Design Aglow's Senior Week 2015: Meet Brittney Kluse

Senior Week 2015 is here- We're celebrating Design Aglow's curated irresistible senior product line with new additions like the newly redesigned Senior Welcome Packet and Essential Senior Product Collection, as well as the all new Outside The Box and Senior Style Graduation Announcements. Don't miss tips and tricks from the industry's most inspiring senior photographers each day on the blog. Follow-up by posting your most creative images on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter using hashtag #DesignAglowSeniors. The three photographers that inspire us the most will win one of three shopping sprees valued at $300, $200 and $100. To kick-off the celebration, we hope you glean inspiration from our first interview featuring the inspiring Brittney Kluse~

Your Senior Portrait business has been incredibly successful - you were even voted Best Photographer in a People’s Choice Contest! Congrats! What do you think are the top 3 key pieces for a successful business model?

I will never forget the day I told my husband I wanted to quit my "day job" and pursue photography full steam ahead. It was excitement, fear, and hope all rolled into one. Having never owned my own business, I struggled to conceptualize and translate all of the lessons I had learned up to that point and carve out something that remotely resembled a photography business. Was it good? Ummmm ... NO! Was it a start ... YES! ...and we all have to start somewhere.

That shaky, early business model laid the foundation for what my business would one day become. There were highs, lows, bumps in the road, and a plethora of new lessons to be learned. For about three years, my business was evolving and being continually refined as I honed my skills, simplified my workflow, developed my style, and cultivated my brand. Through hard work, patience - and even a little luck - I arrived at a business model I can now call a well-oiled machine.

Looking back, the three most integral pieces of my business model would be:

1) PASSION: Quality not quantity.

Even at the beginning - when the words "not good" would be an appropriate description of my skills - I had a burning passion for this art. I simply loved to shoot. I would photograph anything I could get my hands on - from people, to animals, to fruit - all in an effort of developing my skills. I believed in myself and believed I had talent. What came next was a two-year learning endeavor where I read book after book on the technical aspects of photography, watched YouTube tutorials on mastering manual camera settings, and most importantly I just kept shooting. Different subjects, light, and settings all in the pursuit of achieving my dream.

My very first photography collection offered only FIVE digital images. Wanna guess why? ... FIVE was the only number of images I could guarantee would be awesome and amazing. I didn't care about delivering 25 alright photographs - I wanted to deliver five outstanding images to my clients! This "quality over quantity" extended to other parts of my business. My website was a small, but sharp. I believed in only showing the best-of-the-best and creating the expectation of quality and consistency; all the while challenging myself to keep developing my skills for better and improved quality in all aspects of my business.

Over the years, I have shifted my business focus to only include shooting what I love. This fuels my passion for photography and keeps me on my toes. At the end of the day, I simply couldn't stop shooting. Photography is part of the inner-workings of my soul and it's something that excites me, calms me, and keeps me happy!

2) PERFORMANCE: Smarter not harder

I never started my business with fancy equipment or programs. For years I shot with an entry-level DSLR and basic lenses. My business wasn't based on spending the most money, it was based on working with what I had and perfecting its limits. For me, it was no different than growing out of pair of shoes that were becoming increasingly tight - you just feel when you're ready to go up to the next size. I stayed focused on doing what I needed with what I had to deliver top-notch imagery because those images were the heart of my business!

My brain is wired in a systems-and-formula kind of way. Even cleaning my house, I have a systematic way of doing it. If I'm out running errands, I map out furthest to shortest and follow that formula. My business is no exception! From day one it was about maximizing profits and minimizing time. When I was in the beginning years of my business it was tight around our household. I had quit my day-job to pursue this dream and had two kids under the age of two. Simply put, my husband and I didn't have lots of excess funds laying around to get projector software for in-person sales or fancy reflectors and scrims. I knew that our money was best spent investing into the equipment that TAKES and EDITS the photos (camera bodies, lenses, Photoshop, etc) and not in things that I possible could replicate. For example, I longed for Westcott's 5-in-1 reflector (which I am happy to now own!), but I knew that $200 really needed to go towards an 85mm f/1.4 lens. So, I headed on down to the craft store and bought one large rectangle of white foam core and some spray glue. I kept one side its original white, and on the opposite side coated it with spray glue and adhered basic aluminum foil to it! VOILA - a DIY reflector. Not great, but not bad - and NOT expensive. What's funny is I still have a small 11x14 one that I carry with me when I just need a "pop" of reflection.

This keep-it-simple approach has spread all over my business. To this day all I take to a photo shoot is my camera, a few lenses, a stepstool and reflector. I have never had a complicated investment sheet or product offering. I strive to keep my client's choices simple, focused and based on quality, lasting products they would appreciate for years to come. Even ordering sessions are simple. Before I had an in-home office or iPad I simply printed out 4x6s of the final images and met with clients at Starbucks to go over the images and make their final selections. No fancy projectors, programs, or hype. Just quality images, friendly customer service - and coffee never hurts! I mentor photographers all over the country via my RISE mentoring program, and the number one lesson I teach them is to be constantly thinking smarter not harder when it comes to shooting, editing, sales, and beyond.

3) PROFITABILITY: Charge what you're worth.

If you're a photographer, you've probably been burned by price at sometime in your career. Either implications you're not charging enough OR being told you're too much. What you charge is about as subjective as hairstyles in my opinion. What does it matter what someone in Atlanta, Georgia thinks a person in Kennewick, Washington should be charging? Know what YOU want and charge what YOU'RE worth. If you're an entry-level photographer and have 14 sessions under your belt, I wouldn't suggest a $1,000 minimum order. Conversely, if you're spending 20-25 hours on a session from beginning to end (consultations, shooting, editing, etc), I don't think a $250 profit margin is wise. It's all about being real with yourself: how much time is it taking you, what is your time worth, and what's the quality that you're delivering ... no one can answer that but YOU! I've always respected my business to charge appropriately for my time. Even when I'm doing something I love, it's still time away from my hubby and kids - and unfortunately loving my job doesn't pay my mortgage. No one will take your business seriously if YOU don't take it seriously!

This specific career choice has often baffled me as I talk to others around the country who have experienced similar things. For example, if I owned a local Starbucks, I highly doubt friends and family would come in asking for a "discount" on their latte simply because they know me - but this is something we all know happens all the time within the photography industry! People are misled to think just because you LOVE what you do, you should/would do it for free or at discounted rates. I have always offered prices reflective of my skill, expertise, and overall experience that I know I deliver my clients and most importantly - I never backed down. My prices are what they are. I don't fudge them or apologize for them. If you don't like it, there are several other photographers in the area to choose from. The fastest way to building resentment for your business is devaluing your own time's worth.

You are your brand. How did you mold who you are as a person into a business? How do you differentiate from the hundreds of other photographers in your market?

Ahhhhh, the famous unique value proposition question. I wasn't always known as the "colorful" photographer. I spent a lot of years chasing industry trends and trying to shift my own business to match that. In the end I was never truly satisfied. I followed photographers all over the country that I admired, and each seemed to have a "look" all their own. Who told them where their look was hiding? What workshop did I miss where we found our "looks"? ... are you laughing at me yet?

I was laying in my closet having a slight emotional breakdown, and I looked up through some tears and happened notice my closet was filled of colorful clothes and funky patterns. I secretly thought to myself, 'it looks like Rainbow Brite threw up in my closet.' A light-bulb had gone off in my brain. I went over to my makeup and started looking through it. I saw colors from makeup collections containing words like: vibrant, bold, bright. Then I wandered around my house and took note of my white couch with pops of neon chartreuse pillows, bright yellow barstools, and a chevron painted wall in my office. Hummmmm. Safe to say I like bright colors? So why in the world was I trying so hard to fit in with everyone else, when I already knew what I was drawn to!

It was then I stopped following photography blogs and turned that focus inward. I spent a period of about 6-months trying to narrow my focus and shoot what I love and play around in Photoshop developing a style all my own - no actions needed! I wanted my style to be based off of ME from bottom to top! This was harder than it sounds, but what ultimately happened is I built a system, signature to myself and my work, that's now something that other people pay me to learn - that makes me proud, happy, and humbled!  

I'm often asked by photographers why I teach such core competencies in workshops and mentoring - for example, the way I shoot and edit. The primary reason is because I don't fear competition. Everyone has a unique niche for doing what they do well. When people hire me, they are not just hiring me for the way the images will look, but primarily for the experience of partnering with me from beginning to end - THOSE are my true core competencies. Just because someone knows my camera settings and Photoshop steps doesn't mean they can replicate me!

senior portrait

Do you feel like you have mastered being a one-woman show? Or do you have help behind the scenes? Tell us about your workflow (or systems.)

I've tried both ways ... one-woman show and a variety of assistants handling different aspects of my business. It's most likely a mixture of my Type-A and slightly OCD personality, but I tend to work best when it's just me and one assistant working on specific one-at-a-time projects. Currently, I manage all the day-to-day workings of my business and I have a fabulous assistant, Fayzeh, who lives a few states away, but because of wonderful technology can help me with specialty projects like online webinars and workshops and putting together marketing materials like online magazines. My business is very streamlined so it really just takes me to keep the pieces moving and boxes checked!

Because I built my business from the ground up, I've personally worked across every level. I've been a photographer, an admin, an editor, a website designer, a blog-writer, an accountant, a social media planner, a graphic designer, and the list goes on. Just because I can do it, doesn't mean I will do it well! However, it was good training for me to learn know and understand how my business operates across cross-cutting levels. As my business and profits grew, I began setting aside money for annual business expenses and hired business experts, ultimately freeing up more of my time to focus on what I loved and what I was best at - photography! The best decisions I ever made was hiring a business accountant, website developer/designer, and SEO expert. Being able to know what you CAN'T do is just as powerful as knowing what you CAN!

My workflow can slightly vary depending on what kind of shoot it is, but typically integrates these main pieces in the workflow:
-E-mail conversations to book the shoot
-Consultation(s) prior to the shoot
-Scouting locations for the session
-Shooting the session
-Culling and editing
-In-person ordering session
-Product ordering and delivery!

What I've learned is there is no one right way to run a business. As long as you are 1) staying true to your passion, 2) charging what your time is worth with an ROI that you find valuable, and 3) actively controlling your business without it controlling you - then I believe you've got a recipe for success and happiness!

Brittney Kluse is a lifestyle photographer based in the sunny, eastern corner of Washington state. Best known for her bright, bold, and colorful imagery in the photography industry; to her family and friends, Brittney is best known for her inability to do laundry and dishes. In addition to being a natural light photographer, Brittney is a full-time mess-picker-upper for her two young children and husband. Launching her business in 2008, Brittney has evolved her vibrant and loud style to match her equally-as-loud voice. Her background in business, marketing, and branding mixed with her thriving photography brand has helped shape her into a sought after mentor for photographers around the globe. Brittney is fluent in English and sarcasm.


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