Starting out as a new freelance photographer and working for free?

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Name
Rhys
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#1
So I am starting out as a freelance photographer. I have been doing a mixture of paid and free jobs now for just over a year with a limited number of clients. I am planning on working on my portfolio and selling myself as a photographer (and videographer) much harder this year.

I wanted to ask you guys your option on working for free when first starting out and if/when this is acceptable to do so.

I am currently working with a guy who runs a small (currently low-profit) clothing line. He often runs events in collaboration with his line of clothing with members of the local music industry and is currently showcasing a run of events towards a charity concert that is taking place in February. He gives items of his clothing to members of the local industry who then wear his stuff, which is then seen by fans at events and in photos/videos etc.

Obviously everything that is being done here still benefits him in some way but there are no direct profits going his way - he too is essentially working for free and is maybe even losing out on money.

I guess working for him gives me some extra experience. I actually ENJOY shooting this stuff and it does help generate money for charity. But everyone who knows this guy knows that he doesn't usually pay and consistently asks for favours. I do like the guy, but is this actually bad exposure for me? Or is it fair enough to work for free in this case because it's basically for a non-profit cause?

I don't plan to work for free for anyone else moving forward, but have promised to work with him until the concert in February which he says will be a paid job.

What are your thoughts on this guys? This argument also goes alongside working for low payments when "there isn't much of a budget". I've heard this one a lot before too. I shot an entire event for £40 and some drinks - I was paid less than the bar staff. I did it for the experience and to help with my confidence, and for enjoyment. But is it really worth it? I feel these clients will probably never pay properly now? But would they ever? These £40 photos did end up getting a feature in DJ Mag though, which was cool.

Oh... hey by the way. I'm new here, and you'll probably see a lot more of me!
 
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Tim
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#2
Hi Rice, welcome and good luck!

In my view, for anything commercial why on earth would the photographer be expected to work for free? There are lots of potential clients out there, so better not to waste your time doing something that doesn’t pay the bills.

That said, there may be exceptional cases that you might consider. One category of exceptions may be charitable causes. Here giving your time I think is akin to making a donation so ok if it’s a cause you support. To make sure people don’t take advantage I let people know I have a limited capacity for pro-bono projects per year and they either made the cut or didn’t.

Hope this helps
 
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Tim
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#4
Often charity events employ entertainment, so you have to be aware that you may be the only one giving your services for free even in these situations!! I stopped doing them for free for that very reason
Exactly right - proceed with caution
 
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Garry Edwards
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#6
My view - probably unpopular - is that it's fine to work for free in order to gain experience and when doing so won't take the job away from professionals due to unfair competition, I.e only work for people who can't or won't pay, and only when most of the benefits accrue to YOU.
Or even better, work for good professionals who are happy to teach you in exchange for your work.
 
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Toni
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#7
There should be a fairly thick line between Amateur and Professional.;)
In photography, in terms of work produced there's virtually no line at all - though of course the technical definition makes it quite clear which is which. ;)
 
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#8
"I wanted to ask you guys your option on working for free when first starting out and if/when this is acceptable to do so. "

No it is not, you are p***ing in your own pond ! working for a commercial client for free is a mugs game, there are however plenty of mugs out there! if the clients not paying you they tend not to be paying models, or MUA, etc so your images are worth s*** anyway, as for experience, what experience, its hardly professional when no one is getting paid. Have you checked insurance whilst on a shoot, has anyone checked your insurance, have you discussed and signed licences, are you covered if you are ill and cannot get to the shoot, do you have back ups of your gear, and so on, you think you are getting experience but I would bet you are not.


My advice is pay for your own models and build your own port, take control, have a business plan, get your head around the fact that running a photography business is 70-80% none photography, its business and marketing.
 
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Garry Edwards
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#9
[QUOTE="Studio488commercial, post: 8594407, member: 8498

My advice is pay for your own models and build your own port, take control, have a business plan, get your head around the fact that running a photography business is 70-80% none photography, its business and marketing.[/QUOTE]
This can also work, but requires a strong character and a high level of determination, because without these qualities people tend only to shoot what they already know in the way that they already know.
 
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Connor
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#11
I think context matters here, If you are a pro photographer with a good body of work/experience and can deliver to a very high standard then you are not likely to be working for free. If you are reasonably good but inexperienced confident in your ability to deliver then there is zero harm in working without charge on a limited basis in fact you aren't working for free you are gaining experience and potentially able to network at the same time. I think you're the best person to judge, if you feel you've gotten to the point that your work is consistent and a high standard and your feedback is good then either approach the person and say that you would like to continue to provide images for them but you can no longer do it for free, or use your experience to start looking for work elsewhere. At the end of the day the quality of your photographs will sell you.
 
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Pete
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#12
At the end of the day the quality of your photographs will sell you.
This isn't correct in the main although I'm sure there are exceptions. In Commercial terms FREE will win 99% of the time until they cannot get anyone to take their pictures. At that point those people will start on the lowest price first...

One of the main rule's in business is NEVER UNDER SELL YOURSELF.
There are plenty of people that will work for free - THAT SHOULD NEVER be your market - the race to the bottom only has one winner & it will not be you.

As a tip, be realistic in what you NEED to have as you minimum pay to keep you working - then double it & start from there.
 
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Connor
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#13
This isn't correct in the main although I'm sure there are exceptions. In Commercial terms FREE will win 99% of the time until they cannot get anyone to take their pictures. At that point those people will start on the lowest price first...

One of the main rule's in business is NEVER UNDER SELL YOURSELF.
There are plenty of people that will work for free - THAT SHOULD NEVER be your market - the race to the bottom only has one winner & it will not be you.

As a tip, be realistic in what you NEED to have as you minimum pay to keep you working - then double it & start from there.
I've heard that argument a lot and its never held water. If you are a photographer with no commercial experience and no body of work how is it underselling yourself? You literally have nothing to sell. Usually people dont jack in their full time job to become a day one pro photographer, most often it is done in their spare time until they get established. If someone has the work ethic that makes them feel they would like to gain experience first before they charge people for their photography then I'd say they were on the right track as long as once they feel they had gained sufficient experience and were confident in their ability to provide the service they are charging for they stopped. MANY other types of work have apprentice/intern type deals where they pick up skills and experience as well as contacts.
 
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#14
I can’t add much that hasn’t been said but don’t think just because charity is involved it must be a good thing...some charities can be very shady indeed. If you want to provide images for charity make sure it’s one you’re passionate about.

Ultimately to be a professional photographer you need people or organisations to dig into their wallets so you can pay your mortgage and eat. Good luck
 
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#15
In Commercial terms FREE will win 99% of the time until they cannot get anyone to take their pictures. At that point those people will start on the lowest price first...
Sorry that is very wrong, most businesses understand the need to pay people, to ensure reliability, consistency and professionalism. If what you are saying was true, the lowest paid or free would be getting all the work.

Commercial clients simply want the job done, and done right. they are busy people, sure they will look around for the best price, but that’s only part of the picture, perception about how you run and how your business works is important to the client, most businesses go for the middle ground in terms of pricing, not the cheapest not the most expensive. There are as always exceptions to the rules, but in my experience these are the businesses that in most cases fail quickly.

As for your formula on how to price work, it’s a little more do,placated than double what you need and go from there.
 
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Tony
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#16
Sorry that is very wrong, most businesses understand the need to pay people, to ensure reliability, consistency and professionalism. If what you are saying was true, the lowest paid or free would be getting all the work.

Commercial clients simply want the job done, and done right. they are busy people, sure they will look around for the best price, but that’s only part of the picture, perception about how you run and how your business works is important to the client, most businesses go for the middle ground in terms of pricing, not the cheapest not the most expensive. There are as always exceptions to the rules, but in my experience these are the businesses that in most cases fail quickly.

As for your formula on how to price work, it’s a little more do,placated than double what you need and go from there.
One exception to the rule was my old MD, he always went for the most expensive option because they must be the best!

He went bankrupt last year :oops: :$
 

sirch

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Chris
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#17
Just a thought, would doing the work for “free” but charge for licensing the photos back to the customer on a usage basis be an option here? That way the customer is taking no risk, if they don’t like the images they don’t pay but the more widely they use them, the more they pay e.g. if they become successful and put one of your images on the back of a bus as part of a major advertising campaign you get a decent pay-out. They also see that you are incentivised to put the effort in get the best photos.
 
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Glynn
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#18
Hang on a minute...........did you ever ask a shop keeper to give you a product for free, because he's new at the job and would gain from the experience?

Grow a pair, be confident and justify why the client should pay for your service. If they don't want to pay, then walk away!

Alternatively, do the job for free and give him a file with blank images...........when they complain, tell them they can have a full refund!

If you don't make a profit, it is simple - you don't have a business........you have a very expensive hobby!

Here endeth the lesson.


Further advise is available, but my daily rate is £500.00 plus expenses
 
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Connor
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#19
I might be reading the OP's post wrong, in which case i apologize. Many photographers start out working
for little to no money to establish themselves, it should not be looked down upon at all, if you have no
formal training or experience, the opportunity to work in a professional environment is invaluable and the
fact that the OP is in full time employment means he doesn't have to depend on his photography as his
main source of income, so he is in the lucky position that he can do both and not worry about paying the
bills.
Photographers should only be charging for a service that they are fully confident and competent that
they are able to deliver. If someone were to go off half cocked and over-commit to a job that they were
inadequately prepared for they would likely do their career much more damage in the long run than
working free/low pay jobs in the beginning. Photographers mostly earn work through their reputation after
all. Also don't forget that if you are working as a paid photographer you should make sure you declare your
income and get adequate insurance or it could bite you in the ass later on.
 
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Kell
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#20
From a client's perspective... (I work for an ad agency and we commission photographers for all manner of jobs)

All photographers that we choose will be picked on the strength of their portfolio and the relevance of their work to the project. No point picking a food photographer to do portraits.

We'll have a budget to commission them and we'll normally need to get three photographers to bid. Only if they come in massively over budget will they be out of the running. As a general rule, however, we will pick them on their portfolio alone.

So, all well and good.

The problem comes if you're just starting out and don't have a portfolio. Then it makes it not just hard, but actually impossible, for us to even consider you - at any cost.

For us, the models, props, studio hire, make-up people, lighting guys etc etc all need to be paid for so if you f*** it up, they still need their cash. Then we'd have to go again. Not worth the risk in a commercial sense. We can take out weather insurance, we can't be insured against a crap photographer.

So what you need is a portfolio of work. How you get that work, IMHO, is up to you. Want to take a few unpaid jobs to build that up? Go for it. Need a few more to up your confidence? Do those too.

Realistically, only you can decide when the cut-off point is to switch over. But if you were a student, starting out, you'd be building up your portfolio at college for free - if this is part of your 'learning' then treat it as such. You might do work experience alongside a pro, or you might offer your services for free, again, to build up your porfolio.

When I left college and tried to get my first full-time job, we did work placements which were unpaid work. We got enough money to cover tube fares, but essentially we were employed and working on live briefs, without them paying us a real wage with real money.

This gave us experience, helped us build our portfolios and helped us meet people that could help. It was then (25 years ago) and is now a recognised and accepted (if not acceptable) way to get into the business.

I don't see this as any different.
 
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Kell
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#21
The problem comes if you're just starting out and don't have a portfolio. Then it makes it not just hard, but actually impossible, for us to even consider you - at any cost.
The one exception to the rule on this would be spec work. That is ideas that we're not being paid for as an agency. We'd normally be on the cadge for favours, help and anything for free. In which case, we may look to engage anyone who would be willing to do it. Probably on the understanding that if it went live, they'd be paid. But if it didn't, they wouldn't.

But in all honesty, these type of goodwill gestures would be more likely to come from someone we use on a regular basis. Partly because we can trust them, and equally importantly because they can trust us not to take the p***.
 

sirch

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Chris
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#22
From a client's perspective... (I work for an ad agency and we commission photographers for all manner of jobs)

All photographers that we choose will be picked on the strength of their portfolio and the relevance of their work to the project. No point picking a food photographer to do portraits.

We'll have a budget to commission them and we'll normally need to get three photographers to bid. Only if they come in massively over budget will they be out of the running. As a general rule, however, we will pick them on their portfolio alone.

So, all well and good.

The problem comes if you're just starting out and don't have a portfolio. Then it makes it not just hard, but actually impossible, for us to even consider you - at any cost.

For us, the models, props, studio hire, make-up people, lighting guys etc etc all need to be paid for so if you f*** it up, they still need their cash. Then we'd have to go again. Not worth the risk in a commercial sense. We can take out weather insurance, we can't be insured against a crap photographer.

So what you need is a portfolio of work. How you get that work, IMHO, is up to you. Want to take a few unpaid jobs to build that up? Go for it. Need a few more to up your confidence? Do those too.

Realistically, only you can decide when the cut-off point is to switch over. But if you were a student, starting out, you'd be building up your portfolio at college for free - if this is part of your 'learning' then treat it as such. You might do work experience alongside a pro, or you might offer your services for free, again, to build up your porfolio.

When I left college and tried to get my first full-time job, we did work placements which were unpaid work. We got enough money to cover tube fares, but essentially we were employed and working on live briefs, without them paying us a real wage with real money.

This gave us experience, helped us build our portfolios and helped us meet people that could help. It was then (25 years ago) and is now a recognised and accepted (if not acceptable) way to get into the business.

I don't see this as any different.
What an excellent and informative reply
 
OP
OP
Rice
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Rhys
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#23
Thanks for all the replies guys, I feel I am at a point now where I am fairly confident in my abilities and I do produce some really good work. But I am often quite hard on myself and always think I can do better, which is one of the main reasons why I feel I want to do more work paid or not, just to get more experience and gain confidence.

I'm currently working on my porfolio. This isn't completely up to date at the moment and I am going to be refining this site over the coming month but if you're interested in seeing some of my stuff it can be viewed at rhysbelding.co.uk
 

simon ess

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#25
If I was a young man with the ambition to become a truly great photographer I would clean the crud from a current great's belly button for nowt in exchange for nuggets of knowledge.

Same if I wanted to be a chef. I'd find a 3 star resaurant, clean dishes for scraps and sleep under the sink.

If my ambition was to be a working pro earning a decent income I would scale that back somewhat.
 
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Simon Everett
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#26
Thanks for all the replies guys, I feel I am at a point now where I am fairly confident in my abilities and I do produce some really good work. But I am often quite hard on myself and always think I can do better, which is one of the main reasons why I feel I want to do more work paid or not, just to get more experience and gain confidence.

I'm currently working on my porfolio. This isn't completely up to date at the moment and I am going to be refining this site over the coming month but if you're interested in seeing some of my stuff it can be viewed at rhysbelding.co.uk
Good for you - but remember, you NEVER complete your portfolio. It is a living thing, it is forever changing and as a pro, you are only as good as your last job.
 
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10,856
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Garry Edwards
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#27
I think that this post sums it up perfectly,
From a client's perspective... (I work for an ad agency and we commission photographers for all manner of jobs)

All photographers that we choose will be picked on the strength of their portfolio and the relevance of their work to the project. No point picking a food photographer to do portraits.

We'll have a budget to commission them and we'll normally need to get three photographers to bid. Only if they come in massively over budget will they be out of the running. As a general rule, however, we will pick them on their portfolio alone.

So, all well and good.

The problem comes if you're just starting out and don't have a portfolio. Then it makes it not just hard, but actually impossible, for us to even consider you - at any cost.

For us, the models, props, studio hire, make-up people, lighting guys etc etc all need to be paid for so if you f*** it up, they still need their cash. Then we'd have to go again. Not worth the risk in a commercial sense. We can take out weather insurance, we can't be insured against a crap photographer.

So what you need is a portfolio of work. How you get that work, IMHO, is up to you. Want to take a few unpaid jobs to build that up? Go for it. Need a few more to up your confidence? Do those too.

Realistically, only you can decide when the cut-off point is to switch over. But if you were a student, starting out, you'd be building up your portfolio at college for free - if this is part of your 'learning' then treat it as such. You might do work experience alongside a pro, or you might offer your services for free, again, to build up your porfolio.

When I left college and tried to get my first full-time job, we did work placements which were unpaid work. We got enough money to cover tube fares, but essentially we were employed and working on live briefs, without them paying us a real wage with real money.

This gave us experience, helped us build our portfolios and helped us meet people that could help. It was then (25 years ago) and is now a recognised and accepted (if not acceptable) way to get into the business.

I don't see this as any different.
And so does this one.
If I was a young man with the ambition to become a truly great photographer I would clean the crud from a current great's belly button for nowt in exchange for nuggets of knowledge.

Same if I wanted to be a chef. I'd find a 3 star resaurant, clean dishes for scraps and sleep under the sink.
This one is good in theory, but only blue chip companies can be (more or less) relied upon to actually pay the licensing fees due, small businesses that don’t value photography and who expect everything to be free or nearly so are highly unlikely to tell you about their usage and pay.
If my ambition was to be a working pro earning a decent income I would scale that back somewhat.
Let me tell you about my own training in the business, it may bore you to tears but it may also be helpful . . .

You’re young – very young. By the time that I was your age I had already worked as a professional photographer for a few years – OK, as a trainee professional photographer, although I did photograph my very first wedding on my own at the age of 16 for a neighbour, for very little pay.

My first job in photography was for a large Company that employed 1400 people, although by no means all of them were actually photographers. It was supposed to be a 5 year training programme, I was lucky enough to find myself in their commercial photography department after about 2 years instead of the usual 4 ½. They enrolled me on to the City & Guilds Professional Course (not the leisure one that most people take today, very different) and later sponsored me for my degree. Wages were terrible, we had to work extremely hard and we weren’t allowed to experiment at all, unless we used our own materials in our lunch break but still, I learned from people who had done nothing except professional work all their working lives.

After that I moved around a lot. I spent 6 months working for a world famous fashion photographer, he sacked me but then he sacked everyone, and 6 months was almost a record:). I learned a lot from both him and his various friends, all of whom were very talented.

Photography jobs were plentiful then, I could and did move from one to another without any problems, and I had loads. I did commercial, fashion, product, portraits and even weddings, and learned something new almost every day. I’ve worked in several different countries, a few different continents and have done just about everything except for news and sport. Eventually, I became self-employed. I retired when I was 70.

But the training and work opportunities that I had no longer exist. There aren’t now any photography businesses that employ one thousand four hundred people, most photographic businesses aren’t really businesses at all, they’re self-employment and many of those are part-time, and most of the most successful businesses are micro-businesses that employ less than 10 people – so, where can you train? There really isn’t anywhere, which is why it’s fine to work for free or for nearly free, just to build your competence and to force yourself to take on work that you wouldn’t normally tackle, and even better if you can swap your coffee making and other skills working for experienced, successful photographers in various fields – just pick your mentors with care, to make sure that you’re not exploited and to ensure that they actually have useful knowledge and skills to pass on to you.

People who work on their portfolio on their own tend to only do the things that they are comfortable with, we all need other people to force us to do something that stretches and challenges us, and that means gaining experience of actual professional work, where the client sets both the requirements and the standards.

There are training courses available and some of them are good – but I think it’s fair to say that most of the really good photographers are just too busy and too successful to want to spend their time training other people for less money than they can earn as photographers, many of them seem to be people who can’t hack it as photographers and so run courses to supplement their income – lost sheep masquerading as sheepdogs :( And many of the training courses are online, they may be good but there’s nothing like doing the job yourself under supervision, that way you know that the results you actually get are genuine, without post processing fakery, and that you’ll also learn exactly what’s involved. I've shot a few training videos myself, they're honest and designed to be helpful, but video compresses time and the videos don't show the trial and error process that always takes place, to some extent.

Some of the people who read this (if anyone does) may doubt my sincerity because I’ve trained a lot of people myself. But most of these are in-house photographers employed by large Companies that want to do their own photography, and they paid very well for it. I also used to run monthly training workshops in artistic nude photography, sponsored by Lencarta, I didn’t charge for this and the small amount charged by the Company just paid for the model. I’ve also done a few free workshops on studio lighting, again sponsored by Lencarta, again without payment, simply because photography has been good to me and I wanted to give something back. Members of the Lighting Forum here know all about these workshops, and also about the “come and watch me shoot location fashion” opportunities that occasionally arose.

Oh, and by the way, the famous photographer who I once worked for is now about 80 and retired, but he’s still brilliant and still active – as far as I know he now only does free work for Help for Hero’s and other charities.

As I’ve said before, it’s fine to work for free, just make sure that it’s YOU who gets the most benefit from it, don’t allow cheapskates to exploit you.
 
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#28
You also need to specialise in one thing, sure do other things, but pick an area and work on that as much as possible, being a jack of all trades doesn’t always work out, my clients choose us because we specialise in retail, we understand the entire retail environment, so we speak to retailers at their level, it makes them feel comfortable, we sell our services on the back of partnering our clients to help them sell product, it’s what differentiates us from the next studio, find your own USP and go for it.
 
OP
OP
Rice
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Rhys
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#29
Thank you all once again for all your replies and advice. I have read every comment and I appreciate the time you guys have given me!
 
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