Setting Up Your Photography Business to Run on Auto Pilot

In 2004 I left to raft the Grand Canyon for a third time and would be gone 5 weeks. That included a week to get there and get prepped, 3 weeks of rafting (21 day private permit), and a week to pack up and get back.

At that time, my business had been scaled back a few years earlier when I had sold my small boutique stock photo agency to another agency that was soon acquired by Getty.

Gone were my two employees and a lot of the headaches and hassles that go with a staffed business. It was now just the three of us: me, myself, and I, to run my business.

As my Grand Canyon departure time neared I spent considerable time contemplating whether or not to close the doors for a month or find someone and train them to handle the office for during my absence.

Since business had been really slow at that time, I decided to just close the doors and hope I did not miss too much business. I re-recorded my phone greeting with a message stating I was out for a month and “sorry I missed your call.”

A month later as we climbed out of the depths of the Grand Canyon I headed to the first pay phone and listened to my answering machine messages. While there were not an overwhelming number of missed opportunities, there were several calls from major magazines wanting to use some stock and one in particular called 3 times.

I immediately called her back from the pay phone and left a message apologizing with a short explanation of where I had been. She never returned my call!

While that missed sale was not a massive amount of money, the publication credit on top of the money would have been sweet. More importantly, I could have established a relationship with that client that might have been long and fruitful.

In the end I learned a lesson and swore I would always have someone handle my office during long absences. But that was almost 10 years ago and things have changed substantially.

Think Auto Pilot

There are many tools available today that allow you to run your office on autopilot and not miss sales when you are off somewhere else. How you set this up depends on where you make your money. Of course you need to have a plan and what you choose to automate or place on ‘auto pilot mode’ needs to be a product suitable for that sales model.

I think of all the income generating aspects of my business in the past and present and can divide it into two areas: services (assignments) and products. Shooting assignments requires you to be present making that part of your business hard to put in auto pilot.

Your absence could be handled by a colleague you trust to do the assignment. I have relationships with several friends and we fill in for each other from time to time. If you plan an extended absence however, your client could eventually become your friend’s client, so this arrangement seems best when you are only away briefly.

Products and Services

Everything else falls into products and this for many photographers is how they earn their living. Products can be everything from workshops to eBooks, stock photos, and fine art prints and are easy to turn on auto pilot and have them make money without much involvement on your part. Workshops, which require your involvement to teach, can use an automated registration and payment system well in advance of the workshop.

The internet is a dream come true for making stock photography sales without effort on your part. The online model can be completely run on auto pilot leaving you free to be elsewhere. Sites like Photoshelter allow you to store your images, set prices, and make automated stock photo sales at any time. The only Con is that images generally are licensed with a one price fits all model and that removes the ‘negotiating based on usage’ approach.

Print sales are also a product that can be put on auto pilot, earning money at any time. Many photographers choose to set up online sales for the fine art or wedding business and it is simple to do as well. There are more online sites than I could list here who provide printing, framing, and shipping, but a few are Zazzle and Shutterfly. Create a store on your own website and orders are placed, printed, and shipped to your customers-all while you are out and about.

eBooks have become a part of many photographers businesses and putting your eBook business on auto pilot is easy as can be. eJunkie is all setup to handle all this for you by taking the order, processing the payment, and sending download links to the buyer. They provide the code for ‘buy now’ buttons and you can start selling for $5 a month. Clearly writing the book is the bigger challenge.

The Virtual Office

If you are in the workshop business getting signups without you being in the office answering calls is easy as well. PayPal is becoming the go-to service for online purchases and you can set up a Buy Now button on your website within minutes. Your workshop registrants can easily find the workshop of their choice, click the Buy Now button, and register freeing you from handling the transaction.

Voice Mail is a no brainer! Everybody’s got it. But voice mail is only valuable to your business if the calls are returned and this depends on whether you can get your messages easily or are incommunicado. Commercial clients, workshop participants, and others won’t wait long for an answer. Here however, it depends on what the question is related to. Many online businesses run without any phone contact and do everything by email.

You can easily setup an email auto responder to answer general questions and also send an automated reply to buyers following completion of a transaction. That reply should contain everything the buyer might want to ask, like hotels and meeting times for workshops, or how to download the ebook. Many popular email services provide auto responders.

Setting up your business in an automated manner is not difficult, but it serves no purpose without clients and a marketing plan to attract them. You should always be building an email list and promoting to that list and it is easy to put that task on auto pilot as well. The same email programs can send your email campaigns at predetermined times and as many as you want to send.

And while every business should be blogging to add the personal flavor to their products and services, this needs to happen regularly as well. Most blogging platforms allow posts to be scheduled on any day at any time and well in advance making this marketing approach easy to run on auto pilot.

Fortunately in our very crowded environment of professional photography, we have  many tools to automate tasks that earn us money with little to no involvement and you could say that these days; any money if good money!

If you have any thoughts please leave a comment.

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