Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hey guys, my name is Chris Garbacz and I’m one of the co-founders here at Studio Ninja, the world’s most user-friendly photography business management app. In a nutshell, Studio Ninja is a software and mobile app that helps photographers manage their leads, clients, shoots, invoices, quotes, contracts, workflows and so much more.
As a quick overview of our stats, we’ve been in business for 6 years and we currently have about 7,000 active paying subscribers and monthly recurring revenue of $150,000. Our churn rate sits at around 1.8% and we have an average conversion rate of roughly 40%.
I have also been a professional wedding photographer for the past 14 years. There was just something about weddings that I loved. Photographing a wedding is like mixing every genre of photography all into one super high pressure, ridiculously stressful day, which coincidentally also turns out to be the most important day in your client's lives. Who wouldn’t love that!
Ahhhh I LOVED shooting weddings.
The creativity, the constant variety, the people, the weather, the uncertainty, the surprises! For 14 years I earned my stripes. But don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows, I’ve definitely experienced my fair share of horror stories.
I’ve had batteries go flat, memory cards fail, and have had to scramble for a solution when my car got towed after I illegally parked outside a church because I was running late.
I’ve seen the mother of the bride faint. I’ve been at a wedding when the bride simply didn’t show up. I’ve watched a groom do a run straight out of the side door of a church. Let’s just say I’ve almost seen it all!
On top of shooting weddings, I was always itching to do more. Hahaha, I felt like I was destined for bigger things. So over the years I started a lot of other businesses and failed at all of them.
For example, I decided to open co-sharing office space for creative entrepreneurs. I started an action sports photo-sharing website. I built a photography hire studio. I created a hens party directory. Let’s also throw in a photo booth business, oh and of course, how could I possibly forget the hens' party topless waitering company, Helpful Hunks!
I was obviously a glutton for punishment and was also happy to kiss my social life and my 20’s goodbye.
But I did learn a lot in those years.
All of those businesses would come and go, but photography was my rock, it was something that I loved, it gave me a regular income and it gave me space to try other things. And as I think about it now, maybe because I always had photography, I never felt like a failure, or I never saw it as a setback when those other businesses failed. I always saw it as being one step closer to that “big idea”, which of course did eventually come, and here it is today, growing beautifully and blossoming, Studio Ninja.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
Ahhhh I’ll never forget this moment. Let me paint you a picture.
It was a wedding day a few years ago. I had just driven an hour and a half to the groom’s house and arrived 5 minutes early like always. I was pumped, excited, and raring to go.
I got out of my car, went to the back, and opened the trunk to grab my gear.
Blinking a few times, I shook my head to make sure that I wasn’t hallucinating. I paused and took a deep breath.
OMG, the trunk was empty!
I literally almost fainted. I slammed the trunk closed, shut my eyes, shook my head again, and told myself that I had just imagined that.
Take a deep breath Chris, I was telling myself. I slowly opened the trunk again.
I was literally about to start shooting a wedding and I had accidentally left my camera bag at home!
Can you guys just imagine that for a second? I'm a professional photographer who is being paid thousands of dollars to photograph the most important day in this couple's life... and I had forgotten my camera bag at home.
So, apart from almost hyperventilating and having a panic attack, what do I do?
I couldn’t just go home and come back, I would end up being super late for the ceremony. That was not an option.
So I sent a 911 mayday text to my wife who was at home at the time with two crying children. I say “Babe, you won’t believe it, I’ve left my camera bag at home! I needed the biggest favor in history, can you grab my camera bag and chuck it in the car. Grab the kids and chuck them in the car too and drop my bag at the bride’s house, it’s only an hour and a half away!”.
Bang! Camera bag problem solved.
But what am I going to do at the groom’s house?
I took another deep breath, went up to the front door, and knocked.
The groom answered “Heyyy Chris, how are ya!? Perfect timing mate, let’s rock n roll, everyone’s ready for you!”.
I gave him the biggest smile I could muster, took another deep breath, and told him the truth.
“Jimmy... Mate... It’s good to see ya. I’m really, really sorry, but I’ve got bad news. I’m such an idiot. I don’t know how to say this, but I left my camera bag at home! But not to worry, I’ve sorted everything out and it’s on its way to Alison’s house now. The good news is, I’m here now, I’m ready to rock n roll and I’m going to photograph you guys… with my phone!”
Long story short, after the initial shock he actually thought it was funny. He was cool, he invited me in and he wasn’t going to let this little hiccup ruin his day.
Apart from the ridiculous embarrassment that I felt and the laughs I received from the groomsmen and the family for shooting with my phone, the morning turned out to be a huge success. I lived on to tell the tale.
And it was at that moment that I realized I needed to get my shit together and make sure this never happened again!
At the same time, I was also experiencing other pains in my business. I was stressing out and spending way too much time:
- Following up with leads.
- Chasing up unsigned contracts.
- Chasing up due or overdue payments.
- Trying to figure out where I was up to for each wedding and what task I had to do next.
- I was constantly trying to figure out who I’ve emailed, who I haven’t, and what I’ve emailed to who and when did I do that!
I reached out to friends and they suggested that I get a photography CRM as it would help me manage all these things.
So I tried all the available options on the market. I noticed that they were all either too complicated, too hard to get up and running, too expensive, or simply just too damn ugly. But eventually, I settled on one and put up with it for a couple of years.
Then one day, driving to a wedding I had my aha moment!
While driving I was listening to a podcast, I’ll never forget it! It was episode 46 of The Smart Passive Income Podcast and it described how to start a lucrative software business with no experience and no money!
I instantly thought of the clunky photography CRM that I was using and thought that I could build something better. Something simple, easy to use, beautifully designed, and something that photographers would love.
The idea was born!
Take us through the process of building the MVP.
Yuan (the other co-founder) and I made a perfect team. I had years of experience being a photographer and he had years of experience designing beautiful products.
We started by identifying our target market. To say “photographers” were our target market is true, but just too broad. We really needed to focus and be more specific. Donna was born. She was a 20-45-year-old wedding or portrait photographer who runs her business by herself or with one other person helping her. Studio Ninja would be built specifically for this persona and the good news is that the majority of the photography market falls into this category, so we were off to a good start.
Once I hit 100 photographers, I closed the campaign. Then it dawned on me, this is real, this is happening, OMG I’m starting a software company!
So we got to work. Yuan and I would bounce ideas for hours, sketching designs, debating what should be included and what should be left out. It was my job to tell him what the software should do, and it was his job to make it do those things in the most user-friendly way possible.
For the first version, we designed everything in Photoshop and sent it off to our developer to be built.
Later on, once we had users our design philosophies and methods changed. The infographic below explains it well.
Weeks would go by and then months. We progressed way slower than I had originally planned.
I’ll share the story of how I crowdfunded $15,000 in the next section, but we had $15,000 and that was our initial capital. Unfortunately, that only lasted a few months and we started putting in our own money. We put in all our savings, took money out of our house, and even borrowed money from friends.
It became so obvious to me that going into this, I just had no idea that development would take so long and be so expensive.
We started work in August 2015 and by February 2016 we were ready to launch version 1 of Studio Ninja to the world, and we were also very broke.
Describe the process of launching the business.
Let’s go back for a second to my “aha” moment.
I was so excited all day and couldn’t wait to get started. The next morning I woke up at 5 am and got to work.
I mocked up some interface designs, built the website, and created a crowdfunding campaign.
I went out to the photography Facebook groups that I was active in and told them all about my idea. I was going to build the world’s most user-friendly photography business app and I was looking for early adopters. At 50% off the annual fee ($150, instead of $295) these early adopters would get early access to the app, their feedback and suggestions would shape the future of Studio Ninja and they would get half price for life.
The MVP was ready, we were excited and couldn’t wait to share it with the world. We launched the product publicly and I expected thousands of photographers to sign up .... one photographer signed up. It was devastating.
It wasn’t easy, but somehow I managed to get 100 photographers to sign up and pay me. They filled out a contact form, I would call them, explain my vision and then ask them if they were in. If they said yes, I’d simply send them an invoice. The whole process was very manual, but I got it done.
Once I hit 100 photographers, I closed the campaign. Then it dawned on me, this is real, this is happening, OMG I’m starting a software company!
I found a developer on Upwork and we slowly started working together. I also pitched the idea to a good friend of mine who was an amazing UX designer. He came on board as the other co-founder and the rest is history!
Well, not quite. I’m not going to lie, the first 3 years were horrible. For example, we started building the product in August 2015 and launched it to our early adopters in November. The launch was a disaster, the app was full of bugs and problems and our users were devastated. I told them we needed more time. So we put our heads back down and continued working for another 3 months until February 2016.
The MVP was ready, we were excited and couldn’t wait to share it with the world. We launched the product publicly and I expected thousands of photographers to sign up.
One photographer signed up. It was devastating. But, we kept working, stayed in constant contact with our early adopters and this one new user and we were very transparent.
In April, the following month, 3 new photographers signed up. Then 8 in May. 14 in June. And slowly, slowly we grew.
Being bootstrapped, we were constantly running out of money, the software was constantly full of bugs and users were constantly complaining about lack of features. It was a VERY stressful time and I wasn’t getting any sleep.
It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done and I wanted to quit so many times. But we soldiered on. And thank goodness we did because at the 4-year mark we finally hit a tipping point, became profitable, started taking a wage and we could see the light at the end of the tunnel.
Today we have 13 full-time staff, 7000 customers across 72 countries, 5-star reviews everywhere, and a brand that is embraced worldwide by the photography community.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
I wish I could tell you that there was one thing that we did that skyrocketed our growth, but that’s simply not the case.
It is and was a combination of everything that we were doing that has given us slow, steady, consistent, boring growth!
The number one, most important thing we did from day one was focus on customer service. We would go above and beyond for every customer, every time. We would always be real with our customers and treat them more like friends. For example, we would NEVER say something like “sorry for the inconvenience”. We had a running joke internally, and anyone caught saying those words would instantly be fired!! If you accidentally spill your coffee on someone on a train, would you say “sorry for the inconvenience”!? No, of course, you wouldn’t!! You would say “OMG I’m really really sorry. Here let me help you clean it up. Is there anything I can do to make it better?”
This ‘be real’ approach saved us when we made mistakes or had major problems with our software. Instead of our users complaining or yelling at us when things went wrong, they would be understanding and give us words of encouragement. To be honest it was really amazing to experience.
It also made our users feel like they were part of something. They became our Ninjas and they loved being involved in the Studio Ninja story. We were building our tribe, one user at a time.
If I was to describe the 3 most impactful marketing channels they would be:
Our Refer-a-Friend Program
Because we had loyal customers that loved our product, we knew we needed to create a refer-a-friend program to help incentivize word of mouth. So we developed the feature that gave every single user a unique refer-a-friend code and any time they shared it with someone, they would both get 20% off their Studio Ninja subscription, for life! 15% of our total users have come to Studio Ninja through our refer-a-friend program.
Our Ambassador Program
Bringing on ambassadors/influencers/business coaches/educators has been our second largest avenue for growth. Ambassadors have massive reach and are looked up to in the community. When they share stories/videos/posts about Studio Ninja their audience trusts them and listens. Our ambassadors love using Studio Ninja and it is easy for them to talk about it which has resulted in about 10% of our users being referred to Studio Ninja because of our Ambassador Program
Just about everything
Now that I think about it, number #3 is actually a combination of everything else!
- Facebook and Google Ads
- Our Podcast, NinjaCast
- Running specials during big events like Black Friday, Christmas, World Photography Day, etc.
- Offering free 1-on-1 training
- Offering free data migration if you’re coming to us from a competitor
- Integrations with other industry partners or complementary businesses like Xero, Stripe, Google, etc.
- Sponsoring photography podcasts
- Exhibiting at trade shows
...And of course, continue to build a product that people want.
These days we have about 500 new users signing up for a free trial of Studio Ninja every month and we convert roughly 40% of them into paying subscribers.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Today things are looking good. Here are some basic company stats that I’m happy to share with you guys:
The team is broken down into 2 co-founders, 3 support staff offering 24-hour in-app chat support, 2 educators doing one-on-one and group training sessions for all trial users, 1 marketing person, 4 developers, 2 full-time testers, 1 business analyst, and 1 project manager.
- Revenue growth is 40% year on year
- Lifetime Value of a customer is $1,440
- Customer Acquisition Cost is $73
- Conversion Rate is 40%
- Churn is 1.8%
Our users rate us 4 or 5 stars on the Apple App Store, Google Play Store, Facebook, and Capterra.
Our user in-app chats are constantly reviewed for 4 or 5 stars.
Our plans for the future are simple, continue to evolve our product and expand our markets. We will be investing energy into new growth channels like education, integrations, and content to help us reach new customers as well as develop our product to meet customer demands, and market and technological trends.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
To be completely honest, the whole experience of starting and building Studio Ninja has been a huge learning curve for me. Would I do anything differently if I was to start again today, probably not? The process we went through and the steps we took we’re spot on and next time I start a business I will do it the same way.
But what I have realized is that almost all the assumptions that I had were very wrong. When I started Studio Ninja I thought we’d build a product, do some SEO, get that infamous hockey stick growth curve, sell it to millions of people and then go sit on a beach and chill. Gosh was I wrong?
Probably the biggest takeaway is about money. Building a SaaS product costs a lot of money, a lot of time, and takes a lot of effort. Before we became profitable we ran out of money three times, and because of this reason and this reason alone, Studio Ninja could have failed. And thinking about it now, that would have been such a shame because today thousands of photographers rely on Studio Ninja to run their business and they tell us that they literally couldn’t live without it. But it could have been all over on those three occasions if we hadn’t found solutions. All we needed was just a little more runway to get through those tough times.
I guess my point is, you might have the next Dropbox or Stripe or whatever idea, but if you don’t have enough money to see it through, it all might come crumbling down before it becomes something that could have changed the world, so be prepared.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
We use a lot of products and platforms to run Studio Ninja! Let me see if I can list them below:
- Google cloud for hosting Studio Ninja
- Intercom for our customer communication, in-app chat, and Ninja Academy help library
- Zoom for training calls
- Stripe for taking payments
- Jira for managing our dev team, features, and bugs
- Browserstack for testing our product
- Bitbucket for code management
- Xero for accounting
- Postmark for email delivery
- Calendly for scheduling
- Canva for social media design
- Planoly for planning our social media
- Figma for product design
- Invision for design user testing
- SurveyMonkey for customer feedback
- Buzzsprout for our podcast
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
I was constantly listening to audiobooks and podcasts every day. I found them massively educational, fascinating, and inspirational. I could honestly say that I wouldn’t be where I am today without them. I mean I wouldn’t have even started Studio Ninja if it wasn’t for that one podcast episode that I mentioned earlier. They are a wealth of knowledge at your fingertips!
Favorite podcasts when I was starting up:
- The Smart Passive Income podcast - Pat Flynn
- Starting From Nothing podcast - Dane Maxwell
- The SaaS podcast - Omar Khan
- Online Marketing Made Easy - Amy Portfield
- Marketing School - Neil Patel
- Entrepreneurs on Fire - John Lee Dumas
Favorite Books when I was starting up:
- Growth Hacker Marketing - Ryan Holiday
- Delivering Happiness - Tony Hsieh
- The Lean Startup - Eric Ries
- Zero to One - Peter Thiel
- Be Obsessed or Be Average - Grant Cardone
- From Good to Great - Jim Collins
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting?
I guess this isn’t so much advice, but more of a reflection. Running my own business has been one of the most rewarding life experiences I could have ever imagined. Sure it has come with its challenges but it has also come with its extraordinary rewards. Because of Studio Ninja, I have traveled the world and been to places I never thought I would go, I’ve met amazing talented people that I never thought I would meet and I’ve been given opportunities that I never thought I would have.
This product has not only positively impacted my life, but the lives of thousands of photographers around the world. We receive video testimonials of users saying things like “I couldn’t run my business without Studio Ninja”, “Studio Ninja has given me more time to spend with my kids”, “Studio Ninja has saved my marriage”. I am so grateful that we
Starting, running, and growing this business has been a life-changing experience in so many ways. All the hard knocks that didn’t kill us literally made us stronger. I’ve learned an enormous amount about business and myself and I wouldn’t change anything.
If you are reading this, then you are one of the very small minorities of people in this world who are going to build a product that is going to make a difference. It’s not going to be easy, but if you have the determination then my friend are in for the best ride of your life and I’m excited for you!
Where can we go to learn more?
I hope you enjoyed reading my story and how Studio Ninja has come to life. To learn more about Studio Ninja please go to our website.
If you’d like to reach out to me, feel free to email me at [email protected] or you can DM me on Instagram @chris_garbacz.
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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