I’m currently teaching a course at the University of South Carolina’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication on how to start and operate your own successful freelance business. The course is aimed at students who want to become photographers, videographers, graphic designers, Web designers, and other creative professionals.
For the final project, each student will write a business plan for their proposed business. A business plan is like a roadmap, because it helps answer the following questions: Where do you want to go? How will you get there? Are you headed in the right direction? Are you making progress?
If you are trying to get funding for your business, having a great business plan is essential. All of the course assignments are directed toward helping my students complete their business plan.
The Mission Statement
The first assignment, which they just turned in, was to write a mission statement for their proposed business. A mission statement is typically the first part of any business plan. It defines what kind of business you are planning to start, what products or services you will sell, who your target clients will be, and what competition already exists for this type of business.
It’s just a hunch, but I would bet that many professionals in the image-making industry have never bothered to write a business plan. Who has the time or the energy to devote to this sort of thing? We’re too busy trying to complete our projects and attract new clients.
Sure, at some time along the way, we’ve thought about our business — what our goals are, who are target clients are, where we’d like to be one, two, or five years down the road. But to actually write these things down? Most of us will put that off for another day.
Well, guess what? Unless you write them down, all those great ideas have a way of evaporating into thin air. Writing things down makes them more likely to happen — after all, you probably have a list when you go to the grocery store, right? Isn’t your business more important than a trip to the store? So get out those pencils and pads (or laptops, iPhones, digital recorders, etc.) and let the brainstorming begin.
What Product or Service Do You Offer?
The first part of your mission statement deals with the type of product or service you offer your clients. This is trickier than it sounds. For example, if you are a corporate or advertising photographer, you might think you are providing illustrations for corporate brochures, annual reports, Web sites, and advertising. But what you are really doing is helping your clients communicate visually with their customers and shareholders.
Why is this visual communication so important to your clients? Would they get the same results using a different photographer, or obtaining images from a stock agency? Are you providing something that increases the value of your client’s business? What is that certain je ne sais quoi that you bring to the party?
That’s what you are actually selling — your vision, your style, your creative solutions to your client’s visual-communication problems. You should be able to describe in a nutshell exactly what you do and why it is valuable to your clients.
Some people find it helpful to think of their business as solving a particular problem. So their mission statement becomes the statement of a problem and its solution.
Is there a need for your product or service that is not currently being met? What are the consequences of people being without your product or service? If there is such a need, why isn’t it already being filled?
You might also find it useful to take a product or service that you use and try to imagine what the people who created or invented it wrote in their mission statement.
One exercise I do with my students is to have them form small groups and assign each group an already existing product or service, such as the Apple iPod or FedEx. Then I ask them to imagine they are traveling back in time and creating that company’s original mission statement — what was the product or service being offered, who were the target customers, and what was the competition? This type of “reverse engineering” is especially helpful if you have never before analyzed these types of business issues.
Who Are Your Target Clients?
Once you have defined as precisely as possible the nature of your business, it’s time to think about the people who would be likely to engage your services or buy your product — your target clients.
Identifying your target clients can be as tricky as defining the nature of your business. This is because many freelancers think their clients are the companies they do business with, such as Time magazine or Wells Fargo Bank. In fact, your clients are the individuals within those companies whose problems you are trying to solve—for example, the picture editor at Time, or the director of corporate communications at Wells Fargo.
It might be helpful to create a mental picture of your typical client: How old are they? Are they male or female? What are their educational and business backgrounds? How long have they been in their current position? What are the most common, day-to-day problems they face in their work? How do they try to solve those problems and to whom do they turn for help?
By answering these questions — and any other relevant ones that come to mind — you will have a much better idea of how to initiate a profitable relationship with a specific client.
Who Is Your Competition?
OK, you now have a handle on what you do and who buys it. That’s great, but you also need to learn who else does what you do, and what benefits and value they offer their clients.
Finding out who else does what you do should be relatively easy — surf the Internet, browse through books and magazines, look at the Web sites of major trade associations in your field, and network with colleagues. In terms of benefits and value, you may find these boil down to price, quality, and service. In other words, your competition may be offering their clients high quality and great customer service at a fair price.
Now it’s time for an objective assessment of your particular skills and expertise: can you match what your competition offers? For example, if you are a photographer, are your images as good as those of your competition? Is your customer service at the same high level as theirs? What about your pricing structure? Are you able to make a profit while still being competitive?
A word of caution when it comes to pricing: it is often a mistake to try to compete on the basis of price alone. If you can’t make a reasonable profit, your business won’t be able to grow and you may even find yourself on the losing end of your profit-and-loss statement. Also, charging below fair market price (aka lowballing) hurts the entire industry, not just your business.
Now that you have completed your mission statement, you can begin to set some short- and long-term goals for your business and decide how you will go about meeting them. In future columns, I’ll discuss the other components of a business plan, including a marketing strategy, a resume, and various financial projections.
Meanwhile, congratulations — mission accomplished!
(Note: the book I am using for my course, which contains an excellent description of a business plan along with much other helpful information, is The Small Business Start-Up Kit, 5th edition, by Peri H. Pakroo, published in 2008 by Nolo Press.)