When Marissa Boucher, Cr.Photog., started in wedding and portrait photography in 2003, she quickly discovered her true passion was photographing women. “If women feel comfortable and are in a judgment- free zone, you can really see them come alive,” she says. “I realized that my photography was a way for me to give someone a really uplifting experience.”
That experience transitioned into The Boudoir Divas, a San Diego-area studio specializing in affirming portraiture for women. What started as a fun outlet for women to dress up and inject a little glamour into their lives evolved into a bustling business. Boucher rented a studio and stepped up her volume, doing about 30 sessions a month. As her reputation grew, she began teaching other photographers, running classes out of her studio, and traveling the world for projects. The business was highly profitable and expanding at a good clip. She signed a lease on a 6,000-square-foot studio and invested heavily in a full-scale renovation to custom-build her dream space.
Then the rug was pulled out from underneath her. In 2014, Boucher’s landlord sold her studio building with almost no warning. Looking back, Boucher regrets not having a stronger long-term lease, having trusted a handshake deal that she would have at least a years’ notice before lease termination. But she was young and ambitious, eager to grow her business aggressively. Unfortunately, that headlong ambition cost her almost everything. She’d incurred a large debt due to renovations, and while she had a plan to pay it back through studio sessions, she suddenly had no studio and no way to recoup that revenue.
Boucher felt defeated and alone. Her business was hanging by a thread. She was saddled with crushing debt. “I was in a dark place,” she recalls. “And if I’m being totally honest, I didn’t feel like I had the mental capacity to pull myself up by my bootstraps.”
Then she had an inspiration. For the previous several years, she’d been teaching a course to photographers that included 12 key elements for growing a successful photography business. Now, in her darkest hour, Boucher decided to take her own course. She resolved to put the steps to the test and rebuild her business piece by piece—this time with the benefit of experience and hindsight.
1. Mindset. Get yourself in the right state of mind to achieve your goals. “We can’t do big things in life and art if we haven’t focused on our mindset to access our inner knowledge and channel what we want to do,” explains Boucher.
2. Clients. Figure out who your ideal clients are. Then determine what they’re looking for, how to communicate with them, and how to build productive relationships with them.
3. Mission. Outline what’s at the heart of your work and put that into a mission statement. This can be as simple as describing what you do and what you want to offer clients.
4. Photography. Go beyond the technical and think about what your photography says about you as an artist. Improving your photography means expanding your creativity and exceeding what clients have contracted you to do. “Take a hard look at what you want to shoot, and shoot it,” says Boucher. “Make it come alive for you.”
5. Client experience. Think about how you can craft a unique experience for clients and how to help them visualize themselves in that experience.
6. The numbers. If you want to run a successful business, it’s imperative that you know where every single dollar goes. “Photographers are great at making money, but net profit is another story,” says Boucher. “Dig into your numbers. Know your expenses and your margins. The numbers don’t lie.”
7. Brand. Your brand is what you present to the world. How are you showcasing yourself? What are you putting out there to attract your ideal client? Your website is your biggest sales tool. Load it up with content people can peruse for at least 20 minutes so they get to know your brand.
8. Automation and sales. Consider the mundane, repetitive tasks that eat up your time then automate them to help your business run efficiently. This includes sales, where you can automate or develop efficient processes to ease the experience for clients.
9. Traffic. Understanding your ideal client helps you understand where they spend time online and in person. Then you can appeal to their interests on your website, in marketing materials, and in social posts.
10. Marketing plan. Your marketing plan is your promotional guidebook. You should never wonder what you’re going to do this month to get business. Think about promotions well in advance and tie them to relevant seasonality so you’re giving clients enough lead time to book.
11. Business road map. Take each item on this list and see where it fits into the big picture for your business. Be realistic about your timeframe. You can’t knock out all of these in a few weeks. Instead, implement elements over the course of several months or a year so you’re not stressing yourself out in the process.
12. Celebration. “Take a moment to feel really good about what you’re doing,” says Boucher. “Celebrate the small victories, give yourself credit, and revel in those feelings to put yourself on the right trajectory.”
Not many people are granted the opportunity to hit the do-over button on their business. The process was daunting for Boucher and required a tremendous amount of work, but it ultimately afforded her the opportunity to recreate her business exactly the way she wanted it to be. The result is something more flexible than her original studio, with a wider-ranging clientele and more diverse projects.
As she was working through the process, Boucher learned that she thrives when she overdelivers for the clients she vibes with the most. “When you find your kindred spirit client, take care of them because you feed each other’s souls,” she says. With that idea in place, she revamped her offerings and rebranded her business as Marissa Inc. Productions. The new brand helped her expand beyond the Boudoir Divas-style portraits and into a wider variety of portraiture and video creation.
By 2016, Boucher had rebounded stronger than ever. After rebuilding her portrait business with outdoor sessions, she acquired a new studio space a couple of blocks from the ocean. In 2018, she moved to Nashville and established a second studio location, where she specializes in portraits and video for the music industry. She currently travels between Tennessee and Southern California to conduct portrait sessions and manage her studios, which are more profitable than her previous iteration of the business.
She’s also added a series of destination photo shoots with groups of women who travel to an exotic locale together, stay in a luxurious villa, and do a series of individual photo sessions while enjoying sun, fun, and camaraderie.
“It’s like a big slumber party with glamour and dress up and professional portrait shoots,” says Boucher. But perhaps even more important, it’s an opportunity for the women to be treated like stars and feel glamorous. “There is so much pressure on humans to look a certain way, dress a certain way, act a certain way,” says Boucher. “We rarely have an opportunity to be our own kind of beautiful, to feel carefree. That’s what these trips are all about.”
Boucher has crystalized the lessons she’s learned in a class for photographers that stresses the importance of continually returning to your original inspiration. When you become overwhelmed with the tasks of running your business or are feeling stuck, stop and consider why you started doing this work in the first place. What was your vision, and how can you bring it to life?
“That vision, that inspiration can empower you,” says Boucher. “I am an example of that. I was feeling so defeated, in so much debt. I had to get beyond that, understand the why and rebuild. Find your power and then the execution action steps work so much better.”
Jeff Kent is editor-at-large.