In talking to readers I find that success stories of other real estate photographers (see the ReaderProfile Category of blog posts) can be illuminating and motivating for those in the process building a business. Since I got in touch with the fact that building a real estate photography business is more difficult outside the large metro areas where the real estate markets are smaller an less inclined towards high tech marketing, I've been looking for a success story from small town market. I'm sure there are many out there but I believe Kerry Bern of Ankeny, IA is a good example. When I first asked Kerry to let me feature him on the blog, last July, he didn't want to because he was just starting and he was shooting real estate part time. Ankeny, IA is a town of less than 50,000 about 10 miles North of Des Moines. Zillow shows 445 properties on the market with 93 above $300k and 1 above $1M so this appears to be a typical small town market.
Here is how Kerry describes his business:
- Level of business: Kerry is averaging about 5-6 shoots per week.
- Competition: Kerry says that of the 1292 agents in the local MLS, 685 of them have a photographer provided to them by their office. One brokerage has a contract with Obeo and a third broker has a agent that does real estate photography as a hobby for other agents in the office. This leaves 685 as Kerry's target clientele. Take out the buyers agents and that doesn't leave many listing agents. This is why Kerry as decided to focus on shooting for builders. 95% of his shoots are for builders. There is one other independent real estate photographer in Kerry's market area.
- Pricing philosophy: Kerry says, "It's has been slow to build a customer base, but he believes that’s what happens when you refuse to compete on price alone. I would much rather compete on quality and service. It is far better to have fewer customers who appreciate and are willing to pay for a quality product than it is to have 100s of customers where virtually every time you leave your house you are basically losing money."
- Marketing: Kerry says, "I started going to open houses and after many empty promises I finally got my chance with a couple of builders. Since then most of my business comes from referrals. I still go to open houses about once a month but am very selective with whom I solicit to. I don’t want to waste my time or theirs if I don’t think that there is a chance that they would hire me."
Kerry's advice to others starting out is as follows:
- Be open minded and don't limit your marketing to just Realtors.
- There have been a few posts in the flickr PFRE group lately of individuals deciding to take the plunge into real estate photography with only a DSLR and kit lens. That’s scary. Don’t even think of trying to do this without the necessary equipment and skills.
- Realize that you are probably going to have to give away some free shoots to get your foot in the door. I still do that periodically for potential clients that I feel will give me a considerable amount of work in the future. After you shoot your first home for a client make a point to sit down with them and discuss, photo by photo if necessary, what they like and don’t like. It’s the only way that you are going to learn what it is that they want. If you don’t provide them with what they want, they won’t call you again.
- Subscribe to the PFRE blog and spend a year or two on the flickr PFRE group before you jump in with both feet. There are two phrases that periodically appear on PFRE flickr group discussions and the PFRE blog that sticks in Kerry's mind, ”You don’t know what you don’t know” and “It takes about three years to really start making money at this”. Chances are you are not going to be an overnight success.
Thanks Kerry for sharing your insights with everyone! I'm sure this will be helpful to many folks starting out. I'm continually amazed by how similar things are all over the world. I think Kerry's experiences show that what works in large real estate markets works in small markets as well, it just may take a little longer.