What were you doing (careerwise) when you decided to create your own business?
I was a vice president of human resources at a Fortune 100 financial institution.
When did you start your business and what inspired you to do this? How did you turn your dream into a business plan?
June 2010 is when the business was officially set up as a limited liability corporation (LLC) complete with a first-draft business plan. Photography had always been a passion of mine since childhood, but I never acted on my dream until the sudden death of a colleague at work. The lightbulb moment for me was at her eulogy when people said how much she gave to the company. It was then that I realized life was too short not to do something you love. It was that defining moment that inspired me to jump off the corporate ladder and take a leap of faith.
What was your start-up cost? How did you get the money, and what did you use it for?
I started with a D40, which is an entry-level Nikon camera that was given to me by my husband on my 31st birthday. I refused to go into credit card debt or take a loan for the business, so I held my full-time job for several months while I built my photography business part-time from the ground up.
What was the biggest obstacle?
The biggest obstacle was the several months I juggled my full-time job and part-time business. All my passion went to the photography business, but I could only work on it in the evenings and on weekends. It was so difficult finding a work/life balance, but I knew it was only temporary and the best way to achieve my dream. A big motivator for me was setting little goals along the way and having a countdown calendar for the day I quit my full-time job.
Did your friends and family support your dream?
Yes, but a few people expressed concerns about quitting a well-paying job in this economy. However, once they saw my passion for photography and my business plan, they supported me 100 percent. I could not have become a "doer" without the love and support of my family and friends. They lent me their children as models for my portfolio, they listened to me and my ideas, and since I do not have all the answers, they provided valuable suggestions to really help the business grow. Outside of my friends and family, my clients have also been my biggest supporters. Their referrals mean the world to me and several clients have now become some of my closest friends. I love interacting with them via social media too.
How did you maintain your confidence when doors were closed in your face, when people didn't get it or said no?
It may sound cliche, but I truly believe that everything happens for a reason and when a door closes there is a window that opens somewhere. You just have to find that window and maximize that opportunity.
When I first started my website and barely had a portfolio, I signed up for a workshop with a local photographer I really respected and admired who taught on the national level. I could not wait to take her workshop and saved up for a few months to pay for it. A few days after signing up, I got an email from her assistant saying that the photographer does not allow in the workshop "competing" photographers from within a 50-mile radius. I had to laugh because there was no way I could have been viewed as competition at that point with my limited portfolio. I sent the photographer a handwritten note and an email to the studio asking to meet with her in any sort of capacity, even just for a cup of coffee, but again I was politely told no. I was devastated that I could not take the workshop I had been saving up for or even get a five-minute meeting with the photographer, but I decided to focus on doing some self-learning -- and ended up investing the workshop money in some new equipment for my business. I still admire this photographer's work and respect her decision to not meet with local photographers, but the window I found in this example is to always help, contact, or thank any photographer who admires my work enough to reach out to me. I am lucky enough to be in that position now and some of the photographers who have reached out to me have become my biggest supporters and best clients. I have learned a lot from each of them too.
How long did it take you to get everything off the ground?
I had paying clients within a week of setting up the business, but it really took a full year growing my business and brand part-time to get it off the ground to a level I was proud of.
How long did it take for your business to become profitable?
After I made investments in the business, like branding, marketing, upgraded equipment, etc., it was a little under a year before my business became profitable. That is also when I made the transition from part-time to full-time doer!
What do you love most about being your own boss? What are the drawbacks?
I love the flexibility of being my own boss and that I get to make all the decisions. Making all the decisions can sometimes be a drawback too, because if something does not work out the way you thought it would it was a result of a decision you made. When you are your own boss, you also have to make sure you have a group of diverse people you can bounce ideas off of. It was tough going from a corporate environment where I had a full staff and resources. I now have to be my own boss, marketer, admin, maintenance person, etc., but I would not trade it for the world!
Where do you work from?
It depends on if I am shooting on location or in my home studio. I love shooting outdoors in natural light and I also primarily use natural light in my home studio. My home studio is where I edit, shoot, and meet with clients. It is truly a beautiful space where I can be productive and creative. I am so proud I created this warm space on a very limited budget using pieces I repainted from consignment shops and thrift stores. I also used a vintage Thomasville bedroom set in the space, which was handed down to me from my husband's grandmother. Here are some images of where I am lucky enough to work from.
Do you have employees?
No formal employees, but my husband helps me as a second shooter and assistant, as well as with finances and accounting. He is lovingly referred to as the "Amber Shader Photography CFO and baby wrangler"! I am also looking for an intern to start this summer.
Is your "Dreamer" business your full-time job?
Yes, and I still pinch myself every day that I get to live my dream!
How has your involvement with Martha Stewart's Dreamers into Doers helped you and your business?
I am newer to the site, but already the networking opportunities are amazing! I have received so many warm welcomes from other members and have read so many inspirational stories. The DID community helps me stay focused and creative and instantly gives me free resources, including a sounding board of thousands of members to bounce ideas off of.
How have you been using social media to grow your business?
Social media has been huge for me. I show sneak peeks of photography sessions on Facebook and allow my clients to tag themselves in photos. I was a little slower to embrace Twitter, so my Facebook feed, Pinterest pins, and Tumblr blog updates go directly to my Twitter page. I have sponsored giveaways on my blog to thank my loyal clients and fans, and I just wrapped up the Amber Shader Photography 2011 Image of the Year giveaway, which was extremely successful based on statistics I gathered around reposting and potential reach.
Do you have entrepreneurial role models? What's so inspiring about them?
Martha Stewart is definitely the best entrepreneurial role model of our time and has inspired so many people, including myself, to achieve their dreams. If I had to pick one thing about Martha that inspires me the most, it would be her ability to build such a strong brand.
One of my other entrepreneurial role models is a local salon owner, Holly Grist. She took a huge leap of faith and bought a property that she turned into a very successful salon and spa. In a short time, Salon 828 in Wilmington, Delaware, became one of the top 100 salons in America, according to Elle magazine, and has received several top awards, including Salon Today's top 200 salons. It is Holly's drive, passion, and talent that continue to inspire me, and I am so lucky to have her as a friend and resource.
How did you learn and acquire the skills you use to make your business successful? How do you continue to grow and learn?
There is always something new to learn about photography, which makes what I do so exciting. The Professional Photographers of America (PPA) has been a terrific resource for learning, as well as for networking with other photographers. I am also part of a group of local female photographers called the Photo Betties, based out of Philadelphia, which has been a great resource of friends and photographers to work with. However, photography is just part of what I do. The other skills I use are the core business skills I learned along the way after 13 years in corporate America and two degrees in business. Selling, marketing, and customer service are all valuable skills I use with my business on a daily basis.
What's the best piece of business advice you ever received? If you had it to do over again, what, if anything, would you do differently?
I have received so much good advice over the years, so it is really difficult to narrow it down to just one. My three pieces of advice that have really built the core of what I do and are part of my business plan are the following:
1. Think of yourself as the client. How do you want to be treated as a consumer? Customer service is the key to success. You want to underpromise and overdeliver versus overpromise and underdeliver for them.
2. Network. Build strong relationships and always look for cross-promotional ideas.
3. Charitable giving. Find ways to give back to the local community you live and work in. It is great for marketing and will help create a buzz for your business, but most of all you will be happier and feel more fulfilled as a result.
Building this business has been a wonderful learning experience all around and I am still learning new things all the time. If I could go back and do one thing differently, I would wish for more confidence in my work earlier on because I deeply discounted sessions just to build my portfolio and to gain more experience as a working photographer.
What is your favorite product/service that you offer?
With the advancement of digital cameras, photography can be a very competitive business with a saturated market. My favorite product/service that I offer is the Amber Shader Photography experience. Yes, there are other photographers with better portfolios, cheaper prices, or more awards for their work, but no one can duplicate the experience we provide for our clients. It is what makes us different from the competition and keeps our clients coming back to us and referring us to their friends and families.
What is your best-selling item/service?
Our best-selling keepsakes are our large framed prints, large gallery wraps, and image boxes with all the prints from the session.
What advice would you give to Dreamers who haven't become Doers yet?
As I mentioned earlier, it is so important to set smaller goals along the way that will keep you motivated. In addition, I truly believe that if you surround yourself with positive people and positive thoughts, positive things will happen.
Keep up with Amber Shader Photography:
Amber Shader Photography on Twitter
Amber Shader Photography on Facebook