Connecticut entrepreneur and architectural photographer Heather Conley spoke to Innovation Destination Harford Website Curator Nan Price about Heather Conley Photography, which she launched in 2009. Since then, she’s found her niche and recognized her passion for entrepreneurship and supporting other businesses.
NAN PRICE: Your career began in marketing. When and why did you make the transition to full-time photography and owning your own business?
HEATHER CONLEY: I’ve been in corporate and worked for other people most of my professional life. I held a lot of marketing roles, including project management, public relations, and a variety of things that all come together to help me work with my building industry clients.
At one point, I was at the front of the line for the annual layoffs at a corporate job. I knew it was coming. I had met Bruno Ratensperger, a Connecticut commercial photographer, a couple of years before. He’s been in the business for 40 years doing industrial and catalog work, specializing in metal products such as tools and rare classic car collections. He’s amazing at adapting and keeping himself relevant. So I asked him if he would mentor me. I remember he said: I don’t know what that means, but sure.
By the time the layoff came, I had trained with him for two years and felt prepared to be on my own. I launched my business in 2009.
NP: At what point did you realize what you were doing was marketable and you could make a business doing it?
HC: It’s interesting you ask that, because I struggled the first four years. I’ve been in business now for eight years, but it was a game changer to choose the specialty of architectural photography, which I did four years ago.
NP: How did you know you had to pivot?
HC: I was working in sort of generic business environments. I learned so much from the Chambers of Commerce in Suffield, Granby, and the Bradley Area. I forged important relationships and I learned the importance of networking with the chamber community. But I was struggling.
I knew I had to do something different. I began observing Beate Chelette. At the time, she was known as The Photography Business Coach; she’s now called The Growth Architect. I eventually hired her to coach me. I started with her group webinars, promising myself I’d apply what she taught me to buy myself a one-on-one VIP coaching session day with her. I reached that goal within months.
This was business altering and my key to succeed—I learned the business of photography and I learned how to be relevant. I learned that I need to educate my clients and, above all, provide them value in our collaborations. That process helped me discover how I can best help my industry clients because I’m also understanding my clients’ challenges.
I also learned about building a very strong business model around a niche through ongoing business training and working with coaches, to this day, each teaching me something unique.
NP: It seems like you’ve had some good mentors.
HC: Yes. The support is out there. I have four coaches. Some of them are no-cost or low-cost through the Small Business Administration (SBA) and the Entrepreneurial Center at the University of Hartford.
I have an advisor through the Connecticut Small Business Development Center (CTSBDC). That connection helped me get a micro loan for my business. It was also tremendous for helping me make new connections, inviting me to important events with leaders in Hartford and other small business owners.
I’ve been a client at the Entrepreneurial Center since 2003. I’ve been involved with their Women’s Business Roundtable program. I’ve always wanted to work for myself and originally started with a four-month small business training course there with another business, which was a product business. It sort of reached its fruition, so I put it to rest. But I still longed to work for myself.
The thing that truly changed my formula and gave me real traction was hiring a photography business coach. From there I returned to the Entrepreneurial Center to learn and apply even more practices.
I’ve done none of this alone.
NP: What did you gain from that experience?
HC: It really helped me learn the business of business. And for me, it was imperative to learn the business of photography. My clients don’t hire me because of my camera gear. They want to be in business with me because they want to know I can solve their pain, I understand them, and I can make them look like rock stars while getting their firms more of the exposure they want to help them get more work.
I help them take projects off their checklists with my interactive and collaborative process.
NP: How so? What’s your differentiator?
HC: That’s a great question. The differentiator is that I have a marketing background, which really helps me position their accomplishments and story tell. But I also have the technical chops. It’s a winning combination that enables me to serve as a trusted advisor alongside their internal team.
I care about my clients’ business. I care about their goals and I want to help support them. I want to be an extension of their team. Building those client relationships is really important to me.
I don’t just take the photographs and leave, anyone can do that. I want to have a relationship with my clients because I want to help them grow. I want to help them be more successful because when the water lifts, all our boats rise.
NP: What does being an entrepreneur or being entrepreneurial mean to you?
HC: It means being able to do something I’ve wanted to do all my life. And then being able to have the latitude and the flexibility to find purpose in my work and help other businesses.
Entrepreneurship has given me much more than I imagined—like networking and being able to connect people with each other. That’s something I never knew I’d be so excited to do.
For me, being entrepreneurial also means having the ability to plug into what’s happening out in the business landscape around me and figure out if there’s something new to learn or apply.
I think entrepreneurship involves adaptability, passion, and artistry. It’s also the ability to take things you’re born to do—or you’re good at doing—and bring them all together to manifest something.
It’s realizing and manifesting your purpose. I think it’s at the heart of who I am. I feel blessed that I’ve found my true career.
NP: It shows in talking to you. You have so much positive energy.
HC: My two favorite things in my business are collaborating with my clients and shooting the work. My coach Beate has taught me if I’m not doing those two things, I need to farm it out and let other people help me. So under my direction I have eight to 10 subs. They support my growth with their expertise and, in turn, I’m helping their businesses.
NP: You’ve provided some good nuggets of advice. Any other tips for other entrepreneurs?
HC: I can’t stress enough: Learn the business of your business. Understand who your clients are. Who is going to pay you to do what you (love to) do? Do people pay to do what you want to do? If they don’t, you need to find something else, or another way to do it. Because you’re also trying to be a successful business owner.
NP: That’s so obvious but so relevant.
HC: I say it because I feel like sometimes people are so busy being in their business they don’t work on their business. Keep an eye on what’s measurable so you can make adjustments and tweak them on the journey. Yes, your boat is heading somewhere, but what’s the destination? With focus and hard work you will surely get there, trust me!
NP: Any advice from your mentors?
HC: My photography coach has taught me this: Everybody can be a flashlight, but if you want to succeed you have to be a laser beam.
Another favorite mantra of mine is from Tony Robbins, who says: If you’re going to take the island you have to be willing to burn the boats.
For the first four years I was in business, I always had this little back door in my mind. It was an escape plan I wrestled, with knowing I could go back to corporate work. However, my little pilot light inside kept saying: No, you can’t, you have to believe in yourself and be all in now!
Have confidence in yourself. Know you are valuable. Know you have something to offer. Know you’re meant to do the work you’re doing and your passion will always come through. And when that happens, it’s contagious.
I’d like to add: Don’t stop reinventing yourself. We live in a fast-moving world. With regard to your business, you can’t set it and forget it. You have to be educating yourself and constantly evolving or you’ll find yourself left behind, or even worse, out of business.
NP: Right. You can’t be idle.
HC: Exactly. It’s like you’re in your kayak and you’ve got all your gear on. The boat flips over and you flip back up. You just keep paddling. That’s the landscape of the entrepreneurial world. And if you don’t want to get wet, you’d better just stay home.