What I Learned In Our First Year of Business

In Personal, Photography by Matt K22 Comments

A while back I wrote about how my wife and I both left our jobs and struck out on our own business adventure. It wasn’t the best time for it, as we have two kids getting ready for college. But it was definitely the right time for it, so we pulled the trigger last year.

Anyway, as you can imagine, things like this come with many learning moments. I figured that most of the people who read my blog and follow me, aren’t just the typical customers. From what I get from interacting with you, you actually care too. So that’s why I thought it’d be cool to share a little about what I learned, and where it’s all going.

First, to catch you up.¬†Diana handles the accounting, scheduling, marketing, ads, email list, customers, video and blog post editing. I do the easier stuff behind the microphone and camera ūüôā She doesn’t really have many hopes of being on camera or anything like that, and I don’t have any hopes of editing or accounting or marketing, so we compliment each other well.

As for the business, we are¬†a training company.¬†I may make minimal money each year from photo shoots, but I specifically don’t take paid assignments or clients.¬†I believe my gift is training and education. So while a lot of other educators also shoot commercially, I don’t. Now, if the people who watched my training were professionals, then that could be a problem. I wouldn’t really want to advise professionals on how to do something that I wasn’t doing myself.

But most people that purchase and follow my training are people that just love photography. I don’t¬†say hobbyist, because I think it’s more than a hobby for most people I talk to. In fact, I know it is. If you’re reading this, you’re invested in photography and, while you may not be a pro, you probably want professional results. Most of my followers are like me. They usually have regular¬†job, kids, grandkids, husband/wife, mortgage, car payments, no fancy studio, and have various degrees of traveling in their lives. Some travel a lot, and some need to know how to satisfy their photography bug while staying in their home town.

Since I’m part of that group above, I feel it’s best that they’re¬†the target audience that I try to help. Okay, here goes with the 7 things I learned this year (by the way, it’s actually a lot more than 7 but these made the short list).

5 Things I Learned In Business in 2016

1) The Devil Is In the Details – I can’t say¬†this one enough. I always knew it, but I’ve had to relearn it all over again. The most difficult parts of a project don’t lie in the big things. For example, when I’m creating a course, the BIG issues aren’t¬†whether or not I covered the material well, or if the training was good, or is the PDF done. They don’t lie in whether or not the sales page is up, and the cart is working. The real issues lie¬†in those tiny little things that you overlook.

For example, we verified our account system worked when you created an account. Create account… check! Receive email… check! Log in… check! But we never tested what happened when you lost your password. Of course you’d think you just try to enter and it says “lost password? click here to recover”. And it did. But because of something in place with our web host that cached the web page so it would load faster for people, the recovery process sent you in an endless loop. Easy fix, but it was a detail we overlooked.

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(One of Diana’s photos from last year)

Another example – in our first week after launching our course, we realized that Gmail had sent 75% of our customer support emails to the Spam folder and we didn’t see them for days. Really?

You can also be assured the videos will work on 499 out of every 500 computers out there.¬†But there’s always that one computer that tries to open the¬†video in Adobe Acrobat PDF reader, and not a video player. And that question/problem wasn’t in the FAQ.¬†The devil is indeed in the tiny details. And if you don’t find them, I guarantee your customer will.

2) A Subscription Is Not For Us Right Now – Another thing I learned is that a subscription model isn’t right for us now. I get a lot of people asking if we’re going to create a subscription to my training. Right now, that’s¬†not the plan. I have nothing against subscriptions – software or training.¬†It’s a business expense for us, but the $10 Adobe Creative Cloud subscription plan is the fastest money I spend each month, because I really believe it’s worth it. So I don’t think subscriptions are bad. I just don’t think it’s right for us or our customers right now.

I want to be the person that delivers what you want. So I’ll be creating courses based on that. And if you buy the course, you’ll get plenty of training for your money. But if you don’t want it, you simply don’t buy the course. I don’t want you to pay for something you’re not going to use.

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(Another photo Diana took of me last year)

And that really goes against the trend today. Every book, article, and piece of business advice I’m given all say the same thing. The trend is to get people into a subscription, and generate consistent recurring revenue. And I understand the economics of why. Well, we all know once that subscription starts, most of us forget to cancel it. Companies know this too. And it’s not a bad thing, so don’t get me wrong. I believe most companies out there are good reputable people, delivering a lot of value for their services in many industries.

But I think sometimes we subscribe to something because of a small part of the whole, and a cheap monthly price. And then once we’ve consumed that small part, we’re done – but we forget to cancel. Next thing you know, you’ve paid $300 for something you could have bought outright for $50. And even worse, you don’t have much control over what gets added to your subscriptions in the future.

So for me, I know that I¬†hope you really want what I create. And if you don’t, then you won’t buy it. Simple right? But if I get you into a subscription model, then I’m inevitably going to create something you don’t like one month, and you’re going to pay for it anyway.¬†And that doesn’t sit well with us. So for now,¬†and the foreseeable future, subscriptions aren’t part of the plan.

3) Website stuff is way harder than I thought – This one is definitely high¬†on the list. And trust me, I didn’t think the website stuff would be easy by any means. But it is indeed way harder. So much of it seems simple. I WordPress for¬†my blog, and they have plug-ins that do just about everything – commerce, mailing list, even cool layouts if you’re not a designer. But what no one tells you is what to do if something goes wrong. And when things do go wrong, sometimes you’re helpless.

When we launched my Lightroom Course last September, my web server went down. While my website didn’t cause the problem, my web host tells me we had a “noisy neighbor” on the same web server (it’s a shared environment, because it’s cheaper that way). Well, when we started to make a little noise, the effects of the noisy neighbor got worse. Next thing you know (continuing with the analogy), the cops were called, they broke up the party – and our server was shut down ūüôā Seriously though, our server just crashed. Hardware failure. Gone… done… crashed…

So then we had to wait to be moved. But people are trying to buy right? Yep… but they couldn’t. Talk about stress! And then, guess¬†what happened? They moved the noisy neighbor with us. And the problems continued, and there was nothing we could do because we didn’t know at the time and we didn’t really have the time to find out.

The good news is that we were able to invest in a dedicated server. We have a solid web person that does work when we need, and the web portion of this has been running super smooth ever since.

4) Selling Is Easy… But Really Hard¬†Too – This was an eye opener for me, but it really shouldn’t have been. I used to¬†get¬†a paycheck no matter what. Take the seminars I used to teach at KelbyOne. I just posted about it to let people know where I was. But I didn’t have to repeatedly sell it. I got paid the same if 50 people came to it, or if 500 people came because I was on a salary.

Well that doesn’t work so much today. When I release a course, if I don’t sell it nobody will buy it.¬†Luckily, I think I’m inherently selling my products when I talk about the way I do things. And because it’s me, and my training, I’m WAY more passionate about it than anything – so the selling (hopefully) comes across as unobtrusive.

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(One of Diana’s photos from Iceland)

I think that’s why education is a good fit for me, and I don’t work in another field of photography (products, hardware, cameras, software). Training and education is what I’m good at.¬†If somebody tells me the way I’m teaching something isn’t working, or they don’t understand, or one of the steps in the tutorial didn’t work for them – I can change that. I’m in control and I can turn on a dime to make it right. If I worked for a camera company, and something about the camera didn’t work, there would be nothing I could do but refer it to an engineer. Maybe I’m a control freak, who knows ūüôā But I feel with training, I can show you how I do something with any given piece of software. That’s in my realm of expertise. And because it’s something I honestly feel I can do better than the next guy, selling my own stuff come naturally (most of the time).

Anyway, selling is always the hard part. I have to sell in emails to my email list, but then people unsubscribe. Which sucks, because 80% of my emails are free content that I think can really help people. I have to sell on Facebook, but then people un-like my page. I have to sell in videos, and usually do it up front (because most people don’t watch the whole thing to see¬†a sales pitch at the end). Well, the downside of doing it up front is that some people tune out of a really good¬†video, because it sells something. It’s all part of the deal… I get it. But that¬†doesn’t mean I have to like it ūüôā

5) Email List Maintenance Is A Pain – Who knew email lists could be so difficult? We use Mailchimp which is a very reputable email service. They take email list maintenance and gathering very seriously, and they’re always on the side of, you, the person giving their email to a company (which is a good thing, and why we use them).

Email is a HUGE part of the way we sell, and most other companies out there. So it’s a major part of a business. And you’re email automation company plays a big part in that. They host your list (your customer base). They control how you can send emails, and there’s so many parts that control whether or not your email will ever get seen. Not-so-great email companies don’t have a good reputation with the big email service providers out there (Yahoo, Google, etc…), and as a result your emails could bounce back, or go undelivered to your customers.

So imagine this… I send out¬†10 emails with free stuff, and people open them, and life is happy. Then I send out 2 sales emails in the span of 2 days. And because of that, people just click their Spam button because they don’t care about what I’m selling or aren’t in the mood to buy. Well, if too many people click the Spam button you get a bad Spam report for that email campaign. Too many of those and they’ll shut you down or make you jump through some really difficult hoops to send an email campaign out. Which can put a damper in your sales and income. It hasn’t happened to us, but I know people it has. (Note: if you don’t like an email or want to be subscribed anymore, just click Unsubscribe at the bottom – don’t click Spam) ūüôā

Now, the good news is that if you abide by the rules of collecting emails and aren’t obnoxious in how you send them this usually doesn’t happen. But it is indeed a tricker part of the business than I ever thought (luckily Diana takes on most of that!).

And to top it all off… it’s really expensive. Email list hosting/sending is one of our largest expenses each month. Crazy!

6) Working With My Wife Has Been Awesome (But Does Present Challenges) – I could probably write a whole post about working with my wife. It’s been great for us in so many ways. But it also has its challenges.

Challenge #1: My Wife Sees Pricing Very Different From Me¬†– I won’t say which way each side tends to lean. That way, when we release a product you won’t know who to blame for the price ūüėČ But after talking to many other people in my field, who have male/female business partners, I’m not alone. So life definitely tends to get interesting when a pricing discussion comes up, and the two of you are literally off by 50% on what you’d like to charge.

Challenge #2: When do you talk business? –¬†I’d love to say don’t talk business on your free time. And if you do, then be prepared for the consequences. But it’s nearly impossible. Especially as you’re starting out. Our whole life depends on this. Every single sale we have matters to us and our livelihood. We can’t just shut that¬†off at 5pm. It’s her and I. So yes, we end up talking business when the two of us go out for a nice dinner. And yes, we may even talk about things when one (or both of us) has a few adult beverages. Sometimes it’s great, and we both agree and high five. But there have been a few sticky moments where we just had to stop.

Challenge #3: Sometimes A Spouse Is the Only One Who Can Give It To You Straight РThis one is always fun to encounter. But sometimes a spouse is the only person who can really be straight with you. One thing I’ve learned is that I can always trust my wife. She wants the best for me, but she also wants the best for our business. So sometimes, those two conflict Рand when they do, I can count on her to tell it to me straight.

That’s not always the case in business. I didn’t consider myself a “yes” man when I worked for someone. I’d usually¬†speak my mind. But I’ve sadly had people work for me where that wasn’t the case. Where sometimes I was told something¬†was good, then¬†later found out that person really didn’t think so, but was appeasing me.

With a husband wife team, you don’t have as much of that. Other than the token “Honey, does my hair look good question”, which is always answered with “Yes!”. Seriously, she can vouch for the fact that many times over the last 6 months she‚Äôs set me straight. There were times where I didn‚Äôt want to do a project and I had 10 reasons why I shouldn‚Äôt, and she¬†helped me see the one big reason¬†why I needed to. Sure, maybe the best thing for me¬†‚Äúpersonally‚ÄĚ would have been to just take a break.¬†But she knew when things needed to be pushed, and when I could pull back.

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And I can proudly say that over the last 7 months, there are several HUGE times where I look back and know she was right. And not small things either, but major business-changing decisions that could have been really tough to work through, had I not listened to her.

7) The Value Of The Personal Touch РThis is probably the biggest lesson I learned. The other stuff, I kinda knew already, but just had the added kick-in-the-butt that it was actually even harder than I thought. But I had no idea that the value of the personal connection would be so big to my customers. If you bought my Lightroom course, then you know I answered every single question that was asked of me. I can honestly tell you that it was in the thousands. Between emails, comments, and forums, I made it a point to answer everything.

And that lesson has helped set the stage for our business. I don’t need hundreds of thousands of customers, like some of the big subscription sites, to make a living. If I can serve a small group of you¬†in a more personal way than anyone else, then we can both succeed. You can learn more about photography/editing and I can save some money for the kids college and maybe even take my wife out to dinner once in a while ūüėČ

Oh and one last small thing that I learned… People love PayPal. Totally surprised me! We didn’t include PayPal as a payment option at first, and you wouldn’t believe how many people asked for it. And it’s not that hard to include. I just didn’t think it made a difference. Personally, I don’t like using it much.¬†But I must be alone, because now that we’ve enabled PayPal, at least half of our customers use it. Who knew!

Well folks, there ya’ have it. Just under 3000 words of all of the things I learned in the first year of business. I’m sure there’s a lot more that I’m forgetting, but I’m also sure that I’ll be reminded of it again very soon. Thanks so much for all of your support. Have a good one!

Comments

  1. Mike Nelson Pedde

    Matt: My wife and I used to run a resort together, and it was 24/7. We had a phone beside the bed. Invariably, when we were driving down the highway one of us would point out, “Do you see that sign up there? It says, “No talking about work beyond this point.”” Sometimes you just have to pull the plug to maintain balance.

  2. Tom Stoeri

    I very much appreciate your insight and your openness in sharing your experience! It is valuable to those of us who enjoy photography and enjoy improving our skill and appreciation for all aspects of imagery. I enjoy creating presentations for our local camera club for educational reasons. I love sharing and feel competent in doing so — your sharing gives me more insight into my own desires to improve my “product”. Thanks!.

  3. Brian Lawlor

    Matt, a great post and as long as it is, I read every word, which should tell you that you are on the right track as a business. I am a newer fan of yours and one thing I am especially grateful for is your authentic enthusiasm about, broadly speaking, photography and, more specifically, about teaching people like me how to it. Your enthusiasm is contagious. (That’s a good thing!)

  4. jim mcnally

    sorry matt never gave it a thought some of the e-mails would go to spam.one did in nov.i never check spam.but i will from now on.

    1. Author
      Matt K

      Yeah, it’s a pain Jim. I can’t believe how many messages we find there. And I’m sure if it happens to us, it happens to everyone.

  5. DAvid Wilson

    People are looking for the easy way. Payments via PayPal are easier for the purchaser than having a to enter all the personal information for billing and the card number and the security code from the card, etc.

  6. Jeffrey Paul

    Matt, I appreciated reading this. The personal touch and the effort you made to respond to all the questions in the Lightroom course was amazing and much appreciated! This one thing definitely sets you apart from others. But one thing I’ve learned and continue to learn is that life and business is all about building relationships and I think a lot of people will gravitate to this.

  7. John Webb

    Matt, really interesting reading your thoughts on the first year of going it alone. That personal touch is so important in creating brand loyalty and receiving recommendations. I have stopped using some of the companies that you have worked for but I am still following you. So you must be doing something right! Have a great 2017

  8. Russ Gifford

    Great article Matt, I’ve followed your journey for awhile. Have had similar discussions with my wife over the past few years, but because our boys are ready for/in college haven’t made the jump yet. Thanks for the article!

  9. David B.

    Great article Matt. You’re a good guy in the photo edu business. Glad to hear thinks are working out.

  10. Carl Ouellet

    Great inside of your first year hopefully You’ll be there for many many more. The first time I’ve seen you you were with K-1 classes and the Grid. I always appreciated the way you teach and I was really sad when you left K-1 for On-1 ( guess you are attracted to number one). Long live to Matt K -One keep it up your doing a very nice job.

  11. Joe Watts

    Well Matt, after reading this, I have two suggestions to greatly improve your website and business: more Diana photos and a Diana Blog (she sounds like quite a lady)! Good luck to both of you!

  12. RD (David) Parker

    I mentioned last summer I thought this was the time for you and I am glad you listened to our self (and Diana). Keep moving forward for you provide a valuable service. When you and Diana were doing the PET magazine in 2013, it was the best learning tool for me since I had just purchased my 1st DSLR. Your training videos and articles have been invaluable over time! Best of luck in 2017 to you and Diana. R David Parker

  13. David Scott Tapie

    I always enjoyed watching and listening to you and RC over at Kelby training. I agree with the other posts about more photos from the wife. Looking forward to to learning more from you.

  14. Bruce Anthony

    Hi Matt, The trials and tribulations of your oun business are challenging, and difficult, but the pride in accomplishing and finishing a project are so rewarding it just drives you onward and upwards. Here’s to many more successful projects.
    I have been following you for a very long time and will continue
    Thank you
    Bruce Anthony

  15. Peter M.

    Hi Matt!
    Excellent reading, as usual… Thank you!
    The best of the best in 2017!
    Cheers,
    Peter

  16. Sam O.

    Matt,
    I enjoyed your Ultimate Lightroom course immensely and appreciate the personal touch. I’ve been a small business owner my entire life and can attest that it brings great challenges but much fulfillment when done right. I wish you and your family the best in your endeavor. Looking forward to our future interactions.
    Sincerely,
    Sam

  17. John League

    Matt, this is great and thanks for sharing. Believe me my wife and I experience similar discussions and we are not in business together. I must say I liked the personal touch during the Lightroom course. The other great thing that was obvious from the start and that was that you were responsive to your customers, the server issues is a good example. Having experienced the start up and server issues myself I can appreciate what you through. I am looking forward to future courses.

  18. Kasandra Mathieson

    Matt….what a wonderful post about what happens behind the scenes of your business! Loved reading it and we are all cheering for you! You and Diana make an amazing team and I appreciate your honesty and forthrightness about what you are encountering. You have made a lot of photographers more competent, less stressed and happier with their work….and that is a good thing! Thank you and have a wonderful year….

  19. Mary Ellyn

    I really appreciate your genuineness and have followed you since your early Kelby days as a consequence. This post is like so many, on your new blog, an honest and genuine assessment with this time the topic being your first year as a husband-wife business.. Thanks for your keen insights. I am looking forward to reading more of your blog with keen interest and enthusiasm.

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