Expanding Your Virtual Tour Business Beyond Yourself

Ever see those old Westerns where the town saloon owner is also the postmaster, the sheriff and the mayor?  Ever feel like that's a pretty good picture of you with your business?  You probably started out as a photographer and now, a couple years later you've taken on the title of customer service representative, accountant, secretary, IT expert, purchasing agent, billing department manager, marketing manager etc.  Things are starting to get busy and you're finding that you're all by your lonesome. -- cue the tumbleweed --

For many business owners expanding their business by adding that first employee or contractor is a major stumbling block.  Especially with a virtual tour and real estate photography business, like other technical businesses, the owner tends to be an expert in their technical field but not an expert at business operations.  If you are one of these technical experts in photography and virtual tours, then it's probably going to be difficult for you to withdraw from your area of expertise and relinquish some of the daily photography, photo processing and working with your virtual tour software in order to devote more time to business management and expansion.

Of course there's the catch 22 that hiring somebody requires you to pay them... what a drag, huh?  It's not that we don't want to pay someone, per-se, but especially when you're just struggling to make ends meet, every dollar you pay someone else to do work you normally are able to do is one dollar you don't have to pay the bills. I hope to offer some encouragement toward expansion and some tips that have worked for us in our business.

Before I continue I need to stop to recommend a book that I've probably mentioned before, but if you're reading this article, you'll gain TONS of insight from "The E-myth revisited: why most small businesses don't work and what to do about it" by Michael E. Gerber.  It's my top recommendation for business books to read if you're in the position of being a "one-man-show".  

If you're not convinced that you need anyone else, consider the following:  How many clients can you serve on your own, including taking the photos, creating the virtual tours, answering the phone, invoicing, banking, insurance, customer service and complaints, scheduling, equipment maintenance and more?  How long do you think it will be before you're juggling so much that you start dropping things - forgetting an appointment, an unacceptable delay in delivering the images etc?  How many wildly successful real estate photography and virtual tour companies do you know that are run by only one person?  If your goal is to just do light work and make a little money on the side, then you can certainly do so by yourself.  But if your goal is make a decent sustainable living, you're going to need help.

There WILL be a difficult transition time.  That time where you have too much work for yourself, but not enough work to hire another person.  My best advice for this time is to hire (or contract) somebody NOW.  If you're at this point you need to get ahead of the game.  They're not always easy to find, but craigslist is your friend and there are photographers out there who can work on an "as needed" basis.  College students and freelance photographers are great candidates for this type of work.  

We've had great results with paying a commission for photography and virtual tour work, and an hourly rate for "office work" including photo processing, answering the phone etc.  We pay a higher rate on the commission since a good photographer should be well compensated.  The hourly rate is lower but provides additional income for them and provides a somewhat more steady base pay.  We also pay mileage and various other expenses.

The goal is to use the time that your new employee is creating for you to go out and work ON your business instead of being stuck working IN your business!  Now that you're using that employee to photograph more and more jobs, and do more and more processing, phone answering etc., you can do more to get out and drum up new clients and more business.  You will notice that while the employee is "costing you" money that formerly was your own personal income, they have added even more value by enabling you to serve even more clients than you could have by yourself.  Given time you'll be making more than you ever could have if you didn't hire someone.

We hired our first employee about 2 years into our business.  Now, we have a mix of employees and contractors working in a variety of capacities from full-time to as-needed.  As of the writing of this article we have 6 people on our team who enable us to serve far more clients than my wife and I ever could!  

I welcome your comments and questions!  Any success stories?  Any reservations?  Let's hear it!

Tim



Views: 358

Comment by TourBuzz Support on February 15, 2012 at 11:44am

Tim-

Great post! I know that this issue is relevant to so many of our customers. The transition from a one-man shop to a real business is a challenging one, but the rewards can be great. It helps you go from owning a business that gives you a good job to owning a business that gives you passive income and has EXIT value!

Exit value is such an important consideration for a business like this. It's a huge topic for realtors, too. Think of the situation where a successful 20-year veteran agent wants to retire. If they just hustle to make their living, there isn't much to sell. But if they have marketing programs, employees, etc all set up where they are basically managing a turnkey business, there is a lot of value. So when it's time to retire, do you want to just have to walk away or do you want to get a nice, fat check? 

If you can establish an operating business that would be turnkey for someone else, without much of your involvement, you've created an asset that's valuable on the market.

Looking forward to comments about this topic as it should be of huge interest to everyone.

Alan 

Comment by Carol Grape on February 17, 2012 at 12:19am

Tim,

So, what parts of the business do you hire out, besides additional photographers?

I have contracted out some design jobs, but have yet to hire out photographers or someone to do my bookkeeping. Bookkeeping would actually be one area I would happily give up if I felt it could afford more business.

Carol

Comment by TourBuzz Support on February 17, 2012 at 9:17am

What types of bookeeping issues do you deal with? We do *all* of our bookeeping for 2  businesses in 8 hours a month because we have so much of it automated with tools, including follow-up on past-due stuff, auto de-activation of non-current sites, etc.

I am curious if we can help with that at TourBuzz to improve your efficiency! We do plan on adding integrated invoicing/billing later this year so it's a great time to let us know about your bookkeeping workflow!

Alan

Comment by ryan on February 24, 2012 at 10:48pm

I hired someone to do all of my order taking, scheduling, invoicing, emails,feature sheet design...  and pay on a per tour/job basis.  This leaves it so there are not surprises.  I provide her with a laptop and cell phone with a data package so she can respond form anywhere anytime.  I have also hired 8-10 photographers in different areas that aren't dependent on me for 100% of their income (2 photographers are).  I have trained them all so each of our work is very similar and we can respond within 24hrs to all orders.  This keeps agents VERY happy.  They can have a preference but sometimes you just need to get the job done.

I would suggest a different approach than craigs list.... it's proven a very poor method for us...  you want retired hobbyists that want to get out of the house and enjoy taking pictures... they pay better attention to detail and take more time on the jobs when needed.  The big bonus is that they get to buy more toys and make money doing what they enjoy.  I'd recommend a camera club or local photography shops... ask around and you will find.  The bonus is you can now take a break and go on vacation!!!

Oh and yes Alan we have a book keeper as well that is quite costly and a streamlined system with bank and quickbooks integration...  and invoicing that auto sends to clients when unpaid... and lets them pay through paypal online would be ideal....   throw a custom fee based system for us to pay and track photographers and we could trim a several thousand dollars a year from our operating costs.

Comment by Alan Pinstein on February 25, 2012 at 8:30am

Great advice Ryan. 

Thanks for the info about bookkeeping. We look forward to being able to solve this problem for everyone in the future. 

Comment by Sarah Vander Heide on March 1, 2012 at 8:37am

Finding this article could not have come at a better time! I am very much here in my business. I not only do Real Estate photography but also children's and family portraiture. I love both! At this time I am struggling and trying to wrap my head around either bringing in my husband to help and do virtual tours or higher someone else from the outside. I have so many questions and really need a firm plan (not very much of a risk taker). So Tim, was it easy for you to bring in your wife? Was that your first step? I feel the best laid plan at this point would be to bring in someone who could bring in more revenue not an additional cost center (accounting, work etc). What are your thoughts? I do know the direction I would like to go in and that is to run a turn key business where we can go away, enjoy life and not worry that my business is halted and not bringing in revenue.

Comment by TourBuzz Fellow on March 1, 2012 at 5:20pm

@Carol We hire or contract photographers, but keep the final processing and final release in-house... a quality control, if you will.  We'll train the photographers in our style of shooting, and work with them until it meets up with the way we like to see things, but will always make final adjustments to the photos in our office before releasing them to the client to add consistency.  

We also hire out payroll and end-of-year taxes.  We do all our bookkeeping in Quickbooks.  Lindsey, my wife, handles most of that, although I will occasionally get in there and mess things up. :P

We also hire our a lot of the office work (answering the phone, emailing clients, building tours, scheduling, bidding jobs for our aerial work etc.).   Mike does most of that and doubles as an awesome photographer.  He's a huge asset to our business.

@Ryan Thanks for the feedback!  Good idea with the local photography club.  I'll say we've had good luck with Craigslist but only because we weed out and lot and interview... might be a time saver to go with your suggestion.  We're working now on an online ordering option... ugh. :)

@Sarah My wife and started the business together.  At first we were both running it and I held a full time job with an airline.  Eventually we grew enough to where it was uncomfortable to leave my full-time job but a necessary step.  With more hours to devote to it the business grew.  Lindsey now mostly handles the books and occasionally photographs when needed... but we have kiddos and a household she's mostly busy with now!  

If you don't do anything else, pickup a copy of "The E-Myth Revisited" by Michael Gerber.  That is the ideal read for where you are right now and has helped me immensely.  Our first employee was really the big step.  We were nervous about giving up income but it paid off. To be honest it freed me up to go get more business and we not only made up for what were paying our first employee, but made more profit because of him.  Remember that you need to be at the point where you can be working ON your business, not IN it.  A little bit of working IN your business is ok, but shouldn't be the rule or else you'll be chained to it and will never be able to grow beyond your own 24 hours in a day.

Tim

Comment by Pat B on March 3, 2012 at 11:22am

This is a great post.  I thought I would be going back to work full-time and started training someone (a retired guy that does outdoor photography) a couple of months ago.  I pay him for each hour we're at a house.  Alas, I did not get any of the jobs I interviewed for, so decided to build up our business.  I decided to keep my assistant because when it ramps up in the spring I can do more vts in one day and on off-peak times I will have more time to build the business i.e. learn video editing etc.  It is a long haul training someone, because as you know real estate photography is completely different from other photography (as my assistant can attest), but I'm hoping that the money that I pay him now I will reap in the long run.  I also hope to eventually add someone to do post processing (I am so slowwwww), but this is where it is difficult to give up the reigns. 

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