Starting a photography business is simple, but making it successful and profitable is a real challenge.
Between existing full-time photographers and those doing it as a secondary part-time job, there's a tremendous amount of competition in the market.
But many photographers have managed to succeed by carving out a niche and building a sustainable lucrative business.
We spoke with Dan Mitchell about his journey from budding school teacher to full-time music and events photographer.
His modest beginnings started with uploading a video he created with his cellphone of a friend's open mic performance. That was compelling enough to be contacted about the possibility of making money from creating similar content.
Fast forward to today, and this self-taught photographer has built a growing business specializing in music, portraits and special event photography.
We are excited to share with you our interview with Dan in today's episode of Small Business War Stories.
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A summary of our interview with Dan Mitchell of Mitchell Multimedia is below.
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- You have a photography and multimedia business. How do you think about your business? What do you do, and what inspired you to start this?
- How do you go from shooting a video at a concert with your phone to having a full-blown business where you're getting paid?
- Do you still go to open mics?
- I would love to dig in just a little bit more into the concept of free work. Because a lot of times people ask me, "How can I get into this or that?" One of the suggestions I make to people is, first you do a kick ass job for free in your "free time”, and then over time you can build to where you can charge for that. How did you make that transition?
- Can you tell me more about how you have expanded from service to product?
- So it's different if they just post it to their Instagram, versus if they print a poster that's going to end up being their tour poster?
- Would you say that change you made has had a meaningful impact in your profitability and your ability to actually make a living from photography?
- I am sure your business fluctuates, and there are times where you make more money than others. How do you manage that cash and the psychology?
- How do you handle it when you have, let's say you make a lot of money on something like post-Austin, then you make no money? For example, you said you make very little money while you were in Austin, how do you handle that?
- You had a chance to shoot Robert Plant…who else have you gotten to shoot?
- Can you tell me about a time when things really didn't go well in your business?
- Where do you see your business going the next 10 years?
- Is there anything else that you want our audience to know about you or your business? What are your social media handles? Where can people find you? >
You have a photography and multimedia business. How do you think about your business? What do you do, and what inspired you to start this?
Dan Mitchell: I was in high school. I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do in life. Originally I wanted to be a teacher. I went to a community college, to really figure out what I wanted to do, without spending that much money. I know a lot of people have that reservation going to college because it's so much money now.
The community college route is very, very affordable. Also, you can figure out what you want to do. I still wanted to be a teacher. I had a couple friends that were musicians. I was a musician as well. I played trumpet in high school. But I stepped away from music for a while, once I graduated high school. I got into college. I was busy with school work. My friends started playing open mics. I started going with them. He wanted me to support him as much as I could. I figured, "Oh I'm gonna just take pictures with my cell phone, here or there. Take some video. Upload it to YouTube, Facebook, social media. Just help them out as much as I could."
Then after amount of time, my friend that was a musician, he was having somebody market for him. So do his band advertisement. They needed content, video, photos, that kind of stuff for their social media. Well once, I took a video of him playing at a local open mic in Columbus. He had a great performance. I got a great video of him. It was just with my cellphone. The next day I posted it on YouTube. I got a call from his marketing agent, and she's saying that, "Oh do you want to make money doing this?" She really liked the video I got for him. To this day I focus mostly on music. That's how I got into this, so I kind of pay it forward.
How do you go from shooting a video at a concert with your phone to having a full-blown business where you're getting paid? What's that progression? You've been doing this for three years right?
Dan Mitchell: Three plus years, yeah. That's a big question. I was talking about how I was shooting pictures and video for my friend. Going to open mics regularly. It got to the point where I was getting asked by other musicians to take photos of them. People started recognizing me and my work. I'm posting on Facebook. At this time, I started my own page. This was about four years ago. I would go to open mics, shoot some pictures for fun. I wasn't charging anything. I had not even started my business yet.
I was just building that foundation of local musicians, trying to get my name out there, trying to out a face to a name, that whole thing. After a bit of time, I got a really great following of people wanting me to shoot for them at open mics. Not only did it help me out, it helped the venues I was shooting at. If they were promoting their open mic, they had photos to promote their open mic. Back then, like I said, I wasn't really charging or anything, so it got to the point where people were starting bands and they're like, "Hey do you do a photo shoot? Do you do photo shoot for this amount of money?" And it's like, "Well actually I don't, I'm not in business yet, but I mean, we can work something out"
I started to make money. So in August of 2014, I left my advertisement job. I decided, "Hey you know what, I have all these great contacts." I knew when I quit my other job ... It took a while to get my client base, paying clients, because people were used to not paying me. So it's just like transitioning to that, "Hey I'm a service now. And if you would like photos ...", I mean, I'm not going to get upset if you say, "No. We don't want photos for our show." So I worked into ... Going to shows. I was still shooting for free. But I was going to shows and meeting more bands. Because not everybody in the band will go to an open mic.
It’s giving them a little taste. You say "I just shot a photo of you on stage, but then would you like a press kit." Then you charge them for that?
Dan Mitchell: Exactly. So I would charge for press kits. I would charge for a group of photos. Then it got to the point where I met all these bands. I would go to festivals and I would just shoot bands for fun. A lot of times, the bands just really really loved the photos. So I built that relationship in the beginning.
Do you still go to open mics?
Dan Mitchell: I used to go to a lot more open mics. I would go out Monday through Thursday. After a time, when I started my business, it was like I said, it was a great way to meet other musicians, get my name out there. After I started my business, now it's coming on three years, it's like I can't really go out every single night to open mic. I'll go probably once a week. I will rotate it through different open mics in Columbus. Columbus has tons of open mics. I'm just trying to reach as many people still, but not the frequency that I used to do.
Makes sense, because you have a job to do…
Dan Mitchell: Exactly. It's the editing time now. Not only that I'm still doing the open mic. I mean, I'll go to an open mic maybe twice a month now. Last night was kind of a fluke, because I usually don't go out on Wednesdays, because I shoot shows Thursday through Sunday. Wednesday's my breather day before the long weekend.
I would love to dig in just a little bit more into the concept of free work. Because a lot of times people ask me, "How can I get into this or that?" One of the suggestions I make to people is, first you do a kick ass job for free in your "free time”, and then over time you can build to where you can charge for that. How did you make that transition?
Dan Mitchell: Some people that were used to me for shooting for free. That's the challenge in itself. I guess if you just look at it with a different attitude, and you really make that clear with people. You say, "Hey, I'm now looking to do this for some extra income."
Most people will think it's genuine. I mean, I'm not here to rip the guy off. I'm going to give you a service. Back then, I was just a service. Now I look at it as a service plus product.
Can you tell me more about how you have expanded from service to product?
Dan Mitchell: Just recently, probably in the last year and a half, I spent some time down in Austin, Texas. I had just had graduated from the Ohio State University. I wanted to experience living somewhere else. I mean, I love Columbus. I have my client base here. But I felt like since I was doing a lot of more music and stuff, my buddy, the musician I was talking about earlier, he actually moved down to Austin. Now he's an audio engineer. I just felt like I could expand what I do, if I go somewhere else, try to meet new people. And I can get my network going there.
After coming back to Ohio, I was only going to give it like four months. I had a great experience, but it just got a little too expensive. But basically, every time I go down to Austin Texas, it's kind of like an attitude adjustment. I step away from things here, and I think about what can I be doing better as a business owner? How can I make it more profitable? Improving the service, the quality of the work. I felt like I was losing a lot of money on the backend.
It used to be where if I would charge $50 to $60 for a band to pay for me to come out to the show. I would shoot that band. But also I'd shoot the other bands too. Just the whole building the network thing. But after a while, I realized, "Yeah they're paying everything upfront. But then I'm losing money on the backend", because photography, if you look a wedding photographer, someone doing senior pictures or something, they're charging for proofs. They're charging for the prints. They're charging for all this stuff at the backend. You're not only, when you pay a photographer, you're paying for a service, but also the product. Because they put time and effort into editing the photos afterwards. I would just include that all in. I still kind of do. Talking about music, if the bands want to use my photos for marketing, I used to say, "Hey go ahead. Just credit me." Now it's like, "Well, if you're using my images, and you're promoting a show or a tour, or you're getting paid, I want a piece of that."
I'm not asking a lot, but I just need something, because I put effort into that image. Even if they're using one image, I still would like compensation.
So it's different if they just post it to their Instagram, versus if they print a poster that's going to end up being their tour poster?
Dan Mitchell: Yes. Because with Instagram and Facebook, not only they're benefiting from using it, because it's content for them, it's also beneficial for me because they're tagging me. They're promoting me as well. It's free promotion. If there's a dollar amount attached to it, if they're making money off of it, then that's when I step in and say, "Hey." Like I said, I'm not asking a lot, but let’s talk. I made that change a little under a year ago.
Would you say that change you made has had a meaningful impact in your profitability and your ability to actually make a living from photography?
Dan Mitchell: Yes. I made the changes when I came back, about a year ago, when I was coming back from Texas last year. I made the change. I was starting to charge for every single band. I was making money on that. Then I implemented the policy where they pay for photos on the backend, if they would want it for promotional purposes. So yes, I did see an increase. Since I was gone for four months in Texas, I didn't make much when I was in Texas. But when I came back in the summer, last summer, I made more money in six months than I did the previous year combined, because I made those changes. That's what you have to do…try things. I'm just trying to figure this stuff out.
I am sure your business fluctuates, and there are times where you make more money than others. How do you manage that cash and the psychology?
Dan Mitchell: So you hit the nail on the head. This business, especially photography and art, it's an art. Any art, music, painting, photography, video, it's a roller coaster. You just never know when work isn't going to be there. I try to plan work ahead to minimize the ups and downs. If I see a gig on Facebook, that I see a band playing, I contact them, even if it's two months out. I know I'll have work out in advance.
How do you handle it when you have, let's say you make a lot of money on something like post-Austin, then you make no money? For example, you said you make very little money while you were in Austin, how do you handle that?
Dan Mitchell: I basically have no overhead. Because since I'm a sole proprietor, the only thing I'm paying on a regular basis is taxes. And rent. But if something were to happen to my equipment, that's the only other expense. I take really good care of my equipment.
I'm a person who likes to plan ahead. In this business, I'm working with a lot of musicians and stuff. I'm not saying they're all disorganized, but sometimes they'll plan a show probably two weeks in advance. A lot of people don't put the same effort promoting themselves. As another creative trying to offer you a service, it's hard for me because I'm trying to schedule as well, give you a service, but I don't know when you're playing. So I want to try to have that. If bands promote themselves two months in advance, I'll reach out to you and say, "Hey, I'm available, because I haven't booked this weekend yet."
I also started to expand my business. I realized if I want to make a living at photography, I can't just do music. I can't pigeonhole myself. If you want to make a living off this, the only people that are really making a living in music photography are big name acts, their photographers. They're on tour all the time. They work for the record label. I don't do that. I'm a sole proprietor.
I had to balance it out with weddings, senior pictures. I do portraiture stuff. It's photography. You can relate any type of photography to the next type of photography.
You had a chance to shoot Robert Plant…who else have you gotten to shoot?
Dan Mitchell: I've shot some big acts in Columbus. One time Rob Thomas from Matchbox Twenty came through Columbus. I wasn't paid for it, but I came out. A radio station was hosting an event. He was on tour. They paid for him to come to Columbus. I also went to South by Southwest and got to shoot Lukas Nelson, and I covered the Austin Music Awards.
This year was my second year covering that at South by Southwest. Basically for people out there that don't know, South by Southwest is probably one of the biggest music festivals in the country. It's an international music festival in Austin, Texas. Everybody who’s somebody in music, and film, and interactive, comes to Austin, Texas for 10 days. I was able to get a press pass for an event called the Austin Music Awards, where it was showcasing local artists in Austin, as well, some big names. The guys that wrote the Stranger Things theme song, they're from Austin. They got an award. They have musicians that play throughout the night. Some acts, some big acts. Lukas Nelson. Chrissie Hynde from the Pretenders. She was the special guest. They always have a special guest. The previous year, that's when I shot Robert Plant.
Can you tell me about a time when things really didn't go well in your business? How did you deal with that?
Dan Mitchell: First example that comes to mind, I think this was summer of 2015. I recall a time when I was taking on a lot of work, which is good. I was busy for summer. I didn't have my hard drive plugged in a surge protector. A storm rolled through, and a lightning struck around my neighborhood. It wiped my hard drive.
I can't remember exactly how many clients I was working for. I probably had six or seven clients’ work in there. A couple video projects. The video takes me longer, so I was working as it was going. I was literally about to do the backups the next day. It just happened that that night, a storm rolled through. I didn't have my external hard drive plugged into a surge protector. It wiped every single client that I was working on. The six clients. I felt awful.
It's one of those things that just happens. You just have to own up to your mistake. So what I did was, I called all the clients. I offered, "Hey. I would love ... This is what happened. I feel awful. You're stuff was lost in a storm. And I want to make it up to you." I first offered the money back. Five of the six, they did not want their money back, because they felt like my time is worth something. They all said that we value what you do. "If there's something that we can do in the future, we're gonna come to you still. And you don't have to pay us back." But it was just one of those things where I just needed to get out there, and let them know that I am genuinely sorry.
Those were some hard conversations. Most of them were all the phone, because I wanted to tell them as soon as it happened. Only one person wanted their money back, which is totally acceptable. I said to every single person, "I want to make it up to you." I'm actually on good terms with all of them. All those clients are returning clients still. They love my work, and I continue doing what I love.
Where do you see your business going the next 10 years? You're three years in. You're building your reputation, you're building your work. You continue to hone your craft. Where do you see yourself going in 10 years?
Dan Mitchell: In 10 years, I mean this will be three years coming up. I just continue to do what I love. I want to continue getting my music clients. I want to travel more. I went on my first tour in November. I want to go on more tours with bands.
The band I toured with was called, Andy Shaw Band. They're a local band here in Columbus. They've been around for about 10 years now. They wanted to go on tour. They asked me to go with them. I got a great experience out of that. Basically I see myself continue to work with more musicians, and I want to tour, I want to travel. I get the travel bug a lot.
In 10 years I see myself making a profit at what I do. I diversified my client-base, because now I'm not just working with musicians. I have weddings in the background. I have senior pictures. I continually put out ads on Facebook. I really try to reach as many people as I can.
What's it like to do business in Columbus?
Dan Mitchell: Great question. Columbus, it's been my home for ever since I can remember. The last 23 years, it's been my home. Columbus has a great arts scene, like I mentioned earlier, like music, art. So a place like this, it's really good for a person like me, because I'm a creative, I'm a business owner as well. Columbus is a great place to do both, because we have such a great arts community. We also have Ohio State University, is here, so it’s a college town.
There's a suburb in Columbus where there's some people that referred me. I get a couple people, they recognize the people I shoot and they're like, "Hey can you do my engagement?" So a lot of times, Columbus, it's not like Chicago, it's not like New York. It's not as big. It's smaller than Austin, actually. But it seems like everybody's connected somehow.
Is there anything else that you want our audience to know about you or your business? What are your social media handles? Where can people find you?
Dan Mitchell: People can find me, first I want to send you to my website at www.mitchellmultimedia.com. You can also find me on Facebook, I'm a heavy user, I post a lot of my photos on Facebook. I'm also an avid user of Instagram. My Instagram handle is @mitchell_multimedia.
If you have any questions or comments about today's episode, please leave them below.