing out your entire process so that you can serve your clients at the highest level, and becoming a huge part of your community. Then as you learn to consistently attract clients, and you thrill them and you keep your average order up and it’s predictable for you. You will easily have the option for a photography studio if you want one, and what’s meant to be yours will always find its way.

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Sarah Petty Podcast How To Save Your Photography Business

I'm Sarah Petty

I’m a photographer living in the middle of a cornfield (central Illinois), momma of three teenage kiddos (plus a cat & dog) and an educator for all things photography business. Favorites: Earl Grey Tea (not coffee!), anything orange and clothes that are made for tall girls 

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