It’s the dream of many, many aspiring photographers. Your own studio space – whether in your home or out of it. The dedicated studio space is a creative entrepreneur’s fantasy. It’s what many of us strive for as the “next” big goal in our business.
So, what are you waiting for, my friend? Go do it!
Yeah, hold onto your unicorns there, you wouldn’t think I’d just hand over my blessing like tossing pennies in a pool did ya? (yes…you heard the Taylor Swift lyric reference right, girl!)
You gotta make this decision count first! Ordering up a studio for your business is a BIG -mofo deal…. Let’s make sure you’re ready.
So let’s talk a little bit about my ow personal journey, why don’t we?
I began with a home studio. It was a total shrine to my clients.
Then….I took the first plunge: shared space. it was a 4th floor walk up and a cranky 1920’s service elevator with a roll-up iron gate, graffiti laden walls, rotted out wood floors and a smell that would make even Shrek the troll plug his nose. Most of my clients wouldn’t dare use it for fear their stroller might plunge 40 feet through the floors once it got to the top and slammed to a halt at my space….it was something out of the Shining for sure. Do ya think that helped my brand any? NOPE. But hey, first-timers (ahem…beggars) can’t be choosers right? Its was cheap, and that’s what mattered to me at the time.
I was only there 4 months when the guy closed shop and I was forced to find alternative plans, enters my second studio. 4,000 feet, swanky Pearl District in Portland. Shared with four guys and a gal (me) – anyone else getting Three Men and A Little lady vibes, here? You can picture that place right? The studio itself was beautiful, hip and in a historic building, but the boys had ZERO style. Utilitarian to say the least. They let me decorate. It worked.
But then, life threw a curveball. I got engaged. And moved 200 miles away. I tired to keep my Portland studio alive, but traveling over the Cascade mountain range in the winter? A big absolutely not.
In the Fall of 2009, I gave my notice in Portland, and took the plunge on a run-down space in Bend, OR. Deep in the heart of the 2008 recession. Was I on some kind of primitive, medieval high?! Well, it may have been a slightly insane decision, but I am still in that space today.
When I first got my current studio, the building was slated to be torn down within 12 months. I took it anyway and got a smoking deal. 11 years later I’m still here, with a full expansion and remodel, fully branded to who I am and what my business stands for. But let me be super clear: it was not an easy road.
I moved in October of 2009 and sunk 10K into the space. We opened December 2009. Not exactly prime time to get portraits, right? What was I doing opening in DECEMBER?! I had dramatically missed the window of opportunity and I could barely pay the rent. Stressed to the max and overwhelmed, with a stroke of luck I managed to rake in 20-30 clients in January (a marketing success story for another day and episode), but I cannot tell you the fear of knowing there’s only $200 in your checking account and your rent is due in 5 days. Have you been there too?
Yes, I think we all have – and it’s terrifying. Like hide me in a safe room, and wish the floor would swallow me terrifying.
Now that we have gone through my personal journey (and boy was it a LONG one) let’s talk about what it means to be ready for a studio space, shall we?
There’s a lot that goes into it’s costs and nuances, plus your business needs to be in a place to handle it’s ups and downs. And if you’ve never gone hunting for commercial space, it’s a lot different experience than renting your old college apartment.
First off: YOU and your business. Where are you at? One of the biggest mistakes I see newer photographers do is get a studio space before their business revenue is consistent. And hey, talk about the pot calling the kettle black…I was NOT ready. I did it anyways. Dumb move? YES. It happened to work, but you don’t want that kind of anxiety. Speaking from experience…it sucks bananas. And friend, if I can help you prevent that kind of stress….that’s why you’re here!
Let’s get into the nitty gritty here, a check-list if you will:
- Make sure your client numbers are relatively consistent per month. Of course rent amounts vary by market, so you’ll need to do some calculations. You don’t want your rent to cost you more than 1-2 clients per month average sale. And you want to have at least 4-6 clients per month consistently. Does that make sense? So for example, if you average $1000 per client, then your rent should cost you no more than $1500 a month. On top of that, you should be working with an additional 4-6 clients at $1000 per client per month.
- To be safe, you should consider waiting to move to a commercial studio until you are bringing in $100k in revenue per year. Can you do it with less? YES. But be careful, and make sure you can handle the rent. Rent is overhead. You pay it whether you have clients or not. Avoiding a lot of overhead is the hallmark of most successful entrepreneurs.
- Regardless, Build up a nest egg before you take the studio plunge. You should have at LEAST 4 months of expenses in the bank to handle lean months. 6 months is much better and will melt your stress like your hubby giving you a surprise back rub. Liquid cash to use when you need it? It’s basically liquid gold. Over the years, I’ve saved almost 2 years in operating expenses and it allows me to ride the roller coaster of ups and downs without any fears. The photography business is feast or famine, my friend. Even 14 years into this industry, there are months when I shoot 1 client and months where I shoot 20. You gotta get used to that, and be able to ride that wave!
- Consider sharing a space with another photographer. You share costs, and that helps a ton. I made a decision to NOT share with someone who shared my niche, and that was a good call in hind sight. So tread lightly there and think through WHO would be the best fit for you. A lot of my students have decided to take the plunge with a fellow family photographer or fellow wedding photographer, and it ended up in a negative spiral and a friendship that exploded like a bottle of coke and a mentos mint. Can you say flat-lined? No one needs that kind of stress.
What about the space itself?
If you’ve determined you CAN do this, what kind of space should you be looking for? What do you need? What do you NOT? How do you navigate the world of commercial real estate? What’s a broker? Who Do you talk to? Should you negotiate? It’s an intimidating experience to dive into finding the right commercial space. It’s not like hunting the Craigslist “for rent” section or clicking AirBnB. The commercial real estate world is a profitable industry with major developers who own and build commercial buildings. They know you’re MAKING MONEY with their space, so a whole different set of parameters come into play.
So, lets’ dive into THIS topic, sister.
First off, HOW do you find a a commercial space?
One of the easiest things to do is drive around to your favorite shopping centers, and look for “for lease” signs. Note who the commercial broker is and start stalking that company’s website for their other listings around town. Do a simple Google search for commercial real estate – your town USA and see what comes up. Craigslist does have commercial listings and a lot of brokers will put their spaces there too. You can also approach a commercial broker, just like you would a real estate agent and ask them to help you find a leasable space. The developer and/or building owner will wind up paying the broker’s “Finder’s” fee, but keep in mind using a broker means your rent will likely be higher in the long run to help offset the costs of the broker’s fees to the building owner.
I found my first space through Craiglist as I was looking for a shared space. Here in Bend, I drove by my space and called. At the time, the 100 year old building was run down and only 20% occupied….slated to be demolished within 12 months. I was so desperate for a space, I didn’t care about what may happen, so I negotiated a great deal and as luck would have it, the building never got torn down. It changed hands multiple times, and the most recent owner decided to restore and revitalize it. Over the years, my rent has almost tripled, but my business grew as well and was able to handle the increased costs.
Once you find a place, how do you actually acquire it?
There’s a lot a terms, regulations and questions to discover that aren’t part of most people’s everyday vernacular. Plus, you need to consider a lot of things before saying yes:
- Parking. Is there ample parking for your clients? Is it paid or free? Who pays for the parking lot maintenance? Snow removal?
- Utilities – Is it included or not? And who pays to fix the heater or air conditioner when it breaks? A lot of commercial leases make the tenant responsible for all repairs, so consider that cost.
- Ask what the insurance requirements are. All commercial building owners require tenants to name them on their liability insurance – an extra cost to you.
- Who is the property manager? Who will you be dealing with when it comes to building or lease issues?
- Next, there’s CAMs. What the heck are CAMS? It stands for common area maintenance and includes taxes, cleaning, parking lot maintenance, landscape, common area utilities,…and the number can change every year. It’s typically a monthly fee that’s tacked onto your rent to cover these common area spaces. All tenants in the building share this cost. If there’s more snow plowing one year than the next, your CAMS will go up. Your base rent will stay the same every month, but your CAMS can raise or lower depending on what happens in the building overall. Think of it like a variable HOA fee for a condo buildinG.
- Finally, how do you decipher commercial rents? Oftentimes, it’ll be advertised as $20 per square foot. What does that mean? Hello, can someone please speak in English? I know it’s NOT $20 a month. Help!! Well no one ever said math was English, my friend. It goes like this…if a space is 1000 square feet, then it’s 20×1000 …divided by 12 months of the year. That’s about $1660 a month. And that probably does not include the CAMs or utilities.
- What about the space itself. Do you have to pay for the build out? What do I mean by “build out?” That’s the improvements made to the space to make it your own…your brand…your business. Does it need flooring? New walls constructed? Lighting? What do you pay for and what dies the landlord pay for? Well, that’s all a negotiation. SO, should you negotiate your rate? Heck yeah girl! The rate advertised is rarely the rate any Tennant pays. And some Tennant improvement or TI costs are yours, and some the landlord will pay, and it all gets negotiated into the rate you pay for the space. If you pay more upfront, your monthly expense should be lower, after all you’re improving the landlords space. If they do all the upfront construction, then you gotta help pay for that over time. But that rate doesn’t have to be the same each month during the course of the entire lease. What do I mean by that? Well, if you have a 5 year lease, you can negotiate a lower rate for the first 2 years and then have it increase incrementally higher over the last two years. This gives you a chance as a new studio to build up business. Your costs increase as you’re there longer and your business grow. The landlord really only cares about the bottom line at the end game. When your lease is up, did he make the money he needed to to be profitable? For you, it may be about the monthly cost, but for most owners it’s about the overall, big picture, bottom line.
Finally consider, your brand.
This may be the single most important factor when it comes to searching for the perfect studio space. I made that mistake in my first space—sacrificing location and accessibility to the detriment of my brand. Clients were NOT impressed with my 4th floor walk up. It was hard to get to, sketchy and quirky. If I was a high school senior photographer, it may have been charming. But as a family and baby photographer it was not okay. Can you imagine hauling that Graco stroller up 4 flights of stairs? Face palm. It deeply affected my brand and it’s lucky I realized that early. The minute I changed to a different space, client’s respect for me went up, and my sales reflected that. I jumped in average sale by almost $1000 a client, and clients raved about my space, my work, and my product. Your studio space can have an enormous impact in the clients mindset about who you are as a business. Remember that. You don’t want them to think poorly of you because your studio location is in a rough neighborhood or rickety building.
And guys there’s no harm in carving out a place in your home for a spectacular and dedicated creative space. I started in my home and it’s ultimately where I’m going to end up once again. My husband and I have plans to build a dedicated studio on our new property and I can’t wait. To have low overhead, an ultra short commute and to actually own the building is a HUGE asset. And marketing a home studio to new clients has its own charm and benefits. Some clients LOVE the idea of being in a personal home – they become part of your family. They are important and cared for. It’s not just a business at that point, it’s emotional investment in who they are as a family.
True connection that can’t be manufactured or veiled under the guise of a commercial business. It’s genuine, real and committed. Market to those desires, and you’re making yourself unique, differentiating yourself from everyone else. And serving your clients from your heart.
So think long and hard about moving to a commercial space. There are pros and cons to it. Make sure you, your family and your business are ready financially to do it. Then, search thoroughly for the RIGHT space. Wait if you have to. It has to fit your brand, and it has to pencil on the bottom line. Even when an opportunity tempts you like a devil’s food cupcake in the buffet line, step back and ask yourself if it’s the right deal and the right time. There will always be another opportunity in the future. Be sure you’re ready. And if you’re not right now, that’s ok too. Make a plan of action to get there. Save 10% of EVERY gross sale into a rainy day fund. Grow that nest egg to cover your expenses in lean months and focus on growing your client numbers to consistently higher levels. With a little dedication and persistence, you’ll get there at a break-neck pace.
Small habits over the long haul produce the best and most exhilarating results, and offer the MOST reward in terms of confidence, self esteem and long-term growth.