Notes from the VisCom Classroom: Getting Down to Business

The pace of academia is usually exceedingly slow, but on rare occasions it accelerates like a Maserati. I recently volunteered (was drafted?) to design an experimental course for fall 2009 here at the University of South Carolina’s School of Journalism and Mass Communications. The course title: “Freelancing for Creative Professionals.” In other words, how to start and operate your own successful freelance business.

Moving at Warp Speed

Normally, getting a new course approved, even an experimental one, takes time—various people contribute ideas, syllabi are written and revised, committees meet (and meet), discussions ensue, and finally the faculty votes. For the course I proposed, all these things happened, but seemingly at warp speed. One day I was chatting with my department chair, the next day I had 35 students enrolled. So much for the slow-paced academy.

So now the question: what am I going to teach these 35 students? Fortunately, I am not starting from scratch. For many years, I taught a similar course in San Francisco—concentrating on the business practices of photography. For my USC course, I am expanding the field to include not only photographers but videographers, multimedia producers, Web designers, and graphic designers, along with those wanting to start their own advertising and public-relations firms—nearly the full gamut of our students.

Over the course of the semester, I hope to explain the theory and practice of entrepreneurship, and give our students a solid footing on which to stand when they leave college and strike out on their own.

Top Topics

Here’s what I have planned for our 28 class meetings. We’ll discuss the nature of small business and self-employment and determine the characteristics of the successful entrepreneur. Students will learn about the different types of small businesses—sole proprietorships, partnerships, and corporations. We will examine various sources of capitalization for starting a small business. Students will learn the importance of creating a written business plan, a professional portfolio and resume, and detailed marketing, self-promotion, advertising, and sales strategies.

We will study various sales techniques and methods for getting and retaining clients. Students will learn to set fees, negotiate with clients, and determine fixed costs, billable expenses, and realistic markups. We will cover the legal and ethical aspects of running a small business, including copyright and trademark, along with issues such as time management, scheduling, taxes, business licenses, insurance, and employees. For their final project, students will prepare a detailed written business plan for their proposed creative professional business.

Finding the Right Book

After getting approval for the course, my next challenge was selecting a textbook. When I taught the course in San Francisco, I used a great book, “How to Write a Business Plan,” by Mike McKeever, published by Nolo Press. On a recent visit to the San Francisco Bay Area, I stopped by Nolo Press, whose offices are in Berkeley. The publisher’s small bookstore on Parker Street contains an embarrassment of riches—plenty of business-related titles, along with an array of volumes devoted to legal issues, including wills and estate planning, property management, bankruptcy, and divorce and child custody. Clearly, I would have no trouble finding an appropriate book.

As it turned out, a Nolo Press book by media and communications consultant Peri Pakroo, “The Small Business Start-Up Kit,” perfectly fit the bill.

Subtitled “A Step-by-Step Legal Guide,” this book has chapters on choosing a legal structure for your business; picking the right business name and location; writing a winning business plan; pricing, bidding, and billing projects; federal, state, and local start-up requirements; risk management; taxes; running a business from home; contracts and agreements; bookkeeping, accounting, and financial management; marketing; Web sites and e-commerce; change-of-ownership issues; employees; and using professionals such as lawyers and accountants.

Learning Outcomes

By the end of the semester, if all goes well, my students will be well versed in all the major issues relating to self-employment—they should be able to:

  • Understand the theory and practice of entrepreneurship for creative professionals.
  • Determine suitability and motivation for starting and operating a successful freelance business; assess personal time-management skills.
  • Create a mission statement, including goals and a realistic timetable for achievement.
  • Demonstrate an understanding of basic accounting, budgeting, and financial-planning principles; create a proposed budget and breakeven analysis for starting a business.
  • Undertake marketing research and develop a list of qualified potential clients; create a professional portfolio and resume.
  • Develop effective marketing, self-promotion, advertising, and sales strategies, including initial approach, creative selling, and follow-up.
  • Understand the legal and ethical issues associated with starting and operating a successful freelance business, including copyright, trademark, and rights licensing.
  • Write a detailed business plan that covers all aspects of the proposed business, including a roadmap to profitability.


I’m busy devising assignments that will both develop understanding of the course material and provide information students can actually use as they plan and start their own business.

Here are some I’ve used in the past: answering a questionnaire to help determine whether or not the student is suited for self-employment; preparing a detailed monthly budget to determine the student’s current income and expenses; creating a breakeven analysis, based on projected income and expenses, to gauge the possibility of profitability; developing a preliminary client list; writing an estimate of start-up costs and capital expenses needed to launch the business; and, for the final project, submitting a completed business plan.

Students are sometimes surprised at how much writing and math are involved in starting a business. Welcome to the entrepreneurial environment!

Obviously, the business world is in flux, given the current state of the economy. For some of my students, this must be a scary time to contemplate leaving the relative security of college and embarking on a career. Others will see great opportunity lurking in the shadows of the recession and will be eager to put their talents to the test.

Fortunately, there are many resources available to the up-and-coming entrepreneur, including trade associations such as the American Society of Media Photographers, the Advertising Photographers of America, National Press Photographers Association, the Graphic Artists Guild, AIGA, and others. Part of my mission is to encourage students to join a professional organization so they can network with like-minded colleagues and continue their education when they leave school behind.

I am interested to hear your thoughts about what you think my students would benefit from learning about business—perhaps what you weren’t taught in school and had to learn the hard way. Let’s keep the conversation going!

3 Responses to “Notes from the VisCom Classroom: Getting Down to Business”

  1. David, thanks for posting this article. I teach the same basic class in Nashville, TN at Nashville State Community College and was glad to hear that the content you are planning very much mirrors the content I created for my class. In my class we talk about ways to create a mailing list but never thought of actually having them do it. I'll be adding that assignment in the fall! I'm also going to look into the textbook you recommend as well. The ASMP Business Practices book is also a really great publication that I am considering.

    I think (as you pointed out) belonging to a trade association that supports the kind of photography you do is crucial to the success of your business. Through your trade, you can find releases, forms, advice through the forums, discounts on products and services etc.



  2. David,
    Thanks for sharing this. The community college where I teach is currently in need of a curriculum revision and your blueprint is a great place for us to follow.

    I was wondering if you might want to include as part of "marketing and self-marketing" section a mockup of a photography-based website.

    It's probably something shouldn't be overlooked since the web is the yellow pages of the current generation.

  3. ASMP has a syllabus for this if you need and some resources. Just contact the national office.

    If you would like a guest to come in, let me know.

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