Working with Start-ups

I’m writing this piece mostly to vent (in a constructive way) about working with new brands, often pre-launch, and how they can throw out some interesting challenges for external suppliers like myself, in the hopes that it might be helpful to other photographers in similar positions with their clients. Here’s a smattering of thoughts, issues and lessons learned from working with both start-ups and comparing that with larger clients.

New or pre-launch brands will be the most common clients you come across, especially in the early days of running a photography business. It can be a very attractive prospect; the creative freedom can be abundant and the undefined potential of an unseen product is just plain exciting — just imagine if you began working with a brand like Brewdog in its early stages! And that’s not a pipe dream; it happens, it’s amazing when it does, and it’s worth holding on to hope for. I started out pre-launch with Space Goods (now a leader in its market), and while there have been some challenges along the way, ultimately we’ve settled into a mutually beneficial and respectful arrangement, which I value immensely.

BUT, newer brands tend to need increased support when it comes to communication, and you can quickly find yourself losing unaccounted for hours to many factors, like back and forth messages explaining costs/deliverables/timelines, constant brief changes, last minute cancellations due to product/packaging delays, and often the relationship will sour simply because you become unable to keep up with these changes. Those with less experience tend to over-deliver to achieve a positive relationship which can be taken advantage of, and then when more is asked for it’s easy to feel exploited. The working relationship needs to be beneficial and sustainable for both parties! Suddenly restricting your flexibility in an attempt to recover from over-promising can land you in a disagreement with your client, or even straight-up ghosted.

Not all of these problems lie client-side, to be clear. If the client is less experienced with dealing with a photographer, then YOU need to take the lead by being clear and concise with your communication, and provide a structure to the potential project to make it easier for them to fill in the blanks with a better understanding of how a project with you might work.

I have found that the better I set my boundaries, with intent and confidence, some of the less glamorous aspects of working with newer brands can be avoided. Here are some pointers to consider:

Introductory Discount – The usual “Give us a discount on this first shoot and there will be more work down the road for you”. Start-ups will be keen to save money where they can, and this is understandable, but be cautious about losing out on the supposed benefits at your end. I’ve given this discount countless times, and I’ve NEVER seen a second project come out of it. A few have been discussed, but when they realise they aren’t going to get the same discount again they move on to the next photographer, like a savvy shopper utilising every introductory offer/free trial they can find. I’m not suggesting a discount like this should never be given, but if you do, either get a contract signed, or be aware of the probable outcome.

New Client Enquiries – If you have an active online presence, there will be SO MANY outreaches from potential new clients to respond to, and 90% never reply beyond that first message, for a multitude of reasons, fair or not. That’s not to say you should *select all* and *mark as read*, but you need to streamline the process of responding to ensure you can remain comfortable with the amount of time put into sales (if, like me, you are terrible at selling). Save templated responses that give a friendly greeting, ask more about the product, the timeline, the budget and the deliverables. It may not increase your response rates, but it will save you precious time.

Information – Often, the people reaching out to you on behalf of new brands have little to no idea what they need specifically from a photographer, and the best course of action is to acknowledge this (internally I mean, don’t respond with “Ha, you don’t know anything!”) and then strive to provide enough information to incite the client’s confidence in your services, whilst leaving enough room to take in the specific requirements and direction from them. It’s the difference between “Here’s what we can do,” and “Here’s what’s going to happen,”

Client Contact – More often than not, the contacts created by these outreaches are the owners of the new brands themselves. While this can be a positive thing, having a personal touch and all that, it’s worth noting that the direct owners/founders of a brand are emotionally invested in it, and this often results in heightened demands of you as a supplier. Having a more defined approach to your process really helps here; the more you flex to unsustainable conditions without communicating that is what is taking place, the worse it’s going to be when you have to snap back and start re-defining your limits. But equally, if you work with start-ups a level of flexibility is essential for a healthy working relationship. It’s not an all or nothing situation; there’s a middle ground to hit and it’ll take some trial and error to get there.

Product Quality – This one is more niche, but occasionally you might shoot a new product, and find out in post-production that the client isn’t happy because of how the product looks (to be clear, NOT the styling, lighting, etc, but the actual product itself). Or, you receive a new product to shoot, and realise quickly that it is a poor quality mock-up, or a first version that needs some tweaks. In this case, you will no doubt be directed by the client towards editing your work to fit the vision of how the product should or will look. This can be tough to communicate, but if these changes are not communicated during the briefing process, then this sits OUTSIDE of what would be deemed standard retouching. It’s tough to really nail down the parameters, but if you need to drastically alter the appearance of a product from how it appears in real life, then the additional work required needs to be discussed and/or quoted for. It’s a teething problem of a start-up or even more established brands, which is par for the course, but it is not the photographer’s responsibility to pick up this slack without warning and/or remuneration. Now, I am the champion of flexibility when it comes to product photography, but I draw the line at working for free, which you essentially are if you need to unexpectedly work additional hours to rectify issues that the brand itself should be shouldering.

I could go on, but the obstacles faced become even more niche and brand-specific, and the above covers the most common factors from my own experience.

Would you add to this list, or challenge any of it? Send me a message and let me know.

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