Today’s podcast we talk with Shalem Kitter, who owns The Studio in Anchorage, Alaska. He and his husband, Mitch, also started, and are continuing, the Love is Love Project. Shalem specializes in senior portraits with fashion projects on the side. He tells us about how he doesn’t think he’d still be in business (due to being in year four of a recession) without the strong systems they’ve built. They’ve made desk manuals (they call them the Studio Bible) for their staff to ensure their clients get a consistent and positive experience, every time. They make sure their clients never leave a touch point empty handed – you’ll want to hear about this!
Shalem also tells us about how they made sure to pay themselves first and how important that is. He recommends we stop looking at other photographers work and focus on making our clients evangelists for our studios.
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Transcription was done by Temi.com which means it’s an AI generated transcript. The transcript may contain spelling, grammar and other errors, and is not a substitute for watching the video.
Shalem: [00:00] This is Shalem Kitter and you’re listening to from nothing to profit.
Speaker 2: [00:05] Welcome to from nothing to profit, a photographer’s podcast with Matt and Kayak where each week they talk to photographers about what is working in their business now so you can swipe those ideas and grow your business faster.
Matt: [00:20] Hey everybody. Welcome to back to the podcast. So today we have shamed kitter who was one of my good friends that lives in Anchorage, Alaska on the show. So let me just give a quick introduction if you guys haven’t seen him, seen his work or follow him. So Shalan and his shame and his husband live in Anchorage, Alaska and they do some really, really amazing work. They mostly specialize in senior portraits, but they’ve been in publishing and tons of magazines and like legit magazines like cosmo girl on American Salon and stuff like that. And then they’ve also. They’ve also been featured on the Huffington Post, buzzfeed and advocate because they did this amazing project called the love is love project. I guess it’s still an active project. [inaudible]. You guys still work on it regularly, so it’s called the love is love project. And it was an, it was like a nationwide photo project promoting equal rights and marriage and equality, but Shannon and I have been friends for awhile. We, um, we met years ago speaking together and we’ve kept in touch ever since. We actually text each other quite often. And so I was really excited to have you on the podcast and so you can tell us exactly what’s working now for you guys and what’s going on in Anchorage.
Kia: [01:31] I’m so excited that you’re here and I am assuming we’ll hear a little bit of it, but I feel like you and I’ve always kind of shared a love of like trends and fashion and that type of thing. And so, um, yeah, I’m super excited to hear all of it. I’m excited to be here. Thanks for having me. Very good. So, uh, our first question for you is to share a little bit about what your area of expertise is, what you’re known for, I kind of thing
Shalem: [01:57] then this winding journey for me in the industry, I’ve kind of gone to a lot of different portions of portrait photography, but now I’ve really settled into senior portraits and I kind of differentiate myself by doing some fashion projects as well to kind of build a, a unique brand.
Matt: [02:16] So you and you did a bunch of pro, uh, when you say fashion, you did a bunch of hair stuff for awhile. I don’t know if you’re still doing that, but I know you used some of your fascia stuff was based around here. Is
Shalem: [02:25] that still the case? Yeah, so I started with doing personal projects, really just wanting to have something in photography that was specifically for me and not for clients. Um, and then I started getting noticed and so I ended up working for l’oreal mirror and Redkin and traveling quite a bit with them and working with a lot of hair care companies. And then now I’ve kind of settled into just loving being in Alaska and being home, not being on the road, um, but I still do a fashion projects for fun on the side. So tell me real quick, I mean I know a little because we talk regularly, but tell me kind of what’s working now for you guys up there in Alaska. Like what are you seeing in the senior portrait industry that’s working best for you? Well, I think in Alaska we are in this kind of a tough spot economically in our state.
Shalem: [03:14] So we are in year four of a recession and so that’s been really challenging for us right at the beginning of this we had really changed a lot of our processes, uh, looked at our pricing, really built a strong system and I don’t know if we would be in business now if we hadn’t implemented all those things at the top of this recession. So one of the perspectives that we shifted was we started to think of our studio as a franchise, not in the sense that we would ever sell or we’d ever have franchisees, but we wanted to fine tune our processes, so specifically that it would have value to an outside purchaser. Um, and so this made us look at the production workflows that we have, our client touchpoints and kind of every step through our internal workflow. We started building desk manuals for each position and each step of how we do what we do.
Shalem: [04:14] We basically did all the not sexy things in photography, but they are the things that have really yield a lot of success and I think all of our top competitors over the last few years have had to close their doors while we’ve been able to stay a level and actually see growth. And so you guys are seeing a recession due to due to the oil industry. Is that Kinda what you’re seeing up there? Is that what happens? Yes. So the, there was a big huge drop in the price of oil and Alaska is a more expensive place to produce oil, so when that margin was gone, our um, our industry and really the tax base for what fuels the whole state, the bottom fell out from under it. So we’ve had just a huge decrease over the last four years. And then you have some people working for you as well.
Shalem: [05:04] So when you made those desk manuals and stuff like that, like do you feel like that helped you with your staff and you can, if you want, talk a little bit about your staff and who you have there and what, what they do and stuff like that. Absolutely. So we have three employees. One is a commission employee that does sales, one is a front desk position that also does sales for added commission and then we have a full time production manager. And building those desk manuals has been extremely helpful in the, in the hiring and training of new employees. So I think since we started building what we call our Studio Bible, we have gone through, I think three or four front desk position employees. It tends to be more seasonal for us because we specialize in senior portraits and not many people want to photograph in subzero weather and so when we’re hiring them and we’re bringing them on, the first step that we do is go over that desk manual with them and it’s just really streamlined everything.
Kia: [06:08] So does it match work with you as well?
Shalem: [06:11] So Mitch had worked with us, um, from the beginning, uh, over the last two years. Now he has taken on another position.
Kia: [06:20] Okay. I thought so. I wasn’t sure it both if you were working together right now or how that worked.
Shalem: [06:26] Yeah. So he still helps in the business management portion of that is really what he’s incredible at both the mind for numbers as well as the mind for business. So he still does the financial side of the business as well as um, the high level like employee management.
Kia: [06:45] Okay. So let me just, so to summarize what you’re saying then Shayla, you feel like what’s working for you now is the time and effort that you put into doing the behind the scenes organization for the business, like the actual structure of a. So you see your staff knows what to do and how to do it with. Is that what you would say?
Shalem: [07:08] Yeah, I definitely think that the thing that has yielded the most success for us is the structure of the business. For a long time. We focused on differentiator ourselves in the market. We looked at marketing campaigns and all of that, getting people in the door. Um, and that was quite successful for us. It built a brand that has a lot of notoriety in town, but I think when we started doing studying the touchpoints that when our clients come in contact with us, making sure that every touchpoint is a positive and that they never leave a contact with us. Empty handed. Things like that have really yielded a lot of referral business. Um, which I really think is what a studio survives on, is that word of mouth referral. So can you give us an, can you give us a point of like a touch point that you guys feel like you’re doing really well that maybe other people aren’t doing?
Shalem: [08:02] Absolutely. So first of all, when they call our studio, we want to get them in and meet with them face to face. I do block booking, so on Mondays it’s my day to do consultations. I’m really great in person and I think a lot of photographers that are good and the portrait realm are and so I just want to meet with them and connect with them. In our consultation we have specific questions that we ask every client and I explain everything in a consistent way. And the reason we do this is because at the end of our workflow we have a survey that our clients fill out and if there’s something that consistently gets mentioned that they were unclear on or if there’s something that’s frustrating, then I know I can just change it in my consultation and because I’m applying it consistently, it’s more of a scientific approach.
Shalem: [08:53] And then also I’m asking key questions that trigger things in our workflow. So for instance, I’m asking them what they love to do in their free time. I’m asking kids what their plans are for the future. I’m also asking them if they went to a coffee shop, what would their go to order B for a drink? And so they might say, I mean all of my girls lately, or been obsessed with Italian red bull smoothies, which sounds like diabetes, but they love it and we get the specific flavors for them. So when they walk in the door for their session, we bring them back to the makeup and hair area. Their name is on the front door when they walk in welcoming sophie. And then when she gets back to her makeup counter, there’s a drink that says sophie on it. That is a guava passion fruit, mango Italian, red bull’s soda.
Shalem: [09:43] And so we were paying attention. A lot of them don’t even realize that we asked that question because of the way we ask it and they just think that somehow we miraculously new. We also ask them what kind of music they love. And we have a Pandora station in the makeup room that’s already playing their favorite music and again, it’s one of those things that they don’t realize how we got to that conclusion, but they just love the music mix every session right after the session, we write a thank you note and we send it in the mail when they come in for a design consultation, when they’re picking out their Walmart and albums. We already have a five by seven that’s been retouched and printed as a gift so that they don’t walk out the door empty handed. Again, all of these touchpoints have started to create a standard in our market and we’ve had a lot of our colleagues and friends contact us and say, is anybody giving them a five by seven?
Shalem: [10:40] Is anybody giving them something to walk out the door? Because we’ve had clients come in and they expect it. And that was so exciting when we started hearing that because it means the word of mouth of those touchpoints, that there’s enough importance where friends are talking about it to their friends. Yeah. That it’s definitely being noticed. That’s so fun. So did you have like some sort of catalyst that made you want to start thinking about that or was that something that you just noticed and wanted to change for yourself? So we read this book called The e Myth and actually read it I think maybe four or five times since we started reading it. We’ve read it every year and we have really new draws each time. It’s kind of a, a really meaty read, but one of the concepts that he talks about that in that book really is being intentional with those touchpoints. So how much, how much better the experience is when it’s consistent, when expectations are met and exceeded every time. So that’s what we’ve just taken and applied and done the work to make sure that it’s happening for every client. Yeah. That’s so great. It’s funny, I have read that book several times and when you were talking about what
Kia: [11:54] you were doing, I was like, oh, I bet they did the e myth. What makes me mad about that book is I feel like, well I need to do all these things and I don’t want to read another book after and so I think you know, like how you’re doing it, where you kind of revisit and do more each time I think is a good way of looking at that because if you just read it and said I’m going to do everything immediately, it’s, I don’t even know if it’s really possible to implement it all at once. Absolutely. Yeah. That’s great.
Shalem: [12:26] It was really daunting. Like you said when we finished it the first time, we’re like, well how just the logistics are so challenging to implement, but if you take it in bite size pieces and I think it’s a benefit to that. We have a team that works with us so there’s something for you to say, you know, I’m going to do this with every client and there’s something different to say, Hey, I need you to do this for every client.
Kia: [12:52] Yeah, absolutely. I think the consistency from client to client is trick is great too what you’re saying because like this year we put out a sign for our first week of clients that said like, welcome Lindsay, and then I just found that the other day when I was like, well that that really stuck. We didn’t do it with anyone else the rest of the year. So the way that you’ve systematized it really makes a lot of sense.
Shalem: [13:18] Yeah. I think the things that sometimes fall through the cracks are the things that I’m responsible to ensure the consistency on. I take a polaroid, like a little instax mini polaroid at every session. Again, with the same thought that we don’t want a client leaving empty handed and when I forget that my clients will mention it and I’m like, oh shoot.
Kia: [13:42] Yeah. They’ll remind you should put it in your confirmation email or whatever might want to take your polaroid. Absolutely, yes. Please remind me. It’s your responsibility. So what is the thing that you’re most fired up about? What about the Industry today? Is there anything that you were like super excited about or that you feel like people aren’t really realizing as a positive thing about photography right now, so we want to be positive, right? Be fired up about something. I just it for something you’re mad about because we want to hear that too.
Shalem: [14:14] Well, I generally try to choose positivity, but I think I’m most excited that photography seems to be getting back to its roots and all of those things that were important in studio portrait photography back in the late nineties and early thousands are kind of coming back, which I love. I think right now there’s this new place where Polish in photographic work is important. Again, I’m authenticity and the personality of the clients are again the most important things, so I think it’s just such good place for the industry. I think for a long time photography was about the photographers and not about the clients and so I think I’m really excited to see that.
Speaker 5: [15:03] What would be an example of that? Like what would you say would be photography about a client
Shalem: [15:08] versus photography about the photographer? Yeah. I think what I see and have seen for the last few years when I go to conventions is main stage speakers showing work that I don’t see a true client in. They are doing all these amazing composites and lens flares and filters and everything about it is so stylized that it’s kind of lost its heart and what I love right now is that I’m seeing a lot of work where you look at a picture and you can see a real person and that I think is what portraiture is about.
Speaker 5: [15:46] And Are you seeing that? Do you feel like in a the portrait photography world or just in photography in general, like on social media and instagram and that type of thing?
Shalem: [15:57] I think in photography in general, so I’m seeing it on these instagram influencers that for a long time they’ve had this like beautiful stunning work, but it’s photographs of their friends. I’m almost playing characters and then now, like I said, people are are so used to seeing a high quality of artistry that now the thing that is a differentiator is the personality and the authenticity in an image.
Matt: [16:25] And I’m just wondering if some of those reasons we’re not seen as much. Excuse me, we’re not seeing as much of that work is some of those photographers that were doing that, you know, non client work and stuff, they just, they just went and got a job or they’re out of business because you know, they had lots of really amazing work, but it wasn’t necessarily a sustainable on a workflow level or it’s just, you know, or it wasn’t client base so they weren’t necessarily making any money. And so was some consolidation in the industry. I’m wondering if that’s why we’re seeing some of the other stuff pop up more as well.
Shalem: [16:57] Yeah, I think, you know, you have to be...