How did you begin your photography business?
In January of 2000, I joined the management team of Vantine Imaging, a nationwide college composite photography company. Janet joined the team a year later in our customer service department. Neither one of us knew a thing about photography. We really don’t know much more about photography right now either—as Janet likes to say, “Just enough to be dangerous.” In fact, they rarely let me touch the cameras, as I generally end up switching some important setting and messing things up.
Janet and I have always been focused on business. In my 17 years at Vantine, I focused on growth and development. As the National Sales and Marketing Manager, I was responsible for market and product development, sales and marketing, and new business and retention. Like myself, Janet had a long tenure at Vantine. For 16 years, she served in a variety of roles such as Customer Service Manager, IT Coordinator and IT Manager. Responsible for the company database and system development, Janet and I worked closely to develop systems and processes to enhance the customer experience and improve efficiencies for the company. In 2009, as Vantine employees, we started a new company called Best Eye Photography to diversify the markets served by the company. Best Eye targeted the local school and sports markets. Under our guidance, the company has grown significantly since photographing our first customers in 2011.
Janet and I had the good fortune and the wonderful opportunity to purchase the Best Eye company from David Vantine, owner of Vantine Imaging, in the summer of 2017. Thus, the birth of BJK Photos, a combination of our names: Beth Jones and Janet King.
We were in a very strange scenario—we were getting Best Eye Photography ready to sell, which takes a ton of time to get all of the necessary paperwork and documents in place. We also just happened to be the buyers. So on the flip side, we had even more work in writing a business plan, complete with financial projections for the next five years with the company under our ownership. Now, Janet and I have written numerous business plans in the past, but when you are actually doing it, looking at the financials and realizing that you are going to have full fiscal responsibility for all of it—it is almost surreal. Interviewing banks and finding funding was our first challenge. Our previous experience with getting loans was really only for mortgaging a house or buying vehicles. We were playing in the major leagues all of a sudden!
What were some of the other challenges you faced getting the business going?
We closed on the sale of the business on August 3, 2017. We then had to physically move the business to a building 20 miles north, where we started leasing office space. Before we could move, we had to renovate the space. Also, the majority of our internal systems changed. We had to launch new accounting software and sales/customer management software, and our production systems were changing. While under the Vantine umbrella, we had our own lab, and H&H was just handling all of our overflow and specialty products. Our proprietary database system was built to talk to our own in-house lab. Well, that went out the window! We must say, though, that the H&H team was outstanding that August in doing their best to help us be prepared for all of the changes. We also had to hire a whole bunch of new staff. So the timing of the purchase of the business wasn’t great—we were moving, trying to figure systems out, hiring a bunch of people and starting photography, all at the same time. It is a miracle we survived it all and are still married to our husbands.
In June 2018, Janet and I rewrote our business plan after completing a very thorough SWOT Analysis on our first year in business. We identified, for example, that spending $50,000 in rush fees at H&H was not going to happen again. Don’t get us wrong, we are thankful that H&H had the rush option, as that was key in helping us deliver to our schools somewhat on time the first season. But the second year got better. We became more streamlined. We understood that we needed more help in the office. We understood what we needed to tweak and change. The first year in business we ended up losing 15 percent of our customers—which was expected and on point for an acquisition in our particular market.
So how do you plan moving forward?
We plan by continuously evaluating ourselves. In the spring of 2019, we rewrote our business plan again. We were potentially acquiring another company, and by going through that process we needed to look really hard at our own numbers. We didn’t end up going through with the acquisition, as the purchase price the seller had in mind didn’t line up with our valuation of that company. So Janet and I put a lot of energy going through the process just to walk away from it. However, by evaluating ourselves in that process, we identified what changes we needed to make in our own business. For example, we realized that we needed a more aggressive sales approach and more business during the off-school season to help our cash flow in the spring and summer. We also realized that in our initial loan for the purchase of the business, we did not include the necessary money for capital expenditures and investments back into BJK Photos.
How many schools do you have?
We currently photograph 90 schools. Besides Janet and myself, we only have one year-round, full-time employee. Her name is Nicole, and she is our Account Manager, responsible for retaining our current customer base and acquiring new school customers. We hire approximately 20 seasonal staff during our fall season. 15 of those are photographers and assistants who are trained to operate in either capacity. We bring in 5 seasonal office staff, who help with all of the data and image management and customer service.
How do you manage that fluctuation in staffing?
What was interesting was that, after the first year, even though we lost 15 percent of our customer base, we actually had our highest level of employee retention. Janet and I really enjoy getting to create a company culture that encourages teamwork, empowerment and compassion.
Year two, we knew that customer retention was one of our top goals. We placed a greater emphasis on customer interaction. We made sure that either Nicole or I would stop in at every photo session to say hi to the pertinent office staff. We personally called all of our customers a day or two after their photography dates and asked them how we did. We also handwrote a thank you note, asking what we could do to better improve their experience, and delivered that when we hand-delivered the portrait packages. I’m happy to report that we retained all but one of our customers after year two!
We are truly lucky and blessed—we have come to realize that in general, if an employee does not return for the next season, it is because of some life event or circumstance. This year, we had a big freshman class of employees. We had three employees move to different areas, two employees had babies, and two obtained full-time jobs. One thing that we continue to struggle with is determining exactly how much resources to put into training. We added three days to our normal training schedule this past August, and we are not sure that it netted us anything overall.
How much of your planning is focused on year-round cash flow right now?
Currently, Janet’s head is still buried in fulfillment and meeting delivery dates. My focus has been able to shift now toward an aggressive sales strategy. We have realized that the schools and sports leagues in our target area do react in a more positive way when they find out that they are speaking with one of the owners of the company. I’m taking on more sales activities after we identified that we need to address year-round cash flow. So I would say that I am focused on that right now a significant amount of time. We are also in the first year of having added yearbooks to our offerings to compete with Jostens and Lifetouch.
What is your biggest fear right now?
Janet would tell you, somewhat jokingly, that her greatest fear right now is having a heart attack before she has a chance to retire. But you are asking this question to us when we are 75 percent of the way through our fall season and we are really tired.
Cash flow during June, July and August is definitely our biggest stressor. But we are adding new spring sports leagues every week and have also partnered with a local wedding venue as one of their main photography vendors. This will help us keep our photographers busy during the summer months doing what they love to do—taking photographs!
What would be helpful to people in the volume business who are wanting to grow?
I like to quote Wayne Barksdale.
He says, “It is as simple as boots on the street and butts in the seat.” Sales, sales, sales, and planning for sales efforts. We still struggle. Even though we have Nicole doing sales, our target market is too big for just her to manage. And we currently do not have the money in the budget to hire another sales rep. I’m trying to do a lot of sales activities, but also have a long laundry list of other responsibilities as one of the business owners. Janet still has to concentrate on production and making sure we are delivering on everything that we have promised. We are in that weird position where we are not a small, “mom and pop” photography company, as we have a regional scope. However, we also are not big enough yet to have a ton of resources.
H&H has been great! Not only are they our lab partner, but we consider them friends. I love having long, candid conversations with David Drum where we discuss the industry at large, new technologies and business strategies. H&H has played a large part in our journey these past two years. Janet and I definitely miss the folks we worked with at Vantine; however, we wouldn’t change the path we’ve taken at all. We laugh and smile through our days, despite our challenges and failures. I have a good friend who likes to say, “fail forward,” and I just love that. It is okay to fail, as long as you keep moving forward and keep learning and trying new things.
What kind of work do you think has the best potential to fill in the slower cash flow times?
We have identified sports leagues, wedding venue partners, yearbooks and events. Those are the four areas that we are focusing on.
What are two things you are looking at implementing to make next fall go smoother?
We will be implementing a new image capture software that should surpass our current version and make things more efficient. We also will be adjusting our retake policy. Last year, we implemented a $5 retake charge for those that wanted a retake where the issue was outside our control (i.e., the student didn’t like their shirt.) We have found that this causes more angst for our customers, and it is one of the reasons we get a lot of phone calls. If we remove that piece, it should make our customers happier, be less confusing, and reduce our incoming customer service phone calls.