How To Grow A Photography Business On A Shoestring Budget

This post is Day 24 of 30 Ways In 30 Days To Redesign Your Life With Photography. This series seeks to provide you with practical steps to get you from wherever you are today, to exactly where you want to be – this year! If your goal has always been to take your photography to a whole new level, hang on and start enjoying a new lifestyle you’ve always dreamed of..

Have you ever noticed how many photographers describe their marketing budgets? “I’m trying to do it all on a shoestring budget.” I hear that all the time. So I started wondering where that term comes from and what does it truly mean?

A shoestring budget refers to a very limited or small amount of money to spend on something. While the origin of the term is widely debated, one resource relates it to a “shoestring gambler” or a gambling game. Another theory is that shoelaces are low to the ground, and very inexpensive, so the idea of “low budget” and very inexpensive may have been built into the connotation.

In any case, shoestring budget simply refers to the amount of money you can put into a project. And while the actual dollar amount can vary widely, its usually a lot smaller amount then the average business owner would put into trying to build the same type of business.

“I have been learning and trying to run a business on a shoestring for about 5 years. Now in those 5 years I have learned to have confidence in myself, increase my prices, stop giving away all my work, and to contribute to charities that are in the area of what I do, pet and family photography.

I do not wish to get into debt, so every month I use the money that I earn to advertise, for education and buy supplies for the company. One problem is I do not show a profit at the end of the month/year. Uncle Sam only gives you 5 years to prove yourself. In December I grossed $781 between three families. An average of $260 per family. This is better than I have made in the past, but not where I need to be to quit my part time business. I have advertised in a free dog magazine for 6 months (no calls). Put an ad in the Yellow book pages (phone book). Started a website, have gone to many photography clubs and events, and have subscribed to your emails as well as 3 others.”

What do you do when you reach this point? Maybe its time to reevaluate.

What Do You Really Want?

Are you comfortable where you are today? Are you in a home you like, have a family you love, do enough things for entertainment to make you happy, and in general have an okay life? That could be a part of your problem.

You see, when people “get happy”, they “get lazy”. I don’t mean that in a bad way. I mean they simply are happy enough where they are to not rock the boat and make things change. If everything is okay in your life, do you really want to risk it all by moving into a new direction? What if is doesn’t work? The old fear factor sets in that we discussed in Day 3.

I have a friend who has a great job – just enough to allow his wife to stay home with the kids, have a nice house in a great neighborhood, take a trip or two a year, new cars, dinners out, etc. He’s living the average American lifestyle. It’s even an okay job; he likes it enough to stick around, works 50 to 60 hours per week, and makes the occasional bonus. The problem is in stability. The company has downsized three times in the last three years. The headquarters is a couple of thousand miles away, which means if the division here gets too small, he’ll either lose his job or have to move. He’s working enough at this job that he doesn’t have time to truly devote to his passion. He sees it, but he can’t focus on it.

So he throws a little money here and a little money there trying to build up his second career. He knows he may very well need it soon, but its not top priority.

And if marketing isn’t top priority – if you don’t need to market like your life depends on it – it tends not to work at all.

Instead of focusing on what you want, you begin focusing on everything but what you want. “I don’t want to go into debt.” “I can’t find clients.” It becomes a downward spiral of don’ts and can’ts.

From Suzanne’s comments above, her greatest strengths right now is her education and training. She’s grown in confidence, has a pricing strategy in place, and knows not to shoot for free if she wants to grow this as a business. She’s working with charities, and has a general plan in place. That’s a great start. Now its time to move forward.

Work With Your Budget

In Day 9 we talked about a workable budget. When it comes to marketing and advertising, you have two choices: spend money or dedicate your time.

If you don’t have the money to spend, then plan out an hour a day to do something specific for your business. But don’t keep trying the same things again and again. And don’t keep trying traditional marketing. Its dead and it won’t recover.

Instead, its time to think out of the box. Instead of the phone book, why not work on getting yourself into online directories? Instead of a magazine, why not focus on building a Facebook page?

One of my favorite mentors is Mark Victor Hansen of Chicken Soup For The Soul fame. I’ve traveled to see him several times in person, and always love his seminars. He said something years ago that I still remember to this day. In fact I have the idea on my desk, and use it whenever I start a new project.

“Do 5 things every day that help you sell and promote your stuff.”

That doesn’t mean think about it. Or doing something that won’t reach out and try to make the sale, like creating a new filing system. That means 5 things that will make a difference, and has the potential to bring in a sale.

It could mean:

  • Sending out a press release
  • Contacting a reporter about an article for the paper
  • Finding a way to bring 25 new followers to your Facebook page
  • Contacting a pet store to work together on a charity event

Before you do anything, ask yourself if you have the potential of finding a new client by doing this. If its yes, then do it. If no, then don’t.

Take Action

With that question in mind, you can find all types of ways to advertise your business, many at very low or no cost to you. The key is to take action every day.

While Mark Victor Hansen set his number at 5, that may be unrealistic for you. If you work full time and have a family, maybe your number is 5 a week, or 1 a day.

Then read books, find websites, or follow mentors that can help you gain ideas. Read them regularly, and start a file with ideas that interest you. Then take an idea and run with it every day. You can repeat ideas again and again.

For instance, if you want to send out a press release, maybe you send one out the first of every month. Build that into your calendar. And do it again and again.

The same with finding 25 followers on Facebook. If you find 25 today, nothing is stopping you from finding 25 more a week from now. Or a month from now.

And it all will build over time, and help you reach your goals.

In many cases, some of this will require you to reach beyond your comfort zone. Maybe you hate calling and talking to potential partners. Do it anyway. What’s the worst that can happen? They say no? Or maybe hang up on you? Not a problem, just move on to the next idea.


1. Go back through my 30 Ways series and through my Virtual site and find 10 ideas you can use to grow your business.

2. Write them down, type them out, and print it off. Put that list in front of you.

3. Start at the top, and work through the 10 on your list. If you can do 1 a day, it will take you two weeks to complete (assuming weekends off).

4. Repeat. Start back at the top, and repeat the 10 all over again. The more you do this, the better luck you will have.

5. Let me know your successes!

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