Episode 87: The 5 Phases of Growing a Photography Business That Fits Your Life – Part 1

5 Phases of Growing a Photography Business


Photography Business Institute
Photography Business Institute

Balancing a business and a family, while super rewarding, is never easy.

It’s even harder when you have major life changes like a pandemic, a new baby, or for me this year, my youngest child has gone off to college.

On part one of this two part series, I’m sharing the five phases my photography business,Sarah Petty Photography, has gone through over the last two decades and what to pay attention to so you can keep growing into a business that fits your life no matter what your family life currently looks like.

No matter how old your kids are, how many you have, and what phase of life you’re in, this is the perfect time to start your business.

You always hear me talk about family first and I grew my photography business with three babies under three.

Each of these five phases of life brought adjustments because every phase brings totally new challenges.

As my family and my business have grown up together, I’ve had to shift gears many times as a mama and as a business owner.

It’s never really easy, but I do think we get better at it.

The only way to get better at something is to jump in, take action and do it.

So, here are the lessons that I want to share with you. 

Phase 1: Learning How to Put Family First in My Photography Business 

When I had three babies under three, I left my full-time job as a marketing director of an ad agency and knew I wanted to build my photography business.

I loved my job and the people I worked with, but we worked a lot.

And, I loved my twin babies so much more.

I had to figure out how I was going to make money and be the best mom that I can be with this business.

My family life in phase one had to change a little bit.

My business was a baby, too, so it needed love, care, and nurturing.

I didn’t want to be full-time, so I started with two days a week of child care and knew that if I was going to be respected as a professional, I couldn’t reschedule people willy-nilly.

Also, I wanted to stop making $75 per client.

And because of this, I never treated my business like it wasn’t important.

I knew that I had to work harder to be respected because I was young.

I didn’t have the experience yet.

So, I knew that I had to run a really strong business.

When I say put family first, I don’t mean run a sloppy business.

I mean, put your family on the calendar first and put your business on the calendar second and then stick to that schedule.

I was working two to three days a week and went from photographing outside to realizing that living in the midwest means the winters are cold.

So, I got a little cheap light kit and I started photographing in my basement.

But my basement had very low ceilings so it made it super hard.

Luckily, I photographed kids, so it worked.

But then I had the opportunity to rent a little studio space next to a local photo lab.

I had this massive grand opening in August of 2001, two weeks before 9/11.

Yeah, a great time to open a business.

But I knew that I had to get out of my house, because I couldn’t have three babies hanging on me when I was photographing.

I needed that separation.

Phase 2: Getting a Studio and Figuring out the Boutique Model

When I opened that first studio I realized that a boutique business model is the only way to go.

I had to change everything about my business because I was getting referred and I was getting all these clients, but I was so cheap and I wasn’t making any money.

Things still weren’t super smooth at this point, but they were growing.

I was learning lessons and contributing to my family’s income.

Even with my very part-time photography business, I quickly replaced my ad agency income.

I could feel the immediate benefit as the orders kept going up.

They weren’t stable yet, and it took me several years to figure out why.

I learned to be frugal because this was the phase where I had more time, but I didn’t have a lot of money.

My revenue popped over six figures barely about a year after I opened that first studio.

Being by myself, I had to learn some hard lessons, but I struggled along and was determined to figure it out.

When I opened that studio, I increased my prices very significantly and it was nice, because I was finally profitable and I felt that extra money coming in.

The coolest part was when I started attracting right-fit clients who were loving what I was doing.

They were investing in me, gushing on me, and they were referring me to others.

This phase is when I got my first right-fit client, Julie.

She came and invested $1,800. 

This was a time that I made two really pivotal decisions in my business. 

One was to make my 8x10s and smaller the same price.

As a mom, I value my time so much, and I don’t want to leave my kids to photograph someone else’s kids if all they want are a few small prints. 

And the second thing I did was I stopped scheduling clients on nights or weekends.

That was a big change that really has served me greatly.

Even though it was scary, I realized with both of those decisions, they were the best things I could do for my business and for me personally.

If you’re afraid to make some of these hard decisions, stop.

I can teach you that.

But don’t sit in a life that you’re not loving just because you’re afraid to make that change.

You can change your business in any way that you want so that it serves you and your clients.

My family life was getting a little easier at this phase.

My twins were five and started going to kindergarten and Grace was in preschool.

Once they started going to school, it changed my nanny needs, because I only needed child care after school. 

I was figuring out the boutique model and realized I needed to get out of the studio I was in.

So, I packed up, moved to a new studio that was one room.

I realized I needed an employee and this is when I added my first full-time employee.

I was determined that there was money to pay both of us.

Before that, I let the money build up and I’d grab it when I needed it, usually to pay property taxes or pay off Christmas bills.

I was not even in that studio for a year when I moved into another studio that was three times the space.

It wasn’t super expensive, but I stayed there for 10 years.

It was scary, because my rent tripled.

This is where I started dreaming about building a studio building for my husband’s architecture business and me where we would put both of our businesses together in one building.

But we were so busy with three kids and growing the business that we kept it as a dream.

Getting Good At The Business Side 

I think the biggest success strategy for me in stage two was getting good at the business part and understanding the financial part.

I had hired a mentor who was amazing.

She’s retired now, but I credit a lot of my business experience to her.

She taught me how to read my financial statements.

Once you solve one problem in your business, there’s another problem coming.

That’s why I think it’s so important to always have a mentor. 

The Answer to “What’s Next” in Your Photography Business is Always in the Numbers

The numbers showed me how to keep cash flow coming in so I knew I could pay everybody and pay all of the bills.

But they also taught me how to make decisions about if I could grow, if I could hire more employees, or if I could build.

If you are thinking or dreaming about a studio, a retail space, renting, building, buying, and you don’t know your numbers, stop.

You’re going to put a lot of pressure on yourself and potentially jeopardize your family and your security by not knowing the answers.

It wasn’t until halfway through the second studio location when I sat down and I realized that one year, I’d paid my framer $90,000.

And I thought, wow she’s amazing, but I had Andria come in for a job shadow day and I just loved her and wanted to hire her.

She had framing experience and I thought that if I could bring framing in-house, I could actually hire her.

I had to make a hard business decision and end that relationship with my framer, but at the end of the day, I was giving so much of that profit away.

And I hired Andria. 

I wanted $3,000- $5,000 average sales, which we ended up getting because I keep getting amazing clients and serving them so hard.

They just keep ordering more.

In these 10 years of phase 2, I really fine-tuned my serving system.

We always say, “If we serve hard, we sell easy.”

I don’t have to do any pushy, yucky, manipulative things to get my clients to buy these large amounts.

They just love it and they love the process.

We’re creating this artwork for their homes and they love it.

People now are just giving digital files.

So, there is such a tremendous gap between all these competitors.

That was a fun phase. 

You probably noticed, I didn’t cover all phases of growing a photography business that fits into your life this episode, because this topic is deep.

So, I decided to break it into a two-part series.

Be sure to tune in to episode 88 for part two to learn how you can have a photography business that fits into your life, no matter what your family life currently looks like.

Episode 87: The 5 Phases of Growing a Photography Business That Fits Your Life - Part 1
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