On Connecting To People Through Photography

Published: February 9th, 2020
Erik Stenbakken
Founder, Stenbakken Media
Stenbakken Media
from Greeley, Colorado, USA
started September 1997
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My name is Erik Stenbakken and I’m a commercial photographer and videographer and founder of Stenbakken Media. I say “commercial photographer” because most folks know someone with a camera doing baby pictures or weddings or senior photos. I’ve done all those things, but have settled into doing images mostly for B-to-B clients. I used to do editorial photography when that was a thing. I transitioned into moving pictures (video) about seven or eight years ago. Some stories just need to move!


What's your backstory and how did you get into entrepreneurship?

I took a degree in secondary education in college because I didn’t know what I really was an entrepreneur. My parents raised me to believe I could buy everything I ever wanted -- so long as I earned the money to buy it. So… I had to work. I mowed lawns (at $2 a pop; hey, they were small lawns!), I babysat, I sold kitchen knives, I worked in a furniture plant. Whatever it took.

I’ve made plenty of mistakes, and I try to make it right and make those mistakes only once.

While in college, I got interested in using a camera to make money. I had one rule: if I bought camera stuff, my camera had to earn that money. So I started small and cheap with what I had. I made some money, then bought a little more, a little better. I shot engagement photos, portraits, and worked on both the school yearbook and other media opportunities.

At the same time, I worked for a landscaping company (think planting & removing trees, not mowing lawns). My boss at the landscaping nursery was so terrible at a business that one day the power company came out to shut off the electricity. We all knew that if they shut the power off, we’d have to go home -- and not get to work (thus not get paid). So we asked the utility guy how much our boss owed. It was like $6. So we all pooled our change and paid the bill. Right then I knew if he could keep us paid (poor as it was) and be THAT bad a manager, I could surely do better. So I quit and started my own landscaping company. I operated that for two years while living in the dorm (and a rental storage unit). I sold the truck, assets, and business name when I left for grad school.

Take us through your entrepreneurial journey. How did you go from day 1 to today?

My first job after grad school was in the marketing department at a small college in Nebraska. It was the perfect place to learn.

I got to shoot marketing photography, editorial photography, and work with some very talented designers (both staff and students). I learned how publishing works and learned both desktop publishing and the craft of photography. As the college’s publications began to look better and better, other colleges took note, and one day I got a call to fly from Nebraska (where I lived & worked) to Massachusetts to photograph a beautiful, small campus at the peak of New England fall colors. So I took some vacation days and went. It was so perfect, it was hard NOT to make a great image.


From there I began marketing myself to other colleges and universities. Eventually, I had enough work that I couldn’t take enough vacation time… so I resigned from my “real job” and went full time as a freelancer. Frankly, it was terrifying at times.

I had to learn everything about self-promotion, the internet (what was that?) and doing business like a professional. I joined professional organizations (ASMP in my case) and I “highly” recommend anyone new to a field join a trade group in their area of interest. The connections and lessons are so valuable.

Because I didn’t go to school for photography, I had to learn on my own. It would be untrue to say I was “self-taught” because I’m indebted to many others who mentored me. But dang. I read a LOT of magazines and books and shot a lot of test film (yeah, this was before the Internet and digital photography). But that discipline has served me well in business, that desire to be a self-starter and learner.

For years I traveled all over the US north to south, east to west photographing colleges and universities and taking editorial jobs shooting features and covers. Lots of covers. I really miss the days of magazine journalism. Not so much for the income (it was never that good), but for the incredibly interesting people I met. In many cases, it was my photo subjects that I learned from.

Fast forward to today. I’m now splitting my time into three ways: photography, video, and real estate management. Yeah. Real estate. That was learned independently too. More on that below.

How are you doing today and what does the future look like?

Anyone who wants to be a creative needs to know that they are undertaking a huge task. Basically, if you want a CAREER that other people do as a hobby, it’s going to be hard. Take golf. Hey, who wouldn’t want to roam around pristine courses in nice weather and make millions while doing it? Well, you’d better be REALLY good at it. Want to take pictures of pretty people? Yeah, you and 1,000,000 other people who would *pay* for the opportunity. So you’d better be really good or bring something unique to the table.

It’s motivation to stay on top of the game… and diversify. Think about it: if your job is to create one-of-a-kind widgets for clients, you can only make money when you’re making widgets. If you have a machine do it, all your customers need is a machine of their own, and you make no money. You can’t sell your business, because the business is YOU making the custom widgets, right? So how do you retire? How do you buffer against market/tech shifts? Diversify.

That’s why I got into real estate. How and what I do there is an entirely different topic, but suffice to say, that the market is nearly independent of my creative work and income. It’s something I can do part-time and something that is valuable even when I’m not cranking out widgets.

Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

Work with ethics. Skill is valuable, and people will sometimes hire a vendor who has the skill, but not ethics -- but generally not more than once. About 90% of my clients are return clients and I value those relationships. I treat them each as I would want to be treated.

Another way to think about it: Anything I do, I want to be ok going into a published headline. And yeah, sometimes, I’ve learned the hard way what not to do or say. I’ve made plenty of mistakes, and I try to make it right and make those mistakes only once.

This is related to the next point: You HAVE to keep evolving to stay afloat. And that drive has to come from within. If you wait for someone else to prod you into moving into the future… you’re already behind the curve.

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

And this point, I use personal meetings and referrals. I’ve used email blasts (which were ineffective). I’ve used print media (mostly ineffective). And have tried to make a social media brand that I liked… and have not found that to be my jam either. I’ve found that if I get a meeting with a prospective client, about 75% of them will end up as clients at some point.

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?

Waaaaay too many to list here. Find what works for you. But whatever you do, KEEP LEARNING. Do podcasts work for you? Listen! Do workshops do it for you? Attend! Blogs or books your thing? Read! Have to do it hands-on? Get started!

Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?

Build a meaningful relationship with someone who can mentor you. Then add value to that person’s life somehow. THEN ask for help. Then (and this is a big one)… actually do the things they suggest. I’m blown away by the number of people who say they want help or advice, but refuse to use either.

Where can we go to learn more?