A year ago this week I started Firelance Media so here at the first anniversary I thought it would be important to record the learnings I’ve had as a business owner in this industry.
Like most small business owners would say, the beginning is always the hardest. I came off of two years of unemployment, a failed training business, and several consulting jobs before diving into Firelance full time. I DID NOT just say “Hey I have a camera, lemme try this!” I put a lot of thought and energy into trying to find the gaps in the industry and how I could try to fill them. I set a 5 year plan in place, braced myself, and got to work. I have tried to keep my head above water and some months are better than others, but I measure success in long term increments. I say often, this ain’t a sprint, it’s a marathon.
Initial Thoughts – Photography is Dead. Long Live Photography.
This firearms industry is (and I postulate MANY industries are) chock full of contradiction : people will pay anything for gear, but believe for the most part that images and video are free because we have become accustomed to getting free digital content since the mid 90s. The interesting thing is that forums, social media outlets, and ANY level of marketing is driven off of visual content. How do you even SEE the gear that you want so badly? Images. What about reviews? Video. Starting to make sense? All of those images come from somewhere, and it ain’t the PictoFairy.
Part of my job has been to educate people on the importance of quality imaging as part of a larger business plan, but most folks feel like “good enough” is well, good enough. They have an iPhone or basic DSLR on Auto settings and just want to capture the moment and flood the market with images. This is a scattergun approach. I wonder how many of those images are part of a larger well thought out branding campaign? Do they work? Sure. Does it make it harder for guys like me? Absolutely. But I’m still here, and will always help if someone needs it. And even though I believe my images are really good, there are certainly photographers in this business that make my stuff look I’m using an Etch-a-Sketch.
Or companies will approach me and say “Hey, we will give you a lot of exposure on our site if you give us those images.” That would be like a nylon gear maker approaching a textile mill and saying, “Listen, we will say your cordura is really good, just give us several thousand yards for free.” Good luck.
At the other end, people that ARE willing to pay have a skewed sense of what it takes to produce images. Just point, click and post to Facebook right? Not exactly. Not only do we have to factor in time to shoot and edit, we have the ongoing expense of constant gear upgrades, rentals, travel, storage, and so on. The same as any other business. The overhead adds up.
Wrap that all in an environment of “very little cash to go around” and you can see where people will begin to make budget cuts.
A good friend said to me this year, “The firearms industry is full of gun guys trying to do business, rather than business people that are into guns.” I have found that there is a lot of truth to that statement every time I try to ask about contracts, quotes, business plans, marketing strategies, and so on. Granted, not everyone has big budgets, but one of the larger gaps that I see on a daily basis is the failure to plan ahead and properly create line items for marketing. You would think that in an industry full of people that “talk the talk” about preparedness that there would be more actual business preparation. We learn that action is ALWAYS faster than reaction, so why do so many folks just wait to react to what happens in their businesses?
Clearly, some people are better than others at planning, and my statements are not judgement on anyone. I just find a lot of people express either disdain for the industry or disappointment in their own success and fail to perform a little personal introspection as to WHY they are feeling this way. Typically, in my consulting, I find that most of it comes down to lack of planning on all fronts. After a few conversations with clients, they begin to see the larger picture of how it all ties together and that just having a Facebook account does not mean you have a marketing strategy.
Get Off Your High Horse. How’s Business?
I send out quotes all the time. Many more than I thought I would at this point. There have been a LOT of AWESOME clients as well as an equal amount of lost jobs, but not a single one do I feel like I approached the wrong way. There has been countless negotiation, client education, self-education, learning from people WAY smarter than me, and just staying humble in the face of a gigantic drive to succeed. My five year plan is intact for the most part, but the daily approach is ever changing. I have traded some work for training and taken on a few risk-accepting clients as project cases to test ideas. Those clients kick ass and I can’t thank them enough for what they have given me.
I have implemented a fee-based system for students to download “glory shots” of themselves participating in training classes which has been much more successful that I could have imagined. From what I know, Firelance was the first to do this in the tactical training community, but if I am wrong with that, I will gladly admit it.
Video has proven to be a love of mine, as I get to tell stories in a way that matters, rather than just putting moving images on a screen. I was truly surprised by the success of the Sentinel Concepts Low Light Vehicle CQB video, and am already focusing on creating MANY more projects like that in 2015.
Strategic consulting is also on the rise as relationships develop and I can help clients look forward rather than just at what is in front of them.
The Good Stuff
I have had the great fortune to work with some amazing clients in the first year, including (in no order):
ID Target Systems
Dark Angel Medical
Iron Forged Concepts
Alliance Police Training
Michigan Defensive Firearms Institute
Combative Weapon Solutions
Waypoint Shooting School
Trek’s Trek: 2000 Miles to Honor Brian Terry
We’ve also has the distinct pleasure of being mentioned on Recoil Web and Breach Bang Clear several times, posted on numerous blogs, as well as having images published in the Washington Post. Every time this happens,the emotion that it produces is kinda like what I imagine it would be like to throw out the first pitch on opening day at Fenway.
Here are the biggest lessons learned in Year 1:
- Reputation is all you have. I take great care to try to respect everyone, and all I ask in return is the same.
- Choose your friends wisely. The industry is full of back-stabbing false-friends looking for freebies. Trust no one.
- Don’t work for free. It undervalues you in the market, makes you look weak, and doesn’t pay the bills. It also makes it harder for everyone else trying to do the same job as it drives down prices.
- (3A) Work in trade sparingly. It’s AWESOME to help friends, but banks don’t take gear as payment.
- Listen more than you talk. This is a hard one for me, but necessary.
- Help others willingly, but don’t give away all you hard earned experience, research, and IP. There are many out there that will ask for advice or help and never return the favor.
- “Likes” are not a measure of success.
- There is enough room for everyone in the market. We (photgraphers) can all go after the same clients and cut throats, but what about the little guys that need help too? Pretty sure they could use our services.
- When your work is doing what you love, it’s not work. (cliche, but so fucking true)
- Stay in your lane, do the best job that you can do, and have a plan to grow and rule the world.
- Reputation is all you have (yes I said it again)
The sheer amount of friendships I have developed in the past year, and the TRUE friends that I have cultivated mean more to me than revenue.
This is an industry of non-stop change, and I for one, look forward to many more years of helping capture those moments.
Thank you to every single one of you that I have had the pleasure of interacting with in the past 12 months. It has been my humble honor to walk among you.
Matt Stagliano is a photographer first, and firearms / outdoors enthusiast second. His work has appeared in countless magazines and online outlets such as RECOIL, SKILLSET, Guns & Ammo, Concealment, Breach Bang Clear, Ammoland, and others. He spends most of his time running Stonetree Creative, a full service portrait studio in Maine when he is not on assignment as Firelance Media. Learn more about Stonetree online or follow him on Instagram (@stonetreecreative). On Facebook here.