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RAFAL: There are a lot of options. I always say don’t spend money on something that you won’t see a return on. When I was starting off I called a few companies that design websites, and the amount of money they wanted was insane. There was no way that I could afford that. On the top of it what they were offering was not even close to what I wanted. If they were to do exactly what I wanted it was going to cost triple of what they already told me.
There are a lot of other sources. You can buy templates. You can create a template. You can start with a blog. There are a lot of free ones that are good to go that you can start loading with pictures. But there are two important factors.
First one is to show only good stuff. Don’t show a lot. Even if its five or six images that you think are the best. That’s what you want to show. I have seen many times photographers who have loaded everything, and that gets boring. So you have to be very specific about what you want to show to make that impact on the client. Another thing is that whatever you want to show make sure you are showing something that invokes certain emotions. You don’t want to show images that don’t tell a story. Whenever I pop something on my website, the way I want to see it is people are going to look at it and see some kind of story, or emotion, they are going to feel something.
The second thing that I would say is even more important. You have to create the website in such a way that it is really easy to find on all the search engines. There are a lot of companies that offer services like that.
CASEY: And you need to watch out because there are a lot of scammers and amateurs offering website optimization and SEO.
RAFAL: Big time, and the amount of money they want for it, you need to be very careful.
Before you even go to someone, before you even talk about working on some project, you have to learn about what will help your business first. A couple of months ago I was working on website optimization and I met with five people and they were all saying different things. The price went from $8000.00 and up. I thought that was crazy.
The most important thing here is you want to have control over you website. If you want to change something, or you want to add something you have full control. If there is someone else, it’s never going to be done. That’s what I learned years ago. It’s my baby and I’m going to work on it.
CASEY: Are there times when you feel overwhelmed with it?
RAFAL: You know what, it is overwhelming at times, but from the other hand I found that the type of person I am is one who likes to learn. I like to understand what’s behind something. I don’t want to ask someone to do something for me and not know what or how they do it. I want to know exactly what is being done. I am a picky person. I am sometimes digging too much into those details but if you are running your own business then you need to have full control.
CASEY: Don’t hand over any work that is essential to your creative success. So work on everything yourself – your website most importantly.
Do you use things like Yellow Pages for marketing?
RAFAL: No I don’t. With the advertising these days it’s very tricky. 95% of my business comes to me as word of mouth and the other 5% from other sources. The main thing that I was trying to do is be known and also be unique. Whatever I was advertising I was expecting that it was going to be high end. I didn’t want to go low-end. So Yellow Pages, if you look has about 300 photographers. If you look at the statistics they are crazy. What are the chances that you will be seen and contacted? And even if they choose you, who is looking at those ads? Who is looking for wedding photographers in the Yellow Pages? Low end clients. I don’t want to say they don’t have money but they are not putting importance in their search. My advice is if you are going to be doing any advertising ask yourself:
Who is going to look at my ad?
Who is your target?
Who is your client?
That took me a little time to figure out as well. As I said you can advertise in those high-end magazines and you might not get anything out of it.
Another sad story is there are not a lot of people who look for wedding photographers in the wedding magazines, or read those magazines for that matter. I was advertising in a well known magazine in Canada, one of the top three wedding magazines. I had a two page spread in it and had no responses. Nothing.
I am very particular about who is responding to my ads. I meet with the client and ask them how they heard about me. I also want to know if there’s something bad they heard.
CASEY: So your advice is to be selective of your audience?
RAFAL: Yes, and don’t try to pump up your ego because when you start getting good at what you do, people are going to notice and you will get tons of emails, phone calls, offers to advertise here and there, but the question is what am I going to get in return. Is it worth it spending that money? You have to work on your reputation. You don’t want to be advertising in a magazine that has a bad reputation and crappy work in it. There are a lot of questions you have to ask yourself before you sign a contract with anyone.
CASEY: Lots of variables to consider, but I think the main point I am getting here is as you grow and progress the word of mouth will grow. Being freelance it is the most important thing to nurture.
So to pull from that, were there some mistakes along the way that you’ve made and learned important lessons from? That job you should have said yes to, or that job you should have said no to….
RAFAL: The way I look at it is that you have to make mistakes in order to learn something. Sometimes you think it’s going to be right and at the end of the day it goes the way you didn’t want it to. The one thing is, as I said, you have to look after your clients and make them happy. I know that weddings are a very tricky industry to be in because you have a lot of crazy brides and other people that get involved.
As a professional sometimes you have to remove yourself from situations that get out of control. Take a deep breath, rethink this whole thing and then go back. Make rational decisions, not decisions based on anger or stupidity. That was one thing that got me a lot of clients. I was always calm. Even in edgy situations I was either trying to help or do something to fix the situation. For example, there was a tricky situation where my equipment failed. I had two cameras and they went down on the wedding day. Both cameras! That was one of the most scary situations I had. The wedding was in Banff so it wasn’t like Calgary where I could just run out and buy a new camera. The worst part is the whole thing broke in the middle of the ceremony which is the most important moment of the day to focus on. I ran back to Banff to a little camera store and they had a Nikon B50 whatever. I used all my credit cards. I didn’t care you know, even if I had to steal the money. I had to do something to rescue the situation. So I went back and finished the wedding. I basically shot the wedding for free. I said I am not going to take any money from you because of the situation. In the end, I got a lot of clients from these people, which is really interesting. In those situations there’s nothing that you can do expect work on instinct. I had a back up camera. It’s not like I was unprepared, it just went downhill.
CASEY: So the key message there is that one of the biggest mistakes you can make is to not acknowledge your client, and to go that extra mile to fix problems?
RAFAL: Yes, and weddings like I said are very specific. They don’t happen again. You can’t just say I am sick or tired, and can’t go.
I have another story where I got really sick. I had the flu and a fever. In the middle of the night I had a seizure because of the fever. My wife called the ambulance and they picked me up. I don’t even know how I got to the hospital. I woke up literally thinking about what I had to do in the morning and I said I’ve got go because I have a wedding. The doctor said he was not going to let me go. I said “You know what, there’s two options here, either you let me go, or I am going to escape. You give me some pills so I can survive the day – I gotta go.” I showed up at home and my wife told me I was nuts. Everyone was against that.
I went and I shot the wedding. I didn’t mention to the client that I was that sick. I got the best pictures ever, because I was so stressed out. I remember I came back home and that night went back to the hospital. I wouldn’t let my clients down. When they ask me what happens if I can’t do the wedding I tell them that the only one thing that can stop from doing a wedding is my death!
CASEY: I think those stories demonstrate two things: Number one, focus. It shows focus towards your passion. Nothing else gets in your way. Number two, always put your client first.
RAFAL: What I would like to add is work on your reputation. It takes a lot of time. It takes many years of working with many clients to build that reputation. In order to ruin that, you may have the one client who is a little bit insane, who thinks you’ve done something wrong to them. Your reputation may go down the drain right on the spot. It’s really important you make sure even if the situation is awkward, try to bite the bullet. Fix it. Even add something extra. Make them happy so they don’t bad mouth you and try to destroy your reputation.
This is my philosophy: Whoever I sign a contract with, I will doing anything to make sure that I don’t leave them without something that I promise.
CASEY: Great customer service is a mandate to live by. To understand that they are your bread and butter, and you have to put them first.
The word of mouth and the importance of dealing with your customers are key elements based on what you’ve explained. On the other side of the spectrum your peers, your colleagues are very much key to your success as well correct? Networking is an important thing. When you are freelancing, and when you are out there on your own for the first time, it’s very hard. It’s hard to know where to start, and how to build up a foundation of support. It’s not only to build a client base that you need to focus on building, but also a peer network. How do you network with other professionals?
RAFAL: This is something that is unbelievable in Calgary. The arts side needs a little bit of work. The positive thing is that when it comes to photography is that a lot of photographers who collaborate together. If you look at other cities, or other countries, it’s a cutthroat business. There’s no mercy when one tries to get more clients. Here, we meet together. We share the business. We discuss what we can do to make this industry better. I think it’s unbelievable because everybody grows when we all work together. I have to say that when it comes to things like that Calgary is unique. I respect all these guys because there are a lot of them that do amazing jobs. We are friends. If I am booked for a wedding, I am more than happy to send someone else, and I know that they will do good work.
When you are starting off you need to make those connections. In the beginning it’s the hardest because they don’t know who you are. There are many photographers out there that we call one hit wonders. They come and they go. They shoot one wedding and they get snobby or whatever, and they’re out of it as quickly as they came.
The people who have been in the industry for many years, we know each other, we meet a few times a year. We go for a beer or a coffee. We share all these things. On the top of it we stay in contact on Facebook or Twitter. If I have some clients looking for a photographer I would rather send them to a photographer that I know.
CASEY: So social networking is a big resource as well?