My Biggest Risk (And Reward)

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Three years ago, I froze. I was finalizing my divorce, healing from health issues caused by a bad reaction to an IUD that followed a miscarriage, and struggling to turn my fledgling business into a suddenly-profitable, money-making machine. Did I mention I had about two months of fiscal runway to get there before the joint checking was closed? It was one of the most stressful times in my life. I had a panic attack about, oh, every other day. My hair was falling out and I gained weight. I barely slept. There was no room for failure.

On the outside though, I was totally fine.

“Hey!” I spun my story, “The divorce is friendly, I get to focus on my work and I’m learning how to heal my body! All good!”

That was true—the divorce WAS friendly. So friendly that many of our mutual friends thought I was totally OK. And I was too embarrassed about having so many feelings to reach out; I DID get to focus on my work... all day. And all night. And on the weekends. And it crept into my dreams, when I was able to sleep long enough to have them. I couldn’t turn it off because the next rent check was always due soon; I WAS learning how to heal my body, and I still am. I felt like a tourist in my own body, it just didn’t feel right. Now I know how out of balance I was. There were a lot of tears and confusion on how to get better. And it was never as fast as I wanted it to be. SO, with all this on my plate, I froze.

I stopped taking creative risks because I couldn’t afford them. I only made safe business decisions that would guarantee food on my table. If I had only known then how wrong I was... that I should’ve taken a very calculated BIG risk, the same one I finally took six months ago. What was it?

For the first four years of my photography business, I did nearly everything: weddings, events, family, bloggers and, of course, branding. I wanted to be the expert at everything—the kind of photographer that everyone wanted to use.

That was a huge mistake. I was good at everything, but an expert at nothing. I wasn't top-of-mind when it came to choosing a photographer—I was somewhere in the middle. "Oh yeah, Courtney, I think she can do that." was the general thought. And though I was always a good photographer—professional yet fun, made beautiful photos and delivered them early for my clients—I was just one of many who did exactly that. 

At the beginning of this year, I'd had enough of hovering around the middle. I wanted to be the first thought that people had when it came to choosing a photographer. So I dropped every single type of photography from my menu of services except for ONE: Branding.

I went all-in on being a branding photographer for female creative entrepreneurs. I niched down to a small group, and I focused all my marketing efforts on them. I blogged and IG posted and FB posted and emailed and live video-ed, and everytime I used my platform, I was talking about how to create a strong brand for creative entrepreneurs through visual storytelling. 

That's a pretty specific audience, huh? It seems like I'd quickly run out of material, but an interesting thing happened. The more I niched down, the more I found to talk about. Interest and engagement from my audience grew rapidly. My calendar started to fill up with photo shoots. I'm starting to hear from clients, "I've been following your work, and you're the first person who came to mind for my branding photos."

Here's the mistake I was making: I was too broad in the services I offered. If you're at the same place in your business, I recommend taking a moment to examine the type of work that really fills your cup. I noticed that at the end of branding shoots, I felt energized and excited. I was inspired by collaborating with my branding clients. We made some killer art together! Over time, it became clear what type of work made me the happiest.

Recently, I sat down for coffee with a friend and business connection that I'd met at a networking event. Thought there were multiple photographers at the event, she said she was drawn to my work because I was so clear and focused when it came to talking about what type of photography I do: Branding. All day, every day.

My advice: Get specific, and don't be afraid to niche down. Your audience wants to know what you're an expert at and how it can benefit them. You need focus in order to grow. 

Courtney Ray

Courtney Paige Photography, 1320 S Cochran Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90019

Los Angeles Wedding + Lifestyle Portrait Photographer