How To Run A Photography Business – with Jon Plimmer

You’ve firmly established yourself on the business scene as the go-to photographer in your local area, but can you tell us how you got into photography?

That’s very kind of you but I’m not sure I’m quite there yet. I’ve built up a reputation through word of mouth and referrals, true. But I’m still very much a small fish in a big pond. Or maybe a big fish that no one’s noticed yet? Like, skulking around in the weeds… I’m losing control of this metaphor. SO, I know you like this story so I’ll spare no details. After uni (I possess a BA(hons) in music) I hit a bit of a slump. Having no business acumen I was shocked that people weren’t snapping up my skills as a composer or arranger. I fell into the “newly creative” trap of putting up a website then sitting back and waiting for the jobs to flood in. I was working for either a mobile phone company or a housing company at the time and I had my first diagnosed mental breakdown. As part of the follow up and treatment I mentioned to my GP that I as enjoying going out with a camera. A little compact at the time that I fully didn’t understand. She recommended joining a photography club to learn more, develop the hobby and meet new people. I can tell you now I 100% did not join a photography club. I carried on taking the little compact for walks and shamelessly posting images online (something I don’t really do anymore). I took it to an old friends wedding and took some half decent shots with it so decided to try a DSLR and work out how to make pictures better. The friend of mine who got married (let’s call him Dave for that is his name) called me and asked if I fancied photographing his brothers wedding. It was going to be a small event (12 people including me) and he offered the princely sum of £200!!! I bit his hand off, laughing myself to sleep that I was getting paid so handsomely for something that wasn’t my job. The wedding went well, I learned a lot and some of the shots aren’t bad. Anyway, a couple of months alter I got an email from a guy who worked in the same office as the groom asking if I’d photograph their wedding of a similar size and he offered £300!!! That was how it started and how I’ve been running my business ever since. That would have been 2009/10 I think. I’ve learned and grown slowly because I’ve put no conscious effort into either. That changed in 2017 and the results of a little (won’t lie, I still don’t put much effort into “business” type things) effort has been incredible. But yeah, too long: didn’t read version – this is a hobby that’s gotten drastically out of hand.

To help other budding creative, what are your tips for starting a business in the creative industries?

I get asked this a lot and I rarely know how to answer. I still consider myself “new” and “inexperienced” so feel a proper fraud imparting such vague and general advice. I’ve worked with students at both High School and University level and offering them advice has been much easier. When you get to know someone and how they work and see their strengths you can offer specific and relevant advice. I think I’d boil it down to 3 general tips and they will be contradictory but, so many things in life and business are so… deal with it.

1 – Say yes. Yes opens doors. Yes invites challenge and creativity. Yes forces you out of your comfort zone and into the dark and mysterious unknown and THAT is where the real creative magic happens. Richard Branson said “If someone asks you to do something and you don’t know how to do it, just say yes and work out how to do it later”. I’ve had SO many opportunities that I didn’t know how to do. But having a problem with no frame of reference on the “correct” way to do it is an incredible way to learn and get amazing results. The hypocritical part, don’t be afraid to say no. No can be just as powerful as yes. Trust your gut and learn the difference between excited and scared. They feel VERY similar but invoke different responses. If your gut says don’t do it, you probably shouldn’t.

2 – This is YOUR business, YOUR journey and YOUR experience. No one, but NO ONE can tell you how to run, navigate or experience it (apart from boring things like tax returns which are legal and not really topics of negotiation). If it feels right or works for you, do it. We are most creative and passionate when we’re flowing freely (spot the Art College graduate) and you’ll struggle more if you’re doing something that feels wrong or unnatural. There’s real freedom in not knowing (and not knowing is different from ignorance). When you don’t know there are no rules, no lanes, no borders and no restrictions on what you can do and you can make, create and do some incredible things. The hypocritical part, learn as much as you can about your chosen discipline. Shadow an established artist/creative/etc. Learn what they do and how they do it. From the creation of their work to how they run their business but note, they will TELL you what to do and it will be in terms of “you need to…”. Take that lesson, process it, think about it and see how it fits in your own flow. I’ve worked for some incredible people and the most important thing I’ve learned from them is how I don’t want to run my business. They Hypocritical part, part 2 – Feel free to ignore this advice.

3 – Be passionate. Don’t make it weird, but show passion. I’ve been on panels for students presenting for qualifications and for small business owners pitching for investment and I can tell you this now, passion trumps substance. There is some wiggle room in that and it’s not a hard fast rule (for example, a LOT of good quality substance will most likely trump passion with no substance to back it up) but generally speaking, people who can show passion and excitement will excel and do better despite the quality of the work. Now, I’m not saying you can do well on poor work, but when dealing with ANYONE whether it be a client, friend, guest at an event, stranger on a bus it’s important to be 2 things. Passionate and Appropriately Memorable (this is a WHOLE other thing I’m not sure if I have time to get into). Passion is memorable. Out of all the presentations I’ve sat through I remember the ones that showed passion and excitement about what they were going to do. I’m almost certain their ideas may not have been the best of the group, but I remember them because of that passion and enthusiasm. So, when discussing your business, your art, your product or your work, be passionate… but don’t make it weird.

Do you think creativity is something you just have or something you can work on?

I don’t feel qualified to answer this in all honesty and I have a few different theories and ideas about it. I think a bit of both. Remember when you were 4? or at least between 4-10. I’ve been thinking about this a lot since I got reacquainted with a friend and her daughter, Bob. Bob is now 7 and absolutely mental!! I’ve been thinking a lot about the way she can pretend when she plays and how she can create worlds in her mind to interact with from the living room or sofa. I used to do that. We ALL used to do that. Somewhere along the way we stop. I’ve heard theories about it being society forcing us to stop but I’ve not done enough research on it to know how accurate that is. But, ultimately, we’re all creative in our formative years and slowly we become less so. Which isn’t hard because kids are STUPIDLY creative. Drawing, painting, singing, dancing and almost always bad. But they’re kids!! They don’t care!!! I think that’s what it is. As adults we care more and want to be seen as successful and so stop putting our creativity out into the world. Which is a sure fire way to become less creative. In a similar way that not running after being an avid 10k runner will mean you’re not as good when you come back to it. You CAN still run, but it’s harder and you suck a little bit more than you thought you would (at least, that’s how I feel about swimming). So… it’s a bit of both. We’re all born creative but the less we try the harder it becomes and the more despondent we get that our work sucks when we try. There are ways to push through and improve and mostly I think it’s just… do it. Don’t think, do it. If you’re resisting try and find out why but ultimately it’ll be an internal defence mechanism trying to keep you safe and in your comfort zone (see advice number 1 in previous question) where it’s warm ans cozy and no one can say bad things about something so personal. Cos art and creativity is incredibly personal and exposing but so, SO rewarding!!! One of the best things I did for myself as a photographer was get my pictures printed, framed and put up on my wall. I love my work now, I didn’t this time last year. So yes, we’re born creative and yes we can work on creativity and more importantly, we ALL should!!!

The question we’re asking everyone, what do you wish you knew when you first started out?

I’ve been asked this one before and I find it difficult to answer. Anything I’ve already said, any thing I know now would have been awesome to know then. But I was a stubborn, pig headed bastard when I was in my mid 20’s and wouldn’t have listened. I’m one of these people who has to work things out for himself or will go for years thinking “this thing is stupid and doesn’t work”, then suddenly that thing will click and it all makes sense. I need to learn as I go so I would not offer myself any advice cos I know I wouldn’t take it. But, for people who do listen, I wish I knew how hard it was. Starting a business is the best and worst thing I’ve ever done. It’s so rewarding and makes me so happy at the same time as being so stressful and making me miserable and that’s ok. Gotta take the rough with the smooth, you can’t have good without bad etc etc. That being said, it’s ok to want to throw in the towel from time to time. I’m going to do something I hate and generalise and I challenge someone to call me out on it honestly but… every business owner has almost quit. Bar none. EVERY. SINGLE. ONE… and that’s ok. It gets easier. It’s like rolling a boulder. If I told you to start pushing a 1 ton boulder (I don’t know physics) you’d struggle to get it moving. The hardest part in fact is that initial push. Once it’s rolling it can go with much less input from you but you do need to keep pushing cos if it stops, you gotta REALLY push to get it going again. That’s what running a business is like. It’s like pushing a boulder… with hills.

And finally, what’s your advice for other creative entrepreneurs on getting through Covid in these tough times?

Oh my I don’t know. COVID has been such a strange time for everyone and I think we’ve all experienced it differently. When we hit first lockdown, after the initial world ending depression of losing all my work in 36 hours, I hit a strange level of calm I’ve never hit before. It was amazing. I signed up to courses, did webinars, had mentoring sessions and was determined to improve my craft and come out of COVID bigger and better… and did nothing. I have all these amazing materials and I’ve watched… very little of it. I have completed Tiger King, Fallout 4, Final Fantasy 7 and Star Trek:The Next Generation. My plans to getter my craft, my business and ultimately myself just didn’t happen. And I’m ok with that… Now, at least. I wasn’t for a very long time “You’ve been given this gift of time to work on new projects, develop and grow and all you can do is joke about how much of a pervert Commander Riker is”. But that’s ok. I needed that. I did learn a few things. My style changed, I learned new lighting techniques, I know how crash a drone in a tree, but in terms of goals I set for myself I failed HARD and that’s ok. You’re allowed to fail at anytime. Failing is a win in itself. Now you know how not to do it again. Where I won is I now understand myself, the needs of my business and the direction I want to go in a bit better. I still don’t know how but that’ll reveal itself when the time is right. So, my advice to you is this, be kind, be understanding and do what feels right. Want a duvet day watching Netflix? Go for it. Want to paint an enormous mural on the kitchen wall? Why the hell not? Want to write a novel? Hell yeah, You do the thing!! But if you stop or run out of steam, that’s ok too. No one is expecting anything from you so embrace the calm and go with the flow. If you feel like doing something creative do it and if you don’t then… don’t do it. But be accepting of your choices and don’t beat yourself up over things you “should be doing”. More than anything in life, be kind. To yourself as well as every other bugger out there.