How to Make Money

How This Photographer Turned a Favor for a Friend into a $81K Business

August 1, 2016
by Jamie Cattanach
Staff Writer
how to start a small business

Lots of people make their living as photographers.

But how many of them earn a living while helping boost their clients’ confidence, learn to love their bodies and get more intimate with their partners?

That’s what Lindsay Pullen does.

She’s the founder of Bad Girl Boudoir, a studio in St. Augustine, Florida, that specializes in glamorous makeovers and tastefully sexy boudoir photos.

What’s more, she was able to start a business from the ground up on her own terms, without going into debt. She went from shooting in her own home to hiring full-time staff, renting a studio and earning a livable full-time salary.

Oh yeah, and she adores her job.

Here’s how she did it.

How This Photographer Created Her Own Dream Job

Back in 2010, a friend of Pullen’s had just started seeing a new beau. Things were going well, so she thought she might surprise him with some sexy photos. However, she wanted them to be quality shots — not sketchy mirror cell phone selfies.

So she reached out to the closest friend she had who could wield a camera with grace — Lindsay Pullen.

At the time, Pullen was working a nine-to-five in a corporate firm, putting her Bachelor of Fine Arts in graphic design to good use. But since taking a required darkroom photography course in college, she’d developed a soft spot for the camera.

She frequently supplemented her primary income with photography side hustles, shooting an occasional wedding or suite of children’s portraits for friends and family who paid her what they could.

So Pullen was thrilled to help her friend — although at the time, she didn’t have very much to work with.

“Most of the photography I had done before that was all outdoors with natural light,” Pullen says, but she made it work. “I pinned up some sheets on the wall as the backdrop, used a couple garage lights as my studio lights.”

Though perhaps not her most technically perfect photographs, the shoot worked out: Pullen’s friend’s boyfriend adored them.

And so did the other women she showed the photos to, and they were soon knocking down Pullen’s door. She started fulfilling their requests, asking them to pay what they could. Soon, she’d built a website and come up with a brand — all while keeping her full-time job.

But as Pullen’s life got busier and her side-gig stacks got fatter, it became obvious her photography was the start of something larger.

“I was spending all of my time on the weekends doing shoots and all of my time after [work] editing,” Pullen says. Her private shoots were starting to affect her productivity in the office — and besides, they were way more fun.

Plus, she didn’t have a husband or any children — and thanks to Florida’s Bright Futures program, she’d graduated college debt-free.

So Pullen made the leap. She hatched a plan, quit her job and started running her photography business full time.

And she hasn’t looked back since.

How to Start a Business: One Step at a Time

Although Pullen’s project was an almost immediate runaway success, she didn’t walk into it without a backup plan.

She took six months to pay down her credit card debt and car loan and saved up a $2,000 emergency fund, just in case things didn’t go as planned.

Pullen said she became a “total recluse” in order to prepare, avoiding excessive shopping, dining out and enacting very strict meal plans for her grocery shopping.

But since she was shooting out of her apartment and already owned her camera, the business itself didn’t have much overhead, and consistently happy clients meant she was getting tons of free word-of-mouth advertising.

Slowly but surely, her business grew.

She traded her Jacksonville apartment for a house in St. Augustine, using the master bedroom’s large walk-in closet as a private space for her clients.

By 2013, after running Bad Girl Boudoir full time for two years, she’d increased the company’s revenue from $45K to $74K — and could afford studio space separate from her home. She’d even become so busy she had to turn clients away, so she hired a second photographer.

So how does Pullen explain her success?

To start, she understands the importance of branding — and since she’d been a graphic design major, she was able to do a lot of the footwork herself. She also designed the finished products, like photo books and calendars, eliminating the need to involve (and pay) a third party.

She also realized when she needed help and was willing to hire early — she had a makeup artist on staff almost from the very start.

“I realized the value of that before and after and how the majority of these clients have never had professional makeup done,” Pullen says. “I realized early on… that needed to be a part of what we were known for.”

She also took advantage of the growing power of online marketing.

Luckily, she’d learned a lot about web design as a graphic designer, both in school and in the professional world.

Her website was a huge boon to her business. Not only did it solidify her brand and make it consistent, it helped her decide to pursue the business full time in the first place. In making her site, Pullen “realized that women were actually searching for this” — and there wasn’t another studio like it in the area.

“The more web design you know, the better, for any entrepreneur,” Pullen explains.

But the most important contributor to her success? She’s head over heels in love with what she does.

“It wasn’t until I found that niche… that it really kind of fell into place,” she explains. Boudoir photography made her feel different — better — than any wedding shoot or set of portraits she’d done ever had.

“I enjoyed every part about it, from the business side to the way the client looks in the mirror when she sees herself after getting her makeup done, to the look on her face when she sees the back of the camera from her shoot,” Pullen says.

“When I hear from a friend that she’s referred, how much she just loved everything… it’s just very rewarding.”

And the rewards aren’t just emotional: Last year, the business pulled in $81,000.

Her next goal? Maintaining her full-time salary ($45K) while cutting her hours in half. Her entrepreneurial spirit is calling her to explore new directions, including a photo booth.

And since Pullen’s fabricated her dream business, she has the freedom to follow the call.

Want to Start Your Own Business?

No matter what you’re passionate about, you can take control of your career and start your own business — as long as you’re committed and willing to work hard.

You might not be able to start out with the very best gear, but neither did Pullen. What’s more important is finding your niche and figuring out how to fill a demonstrable hole in the market.

And, of course, doing what you do well.

“As long as you… perfect your craft, it really doesn’t matter what you use as your tool,” Pullen says.

“As long as you know how to manipulate your tools, you can really create whatever you want with whatever equipment you have.”

Instead, focus on finding the thing you do best. And the first step? Exploration.

“At the beginning, try everything,” Pullen recommends. “See what you feel most comfortable doing, and what comes the most natural[ly] for you.”

Then, make a solid plan, build up a hefty emergency fund and hold on tight — it’s gonna be a long, crazy — and hopefully wonderful — ride.

Your Turn: What hobby can you turn into your full-time business?

Jamie Cattanach is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. Her writing has also been featured at The Write Life, Word Riot and elsewhere. Find @JamieCattanach on Twitter to wave hello.

by Jamie Cattanach
Contributor for The Penny Hoarder

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