These are Dennis McCarthy’s notes from the presentation by Sarah Ellefson who described her journey to her successful photography business.
Sarah started her own wedding photography business after graduation as an English major. Her goal was to make this her primary source of income.
You may want a business like Sarah’s as a primary source of income (a main gig) or as a supplemental source of income (a side gig). Many of the suggestions apply to both types of gigs.
- Get a Day Job
To make money while you’re developing your business to a level which pays your bills, you should consider another paying job. Just getting started costs some money for a website and basic equipment.
- Find a Mentor
One of Sarah’s day jobs was working as an assistant to a wedding photographer. She identified successful wedding photographers in her area, researched them using Google, and approached them to work as an assistant, carrying equipment and other basic tasks.
- Figure Out Who to Serve and Create a Brand that Matches that Clientele
Sarah began work in a market where wedding photographers couldn’t charge enough to survive. She moved to LA where wedding photographers could find a clientele that would pay enough ($4,000 per shoot). She deliberately targets a successful young clientele and presents an image which matches what that clientele wants in wedding photos.
- Get Legal
Sarah suggested that it’s prudent to engage an accountant who can advise you on matters such as obtaining a business license and making certain that you pay sales and income tax. As an independent businessperson, the responsibility to pay taxes falls on you as no one takes out taxes as an employer would.
[DM Note: In most cases, you don’t need to create a corporation to operate your own business. Unless you are doing something which requires a separate corporation, you are better off without that step.]
As Sarah recommends, obtain accounting advice about establishing a business, perhaps filing a DBA (doing business as) which is something like Sarah’s “Sarah Ellefson Photography” and obtaining a sales tax license. In most locations, small businesses generating revenue above a certain level must file sales tax returns in addition to the annual income tax returns.
If you will be receiving checks as payment made out to your DBA, you will likely need to open a checking account in that name. Opening checking accounts has become increasingly difficult in recent years so consider requiring your clients to write checks simply made out to your name.
If you will be working in multiple locations, especially multiple states, your accountant will be helpful to determine whether you have to file sales and income tax returns in those locations.
In most cases, you will report your income and expenses for your business on IRS form Schedule C of your individual tax return. This form enables you to reduce your taxable income using as deductions any expenses attributable to conducting your business (recall Sarah’s story about writing off her European trip).
[DM Note: One thing to note is that a person can’t report three years in a row of tax losses on their IRS form Schedule C and still claim that the business is a legitimate for-profit enterprise. So, if you’re investing heavily in the first three years, make sure that at least one year shows a profit, albeit very small.]
- Become More Savvy
Sarah invests some of her resources in workshops to develop her artistic and marketing skills. She also continues to identify and approach as mentors those successful professionals who have the skills that she’d like to develop. For Sarah, step #2 continues throughout her career.
- Grow Brand Awareness through Social Media
Sarah has found that maintaining an active and “on brand” social media presence is a key to growing her business. Sarah uses Instagram as her primary outreach media but also maintains a website and Facebook account.
She regularly posts images which are consistent with her brand and has found that identifying key hashtags is highly productive.
- Learn Time Management
When one has their own business, there’s no one telling you to work and when. A business owner needs to be self-driven and self-disciplined. It’s important to develop good habits.
- Take advantage of Summer Internships
Students can get a head start on developing a new business by researching and pursuing summer internships in areas of career interest.
- Use Free Resources to Learn New Skills
Sarah suggested several:
CreativeLive – free masterclasses
Skillshare – for technical skills
Google – Any research
- Whistle While you Hustle
Having a positive attitude is very important as clients want to hire happy, positive people.
- Develop a Monthly Budget
A monthly budget helps you to understand how much you need for the necessities (including an emergency reserve fund). Starting a new business involves expenses such as the accountant, a website and equipment.