Insight on Expanding Your Business

Monday, April 30, 2012

expanding your businessToday I'm featuring an interview with Melissa Hester, owner of Melissa Jill Photography based out of Arizona. I first met Melissa six years ago and I'm lucky enough to call her a friend as well as a colleague. For a while, Melissa and I were gym partners and would talk shop while sweating it out. It was about as nerdy and glamorous as it sounds.

One of the things I've always admired about Melissa is her ability to build a solid foundation under each of her businesses. Each of her brands can stand alone and each does well on its own. She has also been able to expand without compromising her core business of photography, and most recently launched Align, an album design company for professional photographers. Expanding while keeping the core business profitable is something many creative professionals (photographers or not) struggle with, so today Melissa is sharing her insight into how to do it well.

For those who may not be familiar with you, can you share a little bit about your work and the different companies you own?

I'm a Phoenix-based wedding photographer who has been shooting weddings for 9 years. I shoot 12-15 high end weddings a year and my company, Melissa Jill Photography, also has four associate photographers who shoot weddings at lower price points. Over the years, I have developed quite a database of free information for photographers on my blog and also offer one-on-one mentoring and teach three workshops for professional photographers yearly throughout the country. I have developed a number of resources for photographers including album design templates and most recently, my new company Align Album that does custom album design for photographers looking to outsource this arduous portion of their workflow.


What inspired you to expand beyond your core business of photography?

The process of starting my photography business helped me to realize that I love business just as much as photography. I love the challenge of developing systems and making them profitable and efficient. Being immersed in the wedding photography industry for so many years, I have my finger on the pulse of photographers and their felt needs. I knew, with the platform I've developed through my brand and sharing free information, that I could meet some of those felt needs and at the same time, develop a passive income source that would allow my income to grow beyond the restrictions imposed by my time.


You have a high standard for excellence. How do you ensure that is carried through by your team across all of your brands?

I believe there are four things I have done that help maintain a high level of excellence across my brands:
  • I have found good people. I look for character, loyalty and work ethic over knowledge and experience. The latter can be trained; the former can't.
  • I've worked hard to develop systems. Melissa Jill Photography has a 130-page manual and Align's manual is currently 36 pages and growing. Every step is laid out so that we provide a consistent experience for our customers.
  • When problems arise, we systematize a solution so that the problem doesn't reoccur.
  • I stay involved with my team and keep open lines of communication. I hire good people with good ideas, and when they share them with me, I readily implement them.

What advice would you give people looking to expand into different revenue streams?

  • Get involved in the industry. Give away your information for free and listen.
  • When a felt need comes to your attention, find a way to address it. In the case of Align, I knew that photographers hated designing albums and they often fell behind on this portion of their workflow. I learned that in order to meet this need, I would need to offer a solution that provided clean designs fast and affordably.
  • Do your research. Look at the competition and figure out how to outdo them in the areas of felt need. For us, we had to do better quality designs, faster, and at a lower cost so photographers could maximize their profit.
  • Take your time and do things well from the beginning. If you don't do it well and don't build your brand on excellence, it's not worth pursuing at all.

What is the best piece of advice you've received?

I read Tim Sanders' book Love is the Killer App early on in my business. He says to give away your knowledge for free. This is absolutely the best piece of advice for business owners in this day and age. We think we need to hoard information in order to become experts in our industry. But the opposite is actually true. In order to be seen as an expert and thereby have a platform from which to expand into other revenue streams, you need to give away your knowledge for free. I did this early on by sharing answers to questions other photographers emailed me on my blog. Sharing answers to frequently asked questions publicly was the thing that opened up so many other doors to expanding my brand and allowing it to become what it is today.

Thanks, Melissa! You can follow Melissa on Twitter here and Align on Twitter here.

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