Monday, February 28, 2011

Sussing out your competitors

Another major part of writing your business plan is researching your competitors. One of the sources I used the most was, of course, the internet. Now there are other places to look, such as business directories etc, but my way of thinking is how do I find who is most visible?

If your competitors don't have a web presence, whether it's personal sites, gallery sites (for artists), online shops, Facebook or even listings in web directories, how much competition are they going to be, really? Now many companies tend to find clients and operate mainly by word of mouth, but they still need some form of advertising to the uninitiated if they are going to grow. Companies that want to reach out and connect are are going to be competing more directly with you than anyone else.

When you go on their sites, you can see if they have direct financial info such as pricing, which is certainly beneficial to help you set your own and see what market rates are. Even if they don't have that, you can see what products they offer. What might be even more valuable data though, is how they are marketing it. What is their website like, are they blogging, on Twitter or Facebook, do they do a newsletter? Besides giving you ideas for your own marketing, these sources can give you an idea of their reach and help you determine whether they are likely to be much direct competition and who their target market is.

A good example, which applies particularly to me, is portrait photographers. Now, I am going for an unusual concept with a pretty unique product, which rather limits my direct competition. But research on more mainstream photographers is still useful. By checking out the people in my area, as well as provincially, nationally and internationally, I was able to get an idea of common products on offer such as the standard photo studio products and how people are trying to innovate in that. This gave me points to show how I was doing something very different and examples to share.

I was able to see if anyone was doing something somewhat similar (of which there were few) which helps define my unique marketing features. It also helped with pricing as I could see what the market rates were and the ranges people were charging, based on service and product variations. By paying attention to the copy on their sites and blogs etc, I could see who their intended market was and how they were trying to reach them and tailor their messages. This let me eliminate them as direct competition and it can help you define your unique niche.

In my case, given I was trying to do things differently, I also tried to look at who would be possible alternatives for competition. Portrait artists in other mediums such as painting are an example. Fine art photographers who weren't doing portraiture were also looked at.  Artists and professional organizations, business articles, marketing reports and business websites mentioning art in particular were also useful sources of information. 

By being a little creative and trying to find tangential data, I was able to get more info to support a business plan for a non standard business idea, which is something to really look at doing to for your own business.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Where to find info for your business plan

Working on a business plan is hard work. There is simply no getting around that. You can find a ton of resources online on how to do a business plan, what kind of information you need etc. But one area these leave things a little wanting tends to be exactly where do you find that information.

I've had to do the basics of a business plan as I've been applying for the small business entrepreneur program through EI. While I have yet to succeed in my applications, it has not been from my business plan in general. Instead its been due to attempting to innovate and create a niche which means data is very scare on the ground, and not having enough to convince the review panels that my idea is economically viable.

I expect I'm not the only person who has run into this so I thought, as I posted before, that I'd share some of what I've learned.

Finding your data: Sources to look are the Canadian Census and provincial and even municipal data. For example, the BC government has the BC stats page which includes links for census data and a variety of statistics.  Metro Vancouver publishes a housing data book (pdf) which has income per household info. Why would you want this? One large part of your business plan is determining your customer profile, their incomes, age, location etc.

Proving economic viability: This one is a little tougher. If you are selling widgets, you can certainly get potential buyers to provide you with letters of intent for sales. When you are selling something art based though, or something new to the market, that doesn't tend to be so easy. What you can do though is what I would call more a letter of possibility. Interview several people who could be in your target market and if they like your idea, ask them to write a letter stating that if they were in the market you what you are selling, they would definitely look at getting it from you. You may even get a surprise and they'll write you something that says when, not if, and that they will get it from you. Of course, best yet would be make a couple of sales.

When it comes to your business plan, the more info you can gather, the happier the reviewer is going to be and the better chance of success.

Friday, February 4, 2011

How is working on spec any different than working for free?

Or in other words, how else can a small business owner save money while supporting other creative professionals?

Where is this coming from you might ask? Well, I saw a tweet posted by a very influential photographer encouraging other photographers to use He advocates a service that unfortunately is part of the ongoing problem with low pay for creatives based on people being willing to work for free. That's what spec work is. In particular, with a site like this, and it's not the only one by far, they hold "contests" for design work such as a logo, and if your design is chosen by the person wanting a logo, then and only then, will you get paid for your work. And to top it all off, "prizes" are generally less than industry rates.

I find it very ironic that a photographer or other creative professional would support such shenanigans given the same problems in the photographic industry. How often do you see posts and articles bemoaning the ongoing lowering of the bar for rates due to all the would be photographers who will work for free or very little pay for "experience" or "exposure"? Its a problem that has become even more pervasive with the easy access to professional level gear.

The only way out though is education. We need to teach photographers and other creative professionals to value their time and each others'. We need to teach our clients to value our work and pay what we're worth. And those clients may be us! That means charge industry rates yourself. And pay each other industry rates. Find someone who will do the work you need and skip the spec stuff. There is a range of prices in every industry that hovers around an average. You should be able to find someone you can afford. If you think you can't have you looked at other options than straight cash? Contra deals, or barter of services in other words. Saving up a little longer to afford the one you really want to work with. Will your designer or whatever take multiple payments? How about some creative fund raising like After all, the money you spend on marketing your business is the best money you'll spend and why would you cheap out? You wouldn't on your gear when it counts.

And don't forget, if you don't want to work for free, why should anyone else?

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Why bromoil?

I'd like to tell you a story. About why I love to do bromoils. I had a wonderful chance to see a fantastic exhibit of pictorialist photography here in Vancouver, a couple of years ago. It was the TruthBeauty exhibit at the Vancouver Art Gallery. Pictorialist photographs from about 1835 to 1945 were on show and they were fascinating. The premise of the pictorialists was to use photography to create art, not simply record what they saw realistically, but what they envisioned. Many different printing processes, now called alternative processes, were used to produce fantastic works of art. I fell in love. The images, the visions expressed, the interesting printing methods, all spoke to me of what photography could be. And in our digital age, so much of photography ends up seeming the same in the end, an exact as possible realistic rendering that all blends together after you've seen so many.

One process in particular stood out for me. Bromoil printing. I had to find more out about it. To give the short answer, bromoil involves bleaching a black and white print, and then stippling on layer after layer of ink to bring it back. You can achieve a wonderful etching like quality to a print that has a luminous depth or even a highly photographic style rendering, depending on your technique. It offers a great deal of control over your print, creative freedom in producing your print, and the satisfaction that comes of handcrafting something beautiful.

I love the unique look of a bromoil print. For me, the prints have a different feel to them. They produce an emotional response beyond just the subject matter. I love the historical connection. I am using a process that is over a hundred years old. My teacher learned from masters of the process and there is this long unbroken line of learning stretching back into the past. Also, wonderful historic processes used with modern photography allow us to connect directly with the past, something that is lost so often in our high tech digital world. 

Crafting your photograph in general, directly making the print by hand is a tie to the past that digital technology has robbed us of. Creating images this way allows us to appreciate the beauty of something handcrafted, another castoff from our mechanized age. And the rarity these days of these processes, of handcrafted works of art in general, especially with photography, allow us to create something that truly is unique.

If you'd like to see some prints, I've posted some of my images earlier. This is the link