Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The Case Against Being Too Focused

From my experience in marketing, I'm very familiar with the idea of something being more powerful and more marketable when it's highly focused on its audience, product, branding, and method of delivery.  However, from my experience in finance, I also know that it's much more financially stable to be highly diversified across many different sectors in order to fight off a feast or famine cycle of income.  So when it comes to running a business, there's a case to be made for both arguments of being highly specialized, and for being very diversified.  They key is knowing what works best for YOU, because in order for you to thrive in any direction, you need to work in a way that suits you best.

As for me?  I thrive on diversity and change, and I used to think this was a bad thing because everyone around me was trying to get me to choose JUST ONE THING.  Just the thought of doing only one thing forever was stifling, it made me want to crawl out of my skin.  I tried being a music teacher in a public school where the setting was the same every day, I'd have to work on the same pieces of music with the same group of students every week, and see the same people who had the same problems over and over again.  I got so bored with the overall environment of complacency that I started doing photography on the side, and because I was THRIVING in working with different people and subjects all the time in photography, I was able to go full time into photography after only one year.  I did occasionally return to schools to teach a workshop here and there, or to work as part of a teaching artist program, because I still love teaching and helping students dig into their own creativity, but I found a way to do it that wasn't stifling for me- a way that gave me the variety and freedom that help me thrive.  In turn, when I was feeling stuck in photography, having this other creative teaching outlet then helped fuel my love and creativity in photography again.

While I absolutely love shooting weddings, the every-weekend-in-the-summer-routine was starting to wear on me after 7 years and I wanted more weekends to enjoy spending time with friends and family. So, I started exploring other types of photography work that I could shoot during the week, which allowed me to take fewer weddings and enjoy more weekends, but also really love and appreciate each wedding I was shooting again because it wasn't every weekend.  I started shooting entrepreneur portraits, images for website companies, events for a university, real estate, and more.  While some other photographers around me, who were only focused on weddings, started feeling like their business was slipping away from them, I was thriving on the variety of work that I had and wasn't feeling as affected by changes in the market.  I was still creating work I loved, and doing it in a way that I enjoyed, but I was no longer confined to one subject or working style.

Some of my friends, who had heavily invested in their narrowly focused branding and website design were really starting to feel the pinch that came from focusing so heavily on one market and one client that just didn't seem to exist in the numbers they were hoping for, and that narrow focus was actually hurting them in some ways, especially because they felt like they couldn't expand until they'd worked out an entirely new set of branding.  Amazingly, I didn't even have a portfolio of work for all of these new jobs I was taking, they were all just coming based on word of mouth connections and networking that I had been doing along the way (which is also a lesson about not waiting for your website to be finished or perfect before putting yourself out there.)  Not everyone thrives on having variety in what they photograph or in how they work, but even for those who love to be highly focused, there are ways to expand a financial model without changing subject matter.

I have several photographer friends who focus narrowly on pet photography, but find that the pet owner market, which is willing to spend hundreds each month on extras for their pet, isn't always interested in paying for a photo shoot of their pet.  In this case, they can still focus narrowly on the subject matter of pets, but expand the possibilities of who might be interested in buying the photography, and expand the product lines and how they are sold.  Instead of focusing on the sales of individual shoots, creating a themed book that can be widely sold and distributed while also raising money for a charity, or pitching a series of images for an ad campaign for different types of pet products. Perhaps one of the most notable pet photographers, William Wegman, turned his pet work into gallery art, a book, calendars, and cards that could scale his work and be widely distributed to a larger audience, which also led to additional commercial work.  While his subject matter and control over his work remained highly focused, his sales model was expansive and allowed for many different types of purchasing.

So, if you're struggling with the idea of being told to just do ONE thing, I'm here to tell you that you don't really have to.  If you need variety to thrive, embrace it and own it, don't run from it or feel bad about it.  No need to hide your variety or push it aside in favor of something else.  Stand up for your unique way of working- not everyone has the talents that you do, or the ability to work in multiple ways!  Do the work you love and more of what you love will come your way.  Likewise, if you need focus in order to thrive, just focus and find more ways to share your highly targeted focus.  There is no one way that's right or wrong, only what's best for you.

Need more support in bringing your many different interests together in a career?  Check out this book: Refuse to Choose!: Use All of Your Interests, Passions, and Hobbies to Create the Life and Career of Your Dreams

Anne Ruthmann is an editorial & event photographer in New York City. She spent 10 years practicing marketing & management in corporate and non-profit businesses before pursuing her passion for photography in 2004 as an independent small business.  She loves helping others find creative and smart solutions to business problems.  Stay in touch on Twitter or Facebook.

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