Business + Marketing

A Simple Guide to Steering Your Creative Business in the Right Direction

March 8, 2019

By Jai Long

Photos © Free The Bird Photography

The following is an excerpt from Jai Long’s latest ebook, Make Your Break: A No-Bullshit Guide to Doing Better Business, released in December 2018. It has been edited and condensed to fit these pages.

Business, Explained

A business has its own life. It’s a living, breathing machine, built to do the things for which you created it—and sometimes more.

A business is like a ship. It’s something you build, and even though you may be a freelancer or a small business, it’s not you. The quicker you can separate yourself from your business, the better. A business needs its own life to live and you need to do the same.

The great thing about a ship is that you can have a crew to help you. You can hire an accountant to “scrub your decks,” you can purchase a client management system to keep things on track, you can call in favors from friends and family, you can hire an assistant. With all hands on deck, you can free up time to work on what’s important: steering the ship in the right direction.

If you find yourself floating in the ocean and can’t figure out why you haven’t yet found success, it could be because you don’t have a clear map. It’s much easier to get somewhere when you know where it is you’re going.

Your map is your business plan. Once you write out your map, you’ll have a step-by-step plan on how to find your success. It won’t always be smooth sailing—open waters are notorious for storms and big swell. It’s how we prepare for these storms and how we act in a situation that makes all the difference.

If you avoid the wave by turning around and going back, your ship won’t be any closer to where it’s going. If you turn your ship to go around the wave, it will flip over, and that will be hard to recover from. If you go towards the wave straight on, you can go up and over the wave. Once the storm passes, you will be on your way.

The most important role on any ship is the captain. The captain needs to keep the crew safe, sail in the right direction and navigate around obstacles. This is where separating yourself from your business becomes important. You need to be able to look at your business objectively.

Another great thing about separating yourself from your ship is that you can have more than one ship sailing at any given time. Once you get the formula right, there’s no reason why you can’t do it again with a different project—as long as you have the right crew on each ship to help you take it in the right direction.

For Example…

You receive a negative review on one of your social platforms. If you don’t reply to the review and just leave it, it’s the same as going back to the start. Your business will still have the same problem and it will arise again. If you disagree with the review and decide to defend yourself by responding with a cheeky reply, it’s the same as trying to get around the wave: It will flip you over and you won’t end up on top. If you listen to the review, take into account how that client felt while on their trip on your ship, address the problem and solve it, you will work through the storm and be well on your way to the next destination.


Once you’re dedicated to taking your business in one direction, don’t let anything—even self-doubt—get in your way. However, listening to honest feedback from your team, your clients and yourself will ensure that it’s a much smoother and more successful journey.

The Treasure Map

I know what you’re thinking: It’s all well and good to envision a business like a ship on water, but how do I make myself a map so I know where this ship is heading?

We can and probably should make your map very simple. There is never a reason to overcomplicate things if you don’t have to.

Have you started your business and feel as if you’re just floating along? Sometimes you get work, sometimes you don’t. You produce the same work, but it all feels a little stale and you don’t know which direction to take. Or perhaps you feel as if your business seems to be doing fine, but you don’t really know how to take it to the next level. Or maybe you haven’t started your venture yet and feel like the task ahead is overwhelming. Maybe it’s so overwhelming that it has stopped you from starting at all.

It doesn’t matter what stage your business is at—it’s never too late to write a business plan. Simplify it and you will get clarity. With clarity, it’s easy to execute the ideas you’ve had swirling around in your mind for so long now. It will give you the confidence to pursue your dream, because it will be easy to see the steps you need to take in order to make your business work.

1. The Why

I like to start a business map by writing out a little summary of why. Why did you start the business in the first place? Why did you decide to take control of your life and work for yourself? Why does your business exist? Why do you think this world would be a better place with your business in it?

This can be summarized into a mission statement, or a set of “company core values.” These are really important, because clearly stating what your company believes and stands for will help you make every decision along the way. It will also help your customers and employees understand what your business is about.

I wrote my last set of core values for my current business, Free The Bird Photography, five years ago. When I’m making a big decision, I go back and read them and make sure what I’m doing will fit those values.

Free The Bird’s core values are simple. We create an experience so our clients feel comfortable, safe and well looked after from day one. We understand that a wedding day can be a big venture for most people, so we make sure we eliminate any stress and keep everything we do very transparent. Our commitment to our clients is delivering work at the highest quality, providing photographs that will last to be enjoyed by future generations.

This single paragraph takes all the guesswork out of my business for myself and my clients. I have outlined exactly what our photography business does and what we aim to achieve. It also gives the clients a better understanding of what I actually sell. See, most people will see Free The Bird Photography and think that I simply sell wedding photography, but if you read my mission statement, it actually implies that I offer reassurance along with my photography.

Mission statements can change over time as well. Businesses like to grow and sometimes change direction, and that’s fine—as long as you rewrite your statement and stay on that simple path.

2. The Who

It’s much easier to get your business seen if you know who you want to see it. This is particularly helpful for marketing.

Let’s get back aboard our ships for a moment. Marketing is basically calling ahead and letting people know that you will be arriving with your ship. The better you are at it, the more people will show up to say “hi” when you arrive. But we don’t want just anyone to show up, because they’ll get in the way of the people who are actually there to do business with you.

If we understand who we’re marketing to, it will save us a lot of time and energy—and we can double down on using that time and energy for targeted marketing and exploding our reach by creating a buyer persona.

Buyer personas are fictional, generalized representations based around your ideal clients and customers. Personas help us in marketing, sales, design and assessing the products and services we offer. It is important to understand your ideal clients in order to create an emotional connection with them and drive a response or reaction.

To find the perfect who, we need to create buyer personas. Start by asking the right questions…
• Who do you create work for?
• What is their name?
• What do they do for work?
• What is their yearly income?
• Where do they live?
• What are their hobbies?

My Buyer Persona

I’ve given my perfect client a name: Sarah. She is 32 years old, a young professional living in the inner suburbs of Melbourne. She has a dog, loves good food and wine. She appreciates art but with her busy workload, she hasn’t got much time to make art herself.

Sarah’s biggest interest is not weddings, which tells me that she doesn’t really read wedding magazines or follow wedding-related social media accounts. She loves a good recommendation and trusts her friends. She also loves art and follows a few creative photographers’ and visual artists’ work online.

I know I need to provide a good service to Sarah’s friends, who happen to be my past clients. I need to stay in their minds, and I can do that through a mailing list and social media, and I know that it will help me to keep my “non-wedding” social media active and let people connect with me there.

I can now get creative with how I market towards Sarah because I know so much about her. I can curate art shows and run events that I know Sarah is likely to attend with her friends, like the Ray & Jay art tour I’m doing with photographer Ryan Muirhead. All my posts and website copy will be written just for Sarah. All my advertising will be in magazines and on websites where Sarah tends to spend her time. All my posters will be at the local cafés and health food stores where she shops.

See how just by creating a buyer persona, you start to create a step-by-step plan on how to book your perfect clients?

3. The What

The easiest way to work out what you should offer in your business is by understanding why you do business with other people. Start by writing down five reasons why you engage with the businesses you do.

My Reasons for Engaging
• I go to the coffee shop three blocks away, not because it’s the cheapest or the closest, but because they remember my name and they have the best customer service.
• I go to the local health food store, not because it’s cheaper than the supermarket or because it’s convenient or close, but because it feels good to buy quality. I also love supporting local and small businesses.
• I shop at the local thrift store for clothes, not because it has the best clothes or sales, but because I enjoy finding a unique product.
• I buy an Apple laptop, not because it is priced better than their competition or capable of doing more work, but because I love how my expectations are always exceeded on delivery and product design.

My five keywords are customer service, quality, unique product, exceeding expectations and delivery.

Now I know what services and experience I like from a business, I can figure out whether those services fit within my own business. I always run my businesses on my own principles, asking, “Would I do business with myself?” If the answer is no, I wouldn’t do it. If the answer is yes, that’s when I think it’s a good idea.

4. The When

Your map is almost all drawn up and ready, but we need to break it down into viable time frames. It’s important to keep your timelines achievable. Remember, you have time, so if you set more achievable goals, you are more likely to accomplish them and minimize stress.

We need two types of goals. First is the overall goal, which is your main mission for the business. You may have already written this down in the Why section. But you could write down a more direct, long-term goal stating what you want from your business.

Next, we need small, digestible goals. Give yourself achievable steps and break the tasks down as micro as you need in order to keep it simple.

It can be overwhelming to wake up to a goal like: “Be a full-time designer 12 months from now.” It’s much more attainable to wake up to a daily goal like: “Today, create some content for your website and marketing material,” or, “Today is the day you make a start on your branding, or your website, or a new social media account.”

Each small task builds to complete the end goal and gives you step-by-step tasks, which in turn give you clarity on a daily basis.

I personally write a main goal list at the start of every year with some simple things I would like my business to achieve within 12 months. I then write out a to-do list every day so I know what I need to do during the work week and can keep my mind clear for other projects and ideas.

5. The How

This last question is the simplest to answer and can apply to any or all business models: Why + Who + What + When = How

You have written down what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, who you’re doing it for and when. To answer the ultimate question for any business—“How do I make my idea come to life?”—you can now go through your business map and make a plan of how you will make it happen.

Let’s say, for example, you want to start selling vegan ice cream from a pop-up store. You’ve written out a business map, so you’re well on your way. Now to get started.

You know the perfect client you want to do business with. Her name is Julie and she’s a modern girl living in the inner city of Sydney. She is health-conscious but also likes to enjoy herself. You know where she spends her time, what she eats and why she would do business with you. So, you have a perfect location in mind for the pop-up store.

You know that Julie is big on customer service, so you brainstorm a few ideas with some friends on how you can make the experience enjoyable and exceed Julie’s expectations. You and your friends have come up with some great ideas that you’re excited about.

Now you want to start setting a big goal to open the store within six months. You know it’s very ambitious, but you also have a clear mind and feel confident that you have the tools to make it happen.

You start by setting some small, achievable goals:
1. Find a vacant shop within your price range in the area you’ve chosen.
2. Start a social media account to get people interested in the idea before it’s even started.
3. Start testing new flavors of vegan ice cream and work out what people want by holding some “taste testing nights” at your house each week.
4. Create content for your social media—take photos of the tasting nights and the empty shop and tell people why it is your mission to start a vegan pop-up ice cream shop.
5. Engage with a designer to design your branding and shop. You don’t have much money, though, so you decide to work an extra shift at your current job to raise money for your idea.

It is so easy to put together a plan once you have your idea down on paper. In fact, it makes it so easy that you can start having fun with it.


Getting into the mindset of your perfect client will help you market to potential customers who are much more likely to hire your services or buy your product. And remember, if you wouldn’t do business with you, it’s unlikely that other people will either.

Jai Long is the wedding photographer behind Free The Bird Photography, based in Melbourne, Australia. His full ebook can be found at ($79).

Related: The Very, Very Important Reasons Why You Need To Separate Yourself From Your Brand

10 Ways to Improve How Potential Clients See Your Photo Business

7 Steps to Making Your Brand a Photo Empire