Oh television and movies – they teach us so much about the world and shape our thinking. That’s why educational documentaries like Breaking Bad, Dexter (only up through Season 4), and Hannibal are so important. With the second season of House of Cards premiering last Friday – I thought it was fitting that we look at what your photography business can learn from Francis Underwood’s masterful navigation of political awesome.

Note: I was going to make everything line up with some example or quote from the show but um, sh*t I’ve got a business to run, I don’t have time for that. Just know these are ideas you pick up from watching the show. Got it? Get to work.

House of Cards Lessons
Photo via Netflix

1. Dare to Dream So Big Your Head Explodes

It all starts here. Dreams. Aspiration. Ambition. You have to actually WANT SOMETHING.

More than that – you have to tell someone – YOU – that you want it. And it needs to be big. BIG.


Maybe Unrealistic. Why? Because only something so enormous and ridiculously massive can take over you. It needs to be something that you obsess over. That you dream about when you’re asleep AND awake. Only something so big that you’re afraid of it – is worth the effort it takes to overcome that fear and work through the challenges that will be headed your way when you go after something like that.

You want to make a living off your photography business? Have you told that to yourself? How about you tell yourself that you want more than just making a living. You want to make a damn good living. You want to pay all your bills and also have a f*cken amazing time. You’re probably timid in real life – and if you’re timid in your dreams well then you’ll never get out of that death pit.

You know – the one that keeps you chained to your desk in your windowless office, spending your weekly checks automatically deposited like an IV drip of sedation.

2. Throw Jabs and Hard and Soft Punches

Get it in your head that you’re not going to coast to success. Get it through your head that not everyone is your friend. You can’t only surround yourself with friends either. SO understand that you’re going to have to throw some punches. Not only that but a variety of punches. Sometimes you’ll need to throw the first punch. Sometimes you’ll need to counter-punch.

But don’t be afraid to knock someone down when they need it. Hell. if you’ve ever met a good wedding planner then you know she’d definitely shank and cut a b*tch.

Photo via Netflix
Photo via Netflix

3. Accept that it’s a Game

People’s lives aren’t a game. Their lives are serious… things. That’s absolutely true.

You need to accept that business is a game. You can decide how you play, what strategies and tactics to use – but know that it. is. a. game. Sometimes it’s a game of war, sometimes it’s a game of monopoly – but always a game. In games, if you just exist then you lose. You’re either actively trying to win or you’re losing. Whether slow or fast – if you’re not playing the game then you’re losing.

It’s a game – and it’s serious, and it’s not one you want to lose.

4. Play the Game. Play to WIN.

Some people whine that they don’t want to ‘play the game’. That’s their choice. See above.

Decide that you are going to the play the game. Which means you are playing to win. Not just exist. Not ‘for the fun of it’. To f*cken WIN. 

5. Learn the rules and then don’t follow them, USE THEM.

Of all the things I place in high regard, rules are not one of them.

– Francis Underwood

Rules can either be used to guide you or they can be used to contain you. For most photographers – the rules they follow are the ‘best practices’ and advice they learn from all of the good to sh*tty to useless workshops that they attend/watch. I smile when someone posts on Facebook that they learned a lot from so&so’s boring workshop – because I know that they’re about to do the same thing 100’s of other photographers are going to do after the same workshop. Probably nothing – but also probably nothing different or useful. Photographers only ever learn business tactics and rarely actual strategy – and they never figure out how to break‘ someone’s strategy.

When you do that – the other person’s strategy becomes a limitation at best, a noose at worse – especially when change comes along like it ALWAYS DOES.

Some photographers purposefully weed out clients, selecting only picturesque perfect weddings that would be published in Perfect Wedding magazine. Nonchalantly explaining such a thing to clients, and how they can identify those snobby photographers is how you educate them against your competition, using your competition’s own strategy.

This can work even if the client you’re talking to IS having one of those perfect weddings. Unless your clients are snobs. But this is where rule # 7 below is important.

6. Use meaningful threats and use them wisely

Threats are merely a different form of incentive. Stop wasting everyone’s time with incentives that suck. Stop posting on Facebook that people will save a whole whopping 10%, or 15%, or 20% off of your regular $150 rate. Your rates suck and anyone looking for a discount at that price actually just wants a cheap craigslist photographer anyway. 

You need real incentives. Hire me right the F now because I’m going away. Because at the end of this quote period that rate on your contract will honestly and truly GO UP. Because right now, this close to your wedding – I’m all you’ve got.

Incentives (threats) can and should be used on ALL players of the game. Everyone working with, near, or around your business. Money is an incentive. Easy is an incentive. Avoidance of pain is an incentive. Or threat. Whatever. They’re the same. Know when to use them, who to use them on – and remember to use them.

You should act like you have a bag of threats (incentives) about to blow up and you’re trying to get rid of them before your head blows off (you’re so poor you have to sell your camera.)

7. Mastery of People

Humility is their form of pride. It is their strength. It is their weakness and if you can humble yourself before them they will do anything you ask.

– Francis Underwood

Not Master People. Mastery of People. Learn about people. Everyone you can. Because you have to deal with everyone - and that’s a good thing.

Unless your clients are robots then you deal with a lot of people in your photography business. Clients. Other Photographers. Vendors. They’re all people playing the game once they come into your world (see above about the game.)

You need to KNOW ABOUT ALL OF THEM. You need to understand their motivations, their fears, their triggers. How to direct them. How to guide them. How to lead them. Stop thinking that you can just keep perfecting your widget (or photos) and people will magically come around and just hire you.

There are too many other photographers you’re competing with – including ME.

Learn about people. Always be learning about people. Learn what threats (incentives) work on what people. Go out and FIND the incentives you need.

8. Be What Your Clients Need and Want

Are you unappealing? Do you not look right? Do you come off as weak, afraid, unsure?

Maybe you’re completely wrong about yourself – more importantly – maybe you’re completely wrong about how other people see you. You think you’re great. Your potential clients think you’re unprofessional, young, inexperienced. You need to know these things. You need to find them out. Somehow. How? Ask someone dammit.

Once you’ve learned how others truly perceive you – fix that. I’m not saying they’re all weaknesses or that you should always change perceived negatives. But you need to either make them work for you, or overcome them.

Pro Tip: It’s in the details and the accessories.

Glasses make everyone smarter. Sneakers are for teens. And being Asian means taking photos is in your blood. Seriously though – outward organization is key. Make sure they see you taking lots of notes – even if you throw them away afterwards (although you’ll discover that you actually end up using them. huh.) Have a nice camera bag that a normal person would want. Even a nice pen. Details = Serious about your business = You Are Better Than that damn Art Student & Soccer Mom.

(If you happen to be that suburban mom photographer reading this well, I’m not talking about you, I’m talking about the other soccer moms that aren’t cool. If you’re that art student well, I’m definitely talking about you. Get out of my way. I’m here to make living.)

9. Find Your Calm Center – then keep fighting.

When you have rebellions on all fronts (clients angry, intern mutiny, etc.) – don’t let them break you. Go to the calm center of you and say to yourself I will win. I will win. I will win. I will win. I will win. I will win. I will win. I will win. I will win. I will win. I will win. I will win. I will win. I will win. I will win. I will win. I will win. I will win. I will win. I will win. I will win. I will win. I will win. I will win. I will win. I will win. I will win. I will win. I will win. I will win. I will win. I will win. I will win. I will win. I will win. I will win. I will win. I will win. 

And then get to work. And keep working.

“Rebellion on all fronts. Claire, Zoe, and Russo. I must not loose my resolve. I will march forward even if I have to do so alone.” – Francis Underwood



Questions? Need more information? Ask in the comments section below. Thanks.


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9 Business Lessons You Should Learn from House of Cards.

4 Replies to “9 Ruthless Lessons from House of Cards for Your Photography Business

  1. ahhhhhhhh…. I love you so much. These "get your head out of your ass" posts always seem to come just exactly when I need to hear/read them. Thanks for another great one!

  2. This is the kind of thing I needed to read today! THANK YOU! I'm just getting to that place of "get out of the death pit and start winning at this damn game" and this was inspirational. I don't need the fluffy articles, I need the "get your head out of your ass" as Beth said!

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