We all make mistakes. Some are bigger than others. I have nobody else to fault but myself for the wild ride I’ve endured! All I can do is take what I’ve learned from those experiences and apply it moving forward.
I have always been an entrepreneur all my life, ever since I was young. I was always selling something. As a little boy I had my own “lemonade stand”. Instead of lemonade, I sold Soda, Candy, Chips, and Hot Dogs to my neighbors, the landscaping crews, or anyone else who turned in our neighborhood after seeing my sign at the end of the street that I put out everyday.
During the summer I would work everyday from early morning to until after everyone came home from work in the evening. Why? That’s a good question, I was 9 years old so what could I possibly need money for? I just liked being independent. I liked going to the local candy store and being able to buy anything I wanted without my parents telling me no we aren’t spending money on that. I liked working. I liked figuring out how to create marketing pieces, and of course, I liked making money!
I outgrew Dan’s Soda Shop when I was forced to begin travelling with my family for my brothers baseball tournaments. These were every weekend. I would be stuck at these sports complexes all day, for the entire weekend. Naturally, my mind searched for a way I could make this profitable for myself. This was also around the time that the “Internet” was coming of age. (Late 90’s / Early 2000s) There were no iPhones, no affordable digital cameras, none of that existed.
I got cut from the 7th grade baseball team by Mr. Reed because I was “too small”. I remember during my tryouts the team was so sloppy that I bunted and ended up making it all the way to home base. Hey, gotta give me points for being creative and standing out!
So, freshly cut from the baseball team, I turned my attention to my 7th grade technology class. I learned Macromedia Dreamweaver and Flash. I also got heavily involved with the school yearbook, taking photos and learning to put the book together. We used a Sony Mavica and a Olympus C-2040 with an 8mb Card. I was VERY LUCKY if I ended up getting to use the 16mb card. And no, that’s not a typo. Those are MB not GB!
I made our local little leagues very first website they ever had. I was recognized on opening day, and the local paper did a story on me. Instantly, I had my first client. I did a website for a company that did artificial turf installations, and they paid me $100.
One of my dad’s co-workers ended up having some camera equipment that he wanted to get rid of. It was an old Canon 10D digital camera. I bought it, and a set of old studio lights with a power pack that must have weighed 50 pounds.
I used my new camera to photograph action shots of the baseball teams at the weekly tournaments I was stuck at. I would take hundreds of photos, and I made flyers to hand out directing the parents to go online and view the photos I had taken. They would then make an order, print it out, and mail me a check. Yes, there was no “online ordering” at this point.
I did this for a while, and ended up talking with a tournament director who agreed to let me have a booth at the entrance. I would use the booth to sell the photos I had taken. I would photograph the teams on Saturday, bring them to Walgreen’s to print the best photos that night, and come back with the actual prints the next day to sell them. It was awesome! I no longer had to wait for people to go online and send me a check. I could get paid instantly, and the product was already fulfilled. If parents wanted to see more photos, or order larger sizes, they could go online and do that. I eventually added frames, and other photo gifts I could buy from the local Michael’s and mark up to make even more profit.
I learned how to best categorize all the photos so it was easy for everyone to find, as some weekends there could be as many as 100 games. I also learned how to properly expose images so I didn’t have to edit them. I learned the best places to stand, and how to get great shots that would sell of every player.
I ended up purchasing a Sigma 50-500 and a monopod, but I really wanted a Canon 70-200 2.8, I just couldn’t afford it. After a year or so, I was proficient at photographing pretty much every sport.
I continued my little weekend business into the first few years of high school. I was enrolled in graphic design classes, and I was part of the yearbook club. I was already a natural at taking the types of photos that needed to go into the yearbook, so it just seemed like a natural progression to join the club.
I expanded my knowledge by taking some video editing classes, and soon the football coach wanted me to film the “game review” tapes from atop the press box. I learned how to film the way he wanted them filmed, I would edit them after the game, and then drop them at his door early the next morning so they could review the tapes first thing on Saturday’s.
It was fun to get into the games free, and to basically get press access. I loved being on the field sitting next to the local newspaper photographers and learned a lot from them. Some of them were the nicest guys. Others were snobby and never wanted to talk to me.
My Friday night “date night” with my High School girlfriend consisted of printing out orders from my bedroom “office computer”, sorting them on my bed, and then going to the post office to weigh and print postage for each one of them individually on the automated postage machine.
I would spend days after school visiting the various school sporting events and photographing them not only for the yearbook, but for my website at the time as well. I would hand out flyers to all the parents to go online and look at the action photos of their kids, to make their purchase.
Some people were thrilled that I was an entrepreneur, while others, including my high school principal at the time, did everything to derail my business, including trying to ban me from being on the field at our football games. My father and I had to fight for my “press” rights, and did so all the way to the school board. They eventually backed down, and made the principal write me a personal apology letter.
I made enough money to buy my dream car at 16, a Porsche. A year later, I found out that the trunk space was a little small for all my camera gear, and I was putting way too many miles on it, so I leased a brand new Nissan Altima. Now I could carry a lot more stuff, and still have fun on date nights and the weekends.
Things were going pretty well for me, and a huge opportunity had just presented itself when I was a Junior in High School. I had a client who wanted me, a photographer and a videographer to travel with them every weekend for 6 months. Each weekend would be a different city, and we would sell the photos and videos that we took to the parents.
I needed more equipment to do this, and my dad and I visited our local SCORE chapter. For those of you who don’t know, SCORE is a group of free mentors, typically older, retired business people who assist you with questions about business. It could be anything from how do I form an LLC, to where do I raise capital, questions about employees, or anything in between. I developed a relationship with a few mentors early on.
After fantasizing about all the cool stuff I needed to buy, I settled on 5 extremely powerful laptops, and 2 Canon XL2 Cameras for the video. I remember my father co-signing a $25,000 lease purchase from Dell Financial Services for 5 laptops, cases, and some other goodies. How in the world I convinced him to do that, I have no idea, but it gave me the tools to do this new project.
I ordered the rest of the camera equipment from B&H photo, along with two massive Pelican Cases to transport all this gear across the country every weekend.
I hired two of my high school friends to run the cameras, and I ran the computers to merge everything together and sold the photos and videos to the parents. Again, how we all convinced our parents to let us go out of town every weekend, I can’t recall.
Traveling out of state every weekend with no way to rent a car or check into a hotel was challenging. I was 17 at the time and had to rely on my client to get me checked in at the hotel, etc. This was before Uber! We would push these 100lb cases around that we would have to pay and arm and a leg for just to check under the plane. I was making enough money to be able to buy that 70-200 2/8 Canon L, it was sweet! I also bought some 50mm 1.4 lenses for the shoots we were doing because it was so dark on-stage. Days were long, stressful at times, but the entire experience was incredible.
After High School, which I scored a terrible 1020 on my SAT, I was lucky to get accepted into ASU. Of course, I didn’t want to live in a dorm, I needed a place of my own so I could run my business and go to school at the same time. I received a one-time $1000 scholarship from the National Federation of Independent Business, but the rest of my school it was up to me to pay my way, and I didn’t take out any student loans to help either.
In 2006 I ended up buying my first house in Tempe, AZ. Probably the worst possible time to buy a house as it was the peak of the housing market with prices being just absolutely ridiculous. But what did I know? I was an 18 year old kid who thought he knew everything.
I went to school the first year, and it all was pretty normal. I was doing my sports photography on the weekends, and making a few thousand dollars on the weekends that I worked, which for a college kid was just awesome money, but I grew anxious because I could only be in so many places at one time. Games only happened pretty much on Saturday’s. And I wanted more.
I still planned on going to school, but I needed an office close to campus so I could work before and after my classes. I also was paying a fortune in actual photo prints, because at this time I was printing so much that I couldn’t print them at home and I didn’t have a real photo printer like Walgreens and Costco had. I was subbing them out to a company in California who would print them and send the prints back to me via snail mail.
I was still visiting with a few of my favorite mentors, Dick and Maryanne. They helped guide and shape the early stages of my business.
I called up a leasing company and we found a 700sqft office close to campus that I decided to call home. I had great cash flows and stellar credit for an 18 year old, so I had no problem getting a lease. But I was still nervous. I even picked up an account to do the Nutcracker photos at the local ballet theatre during the holidays, which was typically a slow time.
I also needed to hire someone to help me. I ended up finding someone from Michigan who was willing to move to Arizona, to work for me full time, for $10 an hour. It was nuts. I had never met this person face to face, but I felt comfortable enough for her to agree to make the move.
I also was ready to make my first equipment purchase, a real photo printing machine. Cost: $30,000
The vendor found me a leasing company, and owner of the company flew out to install it in my building.
This was an exciting time, but also a time that made me nervous because my bills had more than tripled. I had a mortgage, rent, a salary, two power bills, and a lease payment. All of this on top of going to school full time.
One of my dance studio clients in Tucson is where I met my wife, Allison. Now, dating your clients is probably not the best idea, but hey, it worked out for me. Plus, I knew I would never lose that account! Haha.
The morning of a big video shoot I got a panicked phone call from one of my employees that all our video gear was gone. Over $20,000 in equipment. The staff member who was doing the shoot decided to pick up the equipment the night before, and for whatever reason, left it in his open-bed truck at his apartment complex overnight. When he awoke the next morning, everything was gone out of his truck. They stole everything. To this day I still don’t understand why he picked up the equipment early, he could have just picked it up on his way to the event the next day. This was pretty much the end of our video business. The police ended up recovering one camera about a year or so later, but it was in pieces and by then we had moved on.
I had met a few buddies in college that were business minded, but me and another guy clicked after we were both “kicked out” of a business social fraternity. Apparently we didn’t “fit in” with them. I still remember the day they took us outside and de-pinned us. It was exceptionally humiliating.
We came up with some crazy ideas, one of them being “Let’s buy a 40ft bus” and turn it into a mobile photo studio. We had plans to wrap it, but after we gutted it, it wouldn’t start. That was $10k down the drain.
It quickly became apparent that I needed to take advantage of the fact that Monday thru Friday we’re dead days filled with no revenue generating opportunities. What would that be? School Photography.
So my friend and I got out the phone book, sat down at my kitchen table, and began dialing schools. We called more than a 400 schools, and ended up making about 25 “appointments”.
These appointments were all about learning for us. We would go and just ask a million questions. What is your current vendor doing? How are they doing it? Oh you have a sample, awesome, can we have this? I mean it was comical. We had no idea what we were doing. How we managed to convince 3 highly educated administrators to actually let our company do their school photos was just beyond me. But it was on! We had 3 schools our first year, and we better not mess it up.
I remember that we had ZERO samples. So we walked over to the convenience store next to our office, set up our background and literally asked every single person walking in and out of the store if they could do us a favor—stand in front of this background and take a photo. We did what we had to do to make our very first initial marketing pieces.
I bought some old masters painted backgrounds and figured out what to set the cameras and light settings at. For keeping track of the students we would photograph their card before they took their photo so we could keep track of who was who. We hired a few of our fun girl-friends for like $50 to come and actually photograph. We had 2 or 3 cameras at a the time and a whole slew of other people helping pose, get classes, or just standing there for whatever. We were so over staffed.
Two of the three schools were a bust. But the third we made $16,000. I was absolutely shocked. I thought to myself, if I could do just a few of these schools a week, I would be rich!
I quit school shortly thereafter. In accounting 201, actually. Perhaps I should have stayed!
My buddy kept enrolled in school so I spent all of my time focused on getting new accounts. I would spend all day calling, visiting, or prospecting.
Things grew from there and I was hiring people like crazy to just fix problems. We need one person for this, one person for that, another for this and so on. I quickly learned that people are expensive, and there had to be a better way. I moved us across one suite to gain a few extra hundred square feet of working space.
I had found some software that helped keep everything organized, but the software was terrible. It was slow, and any time I needed something changed they would always reply with “We’ll think about it” and then never did anything with my feedback.
Our office got so full that you literally could not walk down the hallway, there were boxes and product everywhere. I had people calling to make me appointments but literally didn’t have a place for them to sit.
When I needed people for events, I turned to my buddy to find them. He knew everyone.
Growth from 3 to 15 schools is very different than growth of 15 to over 50 schools. Each stage of growth came with its own unique challenges. I had clients all over Arizona, and even in California.
After a short while, I had single handedly convinced about 50 schools or sports organizations to use our services over the next several years.
I acquired some additional equipment so that I could do more printing, products, and other things that our clients were beginning to ask for. One piece of equipment was so big, that it wouldn’t fit in the door, or through the hallway. Poor planning on my part, we literally had to take out the entire window to get it into my office. It weighed over 1000 lbs and we had a whole crew of college kids help us slide it through the window.
My company was doing really well. We were growing like crazy and I had just found us a 10,000 sqft production facility that would allow us plenty of space to grow. I got a screaming deal on the place, and the landlords were just absolutely awesome. I loved this building. It was an awesome time in my life. I had it all. The toys, the money, freedom, and a thriving business.
I learned a lot. I tried every possible way to enhance our company and make it easier. This meant buying vans for people to transport equipment back and forth so that I wasn’t giving it to them to keep overnight. I couldn’t afford to have another “mishap” with stolen equipment.
But that came with complications as well. Turns out employees don’t treat company equipment very carefully, and they were always breaking something.
Sales & Growth
So how in the world did a college dropout KID convince highly educated administrators to give him a chance? Persistence.
I have knocked on so many doors that I feel like I’ve seen it all. I’ve been lied to, kicked out, and told no so many times that it would make any seasoned salesman cringe.
I was visiting almost 20 schools a day. My routes were so intense that I put an ad on Craigslist for someone to drive me around all day so I could focus on prospecting. I had to take notes, drive to the next appointment, make reminder calls, give direction to production, and about 10 other things. It was dangerous trying to do everything at once. The guy I met on craigslist still works for me today. He’s an awesome guy, we spent A LOT of time together, I’m very lucky to have met him.
I bought a full size SUV, and turned the middle row into a full desktop workstation with two monitors. I could work in-between my appointments, as if I was sitting at my desk at the office. It was awesome.
Each day was different. Some days were so bad you just had to call it a day and have a drink. Others were a sales high like none other.
It worked. I had several hundred accounts now using our services. The problem was, I couldn’t give each of them the time they needed, and I was starting to have attrition. I would lose 25 clients, and then gain 40. I didn’t like losing clients.
We had a new wide format printer, and thought about getting into wraps, etc. The printer was over $20k, and we weren’t using it all day, in fact, we were barely using it. It was on a lease, and I needed to pay that lease payment. So we figured that our new bucket truck would be the right fit. We started getting into other things, like skybucket photos. I remember buying this truck on my American Express card at the dealer. Crazy.
I was using this service to get our foot in the door with new schools. The skybucket photos were awesome, but they required a lot of work, and didn’t always sell well. Plus, they were a huge liability and required someone who knew exactly what they were doing in the bucket.
I remember one day when we were running a little behind, and stuff like this would happen because people weren’t paying attention. One of my photographers went to grab the camera bag, which another person had not zippered shut.
Then one day the actual hydraulics on the truck stopped working, basically rendering the lift useless. I can’t remember the quote that I received to fix it, but, I remember it wasn’t cheap.
I was getting too busy to be at every single skybucket photo, and that time crunch compounded with the truck problems–I thought it was just easier to sell the truck and move onto something else.
I spent a lot of time in production. I learned a lot during this time. I learned how to maintain machinery, I made tutorial videos, I documented everything. One day I almost lost my finger in a UV Coater we had.
I learned how to pay an arm and a leg in employees. We had too many people. I used to joke with Allison that I paid enough in salaries this week to buy a used car. Friday was the best day of the week for everyone in the office except the guy writing the checks!
I learned how people would cheat the system in any way they possibly could. Consistency was becoming an issue. I started thinking about a better way to do things.
We had to find new ways to keep track of everything. We developed this system where we would write all the work we had on a board, and then update the boards. Then we spent all day updating the boards and not doing the actual work. People would forget to update the boards, making other people confused.
In the field, photographers would not put stuff back where it was supposed to go, so we would have to come up with lists and visuals. These are the items that go in THIS bag, and nothing else, but still it was hard to enforce. Equipment would get lost or broken, often.
Over the years I probably have personally hired over 500 people including part time and seasonal photographers. Some people I miss, some people I couldn’t get rid of quick enough, and some people even tried holding the company hostage…
I finally had a great team, the comraderie was there. It had taken me years to weed out all the bad staff, and keep the good ones.
We were pushing out a ton of work, every day. We had a nice building, with plenty of space.
It was also about this time that the market began to change. Consumer cameras became more and more prevalent and people just weren’t buying as much as they were in the past. So I had pretty much abandoned the action photo market to focus on the school market.
THE START OF PROBLEMS
I grew up doing things by handshake. The old fashioned way. I was raised to do what I said, as my word was my bond. I was probably a bit naive but I had very rarely been burned in the past, so why would I have any reason to think differently now? This was probably my biggest mistake ever.
I hired someone I had met to be another sales person / account manager. Things were going great and we continued to get accounts, including major contracts via RFP and more complicated methods. This lasted for about a year or two.
We wanted to enter new verticals that complimented the current photography business we were in (such as Yearbooks). To do that we needed machinery and capital. I had an employee who had seen the growth and wanted part of this new business. We also had a vendor that approached us about having a great used printer that they could sell us and they had already found us the financing for it.
Shortly thereafter all the problems started. The employee who had invested suddenly was having problems at home and was getting a divorce. He wanted his money back and wanted out of the business. The problem was, we already spent the money to obtain the equipment. On top of that the $200,000 printer that we bought became inoperable. We would see the technician daily, and they never could fix it. The copier company refused to hold their end of our service agreement by keeping the machine in working order.
The building owner wanted to sell the building, and offered to sell it to me for $2 Million dollars. I didn’t have the money, so they found another buyer who hired a property manager that made my life miserable. Constant random inspections, things we needed to fix, and all of a sudden we were suspiciously under investigation by the state water department, too.
As a small company, these problems compounded daily and things quickly got out of hand.
Through all of this I found it imperative to make sure that our clients knew nothing about the internal problems plaguing the company. It was very very important that everyone get their product, and to make sure the clients had everything they needed, on time.
The new owner of the building ended up buying me out of my lease, so I had to find another home for my company. I found a place closer to home, but it just wasn’t the same. It was much smaller–about quarter the size, needed a lot of work, and I frankly didn’t have the money and didn’t see us there long-term.
After the move, we had office politics that plagued us. In the old building everyone had their own office, their own space, and now people were sharing work spaces. Two department heads hated each other.
I tried to resolve the problems with our main copier vendor, but they ended up telling me to kick rocks. The employee relationship who invested turned ugly in a matter of weeks. One day he showed up with a U-Haul Truck to take some of the machinery to attempt to sell it and get his money back. This was equipment we used every day. I fired him that day. I needed to protect our clients from him and the damage he could cause with the reckless activity.
Payroll was ALWAYS on time, no matter what it took. I was broke, but nobody knew.
Without working machinery I wasn’t able to push out product, and this drained our bank accounts outsourcing to other vendors to complete jobs.
I would get into an pretty bad car accident on the day I was turning my keys in for the old building. It was a pretty nasty wreck. I’m extremely lucky that I wasn’t hurt more. I wasn’t paying attention, and bam!
My problems quickly turned from financial to legal.
The legal system is expensive. Six figures expensive, for each case. In fact, in several of the lawsuits I was served with, I probably had a fair chance of actually winning. The problem is having the cash to get to trial. The legal fees alone would cost hundreds of thousands.
I was faced with a decision: Attempt to fight several cases that were extremely emotionally motivated (some with free attorneys), or file for bankruptcy and start over. I chose the latter because it was cleaner.
It sucks having all your equipment repo’ed. One day you’re super excited to have it delivered, it’s all crated up nicely on the truck. And then the next day, they just come and get it, except this time, they’re not so nice about arranging the transportation of it.
I literally sold everything I had, for whatever I could get for it. Craigslist, garage sale, eBay, you name it, I sold everything.
One of the saddest days of my life was the day I had to tell all my staff the company was closing. I remember it vividly. Most of them had no idea what kind of trouble we were in. I felt like I had let them down. I did let them down. I hated that feeling, and still, to this day, I think about it.
I had never known depression until this point. I had never felt so alone, lost, and emotionally drained. I was in limbo waiting on the court.
When you have no money, it consumes you. It was at this point I realized how difficult it must be for others in the same position. You are constantly searching for a way to just pay the bills. There is absolutely no comfort. You are behind on everything. People are calling you constantly asking where their money is, and you literally can’t keep up. It’s insanely difficult to live paycheck to paycheck.
I was always able to have everything I ever wanted. I had perfect credit, an excellent payment history, etc. If I didn’t have the money for it, I was always able to get that loan, open that credit account, or utilize the “no payments, no interest”.
Nothing puts a pit in your stomach like watching your FICO score drop like a rock. From 790 to 590 overnight, and then it just keeps falling. It was such an awesome way to end the school year.
I had used up every dollar I had to my name. Even my “spare change” in my car was gone. I figured out how to skip meals by drinking a 44oz 79 cent fountain drink and a donut in the morning, I could skip lunch, and then eat dinner. I was literally paying in pennies. I felt like a bum.
I felt like a failure.
In fact, I had failed. I remember the day the power was cut at the house where Allison and I were living. And I remember when they cut the gas. I actually think I remember that more. We had no hot water. How it could be 115 degrees outside, and the water when you take a shower is 40 degrees, I’ll never know.
There’s nothing like an ice cold shower in the morning to remind you that you’re broke.
I’m surprised Allison didn’t leave me.
I was 26.
This was the low point in my life.
AFTER THE BANKRUPTCY
I was discharged the day before my wedding. I guess that’s God’s way of granting me a true fresh start.
Until now, I’ve kept the fact that I filed for bankruptcy very private. Very few people actually know, and even fewer know the real details. I decided to write about it because it’s something that’s happened in my life, and something that I needed to address for those of you with questions about it. If you choose not to work with me because of it, then so be it. I’m sure you have skeletons in your closet somewhere that you might be ashamed or embarrassed about, and that’s normal. Nobody’s perfect. But people change and the smart ones don’t make the same mistakes twice! I surely won’t.
To this day, the relationships that I had built over the years don’t know what happened, or why it happened. But none of that matters. I was able to salvage almost all of them because they TRUSTED me. I had never let THEM down. They knew me for a man of my word. If I told them they would get a product, they got it. If I said I would call them back at 11am, I’d call at 11am. You’re probably sitting here reading this thinking, this is nothing special. These are basic business and life qualities. You’re right. The problem is, apparently many people don’t have them!
I started over with no assets, but I did have relationships. And that’s what I love about this business. No matter what is happening in your life, you can still prosper year after year based on the relationships you’ve built over time. Not all of them stayed, but the majority did.
I was so thankful for all my clients who continued to support me. I had to do something to give back. I wasn’t in a position to write fat checks, so I came up with an idea to donate bikes. The schools would give them away, raffle them off, they always found them a good home. The excitement on the kids faces when I delivered them was just incredible. If you’re 5 or 6 years old, what do you really want? Your first bike!
It’s Not Just Me & Her Anymore
A few months after I married, we were expecting. It was quick, but also a good wake up call to stay focused and make sure that everything was in order.
First Years at United Portraits
I knew I needed less people, more automation, the ability to be flexible, and the best margins possible. I immediately began investing every extra dollar we had into technology. Those dollars I invested, continue to payoff tenfold. I look at where competitors are when it comes to technology, and they are years behind. I have learned insurmountable bits of data about everything. For example, take trailers. Day 2 of my brand new trailer from a dealer results in the axle and the wheel separating. Unheard of.
After I learned everything good and bad about trailer 1, I bought trailer 2, and outfitted it with the changes we needed.
Turns out, there was still more to learn!
By already making most of the mistakes, I will save you time and headache because we won’t make these mistakes again.
I had decided to try a less cash intensive production model. I would outsource the printing, production, everything. There’s lots of photo labs out there that want your business. So I visited 4 or 5 of what I thought were the best ones. I was curious who had the capacity to produce my products, and who would be the best relationship for United Portraits.
Each one had pros and cons, and none of them were as automated as I wanted. But I didn’t have a choice, I didn’t have the hundreds of thousands of dollars for equipment to print this stuff myself.
Things didn’t go well. This business is SO complicated that if you don’t keep track of everything, it becomes a nightmare. The lab I chose to work with had some of the nicest people, but the relationship just didn’t work out.
I was on my honeymoon spending more time on the phone with the lab, than I was with my wife. It was at this point where we decided that we had to control production.
When I returned from my honeymoon I began saving as much as I could to buy the equipment we needed. I wanted to do everything in house. EVERYTHING.
Now, I had my fair share of problems. We had a production nightmare the year we used a lab. We lost a few clients because our technology didn’t catch everything. But, every single time that happened, we immediately implemented a change to resolve the root cause. And I had the ability to do that, because I controlled the technology. I controlled the technology and the software to fix the problems. In the past, I was using someone else’s system. This time I had my own.
United Portraits Adds Production In-House
So the decision was made. We do it all. We just needed a place to call home. Returning home from a recent SCORE meeting where my mentor talked about how owning his building was one of the smartest things he did in his 80 years. We did the same and built ours. The trenching began! I’m extremely grateful that my dad pretty much managed the entire project.
ALL the machinery we’ve purchased through the years is owned outright. We don’t owe anyone a dime. That’s important for a few reasons:
1. There’s no pressure to use it all the time because a lease payment has to be made.
2. You feel writing the check more when it’s actually your money.
3. Nobody can ever repossess it.
4. You get to know it really well.
5. You’re more selective.
6. You can buy bargains when other people are in trouble with THEIR payments.
Technology & Why It’s Important
We spend a very large percentage of our budget on technology and innovation. Everything we do is 100% proprietary. We don’t rely on anyone else’s software to run our business. We can change direction instantly if we see a need due to the market changing.
Our systems will never be finished, they’re not perfect. There’s always a way to make them better and more efficient, less error prone or easier to use. But our systems are solid. I use them everyday.
How is everyone else doing it?
I’ve never really had a “real job”. I’ve never been to an interview. I’ve never gone through training. I’ve never seen how someone else did it. How can I possibly build processes and procedures if I don’t know how things really work in the real-world? I looked at what kinds of employers might have the same problems as we had. Part-time, gig-economy workers. So I decided to sign up for one or two or three. I drove for Uber, DoorDash, Postmates, and I got a pizza delivery job at Papa Johns. What did I learn? A WHOLE LOT. Oh, and that real jobs SUCK. I learned how we should be treating our staff, what’s acceptable, and what’s not acceptable. I learned that our jobs are a CAKEWALK. I’ve never worked so hard in my life for $50 (delivering pizzas). I also learned that I’m extremely fortunate.
Solid Processes & Uniformity for Scalability
Taking some of my new found knowledge from my “jobs”, I realized a few things. Everything had to be the same, because when it was time to ramp up, we needed to be able to process everything quickly, efficiently, and it needed to be the same. Organizing was key.
Travel & Cost Control
Vehicles are expensive. I really wanted a nice, tall van, with everything in one place, but at $50k for just the van, that was out of the question. I experimented with many different models over the years.
– photographers being issued equipment
I realized that there are several options that work well, but it depends on your circumstances. So, we created several equipment package options.
Today, we have a blend of them. But the most important thing is, that all the cars, trucks, trailers, and equipment we own, we own them outright. No car payments, no leases, none of that nonsense. I was methodical and careful in buying great used cars with very low mileage, and kept them properly maintained. This has served me very well over the past few years.
Sales. Sales. Sales.
Getting accounts is easy. Keeping them is tougher. I’ve learned that there’s a finite amount of clients that someone can handle and still provide the top notch service that’s need to keep the relationship strong.
The $250k Oops
Salespeople. Avoid them like the plague. Two of them lost me $250k worth of business in a single year. Nobody will treat your clients the way you will. This business was meant to be personal. The industry is meant to be personal. While it may work for some other people, a solid relationship can save almost any account. I know it’s saved my butt several times. People do business with whom they like and trust.
The Yearbook Debacle & The Birth of Yearbook Master
What a total cluster. Further solidifying the fact that we MUST control everything from end to end were the yearbook vendors. I didn’t have my own software, so we used third party software.
They had major technology problems just about the time everyone’s book was due. April. Nobody could save, files were missing, it was a total disaster. The company was nowhere to be seen, no help, and no resolution to the problems. In this business, if you jack up one of the revenue streams, you’re at risk to lose the others. We lost several clients. I was livid.
We built our own yearbook software (Yearbook Master) within months. It was that important.
The Yearbook Debacle AGAIN
For many years we had used an outside company to actually bind the books. For hard covers we used a different company than we did for soft covers. I had to use a third company to laminate or do the actual UV coating. It was a coordination nightmare. But this bookbinding equipment is not cheap, so I had no choice.
I had a great track record of getting a good quality product out on time and never late. But my vendors always made me nervous, they would call me last minute and say “I don’t think we are gonna be able to get this done, we don’t work weekends, our machine is down, or we’re really busy right now”. I felt like saying, well no sh*t we all are “really busy right now”, but that doesn’t matter to my clients. I knew the vendors held all the cards, so I had to keep my mouth shut. But I hated not being in control.
Then one year, the same company we used for many years totally dropped the ball. I don’t know if they had machine problems, or an incompetent operator. All our books were falling apart and the schools were calling me everyday saying things like “I have 5 more bad books I need replaced”. The thing is, these kids would take the book, get them all signed, and then the book would fall apart. So the book they had all their friends sign was in pieces, so a new blank one was not the best solution. We lost more clients because of the binding.
Another year one vendor ran out of stock on a critical item. They straight up lied to me and said our stuff was on the way, when in fact they knew for many weeks they had no stock. I was furious.
All of these things are why we do things 100% in house today, and don’t rely on other vendors. They simply can’t be relied upon when you really need them. If we can’t produce a product in-house, we don’t offer it. It’s that simple. I worked extremely hard to GET my clients, and my VENDORS lost them for me. Unacceptable.
Now, we have complete control over the printing, binding, and delivery of our books.
It has been 12 years of this business, and I’m confident that I know it like the back of my hand. Even better, I’ve built a solid system to mange the day to day operations. It’s finally time to take the next step and share it with the world.
This business is my life, my livelihood, my lifestyle, and a damn good one at that. You can take my systems and change your life too.
Franchising is right for us because this industry is tough. You’re going to need help. There’s big national players and small local competition. There’s enough business for everyone. But why do you want to do extra work you shouldn’t have to? (selecting, editing, printing, customer service, etc.)
Our systems automate what can be automated, and we leave you with as much time as possible to do the most important thing: cultivate and maintain your client relationships.
I always liked the McDonald’s concept. The franchise concept. I’ve seen first hand how beneficial those personal relationships can be in our business. But you can’t have both great service and a solid bottom line doing it all yourself. You’ll peak at a certain amount of clients, and be stuck there.
There’s just something about being an owner that resonates with our clients. They feel like there is more accountability because they’re dealing with the owner. They’re more willing to give you a chance. They want to use local vendors. And the friends you’ll meet will become like family.
And that’s where we are today. The beginning of our franchise model. If you’re the right fit. I hope you’ll consider joining my family to change your life, like I did mine.
– Dan the Photo Man