Navigating COVID Relief with the SBDC
During the COVID lockdown, Craig provided information and guidance about the PPP and the EIDL programs that might stabilize the Studio once we were able to re-open. At that point most of my capital had been spent on rent and utilities during the 2.5 months we were forced to close.
Working with the SBDC
Who would have guessed a chance 2010 meeting of an East Colorado SBDC representative would have such a dramatic and important impact on my fledgling photography career over the next 10 years? Craig Curl, an East CO SBDC Business Consultant, was making a presentation to the Eastern I-70 Corridor REAP members during a Noon luncheon at Front Range Airport. At the time I was serving as a Bennett Town Board Trustee and managing a photography Co-op, located upstairs above the Main Street retail shops in the Southlands Shopping Center near E-470 & Smoky Hill Rd.
I was intrigued that Colorado was making such an important investment in helping small businesses across Colorado, so afterwards I asked Craig Curl SBDC Business Consultant to schedule a meeting. I wanted to find out more about the SBDC ‘s actual range of services.
Upon meeting Craig Curl at the Co-op, I was surprised at his depth of personal experience in businesses of all kinds. This guy was no standard government egg-head who have never experienced or owned a real business. This man has endured the ups and downs of businesses he had owned or developed. He was definitely someone to listen to, who stressed the importance of being ready to pounce on “opportunity” whenever it presented itself. At the time I was photographing weddings and High School Seniors as well as managing the photography co-op. It was an expense sharing, sort of a business executive center for photographers.
About 15 months later, Southlands Mall Management brought me in to discuss the possibility of me taking over their Santa Claus and Easter Bunny seasonal photography. After doing research on the equipment and software we thought would be necessary, we said yes. Craig Curl was right – If you see an opportunity, be bold and grab it. And that’s what happened.
Engaging the Curl Method
Along the way to opening this new venture, I had many “lucky” breaks, such as one of my Co-op members was a “between assignments,” really talented IT person. He helped develop a system that allowed us to show and print the just-taken Santa pictures to two moms simultaneously. This major improvement essentially doubled our capacity to process more people, faster. That meant much shorter “wait” lines and happier kiddos because they could now see and talk with Santa sooner.
Southland management was a big help too with various tips about problems that previous photographers suffered. Since then, Mall management had thought through the issue and shared their solutions with us. While we discovered many new problems with our “Client Server” computer system, by the third week of the season we were operating smoothly. I knew when the coming “Easter Bunny” photo season began, we would have all the initial “bugs” worked out further reducing the wait time to see the Easter Bunny.
Once the 2012 Easter Bunny Season was over, I knew we could easily handle more business because we had learned how to get the most from our computer, photo processing, and printing equipment. We would expand the system to allow three moms to choose their “photo-favs” simultaneously before the Santa Season began. That’s when Craig Curl suggested that since we had more capacity, we should do Christmas & Easter marketing in the Southlands. In the fall of 2012, we begin that program.
Our revised marketing consisted of walking the Southlands streets with Santa during the 10 days before opening, visiting all retail shops and offices. We left advertising pieces containing discounts at each location and allow folks to take photos of Santa with their cell phones; a practice we prohibited once commercial activity began. Thankfully, Craig’s suggestion resulted in a 25% annual increase in sales in 2012. We continued that practice throughout the remainder of our contract, resulting in a consistent 25% annual increase in sales.
Our Growing Business
A few days into the 2012 Santa Season, Mall management asked for another meeting. In that meeting I learned the owners of a retail photo studio located in the Southlands, having opened along with the Mall in 2006, were planning to close that business. Mall management put me in touch with the owners and following Craig’s advice of “never turn your back on an opportunity;” I purchased that business in mid–February 2013.
I knew from managing the nearby photography co-op that photographers offering higher quality and higher service photography generated larger revenues per sale. The previous owners had followed a classic “volume” based photography business plan, of fast but limited service. Walmart and JC Penny’s were nearby in the Shopping Center and followed the same plan. I wanted to move this new portrait company in a different direction, meaning higher quality and better service. This meant reinventing this portrait studio with different products and staff with a background with previous training in photography or art. I discussed those thoughts with Craig and he agreed.
Reinventing a successful company can be dangerous, but records showed studio sales had been declining since 2009. Continuing to compete with Walmart & JC Penny just didn’t make sense, so change began in June 2013.
New “portrait package” pricing, which included the cost of photography and time & materials (prints), was introduced to replace “sheet” pricing. Several portrait packages were offered to max out around $400, with a starting package price just above the 2012 average purchase of $89. In addition, the Website was redesigned and expanded from 4 to 20 pages. Lots of text was included to improve our Google, Yahoo, and Bing internet search ranking. By the end of 2013, we had reversed the annual “sales decline, showing an increase of 15% over 2012. Everything looked pretty rosy going into 2014, but it turned out all was not as it seemed” on the surface.
A closer examination of the studio’s existing customer database revealed during the summer of 2013 there was only meager information available per customer. No home, email address, or cell telephone number existed. The only access to 4000 existing customers was their home telephone number, an almost impossible task to accomplish for a small company.
Craig recommended that we enact a policy of collecting complete information about each customer as we had with our Santa and Easter Bunny customers so they could be more easily invited back to the studio going forward. In the spring of 2014, we learned that much of the existing customer base actually enjoyed having low-priced photography and weren’t too keen on our new package pricing system. Actual confrontations about the pricing change occurred between existing customers with our young staff.
That spring, Craig inviting me to an upcoming I-70 Corridor REAP meeting where a representative of the local Bennett Post Office would present information about a new low-cost business mailing program known as EDDM or Every Door Direct Mail. This mailing system provided extensive demographic information about each “Carrier Route.” Carrier Routes typically are sized from 300 to 700 households, allowing mail to be “targeted” by us into any carrier route whose residents equaled higher income at the then price of 17 cents each.
Finally, we now had a way to advertise directly to prospective customers who had a better chance of being attracted to more upscale photography, and many neighborhoods near the Southlands were definitely upscale. This mailing program resulted in a slow improvement of our per transaction sale from the original 2012 average of $89 to $200 by the fall of 2015. We were now beginning to attract our ideal client.
I remained unhappy we were unable to quickly reach out to most of the original 4000 customers which were part of the studio acquisition. A colleague from my Church was known to do telephone cold-calling to uncover qualified real estate buyers, so I approached him to learn more about what he was doing.
He and his staff subscribed to an automated dialing system, which incorporated an automated voice mail message. This automated system allowed contact with over 60 customers an hour, which stood in strong contrast to our manual methods of 15 contacts hourly. This system added an important new element to our marketing. Going forward we would use EDDM to reach out to prospective customers and automated dialing assistance would be an affordable way to contact the existing customer base.
In the meantime, ongoing improvements in camera room lighting, improved backdrops, and better photo editing techniques were deployed. We were now producing more consistent, customer-pleasing outcomes and sales were slowing climbing.