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The Photographers Dilemma - Balancing Future Potential with Current Profit

If you’re a professional photographer, being pulled in a million directions probably feels like a daily occurrence. There seems to be a never ending stream of tasks that we should be completing, some of which are paid, some of which aren’t. Our trade-off often involves balancing paid work - be it desirable or not - with unpaid tasks that we hope will provide business in the future. The question is, how do we know what’s going to be helpful and what’s going to turn out to be a waste of time?When you’re first starting out you’ll likely find the workload manageable, but as you progress you’ll eventually reach a point where you simply run out of time in each day and have to become selective. Every task we take on begins to carry what’s known in the business world as opportunity cost. You can think of it as the trade-off of working ‘in’ your business versus ‘on’ your business. The sad reality is that a good chunk of what we do ends up producing little benefit, so it’s through tracking, reflecting and measuring can we improve our decision making in the future.

Value your Time

Before you begin any sort of evaluation, the most important thing you can go do is place a value on your time. This value is going to be hard to estimate at first, but as you progress in your career you’ll have a better gauge of what it should be. The best way to get to this number is to factor in all the sources of income you have (see table below) and figure out the average hourly rate for each. Based on the desirability of that work, available hours, flexibility and other factors, figure out what your going rate is. Be sure to re-evaluate this rate on a regular basis as you should be raising rates on work that is less desirable or more in demand over time. With this number in place, you’ll at least have some basis to quantify future decisions and measure progress. 

Divide up the Tasks

With a value on your time set, the next thing you’ll have to do is list of all the tasks that you’ve been working on to date as well as tasks you should be working on but haven’t gotten to. You’ll then use this list to create a table that classifies your various tasks into one of five possible buckets: marketing, portfolio and skill building, relationship building, business optimization and additional income as shown below.

With your table of tasks filled out, you’ll need to start planning and budgeting for the following month. Start off by marking down the relative importance for each category in the first four columns so that you can use this as a deciding factor if new tasks happen to come in. The importance will vary as you progress through your career so be sure to reevaluate these quarterly. Next, decide how much time you’re going to dedicate in a month to each category.

The total time of all four columns need to add up to the total amount of time available for business activities. To calculate that time, start with the number of hours you’re willing to work in a given month and subtract out the income producing tasks as well as a twenty percent time buffer. The buffer is needed to allow for unforeseen tasks which are certain to occur. Income producing tasks break down into your desired client work (the sort of work that you’re primarily marketing yourself for) as well as additional income streams. Additional income are jobs that you probably don’t want to do but perform them to earn the money needed to pay for living expenses, maintain your business and/or invest in additional gear. If your desired client work covers all your costs, then all the better and you can ignore the additional income column outright. If it doesn’t, figure out how much income you’ll need for the following month as well as a buffer for future savings. Based on that figure along with your hourly value, figure out how much time you’ll have to dedicate in order to earn the desired income. This along with your client work will serve as the bare minimum time you’ll have to spend earning money to survive, so it’s time you have to commit whether you want to or not. If at all possible, try not to take on more of this work than you need to meet your budget as you’ll ultimately be sacrificing long-term gain for short-term profit.

With a remaining time available for business activities, portion off that time into the four categories based on the level of importance. Some tasks should be done weekly while others can be done monthly or even quarterly. At a minimum, you should plan on completing all listed tasks within each quarter as these are ongoing processes. Once you’ve assigned the hours, pick the tasks from each category that you think you can complete in the allotted time and schedule them in your calendar. The scheduling part is crucial because an unscheduled task often goes unfinished. It’s also very important to write a combined weekly task list that you print off and keep next to your computer. This will serve as a constant visual reminder and you’ll be amazed at how motivating it is to cross items off and see the list shrinking.

As you work through the tasks, note the amount of time you expected them to take and the amount of time actually spent. This will help you form better estimates in the future which are crucial for effectively running your business. At the end of the month, add up the total time spent and list out what you actually completed. The overhead for scheduling and evaluating these tasks is maybe 2-3 hours a month but I assure you is well worth the time.

Measure

Every quarter, you should go through your tables from each month and evaluate the efficacy of your efforts within each of the four categories. This is crucial as it will serve as a guide for the importance of that task or category. Think through each task and try to link its completion to specific business opportunities they have opened up for you or to metrics that have improved. Metrics can be things like website visits, email subscribers gained, customer conversion rates, social media followers, etc. While some of these may be hard to add a monetary figure to, use your best judgment to gauge their value to you. In each of the categories, list the tasks in order of most beneficial to least beneficial. Annually you should be able to attach some sort of monetary figure to each of them, even if you have to estimate it roughly. With that figure attached, calculate the total hours spent completing it and come up with an average income as a result of that task. The goal is to have the task yield results in excess of your required hourly rate over the long-term in order for it to qualify as a good use of your time. The reason for this is that your additional income producing tasks already yield you your required hourly rate, and the only reason you forgo taking on more of them is to produce better results over the long term from your core business. If your long term results don’t exceed that number then you would have been better off just earning your hourly rate doing other things.

Reorganize

As you progress, new tasks that will make their way onto your list while the amount of time available will remain unchanged. The good news is that by measuring the efficacy of your tasks, you’ll have some basis for either reducing the priority of existing tasks or discarding them outright. When it comes to removing or altering tasks, I recommend giving the task at least six months to a year to prove its worth. I’ve often had business opportunities arise from things I’ve done months ago so don’t jump to conclusions too quickly. If a task isn’t working out, it’s not always a case of eliminating it. Sometimes all that’s needed is to change the way you approach it or complete it. Another option in some cases is to outsource tasks that are proving to have too high of an opportunity cost. Through your evaluation, if you discover the value of certain tasks to be in excess of your required hourly rate, it will likely make sense to focus your attention on those tasks and outsource others. Tasks in the business optimization and marketing columns are particularly well suited to outsourcing so look there first. Naturally things like portfolio building can’t really be outsourced.   

Weigh your Options

While discarding or outsourcing existing tasks are two ways to make room for a new one, there’s also one more option. You need to decide if it’s worth adding it in the first place. I’m constantly confronted with new tasks that produce little to no income at the time of completion, but have the prospect of yielding future benefit. These ultimately form the foundation of our conundrum so we need a formula for assessing their value. For starters, I recommended leaving a twenty percent buffer in our schedule to fit some of these one-expected one-off tasks. If that time is still available then it makes accepting the new task a bit easier, provided it’s a non-recurring addition. If however you’re completely out of time, then one of your scheduled tasks will have to be sacrificed. Either way, the table above contains sections to note both scheduled tasks that were completed, as well as unscheduled ones that came our way. Keep track of both so you can assess how many times scheduled tasks didn’t get completed, and also exactly which unscheduled tasks were completed and how long they took. Those unscheduled tasks should be noted in each of the four buckets so they can also be assessed quarterly in relation to other similar tasks. If it turns out for example that guest blog entries were far less beneficial than writing in your own blog, then it doesn’t make sense to take as many of them on in the future. Although this is pretty cut and dry, we often have little or no historical information to go on when making such decisions. My best advice for deciding to take these on is to assess time involved against their potential upside. Start by determining what income or cost saving potential it may have along with the chance of success. Make sure that the task fits into your business plan and targets an audience that you can actually something sell to. If you’re an architecture photographer writing a guest post aimed at other photographers, the chance of converting a paying client is likely quite small. If however it’s a guest article for Architectural Digest magazine, it’s completely different. Target audience is everything. Opportunities sometimes come from the most unexpected places so it’s good to experiment a bit, but be selective and don’t just take anything that comes your way. As you continue this process of recording and evaluating you begin to get a sense of what low priority tasks can get bumped to make way for these unknown opportunities or which to pass up.

While there’s no way to predict the future and know with certainty that our work today will lead to success tomorrow, by having a processes for recording and reviewing the work we’ve done, we can make better informed decisions in the future and gradually increase our chances of success. This is why photography is a long journey, it takes time to make these realizations and discover what works for you. As much as I wish I could tell you to do this or that, each person is different and no two paths to success are alike. It’s a process of exploration, failing and adjusting.

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5 Comments

Evgeniy Maynagashev's picture

In time, thank you.

Clay Cook's picture

Great information and advice Michael!

Mike Swiech's picture

This is a great write up Michael.

Chrismael Caldo's picture

Thanks for this!

Eric Adeleye's picture

Thank you for this article sir.