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|| SportsShooter.com: News Item: Posted 2000-04-27

Let's Talk Business: Bean Counting 101 for Photographers
By Rick Rickman

Photo by
I have one of the best tax people in the country working with me. She has been now for several years. I know this to be true because I have talked about her with several CPAs and with an auditor at the IRS. They all say that Laura really knows her stuff. She should know her stuff. She used to be a tax auditor for the IRS herself.

Several years back she really made me angry when she put me on the spot by confronting me with several questions that I couldn't answer. After that particular session I almost discontinued this relationship. I'm glad today I got a handle on my deflated ego and came to my senses. The question that bothered me the most was followed by a terse but truthful statement by her that I think I'll always remember.

She asked me if I actually had any idea how much money I had made that year. She sat there patiently while I struggled to try to figure out some kind of an answer to that question. I knew in my heart all the time I had no clue. She smiled that wonderful Laura smile, looked me right in the eye and said: "You're never ever gonna be a success at this freelance thing until you know how much it costs you to go to work each day Rick." Your business is just something you're playing at isn't it!"

I can't tell you how stupid that made me feel. Especially since my wife was sitting right beside me at the time. She's always felt that that's exactly how I run my business. It also made me extremely angry because she was right. I didn't know any of those things!

I share this story with you because I am the classic model for what appears to be one correct generalization of most freelance photographers. Too many of us happen to be less than attentive business persons. We pay more attention to the kinds of film we buy than to our profit and loss ledgers. Unfortunately, in the present business climate, it's the photographers who are paying attention to their profit margins who are the only ones to survive. The reality that none of us likes to deal with is, in the freelance market of this millennium, success depends 80% on business and 20% on picture production.

A classic example of photographer business done in the head and not by the ledger book, goes something like this:

I just got a call form SI this morning and they want to send me to Florida for 5 days to do the diving event. I'm stoked!!! SI!!! See, I'm really getting a reputation!!! That puts $2500.00 bucks in my pocket so I think I can go ahead and get that new Canon/Nikon, 300 mm 2.8, super duper auto focus won't miss anything lens, that I've been wanting for so long now.

Mean while back in the ledger book we've forgotten that we have a monthly car payment of..., an existing equipment loan payment of..., a monthly utilities bill of..., and outstanding credit card bill @ 16% of...., a monthly processing bill of... So, in reality, we may be only able to put 13% (or $325.00) of that $2500.00 in our pockets. Of that $325.00 we should be putting 12% (or $39.00) into our savings, and another 12% - 15% (or $39.00- $48.75) into our retirement accounts. We go out, buy the lens, adding significantly to our debt load, thinking in a convoluted way that we are doing well this year because now, SI is calling ... once.

The most important aspect of good business is honest evaluation. If you can honestly look yourself in the mirror and say, this isn't how you operate then you can give yourself one gold start in the plus column of good business practice.

Now, can you tell me with certainty how much it cost you to open the doors of your business today. If you can't then add two frowny face stamps to the bad business column on your tally sheets. You've got to know this information for numerous reasons. If you don't know this information you can't get a line of credit, can't get a lease, can't get a mortgage, and have no idea what you should be charging as a day rate or creative fee to your clients so you can make ends meet.

Just because a client wants to pay you $400.00 dollars a day plus (yes there is a plus here) expenses, doesn't mean that's enough money for you to make a profit. It all depends on your overhead! It's possible that you could work regularly @ $400.00 a day plus expenses and run a loss at the end of the year. It all depends on your overhead!

Small business accounting really comes down to a simple system. By tracking the money that comes into and flows out of a business and comparing those figures over a time line, we can tell if the figures are rising or falling. Basically that tells you if your business is growing or not! Instead of me writing reams of verbage here. I'd like to point you towards doing 2 things this month that will help you improve your business skills easily and painlessly.

First, find a copy of the December 1999 issue of Photo District News. Go to page 22 and read the articles titled "Bean Counting 101 for Photographers." It's excellent! It's written in a way that even a lummox like me can understand. It'll give you all the whys and wherefores that you really need! I'd like you to actually read it completely! After a week, go back and read it again. Pay close attention to how this article discusses profit and loss. Every photographers needs are a little different! The only truly universal idea is however that ............... profit is good!

Secondly, go to your neighborhood software outlet and get a copy of accounting software. Plug it into your computer and begin to use it this week. Use it religiously! Immediately start tracking your finances and set up a way to create a profit/loss statement for yourself. I use Quickbooks Pro. There are numbers of good choices however. I made my choice because my accountant, Laura, suggested to me it was one of the easiest on the market. I like easy! I was never good at math! I guarantee that these two things will begin to improve your business skill and give you insight into your profitability immediately. Do yourself and all the rest of us this favor!

Do Good Business! Stay in Business!

(Rick Rickman is a freelance photographer based in Southern California. You can contact him via email at: rrickman@earthlink.net.)


Related Email Addresses: 
Rick Rickman: rrickman@earthlink.net

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