Stride Stories: Making photography work
Erica is a professional photographer who found her independent life out of passion, but also out of necessity. Below is her story of grit paying off in a big way.
Stride: Erica, how did you get where you are today?
Erica: I started my career working at the Virginia Lottery call center which had a lot of down time. I would try to find something to do so I wasn’t bogged down with boredom. That became photography – at first I was just tweaking photos and learning about photography, but it bloomed into a career. A lot of friends started calling once they had seen some of my work, and then I started getting calls from people I didn't know. That was when I turned it into a business and started charging for my services. It’s been six years now, and I have grown tremendously in my art and my clientele.
Stride: How did you get your name out there?
Erica: At the time, Facebook was a fantastic platform to use because it wasn’t bogged down with advertisements. I could post a picture, and it would be seen by a very large number of people. Many people who followed my work on Facebook followed my journey becoming a photographer – a lot of my clients today are my first clients from the early days of Facebook!
Stride: What drew you to photography in the first place?
Erica: When I was young, I loved getting those disposable cameras and taking pictures. I would take pictures of trees and the randomness of life. I had a stepson that was five-years-old when I was getting into photography, and I upgraded my camera so I could document him playing football. These were the first pictures I began posting online, and that led me to where I am today!
Stride: How did you make the leap financially when you decided to give up your full-time job?
Erica: I really didn’t have the luxury of giving up my full-time job. I actually lost my job and had no other option. I made it work.
I was pregnant with my second son and starting to show. I told my employer, but it was frowned upon to take time off [for maternity leave]. I started getting reprimanded for unexpected things, and it was a really unpleasant environment, especially while I was growing a baby! I had to leave. I contemplated getting a new job, but I knew I’d have to leave immediately to have my baby. So I sat down and did a lot of planning to figure out what I needed to make my photography work. I had absolutely no other option but to make it work.
Stride: What were some of those steps you took to make it work?
Erica: I had figure out how to manage the money that was coming in. Working by myself from home, I was always working, always finding the next client, but I didn’t know how to bill my time. I’d never had business income that need to pay for both business and personal expenses. I found someone called a “studio trainer” online, and she educated me about setting up a studio and managing my time and money.
Stride: Do you have any big hurdles you jumped that you are particularly proud of?
Erica: In my first year of official business, I was named one of the best photographers in Hanover. I came in 2nd to an established photographer who had been in business for over 10 years! I was extremely proud of that moment. I had no idea the voting was going on or that people knew my name! I was so surprised.
Stride: What is a way that you’ve been able to set yourself apart from your competitors?
Erica: For a long time, I kept my photography to just families and small children. I found that a lot of photographers in my area didn’t want to deal with small children. So I really heavily marketed to moms with two-years-olds. It worked really well for me, and I was able to grow my business a lot in that year. I was able to market myself as family-focused – as soon as you hire me, you become part of my family.
Stride: How has running your own business affected your relationship with your kids?
Erica: I have a four-year-old and my stepson is 14. My photography really allowed me to be there for my youngest son as he was growing up. I got to make my schedule around his schedule. I did my hardcore marketing and outreach while he took naps, and then I got to plan my sessions around his time!
Stride: What is your favorite thing about being self-employed?
Erica: Definitely making my own schedule and my own rules. I don’t have a boss telling me to meet a quota… I set my own quota. I can determine if I want to shoot 20 weddings in year. If I need to take a weekend off because I want to attend a wedding rather than shoot a wedding, I can. If I want to take an entire month off in the dead of summer to spend time with my family, I can.
Stride: What are your current photography goals?
Erica: I’m planning to merge my business with a friend who has a business in Richmond. We are currently growing her name, and then in about a year (or two) we will merge our businesses and take over the whole Richmond and Charlottesville area as a local name. After that, I plan to become an established wedding photographer in my area; I’m now doing 20-30 weddings per year (up from maybe 6 or so in past years).
Stride: What do you like about shooting weddings?
Erica: The details. I absolutely love the details that these brides and grooms put into their wedding days. The rings, the jewelry, the suit, the tie, the gifts they give their friends, the colors they choose, the locations… it opens your eyes to see that not everything is what you are used to growing up with or living around. My neighbor might plan her wedding completely differently than mine and might have ideas I’d never dream of! Shooting weddings has really helped me grow culturally in the last six years.
Stride: What is your best business tip for other early stage independent workers?
Erica: Manage your time wisely. Just because you are working for yourself doesn’t mean that you have to work 24/7. Have a cutoff time, put it all away and spend time with your family or do something you enjoy. Don’t work constantly or else it’s going to burn you out and you’ll start hating what you do.
Stride: What’s your biggest health concern for America?
Erica: Obesity. It scares the hell out of me. Especially seeing a kid that’s 10-years-old weigh more than I do. They should weigh half of what I do! It really scares me.
Stride: What’s your favorite aspect about being a Stride Member?
Erica: It was the most simple thing I think I’ve ever done. I really hated the thought of getting health insurance for me and the boys – I was so freaked out by the healthcare.gov website and all that mess. With Stride, it was very easy. It said, “this is what’s happening, this is what you need to pick.” It didn’t give me tons of extra stuff, it said here is option A, B, C, if you don’t like those, here are more. Let’s keep it simple.