Generating smart, sustainable growth in a small business is rarely easy—though it’s inherently necessary if that business is to survive.
When Stacy Jacob launched her photography studio in Palm Desert, California, in the mid-2010s, the challenge of smart growth was almost immediately apparent. For a few years, Jacob had been making a name for herself in the community through a series of portraits she’d made for women undergoing cancer treatment. Over time, non-cancer-related portrait inquiries began to stream in from friends, neighbors, and acquaintances until Jacob felt she had enough interest to open a retail studio.
Everything started out just fine. Jacob acquired clients for a scattered assortment of portrait work through charitable marketing and word-of-mouth referrals. However, while she carved out a nice foothold in the market, her studio wasn’t poised for growth. The work was good, but it varied across a range of disciplines—headshots, seniors, child portraits, underwater portraits—making it difficult to distinguish herself in any particular area. And she wasn’t actively promoting the business in any strategic way, preferring to limit her expenses and wait for work to come to her.
“I thought that by not spending money I was saving money, but that mentality kept my business where it was,” she says. “There was no growth.”
The other issue was that Jacob, like many small business owners, tried to do too much on her own. A self-described sufferer from “toxic self-sufficiency syndrome,” Jacob wanted to do everything, partially to save money and partially to maintain control over the functioning of her business. She was always busy, but busy doing things she could have paid someone else to do that would have allowed her to spend more time focusing on growing her business.
The turning point came when Jacob joined a mastermind group, which helped her understand how to reorganize her business and effectively outsource certain processes. She started to give more responsibility to her assistant, and she eventually hired a retoucher, then another photographer.
“Part of this process was recognizing that if there was a bottleneck at the studio, it was usually me,” she says. She also recognized that outsourcing meant not everyone would do things exactly like she did, but that was OK because it allowed her to grow her business.
As she expanded her team, the client-facing work was the most difficult to delegate, “because who’s going to love on my clients like I would?” she wondered. The answer came in the form of preparation. Jacob created a highly systematized workflow that includes checklists for just about every key process at the studio, including client visit prep, portrait session workflow, lighting configurations, poses, expressions, and things to look for when retouching. Even when Jacob can’t personally lavish attention on clients, her best practices shape almost every part of their experience at her studio.
Working from these checklists, Jacob prioritizes staff training, both in person and through training videos she records for all the positions at her studio. She teaches her photographers what to look for, the right time to shoot, and how to manage the camera room. She trains assistants how to set up all the details that make an image come together in a way that doesn’t make the client feel over-directed. She tutors retouchers on the techniques that produce a look that’s in keeping with the studio’s brand. There is some creative autonomy in all these pursuits, but there’s guidance to keep things consistent. “Now, when I look at the work, it’s exactly the way I would do it,” says Jacob.
Ongoing training includes looking at reviews from clients with a focus on how they felt about their experience. This is important, not only for client satisfaction but for the photographic process. “We go for authenticity in our portraits, so we want our clients to feel 100 percent comfortable,” Jacobs explains. “If they’re comfortable, then we can get the best out of them, and that leads to better portraits.”
Jacob saw her path to growth veering increasingly toward specialization. Her diverse workload had led to a mix of bookings, but her work didn’t necessarily stand out in her market, and she didn’t feel like she owned any particular space.
Her profitability reflected the scattered approach. For several years, bookings hovered around the same number while her sales equaled her expenses, leaving no profit at the end of the year. In 2019 she logged her first profitable year, clearing just $10,000 from 43 sessions.
In 2020 Jacob decided to focus entirely on fairytale-themed studio portraits of children. She did new portfolio-building sessions, invested in new samples, created a new look for the studio, and zeroed in on a new style. “I dropped my photographer hat and put on my CEO hat,” she says. “I enjoyed doing all the different kinds of work, but it wasn’t best for my business. So, I made that business decision to specialize.”
She invested in marketing, primarily online ads, and made more concerted efforts to capitalize on her years of relationship building. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, she managed a steady stream of new bookings and a sharp upward trajectory in sales through most of 2020.
When the pandemic hit in early 2020 and the world shut down, the timing seemed terrible. Jacob had been generating positive momentum for the business, and then had to hit pause right when things were starting to go well. However, the shutdown turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Jacob used the unexpected clearing of her schedule to dive into her studio accounting. She took a hard look at expenses and business lines. She evaluated where money was leaking out of the business and where she needed to make strategic investments for the future. Ultimately, she rebuilt her product offerings to maximize her return on investment.
When COVID restrictions eased up and the studio reopened in June 2020, Jacob had a full roster of clients, many of whom had rescheduled their fairytale portrait sessions three or four times just to keep the appointment on her schedule. To handle the uptick in bookings she hired nine new people and delegated more work to offsite contractors. The increase in staff and systemization of many core processes helped the studio offer better service, and bookings continued to increase over the course of the year.
By the end of 2020, Jacob had doubled revenue from 2019 and firmly entrenched herself as the fine art fairytale photographer in her area. In 2021 total revenue again doubled from the previous year, as did the size of Jacob’s studio space. Bookings continue to increase, and sales projections for 2022 are triple the year prior. To help accommodate the growing clientele, Jacob is planning an additional expansion, including a new studio location.
Throughout the process, Jacob has remained focused on the specialty and business plan that helped her achieve such rapid growth. Behind the scenes, she continues to streamline her processes and invest in the systems that will help her manage future growth—because you never know when the next great opportunity will arise, but when it does, Jacob plans to be ready.
Jeff Kent is editor-at-large.