How I Built a Photography Brand from Scratch in College: 0 to $3,000 in Monthly Revenue

Role

  • Brand, Design, Development, Photography, Marketing

The Challenge

More Life Photography was a personal passion project of mine. One day it hit me that I could get paid to do what I love. Since 2011 I have been a street style, portrait, and fashion photographer. I ran a popular sneaker blog and used my photography skills to launch my own apparel company. But I never explored photography as a service. All of the work I did was either pro bono or for personal projects. I took pictures because I loved taking pictures.

9 years ago when I fell in love with photography, I couldn’t explain why, but something about capturing a moment captured me. As I learned more about myself and the art form, I found 3 key drivers.

I loved…

1) The creative process behind planning and executing a shoot: I loved finding the right location, styling my subjects, informing their poses, and making sure everything felt cohesive.

2) The power of photography to help people see themselves in their best light: I loved the joy people felt when they saw their pictures. They would look at themselves in pride and disbelief. It was a special flavor of confidence.

3) Photography as a medium for storytelling: I loved using pictures to tell a story about a moment in time.

But it took me a while to come to this realization. By the time I thought about starting a photography studio, I moved for college and it was a couple years since I actively published content anywhere.

Nobody knew me as a photographer. I had to restart from scratch, build a brand, and monetize it.

The Need

I devised a multi-phase plan to successfully launch my studio over 1 year:

  • Build a brand to gain awareness and credibility among my audience
  • Create a distinguished and seamless user experience to capture the most value possible
  • Launch a grassroots marketing campaign (aka i had no budget lol) to get people through the funnel

I’ll caveat everything sounds a lot more perfect than it was. Hindsight is 20/20. The real process was a just a series of hunches about how to get from A to B, that i was silly enough to act on. That’s an idea I really want to come through: launching your project is basically about following your hunches and validating them somehow. But like Lisa Nichols says, don’t wait for clarity to take action. Clarity will come from the action itself. That’s something that I felt throughout the process, from the idea to start this journey down to how I priced the services. So if you take anything from this, I hope it’s more action lol.

The Results

  • Converted 10% of leads, resulting in $3k monthly revenue
  • 100% customer satisfaction rating
  • 3x’d monthly sales in one quarter
  • #1 grossing studio on campus
  • 100,000+ views/engagement and 7,000+ followers generated across social media

The Solution

Build a brand to gain awareness and credibility

The first step was to build a brand from scratch. This was important because like Grant Cardone says, “if people don’t know you, they can’t flow you.” Building a brand is hard because it’s hard to get people’s attention in the beginning. So I asked myself how could I get people to reshare my content? The answer had nothing to do with me, and everything to do with the community I was a part of.

“If they don’t know you, they can’t flow you” — Grant Cardone

Epiphany 1:

Howard University is consistently ranked as one of the top 3 most fashionable schools in the country. Every day is a fashion show. The campus is overflowing with creativity and individuality.

Epiphany 2:

People are naturally self interested, so if I focus on doing something from them. I create reciprocity, a virtuous cycle, and as a result — virality.

So I created an Instagram page dedicated to featuring the best fashion on campus. This page quickly amassed a following and created buzz for two reasons:

  • People were getting free professional photos of their best outfits
  • People would tag, credit, and share my page when they posted

Every day I would walk around campus with my camera strapped across my body. In the beginning, my heart would pound wildly as I saw a potential subject approach. I would stumble over my words and nervously introduce myself. But I forced myself to keep going because I knew it could lead to something.

By the time I was a couple weeks in, I completely overcame my social anxiety and I was meeting new and interesting people left and right. I was intentionally doing things that didn’t scale and focusing on growth + value creation.

One of the things that I realized on this journey was the richness and vibrance of the Howard University community. I came into Howard with my own conceptions of what it meant to be black based on my own black experience. As I moved through campus, I found this to be so far from the truth. I realized that being black was not a monolith. The diversity within the black community came through in it’s style. People from LA had their own swag. New York has so many different subcultures. North Carolina style is loud and colorful. I could go on forever.

To drive home the point, here are some of the interesting folks (that come to mind, not exhaustive obvi) I met throughout the process:

  • A freshman who has been writing, directing, and starring in his own plays and short films since high school
  • A junior who I later found had a national best-selling skin-care line
  • P. Diddy’s niece. Yes. I know right.
  • A junior finance major who worked in investment banking but was known for throwing the livest parties on campus
  • A mechanical engineer from New York who was passionate aerospace but was also a streetwear designer
  • An allied health major who was passionate about the french language and his guitar

There were so many interesting fusions and crossovers everywhere. It’s like everyone on campus was defying every stereotype you could imagine.

I continued showing up every day, meeting and connecting with folks. Over the course of the year — with no funding at all — my photography had generated 50k+ views and engagement and an audience of 2k+.

As a result, I built credibility as a photographer on campus which I then used to expand my portfolio of work. This brand also created additional opportunities for me like gigs for Redbull and Yelp. I was featured in the Howard University newspaper and I was also an official photographer for one of the biggest HBCU homecomings in the country. But I didn’t just build a platform, I believe I accelerated my growth by also building my own personal brand in tandem.

Howard University is a petri dish of innovation. The social scene is a huge part of the experience so everybody has a brand. It’s sounds crazy, but that was a critical part of my college experience and I’m sure many HBCU students can relate.

Everyone had their “Howard Hustle” There were people who did makeup, people who ran food delivery services, people who would go buy food for you, people who would do your homework/assignments, people who sold clothes, people who did hair, people who sold hair, people who were models, people who were influencers, people who were photographers, people who were corporate rockstars, award winning musicians, youtubers with millions of followers, you name it.

So I decided to build my brand around growth and development. Everything I did fell into that bucket, even my photography. I would post pictures, but my goal was to pair each beautiful photo with a nugget of insight. This way you not only got value from the photo itself, but the message in it. The vision was to not put myself on a pedestal, but to share my lessons learned along my journey. This unique blend of good content also helped in establishing my brand. I went from getting 11 likes on a photo, to having 2,000+ likes and several pieces of viral content.

This idea of sharing lessons learned has always been at the core of my content strategy ever since 2011. It forces me to reflect honestly on where I am and articulate it. It also allows you build brand more effectively because you’re being honest and you’re reaching back to the people who are going through what you just went through. This is the power of micro-influencer brands. While blockbuster influencers may have expansive reach, micro-influencers have the benefit of really strong connections and relationships with their audience. So in some cases they may have a fraction of the audience but 10x the power.

Micro-influencers have the benefit of strong connections and relationships. They may have a fraction of the audience but 10x the power.

Creating a distinguished and seamless user experience

Now that I built a brand by focusing on adding value to a community. I had to figure a way to capture the value. The first step to capturing value is defining what you market you are serving so that you can be focused in everything you do. I first narrowed my niche to focus on portrait and graduation photoshoots. I wanted to select a niche that would give me comfortable margins and evergreen opportunity. In my research I was surprised to find that people were taking graduation photos all year round. And because of the magnitude of the moment, you have a very eager buyer.

With that insight in my back pocket, I did a survey of competitor pricing. I found that most were doing all inclusive shoots for $100 each, and sometimes even lower. Many photographers didn’t have structured pricing models. They often bartered via instagram and did things on a case by case basis. I felt the pricing was on the low end given the amount of time/energy that goes into both shooting and editing. I also felt like the processes I saw people deploying were inefficient.

You end up wasting a lot of time in back-n-forths and you have to justify your value to the client over and over.

So I positioned myself as a deluxe provider and charged a 30%-300% premium. Unlike other photographers who ran their business through instagram, I focused on providing a turnkey experience and making every customer touchpoint special.

To make the overall experience more efficient and the value I brought clear, I started by designing a website around the key needs of a potential customer. I outlined all the key questions I needed to answer to close a lead.

What do I get when I book a shoot with you?

  • Problem: This was important because many people wanted to do several looks and locations for their shoot. Graduation was a big deal so people wanted to capture the moment in as many flavors as possible. But as a photographer, this results in a lot of variability in your work, which makes it hard to scale.
  • Solution: I productized the shoots based on the number of looks, locations, and edits. This created predictability which allowed me to scale faster. This also allowed me to scale my pricing. Beyond the structure, I differentiated myself by using my background in fashion to offer free styling and creative consultation as a bonus. This supported the premium brand positioning.

Where can I see your photos?

  • Problem: People need proof of work to see artistic range and align on vision. Most photographers were running their biz through instagram so their feed was a hodgepodge of stuff, not all of which is necessarily relevant to the client.
  • Solution: I believe the riches are in the niches. If you can prove to the client that you have the specific solution they want, they’re more likely to trust you to solve their problem. So I curated my portfolio and created an abbreviated + expanded version. You got a taste on the landing page, but could go for the full meal if you wanted. The selection of photos were specific to the most popular types of graduation shoot styles.

Okay cool, when are you free to shoot?

  • Problem: Finding a time that works for both parties is often the most time intensive part of the sales process, especially when working at scale. If you’re running your biz via instagram, a calendar, and venmo — you’ll constantly be going back and forth to coordinate times and appointments and it gets very tedious.
  • Solution: I solved for this by integrating my website with Square Appointments for seamless booking and payments. So once the client saw the work and selected a pageant, they could select a time on a calendar and pay in one go.

Launching a Grassroots Marketing campaign

Once I built the website, it was time to drive traction. I didn’t have any marketing budget so I had to get scrappy. I launched my own grassroots marketing campaign.

My strategy had several components to it:

A launch announcement on my personal social media platforms

  • This allowed me to capture initial traction and support from my existing following.

Digital/Out of Home Marketing Campaign

  • This allowed me to create a campaign unique to the brand that would run during peak season

Continuous documentation and client testimonials

  • This allowed me to leverage social proof to keep my marketing strong/fresh.

I developed a series of static and video assets that I distributed on social and irl. I believe this campaign was successful bc it innovated on two fronts: content and distribution

Content Strategy

To capture people’s attention, I leveraged strong, bold colors and fonts that accented the photographs. For the copy, I leveraged humor as a way to surprise and delight. I used copy that combined two different cultural phenomena. The first was a play on the viral video where the term “Or Nah?” was coined. The second was a play on the student’s anxiety around graduation. I created a slogan that read “Are you graduating or nah?” And on the flyer it would show a stylish graduation photo with details on booking. This served two purposes:

  • People would look at that slogan, chuckle, and empathize with it bc either they or someone they know was going to crunch time. Adding light humor to that reality was empathetic and poignant.
  • The implication was that IF you were graduating, you deserve to look good while you’re doing it. So let’s do this thing.

Upon seeing the resonance of the previous assets, I created new variants that played on another cultural phenomenon adding “Issa” in front of things to show them off. This was a slang term that went viral when rapper 21 Savage was explaining his tattoo of a knife on his forehead (I didn’t invent the trend). The way he described his knife tattoo was so funny that it has since become a staple of American slang.

This was a bold move from a creative standpoint. But it paid off because it was a pattern interrupt. I love pattern interrupt advertising. Stuff that’s so prolific that it forces you to look twice. This is the concept of the Purple Cow Seth Godin popularized.

Distribution

I created several ad variants and posted them across social and in high foot traffic areas on campus. But this wasn’t enough. No matter how good my flyer was, only a few people would notice. I had to find a way to get in front of people where I KNEW I was more likely to have their attention. Then it hit me, elevators. Elevators are great real estate bc they’re high traffic and you have a captive audience.

So I went into every elevator in all the major buildings and placed my ads on the inside of the doors right before class let out. This way when students were in the elevators they would be staring at my ads while they waited. Every time they would get taken down, I would just go put them back up again and I enlisted my friends and classmates to my street team as well.

I had to find a way to get in front of people where I KNEW I was more likely to have their attention. Then it hit me, elevators.

The icing on the cake was how happy people were with their photos and throughout the whole experience. I made sure to document every shoot on instagram via stories where I was averaging 300–500 daily views in addition to 2k post reach. By constantly documenting my progress and journey, I was creating an endless log of social proof and live testimonials of clients having fun. This was important to move people from consideration to purchase. Often times you’ll have someone who is on the edge, and they just need to see someone else go first before they jump in.

Conclusion

As a result of combining all of the above, I was able to help people capture their college graduation in epic style. This was a huge honor because graduation is such an important milestone. These are photos people get to cherish forever and even show to their children. I’m grateful I had a chance to help capture those moments. This project was a great experience for me because it allowed me to combine all my interests from photography to design to marketing and sales. I took an idea and actually made an entire business out of completely from scratch. The marketing campaign resulted in a 3x increase in sales and I was able to generate $3k monthly revenue on a consistent basis thanks to sustained organic instagram content.

Lessons Learned

  • The best way to build a brand is by adding value to a community, not focusing on yourself
  • You can drive virality by focusing on giving people something that matters to them
  • You can charge a premium when you focus on the experience and not competing on price
  • There are always creative ways to get in front of people, even without a budget

That’s all I got y’all. If you read this far, you rock. You’re a Power Ranger and I appreciate you. So until next time….

Own your power. Give back. Leave no stone unturned.

Black Lotus out.

PMM @ FB by Day. Creator by Night. I write about mindset, personal branding, product, and previous projects

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