Friday, March 9, 2012

How To Hire A Remote Photo Assistant & Outsource

While my business may appear to be a one-woman show, let me assure you that I cannot do everything necessary to run a successful business on my own. Even though I HAVE the physical and mental capabilities to do everything my business needs, I simply do not have the TIME to do it all.

I believe in spending more time doing what you love and in hiring people you enjoy working with to handle the rest.

For me, that means I enjoy spending my time doing: photography, personal service, marketing, strategy and mentoring/consulting. Even though I can get away with running a business on what I love alone, I was never really successful until I found people to take care of: production, retouching, accounting/finance, travel arrangements, and random details and projects.

It took me a long time and a lot of frustration to learn that I needed to outsource the things I didn't like.

It also took me a long time to find services that I liked and trusted with my images and my business- about 2-3 years to be exact. Almost as soon as I would find local services and people I enjoyed working with, I'd have to move. So, I've had a lot of experience searching for and finding those people and services that I enjoy working with!! Hopefully, by sharing my process with you, you'll be able to find the people you need to run a successful photography business as well.

I started off with local labs because I wanted to keep my business local and support my local economy. Unfortunately local professional labs are quickly dying in favor of nation-wide online labs, but I think it's still very important to have a local lab you can go to at the last minute for a same-day or quick-turn around job that a national lab wouldn't be able to easily accommodate.

How to find one?

  1. Take 10 sample prints with different processing techniques on them and submit them to the lab as you would if you were ordering prints for clients. Order the papers you want, the cropping, the toning, the turn around time, the mounting, etc.
  2. Evaluate their turn around time, the service they provide when dealing with your order, and of course, if they are able to produce results that you like and if they offer all of the products that you're interested in selling to your clients.  The more they can handle in one place, the more streamlined your business will be to deal with any last minute issues or orders.
  3. If you like their service, but they weren't able to produce results, find out if they can work with you to create a custom printer profile that you can use when submitting prints to them.  If the service is great, they should be able to walk you through this process to help you get the results you want.
After trying many of my local labs and running into horrible service left and right, I ended up testing all of the national labs with the same method and finally found a lab that I love using for more than just printing and album production.  What I pay to use their service and their professional team of printers, retouchers, packagers, album designers, and production assistants is far less on a monthly basis than I would be able to pay a professional photo assistant to work in my office or even to drive to for print pickup.  Hands down, the best investment I made in my success was turning my production over to a professional photography lab.  The lab also guarantees all of their work, so if there are any problems, it's not my fault, it's the labs and they handle it on their dollar, not mine.  As a side note, using a professional lab has also made it easier for me to sell more products and increase my profit margin on individual jobs by offering products that consumers can't get anywhere else but through a professional photographer.

Doing your own finances is fine when you don't have a lot of money or work coming in the door, but if you don't love crunching numbers and spending your time in excel spreadsheets or accounting software, than I would suggest that an accountant or bookkeeper is as essential to your business as your camera equipment.  I'm not a CPA.  I don't spend my time studying tax code or best accounting practices and I have no desire to whatsoever.  I'm a photographer.  I take pretty pictures.  A good accountant or bookkeeper will help keep all of your business finances in order once a year, once a month, or once a week, depending on how much work you're doing to make it necessary.  
Personally, most years I'm good with hiring a CPA once a year at around $300-$500 just to clean up my lazy expense tracking and maximize my tax returns.  However, in years when I was REALLY busy because I was charging less and taking a greater volume of clients, I worked with an accountant quarterly- basically each time a quarterly tax payment was due.  Businesses with even more volume may simply hire a bookkeeper once a week or month, and then only a CPA for taxes.  Having a CPA do your taxes also helps reduce your liability because they have to practice ethical accounting standards in order to maintain their certification.

How to find one?  
Your local Chamber of Commerce or Small Business Development office is the best place to start looking.  Ask other photographers in your area, or other local small businesses that provide a service like yours.  Set up an interview with three people before committing to one.  You might find one that's recommended but not click right away.  I can't stress enough how important it is to like the people you work with in your business.  If you feel like you can't call someone and ask them for advice easily, or you're too intimidated to talk to them, you're less likely to get the help you need when you need it for any business problems that arise.  Find an accountant you really like, it may take a few conversations over coffee, but ask them to talk about the other businesses they work for and what they do for them to help you get a sense of how they'll be working with you.

The first two areas are easily outsourced to an established company.  However, finding an office assistant and random task master generally happens on a much more personal level.  While there are services like and that will help you with individual projects and on a remote basis, I've learned that having someone you can depend on locally is actually more beneficial for your business.

Even though I'm traveling the world this year and working in several different countries, I have a remote office assistant that already knows the ins and outs of my business because we worked together side by side for several months in person.  This was essential for me being able to trust my assistant in a situation when I might need someone to deliver something to a client in person while I'm away.  While I've streamlined all of my payments to happen electronically, if a client needed to send a check, I'd want someone I could trust with my money to do that random task for me.

How to find one?
The best place to look for an assistant is through your existing audience of fans, followers, and friends.  Some people hire family members, some people hire friends, and some hire former clients or interns.  More often than not, the assistants that become a best fit for you and your business already have some kind of relationship with you or are already interested in you and your business.
  1. Create a list of tasks that you'd like someone to do for you.  Outline the types of software they'll be using, what things they'll need to know in advance, and what you're willing to help teach them in order for them to do things they may not know how to do yet.  Identify how much you're willing to pay per project or per hour.  This list will help set appropriate expectations for the work that you're asking other people to enjoy doing for you.  It's critical that they will actually enjoy doing these jobs, otherwise they will be just as frustrated as you are when trying to accomplish them.
  2. Start by reaching out to people you know you'd love working with and see if they'd be interested in working part time for you.  Start with family, then friends, then fans & followers.  Some family and friends do well in a business relationship and some don't- think of it like a partnership.  If you don't feel you can work through problems peacefully and professionally together, than they aren't going to be an ideal assistant.
  3. If you don't find what you're looking for in your existing audience, reach out on your Blog, Facebook Page, or LinkedIn before posting on Craigslist.  There's a very good chance a friend of a friend or an existing follower knows someone who would be perfect for you.
  4. Interview several people.  Unless you've hand picked your assistant and they said yes, you'll probably need to interview a few different people to find the best fit.  Sit down with them in person and ask them if they're comfortable handling the tasks you need help with.  Notice their body language to see if you feel like they're excited about the opportunity, or just thinking about doing it for the extra cash.  You really want someone who is excited about working with you, because it their energy and desire to work with you will help you trust them and hand over more work to them.
  5. After you've found your ideal person, create a contract for the working agreement and determine if they need to be an employee or if they can be an independent contractor.  In my business, I haven't needed an employee, just independent contractors who can either work at my office or away from my office on various tasks and projects as they see fit.  
  6. If they'll be working for you all year, regardless of their employment status, you'll also need to collect tax information from them so that you can report it at the end of the year.  Here's another post on the paperwork you'll need and How To Outsource with Independent Contractors.
A successful business does not exist in a vacuum by itself.  It requires many people making things happen simultaneously in order to create a business that allows you to really focus on what you love doing and the reason why you started working for yourself in the first place.  If what you want is freedom and time to enjoy your life when you aren't earning a living doing what you love, than you need to find a way to bring other people on board that you enjoy working with- or you need to find someone else you can work for who will handle all of the stuff you don't like.  Running a business isn't easy and it's a lot of responsibility. 

In the life of your dreams - what are you paid to do and what do you pay other people to handle for you?

If you can put a price or a budget on how much it's worth for someone else to take a task or a project off your hands, than you can create a plan for your business that provides room to hire other people for help.

CONFESSION: I pay people to do my laundry, make my travel arrangements, and cook my food (by going out to eat more often than I cook.)  Sometimes I do these myself, but mostly I just prefer to hire other people to do it for me.  I might end up with slightly less money at the end of the year, but getting back my time to enjoy life and spend more time doing what I love is well worth the cost!

Anne Ruthmann is a lifestyle & wedding photographer from Boston, MA. She spent 10 years practicing marketing & management in corporate and non-profit businesses before pursuing her passion for photography as an independent small business. She loves helping others find creative and smart solutions to business problems. Follow her on Twitter to see her daily adventures and thoughts.

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