It’s official. The rockstar is dead.
Dead, gone, and six feet under.
But if the patina has worn thin and we’ve been rubbed a little raw, now that our unvarnished lives are out there for everyone to see, what becomes all too apparent is the single burning question we have yet to answer. What next?
The rockstar was nothing but the worst in us all. Hope hemorrhaging on dreams of quick money and good times in exchange for the belief we could all be the next big thing if we just learned to wash, rinse, and repeat.
We killed the rockstar, but wash, rinse, and repeat is exactly what we have left.
There are more tips, more tricks, more advice, and more more than ever before. We’re awash in knowledge. Search brand. Search SEO. Search marketing. Search sales. It’s all there. By this point, if you’re not finding it, you’re not looking.
But no amount of information is going to do the trick.
The industry is running scared. Bodies crowded, flesh to flesh, mouths open, gasping for air. And we wait. Counting the inquiries. Waiting for revelation. We dangle on the hook ready for the next shot of adrenaline to keep us going. Just get a little more knowledge, a little more cash, and we can keep the raft afloat until we hit solid ground.
It’s not enough. The downgrade from an economy of hope to an economy of survival may be a correction, but it’s not a cure. Because all the information in the world will do nothing for us, if we have nothing to use it for.
We chased our dreams. We followed the bill of goods we were sold. Find your passion. Find the thing you love. Make that your life’s work. And we found something we loved, but we have been let down. Because what no one told us was how to keep that passion alive.
The truest problem in the age of the rockstar had nothing to do with broken promises and unfulfilled dreams. Like the day after any party, the real disappointment comes when we wake up in the cold morning light with the hangover pounding, and the emptiness is still there when we ask “What’s next?”
So often, it’s the very reason we started taking pictures. To quell the nagging voice in the back of our heads, asking if there was more, asking what was next, and wondering who we were. Photography was the answer. The thing that set us free and let us be, in this world, as part of it, with purpose and power and feeling.
But as the days grew longer, and the nights got harder, we were slammed into the wall. We can run our hardest, but we can never catch up, because what’s next is always an arm’s length away. It’s always out of reach. It’s the carrot in front of the stick, and it’s never going to be here in the now, when the here and now is the only thing we ever have.
It’s a question we can never answer.
But we can stop asking.
These are hard times to be sure. But the choice is always the same. You can put full faith in the present or you can let the doubt swallow you whole, because when you wait for the money and the likes, and dwell in the tension and fear, you diminish your power and bypass all the potential of the now to build a hollower, emptier future.
Committing to the moment lets you find the future you need and forget the future you want. Do what matters. Reconnect with the stories you need to tell. Start writing the unwritten tomorrow.
Breathe in. Breathe out. Look. Act.
Now, I’m not saying business doesn’t matter. But Duke Ellington had it right: It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing. Do not create a business that pits you against yourself. Our security against our freedom. Our ego against our creativity. Don’t let your vision detach itself from your destination. The question isn’t how to get it done. It’s how to get it done your way.
It’s fully true that you don’t need to take great pictures to make a great living, but it’s so often said, and we’re too often mislead, because when you connect the dots and relentlessly stuff your products so full of your vision that they’re ready to burst at the seams, you’re worth your very most.
The trick is so deceptively simple. What’s true is selling only the quality of your images is a perilous proposition. But what’s too often left out is that the dedication to delivering your very best – all of the exploration, the toil, the craft, and the art – these are the most powerful weapons in your arsenal to build the exact story people will hire you for.
The world craves the real, but it’s a story you can’t fake to make. You’ve gotta hit the ground hard, keep on the move, and push your way through. True grit is the stuff of real legend, and skipping it is the surest way to find yourself back at the end of the party, wondering what’s next. So if your very best doesn’t matter to your business, change things up and make it so, or else you’re wasting the very power of the stories you have.
We’re blessed with a task that asks us to dwell in the present. You can’t engage in the act of photography without some vision, some direction, and some place you’re trying to go. We don’t always know what it is. We don’t always know how to get there. But don’t lose faith before you arrive. Dive headlong. Find your verve. Find your vector. Find your little corner in the universe, and build from there.
Are you moving forward with heart and dedication? Are you living boldly? If you can just see the movement, that’s enough. Because once you lock-on to even the smallest sliver of that person you are, you’ll never need to think about washing, rinsing, or repeating ever again.
“Let go of yourself.”
When you speak, you don’t imagine yourself being quoted. Doubly not, when it’s because you’re tongue tied, you’ve gone off script, and the words just rattle out of your head. But Carla Ten Eyck made it a tweet for the world to see.
“Let go of yourself.”
It didn’t mean much at the time, but I think Carla knew something I didn’t.
See, up until September of last year, I had never even heard of the Inspire Retreat, and now for the past three days, I was not only an attendee, but a speaker. And like all things new and foreign, you’re a little bit anxious. Anxious about what you’ll say, what you’ll do, whether you can make it all work. But more than anything, about All. Those. People. Where you’ll eat. Who you’ll talk to. What everyone is going to be like.
Will it be high school all over again? Will there be the cool kids and the outcasts and the rockstars and the egos? The thought sent shivers down my spine.
But that first night, as Carla delivered her keynote, it all came into focus. In brave, bold, and raw words, she showed something beautiful. She cut herself open and let her life spill out for all of us, and it became clear that the conference was exactly about letting go of yourself.
It was not the egos and the cliques and the who is better than who. As I watched and the days passed, I saw this retreat was about community and about love. About letting yourself go, not in the simple, practical way I had conceived of it as I uttered the words, but as nourishment and growth. As letting go of limitation and doubt and as a necessary step to becoming tomorrow’s you.
We are a community on the edge. These are hard times. Budgets have evaporated, the market is overheated, crowded, and full, and so much of the magic has been reduced to formula. It is a fight to survive.
And we are fighting. I heard so many stories of life being lived. Of fights being fought. Of standing up and being counted amidst the challenge of children and family and work and a market that doubts your value more than it ever has.
But it can’t only be a fight. It can’t only be survival. It has to be more.
Inspire was exactly that more.
As small business owners, we live a solitary existence. There is a wonder and brilliance in a life that’s yours. Where you dare to make the world your own. But there’s a loneliness in the day-to-day fights.
Inspire was a sledgehammer to this isolation. There were no sales. There was no show. It was pure giving. A reminder that we are not alone. A lesson that we are all more. That in our similarity, we can find our individuality. It truly was letting go of yourself. Knowing that there was nothing to fear for being who you are. It was permission to find your future free of restraint and restriction. It was the purest of inspiration.
So thank to the entire team. To Enna and Eric and Krista and Carla and Paul. To everyone helping to make it happen. And a special thank you to Mark, who asked me to join. What they pulled off was nothing short of tremendous. For the heart, for the inspiration. For the group of people they assembled and for finding a way to do exactly what they asked of us. In an industry filled with surface, they dared to dig deep and open themselves up for each of us to grow.
You went a different direction? What do you mean you went a different direction?!?!
I couldn’t believe my eyes, as I read and re-read the email. This had to be wrong.
I had it in the bag. This can’t be. They fit the ICP!
I didn’t understand. The couple came signed, sealed, and delivered. They were a referral from a happy client who knew the same people, hung out at the same places, and even liked the same food. I had it. I could feel it in my bones. Everything was flawless from start to finish. I cracked open my best jokes. I shared my best stories. I was the first person on their list , and my pictures were exactly what they needed. Only a fool could fail. Of course, I was that fool.
They were a spot on match for my ICP. In marketing speak, that’s the Ideal Client Profile, and I had mine defined to a T. I knew the music they should listen to, the things they should value, the way they thought, they way they bought, and what they wanted. And what they wanted was supposed to be me.
But they went a different direction. Where had I gone wrong?
DO WE REALLY NEED IDEAL CLIENTS?
You couldn’t spit into the blogosphere more than two feet without hitting an article on ideal clients and target audiences. Define your clients. Get more clients. Find good ones. Fire bad ones. But is the ideal client really a silver bullet? I couldn’t help but wonder, with all that information out there about reeling the right person in, why aren’t we happier with our clients? And why is it so hard to find more of them?
WELL, YES, BUT…
OK, so what is an ideal client? It’s basically a thought exercise to identify the people who are best for your business. You know – who you work well with, who your services fit, who can afford you, and all that. Once you have that person in your head, you have a shorthand ideal you can use to decide who to focus on, how to focus on them, and who to ignore. Do I want to be featured on that blog? Nope, they don’t attract my type of clients. Should I say “Hell yeah!” on my blog? Yep, that’s totally my clients.
Finding the ideal client is a Big Deal, and the articles abound (if you haven’t done the exercise, go do a search and do it – well worth the time – this article will still be here), but the point is simple. If you don’t know who you’re trying to talk to, you can’t really know the best way to talk to them or reach them. Hard to deny that logic. What’s equally true is if you don’t know the best way to talk to people, it’s pretty hard to give people that glorious “OMG! This photographer is the one for meeeee!” feeling when they learn about you, which is the key to big, endless gobs of money and lifelong freedom. Not really. But it is the key to good marketing and strong relationships, which isn’t too shabby, either. But for all that…
SO WHAT’S THE PROBLEM?
Creating a great People Match is awesome. But, like all things, there are as many ways to muck it up as there are owners running businesses. It may not be rocket science, but it’s easier than pie to go off track, and the culprit is that good ol’ chestnut of a flaw that haunts us all: self-interest. The problem is it’s all-too-easy to focus on creating what we want – a perfect client – instead of finding a perfect match, which is why I use the term People Match instead. Here are three common mistakes people make when creating their ideal client and how to correct them.
1. PROJECTING YOURSELF
Instead of identifying what your clients are like, you slot your own traits into your People Match. You know you’re projecting when your ideal client profile reads like your separated-at-birth twin. They’ll think the same, want the same, and basically be the same as you.
The problem is this violates the point of it all. You create a People Match to figure out who is right for your business, and to understand them thoroughly. When you slot in your own traits, you’re making a huge assumption that you’re the perfect person for you, and you’re shortchanging yourself from the process of going out into the real world and looking hard for the right match, which is part of the learning a business needs to do. Have you tried selling to you? You might not be as easy to work with as you think. You might not buy the services you want to sell. You might be more demanding than you really want to deal with.
Remember, you’re looking for someone who is a complement to you, not the same as you. And more specifically, you’re looking for someone who is a complement not to you as a person, but to you as a business. Would you want someone who was pleasant to deal with, easy to sell to, and didn’t fuss about your price but wasn’t like you? Or would you want someone who you could hang out with at a bar, but who was a whole mess of trouble?
Now, I’m not saying a client just like you is always a whole mess of trouble – very frequently, your best clients do share a lot of your values and that’s what lets you relate. But even so, it’s often the careful examination that gives you the Aha! moment when you suddenly figure out exactly why your clients are really buying from you, and that’s gold. There are probably a lot of reasons that are very different than you think.
Re-align your People Match by taking a hard look at your business and seeing who is really out there. Don’t create characteristics just because you think they’d work for you. Have you ever read most people’s wish list for their partners? They don’t always look a whole lot like the real thing. The point? We don’t always know what’s good for us.
The good news is life does the legwork for you. Just watch for the problems you actually encounter. There’s nothing better than real life to clue you in as to what you need and who works well with you. If you’ve been in the business even just a little while, you probably already have an idea as to the types of people who value you the most and need what you do, as well as who you get along with and who can make your life a living hell. Figure out what traits mesh well with your business, then connect the dots and figure out how the people with these traits live their lives, so you can seek them out and understand their problems.
How valuable is this knowledge? The Swiffer came about when the design agency Continuum watched real people using mops. The seed was planted when they saw an old lady wet a paper towel to wipe up some spilt coffee grounds instead of grabbing a mop, giving rise to an invention that generated $100 million in sales early on in a meager 4 months. Nothing beats knowing how your clients really behave and think. Remember, people don’t love you because you’re just like them. People love you because you get them that much. Use your People Match to find who’s right for you and find out what they’re about.
Usually, the more specific you get, the better. But you still need to rein it in. It seems harmless enough to say your perfect match prefers ice cream over frozen yogurt, thinks Marc Jacobs is better than sliced bread, and sings soulfully during her time off, but if you can’t make any actionable decisions based on these things, it’s a distraction. On top of it, if you get too attached to it, it might even lead you to exclude people who don’t fit your People Match, when they’d be great clients in reality.
Does that mean you shouldn’t go that deep? No. It means after you’ve gone that deep, you have to decide what really matters and what doesn’t. The worst case is when you feel like you’ve built a bulletproof profile that’s really a castle made of sand. Focusing on the wrong traits can take you take you down the rabbit hole instead of getting actual results. Even if it’s true your ideal client loves ice cream, you have to ask whether that tells us much about their relationship to your photography.
What you want is real specificity. Good business is specific business, but specific isn’t just being detailed. It’s knowing which details count. The common conception is that businesses fail, because they don’t know how to do the right thing. But a lot of people do the right thing all the time. The problem is they do even more of the wrong things, and it burns through their resources and time. If your ideal client is stuffed with characteristics that are questionable in value and limited in use, you’re creating a breeding ground for bad decision making – ironic, given that this is a problem defining the ideal client is supposed to help solve.
Go back to the basics. Look at needs and pain points and what personality and life traits influence your clients’ buying decisions for your services. That’s what you want to know about. What you’re looking for is correlation. For example, knowing that your client considers style part of their identity probably correlates with values like uniqueness, individuality, and artistry, which you could then be sure to talk about and reflect in your marketing (a note about correlation – never assume these things are true – go out there and talk with people). Look through the traits you identify in your People Match, and see what correlates to specific needs. Maybe corporate types are concerned with professionalism and reliability. Maybe some age groups tend to care more about people instead of decorations. Who knows. Go find out.
3. CLIPPING THE THORNS
This happens when you remove every objection possible. Unlike projecting yourself, where you simply assume your perfect client has the same problems you have, when you clip the thorns, you flat-out remove potential issues. Tired of people who object about money? Doesn’t matter, because your perfect clients have trust funds or they make exceptions for the good stuff (a.k.a. You). What about micromanagers? Never, because your client has complete faith in you and would never ask you to do anything you wouldn’t want to do.
If you filter out every possible flaw you could encounter, you’re creating a target audience of zero. Every client has potential issues. But the point is good businesses know exactly how to handle the issues that are unique to their audience. That’s the whole point of the exercise. Knowing exactly who your best clients are, for good and for bad, lets you create a full, nuanced profile that clues you in to the small, subtle things that let you click with them.
Forget about being extra special. No matter how many times popular culture will tell you, “You’re worth it,” what your clients care about is themselves and not you. Caring about you only comes after you’ve shown you care about them. That means you have to put in the legwork to figure out how to service them the best way possible.
Create a profile that helps reveal what issues you’re going to encounter. People who fight for their clients get clients. It’s not a character flaw that a couple doesn’t know why you cost so much. It’s a hurdle. It’s a character flaw (to your business) when they’d never ever pay what you need to charge. Be aware of the difference between problems you can readily solve and problems that hurt you.
For the longest time, I was sure I had a rock-solid People Match. As it turned out, it was a perfect profile that fit no one. I created a person better than reality without figuring out how to make my business attractive to them. I assumed the pictures would say it all, and I blamed everyone else for my problems. They didn’t appreciate me. They didn’t understand me. They didn’t have the budget I needed.
I never found out why that couple went a different direction. But I can take a guess. We shot the breeze, we talked about their story, as well as where we liked to hang out, what we liked to do, and how great my pictures were. But I never learned a thing about what mattered to them and how I could help. They say to a man with a hammer, every problem is a nail. My problem was I never saw that their problem had nothing to do with a nail.