Strategic Reinvention: Scaling Back Your Thriving Photo Business

Strategic Reinvention: Scaling Back Your Thriving Photo Business

Donna Von Bruening’s studio was thriving: bookings of more than 50 weddings a year, a full time studio manager, associate photographers and a new studio space but she lacked one thing — quality of life. Ten years after starting her studio in Savannah, Georgia, she faced the common small business dilemma of having to turn down work due to scheduling. So she expanded and grew her business only to realize that she regretted it and missed the quality of life she had with a smaller studio.

“In 1999, I relocated to Savannah from Cleveland and began, Donna Von Bruening Photographers (I called it Insight, then),” said Donna. “It was the film days so there were only five photographers in town and we were all friends.  It was, perhaps, the glory days, if you will.  It was easy to get work.  It was easy to be allow for creativity because the client demands were less intense.  The pace was slower with film so you could stretch yourself.”

The studio grew organically through word of mouth, reputation with event coordinators and a gradual investment in the nascent world of internet marketing. Donna worked out of a home-based office and did her client meetings and engagement sessions on location.

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A small business axiom enforces the notion that you must grow in order to survive as if it is mandatory. Success and growth are inextricably conjoined. When she found herself turning down work due to existing bookings, she began to envision a larger enterprise with associate photographers and a studio space. Within a year, she purchased studio space in downtown Savannah, hired a full-time studio manager and added four associate photographers shooting weddings under the DVB Photographers brand.

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Studio interior of DVB Photographers pre-2011.

“In hindsight, I think moving into this format is a natural progression in business,” said Von Bruening. “It makes sense and just about every photographer I know, many in major markets, has traveled my same path. The risk was the obvious overhead and the dilution of the brand and my reputation. It was exhausting work to manage those factors. The reward was brand recognition. Having a studio when I did gave me the chops to make my next move.”

The overhead of a mortgage on a studio space in downtown Savannah coupled with the salary of a full time staff member with benefits forced her into taking nearly every inquiry and shooting opportunity. Competition, spurred by a nearby art school’s massive photography program and the large-scale entry of amateurs into the wedding arena, flooded the marketplace.

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“In order to keep the business flush with cash,  I found myself taking on more and more work personally,” said Von Bruening.  “While I had a tax savings account, a bookkeeper and a CPA, I never felt that I could relax or say no to business.  Expenses seemed to suffocate my freedom as a person and as an artist. In the end, that cost me personally.”

Her two boys were growing up so fast and she was missing weekend football games and scaling back family vacations as each weekend was booked with shooting. Burnout was a word commonly tossed around the office. She missed the freedom of working from home and the strong connection to her family that it afforded her. Commuting a half-hour each day seemed to be lost time.

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“Moving to a studio was exciting and personally, legitimized me as a business owner,” said Donna. “It allowed me to compartmentalize my life but I found that I was working more, not less.”

It was during a shoot in Grand Cayman in 2011 when she realized that it was time to reinvent the reality of her business and return to her pre-studio days. She was on location when her CPA called. He had just filed her tax return and noticed that in three years of company expansion, Donna’s personal income had stagnated and was showing signs that it would not keep pace with the growth.

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“I knew I wasn’t happy and I wasn’t getting clients that I loved,” she said. “I was mentally and emotionally exhausted. I just didn’t know how to admit that I didn’t want what I had worked so hard to build. I came home from that job and asked my husband if our life was better since I expanded the business.  He answered without one second of hesitation ‘No.’ That was in May 2011 and I set a goal to change by August 1st.”

Recognizing the complexity, both fiscal and emotional, that was on the horizon, Donna hired business coach, Peter Shallard.  “I chose Peter purposely because he had no photography background, in fact, his background was psychology.” He helped her reframe her business, asking hard questions and providing the tools and pathway to a new concept for her business.

“The transition included freshening my brand, redefining my target client and pushing myself artistically,” said Donna. “I took a painting class, held my first gallery show, and hired a person to manage my public relations. The most difficult part was explaining the change to my employees and photographers. They are fantastic people and I felt like I was letting them down. In then end, I believe I set them free.   Selling my studio space was not an option because of the housing crash, but I was fortunate enough to be able to turn it into a VBRO (vacation rental by owner).”

Reconnecting with art and letting go of the stress of her business was liberating. She studied encaustic painting and rediscovered her voice as an artist. Dedicating herself to the creation of a formal body of work for gallery exhibition was a creative therapy that acted as a buffer as her business underwent the transition.

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An encaustic print from Donna's gallery show in 2012.

Now Donna Von Bruening is back where she started — managing a thriving, home-based boutique wedding photography studio. She is now focused more on national, large-scale weddings but continues to shoot Lowcountry weddings at resort destinations in the Southeast.

“I have worked hard to gain the trust of wedding professionals in the national market and those relationships are turning into business partnerships,” she said. “There is no replacement for time and experience.”

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Donna Von Bruening. 

In addition to her wedding photography, Donna continues her fine art work and a new series called “Places” is scheduled for exhibition in 2015.

“I am loving life and my business now,” she said. “And, for the number crunchers, I am making more money than I ever did when I had associates.”

 

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8 Comments

It's a common myth that your have to grow to survive. You just have to be better than your competition, and for that you don't necessarily have to grow.

Awesome review!

Mark Weikert's picture

This was a wonderful article!! Thanks for sharing this!!

The owner of the company I work for (non-photography related) told me that one of the issues of working for yourself is that it becomes a business and what you used to love doing, is now work.

When you start turning down clients because you are fully booked, wouldn't it be the time to up prices to work just as much but make more? I mean you're turning down clients anyway...

Regan Shorter's picture

It caught me off guard when it said the Southeast... You mean the South?

Great article though! The insight is something that may not be obvious.

"Small is not just a stepping-stone. Small is a great destination in itself."
- Rework
http://www.amazon.com/dp/0307463745/

She's all like "oh no my business is too big" and I'm all like "can i book a client please?" lol (this is meant to be light-hearted comment, don't take it too seriously :)

I love this article. I think there is a big disconnect out there where people think they need to market to everyone. I personally love the idea of finding or creating a niche and supporting it and growing it. It can be just as profitable in the long run and usually is easier and more profitable than trying to please everyone all the time.