There’s Gold in Them Thar Files

Anyone who has viewed any episodes of the various CSI, NCIS, or Low& Order shows knows that: (a) If something works, then you should keep using, tweaking, and reworking it; and (b) performing autopsies is really, really important because it enables you to do «a.»

You know those TV ads that say you’re sitting on piles of gold in your closets and drawers at home? And they go on to tell you that all your old, forgotten jewelry and silverware can yield big bucks to buy things you need and want today. Well, right about now, you’re likely asking yourself, «What are these guys talking about? What does this have to do with me? I take pictures!» We’re nothing short of ecstatic that you asked.

The producers of those highly successful TV shows mentioned earlier have profited mightily from taking a proven moneymaker, analyzing any weaknesses in the existing product, reworking the basic formula to reach a new audience, or simply keeping the same audience for another similar or new program. Photographers ought to do the same: Perform an «autopsy» on the jobs you performed a week, a month, or a year ago to help determine whether you really made money doing them.


A time-honored and effective practice employed by businesses of all types and sizes is to conduct periodic reviews of prior deals, acquisitions, hiring and firings, product profitability, effectiveness of outsourcing, quality of advertising campaigns, and so on. By carefully and dispassionately looking at past transactions, and performing an objective financial autopsy on these transactions, you can learn a lot about your business.

Most successful business types will tell you that there’s a gold mine of information in those old records of yours, if you just take a careful look. You really can effectively analyze your past methods of doing business, pricing, promoting, etc., as well as those bright ideas that yielded the biggest profits. That knowledge is as good as gold. Few people enjoy recalling and reviewing business disasters (why carefully planned deals went bust), but every business of any size has its failures. No business is immune. But those long-ago disappointments can also be turned into an important asset.

Often, the causes of a money-losing endeavor are so obvious that no brainwork is required to quantify or understand the loss; for example, a company lost $X when the product it developed and promoted, at a cost of $Y, yielded sales of zero or near zero because a well-branded competitor was selling the same product at one-half the price. (Even Homer Simpson can do the math in such cases.) Much trickier are those occasions where the creative — be it a photographer, designer, or illustrator — estimated the job at what sounded like a good price at the time, did the work, licensed the images, got paid in full and on time, but after taking it to their medical examiner (accountant), realized they made little or no profit.

A list of possible factors contributing to this nonprofit endeavor would be virtually endless, and might include such items as estimating too low (unforeseen costs arose that couldn’t be passed on); trying to do too much in the hopes of hooking a client who would potentially provide huge and steadily repeating jobs; undercutting a job bid by a competitor (or sometimes a ghost photographer your client or customer simply made up); using lousy paperwork that resulted in legal or accounting problems (paying unforeseen taxes or fees); being out negotiated by a client; and on and on. The trick with some of these scars in your business life is to take a good look at them to ensure you don’t repeat them. Business owners making mistakes goes with the turf. Failing to learn from those mistakes, and repeating them expecting a different result, is often used as the definition of insanity. We aren’t philosophers and we just think that’s plain dumb.


Here are some steps to find out what worked well. Take out your job folder. You do maintain a job folder and good records, don’t you? If not, stop reading, and find someone to help you get organized. Jack can go back 30 years and tell you what he shot and the names and addresses of the models. He can find the releases (critically important), know what was charged, and how many days it took from sending the invoice to depositing the check. In fact, a week before writing this column, he had to locate and verify an eight-year-old model release for a reuse. Took him less than 10 minutes. Good, simple record keeping and filing are as important as maintaining your camera equipment — actually, more important — because without good record keeping, you may find out someday that you can’t afford your camera gear.

Look back into your well-kept records (or any facsimile thereof) and carefully examine your old jobs, be it estimates, invoices, contracts, model releases, expense slips, change orders, or anything regarding those jobs. Also, don’t forget to look at emails, purchase orders, and any other paperwork sent to you by the client. We often fall into the trap of paying undue focus on the stuff we do, and ignoring our client’s strategy. See how much you got paid, when you got paid, who paid you, and so on, and especially check to see if you incurred any hidden costs or you expended far more time than you had planned. Then, look at your images and how the client used them, whether it was a wedding shoot, portrait, or ad. Did the bride order any extra prints after the initial order? Did a banker crop his family out of the family portrait to gain a business headshot? Is that package of cereal now being sold worldwide with one of your photos on the box?

In addition — and this is very important — was the customer or client a pain in the butt (where the aggravation cost you a piece of your liver), or did the job go so smoothly and you had such a great time with the client that your compensation left you feeling as if you were stealing the money? Were there any surprises? Did any issues come up that you hadn’t planned on?

The cold light of day, especially well after the job is finished, is the ideal time to ask the big question, «Was the job worth it?» If the answer is yes, that’s great. Then, ask yourself, «What did I do right?»

If the answer is no, have a heart-to-heart with yourself as to what could have been done differently and, going forward, what should be done differently. If you work with an assistant or staff (or just have a good friend in the business), it’s a great idea to sit back and kick around past jobs. Free association during these bull sessions can be very enlightening, although it’s something photographers, who tend to be lone-wolf types, seem to avoid. (Even wolves travel in packs because the lone ones often don’t survive.)


Having a good and trusted support system to help evaluate your business can prove to be an important business tool in moving you to the next level in your career. A competent CPA available to answer your questions and keep you on the straight-and-narrow is absolutely essential. Conducting business without one is tantamount to flying blind.

In a bull session, your assistant may remind you just how well you worked with an art director or a portrait customer. Then you should ask yourself, «Why aren’t I staying in touch?» It doesn’t have to be a full, frontal assault or blitzkrieg, but just a gentle reminder that, «Hey, we’re still around doing good work.» The old adage, «Out of sight, out of mind,» is oh, so true in photography as it is in any business. A simple postcard with a current photo of something you did or visited or saw, with a hand-written note saying, «Thought you might like this,» will go a long way to getting repeat business.

Having some common interest with your client that’s unrelated to work — talking about sports, bad movies, or reality TV shows — can serve as a great door opener, and your client will be more receptive to speaking with you. What you discuss isn’t terribly important. What is important is that you’re bonding with your client. But, don’t ever fake an interest in a hobby! That can lead to a sitcom, where people won’t be laughing with you. For example, if you’ve never golfed, skied, or sailed, and your client is an addict, faking an interest will be obvious to your client in nanoseconds.

Keeping in touch is so simple and easy, and yet so few do it. Don’t expect that your customer was so impressed with what you did for them that you’re simply unforgettable. Well, the hard truth is that they probably forgot about you. You’re yesterday’s newspaper; out of sight, out of mind. Why do you think companies like Coke and Pepsi advertise so much? They have very sophisticated and knowledgeable marketers and spend millions to remind you, «Hey, we’re still here.»


Slowing down, not getting caught up in a maelstrom of your own doing, and pausing to reflect is very profitable. Looking back on your past jobs in an autopsy style will highlight your best profit-making techniques as well as the practices that can take money out of your pocket. There are a dozen famous quotes about not repeating bad behavior, and they all apply if your goal is to make a profit. Our contribution to the buffet of cliches is, «Looking backward helps you move forward.»

And while we advocate looking back with trusted people in your business life, never do this online in social media. Never, never, ever! Did we emphasize that enough? This can be the kiss of death in so many ways. We’re constantly amazed at the things some photographers put on a social media site, no matter whether it’s a private or open-to-the-public site. While sharing is a good thing, and discussing your business with trusted friends is also a good thing, doing either online may be disastrous.

So stop, look, and evaluate your past. Do it in person with friends if you have people you trust and respect. And remember William Shakespeare’s great quote in The Tempest: «What’s past is prologue.» It’s also engraved on Robert Aitken’s statue, The Future, at the National Archives Building in Washington, DC.

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