It’s now over ten years since I registered my company, Versatile Photographers. Twelve years of success and failure. The ups and downs have been like a rollercoaster ride that whirls to a crescendo and back to a decrescendo in a continuous, exhilarating sequence. And in the midst of the ride, the lessons learned are bountiful.
So has been my journey in business.
I consider myself an Artpreneur because my business mainly centers on art. I develop an art business. When you are in business, you are in the kitchen, and there’s fire. Prepare to get burned, but at the same time, you will learn a lot in the process. Being among the pioneer photographers, I lacked someone to look up to, a role model. As a result, oftentimes I had to learn from my own mistakes. That is why I developed a passion for mentorship, and today, I use the platform to sensitize the youth and transmit lessons of success that I’ve learned over the years.
Having grown up in a rural setting, I was lucky to learn the value of money at a tender age. Therefore, the lessons of success started early. I started out as a mole catcher in the village, a trade I learned from a resident who was contracted by local farmers to rid their farms of the pestilent rodent. It started as an idea. I identified a problem and developed an interest. Then I learned from seeing how it was done by the professional himself. Later, when I had mastered the trade, I executed the idea, cut the cost by half and gave the resident mole catcher a run for his money. Business is war. It’s about the competition. Healthy, smart, sustainable competition.
Once you develop an interest, you should go back to the kitchen and begin the execution. Begin with researching. This way, you learn the skills needed to succeed. Identify people who can guide and help you to achieve your goal. Idea breeds interest, interest should lead to execution. But the only way to stand out is to execute your ideas in a unique manner. This is one of the most crucial lessons of success. Develop a unique product, package and sell it so well that your way of business beats the rest.
Lesson #1. Network
Network means everything in business. Your network is your net worth. In the execution of your idea, remember that people make a business successful, and therefore, you should create a wide network of potential clients, the first of whom should be people in your industry. Through them, you will be able to get your first jobs and develop one of the most important lessons of success and credentials in any business—a portfolio.
Lesson #2. You must have a portfolio
I always emphasize the importance of a portfolio because it is the main reason behind my story of success. From seeing the kind of pictures published in international magazines, I was deeply inspired and having developed an interest in photography, it was always my dream to see my work published. I stalked the international photographers with questions and got to learn a lot. I knocked doors, worked towards my dream. Today, my work has been published in a variety of magazines including on the international stage. This would not have happened if I hadn’t gone the extra mile to develop content to market myself. And one of the most important lessons of success you will ever learn is that a portfolio means everything to your brand. It makes you stand out. Someone may not like you in person, but they may be deeply inspired by your portfolio. The content you create for your portfolio will give you business opportunities. Make sure it is extraordinary.
Lesson #3. Have a mentor
To ensure the success of your brand, you need to have someone to guide you on the best way forward, a mentor. A more experienced person will light your path and direct you towards the best path so that you can avoid the common mistakes. Find someone who is better than you and emulate them. I credit my success to my mentors. From them, I learned a lot about business, how to be a better photographer and most of the important lessons of success. You need a mentor to lead your path.
Lesson #4. Knock doors
Business opportunities have no tentacles. Unless you go in search of them, they will hardly come looking. You have to knock on doors to ask for business. Otherwise, no one will bring it to you. For this reason, you need to package your product in a way you want, and when you launch it into the market, make sure it creates visibility for you as a brand. When I opened a new branch of my company, Versatile Photographers, at the Village Market, I launched it with an event. Doing this as opposed to just putting out press releases or advertising on social media helped create tangible visibility for my brand. I created a platform for networking and brought together people who believed in my vision. Partner with such people, and also remember that sponsors breathe life into your dream. Go out of your way to find them.
Lesson #5. Sell Value
One of the most important lessons of success you will ever learn is the need to sell value to your clients. As a matter of fact, you should go the extra mile and sell experience, not just the product. Do not give mediocre services or betray your client’s trust. Make sure you turn up for the job, deliver the best you can, and give the client an excellent experience to remember. The only way you can maintain and grow your clientele is by practicing due diligence. Integrity is your lift to growth in success. This extends to how you relate with your colleagues. For instance, when I started out, I had no camera. I had to borrow one from other established photographers. Had I lacked the integrity needed, I wouldn’t have taken care of the equipment or returned them in perfect condition. I build trust. In turn, I experienced growth.
Lesson #6. Build relationships
When you get a stable network, you build viable relationships. I started out taking pictures of the house helps in Kangemi. I gave quality service, taking excellent photos and delivering them in a unique way (envelopes) only after a day (as opposed to a week like other photographers). This way, I built a network of clients who trusted me and this boosted my business. I received overwhelming requests for photos, and as a result, I left employment and decided to venture on my own. The house-helps marketed me to their bosses. Sooner than later, the bosses requested my services. Later, they introduced me to the corporate world, and my business gradually flourished. This is one of the most important lessons of success you will ever learn: relationships in and out of the industry mean everything to the future of your business. But remember, the only way you can build viable relationships is if you give valuable, quality service.
Lesson #7. Understand the industry
This will help you get an idea of how things work, and in turn, you will know who to cooperate with for the progress of your brand. You will be in a position to identify and work with successful brands to take your brand to the next level. In addition to this, you will be able to understand the market and tailor your packages for different clients. It will help you understand the dos and don’ts and know the requirements you need to facilitate the business. For instance, if you are an events planner, you must understand venues in advance so that you can recommend clients. Knowing how your industry works equip you with the wisdom to be creative enough to package yourself as a brand in the best way possible.
Lesson #8. Shun excuses to grow
I grew up in a rural setting, started out young as a mole catcher. When I finally moved to Nairobi, I had to do odd jobs to make ends meet. Finally, I landed an internship at a leading photography studio, Mwangaza Studio, along Latema Road. I had no experience, skill, or money, but only had a passion to grow. I gave my best although I earned nothing. But this stint became my stepping stone to a successful career in photography. You can start anywhere, with nothing, and still achieve the heights of success.
Lesson #9. Be open to learning.
I took the best lessons of success while at Mwangaza studio. Since I wore a Kodak-branded t-shirt while working there, many assumed I was a photographer and started asking for my services. This way, I saw an opportunity and started learning and practicing photography on the side. I constantly consulted the photographers who brought pictures in the studio for processing. Among them, Muturi Kanini’s work inspired me most. This way I learned a lot. Learning is your only sure ticket to success.
Lesson #10. Invest in quality equipment.
Having started my career in photography without a camera I had to keep borrowing one. This limited me as sometimes my lender couldn’t be in a position to give me their equipment. I was motivated to invest in my own equipment. Quality means a lot to me, so as soon as I was in a position to buy my own, I went for the best. I had to sacrifice and save for this, and today, I have a wide range of equipment that qualifies me for a wide variety of photography engagements. Whatever you do, you must invest in the best equipment to facilitate work, and most importantly, put you in a position to give high-class service.
Lesson #11. Dare to be different and deliver quality.
Look the part. Dress neatly and make sure you exceed the client’s expectations. These are some of the lessons of success that have made me stand out in my career as a professional photographer. I go out of my way to deliver quality work and incorporate a lot of creativity to make my work unique. As a result, I’m able to maintain a customer base and get a lot of referrals. I believe there’s no shortcut to success. Either you deliver quality or you have no business being in business.
Lesson #12. Go global.
Social media has made the world a global village. Every business person must have a presence online. We must search for forums and platforms on the internet that will help sharpen our skills, learn and showcase what we do. I found a learning platform early enough in my career and it has helped me grow a great deal. The internet also became my best friend for marketing. Today, I work globally with some of the institutions and individuals I network online. We have no excuse not to put our businesses on the global market.
Lesson #13. Branding
Formulate a unique signature for your business in terms of quality and expertise that will speak for itself in the industry. When I founded Versatile Photographers, I focused to produce only the very best quality. I instilled this discipline in my team and partners, and with time, this became a culture that is known by all my clients. Producing quality not only makes you stand out but also it makes you reliable and qualified to handle any project.
Lesson #14. Spot opportunities.
Earlier, I mentioned why you must go in search of business. I met my mentor, Valentine Cake House CEO Mathew Gathua, at a function I was covering as a freelance photographer. I was tasked to take a photo of the cake and deliver it to his office. This, to me, was a golden opportunity to showcase my skills. On the day of delivery, I took my portfolio with me. Awed by my work, Mr. Mathew Gathua introduced me to the staff and asked me to leave my card to them for referrals. I got a troop of customers from this day onwards. Opportunity. You must see it and use it well. Again, you must be equipped and ready to deliver. That one chance to showcase yourself may be your only roadmap to success.
Lesson #15. Master your craft and go the extra mile.
When I was contacted to cover the much-publicized Kiss FM Victorian wedding, I did not doubt my abilities. I pitched my portfolio and landed the job. To prepare for the event I honed and sharpened my skills day and night. Finally, I went the extra mile to cover the event with the best coverage. It was a massive success, and henceforth, I became a hot cake in the business. Mastering your craft is not enough; you must go the extra mile.
Lesson #16. Build leaders.
Judging from the number of jobs and referrals I got, it dawned on me that I needed a team. I trained others who were willing to get the skill and grow with my company. So far, I have managed to build structures and put measures in place within my company. The leaders I built manage my business today and I’m in a position to go on holiday and leave things running fluently. When you invest in others successfully, they are empowered and in turn become leaders.
Lesson #17. Become innovative.
Go big or go home! You should learn the emerging trends in your industry and move with the times. Innovation always puts you ahead of the pack. You lead and others follow. Versatile Photographers has stayed ahead of the rest in the industry because of the culture of innovation it embraces. Our training at Versatile School of Photography and the kind of content we create always evolves and stands out in its uniqueness. Innovation is the anchor of every business.
Lesson #18. Be humble
Once, a client approached me to cover a funeral. I decided to do the job myself because I couldn’t get another photographer to do it at the proposed rate. From this job, as fate would have it, I established contact with the American Embassy. This was the connection that landed me the coveted job, much later, as the official photographer of the President of the United States of America, Barack Obama, when he visited Kenya. Humility can take you places. That is why to date; I still take up hectic, demanding jobs and still give my best.
Lesson #19. Keep in touch with current affairs.
Agendas that present business opportunities are set by the day to day happenings in the society. Stay tuned for things trending and major events happening. Go out of your way to participate. Cover the moment either in writing, photos or video. You do not necessarily have to be paid. Keep in mind that one event can become your breakthrough by presenting future opportunities that will lead to your growth and success.
Lesson #20. Mentor others.
I owe my success to the mentorship I received. No wonder I deeply value mentorship. I believe that if you want to become better at what you do, you should teach another. Mentoring people has enabled me to create a network of photographers who produce the standard of work I stand for, therefore enabling collaborations. They help me grow, and vice versa. Success is a two-lane highway.
Lesson #21. You must practice consistency.
Set standards and maintain them. Do it yourself first. I mastered my craft before passing on the skill to my team. This way, I have set standards that have become a culture of work that’s followed everywhere across my company. Consistency enables you to maintain your level of performance and professionalism as well as improve for the best.
I’ve come a long way because of these lessons of success. Over ten years, and still counting. Today, Versatile Photographers has grown into an agency. I now run several brands, that is Versatile Photographers, Versatile School of Photography, Versatile Adventures, Versatile Etiquette, Versatile Creative Hub, Africa Stock Images and Photography by David Macharia. I look forward to more growth and success as I embrace more lessons every passing day. Meanwhile, the rollercoaster keeps spinning, and I hold on tight, emboldened by the wisdom I have gained over the years, and ready to learn more through the ups and downs.