At the end of my degree course in 1998 I had to write a business plan. It was one of the key units of the course, and had to be done thoroughly – lots of market research, proper cash flow spreadsheets and so on. I recall I got a pretty decent mark for it, as I’ve always been fairly good with that side of things.
At the weekend I was tidying up, and came across it, still in it’s folder, more than 12 years later. I couldn’t resist the urge to re-read it, and on doing so I realised how remarkably accurate it had been in some areas, and perhaps predictably, how far off it had been in others. For the sake of interest, here’s the perspective on the thoughts of an ambitious 21 year old, a dozen years on, taken heading by heading from the original plan.
(This is the bit where I described myself, and point out what a superb individual I was, so that a bank feel inclined to lend me a fortune)
Nothing particularly remarkable about this section, it’s the usual biography bit, mixed with “how keen I am on photography”. However, there’s an absolute screamer in the last sentence, and I quote:
“Although able to take the lead where necessary, and employ initiative as required I also work very well as part of a team.”
Genius. No-one else has ever displayed those qualities, and it’s by no means that same statement I read on more than half of the applications I get for work experience and assistants!
(Again, this one’s a bit obvious, but besides just listing where the business is located it’s supposed to point out why – usually because that’s where the money is!)
So far so good – there’s nothing embarrassing in what I’ve written here – just the usual stuff about how London is the centre of the editorial/advertising/fashion industry in the UK, and that I’ll have to be based here to work in it. What’s interesting is how I had arbitrarily picked Elephant and Castle as my location, and that I planned to share a house with other ex-students. Not only did I end up (and still am) living in Camberwell, which is about 2 miles south of Elephant, but I’ve been living with ex-students from Blackpool almost the entire time. The only gap was the 3 years I’ve lived on my own in this flat until my lady moved in – she’s ex-Blackpool too, although from a bit after my time. Uncannily prescient! I even make mention of the fact that since Elephant is close in to the centre of town I’ll be able to walk back if public transport fails – something I’ve done more times than I can remember in the past dozen years!
However, things start to diverge from reality once I mention “long term” location. You see, it’s here that I have to let a lot of people in on a secret – I never meant to stay in London, at least not for more than a year or two. My original plan was to come to London to assist, and build up a base of contacts, then retreat back to a city like Leeds or Manchester, to set up as primarily a social photographer. It’s rather obvious that this hasn’t happened (and it’s going to somewhat influence my interpretation of the rest of the plan). The reason for this not occurring is a combination of the success I was experiencing in London, which made me reluctant to walk away, and a slow realisation that it was nigh-on impossible to make a living doing editorial/advertising/fashion outside London, and that my dream of being somewhere a bit nearer hills was just that – a dream.
(the bit where you outline in a very American sounding way, what your goals are for the short, medium and long term)
The short term mission was 100% accurate. Weird. It said:
“To assist on a freelance basis successful photographers working in the editorial/fashion/advertising markets.
To undertake small scale commissions within the editorial market”
Absolutely exactly what happened. Very odd. I assisted nearly 30 different photographers over 3 years, and was shooting small stuff for magazines within 9 months of leaving college. How did I know?
The medium and long term missions are well off, as already hinted at in “location”. As an example, one of the long term missions is:
“To move out of London to an affluent, medium sized town where there is a market for high quality, creative social photography and substantially lower overheads.”
Hmmmm, didn’t quite manage that one did I? And more to the point, has anyone ever visited this fabled town that I had in mind? Nope, thought not.
(in which I go into very lengthy descriptions of the market sectors I intend to earn money from – this is the bit where I can show off all my market research)
In the short term it’s uncannily accurate again – I sense a trend developing here! I’d been down to London on work experience half a dozen times by the times I wrote the plan, and I’d formally interviewed a couple of assistants to find out what the work was like. I even plot out in this section the lower end of the editorial market, including name dropping one of the titles I ended up shooting small scale editorial work for. Eerie.
Now, of course both the medium and long term are well off in respect of what actually happened. However, what I’m impressed with is how much market research I’d actually done into the social sector. I clearly hadn’t just thought of it as a fall back, or 2nd choice (and still don’t for the record). There are extensive facts and figures in this bit about what percentage of the population have had professional portraits taken, how much they pay, and so on. Thinking back I recall a lot of research into this, including a lot of talking to people in the BIPP. The other odd thing about this section is that at the point in time this was written – 1998 – there was almost no-one in the UK shooting social portraiture in a creative way, it was almost all still “brown canvas background with a softar filter”. There was Annabel Williams, and that was about it. My plan in this section appeared to be to ape her, and make a small fortune. Looking at what Venture have done in the years since, I can but wonder what might have happened…..
(the bit where I describe how I’m going to carve my niche out of the markets I’ve described above)
Again, the short term was bang on – get more assisting work with the people I already know, ask them for mates who might need an assistant, and then use those contacts to get on the first rung of the editorial ladder.
The medium and long term stuff seem to be describing pretty much what Venture, and lots of other social photographers do these days – market aggressively, use discounts, clever packages, and have a well designed premise that combines a studio with a viewing room/hair and make-up/good coffee/gallery and so on. It really is a bit spooky reading this and wondering what would have happened if I’d taken the road I envisaged at 21. Would I have beaten someone like Venture to the market?
(fairly mundane this bit, it’s just used to describe how I will supply the business – I’ll buy film and shoot it, then develop and print it just about sums it up)
Nothing of note here, as it’s a fairly mundane section – most people copied each others on this bit as I recall! The only amusing bit is this phrase:
“The business is also equipped with a Personal Computer (note capitals!) to aid in keeping accounts up to date, managing cash flow and organising paperwork.”
So, no intention to ever use it to produce photos then? Ah, how times have changed – digital capture was still pretty rare in them days, and you could go into town with a fiver, take your best girl to the pictures, buy a slap up meal and still have change for the tram home.
(I’ve skipped a bit here, as things like “legal framework” are pretty pedestrian and predictable)
I’d done my homework on this bit, and I knew how much assistants were charging, how much prints were generally selling for in the social market and so on. The point of note is how little editorial rates have changed since I researched them 12 years ago. Not at all, is how little they’ve changed – you can still do small editorial jobs for £150, and the average rate is still £300-£400. I wonder how many other markets around the world have seen so little inflation in the same time period?
(this was the bit our tutor was enormously proud of. He’d spent a very long time indeed building a spreadsheet that required nothing more than us typing in the figures we thought we’d get, and it would calculate the rest)
To finish off, yet another example of short term accuracy and long term over-optimism. My prediction for the first year was almost spot on – a turn over of about 9 grand, versus a real turnover of about 8 and a half. Not a bad guess, but based on what I’d already learnt from assistants working in the industry as to how much they could charge and how often they worked.
Then things get a bit mental. Based on setting up as a social photographer, and shifting seriously large amounts of prints to poor unsuspecting punters, my predicted turnover for year 2 was just short of 30 grand, and I didn’t hit that point until about 2004. Ah well, you can’t blame me for dreaming…
So there you have it, a little trip down memory lane, and an intriguing insight into how the hopes and aspirations of a 21 year old graduate are reconciled with the harsh realities of the commercial world. Overall I’m stunned at how accurate my predictions were for the first year, and how off I was about the medium and long term stuff. And yet, thinking back I was pretty serious about leaving London as I recall, it took some time to get it’s claws into me. As late as summer 1999 I took a trip up to Leeds to look into property prices, and to see how many photographers were already up there. Besides traipsing around the city centre on my own carrying lots of literature from estate agents, my most abiding memory from that trip is of falling asleep in a park in the midday sun. Perhaps it was a metaphor for the whole “leaving London” thing….