One of the keys to building a small business is about word of mouth.
Life will only change when you become more committed to your dreams than you are to your comfort zone. – Billy Cox
Free publicity and word of mouth is probably the best and cheapest form of advertising. Learn to use it to your advantage. – Richard Branson
When you realize you need a change, relocating to Ethiopia might not be your first choice, but it sure turned out to be mine. I’ve always loved traveling and adventure, but I never guessed I would wind up spending four years in an incredibly beautiful developing country in the middle of Africa. It was there that I discovered my deep love for photography. The culture is so different from the Western culture in which I grew up, and everything I saw was photo-worthy: the colorful, traditional clothes, the people so warm and beautiful, the expansive countryside so vastly undeveloped, the capital city with its extreme juxtaposition of hotels and mansions next to shanty towns and mud shacks, the extraordinary rock-hewn churches, the eyes of the innocent street kids, the sadness in the hearts of the homeless… everything was just begging to be photographed.
Prior to my adventure in Ethiopia
Prior to my adventure in Ethiopia, I spent 22 years in corporate America. I decided to go to Ethiopia because I felt so stuck in my life. I needed a change. I just knew there was something more I was supposed to do. A month volunteering in an orphanage in Addis Ababa led to the most extraordinary four years working with hundreds of children in Ethiopia. And that eventually led to the single-parent adoption of my amazing son. Upon my return, facing culture shock and with my son in tow, my priorities changed again. I did not want to invest my time and energy in the corporate world. I needed something more rewarding; something that would give me the flexibility to spend quality time with my son.
My passion for photography
It took me a few years to figure out that photography could be my outlet to recreating myself. I always knew I was a people person, but I had no idea which service-oriented business was right for me. I tried my hand at various jobs (substitute teaching, assisting a senior citizen, teaching technology to seniors at an assisted-living facility). Somehow, amidst the stress of single parenting and daily life, I had forgotten about my passion for photography. But I dug deep and remembered that I had loved taking pictures in Ethiopia. So, I got up the courage to try my hand at photography.
Since I had been a “point and shoot” photographer my whole life, I was starting from scratch. I knew absolutely nothing about the ins and outs of photography. Silly me, I had never ventured off the automatic button on the camera. But it was time to give it a try. I found work with a per diem portrait photography studio willing to train me on the job, so I learned the basics and soaked in everything I could.
Relocating to a different state
Relocating to a different state precipitated my next step. I had no choice but to venture out on my own. Small businesses don’t take off in a minute, and it takes courage to go out and do something you’ve never done before. I started with photo sessions of girlfriends and showed the images to a photographer friend for constructive criticism. The critique was great! I was told that I had an eye for photography. He explained that the technical end of photography is a learned skill but having an eye for photography can’t be taught. I was later introduced to a wonderful mentor who took me under his wing. (Everyone should have a mentor when they just start out, someone who is truly willing to teach and invest their time in you. I’ve found it indispensable.)
The Covid shutdown
Interestingly, my break came when the world shut down for Covid. I needed a creative outlet during lockdown, and I wanted to lighten the spirit of the small town in which I live. It occurred to me, during this rare, unprecedented time, that families were together again for an extended period. Children were home, including those who had been away at college. It was the perfect time to gather for family group shots, and the perfect excuse for everyone to get a little dressed up!
I posted on social media that I would drive around town to photograph families. I explained that I would stay at a very safe distance, use a zoom lens, and wear a mask, of course! I told everyone to do their own thing. Be creative! Have fun! Do something different! Be weird! Be funky! Dress up! Wear your pajamas! Just be yourselves – and I’d take a few quick photos from a distance. I did it for free because… well… that just felt right. My only request was that they donate whatever they felt appropriate to a cause. I soon became known as the local drive-by social distance photographer. Soon after, a real estate agent got in touch with me. She wanted to offer my socially distant photography services to her clients to fundraise for a non-profit organization. Word got around within a 30-mile radius, and I wound up doing what has now become known as “porch photography.”
The trick was to keep going, start making some much-needed money, and build my business. Those few months of being out there and doing something for the community turned out to be the greatest free publicity I could have ever had. People remembered my photographs and called for other jobs. Families for whom I did a little drive-by shoot have now become my clients. One neighbor tells another, who tells another, who tells another.
The take-away, from someone who “re-started” from scratch is do for others, and it will come back to you tenfold. Word of mouth is absolutely immeasurable. Who knew that a small gesture during tough times would be the catalyst to grow my little photography business.