Name a fine art photographer. Other than Ansel Adams. For all the people who might mention Alfred Stieglitz, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Diane Arbus, or Andreas Gursky, there are many more who won't be able to name anyone at all. For most people, fine art photography is a rarefied pursuit that, with some exceptions, typically trades more in reputation than in income.
Then there's outdoor photographer Peter Lik, who reportedly has sold $440 million in prints and has a 100,000 sq. ft. facility for producing and packaging his wares, as reported in The New York Times. This is a major business centered around one guy taking pictures and a whole team selling them to the public.
I've been in his SoHo gallery--he's got 14 of them around the world. This isn't the art gallery you're probably used to. It's an environment designed to show off large photos to their best effect and to process orders. Lik may not be beloved by the art industry. Some of his attitudes might rub you the wrong way. But there are at least five things you can learn from his story.
If you want your business to thrive, it must sell. Everyone in the company has to understand this point and recognize their part in the process of satisfying customers. Make sure you train everyone to grasp this, as well as other critical parts of their jobs.
Create a repeatable process
You want to create products or services and sell them. To do that efficiently requires a method or process that you can do on command. From greeting customers to understanding their interests, showing appropriate offerings, and closing the deal, get good at this part of business.
Please customers, not critics
Ultimately, customers keep you in business, not professional critics. Some of the latter can make it different for a time. A name reviewer with a following can put the hurt on a restaurant, for example. Deal with them as you need to, but remember that if you please the reviewer and not the customers, you won't be around long enough to enjoy the write-up.
Pricing and availability are tricky
Juggling pricing, availability, and perceived exclusivity can be a powerful skill in working toward profitability. Lik creates larger sets of limited edition images, increasing potential volume, and drives up the price as they sell out to create a sense of urgency. You might wonder if the images are worth what they command. The real question is whether the people who might become customers perceive them as worth the price.
Don't screw your customer over
Here's where Lik will likely go wrong at some point. His folks keep stressing the ultimate collectible value of the images because the prices keep going up. But they only go up in the primary market. In the secondary market, there's little demand, and certainly next to no appreciation in value, according to The New York Times. There are simply too many copies of any one image. When customers, who apparently aren't the traditional gallery customers, find that the value they thought they were buying doesn't really exist, they often get disappointed and then angry. They tell their friends, who in turn tell their friends. It's eventually a bad word-of-mouth generator. Maybe Lik will outlast it, but do you really want to create a business that requires you to be one step ahead of the consumer?