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!