the business of being creative with sean low: how to stand out in a saturated market

There are over 600,000 restaurants in the United States. That is one restaurant per five hundred people. There is fast food, super swank, and everything in between. All of them have to make a living, a profit, to keep going. Sure, the local diner can hope to become McDonald’s, but that is not really possible. Think about what McDonald’s pays for beef (no comment on quality) and what the diner pays. In 2009, McDonald’s bought 800 million pounds of beef. My guess is that the local diner would be lucky to buy a few thousand. Who do you think gets the better deal? If the local diner cannot compete with McDonald’s on price, how can it ever survive, let alone thrive? After all, there are higher-end choices that are pretty competitive too. Big chains like Applebee’s, TGI Fridays, Red Lobster, and Outback come to mind.

The poor diner is smushed in the middle. And yet somehow, some way, it is surviving, maybe even thriving. Advertisements and media campaigns for McDonald’s and all of the chains are everywhere. So the diner cannot compete on price (which includes offering additional value – i.e., more stuff), marketing, or public relations.

What is its secret?

Community. The local diner knows its customers by name, knows their favorite booth, gives the kids free milk, sponsors local sports teams. The diner really is not in the food business; it is in the “get together and feel good” business. Customers would rather go there and feel like family than go somewhere else and feel, well, not special. That is the thing: special cannot be faked and does not come from appearances; it comes from within. “Special” is the simple truth of who you are and what you have to offer.

I ask this question all the time to wedding and portrait photographers: how many images from any of your shoots would you be proud to hang in a gallery show? The number is never, ever more than 35 and usually less than 20. And yet most photographers deliver hundreds and hundreds of images for clients to choose from, talk about album credits, session time, etc. Is it any wonder that clients get lost?

Consider this: technology has bitten the wedding and portrait photography industry in the ass. Photographers’ response mostly has been to ignore that the paradigm shift is over. When film costs $10 for a roll of 36 images and even Fotomat costs $15 to process them, there is an appreciation by the consumer that delivering, say, three hundred images is valuable and worth paying for. In that paradigm, there is a perceptible difference in getting more and, ironically, equal value in getting less. When cost of production is significant, focus can be on deliverables. However, when cost of production goes to or approaches zero (as it has in wedding and portrait photography), so does the value of the deliverable. Giving more because you can becomes worth less and less. The focus then has to shift away from what you get in the end to how it feels to get there.

The difference between a professional photographer and everyone else cannot be how many times you push the button. Instead, it has to be educating clients about how they see what you do for them. Like the local diner, you stand out in a saturated market by looking beyond the obvious – sure, the burger and the image are great – and realizing that how clients feel before they eat the burger or see the images is your true value.  

Sean Low is the Founder and President of The Business of Being Creative LLC. He has a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania and his business experience ranges from law, investment banking, financial executive, to small business owner. Prior to starting The Business of Being Creative, he enjoyed (and still enjoys) long-term consulting relationships with several creative businesses and was the President of Preston Bailey Design, Inc., representing Preston in all of his business endeavors throughout the world from September 2003 until July 2009.

Through his work with Preston and his other creative clients over the last six years–Vicente Wolf, Style Me Pretty, Marcy Blum, Michelle Rago, Christian Oth and Sylvia Weinstock to name a few–Sean has discovered his own creative passion: thinking about creative businesses–how they run, how to make them run better, helping them know who they are and then be the best at what they do. If he had to say what the key to his success is, it is this:  Sean has the ability to help artists build their businesses in a way that most honors the art that is behind them.


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