My name is Jason Groupp. I am a New York City photographer, and after shooting weddings for twenty-four years I recently became a specialist. This single act has changed everything.
For over two decades, I’ve seen ups, downs, sideways, and backwards in the photo industry. One thing that has remained constant is the need to find something “special” about what you do and who you are. Something that helps you stand out. Something extraordinary.
I thought those things were tied to great innovations or great ideas or great pictures or fashionable styles. Over the years, there have been a many trendy things to hang my camera on, even some I feel embarrassed to admit now. But no matter how successfully I hitched my business to the newest, coolest, and most amazing wagon, over time they would all slow down and come to a final stop. That is when the flaming arrows would suddenly appear, burning all my efforts to the ground. It would be another wagon train of trendy messaging reduced to ashes.
And with it, my most recent business identity.
“Back in the day” – when I first got started in this biz – the barrier to entry was as high as the Empire States building. Film camera gear was both expensive and difficult to master. Loading medium format film backs/magazines required a lot of practice, and learning “how” to take a good exposure was a process of costly trial-and-error, while waiting for our film to come back from the lab was a lesson in patience. And all of this education, more often than not, came at the elbow of a mentoring photographer who agreed to teach me the ropes of the wedding industry. . The older photographers called this “paying your dues” while the interns called it “working for peanuts.” In spite of that, this system worked well for a long time.
Then the photography world flipped over… and a few of us hung on for the wild ride to come.
Okay… I don’t mean to sound like an old fart, but that’s the way it was. There was a step-by-step process to establishing yourself as a professional photographer;
- You found an interest in photography
- You found someone to intern for
3. When you were ready, you struck out on your own
Obviously today is different. We now have digital cameras that make it easy (too easy?) to capture an acceptable image, the barrier to entry is low, and dropping rapidly, and the easiest way to get a business started is to launch it on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.
On the upside, we are doing the most creative work ever in wedding photography, and I love that I can constantly push my creative side to make a more exciting result with each event. That said, there is also a billion (or so it seems) more people doing it now, and we must strive even harder at ways to market ourselves to reach potential brides and grooms.
If you look at some of the best and most successful personal service businesses, you’ll find that many times they’ve succeeded not just because they were able to identify a problem and come up with a great solution. Rather, because they were able to define what they could do better than anyone else and build a market around that unique skill or talent. This is not new, and the most famous example is Apple, where Steve Jobs was always happy to report that success for them was based on delivering a product that the world didn’t know it wanted, and then couldn’t live without, after it was there. This concept is at the core of their special sauce, and the philosophy of Specialism, as well.
With increasing frequency, successful businesses adopt some form of specialism, most easily defined as a singular focus of the uniqueness of their business. For tomorrow’s photography business to expand and mature, we must also embrace Specialism and move away from the idea of a generalist photographer. My studio in NYC is among thousands of others, and the competition is brutal. I battle for a limited number of high-end weddings with a very talented group of people who range from well-known commercial photographers who shoot weddings “on the side” to the new hot shots who meet their clients in Starbucks at night.
Why stay, when I know I could succeed elsewhere with less effort and more profits? Mainly, because I <heart> NYC (in fact, my website is www.IamNYC.com) and couldn’t imagine being anywhere else! Sure, it’s ridiculously expensive, and even though I can command a higher rate, I live with the knowledge that I generally keep less money at the end of each event than those in less competitive places. Yeah, I’m a romantic.
Early on I learned I could differentiate by marketing myself as “The NYC wedding photographer” and setting up shop in an artsy West Chelsea Studio. I figured this was one way to shrink the playing field to competing with only a few hundred studios instead of thousands of freelancers. That strategy worked great for a while. Alas, nothing lasts forever.
I went in search of my next differentiator. Maybe I could use engagement sessions? Somewhere in time, someone decided it would be a great idea if we gave our clients a “free” engagement session. It seemed a good marketing/sales tool, and would also be a great way to get to know our clients. Like everything, it worked for a while, and now it’s become almost an industry standard… meaning it has almost no differentiating value because it’s now expected. And worse, it’s now expected for FREE. What’s the big deal? It’s only an hour, right? Let’s break down that one-hour session:
-60 minutes travel to and from the shoot location
-60 minutes of shooting (minimum)
-120 minutes of downloading, processing, and uploading (a conservative estimate)
That is 4 hours of time you’re giving away that has NO real value. Ironically, it’s unlikely you are really getting to know your client, anyway. You also often do it during the week towards the end of the day, and it screws up everyone’s day. So in the end it always seemed like this chore you all had to do, and no one enjoyed it. Glad it was FREE.
What was the weakness of all these ideas, and why weren’t they sustainable? They were about what I do, or where I live versus WHO I am, and WHY I do it. This concept is at the heart of Team-X, and Jeff calls it Specialism. Specialism is about how you can reach higher plateaus of success than you ever thought possible by clearly defining a your personal uniqueness and declaring it to the world. The motto of Team-X is “Work Happily Ever-after” and that should tell you a lot about its WHY.
To quote Jeff on this, “Specialism leverages the power of focus. And there is no faster way to lose focus and weaken your brand than to present yourself as competent in multiple categories, as a generalist must do.”
Exactly how did I specialize? With all the branding, and marketing I had been working on I knew I was close to something, but felt like something was missing. Then it hit me. What was missing was… ME! I needed to add ME to what I love doing the most: Photography + NYC. Fortunately, I know that there’s 8.1 million people here who have the same passion for my town as I do, and I’d venture to say maybe a few others outside the Big Apple, too.
So, how do I share my city, my love, my mistress (my wife is okay with this) with the world? The answer popped into my head one day as a passed a young, hip, and in-love couple who were definitely tourists. And, they seemed just in love with NYC as they were with each other.
THAT’S IT! I’ll combine my knowledge and passion of NYC to create a unique experience for others! I knew immediately that this would this work for my engagement shoots as well as for that hot couple that just passed me on the street looking for something really fun to do! Wheels turning… I approached my next engagement shoot client, and asked them if instead of just doing a one hour shoot focused on THEM, would they mind if I made a “date with NYC” out of it, for all us. They loved the idea. We started by agreeing to add a few hours, and an adventurous spirit, to the shoot, followed by some coffee and drinks, afterwards. They were IN!
Immediately, I pulled up some of my experience as a fashion photographer, and began producing the event as if it were a commercial shoot. I created inspiration boards, hired a hair/makeup artist, and gathered as much information from my clients BEFORE the shoot to help plan a date for THEM using MY knowledge of NYC. My clients LOVED it all. I mean, who wouldn’t? An entire day devoted to having fun, enjoying NYC, and oh yeah, taking some amazing pictures. Let me tell you, after spending a day getting to know my clients and having the adventure of doing things THEY love to do (from the info I gathered), we became better friends than that one hour engagement session would have ever created!
I <heart> NYC sessions were born – and a huge success!
The next step, and increasingly satisfying part, was moving this concept into an entirely new area, and marketing these sessions to tourists. With a little help of SEO (via the blog) and tourism sites, getting the word out spread like wildfire. As a result, I’ve had the opportunity to spend time enjoying the city with couples from all over the world, including Russia, Italy, Australia, & just recently Indonesia. Talk about working “happily ever after” – I get to combine all the things I love to do, make money, and have super happy clients… and we know there’s no better marketing for our industry than a happy client. And, no better way to spend a day than doing something you truly love. I get to do that, whenever I want.
Since adopting it for my own business, I frequently get asked why specialization is better than generalization when applied to creative and personal service businesses. There are lots of good answers to that, though the most important (to me) is the sense of ultimate well-being that I achieved once I successfully specialized. When you know you are (finally) good enough, the root of most personal insecurities – comparison – ceases to be relevant.
Once I specialized, I realized that there really is no competition for me, as a person, which means that there is no real competition for me as a creative or personal service business either. When your business positioning is based on you, as a person, you learn that only you can be the best you for your client. That is honestly one of the most difficult concepts to embrace, and also one of the most important if you expect to succeed as a specialist.
Note that specialism isn’t an ad campaign, sales promotion or this year’s marketing fad. It won’t work if you approach it as something you will “try out” and see if it sticks. It’s a very real commitment to define the “YOUniqueness” of you, your business and your purpose, and celebrate it in everything you say and do. It can change your life, as it has mine.