Why did photogether fail?

If you want to earn money by teaching photography or leading photo tours, read this post. I did it and have some insights for you, for free.

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Short History

In Sept 2010 a friend and I founded a company called photogether. We offered creative and technical photographic courses, photographic tours to exciting German and international destinations (India, Namibia, Burma, Prague) as well as one-on-one consulting. We did this because (1) photography is our passion, (2) we wanted to share our experience and knowledge with others and (3) help them produce images as good as ours. I was already touring a lot by myself, but (4) for all the reasons in 1, 2 and 3 I wanted to have some company. Last but not least, we had the dream to (5) one day leave our normal jobs and earn our living with photography.

So we took on the tasks: formal company creation, all the tax and accounting stuff, clever company name, logo, nice web page, a course catalog covering some basic and some advanced topics and a 10-day course by a high-profile creative photographer. Then came various certifications for the international tours and of course insurances. We did all this exclusively in our free time and in parallel with our 40+ hour-a-week “normal” jobs. We each invested 1000 EUR of our own money and rented a very small office with a large conference room. It was a crazy workload, but we were dedicated and proud of what we’d achieved, and we attracted our first customers.

Two years later (Sept 2012) photogether offered 8 courses and 5 tours. Virtually all events were financially profitable. Yet on Jan 1, 2013 I closed photogether and am now back to practicing photography purely as a hobby.

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So why did photogether fail?

Actually it didn’t fail. It was a success, and it developed into what all companies of this kind develop into, but it was not the direction that I wanted.

Let’s analyze the five reasons for creating the company and see what the reality turned out to be.

1. Photography is our passion

We had underestimated the workload tremendously. We thought it would be extremely high at the beginning (register the company, design a logo, set up the web page), but that it would get much less within 6 months (just basic company operation). We were wrong: the workload got more and more. Conducting client surveys, continuously optimizing the web page (based on our own observations and on client feedback), creating new courses, making the presentations for those courses, analyzing Google Analytics, finding the appropriate venues for advertising, creating the ads, telephoning with and answering all questions by prospective clients, checking up on payments, buying tea, coffee and sweets for the courses, teaching the courses, cleaning up the conference room after the courses, answering all questions by telephone or e-mail of all clients who took a course, writing thank you notes to them, doing basic accounting and a thousand other things kept us extremely busy. The more courses and clients we had, the more work there was.

Because of the workload my partner quit within 9 months. I gathered some freelancer friends and asked them if they want to work with me. They said yes, all three being motivated by the same five reasons that I listed above. So we continued operating photogether. Only, these people did not own the company, they only saw their personal checks for the work they did. I was the only one looking at and caring about the whole picture.

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Do you see where I’m going with this? I had a full-time job and in my free time I had to do the work of the photogether IT administrator, creative text director, graphic designer, photo teacher, secretary and a cleaning lady in my free time. I’d almost forgotten what my son and my friends look like. And I hadn’t had almost any free evening or a free weekend in two years. I hadn’t made any pictures in two years, except photos for the web page or during the photogether photo tours. I didn’t have any time for creative photography or any personal time for myself. And I was forced to do things that I am not very good at: writing engaging texts and designing graphical content for the web-page and for advertisement.

The net result was that I didn’t have any time for my passion for photography because I was running a photographic company.

So what have we learned so far?

  • Do not underestimate the workload. Do not underestimate the attention that a prospective client requires, even if all he is about to spend is $250. Later on, do not underestimate the attention a paying client requires.
  • Do not underestimate the diversity of the tasks. Of course you need to know how to photograph, but you also need to be able to teach it to others: to technically advanced people, to totally unstructured people, to young people, to old people. You need to write creative texts and you constantly need to design graphically appealing content. You need someone to watch over the incoming and outgoing payments, accounting and taxes. And someone for all the small tasks.

2. Share our experience and knowledge

You will be fine if you are primarily looking to give knowledge, not to receive.

Passionate and creative photographers don’t take courses: they learn and experiment on their own. So don’t expect your clients to be as passionate about photography as you are. If you are looking for creative inspiration, look somewhere else.

Most of your clients will be beginners and hobbyists looking to photograph their vacations, kids or pets. In general they are not lusting after your year-long experience, but for simple formulas that lead to perfect results every time. And such formulas simply do not exist.

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3. Help others produce images as good as ours

They need time to get there, so be prepared to praise lots of mediocre images. This surely sounds arrogant, but only seldom will you have talented and inspired students. Probably the higher your prices are, the more motivated your students will be, but also more difficult to find and convince them to pay for your services.

4. Have company while on photo tour

You do feel lonely when you are alone in a new environment for two or three weeks. But all thoughts on points 2 and 3 apply here as well. And there is this:

How do you get the best travel images? Travel light, get up before sunrise, get in contact with the local people and their culture, know your gear and operate quickly and silently. You cannot get bogged down with worrying about breakfast, a clean toilet, comfortable transportation or group dynamics. But paying customers require all of these nice things.

They also need help with fill-flash, focus and exposure and if you find an interesting person to photograph, they all want a picture of him/her. You have to find the person, get him/her to pose and only at the very end you are able to take your picture. This is the exact opposite of operating quickly and silently.

Finally, how often do you want to visit a given country or area? You have to go alone once or twice (positive effect: you have the time to take your personal images) then lead 5-10 tours in order to recover your investment and make profit. But then you cannot be discovering and photographing 5-10 new locations. The only solution for this is to be the boss and hire others to do the repeat tours. But you then need an even bigger investment in the beginning.

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5. Earn our living with photography

Let’s just say that it’s not easy at all. The market is already saturated, so you cannot just open up and wait for customers. You need the photos to prove that you are good and you need a sleek web page, a program with at least 5-6 courses (or minimum 2-3 tours), constant advertising and you need to pamper your customers. So:

  • You need a significant initial investment. Between two motivated, capable and clever people (you and your partner) you can do a lot, but you should concentrate on the photographic tasks while (several) other people taking care of the rest.
  • Do not do this as a part-time job: go all in or don’t even start. But before you go all in, make a detailed business plan and let someone check it very critically. Do not be overly optimistic and do not skip this point.
  • Choose your partner very carefully. You need to be totally different people with opposite skills and nevertheless with unlimited respect for each-other. One has got to be the photographer and the other one the business person.
  • Be agile: learn new things quickly and adapt to the market. But don’t try to cover all social platforms (you can’t, they grow faster than mushrooms).
  • Do not charge too little and do not give discounts just to fill your courses. The people you attract this way are just hunting for a deal will not bring you much repeat business. And if you don’t get payed enough for your time and talent you will either get swamped with work because you cannot hire any help or you will start resenting the work.

Having said all that, it can be done. If you are good photographically and business-wise, do this thing whole-heartedly and full-time and invest enough in the beginning, you could live from it. Good luck!

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