Finding Funding & Belief - Photographer Nisha Haq
Nisha was the winner of the IPSE UK Freelancer of the Year 2017 Aspire award.
'Aspire' is all about recognising and supporting young, up and coming self-employed talent.
We hear a snapshot of how Nisha got started as a photogapher: finding funding (without a loan in sight), and with it, finding community, clients and self belief.
More from Nisha
Who the hell is Steve Folland?
Steve's a freelancer helping businesses use and make video & audio content in much better ways. Find out more at stevefolland.com, track him down on Twitter @sfolland or lay a trail of cake and he'll eventually catch you up.
Check out Steve's Being Freelance Vlog that documents his weekly wanderings and wonderings as a freelancer.
Transcript - Freelance podcast interview with Nisha Haq
Steve Folland: Freelancer photographer, Nisha Haq. Hey, Nisha.
Nisha Haq: Hello.
Steve Folland: So, how about we get started hearing about how you got started being freelance?
Nisha Haq: So I started photography since I was 13. School, I did lots of shoots of friends, and then I even had like a couples shoot that they paid me for. It was only like 15 pounds at the time. And then I moved on to pursing my photography college. So I did an A Level photography. I found that really exciting and I thought, "You know what? This would be really cool to do at university." So against most of my family's wishes I suppose, doing a non-traditional subject was a bit like, "Okay, you're doing that. Okay. That's cool."
Nisha Haq: So I thought, okay, I'm going to stick to my guns and I'm going to do photography at university, and it was definitely the best decision I made. It was also during the summer while I was at Uni, I did a lot of freelancing, I suppose getting a tasting of what freelancing was like. I worked with a company called Summerset Art Works. And I did a few volunteering gigs and that's when I first got, I suppose, working with my photography skills. And that was really cool, I still work with them today, which is really nice.
Nisha Haq: I've done a free video commissions for them. But it was during university that I realized, okay, the whole industry is practically full of freelancers. It's really hard to get a job in photography, working within a company. So that's when I kind of realized, okay, maybe I need to get some business skills. And it was also during this year, my final year at university, that I set up a social enterprise - a magazine. I noticed that my photography course didn't have a photography magazine, and all the other courses like music and fashion had their own magazines that kind of showed the students' artwork and stuff.
Nisha Haq: So I thought okay, photography should surely have one. And when I realized when it didn't, I thought you know what? I'll just make my own. So I had two of my friends and they embarked on the same crazy idea as me, which was good. And then we managed to get some investment from our course, and they invested in my idea. And yeah, it was amazing. There was a huge turnout. We had an exhibition opening and magazine launch and loads of people contributed. We raised so much money, that was able to help with our final degree show.
Nisha Haq: And it was during that when I realized, you know what? I kind of like this enterprise thing. Setting up my own idea, working with people like marketing and the finance side of things and the branding. Like, putting it all together, kind of really gave me a taste of ... Like set up a business I suppose. So that's when I found out more enterprise opportunities, I realized that my university ... I went to Southampton, so they were quite heavily invested in to setting up businesses.
Nisha Haq: So there was the entrepreneurial panel that I applied to. I kind of did it as a backup because I thought if I can't get a graduate job, at least I might have this to fall back on. So I submitted a business summary and did like a Dragon's Den style of pitching to some judges. And they yeah, they invested in my business. To my surprise, they doubled my original investment, which was really cool. During that time I was like okay, yeah, maybe I could set up my own business.
Nisha Haq: And when other people start believing in you, that's when you feel yeah, okay, this is a potential career option. And still at that time, I didn't feel like I was fully able to sustain myself. So for a year after I graduated, built up my portfolio and got more networks and just kind of really finding my craft I suppose. And that's when I managed to get a graduate job at the same university. And I actually worked within the Employability and Enterprise department, so my colleagues would tell me about enterprise opportunities and what I could do to get myself involved with networks in my area. So that was a really nice sounding board to seeing what good ideas I had and how I could develop them.
Nisha Haq: And they told me about another entreprenuer funding panel in the local area. So I thought I'd go for another round of funding. Because with photography business, it's so much expensive equipment. Like cameras cost a few grand and iMax and all the gear and stuff. So even with my original investment, I still wasn't able to fully invest with getting all the equipment that I needed. So they encouraged me to enter.
Nisha Haq: So I thought okay, yeah, I'll give it a go again. I've got nothing to lose. And yeah, another Dragon's Den style of pitching. This time to more judges, to five judges. It was really nerve racking but it came out really good. So they invested in my business and it was under the Solent LEP, which is the local enterprise partnerships in my area. And a government growth fund that they're investing in to young entrepreneurs. So that was really cool, and that's when I felt like you know what? Let's start my business.
Nisha Haq: So it was in June 2015 that I registered my business and that's when I thought okay, let's get my name out to people, clients and try to get some people interested in my photography. It was also at that same time when I was invited as a guest to a wedding. My partners family friend was getting married and they heard that I was interested in photography. But I'd never done really wedding photography before so that's when I kind of decided, okay, maybe I can do wedding photography. Because they asked me to take some photos in the evening and so I had my camera with me all day anyway.
Nisha Haq: So I was taking photos as a guest. And it was really cool, because they said they prepared my photos to the official photographers. And I was like wow, okay. So that was like damn, okay, maybe I should do wedding photography. Because I'd been really interested in portraits, families, events, that kind of style photography anyway. And it felt like weddings really incorporated everything that I really loved doing in one big that.
Nisha Haq: So, that was a huge confidence boost, and that was when I really thought, okay wedding photography is what I'd want to base my business around. So I suppose, I was doing my freelancing part-time for a couple of years. I worked as a graphic designer and a marketer for various companies. And then this summer, in June, that's when I won the UK Freelancer of the Year, Aspire Award, with IPSE. And that's when I felt like yeah, okay, maybe I should maybe take the plunge.
Nisha Haq: I feel like I had national recognition for something that I was doing part-time, made me feel like, you know what? Maybe this should be my ultimate goal is to go full time and to take the plunge. And the fact that so many of my peers believed in me and it was really scary because I didn't think I'd even get short listed. So it was a month after that I decided to go full time with my freelancing and quit full time work for another company. And yeah, so I've been full time freelance for four months now. So yeah, that's quite a long story but that's how I got in to it.
Steve Folland: It was a lovely cup of tea, there's no problem. There's so much to unpick here. One of which, I'd quite like to go back to is, that whole funding thing. You're mentioning the fact that doing photography, there's a lot of outlay in equipment. With those funding processes that you talked about, is that something where they end up with a chunk of your business or do they expect you to pay it back? Or is it simply a gift to the world in order to?-
Nisha Haq: A gift to the world would be really cool.
Steve Folland: Is it? Marvelous.
Nisha Haq: Yeah.
Steve Folland: Isn't that brilliant?
Nisha Haq: So they're all grants. I've never taken a loan out, because I'm scared of loans. So yeah, they've all been grants. I've been very fortunate and manage to have been recommended to apply for, or the people in my network have suggested I should try stuff out. So yeah, I say to a lot of students, because I'll often talk about freelancing to students and graduates, start with your university or your college. A lot of the times, they want to invest in their own students.
Nisha Haq: So, that was the first place I kind of went to. Yeah, it was really cool when they really support your idea. So you're getting that grant I suppose, was kind of the first step. And yeah, loads of local regions, local bodies, local organizations, a lot of them have their own pot money that they want to invest in to local people. So yeah, they will just give it as a grant.
Steve Folland: Yeah.
Nisha Haq: Performance, you have to work for it yeah. It's not just for free. You have to prove someway you're not just going to run off to Barbados or something on holiday. It's really cool working with the people who work in these organizations, and they want to invest in you. It's really a nice feeling to feel supported and have some people behind you to get where you want to be in your business.
Steve Folland: Yeah. It's an interesting thought, because I think most of us think, we just have to go it alone, be it credit cards or loans. It doesn't feel like that's out there, but it's worth exploring. And so all of those things, be it winning an award or getting the funding, which feels like winning in itself, must give you yeah, a real sense of belief, that it feels like maybe you didn't have.
Nisha Haq: Yeah. I'm the kind of person that kind of goes on with your question later on about what I can tell my younger self is, I'm not very good at believing myself. I think a lot of creatives feel the same way, that they're not good enough. They're not good enough to go for that client pitch or go for that competition. And it's quite hard to, especially when you're freelance, you have to go at it alone a lot of the times. You don't have colleagues to bounce off.
Nisha Haq: You don't have a manager you can talk to necessarily. So it does feel like, oh I've got this huge weight on my shoulders to achieve everything and do everything that I want to do. It's a huge confidence boost to hear people you wouldn't know, like strangers and judges and people who are really high up in the industry, telling you that you can make it is like, oh okay. I can do this, this is good. And it completely changes your mindset. I'm much more positive than when I first started because it was so daunting. And it still is really daunting, but it wasn't as scary. Because I just thought, how am I going to make this work? But I've just taken every day at a time, which has been good. But no, definitely.
Steve Folland: So you've got the funding. You got the confidence, but ultimately still need the clients. How did you go about finding the work?
Nisha Haq: So it's been mainly through networking, word of mouth and online marketing. It's been quite nice. A lot of my clients said, "Oh I found you from Facebook or your Instagram post." I've set up a lot of directories, wedding directories, so it's been a mixture of both off and online and then recently this year, I've done a lot of wedding fairs. I've done seven wedding fairs this year, so meeting potential clients who are planning their wedding, directly face to face with my target audience.
Nisha Haq: So, that's been really good. And also, a nice for me to sus out who would be my idea client, because the wedding photography market is quite crowded in a sense, there's so many competitors. But the thing I've found, I feel like there's a bride and groom for every photographer, because every photographer is so different. And I've found people in my local area, we have very different styles and obviously different personalities. So I don't feel like we're necessarily competitive with each other, because I feel like the client will come to you and you'll find each other that way.
Nisha Haq: So at wedding fairs, it's been quite good to get that connection from the get go I suppose. And same with networking. When I got to local meet ups and things in my area, they kind of say, "Oh are you so and so. You do wedding photography and stuff. Oh my friends getting married," and just that kind of way. I think that's been really helpful. And my friends and family have been amazing. They've been kind of shouting my name.
Steve Folland: Yeah.
Nisha Haq: You need a wedding photographer? Yeah, go to my daughter or whatever, so that's been really nice.
Steve Folland: Yeah. That is great for wedding photographers, being able to go to those fairs. It's such an intrinsic part of getting married for so many people. How did it feel when you first went to one though, when you pitched up?
Nisha Haq: It was so scary. Actually, the first ever wedding fair I did was an Asian wedding fair. So I had my mum come with me and if there was any questions about ... Because Asian weddings are so different from English weddings. I've only really mainly predominately photographed English weddings to this point, so I've only photographed one Asian wedding before. That was a Hindu wedding, so when I had a seat cup came up to me and they were talking bits about the ceremony, I wasn't really sure what they were talking about, because I wasn't too familiar.
Nisha Haq: But my mum really helped get an understanding. The major differences, and that was a really good just throwing myself in there and seeing what the industry was like. Because I wasn't going to be upset if I didn't get any bookings, because I knew it was more market research. And that was really cool. So with any wedding fair, I always try and get to meet as many suppliers. So I've networked with the hair and make-up artist and from that, we did a photo shoot together, which was really cool.
Nisha Haq: So yeah, it was daunting, but it was really good, because I managed to kind of focus on what are my main products that I wanted to show. So I had a few wedding albums that I had created, like sample albums and different photo frames and prints. So that kind of made me focus on okay, this is the work that I want to show. Yeah, it was really good, it was really interesting. And then the first English wedding fair that I did, was at a beautiful location. The sun was shining and yeah, I got a few bookings from that, so that was good fun.
Steve Folland: Cool.
Nisha Haq: Yeah, exciting.
Steve Folland: And when you say about Facebook and Instagram, that's simply putting out content or have you done advertising, like Facebook ads and things.
Nisha Haq: A bit of both. I'd like to do more Facebook advertising, but I've taken a bit of a back burner on that, because I wanted to kind of go back and reevaluate what my target audience is, because there's so many different settings in Facebook advertising. But at the moment, I've been doing mainly putting new content out to my followers. So like blog posts or what I've been doing this week or sneak peaks I call them, for like recent shoots and recent weddings. A lot of the times, I befriend my clients on Facebook, so when I upload their wedding photos if they'd like me to, and they tag all their friends and family. So it gets a lot of organic reach, which is really good.
Steve Folland: And do you find, so you might come away with a bunch of leads from a fair, but what sort of follow up process do you then take?
Nisha Haq: So I try to get as many contact details as I can. So one of things that I do is offer a free engagement session. So, that kind of entices people to leave their contact details. And on the form, I get to have them write what their wedding date is. So for me, it's quite handy to know if I'm available that date or not. But for them, they get a free engagement shoot out of it, so that's been really good. So far so good, it's been converting and I've also being getting some really good leads out of the contact details that way. So yeah, that's how I kind of got the leads after the wedding fair, when I've given them follow up emails and calls. And then yeah, I'm meeting a couple of clients this week and next week from wedding fairs. So fingers crossed that goes well. So yeah, that's how I suppose yeah, I've followed up after a wedding fair.
Steve Folland: Yeah. That's a good old ploy there, with the free engagement photo session. I mean, you mentioned earlier like, suddenly getting in to the marketing and the business stuff, it sounds like it's something that you really enjoy thinking about.
Nisha Haq: Yeah. I like trying to ... I think I've always wanted to be my own boss. That's probably why I jumped both feet in to freelancing so early compared to what I originally thought, three to five years then I'll go in to full time freelance. But no, two years, I'll do it. And it's because I liked the control of doing all the different things that ... I don't like two days being the same. That's probably why I didn't get on very well in office environment, because one day I like to go out do a shoot in like the New Forest or something, which is beautiful.
Nisha Haq: And the next day I'll be editing photos, and then next day I'll be client meetings, and the next day I'll be planning what I could do and strategize in my business. So yeah, there's lots of different aspects and it makes it more enjoyable that I'm getting to do lots of different things. It keeps me preoccupied, which is good. So yeah, I do like to deal with the different aspects of running the business.
Steve Folland: Cool. Just to rewind actually, to that period where you were working full time but doing this, freelancing on the side, which lots of people do. How did you find that? How did you cope managing your time then?
Nisha Haq: Yeah. So it's probably the most trickiest part of my journey to where I am today, was balancing the ... It's essentially two full time jobs. So it kind of got to the point where there was no life and just work. So yeah, I suppose it was quite skew, the work life balance. Because I was just so passionate about wanting to make my business work, I was just determined to not let it get me. And obviously there'd been days like my house mates and my partner could see, I'm stressed and I'm trying to get everything done and meet the deadlines. Especially in my last job, my commute in the morning would be like 45 minutes each way, so it would be a good eight, nine hours working for another company including the commuting time.
Nisha Haq: And then coming home in the evenings and staying up until two or three in the morning sometimes, to get my work done and all the editing and stuff like that. And then obviously, the weekends, I wouldn't be able to see a lot of my family and my friends, and my family would be really good, because I said to them, "I'm not going to be able to meet for these." And I'd family meet ups and stuff, and there was a lot of things that I'd missed out. So it was tricky trying to manage the two. And also, not letting my colleagues down. I didn't want to turn up to work looking tired and not being switched on. And it does take its tole when you're trying to juggle so much work.
Nisha Haq: And obviously, I didn't want to let my clients down either. So yeah, it kind of got to the, I suppose, bubbling point, when I realized I can't manage two lives as such. And obviously, I didn't want to ... It was affecting my mental health. I didn't want to be unhappy. The reason I wanted to do photography in the first place, was to do something that I love. And the fact that I wasn't getting the happiness out of my work life balance, that's when I kind realized I should quit one or the other.
Nisha Haq: So yeah, that's when I decided to go full time and obviously with the support from the award, that was kind of like the best time to be in the best place to go full time with it. So yeah, all those people, I know how hard it is to struggle the two jobs. A lot of my friends at the time said, "How do you do it? How do you run two full time jobs?" And it takes a lot of grit, I think that's what it is. Just no sleep, but you get there in the end, you get there in the end. It's all rosy at the end, that's for sure.
Steve Folland: Now your website is really nice.
Nisha Haq: Thank you.
Steve Folland: How long has it looked like that though? Was that something that you concentrated on really early on?
Nisha Haq: I've always really been in to design, so it was actually ... I was debating doing graphic design at university or photography. So I've always had a background in design, been interested in web design as well. And always in the summer holidays, play around with making websites from scratch and stuff. So yeah, yeah. Thanks for saying my websites nice.
Steve Folland: One thing I do notice though, weddings is the dominant feature, that's how it comes across. But you do also then feature life style and also commercial. You know, so photography for businesses as well. Was that something you were hesitant about doing when you decided to focus on weddings or something you just found there was a need for? Or do you think, well people who get married run businesses too? I don't know.
Nisha Haq: That's a good question. I've always been interested in the social element of photography and I feel like at this time, I wouldn't want to just specialize in weddings. So it's something I've kind of been thinking, should I make two brands, should I make two websites so it's not too confusing? But I thought, well it's just one of me so I'll just put everything under one umbrella and I put the different tabs. And I really enjoyed working with small businesses, start ups and it's something that I found a lot of my friends, because I'd be networking with a lot of young entrepreneurs and start up network kind of style talks and things like that.
Nisha Haq: They'd ask, "Oh do you ... Can I turn up a head shot? Or do you do any kind of commercial photography. And I want to set up my website and things." And that's when I kind of found that there was a niche for people looking, because there's so many new freelancers in my generation compared to before. So I felt like, you know what? I'd like to help out other businesses, especially small businesses with their websites and their very varied commercial photography needs. And I really like meeting and network with other people that way, so that's why I kind of offer that too. And also, weddings are seasonal, so it's a very summer orientated kind of ... Like I'm really busy in the summer when I'm doing weddings, but when it come to the Autumn, Winter, that's when I kind of focus more on my commercial work.
Nisha Haq: So in my business plan, when I first started, I was like okay, what am I going to do in the winter? Because you get the few festive weddings and I love doing that. So I've got a few weddings in December, but yeah, when it hits January, February time and even March, still people are feeling a little bit like it's cold, it's wet. And that why I get to do a lot of commercial work. So I feel like that's kind of ... It fits with my yearly calendar I suppose. So, that's kind of how I split my time.
Steve Folland: Yeah. Good idea. It's interesting the whole business plan thing. Do you think you would have done a business plan if not for applying for the funding?
Nisha Haq: I think the funding helps, it forced me in to writing a business summary and really putting my plan together. And it does help you focus. I think I probably would have, if I didn't go for the funding, I probably would have struggled and tried to set up the business, and then realized oh this is not working. Then probably would have gone back to making a business plan.
Steve Folland: Yeah.
Nisha Haq: So yeah, it was really good to have. And I suggest that to any freelancers. A lot of freelancers feel that it's not running a business, but it's the exact same thing like you have to run your whole cash flow, the finance, the marketing, and that is running a business. So it's interesting how a lot of people kind of see them as, oh no I'm a freelancer. Oh no, I'm a CEO of a company, and this ... I'm an entreprenuer. There's lots of different names for the same thing. But I see it as just running a business, it's just a one person business I suppose.
Steve Folland: Yeah. And you mentioned community of young entrepreneurs and things like that. Where have you found them? Where have you, yeah, basically to find like minded people.
Nisha Haq: Yeah. That's a good question. So one of the things was, when I applied for the first funding for the university, the university set up an alumni entreprenuer kind of network, of people looking to set up their own business. So that was when I was first introduced to like minded people and a lot of them tended to be quite young. But actually they were alumni from all years, so going back to the 80's and stuff. So you had ... Mixing with people of different ages, which was really interesting. And hearing people from different industries. I think a lot of freelancers can get caught up in their own industry and not realize, actually this is how I do it in my industry. And you get to learn so much from other people who are doing it different ways than you.
Nisha Haq: So, that's kind of when I first started networking I suppose. And I like to get myself stuck in and involved in different things that's happening. And luckily for me, I live in a city so there is a lot going on. And I try lots of different networking events. I've been to breakfast brunches and stuff, where you have to wake up at six o'clock in the morning and network that way. And realize for me, I don't think I can wake up that early. So, that's a last one. But it was really interesting, it really opened my eyes to the different types of the network forum. I went to recently in Bristol, a couple of weeks ago, with Enterprise Nation, they had a festival of female entrepreneurs.
Nisha Haq: And that was really interesting, hearing people talk about what it's like to be a female entreprenuer, when setting up a business. So that where meeting like minded people when you go to these types of talks, and also winning the award with IPSE, the fact that they're an association for self employed people, that really opened the doors to meeting so many different freelancers. The cohort that I was in, the other people that were shortlisted, I made good friends with them. We chat, even though they're up north and I'm down south, we still Tweet each other and stuff and kind of give each other advice. I think that's just the way I found networks.
Nisha Haq: And even if you live in a really rural area, there's definitely groups and coffee meet ups, that have ... Facebook has been really good for me. There's been loads of kind of ... There's a wedding suppliers group that I'm part of and we all chat on there. So it's a safe place to feel like you can chat about your problems without having to worry about clients seeing you, or your worries and stuff like that. So yeah, a mixture of meeting people out and about in the local area, and Facebook's been really good too.
Steve Folland: Cool. Now you kind of touched on this earlier, but if you could tell your younger self one thing about being freelance, what would that be?
Nisha Haq: I'd say it's not to be afraid and get out there and do it I suppose. I'm more of a worrier and a thinker and rather than just doing it, so I have just sat on things longer than I should of done or could have done, and could of just got out there and I could have just started it a lot earlier. So I'd say to myself, my younger self, is to not be afraid. The fact that I'm good enough and I can do it, I think it's that positive thinking and that mindset, it really is. It's really important and it's never as bad as you think. We always kind of think it's going to be really horrible and catastrophic. But actually, it turns out okay.
Steve Folland: Unless it's the javelin competition. Based on what you just said, do you ever sit there? I mean, maybe you're not somebody who wishes you'd done something else in the past and no regrets and all that, but do you ever think, I worked two years full time doing this on the side. I could have done this sooner?
Nisha Haq: Yeah, I do sometimes think, I could have done this sooner. This would have saved a lot of stress and anxiety and stuff like that. A lot of freelancers struggle with. But at the same time, I feel like if I hadn't gone through all that kind of stuff that I had to deal with, I don't think I'd be as strong as I am now compared to last year or the year before. So I feel like the slow and steady approach to growing by business has been the best way. It has been really hard, but I think ... I know a few people, good friends of mine, they've done it the other way round.
Nisha Haq: So, they've gone feet first, and really kind of dived in to going to full time freelance, and then found it could be tricky later down the line with cash flow and stuff. So I was careful in, when I had my full time job, I'd save money and only reinvest money in to my business that I made from my business. So if I had rent and bills to pay, it would come from my full time job salary I suppose. So I felt like it wasn't a lot of risk or pressure if I wasn't getting the money from clients or if I had a dry month or something like that. So yeah, I definitely for people who are balancing two jobs, is to save and put money aside for a rainy day, because you never know when it might be useful.
Steve Folland: Nisha, thank you so much. And all the best being freelance.
Nisha Haq: Brilliant, thank you and it was great talking to you as well. Thank you.