Entrepreneur and innovator Cathi Nelson is Founder of the Association of Personal Photo Organizers (APPO).
In 2009, Cathi pioneered an industry now known as “personal photo organizing.” Since then, her association has grown to more than 750 members—all entrepreneurs and small business owners with a passion for some aspect of photo management. Cathi has spoken at various industry conferences and has been featured in The Atlantic, Better Homes and Gardens, and The New York Times.
Cathi told Innovation Destination Hartford Website Curator Nan Price about how being a self-described “risk taker” has paid off, the importance of having a partner who keeps you in balance, and the key to crossing items of your to-do list.
NAN PRICE: When did the entrepreneurial bug hit? Did you always want to be a business owner?
CATHI NELSON: No, but I’ve always been a risk taker. And I think that’s pretty entrepreneurial.
After my son was born in 1993, I quit my job because I wanted a more flexible schedule. I got involved with Creative Memories, which is a scrapbooking company. I did that for about 15 years. I was one of their top sellers.
I never did it because I was really interested in the craft of scrapbooking. I was really into the journaling piece of it—telling stories with your photos.
I began to notice as digital photography became more and more popular, people weren’t printing as many photos. People would come to my classes with bags of memory cards like they were rolls of film. I could see there was this disconnect happening.
As people stopped printing photos, they stopped buying the products I was selling. I remember sitting in my backyard and thinking: What am I going to do? I don’t want to get a “real job.”
NP: How did you come up with the business concept for APPO?
CN: I was reading a lot of books about businesses. They all stressed the importance of finding a need in the marketplace.
Around that time, a friend of mine asked if I could help get her photos from a memory card to her computer. She asked me what I charged per hour. When I told her I didn’t charge anything, she told me that was ridiculous.
I remember her saying she would pay a professional organizer. She finally convinced me. When I got to her house, she had boxes of photos—mixed and digital. She said: I guarantee there are hundreds of people just like me who would pay somebody to figure this out.
I called it my lightbulb moment. I thought: I bet there’s some truth to that. So I went to the local Chamber of Commerce in West Hartford and introduced myself.
I felt like people lined up. The first person who wanted my help was a travel agent who asked if I could do a video montage. I had never done a video montage. But, my theme as an entrepreneur has always been to just say yes and then go home and figure it out.
At that point, people across the country were starting to find me. I felt like I was onto something but I couldn’t figure out what it was.
I spent hours trying to write a business plan. I was helping lots of clients organize their photos and make photo books, but I knew other people wanted to know what I was doing—and how they could do it themselves.
I looked at the National Association of Productivity and Organizing Professionals (NAPO) and I thought: Who says that I can’t start an association? Are there any rules that say that? So, in 2009 I started the Association of Personal Photo Organizers (APPO).
NP: Did you tap into any Connecticut resources as you were starting out?
CN: I went to SCORE, where I was able to work with mentor David Albright, the former President of Pepperidge Farm, Inc. and Godiva Chocolatier Worldwide. He was really helpful.
NP: How is APPO different than a franchise?
CN: I chose not to go the franchise option. I chose to go to the association route, which means we empower small business owners. Our members are all independent. They pay us an annual fee and we offer extensive training, which is included in our membership.
We help answer questions, such as: How to start a business? How to become an LLC? How to price yourself?
We really shorten our members’ learning curve. It took me two years to figure out my processes in my own business and I created a turnkey kind of business opportunity for people.
And APPO is a community. People all over the world now are members and they help each other. We teach them and then they teach each other.
NP: That’s really innovative. It’s a very different kind of business concept.
CN: We call ourselves an association, but it’s really a membership community. My revenue comes from the membership fees.
I’m really passionate about helping other small business owners have successful businesses. My goal is to create a roadmap to empower them to be successful.
We live in economy today where there are so many small business owners, which is great, but it can be lonely and people can be very isolated. So one of the foundational principles of the membership community is that we have a private Facebook group and we also have something called “social links,” which is part of our website. It enables our members to answer each other’s questions from all around the world. It’s very connected. People helping each other makes a big difference. They feel less isolated and they feel more connected.
Our members are more like general contractors or project managers; they can’t be experts at all aspects of photo and memory management and archiving. We encourage them to figure out what they’re passionate about and then outsource the rest. So we provide opportunities for them to outsource the work they don’t want to do to other members. It really keeps this collaborative business model that we’re all in business independently but we’re in business collectively at the same time.
NP: How big is the company?
CN: It’s just two of us. Lisa Kurtz, who is the Director of Operations and Training in Canada, and me. We also have one part-time person who does social media.
Lisa and I have a really good balance. As an entrepreneur, it’s really helpful if you can find that counterbalance. I talk fast, I walk fast, I think fast. I’m visionary. I’m very impulsive. I’m a risk taker. I have a new idea a minute. Lisa has taught me to slow down, execute well, and strive for excellence. We’re a really good team because I push her beyond what she would probably do on her own and she pulls me back to ensure we do things well.
NP: How are you building your membership?
CN: I always get excited when new members contact me. My goal is to make sure that we provide you with such phenomenal service that you will renew every year, unless you decide you don’t want to be a photo organizer anymore.
Very few people come to us saying they’ve been organizing photos forever. Most people are the family memory keeper; they’re the ones who take all the photos. They love doing it and they realize they can actually make a living out of it. The goal isn’t organizing photos. Organizing is a means to an end. The goal is to help people tell their life stories using their photos.
As far as finding new members, I speak at conferences. A lot of people join through that. And then I do a lot of blogging on social media. We also have members who find out about us through word-of-mouth. We have actually grown organically to our current number of members. I think in the next few years my goal would be to grow less organically.
But we need to have a proof of concept. That’s another important idea as an entrepreneur. We have to prove that you can actually make a living doing this.
I’ve proved that I can make a living doing it here in West Hartford, CT. I’ve made a really good living organizing people’s photos for them. But can people duplicate that model? Because I have a certain personality. I’m good with people. Now we have enough members who have been doing it for four or five years, we actually have track records of all different types of people in all different parts of the country making a really good living doing this.
That’s made a big difference in terms of the credibility. So essentially we’ve created a new profession that didn’t exist. Seven years ago there was no such thing.
NP: Let’s talk about business coaching and mentorship.
CN: I’ve worked with a number of different business coaches. One of the first ones I worked with was Kim DeYoung. Her program, Just Get It Done, focuses on how to execute your idea. It basically broke down all the steps. I modeled it and I was successful.
I did the same thing with building conferences. I signed up with Tory Johnson from Spark & Hustle. She ran a conference to teach people how to put on conferences. I remember it was a big expense and Lisa thought I shouldn’t do it. I convinced her that I needed to go and told her I’d make the money back because I need to learn how to put on a really good conference. And sure enough, I did that.
I’m also involved in a mastermind group of nine women entrepreneurs. We meet one Friday a month all day from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. We set goals at the beginning of the year and then each of us has a half hour to update how are working toward our goals.
Those types of groups can be hard to find, but I think if you get a group of women entrepreneurs or small business owners together, you can set goals and challenge each other.
NP: Can you offer one piece of advice for other entrepreneurs?
CN: One of my mantras is: Just do one thing really well today. Because I had this vision, I knew I was onto something, but I couldn’t get my arms around it. It felt so big. And then I would just think: Today I’m going to execute one thing well. Each day I got up and executed one thing well and eventually I am where I am today.