5 Ways I Screwed Up School Photography

I tried school photography, and failed. Spring of 2017 I was approached by a friend and told, “you should try school photography”. After some thought, and convincing words from my friend, I decided to give it a go. But let’s back up. I started my portrait photography business in January of 2010. I struggled through with some failure then, too. But with persistence and education, I managed to figure out the portrait business. And eventually, created a successful studio with a strong profit margin. School photography was my next step because now I’m thinking about my future. Let’s be candid….few people sell a portrait business. I needed something to sell so I can retire when I’m 95. So. Schools it is. With the help of my friends who had a lot of experience in the industry should be easy. Haha easy….sure. That’s what it was. Or it was going to be like dating Taylor Swift….great at first. But you know it’s going to end tragically, and you will end up famous for being a terrible boyfriend. But hey—at least I got to try. And the lessons I learned can now serve you well, so walk with me through my tragedy and learn the easy way. Here are 5 ways I screwed up royally…and how not to be like me.

Failure 1: I partnered with someone who has experience in the industry, but no experience helping others.

See, my friends were good at what they did. But they lacked something significant. They had NEVER helped someone else do it. There’s a huge difference in being a great performer, musician, photographer, etc. versus TEACHING someone else how to do it. Lesson learned, and as a result, H&H became my partner. (Side note – If H&H were a girl I would totally date them!)

Failure 2: I grossly underestimated the administrative load.

I’m a photographer.  So PHOTOGRAPHING the kids was easy.  Learning a system to light and capture images was easy. Editing was easy.  But scheduling with schools, talking with administrators, getting data files, (and then asking again for the data file because I swear no one reads directions), processing them, getting barcodes ready, processing the bar codes, fixing mistakes, taking customer service calls, (breathe Jason, breathe)…it was nothing less than overwhelming. I would have been fine with one school, but I don’t know how to do small things so we stared with 12. Face palm. Second, harder face palm.  Then hire an administrator which I did not plan for in my budget!

Failure 3: I failed to plan

Schools are complex animals. If I’m being honest, I’m not even sure I’m qualified to write this paragraph because I still don’t fully know everything we do. I have my team I rely on. I can tell you we get ready for each season and event about 6 months out. This is to make sure we can design and update order forms, verify we know what program each school is using (not only each school, but each category we photograph for each school!), and so much more. The PLANNING is what creates success. In our second year we managed to get better, but our first year was a mess!

Failure 4: When in doubt, make it up.

What’s our lighting setup for sports teams? I dunno, make it up? Class photos? I dunno, make it up? Outdoor staff photo?  Yup, make it up! OK, this kind of goes with planning. But we were moving so fast and photographing so many different aspects of the school we couldn’t keep up.

Nothing, I repeat but in all caps, NOTHING should ever be made up. Instead it should all be processed out. If I’m not going to date H&H I would date checklists, because those are now my best friend. We checklist everything we can using online forms. This verifies we are doing our jobs, and nothing is left undone. After leaving our greenscreen backdrop behind TWICE, we developed camera bag checklists, packing checklists and so many more. They give me life.

Failure 5: If you shoot it, they will come.

OK I wasn’t quite that dumb. I did sell to schools and somehow, accidentally did a decent job. I thought if I’m a nice guy and I was helping them solve a problem they would just sign up with me. But I didn’t really learn to sell until much later.  Too much later.  (Yes bad grammar but it works.).  If you want to do schools, and you want to grow a significant business you MUST learn to sell. Do NOT learn from people in school sales (most of them are 120 years old anyway).  Learn from  SALES BOOKS.  (Revolutionary I know… I’m a genius). I recommend anything Jeb Blount has written, mostly because he’s an actual expert on sales. Experts on sales tell you cool stuff that works well. Simple, but effective. My dudes (and dudettes). Schools are an epic source of current and future revenue. The profit margin is solid.  Most areas have weak competition.  They are ripe  for picking, but you need to get your act together. And don’t suck at it like I did. Plot twist: in spite of my epic awfulness at schools my first year, my team and I managed to keep all our clients and grow in our second year with the help of our gorgeous dateable lab. In our second year we are looking at gross revenues well in excess of the 6 figure mark and a solid profit. Get your admin, planning, and processes locked in, and learn sales. You will build it, and they will come.

Jason Williams

This article was written by Jason Williams. Based out of Norfolk, VA. Jason is the photographer/Owner at Elite Photography and Icon Schools & Sports Photography. Jason studied Psychology/Religion at Liberty University. Icon School & Sports Photography strives to excel at three things. Customer service, speed, and quality. To see more of Jason’s work, visit iconschoolportraits.com

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