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How to stand out in a down economy

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Small business owners may think the economy is slapping them in the face, but not all of them are feeling the sting. Challenging times can yield surprising results as business owners are forced to work harder, alter their parameters, and get more creative.

Timothy Gray is a Chicago-based photographer who runs his own business, Timothy Gray Photography. Specializing in contemporary color landscape photography, traditional portraits, high-resolution film-scanning and other services, Timothy Gray Photography has managed to stay strong for over seven years, including these past few trying ones. Gray took a moment to share his tips for how small business owners can help their companies stand out when the market isn't as bright as it used to be.

1. Work your network. "In a down economy," he begins, "the best marketing is free and comes through word-of-mouth. I have found more new clients through the referrals of friends, colleagues, and former co-workers than through any other method. In each case, the client was willing to take a chance on me because I knew someone whose opinion they valued."

2. Embrace change. "Most industries are constantly in flux. In my field, there is a renewed interest in film-based photography. And while I was still using film at a time when others had gone digital, my knowledge and experience with film has allowed me to differentiate myself from the score of 'digital shooters' out there. People come to me for a certain look they can't get with digital," Gray shares.

3. Get social. Regarding the newest change to the online landscape, Gray says, "I was late to the game when social networking became one of the must-haves in my small business toolkit. I didn't fully grasp the potential of the medium, of the marketing reach possible through sites like Facebook. Once I discovered how easy it was to post links to my newest images, blog articles, etc., I found there were both photographers with similar interests whom I could bounce ideas off of, as well as clients who would never have found me using more conventional networking methods.

"The key is to keep at it. It took me six months of regularly posting new content to establish a following on Facebook. However, it took me just six weeks on Twitter to gain the same-sized audience."

4. Find balance. "The worst thing you can do in a down economy is overwork yourself. Work/life balance is essential regardless of the economic climate, but it's especially important during slow times. Take regular breaks, exercise, keep to a regular schedule if possible, and make sure you get plenty of sleep.

"For me," Gray continues, "the need to find balance came at the request of my wife. She was seeing me put in long hours, many of those disruptive to our daily routine. I was staying up late into the night, which in turn led to sleeping in late. My internal clock got screwed up and I wasn't as productive during normal business hours as I could have been. Only after I started turning off the computer at the end of business and limiting checking email to twice a day did I notice a change in my productivity. I slept better, woke up more rested, and attacked the next day renewed and refreshed.

"Further, I found running to be a great form of exercise as it was accessible, could be done at any time of day, and allowed me to unplug and clear my mind. Some of my most productive times come after a 20-minute run."

5. Volunteer your time and talent. Gray expounds on the age-old wisdom: "Giving back can pay off in dividends. Find a cause which you feel strongly about and lend a helping hand. For example, if you are a green business, help plant a tree on Arbor Day or take part in your local community cleanup effort.

"For me, the opportunity to volunteer came in the form of a silent auction held by one of the larger non-profit organizations in my city. My wife was on the board charged with planning the annual fundraiser and came home one night asking if I would consider offering my services as an auction item. I ended up creating a gift certificate good for two hours of private photo instruction, and the auction offering was a huge success. Not only did it bring in money for a worthy cause, it got my name out among many diverse and affluent individuals."

6. Travel to gain perspective. It may not seem obvious, but getting the heck out of Dodge might just jump-start your next wave of business. "I was in a creative funk two years ago," Gray recalls. "Business was slower than usual and I simply wasn't feeling inspired. It was early October, and I decided to take a road trip to experience the fall color in New England. I took one camera and one lens, and spent 10 days photographing the fall foliage display in Maine and New Hampshire. The images I returned with were new, exciting, and fresh. And more importantly, I felt recharged and ready to tackle a long winter of editing, cataloguing, marketing, and business planning."

Last Updated: 18/10/2011 - 4:06 PM

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