The whole idea of what a camera strap should look like and how it should perform changed when the MoneyMaker hit the scene just a few years back. Gone were the days of tactical black nylon. A new era of stylish form and function began when Tulsa, Oklahoma based wedding photographer turned entrepreneur Matthew Swaggart founded HoldFast – a luxury line of leather camera gear and accessories.
Matt recently took some time out of his busy schedule to sit down and answer a few questions for me. We discussed his discovery of photography, the idea behind HoldFast and his general philosophy on life as a photographer, entrepreneur and family man.
How did you get started in photography in general, and was there a defining moment that took you in this new business direction?
"I went to university to study graphic design for video. At that time, I had no respect for photography as an art form. I only knew that I loved designing on my Mac and working with motion. While studying abroad in Europe, I picked up a digital camera (the 2mp Kodak DC290 which I still have) in order to document memories of my time there. I completely fell in love with the still image and loved the idea of using one image to explain a lifetime. No matter that I was three years into my major, I wanted to photograph for the rest of my life. From that moment on, I photographed anyone or anything I could. I remember the first band portrait I ever took (for a band now called “Safety Suit”) and I charged only $25.00. Eventually, I started shooting humanitarian work because it gave me a tangible way to use my passion to help others. I documented projects to raise funds to drill water, to provide food and offer free healthcare to those less fortunate. Over time, I started photographing weddings to earn extra income to support my little family. That’s when I hit a wall with gear. From shooting humanitarian work to weddings, there wasn't a product that seamlessly crossed those lines with style and ability. After many shoots ending with back pain and never being able to look the way I wanted to while shooting, I decided to make my own gear. HoldFast was born."
What was the next step like?
"My photography business funded the start-up for HoldFast Gear. Actually, this is the first year since I started doing photography that I will be able to shoot what I want to shoot, not what I’m hired to shoot. Many times I’ve been approached with offers to invest in HoldFast, but ultimately I felt that it would compromise my vision. As well, I decided against loans. Instead, I’ve taken a slower yet more exact route. As with any grand idea, all it takes is a start. A single step in the direction of where you want to go at times feels the most unsteady. Yet, a few more steps and you start to build momentum. That’s the way it was as I started HoldFast Gear. It was an impossible dream with many setbacks that I chipped away at, piece by piece, until that dream was actually happening."
What lead you in the direction of leather making?
"I’ve always enjoyed building things. From Legos to model cars, I’ve always had that interest. And I’m a self-starter type of guy. I really enjoy learning and figuring things out. When I initially had the idea, I just picked out the materials I wanted to work with and went at it. I started out buying scraps at the local leather store. Every time I went in to pick some up, I would ask questions and buy a tool or two to learn with. I’m definitely a trial and error learner so I’ve just played everything until it all started to come together."
How did you come up with the first HoldFast Gear products you designed?
"I don't like to carry things in my pockets and I wondered if a strap could carry such pocket items as batteries, cards, film and even glasses. So the very first product I designed and made was the RuckStrap; problem solved. Then I realized I had another issue. When shooting weddings, I wanted to carry three cameras and look good doing so. I needed to carry my two pro bodies with my two favorite lenses along with a mirrorless camera – new technology back in 2011. No strap at that time carried three cameras with other items, and the multi-camera straps that were available resembled SWAT team gear. That did not mix nicely with trying to dress well and blend in at weddings, so I designed and built the MoneyMaker. It allowed me to look good while shooting weddings and carry all the gear that I needed. I realized, however, that not only was it more comfortable, it connected me with my clients in a new way. It became a conversation piece and established trust between my subjects and myself. This is what I heard many times, 'This guy looks cool. He knows what he’s doing.' In turn, my shoots were made easier because my clients trusted me. I realize that sounds funny but it happened all the time! It made my job easier to connect with people in order to unleash their true personalities. That’s when I realized I was on to something and it only grew from there."
How has your journey been so far? Are there any lessons you learned along the way that stand out?
"I was told by an extremely successful business owner that the first five years of any business is a financial challenge, and I think that is where many businesses flounder and burn out. HoldFast Gear was started in 2011 and built with my own personal startup capital funded from my wedding business. I’ve had to work very hard to get where I am today and I’m fully convinced that my hard work will eventually pay off. I’ve found that failure is only an opportunity to learn. I’ve grown to realize that an unexpected or poor outcome is never a failure. You really only fail when you quit. As a father, the most important lessons to pass on to my children are that you must put your hands to something to see it prosper, and that mistakes are good if they lead you to the right decision. Don’t be afraid to fail; be afraid to have never started."
What were the challenges of building a new business? Do you have advice on how to choose the right gear or on developing a successful brand?
"In my opinion, the biggest challenges in starting a business are simply getting started and continuing forward with your vision after every setback. Often times the big break lies just past the first mountain. For me, gear is merely an extension of my vision. I use whatever I need to achieve the look I want. Don’t invest in what others say is cool, invest in what YOU think is cool. That was a huge revelation for me when I started my photography business. Like it or not, people make judgments based on how you look. Make sure your look, your aesthetic and your vision align well. It will go a long way in helping you achieve the grand dream of your life."
Do you have any last thoughts about life, photography or entrepreneurship in general?
"Having the heart and will to pursue your passion is all you need. Believe in your vision and chase it down. Be relentless in achieving your dreams and live in a way where you take on no offense. If you forgive and keep moving, then your vision will never get clouded and muddied with the cares of this world we live in. You are the only one responsible for achieving your dreams; there is nothing holding you back except you."
I personally use the RuckStrap on my Fuji X100S and I have both the black Bison MoneyMaker and the genuine Python MoneyMaker that I alternate between for 90% of my wedding and portrait work. They are handmade here in the U.S. and have thoroughly reduced the stress on my neck, shoulders and lower back after a long day's use. He's totally right about the comments too - they're non-stop at weddings. I get everything from gun holster remarks to hipster style compliments. HoldFast straps help me engage in conversations with my clients as well as keep my gear secure in a comfortable and stylish manner. Plus, you definitely don't have to be a wedding photographer to wear one. Just ask Adam Elmakias!