How I Run A $50K/Month Wedding Photography Studio Like A Startup
Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
I’m Pranesh Padmanabhan, 33, a first-generation entrepreneur and the Founder of Studio 31, a 12-years-old creative wedding photography and film company, that has been recognized by many premium publications in India. Studio 31 captures over 350 weddings every year and more than 90% of our customers are NRIs who travel to India for their weddings. On average, our annual revenue is about a million dollars.
One unique thing about why couples book Studio 31 is the overall customer experience that it provides, which is largely missing in the wedding photography industry in India.
How 4500+ families have rated Studio 31 over 12 years:
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I have always been a curious person since I was a kid. I get really inspired by television advertisements, billboards, and print ads and have always thought about how they were created. More than anything, I really appreciated the photographic/cinematographic artwork behind all these.
A problem will always have a solution. if there is no solution, then it's not a problem in the first place.
My family circle is quite large and I got a chance to attend a lot of weddings. One thing that both attracted and upset me at weddings was the photographers and videographers. In India, at least back then, if you are not an engineer or a doctor, you are always looked down upon by people, no matter how successful you are.
I saw in most of these weddings that these creative souls were not treated well, even though in reality, they are the only ones who actually document your whole wedding and provide you a lifetime of happiness and memories.
I saw four reasons why this was happening,
- These creative people, no matter how good they were at what they did, were not aware of how to market and brand themselves, like other white-collared professionals.
- Many people who run photography studios in India, have either inherited the profession from their parents/grandparents or started their own studio because they had to make a living. It's somehow not respected by people around.
- There's no entry barrier to a profession like photography unlike medicine or auditing; hence when many people took up this profession by getting attracted to the fancy feeling that it gives, the value of the actual profession got diluted.
- There are only a handful of entrepreneurs who have excelled in this profession and have seen great success
Over 30,000 weddings take place in India every day. The Indian wedding industry is the second largest in the world.
I saw an opportunity here. I wanted to start and build a wedding photography business that is highly respected and becomes a benchmark in the industry. To be honest, I'm not a photographer nor do I have an education related to this profession, but my intuition and gut said, there's a good opportunity out there and it's worth experimenting with.
This was the time when I was completing my bachelor’s degree and I was clearly not interested in taking up the regular IT job which 99% of my batchmates did.
One good thing that I like about myself is that I don't overthink or over plan things and wait for the perfect time or opportunity. I always do my best with whatever resources are available.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
I wasn't a qualified photographer nor did I know the tricks of the trade, but what I knew was that more Indian's will spend more on their weddings as the years come by.
I put myself in the position of a potential couple and asked myself, "What would make me pay a premium for wedding photography services?"
The answer was simple: Offer couples a fully managed wedding media solution without making them go to multiple players for various services, along with a great customer experience.
Then I asked another question to myself, " How do I scale this up if I am the only photographer?"
Not having a personal brand like most photographers do, but keeping it generic and starting a wedding production company, where I can have a team of wedding photographers and other post-production staff. However, I could not do that before establishing operations and forming a good team. Hence I started my company as Pranesh Photography and later rebranded it to Studio 31.
I hail from a simple family and I knew that I'll not be able to afford to buy expensive photographic equipment. I'm really glad that I couldn't afford one. It's like a blessing in disguise.
I learned that there were a lot of movie technicians who had dry days and had expensive equipment idle. I approached some of them asking if they would rent their equipment to me. Luckily few agreed, and that's it. My zero inventory wedding photography company was born.
I approached a few friends who had cousins or siblings getting married and offered them a free shoot, on top of their regular wedding photographer, and who wouldn't say no to free photos?
I Self-learned the art with real weddings and real couples. I was lucky enough to capture some decent photographs that impressed couples.
It was clear that I wanted to make this big and it would be only possible by establishing a legal entity and I registered one. Many criticized me for taking that call as the whole industry is unorganized and runs on cash, but If I look back today, it's one of the best decisions I made.
Describe the process of launching the business.
I really wasn't sure how to launch a wedding photography business and all I knew back then was that everyone was crazy about Facebook and all the attention was being shifted from Orkut to Facebook.
Hence I launched a Facebook page after I was sure about taking a plunge into this business and started creating some portfolios of the experimental weddings that I shot.
Since I rented out equipment and did not have any fixed costs as such, I managed to run the business with the advances that I received. Soon I realized that I needed an office space to work and manage the post-production work.
I worked at a cafe for about a year before asking my close friend to offer me a part of his office space in return for business consulting services for his company.
It all fell into place, because I did not wait for things to get perfect, but was also careful because I was dealing with the memories of people.
- Started experimenting with wedding photography in 2008 (I was still studying)
- Learnt the trick of the trade and the nuances of the business for a year
- Completed my graduation in 2009 and did a short term post-graduation course in marketing and communications + advertising for a year
- Rejected a high paying job
- Was confident enough after capturing about 14 weddings for decent pricing; many paid me because they thought I shot well.
- Launched the Facebook Page in 2011
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Organic is the word. I shamelessly marketed myself and created attention wherever I went. Trust me, as funny as it looks or sounds, this t-shirt that I designed and printed, generated at least 100 bookings for me, for free. Yes. Free.
Guess who assisted me? Remember the good souls who agreed to rent out their equipment to me? While I took care of the creative shots, they helped me manage the conventional part of the services as they were really good at it (highly popular in India). Eventually, I made them a part of my team of gigs.
Now I had to scale up. Facebook was relatively new back then and there were only a handful of pages, which made life slightly easier. I found a lot of very talented professional wedding photographers in my locality on Facebook, but who did not know really well how to market themselves.
Approached 10 of them and offered them to be a part of Studio 31 as a "full-time contractor" and promised them guaranteed bookings and business for a year on paper; of course with certain terms and conditions that ensure everyone involved gets a win-win experience. 5 of them agreed and signed a contract. I trained them for over 3 months and from the 4th month, Studio 31 had the resources to capture 5 weddings a day instead of 1 wedding a day.
My definition of a full-time contractor: A wedding photographer who will not be on the payroll of Studio 31, but will be given guaranteed business every month and paid per wedding, but has to ensure they give Studio 31's clients the priority on any given auspicious date.
Also, will follow Studio 31's guidelines and practices to ensure utmost professionalism and integrity in the overall process.
I learned to communicate and present myself well and practiced this like any other professional job. I wanted people to look up to me and respect me more and in India, you know what could work? Cars.
Yes, you read it right. Owning a car is still considered a luxury in India. I'm talking about 2021, now imagine the situation in 2011. I invested some of my profits in a second-hand sedan and started going to weddings in it.
It worked like a charm. People were awe-struck. A photographer coming in a car? I asked, Why should engineers and doctors have all the fun?
As lame as it sounds, this really helped me gain attention and the business traction I expected. A lot of people voluntarily approached me, because they liked the professionalism and my unique approach towards this profession. More leads = more business.
Another interesting thing that worked really well was my rapport with the couple, especially the bride. Brides are usually the most ambitious ones when it comes to photography and pictures and they wanted suggestions on various aspects of the wedding. I helped them generously and also ensured that I got to know the family really well before the wedding so that I become a part of their family when the wedding is actually taking place. This ensured that I earned the respect I deserved and also made everyone comfortable.
However, there's one crucial marketing hack that I practiced and it's consistently working even after 12 years. I focused on NRI couples right from the beginning because I somehow had the intuition that they were more comfortable investing a premium in photography and really understood and respected the value of this particular form of art. It helped me do my job well without having to compromise on anything, which resulted in a win-win situation for both of us.
On average, every couple that books Studio 31, refers at least two other couples for the wedding photography service.
So what is the corporate communications thing? Well, I have a quick history; I started using Adobe Photoshop and other video editing software when I was 11 years old. I practiced with many tools and offered graphic designing and marketing consulting services to a lot of small and medium businesses as a freelancer. It helped me get some good connections.
About 16 weddings in 2011 (I was the primary photographer)
56 weddings in 2012 (You know why)
44 weddings in 2013
96 weddings in 2014
I stopped going to weddings in 2015 as I wanted to focus on the management side of things
197 weddings in 2015
336 weddings in 2016
It was in 2015 that I decided to scale the business and it was high time I removed the personal branding associated with the company - - my name. Pranesh Photography was rebranded to Studio 31 and there has been no looking back ever since. We've been growing well year after year.
I intentionally distanced myself from the press, public, and potential clients and positioned my strong team as the face of the company. It helped the company grow really well.
Another personal reason and strong conviction that I had was that I wanted to build a business that can grow and run without me, if at all. I believe in building businesses that can run on auto-pilot in the longer run. Passive income it is.
Photography and business are two things. Combining both with the right proportion will help us deliver creative pictures and films along with world-class customer support that would give us more business via referrals and in turn reducing the cost of acquiring a customer. This has been working for us consistently since inception.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
We are bootstrapped and profitable. We are a team of 32 full-time staff and we have 2000+ "Studio 31 Certified Professionals" who work with us throughout the year.
Studio 31 had formed one of the finest teams and practiced corporate standards in the wedding photography space since inception.
- Openwork culture
- Great incentives
- Remuneration above industry standards (because there is no industry standard, we raised the bar)
- No dress code
- We did not have a leave policy itself in place and gave staff unlimited sick leave options + no LOP
- Salary accounts and insurance
- Ensured all staff were eligible for credit cards and bank loans of all kinds
Since 2020 April;
- We transformed into a 100% remote company
- We started hiring people from across the country and the world; thanks to the remote culture
I've always prioritized the overall well-being of my employees over anything and our <6% attrition in 12 years is a testimony to it.
I really wanted to bring in a huge difference in the wedding photography space in India and that clarity helped me define a lot of unique processes and workflows that cannot be found elsewhere. I had no benchmarks, which made it even harder to achieve, but good in a way, because we could experiment.
We created the industry's first happiness management team that bridged the gap between the company and the client. This team ensured that there was harmony between everyone and there were no hassles throughout the entire customer journey.
Over 78% of our business is generated through referrals and the rest mostly through organic lead generation on all the majority of social media platforms.
Studio 31's operations today are 100% tech-enabled. We built the industry-first wedding photography management software for our own clients,
For Studio 31 Employees
- Automation of manual and repetitive tasks. Eliminated email communication by 96%.
- Proactive prediction of customer's activity health, lifecycle, and the future.
- Recommendation and reminders of tasks that impact daily work routine.
- Monitoring work progress and providing assessments on business health.
- Showcasing data and analytics visually in a single dashboard across all departments.
- No more following up. Essential data is showcased in a dashboard with live updates.
- No more emails. Intelligent sections to provide feedback and access photographs and films.
- Self helpdesk, that saves hours. Clear processes and policies for a hassle-free experience.
The average artist working with Studio 31 has shot about 300 weddings. At Studio 31, for potential candidates, their academic background/qualifications, and scores are not barriers for us to hire them. We're always on the lookout for exceptional human beings and we not only believe, but our team has proven that they need not be book-smarts to have a strong work ethic, grit, and talent.
Key Business Highlights
- Focusing on customer experience (CX) and creating customers, who create customers.
- With a zero inventory model, Studio 31 has been profitable since its inception.
- Captured over 7000+ events and trusted by over 4500 families.
- Employing over 2000+ creative artists across Tamilnadu, every year.
- Average experience of a crew member is 300 weddings.
- 90% of the routine processes are automated. Human errors have been reduced by 95% with business process automation.
- Our focus is on customer experience (CX) and creating customers, who create customers.
- Artificial intelligence-based customer support that customers enjoy.
- Intelligent customer dashboard. Eliminated emails by 96%.
- Over 59% referral orders, lesser CAC after tech deployment.
- We take care of our staff well. Least attrition in the industry; <6%.
After seeing great ROI with the tech that we built for ourselves, we're currently building Merake, a client management tool for wedding photographers.
Merake is a client management software that helps wedding photographers provide their customers with a great service experience by eliminating emails and chats by 98%.
It also helps photographers save over three hours every day by organizing all their shoot and client information in one dashboard.
Our vision is to enable wedding photographers to simplify the communication with their customers and provide them a memorable, hassle-free experience throughout the entire service life-cycle.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
In this worldly chaos of dreams, knowledge, economy, technology, modernity, and innovation, if there’s one religion I invested by faith into, that would be -- Entrepreneurship. 12 years of being an entrepreneur, I’ve learned that age, time, resources are no constraints. Here’s the thing with entrepreneurship -- You hire yourself. You invest in yourself. You believe in yourself.
I made a lot of expensive mistakes, but the best part was that they helped me become what I am today. One challenge that I'd always faced was taking decisions myself as I did not have a co-founder. I've always thought that If I had one, the business would have grown faster than it did.
I missed a lot of good opportunities that came by because we grew so fast and I had to manage everything myself; you may have the best team, but it did not replace the role of a co-founder or a business partner. Some of them included expanding operations to other cities in India and Asia, starting a post-production business for wedding photographers globally, etc.
I'm really happy and glad that I made use of the golden opportunity that many did not see back then. It helped me carve the foundation of Studio 31 really well. Today, people remember the brand and a cult has been formed only because of what all was done 10 years back.
One common characteristic that I saw in most aspiring entrepreneurs that reached out to me for advice and inspiration was that almost all of them wanted to be perfect from day one and were over-planning things. This would never take them anywhere as no one can technically achieve perfection. I'm exactly the opposite; I believe in trying and failing or succeeding.
What Studio 31 is today is a combination of more failures than successes. We're here because I believe in "fall seven and stand up eight times". I always tell this person "stop talking and start doing".
As harsh as it may sound, that's the reality.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
We use various tools from the Zoho platform for building our in-house tech. Majority of our business runs on Zoho Creator, a low code application builder and I'm amazed by this tool.
- Customised in-house CRM & Client Dashboard: Zoho Creator
- Client Dashboard (Beta): Merake
- Digital Signs / Contracts: Zoho Signs
- Forms: Zoho Forms
- Surveys and Feedback: Zoho Survey
- Integrations: Zoho Flow
- Meetings and Workshops: Zoho Meetings
- Third Party Connectors: Zapier
- Website: Adobe Portfolio
- Analytics: Google Analytics
- Blogging (Secondary Platform): Medium
- Customer Self Help Desk: Unicorn Platform
- Client Proofing: Shoot Proof
- Image Hosting: SmugMug
- Video Hosting: Vimeo
- Color Correction: Adobe Lightroom, Adobe Photoshop
- Photo-book Design: Fundy
- Video Editing: Final Cut Pro, Adobe Premiere Pro
- Email: Google Workspace
- Storage and Backup: Dropbox
- File Transfer: Smash
- File Organiser: Mambo
- Mass Emails: Streak
- Internal Team Communication: Slack
- Accounts & Finance: Tally
- Digital Payments: Razorpay, Google Pay
- Client Communication: Super Receptionist, Whatsapp Business, Telegram
- Digital Marketing & Lead Gen: Instagram, Facebook, Youtube
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
I'm a huge fan of Product Hunt and it's the platform where I've found a lot of resources that helped me improve my knowledge in the business space.
I've always liked the blogs that are written by The Knot's and The Wedding Wire's editorial team. Their quality is top-notch.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting?
- Stop doubting. Start doing. Doubting destroys your dreams more than failure would.
- Always remember this: A problem will always have a solution. if there is no solution, then it's not a problem in the first place.
- You don’t have to be worthy enough to start, but you have to start to be worthy enough.
- When you become good at trying, you become bad at failing.
- The pain of discipline is more bearable than the pain of regret
- Every time you hesitate, someone else will take action.
- The only real mistake is to fear making any mistakes at all.
- What you are going to be in the future is solely defined by your daily routine.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
We're hiring freelance photographers and cinematographers all through the year. Extremely talented candidates will also be absorbed as full-time crew members. There are only three qualifications required to apply for this role.
- At least 50% clarity and focus that they would want to establish their career in the wedding space
- Own a professional DSLR; even the body alone would do
- You should be ready to try, try, try, fail, fail, fail, succeed and learn
Where can we go to learn more?
Connect with me on LinkedIn.
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Studio 31 has provided an update on their business!
6 months ago, we followed up with Studio 31 to see how they've been doing since we published this article.
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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