Behind the Business with Sarah Sloboda Photography
I may not have a background in photography or art history, but I can definitely appreciate some amazing pictures when I see them. Even more than that, I can appreciate the story of an ambitious entrepreneur who dared to take incredible risks in order to follow their dreams. Often, the results aren’t picture-perfect, but it’s always inspiring to hear about the entrepreneurs who manage to make it work!
I snapped up the opportunity to chat with Sarah Sloboda, the thoughtful and talented artist behind Sarah Sloboda Photography. Not only is Sarah a gifted photographer, but she’s also an astute businesswoman who understands how to best market her personal skill set. Her fabulous images have earned her an enthusiastic fan following around the world. Not only that, but she’s also written the book on selfies!
Check out her interview below!
Tell us about your business in as much detail as you can. What is it that you do and who are your customers?
My business is a photography service for stylish families, kids, and babies. I take the classic street photography style made famous by Magnum photographers and apply it to creating strong compositions for compelling family portraits. Many of my clients have an appreciation for art history and contemporary art and they want exceptional images of their family by an artist with a unique voice. They are well-traveled and worldly. In addition to my base in San Francisco, I have traveled to work with clients in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Cleveland, Austin, Seattle, Portland, San Diego, and more. Clients also book me when they’re visiting San Francisco on vacation, or if our schedules happen to coincide in another place.
What made you choose this path? Is it a family legacy or are you a pioneer? Did you go to school for it or are you learning as you go?
When I was very young, less an 8 years old, I used to look at the Sears catalog (which was a thing people did in the 1980s before the internet) and compare the images to the photos we got back from our point-and-shoot 110 camera. I could see there was a difference in image quality, even though I didn’t understand why. So before I even had a sense of what a career path was, my interest in creating high-quality images was piqued. My parents have always worked in business and have operated small businesses on the side whilst I was growing up, so although they have no interest in photography (other than hanging mine on their walls), I did take a lot of inspiration from their pioneering spirit.
I have a bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan in Film and Video Studies and had apprenticeships with two different photographers while at university. U of M’s curriculum was great because it allowed me to take a lot of different courses in addition to my major, including some business classes, which I think were invaluable. Then I worked with, studied, and became friends with some of the great working photographers in NYC, as well as honing my own craft while I worked in film and TV. Living and working in NYC is probably the best business crash course there is and I did that for nine and a half years.
They say that to be successful you have to be passionate, so share what drives you every day. Why do you love what you do?
When I first started my business, what I wanted most was freedom from being tethered to an office 40 hours a week. I made choices about how I established and grew my business, choices that allowed me to travel and to work in a way that constantly renewed my creativity. I had experienced that taking a walk or otherwise stepping away from work, even when it seemed like I was too busy to do so, actually increased my productivity by calling upon my subconscious to make things “click” instead of trying to do everything consciously. No boss had ever encouraged me to do that, so when I became my own boss, I also became my own best supporter.
The thing that drives me every day is that I have built not only a business, but an entire life that sustains me and honors the person I am and am evolving to be. I have always believed in my ability to market what I can produce most passionately and I haven’t shied away from having to refine my marketing to reflect changes in the way I want to work. When I make my inner artist happy, I produce work that makes my clients happy and, to me, that is a truly successful exchange.
Has it been smooth sailing or have you overcome adversity to get where you are?
I had some solid success in NYC when I first quit my day job and became a photographer full-time. Then the Great Recession happened and that was very hard on me. I had taken out both business and personal loans to fund projects and growth that were then stymied by the economy. After having created my business, I couldn’t imagine doing anything else, so I kept at it and somehow got through the driest of the dry spell. I think the biggest hit I took from that was emotional — it struck a lot of fear into me, whereas I was enjoying some oblivious optimism before that. It has taken a long time for me to realize that even though outside events might have an short-term impact, nothing can take away my dreams and my ability to learn, build, and grow. In hindsight, I’m grateful for the Recession. I stuck it out and my business persevered. I learned that I don’t have to get so caught up in outside events — no matter what might be happening, the sooner I get my focus back on doing excellent work for my clients, the better off I’ll be and the better impact I’ll be able to make. People always say there are businesses that thrive even in the worst of times and I finally believe that.
We all know that crazy happens. What’s the wildest thing that’s happened on the job?
You know, I honestly can’t remember. My job is to create a compassionate, welcoming space for my clients and any time anything out of the ordinary happens, I want them to know we can roll with it without incident and that’s what we do. Working with kids, though, I do hear them say a lot of adorable and funny things. And it’s always flattering when the 3-year-old is confused that I am not a new friend staying for dinner.
What do you do with your time off? Are you familiar with that concept?
I don’t think anyone who runs a business, or even with career these days, ever fully gets to have time off. Modern commerce is a 24-7 thing and many of us are processing thoughts about work even when we’re not technically working. That said, I am a believer in the fact that we need blank mind space to allow our subconscious to complete problems and come up with creative solutions. There is a reason our best ideas come in the shower! So, I try to make some down time every day. I will take a walk in the city I am in — I especially like walking beside water, which I find very soothing. Or, I will visit a new exhibit at a museum to try to immerse myself in different thoughts. I’m always looking for new things to experience in my city and whichever places are on my travel itinerary. And I make a point of making time to do something random every week or every trip I go on. I think it’s vital to a creative career to constantly experience new things, even if it’s just watching a new movie or listening to a new piece of music. The bonus is, these things are also a relaxing mental escape from the business side of work! I also find cooking relaxing because it is a creative process totally opposite from the mandatory archiving aspect of photography — you cook something to ingest it and then it’s gone, whereas I am used to backing up and double-backing up everything I create for work. It’s fun to make something I don’t have to worry about archiving.
This is the age of the social network. How important is social media to your business and how do you make it work?
I have always had a good experience networking through social media. It gives my clients a chance to converse with me in a casual way — similar to a cocktail party or networking breakfast. I try to show a bit of what happens behind the scenes and how I get inspiration. My main emphasis is on Instagram, since it is photography-focused. I post on Instagram nearly every day, alternating between images I shot for clients and shots I grabbed on my iPhone or another camera out on my weekly adventures or traveling. People can get a slightly different glimpse of me and my work, depending on the social network. I keep LinkedIn professional and try to share useful posts. On Twitter , I try out jokes from time to time and share random thoughts along with inspiration. Facebook is primarily about showcasing new work, announcing travel dates, and letting people know about specials. Being active on social media has helped me keep in touch with clients in a large number of places. A bonus is that continually posting keeps me thinking about how my work is evolving each day, which inspires new selling points and ways of connecting more deeply with my clients. In that way, social media has become a testing ground for marketing copy and package offerings.
How are you involved in your community?
My definition of “community” isn’t based on a particular location or region. I find I am part of two communities. The modern parenting community and their concerns for their kids has made me particularly interested in education reform and child well-being. I really believe in what Pablo Picasso said, “All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once [s]he grows up.” Working with kids has shown me what valuable collaborators they are and how important it is to empower individuals to grow up and live a productive, contributing life. Each year, I donate photo packages to the fundraising efforts of local schools. I also support foundations like Project Night Night (providing packages to help homeless children feel tucked in at night), Kids in Need Foundation (providing school supplies for kids whose parents can’t afford them), and the David Lynch Foundation (providing meditation education for students in areas with a history of violence.) I read and watch Sir Ken Robinson’s work to understand the latest findings on creativity in education and I try to share inspiration about all of these things with my audience online. I like to imagine how giving even one more child a chance to stay confident and fixated on their dreams could positively impact the world.
The artisan community is an arena where I strive to be an inspiration to people who are looking to make their passion projects into their livelihood. My instagram feed especially (and all of my social media really), is full of anecdotes and pieces of information I hope will inspire people to keep pursuing their dreams and have breakthroughs. Living the artist life has a lot of romance to it and there is a ton of “hype” around it, plus comparing oneself to others online can be very disheartening. I want to send the message that even though it’s not as glamorous as the “hyped up” version, the reality is that the little steps one takes each day are what builds a career and a life of success. And to remind people that taking action on your inspiration works!
A compelling mix of the classic with the modern.
What does supporting local mean to you?
I prefer the terms “shop” local and “buy” local. Local small business owners don’t need our “support,” like we’re cheerleaders on the sidelines. They need us to buy from them!
I travel a lot and I like to buy from small businesses wherever I go, so it’s more like “shopping small” rather than only focusing on the businesses where I live. One of my favorite things to do when I travel is to visit a local farmers’ market and buy some organic stuff to take home. Most produce will endure a plane ride when packed properly and US farms have a diversity of climates and growing seasons, so you can get a distinct taste of what’s local — pecans in Texas, cherries in Washington, oranges in Southern California.
To me, shopping small means a higher percentage of purchase price has a direct impact on the quality of life of the purveyor. That is something I can get behind as a small business owner. I also find I get a better value from independent service providers. If there’s a delay or issue with my order, they’ll call me and suggest a way to fix it because each happy customer has a significant impact on their business. Big companies put you in a call queue and the person on the other end might not know or understand your issue. So both parties get a better value for the exchange when you shop small.
What does the future look like for you and your business?
Over time, I have been able to take advantage of better and better technology in the background, so that my clients have a more streamlined experience from booking through delivery of their photos. I see the future making that even more streamlined, so that I can concentrate on what I love the best — making images. After working for several years on the road and having established myself in different markets, I feel confident that I could continue to work in different cities, so maybe I will relocate again one day. I have grown inspired by the kids’ fashion industry, through magazines like Vogue Bambini and Babiekins, and brands like Bobo Choses and Bang Bang Copenhagen, so perhaps I will venture into commercial kids photography a bit more. Creativity has been expanding in wonderful ways in children’s clothing and accessories and it’s something I could see myself photographing. I have practiced the art of collaborating with children on photo shoots and incorporating their spontaneity into the images and those are things modern kids’ brands appreciate.
Do you have any advice for aspiring business owners just starting out?
The first thing you should do is figure out your cost of living and your personal requirements. The same way you would if you were reviewing an offer package from an employer, you will have certain “must-haves” that make your quality of life feel right to you. Maybe you don’t care that much about salary if you can have a flexible schedule. Or, maybe you are starting a business in order to make more money than you made in a salaried position. Once you know your priorities, you can set goals for your enterprise accordingly. If life balance is most important, you might aim to get a certain number of clients and live within those means. By contrast, if making more money is what drives you, you might configure your business in a more scalable way and/or be willing to sacrifice down time. If you figure out right away how you need the business to serve you and build it accordingly, you can get straight down to serving your customers by putting your all into it without trepidation.
No matter what your ideal business looks like in your mind before you start, it’s going to challenge you in more ways than you can possibly expect. But it is also going to be more fun and more empowering than you can imagine, so go for it!
Note: the image of Sarah on the beach is by Gary Ashley Photography.