The Secret to Surviving a Recession
As a photography business owner, I think a lot about an upcoming recession. Since the beginning of the year, I feel like recession fears have heightened, which to me probably helps speed up the likelihood of a recession seeing as it lowers consumer confidence. It makes sense since we have lived through the longest period of sustained economic growth in US History. I mean, I was 15 or 16 during the housing crisis, so really I didn’t have to experience all that as an adult.
Now listen, during a drunken haze on election night 2016, I accidentally made a blood oath with the devil that if I talk politics online I may have to give my firstborn to mentor under the gondolier of the River Styx. I would like my first born son or daughter to follow their dreams and/or bliss and/or passions or whatever the kids are into these days, so I will refrain from letting this newsletter be yet another opportunity to throw unsolicited opinions into the social media void. (Besides, if our firstborn does have a passion for gondolas, their mother and father would much prefer them practice their craft in a place where plane tickets are cheaper.)
For the past decade or so, a lot has happened. Social media became a thing, influencers began influencing, everyone became a photographer, and so on. The world totally changed. I can’t sit in Starbucks and not see 3 other photographers or videographers editing or having meetings with clients or others in their concentration. Since beginning typing today’s newsletter, I’ve seen at least 5 duck faces.
So what happens when things get hard for freelance people like me? To be honest, in this area, I’m totally untested. I’ve never really had to worry about a recession before, and economic downturn is something totally unknown to someone in their late 20s.
A Couple Theories
Things generally stay the same. I think as a millennial, we’ve had plenty of struggles with finding work, between Bachelor degrees being next to meaningless, and all the student debt, the “side hustle" is just a reality. Millennials are usually labeled as entitled and lazy, but in my experience, millennials are probably the busiest, most creative, and hardest working generation in recent years, because you almost have to have your hand in multiple pots (is that a metaphor that exists?) just to “make it” these days. I know a ton of people that have a day job, then go home and manage an Etsy shop or Uber or have some sort of internet income on the side. Many are photographers that shoot weddings and portraits on the side as well. In order to pay off massive student debt, diversification in income sources is just life. I saw a meme the other day that said “All these millennials, always walking around like they rent the place.” Which is hilarious because I think we are almost known as a generation with maybe a smaller financial footprint and lower overhead in general.
My next theory, which could basically just be an add on the first one is that streaming services and the “subscription model” of pricing dies a grizzly death. What’s the easiest way to save money? Eliminating the death by a thousand cuts of this nickel and diming that we are enduring for Netflix and Hulu and Spotify and HBO Max Plus Ultra. Why pay for a subscription service to watch Friends for the 90th time when you could just buy the whole series on DVD for one time price of $80? Besides, all we will need is the 6.99 Disney Plus because they own everything we want to watch anyway. I think that all these food delivery services may feel the strain a bit too. Why would I want to spend $8 extra for delivery when I could just drive there to get it myself? (I’ve always seen food delivery or room service as a “vacation-only” thing anyway)
I’ve tried to always adhere to lanes that will be generally unchanged in a recession: Weddings probably won’t slow down, but they may get smaller. Of course this is all predicated on how bad a recession ends up being. I think teaching skills like how to shoot photos and things that could potentially help people become more self-sufficient are probably always going to be wanted as well. Photography can be seen as a fluff industry, but at the same time, it has kind of mutated into a very necessary need for anyone who needs an internet presence, so, everyone.
The photography world has been thinning out regardless of whether the economy has been booming or not: just look at stock photography. People just donate stock photos to places like Pexels and Unsplash where people can use them for marketing, blogging, or whatever else for totally free. Just a few years ago, stock photography was a great way to make a few bucks, but now, not really at all.
Business is Hard
I once heard Simon Sinek say something like (I don’t know the direct quote): If it’s a bad economy you can’t find any clients, but if it’s a good economy you have a ton of competition. Pick your poison. The fact is, business is hard either way. I’m an extremely experienced photographer, especially compared to other photographers my age, but to some person on the street that may see my ad, I’m just a drop in a sea of one thousand other photographers they are seeing ads for right now. I’ve also heard some statistic that at any given time, a human is always at least 2 feet from a photographer no matter where they are. Well, maybe that was actually a stat about cockroaches. I don’t remember.
This is all to say, that despite my skill and knowledge, competition is very real. I’ll never forget that mother of a bride that once asked me if I had just bought my camera at Best Buy over the weekend. While yes, kind of rude and audacious (not to mention obviously untrue), it’s a valid question in some ways right now. (Side note: I found the article I’m pretty sure she read before talking to me where it basically told brides and mothers to ask wedding photographers that.) Not sure you could really apply that situation to anywhere but photography in today’s climate, I don’t go to a barber or literally anywhere else and ask them if they just started their craft last weekend. Photography looks like an easy opportunity to make some cash to a lot of people (like seriously, a lot of people) so they think by buying a camera and “starting a business” you just become a cash magnet (if only).
When clients thin out and get choosier, so will the competition. Unfortunately for me, I’m cursed to walk the earth with my camera for the rest of my days (it’s almost as if my parents broke a blood oath with devil and gave their firstborn over to an eternal Sisyphean life), so I’m staying right where I am, no matter how tough it is out there. But for many during a good economy, photography is less a passion and more an opportunity, so many will move on to something else. Or again, the landscape will more or less stay the same, I think our country and culture has been untested on a failing economy for a really long time, so it will be interesting for sure.
The Secret to Survival (is...surviving)
I was listening to Joe Rogan’s podcast the other day, and he’s a great example of the “Keep Going” thing. He didn’t even promote or market his podcast (partially because he started early on in podcasting), he just didn’t stop making episodes. The key, as my friend Mark Lakey said on last week’s podcast, is to just never stop. Even through the hard times, especially through the hard times, just keep going. That’s the great antidote to competition or a bad economy that there is, and you’d be surprised how many people are unwilling to undergo that.