How a Photography Business Became a Shipwreck

Why do some photography businesses fail? Training courses explain how to run a business, but overlook common mistakes. Here’s how not to run a business, with five lessons from a photography business that stank and leaked.

One of the big problems in this world is that those who seek power are the worst who should have it. If you combine this with the problem that people are promoted to their first level of incompetence, you will realize that there are those in this world who are not well suited to oversee a business.

Many years ago a friend of mine worked for a photography company. The store manager was a tyrant. She used her power to undermine the staff in every way possible. His usual tactic was to disagree with anything a member of the staff team said. As a result, my friend was asking for the opposite of what was needed, knowing that he would be refused. Therefore, what he wanted to happen would then be implemented. This same manager would also take credit for the work done by others and put other employees down to the business owner.

My friend left this job, like many others. He now runs his own successful photography business.

First lesson

Treat your staff as your most valuable asset. Praise them in front and behind their backs.

That doesn’t mean you have to put up with shoddy artistry from your staff. The business owner made a big deal of the fantastic job the store manager was doing, when the evidence indicated otherwise. Besides the considerable staff turnover, the company shop was messy. The walls displayed poorly laid out, cheap faux gold frames that were poorly laid out. Also the area behind the counter was a mess. The display case was an incoherent mess with dusty, sun-bleached objects, and the window frame was rotting.

There was, of course, a reason why the business owner viewed his store manager’s work through rose-tinted glasses. Everyone knew the truth why the manager and owner used to have regular evening business meetings that they had to attend. It had nothing to do with finance or marketing.

lesson two

Don’t have an affair with your employees.

The store manager and business owner had a knack for pushing customers away. They spoke to them as if they knew nothing. Standing there for service, I felt like I was in front of my principal wielding a cane; physical abuse and child molestation was allowed here when I was young.

I was right to use this store only once. My favorite printer had let me down and I urgently needed a 48” print to meet a client’s deadline. I regretted it when I walked in as the store manager was serving at the counter. I told her what I wanted and she took the USB key from me. Looking at the image, a landscape my client had asked me to photograph, she sneered, “We’ve seen this scene a hundred times before.

“Without a doubt.” I replied, “But my client needs a framed print.”

“Are you a semi-professional photographer? I call you a lot of semi-amateurs. She then began to disparage several local photographers. In response, I told him that I made a living from photography. I told him that I also wrote about it, often promoting the work of other successful local photographers in a specific publication I was writing for at the time. I had recently interviewed one of their main competitors. At that point, she fell silent, realizing that she had probably just squandered the chance for a free promotion for the company (she had).

If she had been positive and enthusiastic about my photo and praised other photographers, she would have ended up with a positive review and probably received a future commission from me. The shop has neither.

At Fstoppers, we regularly receive malicious comments on articles read by the thousands or even tens of thousands. Such statements will only harm the reputation of those who make them. I browsed the galleries and considered asking a photographer if they would like to be interviewed. Then I saw the nature of the comments they made and left.

lesson three

Always treat others with enthusiasm and respect.

I dropped off the print at the nearby town’s framing shop. The framer, a highly respected craftsman used by all the top artists and photographers in the area, said he would move it to the front of the queue. I drove home and as I pulled up outside my house a delivery driver arrived with the picture I had previously ordered. So I immediately phoned the framer, asking him not to start working yet. I then went straight back with the new version of the print.

Back at his studio, we arranged the two prints side by side. There was a distinct difference in quality between them, with the newly arrived image being far superior to that produced in the local store. Would I ever return to this store for printing services?

Lesson 4

If you are going to sell a product or service, make it the best quality.

I meet a lot of photographers there, both professional and amateur. We often share stories and experiences. It quickly became apparent from several conversations that many others had similar experiences at this store. It reminded me of the marketing training I had many years ago. If a company provides great service, people will tell another person. However, the bad experiences are shared with ten.

Going back to the mean replies on articles, I’ve seen discussions about them in online photography groups where people have recognized someone making mean comments as a local professional photographer. Has the reputation of this photographer been affected? You can bet he did.

fifth lesson

Reputation is everything. Word of mouth and online reviews matter.

It’s probably not surprising what happened to this company. Their staff turnover became huge, which was expensive, and their reputation was so bad that they had trouble recruiting quality staff. They also lost customers. Eventually, their business folded. Is there anything sadder for a business owner than having others remember it as a bad experience?

If you want to learn more about running a successful business, Pete Coco’s recent and upcoming articles on this topic are worth reading.

Have you had an encounter with a lousy photography company? Are you aware of your reputation? It would be great to read the lessons you learned, so please add your comments below.

Stewart C. Hartline