business

How I streamlined my business processes by Neil Alexander

Some time back I felt I had to overhaul the way I was managing my business. Paperwork was getting on top of me, I wasn’t invoicing properly and bills seemed to be coming at me left, right and centre. So I began to invest time working out the best way to take back control of my desk and my thoughts. The first step was to create a two notebooks in Evernote; one for invoices and one for expenses. All the email notifications that I received alerting me that a payment had been taken for something or other, I started sending into the respective Evernote notebook and add a tag for that month.


The next step, which was partly brought on by moving house and being unwilling to transport boxes and boxes of old paperwork, was to splash out on a Fujitsu ScanSnap duplex document scanner. I spent weeks scanning and shredding years’ and years’ worth of documents that I’d love to have just tossed but needing to keep 7 years’ worth of for the taxman. The ScanSnap was a dream come true. Even substantial documents could be scanned, saved and indexed within a matter of seconds. In fact it probably takes longer to dispose of documents in my ageing shredder than it does to electronically save them these days but I no longer have drawers and drawers of redundant documents, certificates, statements and letters lying around. And providing I tag and add to the appropriate notebooks upon import, I can access any of this paperwork almost instantly. Compared with trying to locate the correct box file and then having to leaf through hundreds and hundreds of pages to find the right one, only to find that whatever I was looking for was completely mis-filed, it’s a no brainer.
In fact, it’s been such a success that we are now a completely paperless household too. All warranties, receipts, school reports, pension statements etc etc are all scanned and saved into a shared notebook that the rest of the family can access.

Once I had a handle on the raw paperwork, I needed to get on top of my accounts. For many years, to keep costs down and simplify matters, I used an Excel spreadsheet for my accounts, much to my accountant’s annoyance. Though it worked for me on a day to day basis, I did end up incurring higher accountancy fees because of the amount effort he had to expend deciphering my handiwork. That was until I came across FreeAgent.  This is a piece of online accounting software designed specifically for UK based freelancers and small business owners. I can easily track my expenses and time, send invoices, check my recent bank transactions, generate reports for my accountant and send HMRC the necessary RTI for PAYE when I pay myself amongst all the other usual accounting features, and all from one website. There’s even an iOS app which is brilliant for recording ad-hoc expenses.

Using these three simple tools has completely revolutionised my workflow and business practices. The simple fact that paperwork and accounts are no longer a chore makes coping with the day to day running of my business so much more agreeable.

FreeAgent for a sole trader runs at £19+VAT / month and for limited companies, it comes out at £29/month. Use this link for a 10% discount - http://fre.ag/44pstrah
Evernote is a multi-platform application that can be downloaded from evernote.com for free. Premium subscriptions are £35 annually.
The Fujitsu ScanSnap ix500 can be purchased for around £350 - Fujitsu ScanSnap iX500 A4, Duplex Wi-Fi Scanner

And there you have it. Do you think there is anything I could better? What tools do you use? Feel free to comment below and share.

What are your goals for 2014? by Neil Alexander

County Kerry Coastline, Ireland

Every January, in addition to reviewing my favourite images from the previous year, I like to analyse the goals that I set myself for last year and knock up some targets for the year ahead. Some would say I'm mental for posting these online for all to see, but the way I see it is that once they're up, there can be no shying away from them. It makes it all the more important that I try and hit as many as possible - there's nothing worse than publicly humiliating yourself right? Having said that....... on perusing the respective post from last year, I've faired very badly indeed. In fact were this a school report I'd probably give myself a big fat "F" accompanied by "Neil can do so much better than this when he applies himself, and must try harder this year" in bright red ink.

So enough with the hyperbole and onto the minutiae.  

County Kerry Coastline, Ireland

  • Travel writing.
    2013: I've put a great deal of thought over recent months into what I want to shoot, how I want to brand be perceived, who I'd like to work with and how I can strengthen my business. Being able to skilfully craft even a short travel story, I feel would hugely benefit not only me as a photographer but more importantly my business. 
    2014: I don't feel that I've progressed this particularly well. I still struggle putting pen to paper. I've never been much of a wordsmith and have generally outsourced any serious text that I've had to put together for press releases and the like. Even stringing a couple of sentences together for the blog can be painful. I have been diligently pursuing Julia Cameron's exercise, The Artist's Way in the mornings, but that only happens when I'm out of bed in time (for 5am). Whilst I feel that it has been and continues to be a very therapeutic exercise, I'm not sure how much the quality of my writing has improved. 
     
  • Magazine cover & submissions.
    2013: All part of the grand plan for this year that I'm currently in the process of putting together. I'd love to get some top quality magazine covers under my belt.
    2014: I've had a couple of magazine articles published, most notably a feature in Jaguar World monthly  but have fallen behind in the submissions department and still no covers.
     
  • Mentoring.
    2013: Over the years I've done courses, attended numerous workshops and generally worked very hard in my own little bubble on my craft and I'm confident that I can perform well in most situations. So now I feel that it's time to get someone far more advanced than myself to help me get that 'edge' to my work in an attempt to rise above the competition.
    2014: 100% failure here. I've been a qualified member of the Photo Guild for a few years now, but I still haven't taken them up on the option of mentoring. However between drafting and publishing this post, I have finally managed to progress this and submit images for critique. Just waiting to find out who my mentor will be.... Exciting....
     
  • Agent representation.
    2013: If I'm to move more into the advertising, PR and marketing fields, which is the way I seem to be heading, I believe that in order to get the big clients I need to seek out an agent to represent me. Often the big clients won't pursue photographers directly but will use intermediaries such as agents in order to sift the wheat from the chaff. I want to be up there with the wheat!  
    2014: Pah! This I think was probably a little over ambitious at this stage in my career, so it's going on the back burner for a year or two. 
     
  • Shoot more personal.
    2013: Shooting more really isn't a problem, it's the editing time I have issues with.
    2014: That old chestnut. I'm learning to streamline my workflow and it's definitely getting better. The backlog of personal work to edit is almost down to nil, almost. I still have a plethora of personal projects I want to pursue, but that I think is quite healthy. It's good to have ideas to fall back on when I'm feeling a little lacklustre.
     
  • Learn video?
    2013: Still undecided with this one. I've been spending more and more time shooting short clips on my phone and sequencing them, adding soundtracks etc but professional quality video is a whole different ballgame. It's going to cost me, in time and in gear and I'm not entirely convinced that I need to add video to my arsenal but I love to learn new things. So this is a maybe.
    2014: I've definitely taken a step forward with this. I haven't gone into producing video directly, but the timelapses that I've embarked upon are for sure a step in the right direction. Producing and combining series of short sequences has been a real eye opener and something that I will continue to learn. One of my primary reservations for not getting into this was the time aspect. I've found that it takes a minimum of 3 hours shooting time to get sufficient footage for a 30 second finished video sequence, and then the editing and processing time on top of that is probably the same again. I'm increasingly held back by the lack of processing power on my mid 2010 generation iMac, and finding that using another computer at the same time to perform more menial tasks whilst the other is crunching out renders is becoming the norm. Having already laid out a chunk of cash on dollies and controllers I foresee a more sizable splurge on a new powerhouse workstation in the not too distant future. Don't get me wrong, my iMac generally serves me very well when editing stills, but it's lack of extra cores, RAM and solid state drives is beginning to get on my nerves.
     
  • Structured marketing campaign
    2013: I'm working on this at the moment, and have been since the turn of the year but it's no small task. All too often life and business gets in the way of proper planning, so I've been tending to find that this is easier to focus on out of hours. But "out of hours" doesn't really provide me with all that much time.
    2014: I've come to the understanding that this will forever be a fluid and ongoing task. Whilst it's easy to pencil in ideas for the months ahead, things always crop up and force plans to change. The key is to "pencil in" as much as possible and then to be as adaptable as I can when needed. Obviously dates for the likes of Easter and Christmas campaigns don't change, but ideas can and do. So I'm happy with my progress on this. 

County Kerry Coastline, Ireland

So with all that said and done, it leads me to one question: What on earth have I been doing with all my time???

The days seem to blur into weeks, school holidays come and go and bang, another year's calendar goes in the recycling. 

So my catchphrase for 2014 is "more discipline". At the end of the day, this is a business and provided the work is coming in, I shan't get too het up on the fact that I've not written too many travel articles or had a magazine cover or two, but if I don't push myself as an artist, the business will stagnate and suffer, I will end up in a funk and we'll be in a whole world of pain. It's all to easy to get distracted by the new, the different and the shiny but concerted effort and application wins hands down every time.

So what are your goals and targets for the year ahead? Please feel free to share in the comments below.

How many backups is enough? by Neil Alexander

Over the years I've been bitten by one too many IT failures (well more like twenty too many but that's another story) so I've honed my download and backup procedure to the point that it now requires minimum human intervention and cost and provides maximum resilience. I'm sure there are probably better and more efficient routines, but mine works just fine form me, thanks. So just how many backups are enough? Well in my opinion; if I lose one local copy, then I'd want immediate access to another local copy. If both local copies go, then I want instant access to an offsite backup too. But I want a secure offsite backup system that is automatic and provides speedy access to my data should I need it. Unfortunately this is one box I have as yet been unable to tick, so I have an extra step. But I'll outline all this below.

So my procedure is as follows:

  1. I download cards via Lightroom onto an external 2TB USB3 drive. Copying of the files themselves is generally very quick. 
  2. The conversion to DNG and the generation of the Lightroom previews takes a little longer, but whilst this is going on I kick off Chronosync which runs a cloning job to another external 2TB Western Digital SATA drive that I have sitting in a USB caddy
  3. Once this data begins to appear on the secondary backup drive, the BackBlaze application begins to upload the new images to my encrypted backup cloud service. 
  4. The problem with storing backups on the cloud is that there are now over 4TBs worth of my files up there. If I wanted it in a hurry, I'd be stuffed. So what's the extra step so that I can have almost instant access to Terabytes of backups?  I have another external USB hard drive caddy that I also clone to using Chronosync. I only do this once a week and store it in a secure location in a fireproof box within handy access of my office but in an entirely separate building (AKA the garage - it's about 25 yards from my house).

Some time ago, it became apparent that no matter how diligent I was at deleting rubbish, that 2TB of primary disk space was going to rapidly run out. So at the end of each year, I archive the year before last's files off onto my Drobo and this is also synced with BackBlaze. I found to my determinant that using a Drobo as a primary access drive was a far from reliable solution so essentially it serves as backup of a backup for my photographs and runs as a music server for the entire house. 

There you go. Simples. I have one primary working drive and 3 backups. Maybe it's overkill but it gives me peace of mind that I wouldn't have without any of the individual steps.

So that's all fine for image files I hear you say, but what about the just as critical Lightroom catalogues - what do you do with them? Well for those little nuggets of goodness, you're going to have to swing by next week…..

Oh and the images above? They were shot at Chatsworth Country Fair last year on my little (in size but big in ability) Fujifilm X-Pro 1