Helping Independents Find Their Way
By Michael Humphrey
Now that it is off-season in baseball, the players’ agents are hard at work. Some are selling their players’ services to new teams in the free agency market, while others work on cases called arbitration.
Free agents in baseball can make any amount of money the market can sustain. Arbitration is another matter. It is a stage in a young player’s contract where he can’t be a free agent, but can demand a raise from the team for which he currently plays.
The player and his agent will state what they believe the player is worth. The team will state a lower price. Then a third party looks at measurable factors such as statistics, days on the disabled list and the position played, and then finds comparable players to see what they make. After the study, the arbitrator decides that either the player is right or the team is right. And it’s settled.
There’s something refreshing about the idea, isn’t there? It seems fair and easy. However, life in the business world, especially for the independent contractor, just doesn’t work that way very often.
More likely, independent contractors work in a realm similar to free agency. They pitch their abilities, their track records and their ideas to clients who either accept the pitch, try to modify the pitch or shake them off.
In the last edition of Missouri Meetings & Events, we looked at how planners and caterers price themselves. The decisions they make are often based on years of experience and study of the marketplace, with several complex factors.
This edition we look at floral designers and photographers. And it’s safe to say that it is no easier for these two industries. In fact, the measurements in many ways become more subjective than ever. Both are artists, delivering designs and photographs that somehow must please the eye of the beholder.
“(Customers) hire me because they trust me to do something beautiful,” says Sandra Meyer, a floral designer who serves the St. Louis metro area. “We can talk about what they want and what it’s going to look like. But in the end, I have to give them something that actually works.”
At the same time, there are some objective points that are easy to measure. Can the contractor deliver the goods in a reasonable amount of time? Do they work in harmony with other service providers? Essentially, do they deliver the goods?
A creative person with no business sense probably won’t succeed in either floral design or photography. But a business person with little creative ability won’t have much of a chance either.
Photographer Geoff Vontz, who serves the Kansas City metro area, says there’s nothing new about that formula.
“I’ve been advising a friend of mine about starting up a business as a physical trainer,” Vontz says. “He’s been surprised at the amount of work that goes into it that has nothing to do with training people. It’s the same in any business. A big chunk of my job is not photography, but running my business.”
To run that business right, you have to know how to stay in the game with just the right pitch.
Floral designers generally live in two worlds – the world of weddings and the world of corporate gatherings.
“They are completely different,” says Andrea Grist, a floral designer based in Lee’s Summit, Mo. “When you are dealing with a wedding, you have to tread lightly. It’s a very emotional subject and you have to develop a sixth sense about who you are dealing with here. Corporate events tend to be the complete opposite. They want something nice, something that’s going to showcase their event. But you are left to your own creativity.”
Weddings are more elaborate, more intricate and more lucrative. Not many floral designers could survive – or would even want to – without weddings as the foundation of their business.
“Ninety-nine percent of my business is weddings,” Meyer says. “I would love to do more corporate, but you rarely see a big budget line for floral design in a corporate event.”
Floral shops often get a good slice of the corporate pie, since they have many ready-to-order options on hand.
“They’ll slap the big plastic book down with the pictures and you can go through and say, ‘that will do,’” Meyer says. “A floral designer comes to you, looks at your plans, talks to you and then builds a design from scratch.”
So how does a floral designer set prices?
“All of our pricing includes setup and service time,” says Grist. “I didn’t want to a la carte all of that stuff. I wanted to have it all inclusive. I do have to allow for the fact that we’re driving three vehicles and that we might be 40 minutes or two hours away. We can be affected by many factors and so our profit margins will look different from event to event.”
According to an informal survey by Missouri Meetings & Events Magazine, the price comes through a formula that is based on the cost of the flowers. Mark-up on the flowers tends to be about three times the wholesale cost. Then designers factor in the difficulty of the pieces they are making.
“You don’t charge by the hour, but you estimate by the difficulty of the piece,” Meyer says.
In fact most planners can’t tell you what they make per hour.
“I base it completely on the project at hand,” Grist says. “When I first meet with clients, I will give them a general notion of the expense of the project. But that can be eight months to a year out from the event. As we get closer I keep revising the estimate until we get close. Once I give a final estimate, it’s set in stone.”
“If there’s a flood in Ecuador,” Meyer agrees, “and the cost of roses shoots up, that cuts into my profit.”
According to the designers we asked, flowers for corporate events end up costing anywhere from $400 to $1,500, depending on the complexity. Wedding flowers begin at $2,000 and range upwards to $8,000, with $4,000 to $5,000 as an average.
The world of photography is changing rapidly. Digital media are allowing for quicker turnaround, more interaction between the client and photographer and far more foolproof guarantees that the client is getting what she or he wants.
“I did resist digital at first,” says Vontz, “partially because of the expense of the new equipment. But once I got into it, I recouped my cost in a month.”
That includes savings from not having film developed, proofed and processed. But if you factor in the cost of time – because now photographers do all of the proofing and processing digitally – the savings is lost.
“I spend a lot more time now than I did with film,” Vontz says.
Then the drive for digital memory keeps cutting into profits as well. Photographers who have switched to digital are creating images that take 15 megabytes of memory in raw form. That’s going to devour a hard drive pretty quickly when up to 600 shots are taken for one major event.
Then there is the investment of an Internet site that can handle that memory load, because online proofs are becoming standard in the business.
“It’s great in the sense that the client can see proofs the next day or so,” Vontz says. “But on the other hand, the expectations increase.”
So how do photographers meet those demands with their pricing?
For one thing, photographers tend to charge for their time, at least at the shoot. The lowest charge we found by a full-time professional was $75 per hour. The average was around $125. Photographers will also try to negotiate for the cost of mileage at times.
“I’ll do that if it is outside the metro area,” Vontz says. “As long as I’m staying nearby, I don’t charge for mileage.”
Then the photographer must also consider selling the image. The price for an image should be agreed upon beforehand, along with the rights. Photographers selling away their rights to the client will charge between $50 and $100 per image to a private buyer. The price can go much higher, depending on the amount of exposure the picture will get, especially to a magazine or book that is buying all rights.
Sharing the rights lowers the price of the image. If a wedding party or a corporation is willing to allow the photographer to keep the rights to photograph – and plan to buy several prints – the cost can be driven down to as low as $1 per image.
And if you can’t do the numbers right off, get help.
“When I was getting into the business, I gave established photographers a call,” Vontz said. “They had no hesitation in helping me out.”
(Michael Humphrey is the Contributing Editor from Kansas City, Mo.)
Andrea K. Grist Floral Designs
Six Columns Imaging