The Business of Staying in Business
Posted Jun 1, 2008

I had a wonderful experience this March that caused me to reflect on our industry and my career. Our local association, the Utah Professional Videographers Association (UPVA), held its 10th anniversary celebration and awards ceremony. For the first time, our annual awards event took place at a brand-new, all-digital megaplex movie theater, where 2–3 minutes of each award-winning film was played on the big screen for all to see. The opening award was a special lifetime achievement award, which the association chose to present to me.

I have never been so surprised in my life! I don’t know how long my fellow members had been planning to present me with this award, but they managed to keep it a secret from me. The presentation included a 13-minute documentary and 5-minute spoof, featuring interviews with members of my family as well as many friends and industry associates.

I was moved beyond words and filled with laughter and tears as I saw so many fellow videographers from the past—that is, old friends and colleagues who were once members of our association but have since shut down their wedding video businesses and moved on to other things.

Afterward, when I was thanking one of the interviewees, he told me, "I do not want to become one of Mike’s statistics." He knows that a common refrain of mine concerns the attrition rate of the wedding video business in general and our market in particular. His statement, and the overall experience, made me realize how many of my friends from this profession are no longer with us. Of course, they are still alive, but their businesses careers in wedding videography are dead.

Why do so many of us fail? In fact, the vast majority have failed, and that will continue to be the case. Nine out of 10 small businesses fail in the first year, and of that remaining 10%, nine out of 10 will fail over the next 2 years. So, by the beginning of year four, only one-tenth of one-tenth remain.

One thing that struck me at the UPVA’s 10th anniversary event was that a decade after we started the association, my company is the only one that remains from the initial group. What’s more, only two companies who were in the association 5 years ago are still plying their trade in wedding video.

I feel like a WWII GI from the Normandy campaign who struggles to get to know the new replacements because he knows they will be dead soon. I’m currently getting to know my fourth generation of members in only 10 years. Scariest of all is that these are the upper echelon of our industry, people who recognize the value of an association and continuing education, and yet they fail in such high numbers. Our lead list of potential members has a much higher rate of failure. Nationwide statistics are about the same.

Over the next few installments of The Main Event, I would like to share what has made my business survive two-and-a-half decades as a full-time business with a storefront location. I’ll also discuss what has made the difference between success and failure for many of the others.

Seasonal Income
The seasonal nature of wedding video has been the No. 1 reason for failure in our industry. When the business is rolling in, it’s so easy to be fooled and forget about the lean times at the other end of the year. The biggest mistake you can make in your busy months is getting into debt and overestimating your ability to pay it off.

People with regular income can effectively manage debt by making fixed monthly payments. However, our industry is seasonal, making it impossible for us to count on our income being steady from month to month, and thus impractical for us to approach debt in the same way salaried employees do.

Banks do not seem to mind the highs, when you make additional payments or bigger ones. They just find the lows, when you pay too little or miss payments altogether, unacceptable. If you absolutely must carry debt, then your monthly payment should be based on your worst months to insure that you are able to make all the payments.

Too many of our failed friends in this business have fallen into the insurmountable-debt trap. When they have a couple of busy months they go buy that additional gear or awesome new technology on credit, believing that they need it to make sales, or that their success justifies the investment. It makes sense for the busy months, but it crucifies them in the slow months, and there’s no reason to not anticipate slow months in a business such as ours.

Keep in mind that the only reason you can even go into debt is because someone wants you to pay them interest. There is a silly saying about interest that goes like this: "Thems that knows it earns it, thems that don’t pays it." The one sure way to get ahead financially in life is to earn interest, and the one sure way to fall behind is to pay it.

It’s hard enough to pay off debt with a regular paycheck; it verges on the impossible with a seasonal one. If you’re a wedding videographer in a one-season market, that should tell you all you need to know about the wisdom of getting into debt.

Mike Nelson (rw at rememberwhenvideos.com), owner of award-winning Salt Lake City-based Remember When Videos, is a WEVA MPV-certified videographer, two-time EventDV 25 honoree, author of multiple training DVDs including Bridal Elegance and 40 Creative Wedding Video Ideas, and founder and past president of the UPVA.