On Turning A Photography Hobby Into A Wildly Successful Venture

Published: November 3rd, 2020
Jessica Mitchell
Jessica Mehu Phot...
from Howell, Michigan, USA
started March 2011
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Hi! My name is Jessica Mitchell and I am the owner of Jessica Mehu Photography LLC, established in 2011. I offer photography services for expectant families, and exclusively offer maternity through baby’s first year in-studio sessions.

I went from starting a side/hobby gig to pay for a camera I wanted to photograph my children with (living paycheck to paycheck) and no intention of ever making a profit, to being an award-winning photographer and running a successful photography business with a studio and employees that comfortably support my four children and I. Becoming a widow with four children (one of which is special needs) in 2015, I am incredibly grateful to be able to have a flexible schedule and work part-time doing what I love.


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

I was raised in a religion that discouraged education. I was poorly homeschooled and didn’t continue my education past high school. I was married and a mother at the young age of 18. I was a stay at home mother and my husband was the primary breadwinner of the household, but worked small part-time jobs here and there to help financially as he didn’t earn much and we lived paycheck to paycheck. During my second pregnancy in 2005, I learned about doulas and knew my passion lies in pregnancy and infants so I became a certified birth doula in 2006.

When you build a business, it’s coming from YOU and the energy you attract will either lead to success or failure of your business.

During my time assisting women in childbirth, they would hand me their cameras and ask me to snap some pictures to capture the moment. When I held the camera in my hands my heart raced and I found myself getting creative and I taking those photos and eventually even editing them afterward. This led me to apply for job postings for photography companies that offered training. I worked for several companies including being the newborn photographer in the hospital that went from room to room the day after a baby was born. Even in the studio setting, when a baby came in, everyone pointed to me to take them because it was clear that was my passion and talent.

Parents loved my work in the hospital and often asked how they could see me in the future for sessions. This is where the idea came from to start my own business. I figured I could easily do sessions on my own and charge similar to what the company I worked for charged ($125 a package with digital files) but instead of receiving a 25% commission I would receive the full amount!

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

In March 2011 I leaped and purchased a camera, lens, and flash with my tax return (the only time I had extra funds). I went with the most basic professional models I could get to get by (in total my investment was approximately $1,500). I created a free website, Facebook page, and filed my business with the state. I had very low self-esteem at the time and honestly didn’t think I would get far with this, but wanted to try and see if people would like my work and this was the only way to convince my husband to purchase this! I knew I could do enough sessions to pay for the camera at least. So I started by begging friends and family to allow me to do free sessions to build my portfolio. I mostly used my children as models to show what I could do (I had three daughters at this point) because I didn’t have much luck in the friends and family department.

I decided to build my website better, adding the photos of my children and charging a very small fee for sessions to start building momentum (I believe I was charging $50 for a session, including the edited digital files). Then I start gaining traction. I had strangers contacting me for sessions! And guess what, they LOVED my work. By August of that year, I had made enough to pay for the initial investment and had a decent portfolio established. I started to increase my prices to compare rates in the area, fine-tune my business structure further (booking process, contracts, etc), and started putting money that I was still making into furthering my education and upgrading my equipment. I climbed my way up to compare rates in the area (which was about $250/300 a session including the digital files) and the bookings were growing in frequency!

My first year of business was profitable! After expenses (including that camera) I had actually earned a small amount of money, comparable to what I was earning with the small part-time jobs I was working. My confidence was growing and I much preferred working for myself and having the flexibility I needed for my kids. So I continued, always learning more and upgrading/improving my skills and equipment.

In 2014 I decided to narrow down my offerings and specialize in doing only what I love and am passionate about; maternity through baby’s first year. I tried all types of photography to get established, but these were the only areas that made my heart race and my soul happy and it showed. Taking this step caused my profits to double.

In 2015 my husband suddenly passed away, leaving me with 4 children to support on my own. My business was 4 years in and doing well, but still not generating the income he was. I was faced with the decision of finding a different career path or putting my all into building this side income into a career. I knew my children needed me more now than ever before and I absolutely needed the freedom that came with working for myself, so I chose to advance my business while grieving and caring for my children on my own. To say I was scared and overwhelmed is an understatement, I discovered a better market in Livingston county. The photographers in that area were charging more than double what I was and that area reached a much higher population of higher-earning families.

So I took an even bigger leap and moved my family out there in February 2016. I was still in the driving range of my current established market so I figured worst-case scenario, I’d still have them. I frantically started marketing to a new area through Facebook and SEO on my website, all while raising my rates to be comparable to my new area (around $1,000 a session). I was absolutely terrified.

In March that same year, a local photographer (Christy Bunge) had seen my Facebook ad stating I was new to the area and reached out to me as a welcome and offered to meet. I gratefully accepted the offer and met her at her beautiful studio space in downtown Howell, 2 minutes from my home. We hit it off immediately and she offered to share her studio with me along with aspiring me to raise my rates. I never had the overhead expense of a studio and didn’t have a market established there yet, but I pushed past my fears and jumped on that opportunity. She taught me in studio lighting and then I really started to soar. By August I was so overwhelmed with my workload that I decided to hire assistants to lighten my load because I couldn’t keep up. In October I took a career-changing, three-day intensive photography conference in Atlanta GA (The Baby Summit) which more than anything opened my eyes to how profitable a photography career can be and I came home with a new perspective and went back to the drawing board. All while being incredibly busy with sessions, I spent every evening working late into the night completely revising absolutely everything. My website, client management, employee tasks, accounting, even my photography style, and props, everything!

I started to really brand my business at that point as a high end, luxury, fine art photographer. My profits again doubled. I had finally arrived at a point where I was fully satisfied with my business and had established a career I could support my family with on my own. I was actually being in more through my business than what my husband was earning. No longer living paycheck to paycheck.

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

January 2017 was when I really started to launch my new branding and I have been maintaining it ever since. My workflow is steady. I have since upgraded my studio space that is now completely 50/50 shared with Christy. My overhead is fairly high at this point between the studio costs and employees and makes up about 50% of what I earn, but I’m still profitable and able to support my family. Still earning more than I was without the overhead and I’m extremely happy overall. I have plenty of time for my children, household, and even myself, as I only have to work approximately 12 hours a week on average.

I have found it can be challenging to have career goals when you’re perfectly happy in every aspect of your business. Christy and I have decided to start offering educational opportunities for aspiring photographers and are working on putting the pieces together for that currently. I have been offering mentoring since 2019 and find it extremely rewarding to help others. She and I have opposite specialties and even use different equipment so we have a lot to offer, including hourly rental of our space. We’re very excited about the new adventure together!

I do have plans to eventually have associate photographers as well. Shooting is very physically demanding and I’m aware that I won’t be able to do that part forever. Having associate photographers in place will allow me to eventually retire from shooting and just run the business end of things that many photographers tend to struggle with. Even though the thought of not shooting is very sad, it’s a reality in my future.

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

If I could go back and go to college for anything that would be helpful in my field, it would be for business management. I learned the hard way and it doesn’t have to be that way.

Pushing past fears, overcoming obstacles, and fighting for what you want takes strength and courage so that’s essential.

In photography, being talented and gifted isn’t enough by any means to run a successful business. You need to have those business and marketing skills as well.

Another important lesson is delegating work. Burnout is real. If you learn how to hand off work that isn’t essential for you to be doing, you’ll enjoy your job more and prevent burnout.

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

Wix is my website host. I did my entire website myself (many hours of work and refinement). I find Wix extremely user friendly and they have great SEO tools. Having a strong website and SEO is so essential to this field!

Iris Works is my client management system. Extremely useful and saves me a ton of time while keeping things organized. Time-consuming to properly set up, but definitely worth it.

Shootproof is my online proofing system and it’s wonderful. My clients can view their images online securely and can purchase prints online like any other store.

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

I can’t really speak to books or podcasts that have been influential, but following super talented and successful photographers (many of which I had the honor to meet at the baby summit) was my #1 source of inspiration.

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

Confidence, positive mindset, and I’ll say it again, confidence! Believe in yourself and you’ll go much farther. When you build a business, it’s coming from YOU and the energy you attract will either lead to success or failure of your business. Pushing past fears, overcoming obstacles, and fighting for what you want takes strength and courage so that’s essential.

Learn from your “competitors”. They can be your allies and the most helpful resources. The partnership is huge and working with others can teach you a different perspective as well as save you money. I see too many in this industry not utilizing this valuable resource.

Where can we go to learn more?

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