How perfect is FotoFly? Not really.

It’s hard to believe that we have already been open almost a year.  We’re pleased with how it is going.  It seems like, to us, people walk away thrilled with what we’ve done.  It always makes our day when someone takes the time to write something on our Facebook page.  We get a lot of compliments from customers through email, internet posts, letters, and in person.  As some of you know, I have a bit of an ego and FotoFly doesn’t help in keeping me humble.  It’s not unreasonable to think that we are approaching perfection.

Well, for the record, we aren’t.  Sometimes, things do not go well.  There are sessions where we struggle.  There have been times where we haven’t been able to connect with the child and the pictures reflect that.  Sometimes I am not pleased when reviewing someone’s pictures.  The photographers, me included, make posing or lighting errors.  There have even been a few sessions where we didn’t take a single picture and had to reschedule.

We occasionally fail at explaining how we do things and someone will show up expecting something we don’t do.  Frequently, the photographers get carried away and spend too much time editing the pictures while the customer waits.  We’ve had printers stop working at inopportune times.  We’ve even had a customer get home and attempt to view her pictures – only to discover that her CD is blank.  Very disappointing…

With many companies (restaurants, dentists, golf courses), if you’re ten minutes late – it’s not a big deal.  With us, since we start every session on time, we won’t allow your session to run into the next one if you’re late.  We always try to make it up and give you the variety that you expect- but those missed ten minutes are significant for us.  This can be frustrating to people for us to be that rigid.

I cringe whenever I ask a customer how it went and her answer is ‘good’ or ‘ok.’  I really, really want every customer to leave being amazed at their experience and say, ‘Wow – it was unbelievable!  I love my pictures!’  This is something that causes me a lot of stress.  When you create something, it becomes an extension of you and it’s hard not to take things personally.

I’m getting better at accepting that we aren’t and can’t be perfect.  All we can do is our best and learn from the frequent mistakes that we do.  I can say that we have the best kind of people working here.  They sincerely care about what they’re doing.  They are trying to be creative in every session.  These photographers want the pictures to be good as much as you do.  They allow themselves to get emotionally involved in each session – which is risky for them because they become vulnerable.  When they talk to you at the beginning of the session, you will feel the earnestness coming from them.  Their goal is to give you the best expressions, poses, lighting, creativity, and variety possible.  Sometimes, a tired toddler or an upset infant has other plans.  But, I can safely say that these photographers are committed to make the best of whatever situation and do everything possible to get the absolute best result.

They are very skilled but intend to get better.  They are great photographers now – wait until next week, or month, or year – they’ll be even better.  I cannot include what they do in a job description.  Imagine a job description that said, ‘Catch spit-up in your hand to protect a dress’ or ‘Hit yourself in the head to get a smile if necessary’ or ‘Bring an extra shirt to work because you’ll likely get peed on.’  I can’t pay these people enough to do what they do.  They are voluntarily giving this to me and you and it’s inspiring.

So, we are not perfect – not even close.  We are trying to be.  We constantly talk about how to improve.  We are doing well now but wait until next month or year…  If there is someone that has left a little disappointed with some aspect of your experience, please let me know.  I am very interested in suggestions and ideas from you.  Please email me if you have an idea or feedback.

It’s been a short year that we’ve been open.  We’ve experienced a lot and learned a lot.  We feel very connected to many of you.  I’ve often wondered where exactly that connection comes from.  My best guess is that it’s easy for us to bond when we are working shoulder to shoulder – trying to get your newborn, toddler, high school senior, or family to look perfect.

5 Essential Principles

Pay enough to hire amazing people

How much harder would it be to hire amazing people if I paid the minimum?  How long would they stay?  How committed would they be?  What kind of effort would they give?  From the beginning, I decided that I would have to pay much more than other studios.

I envisioned the type of person that would succeed at this.  In my vision, I saw Daniel.  Just kidding…  I did envision his energy, intelligence, sincerity, commitment, skill, and ambition.  I needed to attract this type of person and pay him or her enough to stay for a long, long time.  Our success relies on the skill of our photographers.  Let me say that again, our success relies on the skill of our photographers. So, this first principle is that I needed to pay enough to attract and retain the best kind of people.

There are some photography companies that don’t believe in this.  They pay the minimum and attempt to dumb-down the photography so that anyone can do it.  My advice to these companies is to pay more – their company’s success, like mine, relies on the skill and longevity of your photographers.

Keep the price affordable and clear.

Not too long ago, I sat at a photography conference where the speaker taught that photographers should NEVER show our prices until AFTER the customer has seen the pictures and was emotionally attached.  He said that it’s hard for customers to walk away from images of their children…  Obviously, I disagree with the secrecy.

Some photographers display their pricing, but it is so confusing and riddled with fees that customers get fatigued trying to figure it out and just give up on the idea of going to a professional photographer.

Some companies bring you in by offering a package for $8 or a free something.  Once you’re there, you find out that you will pay much more to get what you actually want.  In the company I used to work for (before I was fired after 16 years in a 5 minute meeting – sorry, I still have to get that off my chest every so often), we ALWAYS had a sale going – every day of the year.  We had fictitious ‘regular prices’ that we could discount and advertise ‘50% OFF’ sales.

There are many photographers that are upfront and simple with their prices, but are so expensive that it’s unrealistic for most people to afford them.

I decided that I didn’t want to play any games with the customer.  I didn’t want to insult anyone’s intelligence.  I wanted one price that didn’t change throughout the year.  You will never hear about a sale at FotoFly.

I don’t like the word ‘fee.’  We don’t have them.  Whether you come in with your 5 year old or your family of ten, the price is the same.  I think that customers knowing what they are going to pay is important.  I think customers don’t like the unknown.

The low price is also important.  Most families, especially young families, don’t have the money to pay hundreds of dollars every time they want pictures.  The $79 price is something that almost everyone can afford.  Our clear, low price is definitely one of the key principles that has helped us be successful.

Create images that are amazing, stylish, and unique.

How quickly would we fail if our photography was mediocre?  I knew we couldn’t just be adequate or average.  We could not be like any photography studio before us.  I winced at the idea of putting up some typical backgrounds and getting some cheesy props.  I imagined a style that was hip, creative, edgy, and uniquely FotoFly.  We are committed to adjusting and always being at the edge of what is cool.

The epicenter of our company is photography.  It is not sales technique or spreadsheets, policies or percentages.  I’ll never forget looking through the materials for the last company I worked for that fired me and then went out of business a year later (again, venting).  After looking through the 2 inch binder, I counted the number of times the word ‘photography’ appeared.  It was in that binder only 3 times.  We had lost our way and focused on everything besides the photography.  At FotoFly, we realize that photography is our product and we won’t forget that.

Give the customer the electronic images

Customers want and expect the electronic image.  Traditional photographers have a hard time giving it up.  Much of their money is made from prints.  However, customers do not understand why they would pay $40 for an 8×10 when they can get it for a few dollars at Walmart.  I’m convinced that those photographers who don’t adapt and realize that they are providing a service – not a product – will see their business slip away.  Giving our customers the image CD is an essential part of our success.

Create an experience that is not only painless, but legendary

Getting your pictures done can be an unpleasant experience.  In the beginning, I tried to think of all of the frustrations that customers typically face and avoided those.

The basics are important:  I knew that we needed to start every appointment on time.  We have scheduled enough time between sessions so that we do not have to rush the customer.  There is no pressure on the parent during the session – we are in control and know what we’re doing.  I knew that people would want to see their images right after the session.  We had to provide a play area for the children so the parents could look at their images undistracted.  I knew we needed the ability to print images immediately.  We needed to make it easy for customer to reorder prints directly from us or online.  These were the essentials that we needed to provide.

However, I wanted the experience to be legendary.  There are no shortcuts or gimmicks in making this happen.  The foundation to a legendary experience is photographers sincerely caring about each customer.  Every photographer understands the ‘big picture’ of what we’re doing and that every session is a significant event.  It’s a newborn’s first pictures.  It’s a senior’s only senior pictures.  It’s the only time a child is turning one.  Each will grow old and these images will become more valuable.  We picture a baby being 65 and showing their grandkids looking at those baby pictures with amazement.  We understand the meaning of photographs and feel the responsibility to get it right during every single session.  Both us and the parents are unified in our common goal of getting the best pictures possible.  I think the customers feel this and it’s a big part of what makes the experience legendary.

These 5 principles are each essential pillars upon which FotoFly stands.  If any one of them is removed, the whole thing falls apart.  Interestingly, before we opened, there were plenty of naysayers who told me that I was paying too much in salary, spending too much on the facility, setting the price too low, etc.  I think I was right.