Ecosystems 101: Forging a Sustainable Path

You would think the formula for success as a photographer (or for anything, really) would be both varied and potentially complicated. But at this point in my life, I really don't think that is true.

In fact, I think that a formula for long-term success in, let's say photography, can be boiled down to six words:

Create more value than you extract.

That's it. The kicker for this approach is that the extraction part is necessarily an afterthought. The focus is on creating value. Not, "How much money can I make?" But rather, "How much value can I create?"

And taking it one step further, it follows that the sustainability of your success is a function of the difference between the extracted value and the created value. Because that is what you are leaving on the table for others.

The best example I can give is Google. They have created an absolutely insane amount of value that has benefitted the entire world. The economic magnitude of that value can't really be known. But it is a lot, lot of money.

And in exchange, they extract literally a few pennies at a time from that created value through programs like Adsense. And even then, are creating more cash value for their Adsense partners than they are extracting. The pennies, of course, add up to billions of dollars. And the overall value Google creates is both economic and informational.

The Adsense pennies/billions are a tiny percentage of that overall value. And because of that, the machine just runs and runs. It is sustainable.

I cannot assign a value to a fast and accurate Google search when I do one. But it is something. It matters. And it is repeated a kajillion times a day. That Google shares Adsense pennies my clicks might generate with the partner sites is just fine with me.

That is how I have always tried to think at Strobist: create a significant value in lots of ways for as many people as possible, and to retain a very small percentage of that.

Which is not to say value equals money. In fact, I really don't think in terms of money when designing a system or shooting a project or speccing a job. I concentrate on creating maximum value.

Sometimes that value is monetary, sometimes it is not. Sometimes the monetary component is direct, sometimes it is indirect.

But when you focus on creating value, it is easier to catch the attention of a third party. Or several third parties at once. Because you are focusing on the value ctreation part, and not starting with the question, "How am I gonna get paid?"

That comes later. And not until you create value anyway, so why get ahead of yourself?

In fact, sometimes the value and revenue paths are so convoluted that the initial reaction is like, "Sounds great. But why are you doing this?" And then I'll walk them through it and they're like, "Oh, okay. Cool."

For me, The HoCo Arts thing is a no-brainer. I donate half a dozen portrait shoots a year on average. The downstreams from that time spent (and that's all it is for me) are numerous and significant and much, much more than six editorial day rates. Which is what we'd be talking about if these were straight money jobs.

Still, some of the people involved don't even understand it. After we finished a shoot last week, the guy was like, "Am I supposed to tip you or something?"

The important thing to remember is that value does not necessarily equal money. They can be exchanged and/or converted. And both are significant positive forces. But they're not the same thing. Once you get past thinking of value just in terms of money, it unlocks a lot of cool thinking.

The best analogy I can think of is the story of stone soup. We're trying to make something really cool in which the sum is greater than the parts. Most parties involved will contribute something, even if it is just their presence in front of the camera.

My role as a photographer is that of the stone, which is really just a marker for the plan itself. I want my work to be an idea, a catalyst. The little thing that caused something cool to happen—or even to snowball—that otherwise would not have.

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