Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?.
My name is J.B. Shepard. I am Baltimore, Maryland based mixed media artist and the founder of Puptrait.
As you may have guessed already, the name “Puptrait” is a portmanteau of the words “Puppy” and “Portrait”. And, that is a pretty apt description of the business.
I often get billed as a studio pet photographer. But that’s not entirely an accurate description, as much as it is what potential clients are searching for when they find us.
Don’t get me wrong, photography is a critical piece of my workflow. But it’s not what we sell. It’s not even the most time-intensive or involved step in our commission process. I’m arguably more notable for making costumes out of garbage than I am for my lighting or camera skills.
In fact, I would go so far as to say our studio has more in common with those digital art farms that you see advertised everywhere cranking out Renaissance-style composite portraits than it does with most pet photographers. In that, we are building conceptual imagery from the ground up and really only monetizing the final physical art piece.
The key difference being with us the images aren’t a cheap compositing trick. We are actually physically creating these costumes and photographing them while they are being worn by our patron’s dogs.
The work is difficult, the process is extremely time-intensive and is entirely dependent on clients physically visiting our studio, which obviously limits our ability to scale — especially during a global pandemic.
Fortunately, our clients see the value of what we do and most are willing to pay a premium for the service. Our typical commission comes in anywhere between $2.5k and $5k, with our highest value single order tapping out at just under $12k.
That said, we are located in Baltimore and this is still very much a working-class town. So, I do try to make a point of remaining relatively flexible with our pricing. We just doubled our sitting fee and it’s still under $500.
A lot of other business owners laugh when I tell them about our pricing model, specifically how it’s not unheard of for us to charge more in sales tax than we require in deposits. But I think remaining accessible has been the key to our success and why the community continues to embrace our studio.
Just last year I won two fairly major local readers choice awards, including “Best Photographer” in the Baltimore Sun’s Best of 2020 and “Best Artist” in Baltimore Magazine’s annual Best of Baltimore. Considering those are the two largest publications in a market with a few million folks living in it, both were pretty big wins -- especially for a “pet photographer”.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I know this is supposed to be the part of the interview where I elaborate on some grand vision or deeper purpose for starting this business. But if I’m being honest, I’m really only working with dogs because people asked me to.
Local search optimization is hands down the most underutilized resource most local businesses and service providers have at their disposal.
Don’t get me wrong, I have always enjoyed dogs. One of the first things I ever photographed was my own dog. But as a serious subject matter or something central to my career, that wasn’t anywhere on my radar. I didn’t even go to art school. I have a research degree. The closest thing I took to art classes in college were piano lessons.
I kind of got railroaded into becoming a freelance creative back in 2009, when I (like many Elder Millennials at the time) was laid off unexpectedly from my cushy in-house agency gig where I was functioning primarily as a media analyst and copywriter. This was a peak economic meltdown, two weeks before Christmas, and absolutely no one was hiring at the time. So, I had no choice but to take whatever paying gigs I could find.
One day I’m building a custom scripted parallax scrolling website for an NFL pro-bowler turned YA author. The next I’m tasked with rebranding a “think tank” outside Fort Meade that isn’t allowed to tell me what they do. A week later I’m in the studio with a professional dominatrix paying me to take racy photos that “organically showcase more baked goods” for her BackPage.
It was a wild time. You just found whatever paying gigs you could and if you didn’t know how to do the job, you figured it out. My portfolio was all over the place. This usually isn’t a good thing, but in retrospect, it ended up being the catalyst that sparked my career.
Around 2012, I was out at one of my favorite local pubs and was chatting up a good bartender buddy of mine. She tells me about her dog, who was recently diagnosed with cancer. She’s absolutely distraught. The outlook wasn’t good and she wanted a few decent photos to remember him by. And, while there were some “pet photographers” in the area, my heavily tattooed 20-something punk rock listening friend, wasn’t vibing with the flowery family portrait aesthetic they were all shooting at the time.
But you know what she did like? The photos of the pie stomping dominatrix.
And just like that, I booked my first pet portrait commission.
Needless to say, the session went well. Pretty soon, just through word of mouth, I had an increasingly steady flow of pet gigs rolling in. One day I looked down at my calendar and realized most of my work was dog portraits. So, I figured why fight it?
That night I registered the business, bought the domain, and tossed up a website -- and Puptrait was born.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
If you couldn’t already tell, I’m not much of a planner. But I am a huge fan of prototyping.
It doesn’t matter what facet of the business we’re working on, you don’t know what you don’t know. And, that goes both ways.
More often than not, it’s something that you didn’t know could go wrong.
But those rare moments when something unexpectedly works are game-changers.
When I first started working on my signature concept, Paper Hats, that didn’t start with us raiding recycle bins for supplies. It was supposed to be a studio portrait series featuring dogs in Baroque and Renaissance-inspired costumes made from reasonably authentic and fairly high-priced materials.
I had already dropped roughly a grand for fabric. We prototyped a few dog-sized mock bodices, doublets, and jackets. When we set to work on prototyping our first ruff collar, we quickly realized that we were going to burn through a ton of material on each one. So instead of going straight for the silk batting, we’d make a prototype or two out of scrap paper first.
When I saw the prototype, I immediately realized that the newspaper somehow just felt right. It was somehow more “dog”. So, I immediately scrapped everything we had built up to that point and reworked the series using only found and upcycled materials, like newspaper, cardboard boxes, plastic cups, and paper plates.
We have experimented with other materials since. I probably made close to a dozen dog-sized bouffant and beehive wig prototypes out of cheap acrylic yarn during the pandemic shutdown. While we have made some progress on that front, I keep coming back to Paper Hats.
That concept is what put the studio on the map. But if we had skipped prototyping that one piece, which we almost did simply because of how labor-intensive the folds are, we never would have stumbled on it.
Describe the process of launching the business.
Puptrait is a classic example of your typical DIY bootstrapped art business.
To help mitigate our launch costs, I leaned heavily on my own personal assets -- namely my 15 year old car, cellphone, PC, and camera -- and then did most of the heavy lifting myself. That is one of the upsides of being an artist. I personally designed our website, logo, business cards, and the rest of our business collateral.
Like any business, we did have some unavoidable hard costs -- domain, hosting, printing, and liability insurance. But those costs were all recouped with our first booking.
If I had to go back and do everything again, I don’t know if there is much I would change.
Though I probably would get into a physical studio space sooner. For the first six months or so, I worked exclusively on location and in client’s homes. It was a massive headache and I had absolutely no idea how many search impressions we were missing out on just because we were lacking space.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
I am a huge proponent of local search optimization. It is hands down the most underutilized resource most local businesses and service providers have at their disposal.
It’s funny, everyone seems to understand the importance of foot traffic -- despite it being nearly impossible to objectively measure. But then they treat Google Maps as an afterthought. Even though that’s the first place anyone with commercial intent seeks out a local service provider. It’s crazy.
Even if you never plan on having clients visit your location, it usually pays to invest in a well-placed brick-and-mortar presence. Free impressions aside, it’s one of the fastest ways to get a newly launched website to start ranking and in some instances, it may actually help improve your CPC.
Beyond that, most of my media mix is just search-driven PPC. It’s not the most exciting strategy, I know. But it works and it’s scalable.
I find the key there is to key a close eye on your “All Searches” report and make liberal use of Negative Keywords. For example, we are currently only bidding on two dozen Exact Search Keywords, but are using over six hundred Negative Keywords to refine our audience. This can go a long way towards keeping both your CTR and Relevancy scores high.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
To be blunt, our P&L sheet got absolutely torched by COVID-19.
We couldn't work remotely or shoot safely maintaining social distancing. So, I just went into shell mode and rode out my holiday ‘19 / Q1 ‘20 profits until I was able to get vaccinated. And, as artists aren’t exactly “essential” it took a minute for my number to come up.
I did finally get a chance to get vaccinated -- which was great. And, we’ve been steadily ramping back up ever since.
Everyone seems to understand the importance of foot traffic -- despite it being nearly impossible to objectively measure. But then they treat Google Maps as an afterthought. Even though that’s the first place anyone with commercial intent seeks out a local service provider.
But I’m genuinely concerned for the future. Our Governor, Larry Hogan, just unilaterally pulled the plug on pandemic support and unemployment benefits for over a half-million Marylanders. Considering our local economy was already barely hanging on by a thread, I can’t see things ending well.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
I try to listen to the music of Tom Waits at least once a day, preferably before I’m forced to do anything important. His voice can be admittedly a bit grinding at times. But I do enjoy his syncopated lyricism and find his poetic worldview grounding, almost challenging in a comforting way -- like a good massage or shot of cheap whiskey.
As books go, you can’t go wrong with the odd Albert Camus essay or John Steinbeck novel. When you think about it, Grapes of Wrath and Myth of Sisyphus are really just different spokes on the same wheel.
I think that’s an important note to remember. The world will keep spinning with or without you. But if you seek out those shared universal experiences — the moments and ideas that connect humanity at a deep personal level — they can go a long way towards keeping you off the rim.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you enjoy our photos, I encourage you to follow us on Instagram @puptrait.
We are back open and once again accepting private commissions. If you’re interested in possibly bringing your pup by our Baltimore studio location for a session, you can find our booking info and view availability here.
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
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