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Insights on Building a Photography Business

David Hobby's business ecosystem


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Insights on Building a Photography Business

with David Hobby

Video: David Hobby's business ecosystem

I wanted to take a moment to to look at the, for lack of a better word, the ecosystem of how I run my business as a photographer and some of the different revenue streams that I try to capitalize on. And, and also some of the different kinds of output that are non monetary, and why they're important to me, and how they're all related. So let's start up top with Strobist. It's a lighting education site at www.strobist.com. And that is obviously a big component of my life as a photographer since leaving the Baltimore Sun in 2008.

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Insights on Building a Photography Business
50m 38s Appropriate for all Aug 06, 2013

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Whether you're a photo enthusiast or a working professional, it's important to have a "compass point." So says David Hobby, publisher of the popular Strobist.com blog and a former staff photographer for the Baltimore Sun.

A compass point is a set of guidelines aimed at helping you arrive at the intersection of your personal interests and your business goals. In this course, David talks about his experiences running a photography business that's rooted in photojournalism and the community where he lives. The course combines honest advice and practical techniques from a photographer with firsthand experience setting up a successful business.

As an extra bonus, each movie in the course is lit in a different way, and David shares his lighting techniques for each one.

Subjects:
Business Photography Lighting Freelancing
Author:
David Hobby

David Hobby's business ecosystem

I wanted to take a moment to to look at the, for lack of a better word, the ecosystem of how I run my business as a photographer and some of the different revenue streams that I try to capitalize on. And, and also some of the different kinds of output that are non monetary, and why they're important to me, and how they're all related. So let's start up top with Strobist. It's a lighting education site at www.strobist.com. And that is obviously a big component of my life as a photographer since leaving the Baltimore Sun in 2008.

More recently, I have started a new site, and this was started in late 2010. And it's called HoCo360, which is a visual journal of Howard County, Maryland in the United States. It is technically a blog. I am making it more visual than the typical blog, and I'm trying to. Not introduce any restrictions to it, other than the fact that it's coverage area is solely within the geographic bounds of Howard County. These are my main two vehicles that I'm going to be working through. Obviously, I'm a freelance photographer in this area too.

I shoot pictures for lots of different ways, but most of what I'm doing is going to funnel through one of these two different sites. So looking at some of the other things that are important to me as a photographer and something that HoCo360 certainly affects, is my sanity and happiness and fulfillment and all those little good things that keep you working as photographer and keep your keep your career and your, and your life sustainable. Those are very important, and I want to bring those right into the business model from the very beginning because if I don't have that, none of this other stuff is going to be able to keep working.

And so what's the point? If you're not happy, you're just selling your life to the highest bidder. And anyone who is a photographer and is selling their life to the highest bidder has, has, well, they really need to get some new bidders, or a new, a new industry because photography is not known for making gobs of money typically. Now, I think in terms of outputs for my different businesses. And probably one of the most important outputs is that of education. Now Strobist and HoCo360 both strive to educate its readers, but in very different ways. and that, that combined of, thought process of education being the most important output of those two sites is very powerful.

I think it's much more powerful than focusing on the income that is produced from those two sites and my life as a photographer because if you focus on the income. You're focusing on the something other than what's going to make your, your business, and your sight, and your photography better. So I tend to focus on more of an altruistic compass point, and ironically, I think that means that I'm more, more likely to be in a position, to where I've got something of value that I can monetize in different ways down the line, as we'll see. Social media is a very important component of what I do. In fact, Strobist and HoCo360 are, technically, social media in themselves.

And that, they're a one-man-band Internet publishing venues and I use social media in very different ways from the, for both sides. Now when I say social media, for me, it typically is going to mean Twitter at Twitter.com. And not the bigger, more likely to be used outlet of Facebook. And that's only because of two reasons. Number one Facebook sets up a very reciprocal. obligation, when you follow someone, they can take your name, they can tag it to anything. And there is they can reach out to, to you via email and such, and I tend to be very asymmetrical, because of the number of readers that Strobist has, I can't really corral the time to form a two-way reciprocal relationship with every one of those readers.

As much as I would like to be able to, and Facebook almost forces me to do that. you can get around it from the fan page. or by using a fan page as opposed to the typical Facebook page, but that's, a fan page is really not me, and that's not something I'm particularly interested in doing. I don't want to think of myself as being in that position. Now Twitter on the other hand, is a non-reciprocal sort of relationship, and there really doesn't need to be any relationship between the number of people you follow and the number of people who follow you.

In fact, I think of Twitter as having three separate groups. The people who I follow, the people who follow me, and the area in which those two groups inter, overlap. So these are each three separate groups of people, and I approach them in very different ways. As far as Twitter and Strobist is concerned Strobist obviously drives new followers for me on Twitter. people pass around links to the site, I get fantastic ideas to write about thanks to the followers that I have on Twitter, and for myself as a consumer of Twitter, I tend to follow people.

a few friends in photo, but mostly, mostly people who are very, very good at at working within the context of Web 2.0 and social media, because I want to learn from them. That is my professional peer peer group, even as much as a group of photographers will be my professional peer group. HoCo360 also uses Twitter, but in very different ways. I do tweet when I when I have a post on HoCo360 that's not something I very often do on Twitter. But on HoCo360, Twitter is more of a notification system, like RSS, or like e-mail, that, hey, there's a new post up, you might want to go check it out.

Now, those people tend to pass those posts around, or re-tweet them, or, or, or link to them, whatever. And that's very neat, but I don't see that necessarily as the most important component of Twitter for HoCo360. I see Twitter for HoCo360 as my news room. I'm at the point that I've got a few hundred followers, and things are starting to get interesting now, and that number is growing regularly, but what I want to do is to be able to capitalize, to capitalize on the group knowledge of my followers on Twitter. The HoCo360 and that may be something simple as does anyone know who owned this really cool building that I want to photograph or can, can someone point me to a good contact in this particular Korean gaming hall and internet station what people show up at three in the morning to play high speed PC names with people around the world.

So to me, twitter is a resource for story ideas. But its also a way to share what it is I'm doing, and to integrate myself within local community, which for a block that is concentrating on being a very hyperlocal site that's obviously very important. So lets look at some of other outputs fromHoCo360 and again when I really talking about money that we're talking about non-monetary products I want HoCo360 to be have a very strong community service component. It's a local site. If you're not involved in community service, it's kind of getting to where you're saying, what's the point.

you want to be covering interesting things in the community. You want to be, you want to be illuminating people in the county about things that they may not know about. And, and that's a neat service in itself. But we want to be more overt in our community service. a good example of that is the Howard County Conservancy shoot that we focused on a little bit earlier in this, in this video series. And we had 15 photographers who got together and produced a very valuable library component for, for the Howard County Conservancy, so they can use it to help raise money. But that also points back to Hoco360, and then that, that is content for the site.

so that is a neat reciprocal arrangement and very typical of what I want to do with HoCo360 where we go out and do these projects. And the projects themselves make really interesting posts that point back to the blog and then back around to the target organization, and raise awareness throughout the county of what we're doing. The historical archives is another thing that I'm trying to build in right from day one on HoCo360, in that, I am archiving hard prints, that are done on archival paper, with archival inks.

And also, archiving the blog itself, and the high-res images from the blog on various forms of of optical and magnetic media. That we hope one of them will either be around in a hundred years or we'll have migrated to some other form of storage within a hundred, a hundred years. Because one of the points of 360, of, of HoCo360 is to give us snapshot of Howard Country. A very visual and rich snapshot between the years of 2010 and whenever it is that I stopped ticking.

2035, 2050, let's get optimistic, who knows. yeah, I like, I'd like to, I'd like to live to be 85, we'll see if that happens. But those things, that longevity, that ability for somebody to come back in 100 years and say, what was Howard County like in, in 2015, having that archive will be of great importance to someone, and I see that as one of the main missions of the site. Now all that community outreach that we do, really starts to comeback and the form of marketing and it certainly helps me with my, with my local freelance site.

And what your starting to see in this upper, upper left hand quadrant of the diagram is how these things are interrelated. For instance, the community service that we do and, and those the picture libraries that we're building. People on boards and people who are involved with other organizations, they see that. And that tends to flow in as local freelance to me as a photographer. It's not going to happen necessarily tomorrow. But if you go out there and you hit for average every day, you going to start to make these contacts that make you a go-to person. And make you much more have a person that they have in existing relationship with, as opposed to someone who just accept freelance side out there and says, hey, you know, my name is David.

pay me $500. I'll take your pictures. That's not particularly appealing to me as a photographer, and I really feel that it's probably not appealing to people as potential consumers. So that marketing goes to fee local freelance. the stuff that I do on HoCo360 obviously can go to feed my local portfolios. some of the jobs that I shoot for local freelance, can come back and feed the site at HoCo360. So, that's a very synergistic two-way relationship, and that's what makes it so strong. Now, the local freelance, and obviously the pictures that I do on HoCo360 can also feed Strobist.

So, they are giving me the continuing existence as a photographer, and allowing me to, to share what I learn with other photographers around the world, via Strobist. So that is a very over simplified look at some of the non-monetary benefits that I'm getting education for other people. actually benefits may be the wrong word, some of the non-monetary outputs, that my businesses are creating. So you got education for other people, you got sanity, happiness, fulfillment, community service, marketing for my business, and things that, that, that ultimately lead to me getting other external work.

But the sites themselves are, are able to be monetized in some ways, especially as you start to get more traffic. And let's take a look at some of those, starting first with Strobist. So here we are. Here are three direct monetization channels that use for Strobist. The first one being education materials, what you're listening to is a very good example. the second one, speaking and teaching fees. And the third being advertising, for the lack of a better word. Advertising and, to some extent, underwriting. The education materials, that's a pretty straight model, if, if you build an audience.

And you have information that people might want. That gives you the potential to do that. But I don't consider that a huge arm of what it is that I'm doing. It, it's sort of, almost a by-product, The teaching and speaking is actually a very good business model. But it has one major drawback. In that it scales horribly. Horribly poorly. you cannot just be in a position where you're traveling every weekend of the year. And teaching and speaking to other organizations. And have a life. You're just not going to see your kids, you're not going to see your wife, you're not going to have family time.

So for that reason teaching and speaking is something that, in the future, is going to be something that I'm trying to phase out. Maybe do it once or twice a year with the biggest benefit being that face-to-face time with the readers of the site in different parts of the world. Which is something I very much enjoy, and I learn from every time. Advertising on Strobist is a very strong revenue source for me and that is because I build on com-partnerships with the advertisers on the site this is an interesting catch 22, its not that I use gear on the site because I have advertisers for these companies.

It's more likely that I have advertisers from these companies because I use that gear as, as as a photographer and in my life as, as a photo self-directive photo journalist and, and a little bit of a commercial photographer. So, what you'll never see is, you'll never see me saying, hey, this is fantastic. You should go get it. Oh and by the way they're an advertiser. I just don't want to think that way. I don't really trust people who think that way. I would rather have long-term partnerships with the companies that make gear that I know and love and use as a photographer, and would be doing so, no matter what my relationship with that company.

HoCo360 is still very young compared to Strobist. it's, it's growing quickly and I'm very happy with it. But it also has some revenue models that are in the hopper and planned for later. some are already starting to happen but but some are more down the line. And let's take a look at those so we could, so HoCo360 will ultimately have advertising but it won't be straight advertising. It will be more of an underwriting situation, wherein those people can it will be something like, you know, this particular restaurant may be an underwriter of the site, and then they can go to people and say, look, we helped to, we helped to fund the production of this kind of a vehicle, which makes our county a richer and more easily understood county for all of its, for all of its residents.

Now, I'm not just going to say I'm going to hang out a shingle and say, hey, you know, who wants to underwrite me? What I'm going to do is build in the, the slots, the physical slots on the site where those, where those banners will go. I want them to be very low-key. And what I will do is to approach businesses and say look, this is what I do. I think your business is particularly well-suited for this. And would you be interested in having an underwriting agreement? I want these to be very reasonable things for the businesses. I want it to, I want it to be a positive net return for them. But I also want to set up something to where the site is self-sustaining.

For instance, once the traffic is at a certain level, It wouldn't be any problem at all to go and find four businesses, for instance, that may be willing to spend, say $500 a month, to be a featured underwriter of the site. So now, you're talking about $2,000 in revenue per month. They're $24,000 a year. Not a fantastic salary by itself. But when you start to add it in with these other things, It gives you another, another leg under your stool and a separate revenue stream. And, and that is the goal. As a one-man band you really want to have multiple revenue streams that aren't all tied to the same people.

Because that makes your, your income a lot more predictable and steady. Moving down the list to next we have, rights managed stock, which sounds more complicated than it is. When you think RM stock, rights managed or RM stock, you tend to think of the guys like photo shelter, who are very sophisticated. an information-based stock houses. What I'm talking about here is maintaining a library of stock that local businesses can go to and say you know, I'm a, I'm a local car dealership. Or, I'm a local dentist's office.

And here's my website. And I wanted to have some local imagery. And I can make that available for fairly low cost and the, the trick is that on a, on a weekly basis, on an ongoing basis, I'm out there finding and producing stock imagery as a matter of course, for the blog and I'm taking into account certain pictures that may be might not be the ones that I would publish on HoCo360, but may have better stock value. more landscapes and scenics and that sort of thing, and I'm building those up over time. So you let HoCo360 go for a couple years, and I'm going to have a very, very strong local stock library, and that is certainly a potential revenue source.

Not a lot in terms of using the stuff electronically. I don't think there's a lot of money there but if you go down the list to the next one, print stock, that's a little more interesting to me. Because now, for instance, let's say, it's two years from now and I've got a a library of several hundred images, and, and I basically have one-stop shopping if you want to have for local high quality digital art, and I can do it all with one telephone call, just a couple of mouse clicks and it's being output and sent to you automatically. Say, you're a new dentist moving into town and you want to have you want to have fifteen local pictures on your wall.

I can do that for you in an hour, we can choose them right over the web, and that might the sort of thing where it might be three or four thousand dollars coming in very easily, with a couple hours of work. And on an ongoing basis, because those sorts of things tend to perpetuate themselves, because you're going to have your name under those prints. People are coming into the dentist's office every day. And you can start to see where, if you're willing to put in the time and commitment. And build those libraries and you know how to monetize those, that can absolutely make a relatively decent income source for you. I don't think any of these income sources are going to jump out and, and catapult me into the the 90% tax bracket anytime soon, but together they make a reasonable income and they make an income that's fairly safe, and it's tough to get fired from five of six different revenue streams at one time.

So that gives me the safety to know that my family should have a fairly predictable income going forward. And again that makes me happy, it makes me fulfill, it makes me a happier photographer and I go out and take better pictures. Down at the bottom I consider the increased visibility that I get from a local site like HoCo360. As something that stops me from having to pay marketing expenses. I'm not doing those mailers, I'm not taking out those ads in local publications. So anything that saves me from having to spend x amount of dollars, I really consider that as offsetting revenue.

So that's why I put this over in the in the little revenue stack with everything else. And obviously, last but not least, we have the local freelance coming around; that's going to provide revenue too. So all of these things kind of go together and perform and eh, and rather form a a fairly diverse revenue stream that gives me the safety to know that my family's going to be fairly well taken care of, and we we don't have to worry about where our next meal is coming from. So what do we do with that money? That's also a very important component. You don't just get the money and take it to the mall and spend it.

our revenue strains combine from those six or seven items, and I'm looking, obviously, I'm going to have to pay taxes because everybody has to pay taxes. But down the line I'm also looking at reinvesting in my gear. Digital Photo gear is not inexpensive and it does wear out even though I try to take very good care of it. A six year old digital camera is not really going to be giving you what you need at this time because they move so quickly, and you don't want to be in a position to where your pictures are just very inferior just on a technical basis compared to other people. In addition, I really try to put aside some money for reinvesting. not just from a gear perspective.

But even from a shooting perspective. If, if there is a shoot that can't happen unless I can rent some kind of a. A local resource or a local a venue, some place where I can shoot, a location, something, some money has to change hands. I want to have a budget for that, that even if that money is not going, or even if that shoot is not going to produce money right now, I still want to have funds put away to be able to advantage of this things that come along and not to have feel like, I can't do this unless someone is paying me to do it. And the last bit, and the bit, the bit that's left over, we get to keep, and hopefully that is enough to live on and so far it's doing well, so I am very happy with that.

So, what you have here is a fairly, a fairly simplified look at the different ways that my different businesses are, are interrelated and how I tend to think about things not in just terms of money. In fact, money is a very secondary thought for me, but I also want to be very comprehensive in a way that I think about my income and revenue sources. Now, you may look at this and think, well, you know, that's easy. You got Strobist describing the whole thing, and this is, this is all a downstream from Strobist. Actually, it's not. Strobist just happens to be my primary my primary work outlet at this point.

But I could just as easily be a doctor, and I could take Strobist away. And this site, this site, this whole the little web, in, inside of relationship can still be very valid. For instance, I can be an accountant by day, but I could still on the evenings and weekends, and, and my days off, as such, be developing something that would give me a, a small but steady and growing income, and now I'm in a situation where I'm not spending money to be a photographer, I'm making money as a photographer. And if I've got the commitment to, to continue to build that business working in the little pockets of free time or maybe even working with my family or friends, making it social I might get to the point where the photography can become its own animal and that might allow me to step away from the job, which I might not feel as, feel as fulfilling as is my photography.

So you put that back in. You can see you can see all of the the ways that it still relates. Strobist is sort of my day job. and the HoCo360 is sort of my evening and weekend job. Ultimately, I would like to grow to think of myself primarily as a local documentary photographer but with a little bit of a visual twist, and it fits in evenly with Strobist, but my identity I think I'm always going to be a photographer. I think Strobist is cool, and I like that it's an offshoot of what I love to do, but I don't want to spend my next 20 years being a blogger, who occasionally takes pictures; I want to be a photographer who happens to blog about it, and that's a very important difference.

So, there you have it. I'm sorry that's not a short discussion. But I thought it would be important to, to give you an honest a look as I could at what it is that I'm doing and how I think about things. Because I've spend a lot of time over the last few years studying companies like Google and, and web oriented companies, who look at their business models in very different ways. And I've tried to emulate what I've seen and enjoyed and, and admired. from the outside and apply it to my own business and life as a photographer.

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