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Building a photography business - is it a lottery?

The other day I asked if anyone had been invited to become a 'Google trusted photographer' and had some interesting replies, both here and on several forums. One comment from +Lee Lloyd made me think about just how much some people trust to luck when setting out to become a photographer. Suffice to say I'd rather stack the deck, through a bit of good old business planning ;-)
Fulco Tuynman's profile photoDawn Yılmaz's profile photoYvon Robert's profile photoBrian Larned's profile photo
To me the interesting question is where does people following the Lottery Model, leave those following the Traditional Model? I've given it some thought, but not thought about it overly much, since photography is just part of what I do, not the primary focus of my business.

Off the top of my head though, it seems like if your business is focused on very specific types of photography, where the subject is, either for proprietary reasons, or physical limitations, not readily available for view by the general public, then the Lottery Model has little potential to change how you do business. Things like product photography, portraiture, technical/industrial, and other types of photography requiring access to private resources, don't seem like they would be that conducive to the Lottery Model. For example, for years I took pictures of clean room equipment, for manufacturers of said equipment. It was actually a huge ordeal, just to get the camera equipment in the clean room in the first place, because many measures had to be taken to make sure it did not contaminate the environment. Even then, you were taking pictures of things covered under strict NDA and trade secret agreements, so the pictures couldn't be widely distributed, even once they were taken. I can't see the Lottery Model making much of a change to that model.

On the other hand, for landscape, stock, news, and editorial fashion/style photographers, it would seem like the Lottery Model would be totally devastating. But I would really love to hear from people who's entire business relies on photography, since I'm sure they have put more thought into it.
What info can you share about being an official Google photog? I have thousands of photos of Colorado, all pro, and most of them geo-tagged. I'd love to have them submitted for review.
+Lee Lloyd You've certainly covered areas I work in (my photography business is my only job) - quite a few of my best images are not ones I can use for a few years yet (I retain copyright, but will license for a period of exclusivity)

Landscape is an area that I cover, but almost as a hobby (aka business promotion), following from my architectural work. It is very difficult to make a living from anyway. Stock/news/editorial are areas I don't tend to cover - the nearest would be some shots of a conference I covered this afternoon.
Great article Keith! As ironic as it is, I found your article and G+ because of PhotoZZ. That is a heck of a read.
Thanks +John De Bord - I've no problem with using parts of the 'lottery model' for some speculative/promotional activity, it's just I try and remember that I do have a real business with bills to be paid ;-)
I love the concept of Google photos for Business and the potential exposure a photographer might get from appearing in Google Places. Not to mention the opportunity to up-sell the business on new photographic material for their website and promotional material. It is not clear however, does Google stream work requests to the photographer or would the photographer have to go knocking door to door to get any business? The special equipment and loss of rights are both non-starters of course. I am just curious what Google's business model is here. I am guessing that a business would not be able to upload their own photographs. There may be another business opportunity for photographers to sell interior shots and panoramas for use on the business's website without Google involvement.
+Donald Farmer There are indeed 'upselling' opportunities but I'd note that you are starting from a low base. The concept I often hear (from some photographers as well as some would-be clients) that going for some low-price introductory work will get you more later at realistic prices, misses the fact that any increase in price will likely be seen as a price hike, rather than a return to 'normal' prices.

I'm always more wary of any work enquiry that's only interested in price - if a client is picking you on price, then they will as likely drop you on price, in the future, when another raft of 'new' photographers are trying to get work by being cheap, and you have finally worked out the numbers that give you your real costs and profitability (either that or you've gone back to a 'real job' ;-) BTW I wrote another short note on 'What to charge' a while ago

Google is being very coy about just what you have to do, and makes people sign Non Disclosure Agreements (NDAs) about the scheme. However a bit of judicious searching allows you to piece together some details...

When I looked at (what were suggested as) the actual requirements, they include prescribed kit, that I'd never choose, and doesn't allow any substitutions, I was even more sure I didn't want to have anything to do with it.

The concept of spending several thousand on specific items, such as the 2 consumer level Canon EOS DSLRs, the sigma fisheye lens and some arbitrary tripod head, seems almost like an advertisement for people with some money spare to sign up and get an instruction manual to become a 'pro' photographer.

The manual details every step of the process, right from where to start outside of the place, through to shots in the doorway and on into the interior. The exact format of shots is specified, along with all the other stuff you need to do, such as processing them and eventual upload.

Oh, and I have a perfectly good iPhone too, but Google would want me to have an Android phone for their 'trusted photographer' business app. This app is a way of getting some suggested businesses to visit from Google and of recording details of your own visits to prospective customers (no doubt for Google's marketing team to subsequently visit) - there would be a lot of cold calling required if you wanted to make a go of it.

Google seem to think that you can do 2-3 shops in a day - good luck in achieving that level of business in towns in the UK, in the current climate, even if you are only charging enough to cover your shoe leather.

IMHO Google are setting up a franchise business model - just like Marge and the pretzels (any connection to the 'help' that Homer got for her, is purely coincidental)
+Keith Cooper Nice read thanks for the link. A good part of photography is the art and not all artists are created equal. It is true even in my own field, software development. So I agree with you that bargain hunters will choose price over quality so a quality pitch is probably wasted on them. The more I read about the G business model for this the more I see it as a fail.
Very nice article & I enjoyed reading it so much. You just pinpointed the problems of people "dreaming" of winning the lottery in social networks. :) & there's even some celebrity "sn" photogs teaching people how to win the lottery, claiming that the traditional approach is dead! How great is that, hahaha...

Hahaha... now even photography got a franchise model. Only Google!! :D
Excellent article. Giving up moral rights (and other rights) is exactly what is trying to fight. I'm not affiliated with them in any way, but I think they perform a good service (clumsy url notwithstanding). I feel the same way as you, and check the small print before entering any competition for the same rights grabbing. For a company with a motto of "Don't do evil", Google certainly seems to find ways to do just that.
The head that the "trusted Photographer"s are using is a 360Precision Atome . No one is taking out the nadir they are real sloppy photos look down in the photo you can see the tripod legs. 
I have been shooting 360s for almost 12 years I am a little surprised the some people are shooting 8 to 10 360 for as little as $300.00 , though not everyone does. 
+Shawn Moore The Google business seems very much aimed at those looking to get into photography as a business. i.e. spend this much, take a while practising in your house and off you go... ;-)

Since first posting this I've been contacted again, and the requirements have not changed much, nor my lack of desire to sign up ;-)
Based on the terms & conditions alone, I chose not to move any further along in the process. One gives up every right in order to put the big G on your business card or website. I cannot see how any of the online training is going to make up for what people are going to need more then even their photography ability, that of going out and building a book of business through sales. I have 30 years of sale experience & have trained hundreds of sales people. The biggest fear most people have is looking business & asking for the sale. These are professional sales people, I can't imagine how someone that is used to referral based business, based on professional quality photography will survive. You are also correct on the equipment. I have shot for several years in both film & now digital. They want a pro setup on part of it and crap on the other side. You are better off going out and selling yourself and your stills and staying professional, or go do it for free for non profit groups. At least you keep your rights.
Evolve or get lost in the shuffle.

My Google offer came today too. As the self taught newbie, the old guys hate, I say screw the bs and go for it. You can go to my website and see if I am sub-par. <insert dusting shoulder off> <insert cocky grin>

First of all, what pro photographer doesn't have half that stuff sitting around? And it rents uber cheap. D7000 is $64 bucks for 3 days.

I have all, but the Sigma (I favor Nikon brand lenses) which rents for 3 Days for $35.00.

Don't know about you, but there are 650 photographers in the group where I live all vying for the same business.

That's just in my group. Not counting all the others scattered though the area. 1/2 are highly talented. About 25 are award-winning mega talents... and I am in Richmond, VA.

 About 3 years ago, I used to work for a well known portrait studio and watched a 70 years business get chipped away to nothing, on the old model of selling prints.

5 locations down to 1. From a full staff, down to one person. One person part time to praying to keep the doors open and two owners who really wanted to retire and had to put it off  ...and they did AMAZING work. Shot Lionel Richie, a ton of other celebrities and at the White House. That good.

Anyone hanging on to the selling pricey prints for individuals business model, it's over, I am sorry for your loss. You may still get the computer illiterate, but after the next generation gets older what next?

My daughter is 14 and some of her school friends have better gear than me. Haha, someone is going to say it's the person behind the camera right. Try this ask a 14 year old to do anything, bet they give you a run for your money. They learn on Macs, with html and flash programming as a part of the curriculum. Cameras and taking photos especially for facebook is what they do. Naturally.

As far as Rights... unless you are shooting for a huge company and doing an editorial/highly stylized shoot... I am talking about breaking out the medium formats, Mamiya's / Phase One gear, Hasslebladd's then what are you going on about?

Get your money up front and on to the next thing. Small businesses are struggling right now. They are the volume the individuals used to be. Save the rights for your luxury/corporate accounts. They want it and they have money to burn. 

A shoot for advertising and a shoot for Google are two distinctly different things. Ad photography encompasses models, muahs, stylists etc... That's why they pay top dollar. That's why they want exclusivity. Those are not the same kind of shots you would produce for Google. It's clearly two different sales. Google opens the door for additional sales, you would never get.

What amazes me is how many people will spend a ton of money on associations, but think this isn't a solid investment. LMAO!

Aside from photography I also build websites and gear my sales towards media for the web. Basically all I hear from my existing clients is make me hot on Google.

Google's name carries weight with businesses. Your sales will skyrocket on that alone. There are a million reason not to do something. 

If sales are not your thing, it's not going to work. Other than that, it's a win-win. Opens doors like crazy.
Other than rights management, I guess I'd agree with many of your assertions.

Adapt and evolve your business to work.

However, from my own business point of view (in the UK) the Google offer still sucks big time... YMMV
+Dawn Yılmaz I'm curious how you think the Google deal opens doors? I don't mean that in a general sense. I mean specifically, how do you think walking in, taking panoramas on low-spec equipment, exactly how Goole tells you to, and then walking out, will encourage a business to hire you for future work? I don't really see how it opens any more doors than cold calling, or just walking into the business and pitching yourself would.

There certainly isn't any chance to come in, and show how talented and competent you are. You might as well just be a homeless person wearing one of those Google backpacks with a cluster of cameras on it, for all the creative freedom you have on one of these shoots. The business owner wants his business on Google, and you are the guy they sent to take the pictures, just like when he wants his windows washed, he calls the window washing company, and they send a guy to do that. I don't see how that relationship develops into you having a great new client, you never would have picked up cold calling. People aren't running out to buy whatever car Google is using for their Street View vehicles, just because they saw a Google camera on it. All talk about updating your business model is irrelevant, because in this particular arrangement, you are just like the Google car, a delivery system for Google's image acquisition machine.

If anything, I would think that this particular "opportunity," would devalue you in the eyes of potential clients. Just showing up with a camera, and talking to the business owner, doesn't get you the contract. I've been doing video/photography/graphics professionally, for a little over 25 years, and in that entire time, I have never once lost a client, because they asked the guy who installed their video surveillance system to shoot their next TV commercial! Doing these Google shoots, I'm not convinced you are much better than the guy installing those security cameras, in the eye of the business owner.
What's wrong with being a cable installer? Why so condescending? You think the guy that runs cable can't produce a TV Show? <insert maniacal laugh="Mu-ha-ha">.

This may shock, but (Today's cool fact: Dawn installed CAT5 and CAT6 cable for Verizon and Direct TV) I will be shooting at Vogue Fashion Night Out this Sept in LA. Not too shabby.

On the 6th, red carpet... stop by and say hi if you'll be there too. <insert wink>

If you can't see the value in it - don't do it. I'm not going to sell you on it. Sales is sales, it's a softer angle, then a cold call, so higher ROI on time invested is a given.

The Google product is just that - a product, not intended to replace all of your advertising shoots.

If you want to know if it's advantageous ask YOUR clients, not other pros. I did, mine overwhelmingly said yes.

I did my own due diligence, read the entire training section and terms, and it's a win-win for me. (Today's 2nd cool fact: Dawn worked one year in Hedge Fund futures running PerTrac Analytics - yay for her!). 

However, I am in the US, the UK market is very, very  different, in terms of media, so I cannot speak to that. Also the Google's terms probably vary by country. With that in mind...

Be glad I don't live near you cause I talk a mean game, I'd be glad to take some of your clients while installing cable. <insert super cocky and charmingly wicked grin>

By the way, I was a homeless kid too... lmao, too funny. I couldn't have afforded the Google bookbag, back then...<insert sad reflection on life facial expression>

I am diverse, fresh and different and people love it. They resonate with my story. Hey 99% is popular right now... or haven't you heard?

How can you sell to a crowd you look down on anyway? 

If you are super established, and making plenty of money - 6 figures or better, with all top tier clients, the Google deal is not for you.

But if you shoot weddings, SMALL business and live in a medium to small town, until you get to the big corporate  clients - you gotta eat. ;)
Well +Dawn Yılmaz , these days my clients ARE other pros. I do contract work for creative teams and studios than need my specific skills. However, back when I was doing work for general clients, the contracts were typically awarded based on a process that would take weeks, or even months, of competing firms making pitches, and vying for contracts to get their foot in the door for seven (not six) figure work.

That might be why I seem a little condescending. It is all well and good to throw around comments about dying business models and having to change with the times, when you are hoping to get a gig shooting the headers for the local book store's webpage in a tertiary market, but that all goes out the window when you are preparing your presentation to a VP of a Fortune 500 company.

Those big contracts, which I assure you, will always be the bread and butter of creative professionals, don't go to the person with the most Facebook friends, or the coolest attitude. They go to the company with the most proven results in the specific type of project being bid on. Your plucky story, and referring to yourself in the third person, might play great in the interview for a job at the firm that gets the multi-million-dollar contract with that big company, but it gets you zero play trying to bid against the company who gets the multi-million-dollar contract. The entire social media lottery model, is flawed at its core, because it assumes that businesses care how many twitter followers you have, or for that matter, care about you at all. They don't. They care about the product. If they want to pay for a photographer with attitude, they will have their ad agency hire Annie Leibovitz, and the agency will still make more money off the contract than Leibovitz will. If they want twitter followers, they'll have their ad agency to hire Lady Gaga, and the agency will still make more off the contract than Gaga.

The biggest flaw in the lottery model, is that it is based on a flawed perception of how the world works, and where the real money is. There are only a small handful of celebrity photographers out there, making a million a year or more in revenue. On the other hand, there are thousands of creative service bureaus, sometimes with as few as two or three full-time employees, making that same revenue. Most photographic studios are doing well if they bring in $250,000 a year, and of that, very little is profit. With basically the same overhead, a company doing B2B corporate communications, might make that much on a single contract for a few months of work. If it is your goal to make a living off your creative talents, you are doing yourself a huge disservice, chasing the dream of doing anything you can to get exposure, in hopes of being the next big famous photographer. Even if you 'make it,' which you almost certainly won't, since there are millions of other people trying to 'make it' too, you will probably see less reward than you would have putting that time and energy into the "tired old business model" of building a core competency in an established market, and trying to build a reputation as a solid performer in your field.

It isn't sexy, or fun, and you can't do it sitting at your computer, chatting with your friends, but it is the cold hard reality of how the world works.
Why not look at it like this?:
 i offer virtual tours and interior stills to my clients, those are for their sites and prints. By becoming a trusted photographer, i can now also offer my past and future clients to upload their stuff on this website owned by google. and charge .... extra for that.
of course it has to be according googles terms, but that should not be impossible.
Lee! You are tripping. Get a grip. I have a few celebrity clients and an agent who was a former music producer. Why the heck would I sit around in meetings? You are so one dimensional. If it isn't sexy or fun why do you bother? 
By yourself, you can offer all these same photos & better customer
services, with better equipment. Join a BNI chapter, start working
referrals, shoot nice work & give your clients great customer service. I
have worked on several of Google's marketing programs, they change daily,
learn Google place page, build that & tie it into g+. If your good, fair &
honest, your clients will take care of you in both pay & referrals.
Remember, you are the magic not Google, they are the platform.
@ Dawn and Jim
how is your experiance so far regarding gtp regarding the terms that you signed with google?
I have not violated them, once I saw terms and conditions that were
completely lopsided, I ran them past my lawer, we determined that as long
as I did not proceed though their special training programs there are no
spacial sauce secrets that I step on. I was doing this program on my own
for clients before they rolled out their certification program. I can
developed my own leads quicker & much more secure then what they provide.
P.S. Closer to my studio also. They are a great company, just read about
and play with their products and you will do fine. They recycle leads that
are suppose to screened on all of their Adwords & Adwords express
programs. Good luck, Jim
I've been asked again to become one of google's trusted photographers - seems the people who try and sign people up are on commission, so they don't give up :-)

T&Cs (in the UK) still suck in too many areas, so I'm still saying 'no thanks'.

As to BNI - very good if you are happy going to breakfast meetings at 7am. That's something I'm hopeless at :-) Just isn't going to happen.

Business networking is however an integral part of our business development, just that I go to lunchtime and evening events ;-)
As i understand it (please correct me if i am wrong):
You are not a google trusted photographer.
after reading the terms with your lawyer you decided not to do the training program, can i ask u why?

About the leads, this is always tricky and i have my ways, i wouldn't want to be depending on google for that.
I wanted to report back that things are great, I have been in the program for some time now and focused on businesses with the same philosophies I have. People are always excited by the program. You can have fun, make money and bring something really cool to people. Thought it would be good to respond after checking it out in depth and as a business in the program. Waving from Va!
Yvon Robert
To start a business with an investment around $5000 and around 200 hour training is a good way because the name of Google opens doors to near all business in your city. Every small or medium or large business have invested much more money on their web site they need a return on investment and are ready to spend more bucks to attract customers.
Probably in future, the concept of virtual tour must be adapted and becomes more a business open door showing full shelves of merchandise during the shooting photo...  and the slogan like We are number one...

+Dawn Yılmaz Thankfully there are some people on this feed who aren't high on their own flatulence.  Everybody thinks that they're the next Ansel Adams.  Don't be so naive.  It's a business.  Google sets the standard they want.  If you disagree, market your own 360 panorama's in competition with Google.  Good luck.  A couple of things..

1. Quality of gear is very subjective and opinions change from forum to forum.  Google has vetted specific camera bodies and lenses that meet their criteria.  They don't need to keep up with every piece of equipment that hits the market.  This program is designed to make as much content of acceptable quality available to customers.  Most of if will be viewed on a 4" screen anyway.

2.  These photos aren't there to capture a memory.  They are there to give a prospective customer an idea of what it would be like to visit the establishment.  The idea is to drive business, not pad your bank account with undeserved residuals.

3.  Photography is not always an art.  Sometimes it's a job.  Sometimes it's both.  Take what you can get and move on.  If it isn't for you, that's fine.  No need to berate or belittle those willing to work hard and help a small business increase their web presence in a climate that demands it.

And +Lee Lloyd , six and seven figure contracts aren't struggling to improve their Google presence.  This program isn't intended for them.  An established enterprise will contract an established photographer.  

What about people who aren't proven professionals who've been doing it for 25 years.  Where do they start?  They work with small to medium businesses of the same caliber.  Maybe these GTPs are the paralegals or the physicians assistants of the photography industry.  

Would you tell my daughter to stop singing because she doesn't have the range of Mariah Carey or she can't sell out a venue right out of high school?
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