How I Grew My Freelance Photography Business To 6-Figures
Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
My name is Catherine (Cat) Nguyen, owner, and photographer for Catherine Nguyen Photography. I am a Raleigh-based advertising and editorial photographer specializing in residential and commercial interior design and architecture.
My photos are licensed for client websites, social media, editorial, and advertising. Clients include interior designers, builders, architects, and home designers, magazines, the tv show Love It or List It, shelter blogs, hospitality content providers, home stagers, and luxury real estate agents.
When I started my business, there were a lot of cold calls, emails, and “knocking on doors”. Now, I have an organic Instagram following of more than 3000 and new client inquiries almost daily. I knew the tide had turned for my business when people started finding me versus me looking for them.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
Back in 2000, I traveled to France, Spain, and Vietnam. At the time, I was taking photos to “remember” scenes I could later paint. I came home with over 30 rolls of film after my trip to Vietnam. My boyfriend at the time decided to give me my first 35mm film camera and a few lenses. Over the course of the next few years, I took a few photography classes at the Cooper Union in New York City.
After September 11th and a rough time with my soon-to-be ex-boyfriend, I started considering getting out of the City. My cousin Nancy was studying interior architecture at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. She suggested I go to school for photography. Coming from a more traditional family, I thought the idea was crazy. Despite my fears of the unknown, I started to research photography programs and decided to take the plunge.
I left home when I was 16 and fell into working for an executive recruiter, banks, a top management consulting firm, and a branding firm. My career evolved from administrative assistant work to presentation design and finally creative services project management. I did not follow a traditional path, but made my way, nonetheless. That said, when my cousin suggested becoming a photographer, I felt a sense of excitement. The idea clicked for me in a way that my jobs before that had not. I was presented with the opportunity to follow an entirely new and adventurous career dream.
My job experience has been invaluable in starting and growing my photography business. I already knew how to manage the backend of my business while also utilizing my graphic design experience to build a website and design business cards and promotional materials.
I left a freelance job that was paying about $80k a year in 2003 to pursue my photography dreams. I had very little to no savings and was forced to take out loans to pay for school with my sister and father as guarantors. My brother actually gave me money for my first semester at The Academy. For living expenses, I continued to freelance remotely as a PowerPoint presentation designer for a few management consulting firms and also did medical transcription work.
Describe the process of launching the business.
For me the biggest challenge was start-up capital. I had just finished studying photography and basically, I did not have any. Fortunately, I had acquired the equipment needed during my time in school and I started working with a real estate photography company called Open Homes Photography. The market was hot, and I shot about 140 homes that summer.
With a list of steady projects and relatively low overhead, I was able to pay for additional resources (such as lenses and lighting) over time. I also had to procure a business license and consider location insurance so as not to be liable for any possible damages while on a shoot. I used business insurance specific to photography through the American Photographic Artists (APA). I also had to get a business checking account which I obtained through Bank of America.
Since this was my first solo business venture, I was learning everything from the ground up. Every day I learned who to call, where to go, what to file, and what to say and not say. One of the first lessons that I learned was to get a signed estimate when starting a new job and to be specific with the client about what is included in the scope of work. That simple rule has made setting expectations and product and service delivery so much easier!
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
I learned very quickly that referrals and word of mouth were going to be my greatest marketing tools, so I needed to maintain the highest levels of professionalism with every single client. Because everyone knows everyone. When your clients feel important and love the experience and the final product, they are going to refer you to their friends and family.
Be on time. Be pleasant. Be the expert. Be kind. Be honest. Be responsible. It’s all of those things that you learn growing up applied to real life
Other ways that I have stayed top of mind with my clients and appealed to new clients include being published and documenting my internal processes. Being published is key. In Raleigh, I determined that Walter Magazine (local) and Flower Magazine (national) were two publications that would help me reach my target demographic. Specifically, in Raleigh being published in Walter and Flower magazine. As a regular contributor to Walter Magazine since 2013, my brand has built awareness within the industry. Publication in Flower Magazine has brought my work to that next level and has helped to expand my reach to a national level. As I grew and received more jobs, it became apparent that I could not do everything myself. Documenting my processes made the hiring and training process that much simpler and helped me to focus on delegating and taking care of my clients. Instagram and a new website have both been huge for my company’s growth. As the tides of social media have changed, I have noticed that people are using Instagram more and Facebook less, especially for photography. I originally started on Instagram with personal work. After talking to a fellow photographer, I decided to revamp my Instagram account to include my professional work. It has been an evolution. I now post regularly to Instagram with the help of Martin Communications (https://thinkmartinfirst.com), a local Marketing and Communications firm. Martin also helped to design and build a custom new website for me in order to increase SEO. My website used to live on SquareSpace. I loved the modern simplicity of the design templates as well as the ease of use for the backend. Martin helped me to realize I needed to incorporate more text in my website for SEO. Over the course of several months, Martin and I worked together to design a custom new website that retained an emphasis on the images but also incorporated copy about my services as well as a blog that sheds light on who I am as a person. The new website works in conjunction with my Instagram account to help gain a stronger following and more clients.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
I feel that my business is doing very well. I am constantly getting new client inquiries and am very excited about the growth and future of my company. I was finally able to hire a marketing company called Martin Communications. They are helping me take my marketing efforts to the next level, allowing me to focus on maintaining great client relationships. The team at Martin strives to make my life easier. We recently increased the number of social media posts from two to three times a week because of my heavy shoot schedule. That said, I do not want to grow so big that I can’t have one-on-one time with my clients, and I don't plan on hiring another photographer as I want my signature on each photo taken. Having said that, I am learning to delegate and hire people that can help me with other aspects of my business.
I have also found that becoming a morning person is very helpful because I can get a lot done before people even get up.
I am seeing a profit, which is always a good thing! Of course, with growth comes more overhead (marketing company, updated equipment, and an assistant) and every new camera often requires a new computer and learning new software.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
I have learned my reputation is everything. If I say I am going to deliver in two weeks, I need to keep my word. Sometimes things happen and then it is about how you handle the situation, but customer satisfaction should be at the top of your list. You do what you have to do to maintain happiness with your customer.
Several other things come to mind. A few years ago, I was a creative director for a magazine. Unfortunately, that experience did not turn out well. I really should have done more due diligence on the publisher as it was not a good working relationship; however, the positive is that I saw first-hand the importance of integrity and treating your clients and colleagues with respect and professionalism.
Also, having immense attention to detail is vital in my line of work. Obviously, when you are organizing and post-producing the photos, you pick up on all the little things but that attention to detail also comes in handy during the shoot. People will be calling out orders on what to highlight or hide and you have to remember their requests along the way.
I have also found that becoming a morning person is very helpful because I can get a lot done before people even get up. I feel like it is a healthier habit and I have time to decompress at the end of the day.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
I use Adobe Creative Suite for importing/exporting and managing the post-production portion of the process for my images. Specifically, I use LightRoom, Photoshop, and Bridge. I also use Illustrator for anything that has more graphic design needs.
Instagram is a favorite tool for my business.
QuickBooks® Self-Employed is a great app for organizing my bookkeeping.
BlinkBid is proprietary web-based software for creatives that helps with licensing and invoicing clients. It also creates estimates.
For pricing, I rely on the fotoQuote® app which has industry standards for pricing built into the program. Pricing can be all over the map and is one of the hardest things in photography to determine. FotoQuote lets me know if my pricing is competitive.
I use UPS for my shipping needs but most of my projects are delivered electronically through Dropboxor GoogleDrive. When I do need to print pictures, I use Miller’s Professional Imaging or MpixPro.
My marketing company handles the scheduling of my social media.
I keep all of my client data in an Excel spreadsheet, and I have a folder for each of my clients in Dropbox. I make it a point to send out holiday cards to my clients, staying in touch with them and reminding them that my services are available!
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
I do not listen to podcasts very often but there are several resources I am currently utilizing. I am taking a color theory workshop with a professor I had at The Academy. I also try to stay abreast of new trends in commercial photography through the APA website. I am in several business-related forums and Facebook groups which are also very helpful.
I collect coffee table books and am in awe of those produced by Michael Kenna. In fact, he inspired me to become a photographer. Reading about his processes and the stories behind how he made his photos and then seeing those photos in beautifully published books is incredibly encouraging.
Some of my favorite magazines which keep me in the know include Elle Decor, Architectural Digest, Milieu, and Flower Magazine.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting?
As a photographer, it is important to be inspired by everything around you. Also, remaining inspired helps you to take the best photos which in turn inspires other people. It is a wonderful cycle! Traveling, books, movies, and music can help you to remain creatively inspired which translates into having good creative energy on your photoshoots.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
I am in the process of hiring an administrative assistant or a studio manager.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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