Taking your photography biz from a startup to a six-figure income is totally attainable with the right attitude, the right tools, and (we like to think), the right peeps in your corner. Check out this rad story by one of Pepper’s creative clients, Stephanie Zakas—an Iceland Elopement Photographer and Elopement Photography coach.
From a shoebox filled with barista tips to being a multi-business owner in Iceland: The 3 game changers I learned along the way to success.
Everyone starts out with a glimmer of a dream.
The type of dream that starts with about $300 (saved in a Nike shoe box that’s hidden under the bed filled with barista tips). The type of dream where a bank teller makes an incorrect assumption while they are depositing those aforementioned tips that they’ve saved up to buy their first Canon Rebel XT DSLR (?). The type of dream where they give the bank teller some serious mood for shaming women before telling her, “no” and leaving the bank to start their photography dream, right?
Oh no, just me? Ok. (#truestory)
So, yah, my path to entrepreneurship (and having a super fun and epic elopement brand in Iceland) didn’t really start out with me knowing where I was going to go—as I suspect is the same for you. I just knew that I wanted to be my own boss and I loved shooting 35mm film on my tiny little vintage Minolta body. I also knew that I had this weird calling for photography as an extension of my fine art training, and I just had this feeling in my gut that this was it. From that first DSLR purchase from my barista tips, I definitely had a similar start as most photographers (aka get people to agree to stand in front of my camera—for free—as I learned how to use it and how to speak to them while shooting and learned if I actually wanted to do the dang thing.
Turns out, I did.
That was back in 2006 where I, honestly, documented anything and everyone. From free family sessions to free engagement sessions, to me convincing my friends to let me do zombie makeup on them and create a fun zombie shoot because why TF not? From that point on, my road has been super wild, completely non-linear, and was nothing more than me gaining experience every chance I could.
Somehow, I ended up working for Disney in Disney Creative Media as a lead photographer. Working for Disney was the first time I ever touched a full-frame camera and, admittedly, I taught myself how to use those beefy cameras while on shoots (shhh, don’t tell Mickey). During this time, I also started to assist local photographers at weddings to see if weddings were the direction I wanted to go in. I would show up, hold their gear, and learn the flow of the day before I was ever allowed to bring my own camera to take some photos when ‘there was nothing else to do’. I started to really like weddings and the intimacy of the day, paired with the connection made with the couple. When you sit and think about it, being a wedding photographer is a super rare glimpse into so many worlds you would never be a part of otherwise.
I was kinda hooked.
Then, after years of this—getting roles as a second shooter and working for Disney—I just kept having this gut feeling that I was meant to be doing more. What was that more? I didn’t know, but I will tell you this—if you feel that feeling, run with it. I was getting a bit bored and burnt out, working four jobs, just trying to make this ‘photography thing’ happen, then, one day my Disney manager gave me the biggest blessing in disguise. She sat me down and said, “you are too creative for Disney, we need you to tone it down a bit.” And, well, my life has really been all about breaking narratives I don’t like, so I told her, “Ok, then I quit.” I got a one-way plane ticket to NYC—without a place to live or a job (or money, if I’m being honest)—sold all of my things out of the back of my car in Orlando, and 10 days later I was in Brooklyn, sleeping on a floor with NO idea what the shit I was going to do. But that ole cliché, ‘if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere’ spoke to me. So I thought, Ok, time to get my ass kicked.
I don’t want to bore you with every detail of how I went from sleeping on the floor in a shady Brooklyn apartment (under the BQE, without a penny to my name) to how I became a multiple, six-figure business owner, but I will give you a quick montage.
Here we go.
Gets a job working as a server in Times Square and hates it; wiggles my way into internships that turn into being a production coordinator with huge name photographers (and has a mental breakdown due to the toxic environment); starts shooting fashion and finds myself at the end of the runways at NYFW; decides I fucking hate fashion and miss weddings; gets a job contracting for a major (awful) wedding company to build my portfolio in NYC; starts teaching myself business so I could stop contracting (because getting paid $600-800 for an entire wedding was crap and I knew I was meant for more); kept searching what that more might be; told that contracting company to go kick rocks; started booking my own weddings in the not-saturated-at-all (?) NYC wedding photography scene; moved from DBA to LLC (with only $1200 to my name); had some weddings with clients that just felt super off; had a wedding that almost killed me and decided either I quit or change; taught myself branding and marketing; hyper focused on the right people to attract; moved from giant Manhattan weddings to micro Brooklyn weddings and elopements; made $100k that first year I went full time; then…I took a trip to Iceland on one super dark and cold February…and the rest is history.
Now, I live in Iceland with a multiple six-figure elopement business as a single shooter and no associates. I love my life, my brand, and my clients. I have been consulting and coaching other creative business owners as well. I teach them how to go from being on the struggle bus to discovering the internal blocks that are holding them back from creating a highly fulfilling, client experience, focused brand, and making a heck of a lot more money. I’ve also been creating online courses to help more creatives who maybe aren’t ready for the 1:1 commitment. I’m a firm believer that if I, a midwestern girl born and raised in Ohio, can become a successful business owner living as an ex-pat in Iceland, anyone can.
Now, I want to give you the top three big game changers that helped me go from $300 in a shoebox to earning multiple six-figures in one business and opening up others. I hope this inspires you to create your own empire(s), break any internal narratives you are following, and create the most fulfilling business(es) of your dreams.
Game Changer One: Understanding my superpowers, finding the right people who need them, then creating my workflows to do the heavy lifting.
Understanding my superpowers and what I am really good at (past taking photos) has been the biggest level up for me. When you know what YOU offer the world—and then offer it unapologetically—magic can happen. Remember when I mentioned having that awful wedding that almost killed me a few paragraphs up? This is what changed it all for me. I realized they were NOT the type of people I was meant to serve, and they were also not the type of people who needed me and what I offer to the world. Once I knew this, I was able to be really comfortable living in my own skin within the industry.
Then, because I have a deep understanding of who needs my superpowers and who I serve best, I have created a 100% client experience focused brand. Everything I do is for them, even how my workflows are set up.
I am obsessed with workflows because I am obsessed with efficiency to save me time so I can focus on other ways to elevate their experience and have time to build other businesses. As you probably picked up, I am obsessed with elevating my client’s experience, so setting up my workflows for automation AND client experience is where it’s at. My brand has its own value system and my workflows support that value system to give my clients (and me) the best time possible. Workflows are not just to help you behind the scenes. You can create them in a way that supports your brand message, client experience, making your job easier to manage, and of course, making sure your service is 100% client experience focused. It all starts with your workflows.
Game Changer Two: Learning what rules and internal narratives I was following and then figuring out which ones were no longer serving me.
Oof, this is a tough one. But, real business growth also needs to be paired with real internal growth. If you have a dream, but your actions are not aligning with said dream, then sorry but that dream more than likely won’t happen. Discovering the internal narratives we put up to box ourselves in is a huge step to breaking out into the world we want. This is something that I have been working through for years—breaking my own rules for years—and creating what I really want because I really want it. (You have the permission from here on out to really go after what YOU really want, not what others in the industry are telling you is right). This is something I am so passionate about and help other business owners discover.
Some of the narratives and rules I have broken are:
- growing up in Ohio and thinking I had to stay
- contract shooting because I ‘wasn’t ready’ for my own brand
- working for Disney for too long because it’s a good job
- living in America because being an ex-pat in Nordic countries is basically impossible
- what a wedding photography brand looks like
- how wedding photographers need to price themselves (especially for elopements)
- what an adventure elopement photographer looks like and what their brand/marketing messaging/logo needs to be, etc.
I continually discover the internal narratives I’m following—or that I feel I need to follow because everyone else is doing it—and I break them. Pivot. Do what you want to do. Make your brand how you want to make it.
I offer 1:1 coaching and business consulting on the above topics, to help you discover the narratives that are no longer serving you and then help build a badass brand around what you really like.
Game Changer Three: Investing in myself and my business and actually taking action.
Investing in myself and my business has truly been the catalyst in my growth. And, the most important part—taking action with what I have learned—is the secret sauce. Knowledge is awesome but it’s really taking action that is the Queen here. You can know all the things, but if you don’t apply them and push for success, it isn’t going to happen. As my wise coach always says, ‘the law of attraction can’t happen without the law of action.’’
Investing in education; investing in a trained business coach; and expanding my entrepreneurship into other avenues has been the final game-changer to get me to where I am today. I started with learning proper business skills, then programs within the industry, then really digging into branding, marketing, sales psychology, buyer behavior and behavioral science, etc. We work with people so why not learn how people, ‘people’?
Then, I invested in a properly trained coach who could help me get to where I wanted to be. This someone also has multiple businesses, who encourages me to let my dreams fly, but knows how to tether me in to keep me on track, and is someone who knows what my next 10 steps are because they have already walked those steps. Going from working with a mentor who was teaching me their system (which didn’t work for me, my brand, or my clients) to a business coach who helped my greatness shine was honestly a life and business changer.
Because of my amazing experiences being coached and my own internal work (that started eight years ago), I found a passion for helping other creatives follow their true path. I am now a coach and in a training program for coaching mastery, along with still having my epic elopement brand. I am also opening up more businesses that aren’t photo related but have been the brainchildren of me being comfortable with who I am and what I can offer the world. From investing that time in myself and slowing down to actually think about my potential and what I am fully capable of doing. I have found this passion for helping others and teaching others how to create businesses with superpowers and client experience in mind.
Business is serving people, whether it’s my elopement company or helping other creatives find their branding voice. If you are wanting some help with creating an elopement brand that speaks to you and is client experience focused, I have an online course currently open called Elope it BRAVE that will help you get there. I also offer a 1:1 program with me that is tailored to your needs and geared to help build your brand, unlock those unnecessary internal narratives, and work out all of the behind-the-scenes processes you need. Just reach out, I would love to help you live the life you want.
Steph Zakas is a destination and elopement photographer in Iceland and the owner of Zakas Photography. In addition to being a professional photographer, Steph has added an extension to her current business which offers coaching services for elopement photographers—Elope it BRAVE!
Steph Zakas is a Creative who works with Pepper and we help her with modern marketing and content creation BS (Business Stuff) which brings energy back to her brand and lets her focus on creating—what she does best! Check out Pepper’s services if your creative biz is in need of a BFF!