January 12, 2012

Pancake Session: Mike Larson on Specialization

I can’t remember the exact first time I met Mike Larson. I know it must have been at a conference, probably a Partner Con. And it was probably only for a few minutes, as we got introduced passing in the hall in between classes. But however it first got started, we’ve had the pleasure of knowing Mike for four or five years now. Over the years, we’ve ended up at the same dinners, we got to meet his beautiful wife Rachel, and we’ve watched their business and their family grow by leaps and bounds as they travel all over the world shooting & speaking to other photographers.

Just last year, Mike shot the wedding of our dear friends Chase & Jaime, and I got to fall in love with his work all over again. It was right around that time that I realized Mike had started specializing in “Private Estate & Vineyard” weddings, and I just thought that was pure genius as that’s where we tend to shoot most of our own weddings but I’d never thought of specializing exclusively in that. See that’s why I love to surround myself with people smarter than me….because they are constantly pushing me to rethink and re-examine everything. Mike is just about to unveil a brand new, even more specialized brand next week. So I thought now would be the perfect time to ask him more about how he does it. Here’s what he said.

Introducing: the super talented (and way smart!) Mike Larson

Specialization & Style in a crowded market:

Is it even possible to be unique anymore in a sea of people who seem to shoot just like us? Especially considering that we could be competing for almost identical clients? Has everything under the sun been done already?

It’s a big dilemma that many driven entrepreneurs in most all industries go through. We only happen to notice our own industry because we are in it, and this issue nails us square in the face. We are forced to deal with it. And it creates sometimes frustrating, yet alluring and exciting challenges at the same time. That’s the beauty of running your own business: risk and reward.

Now enter our problem of commoditization. The more “common” an item or service becomes; the lower the price is driven down due to competition and a surplus of supply over demand. The consumer grows in power in mass markets, and profitability becomes a greater challenge. And here’s the real kicker: it’s not the fault of our competition. If we want to change that, we have to go out and do something about it.

Now here’s the exciting part: we have the option of going out and discovering something more unique to center our business around. To get out of the business of commodities and into a business with specialty. And I’m going to give you 3 simple steps to get started. First off though, remember that a wedding or portrait photographer is a performance-based service. Meaning that how you relate to the couple and make them feel is more important to the overall outcome than how you manipulate the settings in the technical realm. This is true both in the referrals afterwards, as well as how much they open up to you and show their real selves during the shoot. You can be the most technical person in the world, but if you say to your clients Be open like my 1.2 lens….hah, well that would be an awkward moment!

Step one: base your business around your personality. You’ll go farther. I once heard a speaker say rightly, “if your happy, tell your face”. A smile and a warm heart will go far. Now capture that on film and put it on your website. Brand who you are.

Step two: do something different. It’s scary to step out and risk the easy jobs where people say, “give me what’s most popular”. Find a niche and make your style unique. If it fails right away, try again with something else. Note that once you do find that unique style, eventually people WILL copy you. And that’s a good thing. That’s how you know you’re doing something right!

Step three: pick a narrow scope of specialization. I know some of the most successful artists who choose a category and are sought after jut because they were the first or only artist to do that specific thing. Its fun, but consider this a challenge: the more unique you are, the more you will be sought after. If you can do something no one else is doing, that usually means being paid more to do it and loving what you do. Doors open up. It’s an exciting world! But only if you put in the work to find what that unique thing is. Like my friend Jeff Jochum, who has challenged me through my process of specialization, says “you have to do the mental heavy lifting to make real progress”

In closing, don’t compare yourself to others because you are not others. Be happy and content with what you have and who you are. Wrestle with what your unique style and specialization is. Many will give up. But that’s why when you reach that point…

You will be among the few.

-Mike Larson (private estate & vineyard wedding photographer)

*Mike will be launching his new brand and specialization around the middle of next week at www.mikelarson.com. Be sure to stay tuned to Twitter, to be the first to see it!

Now if you’ll do me a favor, if you liked this post and got something out of it will you share it on fb/twitter? And be sure to give Mike a big shout out thank you on there too!

  1. René Tate

    Mike is the bomb. We’ve been specializing in wedding photography for the Christian couple starting in Jan ’11 and have been so thrilled with the experience. We’re photographing brides and grooms with the same large hearts for the Lord and for marriage as us.

  2. Tiffany Farley

    JUST what I needed to read this morning! Per usual. :)

  3. Abby Grace

    Idon’t know how you do it, Mary, but every time I read your blog I feel more inspired than the day before to go out and make my business a better version of itself. I leave your pages wanting to shoot, improve, shoot, critique, and then shoot some more. Thanks for always being inspiring!

  4. Jennifer Medeiros

    Love it! I will give this some serious thought as to what my specialty could be… Thank you…as always. :)

  5. Alison

    Great post, thank you Mike! I love the idea of standing out first in a specialized way in a sea of so much simularity!

  6. athena p

    Hi Mike. I’m an avid fan of Mary (and Justin. Or wait, uh Justin and Mary :) and now I’m an avid fan of yours to. Why? This post for one, but mostly because you are brazen, brave, real, YOU. I would love to seek out exactly what you speak of. Nay, CARVE OUT, not seek. I’m starting my business and feel like I have to "get somewhere" before I can do this specific of drill-down specializing. I might be wrong. my market – Minneapolis/St.Paul – has the highest amount of portrait and wedding photographers, per capita, than anywhere else in the US. I’m already fighting that proverbial uphill battle. But the other day I was thinking that it really doesn’t have to be such a steep climb – and this post just RESONATED that idea within me. So thank you. For saying it at the exact time I needed to hear it. Because just maybe MPLS needs a Modern-Vintage inspired, Anthropologie loving laid back couples and wedding photographer? (I kid. Sort of.) xo

  7. Ceci

    Excellent article. You are so right in encouraging us all to seek individuality and enthusiasm in our work.

  8. Christa

    I want to specialize…I really do but I’m so scared. But I know it’s necessary! Great pancake session, and thanks to Mike for sharing :)

  9. mike larson

    Rene, I’m so stoked to see how you’ve come so far since we chatted 9 months ago.

    Justin & Mary, thanks for the friendship and the guest blog appearance.

    I want to encourage all of you to consider that specializing is a risk and yet sometimes riskier is doing what everyone else does too. Consider the opportunity cost and the lost opportunity cost.

    I can’t wait to see how you guys develop you style, and feel free to open the dialogue for more conversation as time goes on! :)

  10. The Detailed Life

    great info!

  11. Chase & Jaime

    What a great post about Mike! Way to show some love J&M! Mike is so right about sqecializing! Stand out and be unique. Justin&Mary we love you guys and miss you tons! Wonderful Pancake session!!

  12. patricia van der sloot

    I also had the honor to meet Mike and attend the workshop twice this year. First time was in Italy and the second time was in the Netherlands, were I live. I attended the second time because I knew I would learn a lot again…and I did. Being a specialist it is important to keep yourself on top of it and Mike makes that possible. I’m glad that I became a specialist and thankful for it every day. So glad I made that step, it was the best I could do for my business. It really opened doors that would stay closed before. So don’t doubt it…just do it and go for it. It is not easy…but hey the most wonderful things aren’t wright. Loved this post!

  13. patricia van der sloot

    I also had the honor to meet Mike and attend the workshop twice this year. First time was in Italy and the second time was in the Netherlands, were I live. I attended the second time because I knew I would learn a lot again…and I did. Being a specialist it is important to keep yourself on top of it and Mike makes that possible. I’m glad that I became a specialist and thankful for it every day. So glad I made that step, it was the best I could do for my business. It really opened doors that would stay closed before. So don’t doubt it…just do it and go for it. It is not easy…but hey the most wonderful things aren’t wright. Loved this post!

  14. René Tate

    Appreciate the encouragement, Mike.

  15. Christina Brosnan

    Thank you for this post! It’s exactly what I’m aiming to do with my future branding!

  16. Shannon Rosan

    Great advice Mike!

  17. Jeremy

    Great post J&M – have been thinking about this a lot…Jesus Christ is not just #1 in my life, he is my life and been thinking about whether or not we should "target" Christian brides….scary because the stereotype is that christian’s are cheap…any thoughts?

  18. Yuliya M.

    Wow, thank you soooo much for featuring this post. I didn’t know you could specialize so narrow in wedding photography and it gave me hope that I can create a business that I will enjoy running, instead of picking up whatever weddings come my way. I have a long way to go . . .

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