Outside, looking in
Gaining community and guidance to grow a business
Ten years ago, Stacey Williams Dunse, CPP, launched her studio, Tailfeather Photography, in the small town of Webster, South Dakota. Situated in a rural patch of the state about two hours south of Fargo and five hours west of Minneapolis, Webster is home to fewer than 2,000 people. Dunse set herself up as the town’s do-it-all photographer and built a client base from the surrounding area. Business was growing, but she felt a few things were holding her back from becoming everything she could be.
“I had been doing this successfully for 10 years, but I needed to take that next step up in professionalism and income,” says Dunse. “I felt like a return trip to Imaging USA and some specific classes on business would help me do that.”
Dunse booked a ticket for Imaging USA 2015 in Nashville, Tennessee, and a spot in the Business Breakthroughs pre-con class. Almost immediately, she experienced one of those aha moments that can help crystallize an idea. Given the wide variety of clients she had, Dunse had been unsure of how to price her work for profitability. The instructors explained that pricing should be tied to specific formulas related to the cost of sales, not based on what you think a particular market might pay or what other local photographers are charging. Dunse learned how to track her expenses better and determine profitability based on the costs that go into producing each product. “For the first time, I saw how I could use these numbers to figure out what’s working and what’s not working,” she says. “That allowed me to make the kind of changes I needed to make to refocus my business.”
In addition to the financial management lessons, Dunse found a warm welcome from her photography peers and the seeds of a professional network she’d been yearning for. She made connections in the Breakthroughs class and through other events she attended during the convention. She continues to interact with these people weekly, as they bounce around ideas, ask each other business questions, and share advice on what works. “Before, the only photographers I knew were other photographers in my area,” she says. “I never felt comfortable approaching any of them to discuss business because they are my competition. It has been so helpful to talk with other photographers from different parts of the country in an environment of open, non-competitive sharing.”
Dunse also found valuable information about a couple of programs she could implement in her business. One was a banner program for senior athletes, which she saw as a way to increase both exposure and sales within her senior portrait and sports photography markets. The other was a green screen program for school photos. “Those two elements really helped me take my school photos to the next level,” she says.
“When I came home from Imaging USA, I was overwhelmed with all the information I had gathered,” says Dunse. “With help from PPA’s financial management resources, I spent the next nine months ripping everything apart and putting it back together.”
Dunse decided to focus on school photography, senior portraits, and sports. In the months following Imaging USA, she secured five school contracts and three high school sports contracts. Across these schools, there are a total of about 1,500 students, which gives her a good base market for senior portraits.
One of the first new initiatives she set up was the banner program she learned about at Imaging USA. For each of her sports contract schools, she produces a 4x6-foot banner of each senior athlete. The schools hang the banners in the gymnasium during the athletes’ season, providing some school spirit and a great advertisement for Dunse’s studio. At the end of the season, the athletes’ parents have the option to purchase the banners from Dunse. One school opted to have Dunse produce banners for all the seniors, which the school paid for.
Dunse also set up a green screen process for school photos, which revolutionized her process and helped her function much more efficiently. She’s streamlined the shooting procedures and developed a more efficient post-production system, increasing profitability in the process.
The success in zeroing in on schools, sports, and seniors has helped Dunse consolidate her products and be more focused in her marketing. She’s in the process of expanding the service area for her core markets and currently has customers driving up to two hours to her studio. “I feel more confident in what I’m doing now,” she says. She’s comfortable defining the scope of her work as largely school, sports, and senior portraits, and she’s comfortable turning down work that doesn’t fit her niche.
That confidence and focus led Dunse to pursue the certified professional photographer credential, which she achieved last year. The CPP distinction has further bolstered her confidence and helped boost her status as a trained, qualified professional.
Dunse now has a strong support network to help her formulate new initiatives for her studio. Whereas she previously felt like an outsider looking in, she now feels like part of a community. The connections she made at Imaging USA have been invaluable in helping her feel less isolated and more connected to the larger movements within the photography industry.
“So many photographers work alone,” she says. “Just having contacts out there to bounce ideas off of, people to help you find inspiration, is so helpful. These contacts have helped me put all that information into place in my business. We help hold each other accountable for doing the things we say we will do. Otherwise you just pack your notes away and nothing happens.”
Today, Dunse feels like she has more control over her business and a better understanding of how she can run a studio in her market. After implementing the financial planning initiatives she learned at Imaging USA, she increased gross profit by 15 percent and net income by 32 percent. She is managing expenses better and making more money from the jobs she takes.
“Putting all these measures into place has shown me that you can run a successful business anywhere,” she says, “even a tiny rural town of 1,800 people.”
Jeff Kent is the editor-at-large of Professional Photographer.