This week, Stephanie Zimmerman is giving advice on starting your own business, based on her own experience starting up her photography business in Colchester, IL. Stephanie is a graduate of the School of Agriculture and currently works at WIU, too!
1. When did you decide to start your own business? How did you make this decision for yourself?
I decided to start my photography business after about 4 years of practicing my skill set and learning about photography through a lot of reading and taking classes. I believe that photography is not just taking a picture, its an art that takes time to develop. Even with everything that I have done, I'm still growing and know that I have a lot to learn. I knew that this was something that I wanted to do, but I wanted to make sure that I had the skills and knowledge to support it, which takes time and practice.
As a kid, I really enjoyed taking pictures and went through more film than I'm willing to admit, but I didn't truly start learning the art of photography until I was in college. The first class I took was on film photography. I fell in love with the challenges of understanding light, especially with night photography. From there I was hooked. I saved over the next few years to purchase a digital camera body, quality lenses, then another camera body, photography software, back-up equipment, lighting equipment, a new computer, marketing material, etc. I didn't want to be someone that jumped right in after getting a camera that had little skill and not enough supporting equipment, so I took my time to develop. With the equipment I have now, I know that there is room to improve but I can also confidently run my business. We all start somewhere, I just wanted to have more experience before I actually started my business. I practiced photographing family and friends and was a second shooter for some weddings, and then when I felt comfortable in doing it on my own, I started my business the Fall of 2013.
I've been in business officially for about 9 months now and its a never ending learning process, but I really enjoy the challenge. There's always more to learn about the business side and I'm constantly gaining knowledge and experience with my photography. I feel like I've learned so much, but I have even more to learn!
2. What did you do to start your business? Did you take out any loans? Did you create a business or marketing plan?
To start my business, I did a great amount of research and I also spoke with someone at the Illinois Small Business Development Center in town. They were very helpful in affirming the information that I had found and also gave me a few tips along the way. I took out the proper business license, filed my information with the state, started bank accounts, filed more paperwork, developed my accounting information, learned about sales tax, got contracts, etc. There's a great amount to learn and do to make sure that everything is legal and legitimate.
I did not take out any loans, I save and purchase equipment as I am able to. I saved to get the equipment I needed to start and now I'm updating and improving my equipment along the way. I felt like this was the right decision to start off with for me and my business financially. Booking clients in the beginning had been inconsistent and with them being unpredictable, I didn't want extra payments to start off with. I still created a business plan for myself, just to help me set goals and set the direction that I want to take my business.
3. How did you get customers? How did you expand your business?
Marketing is an ongoing process and I use face-to-face interactions along with an online presence to reach clients. I utilize my website www.stephzimmermanphotography.com and social media (Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and Instagram) to create an online presence to communicate with current and future clients. I'm studying and attempting to improve my SEO so that when potential clients search for photographers in the Macomb and Colchester area, I'll be listed in the first part of their search responses.
Along side an online presence, a great marketing tool for any business is when clients share your information by word of mouth (it maybe an even better way in a small community). I've loved working with all of my clients and do my best to create a great experience for them during their session. I've had many of my clients tell me that they've shared my business cards or information with friends and family that want a session in the future. That always makes me happy because that means that they had a great experience and find value in my work. I also find a lot of value in face-to-face interactions with potential clients. I've done a few vendor fairs this year, which have been great opportunities to meet new clients. With just starting up officially last fall, this was a great way to get my name out and interact with those in the community.
I'm also helping to expand my business through donations and working with local organizations. This is a great way to not only give back to the community or support someone at a benefit, but its a good way to get your name out in the community as well. For example, a big event that's going on this fall is the West Prairie After Prom Family Session Fundraiser. I'm teaming up with the West Prairie After Prom Committee to do family sessions this fall and I'll be donating a portion of every family session completed in September to help them raise money for their after prom events and senior class trip. I am so excited to do this because I'm not originally from the area and this will give me a better chance to get to know those in my community.
4. What words of wisdom do you have for someone interested in starting their own full or part-time business?
My advice to those wanting to start a business is to be confident in the decisions you're making. If this is something that you really want to do, don't doubt yourself along the way because it will hold you back. Take your time to learn more about the area of business you're going into and take time to study and learn about the different aspects of being a business owner. Advice for the area of photography specifically, take time to learn the about the art. I remember how excited I was to get my first DSLR, I wanted to jump in right away but decided not to. I'm glad that I didn't. By taking time to learn more about photography and practice, I think that I've learned many valuable lessons.
Also, be open to criticism, especially constructive criticism. Allow someone to be brutally honest with you. Friends and family are usually supportive and don't want to rain on your parade, so find someone outside of that support group that you respect that has more experience than you so you can ask questions and listen to what they have to say. Someone out there is going to have more experience than you and even if you have a lot of experience, there's always room for improvement. Never stop learning and always continue to grow.