12.23.2021

2021. The business recap. From a "business indifferent" point of view.


 The last two years have transformed my idea of the photography business. I've found that the earth didn't stop spinning on its axis just because clients went into hibernation and stopped calling. In 2019 we did somewhere north of 60 projects in the year. Some big, some small. It was a rough year in part because I lost my father and became (once again) the executor of an estate. I don't know how many of you have been executors for your parent's estates but it sure felt like a full time job for me, for months, even though I had the assistance of a good attorney and a very patient CPA. Cleaning out houses of 40+ years of accumulated memories and the souvenirs of such is exhausting. The part of my life that suffered by the end of the year was my grasp on my own business. I just seemed to have run out of steam.

The effects of 2020 still linger with great strength. My business income dropped by 70-80 % and my "free time" increased by 70-80%. Even if I'd been aggressive in my marketing there were few people left in the offices at which to aim my messages. And even fewer who would be willing to take the risk of doing a face to face photoshoot. By the end of 2020 I was mostly doing pro bono work for a couple of charities and trying to figure out a path for 2021. 

If I was to plot out the business in 2021 on a timeline it would feature a lot of flat lines with occasional sharp peaks representing big projects. I did several projects for medical test equipment manufacturer, Luminex, a large project for Samsung, several projects for Infinitum Electric, the Texas Wine Project and, again, a lot of pro bono work for charities. 

We were starting to feel optimistic about our chances of making money again in late Spring when vaccines became widely available. Hopes were dashed by Delta. Then we started seeing infection and death numbers dropping in our area and hopes rose again only to be once more squashed by the arrival of the Omicron variant. We just could not catch a break this year.

2021 is on track to be the worst year, financially, for my business ever. Hard stop. EVER. If I factor in all the fees, expenses and valid business purchases spent over the course of the year I come up with a negative profit. And that's the first time since I started the business back in the 1980s. Even at the depths of the 2008-2009 recession or the 2001-2002 recessions things were not as bleak. 

If there was ever an example to share with people just starting out their businesses of why it's important to have a year's worth of expense money saved up and standing by for a "rainy year" this is certainly it. Had this big of a financial hit occurred in the early part of my career I would, no doubt, have cast aside my aspirations and found "safe" job with a regular pay check.

But what I learned all over again in 2021 was the power of saying "No." To bad jobs and bad clients. Somewhere in my brain a switch got thrown which switched my thought processes from "survival mode" to "we've got enough to now be picky." It's a process for me. I can't just look at spread sheets and convince myself that everything's going to be okay. I have to live the experience for a while to let it sink in; to give it time to transform my thought processes.

This was the first year I can remember where I turned down more marginal work than the total number of jobs I actually accepted. I also said "no" frequently when clients tried their best to do some "job creep" maneuvers. 

Am I jaded and soured on the profession of photography? No. Not at all. I think businesses will rush back as soon as we, as a culture, figure out how we're going to handle an endemic. There will be lots of "making up for lost time." We photographers will have to remind ourselves that we shut down our marketing during the lockdowns, and the days, weeks and months of uncertainty, and that if we want to reap the rewards of a recovering market we'll need to ignite and accelerate our marketing and outreach. 

I suspect that we're in for a few more months of rocky roads and bumpy detours but I also predict that the second half of 2022 will be a period of enormous business growth --- for those who are well positioned to take advantage of the demand.

Is it all doom and gloom over here at the VSL World Headquarters? Not at all. We did a lot of stuff right. Over the years we invested most of our retirement money outside this business. The business always generated the cash flow but B did her best to direct the proceeds away from adventurous investments in crackpot photography schemes. And she's been a good and strict steward when it comes to expenses and overhead. (Excepting a few camera purchases here and there.....).

We spent time and sweat on projects to fix up the house and enjoy it. The value of houses in our area, while already high, escalated by nearly 50% I the last two years. (Bright spot for sellers, gloom and doom for buyers). I've read so many books this year that I just have to be at least 25% smarter than I was when everything started to go to hell. I've continued to meet nice people on the blog. I've watched my kid make a successful launch into a professional career. And, the pool has been open for the entire year for masters swimming. I've succeeded in not ceding any of my 2019 performance metrics in the water, even though I am now two years older and covered by Medicare. Strangely, I have more money in my accounts, overall, than I did at the start of the pandemic and I still have both my health and my wonderful marriage. How could I not count 2021 as an qualified success? 

So, what will we do going forward? I think we'll try to attain some sort of equilibrium between work and non-work life. I still have fun firing up the cameras and lights and making photographs (and even video, if push comes to shove). And I like the push that working for clients provides. Gets you out of bed and out of the house.  I'd be happy to continue projects that are longer form and more self-directed and I'm sure I can make that happen if I pay attention to marketing that way. But always, in the back of my mind, will be the realization that I consistently have the power to say "no" to bad jobs, bad clients and bad terms. 

It's an amazing superpower for a business owner. Disconnecting the work from need is ultimately powerful for anyone in a creative enterprise. It just takes practice to get comfortable with it. 

When we were out walking yesterday I suggested to B that I thought I might not buy any cameras in 2022. My rationale being that there were so many fewer projects and I already had plenty of great tools at my disposal. She laughed and suggested that she get on the blog and create a pool. She'd take bets from my readers on just how quickly that idea of "no cameras in 2022" would fall apart. 

I laughed at my own presumption and then negotiated a truce, and a vague approval that maybe one (or two?) cameras per year might be fine... A pool? I can't possible be that egregious can I?