[Note: This is a slightly edited recent post from my blog. Scott liked it and suggested I share it here as well!]
If you’ve been in the photography business very long, you know it’s about way more than just being able to work behind the camera. There are tons of moving parts that you have to maintain in order to be successful.
Lately I’ve been watching Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares. In this show, Chef Gordon Ramsay (also of Hell’s Kitchen fame) goes into failing restaurants and helps turn them around. After watching a few episodes, it’s easy to pick up on the key things that make for a successful restaurant.
But these things aren’t just what make restaurants successful, they’re what make businesses successful.
And many of these things can easily apply to the photo business, so here we go…
Six Things I’ve Learned from Kitchen Nightmares:
1) Product Quality Is King
99% of the time, the food in these failing restaurants is terrible. No amount of ambiance and decor will bring back returning customers if the product sucks. Some of these restaurants even cut back on the quality of the food when they struggle, yet still charge the same prices they’ve always charged.
As photographers, we need to provide the best quality product we possibly can and charge accordingly. People are willing to pay for a quality product. If they’re not, they may not be the customers you want. But if they’re happy with their experience, they’ll keep coming back. They’ll also tell their friends and family about you.
2) Be Unique
Sometimes Chef Ramsay will completely transform the restaurant if it’s in the middle of an over-saturated market. He’ll look at the competition in the surrounding area determine what isn’t there that could thrive in the town. Maybe it’s an affluent town without a steakhouse, so the restaurant become a steakhouse. Or maybe they just need to be known for a specialty, like fresh homemade pasta or mozzarella, family-style dining, or a great raw bar.
Look at your market. Who are your competitors? What can you do that they’re not doing? What holes are in the market that you could fill? What’s the one thing that could make you stand out from everyone else? Don’t be afraid to be different. Think outside of the box. Be a trendsetter. Just be careful… There’s a fine line between unique and weird. ;-)
3) Don’t Be All Things To All People
Bloated menus are a common problem in these failing restaurants. They try to appeal to a wide variety of people by offering a wide variety of dishes. The result is an unfocused chef who is trying to juggle too many types of food in the kitchen, which slows them down. This leaves customers waiting far too long for food they end up being unsatisfied with because of its diminished quality.
In cases like these, Chef Ramsay will simplify the menu so that it focuses on a certain type of food and streamlines the process in the kitchen. This decreases prep time in the kitchen and helps the chef focus on fewer dishes. Customers receive their food more quickly and are much more satisfied in the end.
Do you know any photographers who shoot baby portraits, engagement portraits, weddings, concerts, football games, food, products, and still life? How stressed are they most of the time? Is it because they’re always super busy? Because they’re struggling to pay the rent? Could it be because they’re unable to focus on doing one thing really well?
Pick the type of photography you enjoy doing most and focus on that. If you enjoy it, it will show in the end product and your clients will be happier. Otherwise you’ll always be pulled in fifteen different directions, and all of your endeavors will suffer.
4) Décor and Ambiance
I’ve only seen one episode in which a struggling restaurant didn’t get a complete interior makeover. And even that one had other minor updates. Common problems range from being outdated to uninviting to just plain ugly. No one wants to spend hours eating dinner in a place where they feel uncomfortable.
If you have an office or storefront, make it an inviting place that people enjoy visiting. If you only have a website, make sure it’s designed with relevance to your audience in mind. Don’t ask yourself who your audience is, but who you want your audience to be.
A perfect example of this is NickOnken.com. He explains in depth on his blog why he made every single design and functionality choice when undergoing a redesign. Some people would say he made a bad choice in building a Flash-based website, but those aren’t the people he cares about. He’s going after art directors who are sitting at their desks in front of their 30″ Cinema Displays, so that’s who he made the site for – people who potentially will be signing checks, not online forum-dwellers sitting in their parents’ basements.
5) Here’s Your Sign
Along with the décor makeover, Chef Ramsay often replaces the sign outside the restaurant. Why?
The sign is a potential customer’s first encounter with the restaurant. It could either draw them in or make them decide to drive on by.
As photographers, our brand is our sign. Our branding defines who we are, and vice versa. It makes clients say, “Oh he’s that kind of photographer!” as soon as they see it. This includes our logo, the style or look of our photography, the feel of our website, our business cards, and even our interactions with clients.
Know who you are as a photographer, and let that dictate your branding. Otherwise we’re trying to be something we’re not.
6) Denial Is A Killer
[This one wasn’t in my original post, but was pointed out by Jon Diener in the comments (thanks Jon!).]
Almost every single one of the restaurant owners on this show is in denial about something. They don’t think their food is bad, there’s nothing wrong with the way they’re managing things, their kitchen isn’t dirty, people love the oversized portions, New Jerseyans love to eat in the middle of a tropical jungle… Any number of things.[By the way, this is the part of the show that always dumbfounds me. Your restaurant is failing, so you call someone who obviously knows what they’re doing for help. When he shows up and tells you how to fix things, you tell him he’s wrong. It boggles the mind…]
Anyway, what are you in denial about? What is it that’s keeping you from being a successful photographer? Do your photos suck but you won’t admit it because your family tells you they’re great? Are you overcharging for the quality of work you’re doing? Are you undercharging because you’re afraid of losing what little business you have? Do think that if you can just get the right equipment or a ticket to Italy (where the light is sooo much better!), you could get that one image that could put you on the map…?
There’s a scene in the documentary It Might Get Loud where Jack White builds a guitar out of a couple pieces of wood, some nails, a bottle and a wire. He plays it for a few seconds then asks, “Who says you need to buy a guitar?” This is the same guy who took a $200 plastic guitar and made a signature sound out of it.
You are the only thing standing in the way of your own success. Everyone has obstacles they have to overcome; you’re not special (sorry). Figure out how to overcome them and, here’s the key… DO IT! Get off your butt and make it happen. No one else is going to do it for you.
The difference between success and failure can often be humility. As there is a fine line between unique and weird, there is also a fine line between confidence and ego. Careful that you don’t cross it, because as soon as you do the path could easily lead to failure.
I hope these insights have been helpful. You can catch all episodes of Kitchen Nightmares on Hulu.com if you want to look for other tidbits of business savvy from the master chef/businessman!