Episode 32 – A (slightly) Controversial Way to Get Clients

The topic for today’s post came from hanging out in different groups online, as well as questions that I have been asked repeatedly by coaching students – how do I get clients, how do I build a portfolio when I’m first starting out, is it wrong to work for free? I’m willing to bet that photographers aren’t the only people that contemplate this. I am sure we aren’t the only industry that is offered intense gigs in exchange for exposure, or struggles to get clients to put value in our services without being able to show what we can do, or have testimonials and reviews that let potential clients know that we do, in fact, know what we are doing and don’t suck.

Here’s the thing though, in an oversaturated and often severely undervalued market the other photographers do NOT want to see people working for free. It hurts their hearts. People rant and vent online about how all of the fauxtographers (aka fake photographers) are ruining the industry by giving it all away for free, or at such a low price that they can’t possibly be making a profit and they are bringing the entire industry down. People get passionate and HEATED on this topic.

So then you start to see all of these new photographers who want to do well in the industry but are at a complete loss at how to get their first few clients.

Fair… why on earth would you shell out hundreds of dollars to have someone take pictures of your family, or even crazier, let them handle you brand new, less than 2 week old baby – with no proof that they actually know what they are doing, can deliver a valuable product and provide a good experience at the same time. Of course by the time you are starting to look for clients you WILL be ready, properly trained after taking the time (and potentially money) to educate yourself, but how do you prove that without having solid testimonials or a portfolio to back you up? It’s going to be really, really hard.

So… should they work for free? Or not? Or an experienced photographer that is looking to try something new, switch their style and target a new clientele… or is experiencing total crickets in their inbox and either misses shooting or needs fresh images to post to social to keep it active. What SHOULD they do?

A lot of people aren’t going to like this answer. But my answer is, yes, sometimes we need to work for free. Sometimes it is going to be the most effective and fastest way to build your business, make connections and get reviews or testimonials. You might take a little heat – I can pretty much guarantee I will take a little heat just for saying it, but its true. AND there are ways of doing it without complete dragging the industry down with you, or ending up known as the cheap photographer.

Now I’m obviously not recommending that photographers, or any other person offering a product or service, spend much time in this free zone – in fact I would rather you spend as little time there as possible AND end up making a little bit of money (more on that in a second) while you are at it to help offset your costs. But I do think there is value in offering a up your product or service to the RIGHT people, under the RIGHT circumstances for free.

Think of it as an unpaid internship. The value you are receiving in this trade is the experience, the referral and the portfolio.

There are tons of careers that start out with an unpaid internship – or in some cases you actually have to pay to play. University and college educations do not come cheap, but we invest in our education. This is the same principle. You are investing in experience.

Experience is huge. It is 100% worth the trade. It will give you confidence. It will give you information on your ideal client – who they are, how to find them and what they want or need from you. It will give you credibility. In the case of someone who is just starting out it will also give you insight into if you are even headed in the right direction.

Ok, so I need to stop for just a quick second and tell you about this week’s sponsor – Flodesk. Flodesk is an email management tool that will help you create the most beautiful emails that your clients will absolutely love opening – with very little effort. They offer gorgeous, customizable templates that are a breeze to use. Flodesk also has fantastic, responsive customer support and a very active facebook group where you can ask questions, get ideas and hang out with other creative entrepreneurs. Best of all, they are offering the Updraft Listeners 50% off the LIFETME of their membership when you go to annyamiller.com/flodesk, AND they have a flat fee per month which means that your costs won’t skyrocket as your list grows!!

So how do you use working for free to your advantage, without being labelled as cheap and getting stuck in that zone?

You set major boundaries to start. Free jobs should always be treated as if they were paid. They need a contract. Expectations need to be set. You need to be SUPER clear on what you are and are not offering. Tell them exactly what is going to be included in the transaction. Do not be willing to bend over backwards because you are so excited to get a client in front of you. You want to be picky and get the RIGHT client, who will respect you, your craft and your time.

One of the biggest pitfalls with working for free is that people often don’t care if they don’t have skin in the game. They will be late, flake out, try to walk all over you and get more than what was offered. This is why choosing the RIGHT person to work with, and then setting super clear expectations and boundaries backed by a contract is huge.

Select someone that is your ideal client. Not just any person that is breathing, but someone that you would want to work with as a seasoned pro. For photography this can also mean taking aesthetics into account when selecting the people you will work with. If you are working towards shooting a high end clientele who is very fashion forward then doing portfolio building sessions with lovely people who have zero fashion sense and didn’t bother to do their hair isn’t going to work. Likewise, if you want to focus on weddings then shooting babies is going to be a waste of your time, and if you want to photograph newborns then photographing your best friend’s engagement session isn’t really going to move the needle.

Another thing I would build into the agreement is permission to use any images of the final product or result in your advertising and portfolio, and willingness to write you a short testimonial or review providing they are pleased with your performance. This is SO important as it will give you a base to build trust with future clients. They are going to be way more willing to hire you if they know that someone else did and they had a great result.

Honestly, my experience is that MOST people are going to be more than willing to help you along in your journey. Most of us are rooting for each other – but it is still super important to have it all clearly outlined. Imagine being a photographer and offering a free model session to someone, LOVING the work that you deliver and then finding out after the fact that they don’t allow their images to be shared online. Well now that just turned into a pretty big waste of time now didn’t it?

While setting the expectations in your contract you also need to cover EXACTLY what is included, and any fees that would apply should they want something above and beyond this – because yes, you are doing this for free, but that doesn’t meant that there shouldn’t be any opportunity for you to make a bit of money if they want to go above and beyond what is offered. So be sure to outline exactly what is included from time spent to product delivered and everything in between, as well as making pricing clear for any add ons that might be available. You need to be transparent and upfront so that you don’t end up accidentally damaging the trust you are working so hard to build. They need to know precisely what to expect walking in, and be very clear on any potential costs or upgraded.

I also recommend being clear on the fact that this is an experience building or portfolio building offer, and share what your prices will be once this introductory offer has passed. This will let them know what to expect should they refer a friend or come back to you to do more business in future, and take some of the pressure off of you if you don’t know the answer to a question and have to look it up or need to take a look at your reference notes.

Ok so who SHOULD work for free and who shouldn’t?? I’m going to give my opinion but honestly its something that will vary person to person based on hundreds of factors including their willingness, their resources, connects, confidence, etc.

Working for free is great when you are just starting out and need to build a base. That one we have covered.

It is also great in the rare case where the exposure actually IS worth it. Creatives, especially those with service based businesses will get a TON of job offers that say they pay in exposure. 90% of the time this isn’t actually going to benefit you as we can’t feed exposure to our families, but in a case where they have a large, relevant platform and are willing to share your work along with a glowing review – it might be worth your time. Another instance where exposure is worth it is when something will look amazing on your resume or give you a ton of credibility. Taking on an incredible project or working with a high profile person – that is again relevant to your ideal audience, might be worth it.

Another place where it might pay off to work for free is if you are trying to pivot, or are changing who you are looking to work with. It will give you a chance to update your resume or portfolio, as well as help you to network in those circles.

You might also be willing to work for free for a close friend or family member, but I would caution to be careful on that one as it can be a slippery slope… I hear a lot of horror stories from people who have been completely taken advantage by family members (who given the benefit of the doubt probably had no idea of the costs/time involved in their request) and end up feeling resentful and bitter. Be careful there, and again set clear boundaries about what you will and will not do.

Finally, work for free when it supports a cause or mission that you are super passionate about. Let me say that again, it is wonderful to work for free when it is in support of a cause or mission that YOU are super passionate about. YOU. Not your friend, your Mom, or the lady down the street that thinks that you SHOULD care about the cause. YOU. You need to be passionate about it because otherwise it won’t feel uplifting and like a labor of love, it will be annoying, frustrating and make you resentful. Having a business puts you in an amazing position to donate your time and skills to the causes you love though and while it may or may not move the needle on your business, it will feel great.

For instance, 10 years ago I decided to start a Halloween Fundraiser. The basic idea is that I would set up a Halloween set for 4 hours on the last Sunday of October, and parents could bring their kids in costume, along with a donation for the local food bank, and I would provide them with a free printed 4×6 image of their kid.

Over the years this has grown, from a tiny little event in my Mom’s garage, to a huge one hosted by our local Toyota dealership with hundreds of people, about a dozen volunteers, entertainment, food and a TON of donations.

It’s a massive amount of work. Every year as we are prepping for it I wonder if I should stop – but the truth is that it lights me up, I feel amazing after and I am always SO proud of our team and the amount that we raise to support the food bank. It’s worth it to me, and it’s done on my own terms.

It doesn’t make a measurable difference to how many bookings I get in a year, and I definitely don’t make any money on the event – it actually costs quite a bit to run – but it’s worth it, and in times where you get so much personal satisfaction and can help the community, I feel it is completely and totally justified to work for free.

Finally, when SHOULDN’T you work for free? I would say that any time you think about a prospective job and feel in any way negative about it. Annoyed. Frustrated. Undervalued. All of these feelings are a good indicator that this isn’t a good fit and you shouldn’t do it. Know your worth, respect your time and the time that the job will take away from your loved ones and make a decision according to that. Do not get stuck in the trap of feeling like you won’t be able to get work if you are charging – do a few jobs to get your foot in the door and have something to show potential clients and then start standing by your prices. You are worth it, and you do deserve to be paid.

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