This post is part of a new series of first-person Q&As with WeddingPro educators to find out how they went about building their brands and businesses–from their big goals to mistakes made and top takeaways.
Today, it’s Brian Leahy of Brian Leahy Photography. Brian is a Los Angeles-based destination photographer, speaker and avid networker. His approach to building her business? Put down the phone and instead develop and foster relationships everywhere you go. Enjoy!
WeddingPro: Why did you decide to start your own business?
Brian: I actually started my business on accident. It was never meant to be a full-time job. I used to be in the mortgage business and when the market crashed back in 2008, I happened to be falling into photography at the time. Picked up random odd jobs here and there. It was never meant to be a job. It was supposed to be for fun. I was making a little money and ended up working for a graduation photography company shooting high school and college graduations on the side. Randomly I ended up in LA shooting a high school and while there, finagled myself into an internship with a food photographer. I was supposed to be in LA for 3 months but after about 2 weeks in LA, I decided to stay. The mortgage business had kind of just completely fallen off the wayside but I was making enough shooting that I could afford to live. And so it slowly it turned into a profession. It honestly was never meant to be a career but certainly it is now.
WeddingPro: What goals did you set for yourself in the beginning?
Brian: I really didn’t have any goals in the beginning besides to make money. When I first started I was photographing everything and anything–oftentimes for free or sometimes for $10/hour or $15/hour. I was shooting Hollywood nightclubs, I was shooting dogs, babies, bat mitzvahs, a few weddings here and there, random parties–basically anything that people wanted to pay me for.
As my business started to take off, I got into weddings full-time. LA is an incredibly competitive market so my goal there was really for people to know me. There’s 10,000 wedding photographers in Southern California so I just wanted to get my name out there. I wanted people to see me consistently and I just wanted to get my name built up more than anything. There’s a lot of talented photographers out there but at the end of the day if people don’t know who you are they can’t hire you so my main goal was money and to be well-known in the local market.
WeddingPro: Tell me about how you achieved those goals. What were some of the hacks/tips you learned along the way?
Brian: I went to every industry event I could possibly go to. As I started to build friends within the industry, I asked them whether there were any events in the industry they thought I should be going to. They belonged to organizations that I had never heard of like WIPA, ABC, ILEA, and NACE–groups I wouldn’t have known about them had I not asked.
The other thing I did, is that I worked for free at ton of those events. So I would be the sponsoring photographer at a WIPA luncheon, or the sponsoring photographer at the ABC holiday party. Luckily as a photographer, not only did people get to see me in action as I worked but also got to interact with me and see my final product.
A real bonus as a photographer was that after I shot that ABC holiday party, 20-30 different vendors would then use my images all over social. So not only did all of the attendees get to see me or hopefully meet me in person but now they would see my work posted by all of those other participating vendors.
WeddingPro: Did you ever change your approach to growth and sales because of what you learned? If so, what did you change?
Brian: When I was first shooting weddings, I went from 6 weddings to 22 weddings in a year. The next year I did 43 weddings, which was way too many. I quickly realized my prices were way too cheap and that’s why I was booking so many weddings. I needed to raise my rates because I could make the same amount of money or more shooting fewer events just at a higher rate. So I started to change my rates at a slightly higher percentage. Instead of raising my rates $200 or $500 every year, I started changing my rates by $1,000 or $2,000 every year.
Sales-wise, I also realized I needed to put much more energy into the people that were sending me those clients. So I went even heavier into relationship building within the industry.
WeddingPro: If you could offer one piece of advice to others out there who are struggling to take their business to the next level, what would it be?
Brian: My one biggest suggestion would be spend less time on your phone and more time in person. People these days put all their eggs in the social media basket and don’t put nearly enough time and energy into the personal relationships that they have with other vendors. At a certain point in your career, most of your referrals, in my opinion, should be coming from your referral partners not just your previous clients. Spending as much real genuine time (not like “hey I want to grab coffee with you just because you want to get business from you”) with them is important because these are people who are going to be friends of yours. So really spending more time with people and not your posts is the best thing you can do. And it doesn’t always have to involve business. Some of my best friends who also work together might do a trip that has nothing to do with work. And I really think that spending time nurturing those relationships is far more valuable than putting out 10 more post a week on Instagram.
Thank you Brian! If you’re interested in getting to know Brian, follow him @BrianLeahyPhoto
Brian Leahy, Brian Leahy Photo
Los Angeles, California