So you want a studio?
I have rarely met a photographer who owns his or her own business and can happily sit back and say, “I’m satisfied.” It doesn’t matter what your business is – business owners are driven and ambitious, passionate and a purposeful. And that’s what keeps them moving.
Our Studio Story
About seven years ago my wife Joy and I were traveling from Chattanooga, Tennessee, back home to Orlando, Florida. She was working as a nurse and I was working as a corporate communications executive at a healthcare management company. On the side, our part-time wedding photography business was growing. We stopped north of Atlanta to visit a friend who had just opened a photography studio. After a couple hours visiting with her, I was convinced that we needed to quit our jobs and launch full-time into the business of wedding photography. I couldn’t get it out of my mind.
Fortunately, we took things somewhat slowly and plotted a strategy to be full-time photographers within the next year. Sure enough, it happened. But we wanted more.
The next year, we relocated to Chattanooga with the goal of opening up a studio downtown. We met with a realtor and looked at several spaces, finally settling on a renovated house that was zoned commercial and sat in the middle of an eclectic neighborhood near downtown.
Debunking the Field of Dreams Myth
I had the Field of Dreams “if-you-build-it-they-will-come” attitude. But the realty is, it doesn’t always work that way. We signed a 12-month lease with the intent to purchase after we sold our real estate in Florida. Late in the lease, we had the building inspected and found a multitude of issues, the most alarming was significant termite damage in the foundation. Although we didn’t know it at the time, that disappointing discovery was the best thing that ever happened to our business.
We declined the purchase, packed up the studio, and moved everything back home into our garage. A few months later, we found a new location in the heart of Chattanooga’s growing Southside arts district – a storefront located next to one of the most popular breakfast and lunch spots downtown. Today we reap the rewards of heavy foot traffic and a consistent street presence. Now more than ever, I am a strong believer in the real estate adage, “Location, Location, Location.”
Before occupying our space, we underwent a significant build out, most of which we did ourselves. We demoed several walls, added a bathroom and make-up/changing area, painted, refinished the floors, and of course updated lighting and fixtures. This month we celebrate our 10th year in business, the last five of which have been in our current location.
Photographers often ask us about our experience as studio owners. We are always eager to share the good, the bad and the ugly. A common misconception is that once you have a studio, you’ve arrived. “Arrived?” At what? The reality is, owning a studio means paying rent, utilities and extra insurance. You’ll often have monthly maintenance fees, additional taxes and more.
In our case, we had to determine whether the benefits of owning a studio would outweigh the cost/expense. It is important to be honest with yourself as you consider this question. Don’t let your desire to have a studio (or your ego) determine the decision.
Today our business is 50 percent weddings and 50 percent family, seniors and child portraits. For us, and the market we are in, having a studio is paramount. However, if our business were 75 perent weddings, then a studio probably would not be necessary to our long-term sustainability, especially considering that most of our wedding clients are from out of town and never set foot in our studio.
There are many positives of studio ownership. Obviously, increased exposure and foot traffic, assuming you are in an area that is conducive to them. Secondly, having a studio gives you a place to showcase your product options, from large canvas portraits to wall collections to portrait books etc. Additionally, a studio allows you to influence clients through décor, mood, ambiance, etc. Perhaps most important, it gives you the opportunity to rub shoulders with like-minded business owners in your area. And in an industry that is primarily referral-driven, this is extremely beneficial. Lastly, depending on your studio size and set-up, it gives you a great location to host events and bring the community to you.
Alternatively, there are a few negatives. The most obvious is the cost. Studio owners are responsible for rent or a monthly mortgage. Most commercial lease agreements require a three to five year commitment. If mid-way through the lease you determine that the studio isn’t working out for you, you may be faced with penalties for breaking the lease. Along with that are maintenance costs, some that are predictable and some that aren’t.
Most studio owners face the challenge of hiring staff. Of course, having a staff isn’t necessarily a negative thing, it’s just something to consider as you grow and expand. Since we photograph many destination weddings, we can be away from the studio for a week at a time. Meanwhile, pedestrians walked by and noticed our lights were off and our door was locked. When I was talking with a neighboring business owner one day, she mentioned that she’d heard we were going out of business. What?! We realized we needed a dedicated front-desk studio manager to keep the studio open during regular hours. We’ve learned that activity breeds activity; the more our doors stay open, the more people come in!
Studio ownership has been an extremely positive experience for us. We’ve made mistakes along the way, but we learned from them and they made us stronger and smarter. If you’re considering taking steps toward studio ownership, consider pros and cons carefully. Don’t let the allure of owning a studio overcome you unless you’re willing to put forth the effort to leverage your investment and make it pay for itself.
About Garrett Nudd
Garrett Nudd is a citizen of the world. Formerly based in Orlando, Florida, one of the country’s most competitive markets, Garrett and his wife Joy have discovered that success has less to do with where you live, and more to do with how you market yourself, and the ability to continually exceed client expectations. Wedding assignments have taken Garrett and Joy to Scotland, Italy, Norway, France, Switzerland, the Bahamas, Anguilla, Jamaica, Aspen, Key West, Santa Barbara and many other locations across the country. Garrett and Joy photograph about 20 weddings each year and countless children, family, and senior sessions. Their boutique studio is located in Chattanooga, Tennessee. In 2008 they launched their portrait division, Cobblestone Rue, which provides life-inspired style-based portraits to families in Chattanooga and the surrounding region.