Creative Business Development Series: Start Local, Grow Global, or How to Grow Your Imaging Business

With the Internet already a core part of your business life as an image maker, why not treat the whole world as your local market and expand the opportunities to sell your photography, design or services.
Building your business around your local market makes a lot of sense. You have the hometown advantage of knowing the territory, local contacts and you can deal with your clients face to face. It also naturally limits the area you have to market to, allows you to avoid all sorts of cultural differences and avoids travel issues. The problem with your local market is that it may be a tad small.

The Local Market
Say you live in a smallish city of 100,000 people. Your business is wedding photography. Out of that 100,000 people perhaps 50,000 might be of marriageable age. Let us say that the average person marries once every 25 years. Since a marriage (or commitment ceremony) requires two people we can calculate that there would be around 50,000 divided by 2 and then divided by 25, or  1,000 marriages a year. That’s not bad at all. Now as a wedding photographer you can only shoot one marriage at a time and that means the maximum you could shoot on one day is probably two marriages, but let’s be conservative and say you can shoot one wedding on a day. Now there is a strong preference for the days that weddings happen, so let’s say that out of the 365 days in a year that there are about 150 good wedding days. That means our city of 100,000 people could support about 7 wedding photographers and have them all equally busy.

If you are booked every suitable wedding day you will do 150 weddings a year, maximum, unless you employ additional photographers. Now the photography spend per wedding varies massively. At the low end there are people who spend a few hundred dollars on photography. If all your 150 weddings a year were of this type your total yearly gross income would be 150 times $200 or $30,000, not a lot. If the photography spend is $1,000 your gross income only rises to $150,000. This sounds a lot but when you take out all the business overheads it might not look so attractive. Get into the $5,000 to $20,000 wedding photography spend area and life is starting to look much better. But what proportion of the weddings in your city fall in this category?
In the above I picked weddings, but the same principle applies to any form of commercial photography or design, from advertising photography to web design. In many forms of photography and design we are really selling our time. Since the time we have available to work has an upper limit, there can be a very real limit on earning capacity per person unless you can raise the charge. To do so may be hard in a small market. Even when you are in an area of photography or design where you really are selling a product rather than your time, there will still be a limit to your available, local market.
Going Further Afield
Expanding your reach beyond your obvious local market (remembering that for some creatives the local market may be the town you live in and for others it might be the complete state or country) has the obvious advantage of creating a larger market for your work or services. A larger market need not necessarily be an advantage if you are already working as many hours as you can. However, even if this is the case there can be advantages from expansion if you wish to take them up. For example, let us say you are a commercial photographer. You have full books. But you may only have full books in your local market because you are charging at a particular price point. Expand your market reach and you may be able to raise your prices and still maintain your full books.

The Benefits to Pricing
The price you can charge for a good or service is quite rubbery and is all about perceived value. There is no such thing as an absolute value. The same item or service will be valued by a number of people at greatly varying levels and can vary in different situations. The Mona Lisa is only worth its heat value (if you burn it) if you are freezing to death in Antarctica.

Whenever and however you set a price point, you eliminate some potential purchasers, both those for which your price is too high and those who see your price as too low. Yes, people will not buy if you are priced too low as well. They may perceive your work or service as of poor quality, not exclusive enough or not valued enough to be worth their while. One of the first things we were taught in Marketing 101 at university was that if a product is not selling well enough, raise the price. It seems counter intuitive and often we are taught to consider the other option, lowering the price. But when you lower price, unless you can do this by reducing costs, what you are doing is lowering your profit margin. This means you have to sell more to make the same profit. So you have to do more just to stand still. Selling more can be good but it raises some costs as well, as each sale will have a cost associated with it, whether it is advertising, time cost of dealing with another client or whatever.
Sometimes the best way to raise profits is to raise prices, reduce the number of clients but make more per sale. And of course sometimes in raising the price you will increase the number of clients. High priced designer clothes don’t suffer a lack of purchasers. Rather the high profit margin allows more attention to be paid to the purchasers, better presentation or whatever, which all works in favor of an increased perceived value in the item. Plus many cannot resist the desirability and perceived exclusivity of high priced items.

Other Reasons to Expand
There are other reasons to expand into new markets. In many cases there can be economies of scale. This means your costs (or some of them) may drop as the quantity you sell goes up. You may be able to obtain bulk discounts for materials or services, reduce the labor component by producing in bulk and even intimidate competitors (or potential ones). Another reason is to dominate a market segment through volume. Yet another reason is because of possible tie in sales. This is similar to why stores will sometimes sell something at below cost. It brings in customers who, while they are there, will often buy something else at a higher profit margin.
There is another, often underrated, reason to expand your market reach: it lets you get rid of some existing customers. Yes, that’s what I said. You will always have some customers who are more of a pain than they are worth.  I recently got rid of three customers of my web design business. One wanted the world but would not pay without a fight. Another was so stupid that he didn’t understand what was being offered and so had totally unreasonable expectations. And the third always needed to get things at an amazingly good price, and no matter what accommodation you made for him in terms of a discount, always wanted more. All three took a greater proportion of attention than their financial value justified, diverting attention from the vast majority of truly lovely people who are reliable, reasonable and highly enjoyable to deal with. If your client base is too small you may not be willing to cut them loose. But cut them loose you should: for your own sanity, for the sake of your pleasant clients and for your bottom line, profitability.

Mechanisms of Expansion
There is, obviously, no single way to expand your business into new markets, since there are so many different types of businesses and so many different products. So I cannot hope to cover all the possibilities, but let us examine a few as learning exercises.

Some of the ways of doing so are:

  • Adjust you web presence for a wider market
  • Develop a repurposing of your existing work for a wider market
  • Find a new agent, gallery or other representative to cover you in a new market
  • Franchise your business
  • Open a new branch office and split time between
  • Develop a completely new line of work

Web Presence
One obvious way is a virtual expansion. By this I mean an expansion of focus of your market across the virtual world of the Internet. This could require as little as simply incorporating support for international currencies and an understanding of international shipping costs, and then doing some networking in some online forums appropriate to your market and that address the new market areas.

There are two aspects to this: adjustments to your web presence and then drawing attention to it in the new market.

To do international business you will, at the minimum, have to figure out how to handle sales in that market. This means both payment processing and supplying the goods or service. Note that if your expansion is not international, but rather an expansion within your own country then the only real issue is supplying the goods or service.

Payment processing can become an issue. If your business has always relied on direct payments by cash or check, for example, then you may need to look at credit card processing. Here you can do it offline, which is a much easier and cheaper proposition in general and works well when sales volumes are small. In this approach you get a card-processing machine from your bank and, when someone orders, you manually punch the card details into the machine. If sales volume is high or the size of the individual transactions is small this becomes a time consuming and thus costly approach. In such cases it may be better to use a system like PayPal to do it for you, unless your volume becomes high enough and you are selling a lot directly off the Internet, in which case a linkup with a proper credit card processing system may be worth the transaction and setup costs.

The shipping aspect depends a lot on what you are selling. Image downloads may be handled entirely online, as is doing web design. Shipping prints can be easy so long as you solve the bending/folding issue. You can roll prints and use shipping tubes or ship flat with foam core or similar packing. Larger framed art is a tougher proposition and you may get the best results with firms that specialize in art shipments. You will need to pack them well, and thus expensively (relatively).

Language can be an issue. If you are mono-lingual, stick to English on your website so people know, even from non-English speaking countries, that they must deal with you in English. If you speak another language or can have someone working for you who does, then it might be worth setting your site up to support those languages only. Don’t take the risk of using a site system that allows the site content and ordering to be done in languages that you and your staff do not use, as if you get customers who don’t speak English at all you may have troubles.

You may not be able to sell exactly the same thing, or in the same way, in a larger market. Say you are an event photographer. To do event coverage in a completely new area might be a logistical challenge. But you may be able to sell images into other markets. Many people have family who live overseas. If they can tell family that pictures of their child, etc, are available from your site and you will ship to other countries, you just might pickup sales., and possible even greater sales than if the ordering, etc has to be done through their local family members. This can apply to wedding photographers, sports and other event photographers, etc.

Another form of repurposing is stock, if you are a photographer. The first step is to make sure that your model releases and work contracts/agreements give you the option of using unused or all images for stock, should you choose. This makes sure that whatever you shoot can be used as you like, providing you with more images that you can use for stock. Then you have to decide between creating your own stock library, signing on with one of the big stock libraries or going with microstock.

If you have a huge collection of specialized images of very high quality, then you could setup your own stock library. Of course you then have to market yourself and provide the web site, research support, etc.  The advantages are complete control and you get to keep all the fees.

If setting up your own does not seem a good idea then approaching a major library is a good alternative. You will make far less money but they do all the marketing, research and infrastructure work. His allows you to concentrate on your existing business and on shooting.
Microstock offers the potential to earn money from stock photography and design even if you either don’t have a large enough body of quality work or if your work is not yet quite up to the level the big stock libraries will consider. You make little per sale but rely on quantity to get you by.

There are many other types of repurposing. A website designer, for example, could develop web templates and sell these. A logo designer could develop and sell icons for all sorts of uses. Look at what you do and see if there is not some way to resell what you do.

For some types of creatives the way to go is to find someone to represent you. This is true of artists where it may be a gallery or artist’s rep, a graphic designer or a photographer, especially advertising and commercial photographers, but also photojournalists, etc.

Where galleries represent artists, it is not uncommon to be represented by different galleries in different areas. The issue here is whether your work has a wider geographical appeal or not. A landscape photographer who only shoots, for example, the American South West or outback Australia might find it difficult to get representation in Canada because the market for such images just might not be there or be too small to be worthwhile. If your work is more universal or you are willing to expand the body of your work to shoot for new markets then finding representation will be easier.

Having representation is great. They will (or should) know the local market well and so have the contacts to get your work seen and make sales or obtain commissions much more easily than you could yourself. Getting representation is, sadly, not easy, and is a topic in its own right.

Some types of creative business are suitable for the creation of a franchise. In a franchise you create the business model, processes and procedures and handle centralized marketing and promotion activities (and sometimes central purchasing) and you sell the right to trade under that name to other people. This might allow you to take your highly successful child portraiture business national without you having to actually do the work yourself, for example. You don’t earn as much as if it was your own business, but you also don’t take on the risk or have to actually do the work yourself.

Getting a business ready to franchise is a major undertaking, but there are also benefits for your own business in properly documenting and formalizing procedures and processes. The key is in documenting everything.

Add a Branch Office
One way to expand your reach is to actually do it physically. Let’s say you are a wedding/portrait photographer with a good city business. If you have been thinking about making a sea or tree change (in case these are Australia specific terms, they refer to moving to the coast or country), why not do so in combination with a branch office. Many rural areas still need a photographer but may not have enough work to support one full time. But a very nice lifestyle for you might be Monday to Thursday in the city and Friday to Sunday in the country, or the other way round. You can also take the opportunity to branch out, doing industrial photography in the city and moving into general commercial photography in the country, for example.

Such a development can allow you a more flexible or varied lifestyle, may have tax advantages and allow you to raise your prices so that the work fills the time available to you in each location.

Of course your branch office can also be a virtual one. Your new location might just be a home base for shooting stock, the place you retreat to for the peace you need to write that photography book or where you analyze your work and plan your next exhibition.

Now, naturally, you can also open a full-fledged branch office and put in place staff to run them. The key to this level of expansion is to stop working in the business and to start running or managing the business. This can be especially challenging for creative people, as you may end up having to trust other creatives: you can’t do it all yourself.

Add a New Line
An option with expansion is to expand into a new area completely. A web designer could add print design. A wedding photographer could add landscape stock photography. An industrial photographer might start doing weddings with a unique style.

Managing expansion in new directions is not without its problems. The main ones are loosing focus on your core area(s) and spreading yourself too thin. Like all business, it is about being organized and dedicated. So for your additional direction you need to determine exactly how much time, resources and money you can and will dedicate to it and stick to it, with appropriate reviews as things change. Producing a business plan for this new line of work could be a very worthwhile thing. A business plan helps you to really think through what you are doing and then should provide you with the tools you need to monitor your progress.

Broadening the geographical range over which you draw clients can be a great way to expand your business, raise your income or better proof it against local variations in demand. It is worth considering.

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