A major disruption? The impact of disruptive media
The combination of technology and the Internet has allowed many start-ups to fight against existing business models. “Disruptive platforms” have wreaked havoc in their respective industries. With disruptive platforms now popping up in the photography industry, can we expect the same amount of damage to ensue? Christopher Quyen reports.
“The customer is always right.” It’s an adage that guides almost all businesses. But with the world moving faster with technology and the Internet streamlining our lives, current business models have been unable to keep up with the growing demands of customers. So what does this mean in a world where the customer is always right? Consumer dissatisfaction. This gap in the market is where disruptive platforms have become the solution. Disruptive platforms can be thought of as a web or mobile-based application that streamline the process of accessing a good or service based on a consumer’s individual needs. These platforms also allow businesses to offer goods or services that are unique to each customer, and often at very competitive rates. Uber, Airbnb, and Alibaba are all classic examples of disruptive platforms that have achieved just this while wreaking havoc to many businesses within their industry; and the photography industry appears to be the next target.
Recently, disruptive platforms like Airtasker and Snappr have moved into the photography industry to provide consumers with cheap and easy access to photographic services. “From a customer’s perspective, we wanted to reduce the complexity of booking a shoot by a factor of 10, as well as pass on the savings that are made by having an efficient centralised operation,” says Snappr Co-founder, Matt Schiller. But will a little disruption be the end of the world for professional photographers? Sydney-based commercial photographer, Tanya Zouev, who has 25 years of commercial photography experience, thinks not. “To keep things in perspective, I think it is important to segment the market and identify where you belong,” she says. Many photographers believe that these disruptive platforms are targeted towards the low to middle-end of the market, and if you are working in the high-end of the market, disruptive platforms may be less of a threat.
While these platforms may not threaten the top-end of the market, they do address gaps that have formed in the market due to the growing divide between the lower and higher ends of the industry. Founder and CEO of Airtasker, Tim Fung believes that this disruption will not threaten the photography industry, but rather fill in these gaps. “With photography, we’re seeing a lot of different types of jobs being created, from photos of a 100th birthday party or a family dinner, or even photos of you surprising your wife [with a gift]. Those are the sort of things where, if there wasn’t an application like Airtasker, you wouldn’t really know that people want those services,” says Fung. Schiller, also believes that his platform will allow professional photographers to be able to service this gap in the market. “From a photographer’s perspective, our aim was to free creative people from the hours of dealing with e-mails, leads, accounting, as well as the uncertainty of not being paid.
Sydney-based wedding, newborn, and family photographer, Natalie Howe believes that although disruptive platforms won’t take work away from professional photographers, it won’t give them work at a reasonable price point either. “It won’t be about quality though; it will be about price. Those who may never consider hiring a professional photographer may consider hiring an Airtasker or Snappr photographer, if the price is right,” she says.
But for the up-and-coming photographer who is starting their business, the business models of these disruptive platforms could offer some insights and help them along the way, as Sydney-based photographer Kat Stanley found. “I think the word ‘disrupters’ gets thrown around a lot these days, and has a bit of a negative connotation to it. A number of these service providers could be labelled ‘innovators’ in the way that they are providing work to talented photographers who may not have the desire or know-how to set up a business,” says Stanley.
Talk is cheap
But there is a danger that comes with disruptive platforms. At times, consumers won’t know what they’re buying into, as they are buying into the end product rather than the process or the personal experience. They will only know the bargain prices these platforms offer and the photographer’s online biography and their portfolio. Dean Sewell, a co-founder of leading Australian collective, Oculi, has expressed his concerns for the newer generation of photographers who try to work with the business models of these platforms. “The people they will prey on are young photographers who are trying to get a start in the industry,” says Sewell.
The real loss is for the consumers who don’t try to educate themselves on the value of photography. “It’s like going shopping for furniture, but you don’t want to pay for the real deal so you go to Ikea and purchase something cheap,” he says. “If people are looking to hire a photojournalist for around $150, then they’re going to get a second-rate product,” says Sewell. Professionals should not be focused on competing with the pricing of these platforms, but rather focus on being the best. “We have looked into these platforms in the past, but found that they were too focused on pricing rather than quality of images,” says Stanley. “It was a no-brainer that if we wanted to be the best service providers in the industry, then that wasn’t a market that we wanted to be a part of.”
However, Tim Fung says Airtasker is not about low-prices at all. “If prices were low all the time then nobody would find work through Airtasker,” he says. “It’s actually about finding people with the right skills, and Airtasker is a great way for people to say what they need, have people pitch to them their rates and why they’re the best person for the job, and then pick from those people.” This ability to be able to price your worth seems to even out the playing field and could change the perception that services found through disruptive platforms are “cheap” and of “low quality.” Snappr plans to follow suit with this in addition to their current tiers of pricing. “In the future, we do plan to add additional tiers to our offering. These will allow people with many decades of commercial experience and much more specialised equipment to enter the platform at an appropriate rate,” says Schiller. Regardless of the work that comes from these platforms, photographers such as Zouev do not begrudge anyone who chooses to use Airtasker or Snappr. Zouev has realised that not everyone can afford premium products and services and, sometimes, choosing a cheaper photographer for some unique images may be a better option than using stock photographs.
Knowledge is power
Although disruptive platforms may not affect the amount of work available to professional photographers, photographers such as portrait specialist Rainee Lantry have expressed concerns that the low price-points of these platforms may influence the public’s view on the value of photography. “In reality, I offer a lot more to my clients. I offer my experience, creativity, and time before the session has even begun. I plan a session well in advance with my client, investing time into a creative concept and styling to produce custom images, which tell a story about my clients’ lives and families,” Lantry says. Similarly, Natalie Howe says that selling a creative product is difficult enough and can make you feel very vulnerable and exposed, especially when the public challenge the worth of your work. “These platforms give the illusion that photographers simply show up to a job and take a few photos and that’s the end product,” Howe says.
It is important to educate your clients on the difference between a weekend warrior, who takes photos as a part-time gig, and a full-time professional photographer who offers a unique and high-end product to each of their clients. However, with disruptive platforms setting standards and making the price of photography more public, this may be an uphill battle. “The general public has never had an understanding of the pricing of photography and why we need to charge the prices that we do,” says Sewell. When you are hiring a photographer, you’re buying into years of experience, creativity, and expensive gear. “A working photographer could have anything from $50,000 – $100,000 worth of equipment,” Sewell notes.
If you can’t beat them, join them
But as consumer’s flock to disruptive platforms as a means of accessing a service, will it be worth the time and effort to join these platforms? It is a decision that each photographer may have to take into consideration if these applications continue to take over the photography industry as Uber has done to the taxi industry. However, the data streaming from these disruptive platforms does not paint a bleak picture. “People are earning a full-time living, or more, on Airtasker. We have people earning over $10,000 to $20,000 a month doing jobs via Airtasker,” says Fung. Snappr’s data also reflects this projected income. “Most of our photographers choose to set a part-time availability schedule that fits around other work, study commitments, or personal preferences,” Schiller says. “That being said, the earning potential for a fully-utilised photographer on Snappr is more than $100,000 per year,” he says.
However, it can be almost impossible for professional photographers to work with these business models if they opt to only offer a very high-end service and product. “I can’t see how this type of pricing would create a full-time income. From my experience, if I were to charge these prices, I would be burnt out quickly and have little to show for it,” says Lantry. Former ACMP president and 2016 AIPP Australian Professional Photographer of the Year, Lisa Saad, who has over 29 years’ experience in image development and creation, also stresses that photographers should not react to these business models either and change their internal operations. “Young photographers who have only been in the industry for about five years tend to be very reactive,” she says. “What they do is they start changing their business model depending on what’s happening outside. Don’t ever react to what’s happening outside your business model and change your own. You could dissolve your business clientele very quickly, and I’ve witnessed photographers go out of business in less than a week,” Saad says. Changing your business model to compete with others can cause your existing clientele to feel as if you’re unreliable to work with, and, at the end of the day, you don’t really want to compete with a $59 photographer.
Shaking the future
Naturally, platforms like Airtasker and Snappr were bound to happen, and as they are filling a gap in the market, there seems to be room for everyone. “The Internet has evened out the playing field in many industries, and photography just happens to be one of many,” says Zouev. But while disruptive platforms will indeed fill in gaps, they may also create divides in their wake. There will be a larger division between the low-end and high-end markets, and the public will see the contrast between cheap photographers and high-end photographers. However, there is a lesson that relates to all disruptive platforms – the importance of maintaining your reputation and having accountability in your work. “People who have built their social reputation; that’s what is really going to work in the long run,” Zouev says. “Consumers are not going to trust advertising and marketing or a brand logo and brand name. You really need to build a business based on word-of-mouth, ratings and reviews that can build your social reputation,” says Fung. Professionals need to stay ahead of the crowd and continue producing high quality work. “To avoid being viewed as an outright commodity, our work needs to continually evolve and improve,” says Zouev.