I made a post a little while back about new photographers going pro as soon as they get a camera. This post is more toward ALL who are or want to be professional photographers. Those who are serious about photography being their primary or sole source of income. It’s the importance of having a mentor or being a mentor. I see tons of information on how to become a professional, marketing, growing a business, etc. However, I find very little information when it comes to mentorship.
There are some things that are vital to running a business, any business. Everyone knows that all good business people know about accounting, taxes, insurance, overhead, etc. But something almost always overlooked or not thought of is the value a mentor can bring to your business. A mentor is a one-on-one relationship with someone that’s a successful business owner. A person you can bounce ideas off of and get their perspective. Someone that will help you avoid pitfalls and setbacks. They are there for encouragement when you’re down and lift you up again. A good mentor honestly wants you to succeed.
To often we look to our family, friends, and online forums for advice. We look to see what others are doing and blindly follow along. I know, because I did the same thing when I first started my business. I first started my business in Springfield, MO at the start of the 2008 recession (I know my timing is great). At the time Springfield was rich with talent in portrait and wedding photographers. For the size of the city, it was a very competitive market with an abundance of talent. There were no less than 100 photographers that had their shingle out as professional photographers. Around 20 had absolutely fabulous website portfolios and presence. Being new, I was overwhelmed with how I could compete.
Like almost everyone else, I did all the wrong things. I spent my time looking at the websites of the competition trying to get a feel of where I stacked up against them. Looking at their price list and trying to come up with a price list equal to those that I felt were about my level. I spent too much of my time and effort on trying to be competitive with the others online and not enough time in the areas to start and grow a business.
In the very beginning, I was trying to do everything right and to be a professional business person. I went and got a business license, set up the business for local, state, and federal taxes, got insured, and all that stuff. I also went to the local Chamber of Commerce for information and to the Small Business Administration for help in starting a business. My advice is for anyone starting any kind of business, to do ALL of those things. Every one of these organizations is on your side and wants to help you succeed.
I know, the topic of this post is mentorship and so far I’ve given very little information concerning the topic. If you’re still with me, I have laid down some background and now it’s time to get to the point. The SBA offers a free mentorship program that I highly encourage you to use to your advantage. Granted the mentor may have nothing in common with photography and most are retired business owners. My mentor was a retired Big & Tall Men’s clothing store owner. Though he knew absolutely nothing about photography, I can’t thank him enough for the wealth of business information he shared with me. He never charged me a dime, all he wanted was to see me and others he mentored succeed.
As a photographer, we often get tunnel vision in creating beautiful images. A good mentor can help you do that, but they can also keep you focused on the business. My first mentor has forgotten more about running a business than I’ll ever know. He opened my eyes to concepts and business techniques I never would have thought about or others claimed didn’t work in the photography business. No matter what kind of business you have, there are certain aspects that just work if done properly. I’ll cover more of these concepts in future posts, it’s far too much information to cover in a post or two.
My second mentor was a very successful fellow photographer who also mentored others. I and many others paid for his mentoring services and it was worth every dollar. Rob sent us a monthly podcast covering different topics on photography and business. He also set aside monthly one-on-one time where there was an hour dedicated to only you. He was great to bounce ideas off of and gave great feedback on what he felt would work, not work or need tweaking.
Before having mentors, I wasn’t having much success with my business. I was doing the same thing almost all the other photographers were doing thinking that was the right path. Soon after a little mentorship, my fortunes started changing for the better. Looking back I’m sure that almost all of the photography “Lemmings” were haven’t much success either. Just looking at their portfolios pretty much verified that fact, their portfolios pretty much stayed the same and never updated. Everyone was doing the same things because you naturally assumed that was the right way. The mentorship was what freed me and started bringing me paying clients.
My best advice, get a mentor! It’s never too late and the sooner the better. The late great Monty Zucker who ran a very successful business for over 50 years had been mentored his entire career. Even though he was one of the greatest portrait/wedding photographers of all time Monty taught and mentored many of the most successful photographers of the ’70s, ’80s, & ’90s. Photographers whose clients were Hollywood movie stars, the rich and famous. I’m talking about a group of photographers that were paid thousands for a session and were in high demand. They all mentored and were mentored their entire careers.
Many will mentor you free. As I mentioned earlier, go to the SBA and find out about their mentorship program. Most likely they will not have anyone with photography experience, but it doesn’t mean you can’t find a good mentor. To find a photography mentor join and be active in the photography clubs. You can even find mentors online, but that’s an avenue I haven’t tried so proceed with caution. You probably will not find much success going into a photography business looking for a mentor or asking to be an assistant. Find someone whose work you like and a person you respect and build up a friendship and trust. With a little work, you will find that special someone who will be life-changing for you.