Many of you have heard of or from Kevin Thompson as one of the most active users on our forums. Kevin ventured into starting his own business nine years ago and has agreed to share his story with our readers. Today, Kevin runs a full-coverage all-inclusive wedding photography business.
My Journey into Business
I grew up in Rockford, IL, a town known for manufacturing. Some of the largest companies had been founded and thrived here, but Rockfordians know we were mostly small machine shops, started by some enterprising young man who put a machine in his garage, turned out quality work and grew his business. Today, we face the same challenges in a marketplace with greater competition, and few consumer dollars.
I started web design nine years ago after watching a company take advantage of a friend’s ignorance when designing his company’s site. Not wanting this to happen to others, I found a customer, borrowed a computer, and produced my first website.
I offered website design and computer maintenance through Thompson Web & Computer Services until 2008, working my business as a sideline to my full-time job. But computer maintenance was always a very frustrating part of the business. When a business’s computer goes down, they need it fixed now! Working a full-time job meant that I was seldom available ‘now’. I had a few situations where I found myself sitting in the bathroom at work texting customers trying to solve a quick problem. (I can see business owners right now reading this thinking they are going to modify their ‘cell phones at work’ policies). Not being able to properly service customers, and feeling I was cheating my employer, I backed away from the computer maintenance, and only offered after-hours services.
My oldest daughter married in 2007. Two days before the wedding, the photographer canceled, saying she had to babysit her grandkids. We found another photographer at the last minute but she was unorganized and the traditional photos had to be taken at the reception. The photographer didn’t have a background kit so she shot against a blank tile wall.
My daughter was unhappy with her photos and wanted me to shoot her and her husband in the park. I had purchased my first DSLR after her wedding and agreed to give it a try. We went down to the local rose garden and I tried to setup some shots from my ‘extensive knowledge of wedding photography’. That means I spent a couple days on the internet searching for ‘wedding photos’. Seriously, what do we guys really know about weddings? Unless a guy gets into this business of weddings, he doesn’t care. Sit and look at wedding pictures? No, we look at Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit edition. Isn’t that why we bought our first camera? Because somewhere in our head, we believed we’d shoot some supermodel-looking girl on a beach while she looks at us like we are the only man in her world.
Armed with my new knowledge of wedding photos, we did the shots: my daughter in her dress and my son-in-law in a suit that almost fit, and they were very happy! I created a portfolio to show off my new skills and beautiful daughter, and discovered others liked them too. A friend said she had two daughters getting married in 2008, and they were on a tight budget. I tried to convince her I didn’t have the experience to shoot a wedding, but she insisted.
I shot the first wedding early in 2008, and the couple, parents and family loved them. I took the money paid to me and invested it into additional equipment before the wedding. Since I didn’t have any left, and had this equipment, I decided I could ‘schedule’ photography like I do web design, changed my business name and focus, and Thompson Digital Image was born.
I met another photographer, and worked for her on a couple weddings. I wasn’t paid for these, but it allowed me to gain experience and build my portfolio. I ended up shooting six weddings my first year, all found through word of mouth. I didn’t have anything scheduled for 2009, and knew bookings were planned well in advance, so I had to get my name out. I paid a radio station about $250.00 and got thirty, fifteen second spots of “This hour sponsored by …”. Not one phone call, not one friend saying “I heard your ad on the radio”. I paid $100.00 to get my business in vinyl letters on my car. No calls from that, but one thing it has done; I am afraid to leave thousands of dollars of equipment locked a car that says ‘Photography’ on it. I think I’ll get a scraper and solve that problem. I didn’t have extra money to spend on a lot of advertising, so I decided to come up with something new.
I was at the local shopping mall with my wife, not being excited about wandering around bath and body type stores, so I said I’d meet up with her later and went off in search of power tools or something with a ball; you know, guy stuff. I walked past a jewelry store where a young couple was looking at wedding bands. I observed them for a few minutes, gathered up nerve, walked up to them and handed them my business card. We talked for a few minutes, and they were excited to see my photos online and would call me. I spent a few hours sitting on a nearby bench, watching people pass by, waiting for another couple to come look at rings. I was able to hand out a couple cards that day, and have continued this practice every opportunity I get.
I also turned to my experience in web marketing. I started searching for photographers in the Rockford area. I found some personal sites, but many top ten listings were various wedding vendors, most offering a free listing option. I signed up for those, which immediately put me within top-ten range of anyone searching in the Rockford area. I also found one service, Decidio.com, which offered a free listing / quote request service. If you receive a request from a customer that you wish to contact, you pay $2.00 for their contact information.
Of course there were also the standard practices of promoting my own website, submitting my URL to the search engines available, getting myself listed on others’ sites and listing their sites on mine. The latter is a practice known as ‘reciprocal linking’ which will boost your rankings in search engines.
In everything I’ve attempted and contacts I’ve made with people, one thing that has stood out in growing my business; offering exceptional service. I recently shot a wedding where the bride signed a contract with someone else. The photographer agreed to include engagement pictures and they scheduled the shoot. The couple got to the park, waited and called for 2 hours, but never reached the photographer. A few weeks before the wedding the photographer finally contacted the bride, who explained she wanted her down payment return. He refused stating the engagement session hadn’t been included in the contract. The bride didn’t have additional funds for another down-payment. Since I wouldn’t be booking anything else for that weekend, I agreed to shoot her wedding for the balance owed the original photographer.
The bride has told everyone how wonderfully I treated her. She loves the photos, and I have gotten several contacts for weddings next year from this situation. Excellent service at a time when it was needed most, producing excellent word-of-mouth referrals. Priceless. Also important: the other photographer is also getting much word-of-mouth from this bride, but not the kind anyone would want.
I learned much along the way, am still learning daily, and still trying new things. I am a fan of Bob Parsons of godaddy.com who has some great suggestions on his blog regarding business. Check out Bob’s 16 Rules for Success. Remember to give back to your community and pour yourself into others. I volunteer my time to groups or associations that will help my community grow and improve, and it reminds me of how we are all connected, and how we all can help each other, keeping things in perspective. I also try to share what I’ve learned, teaching others and learning from them at the same time. By no means do I consider myself an expert, but this is one person’s experience and I hope there are some jewels here that someone is able to mine for themselves.