Photographer: Jen Hillenga
Location: Minneapolis and currently NY
Years in the business: 18+
These days, Jen Hillenga is the creative director for AdoramaPix, and she’s also a speaker and judge for WPPI and PPA events. But there was a time when she was just starting out and really learned the meaning of the word “hustle.” Here’s how she went from growing up on a farm to being a sought-after name in the industry.
“I’m not willing to not succeed”
Jen says that growing up on a farm, she did more work by the time she reached age 18 than some people do in their whole lives. This work ethic really paid off for her (literally). When she found out that she wasn’t passionate about graphic design—what she’d majored in—she went back to the portrait studio she had worked for before.
Over a period of 7 years, Jen worked for 3 different portrait studios before branching out on her own, a move which she thinks allowed her to hit the ground running.
She also had a business partner, a left brain to her right brain, though she doesn’t recommend that to everyone. It’s like a marriage, she says, “without the fun.”
Spiral Marketing FTW
Those 7 years of experience gave Jen the competence – and confidence – to photograph like a pro. But the networking tactic she employed is what really makes her a sales ninja. Her goal was to get people in the door. She knew once she booked people, they would fall in love with the images (which means SALES). She just needed names.
Between Jen and her partner, they came up with a list of 25 qualified contacts: movers and shakers around the community, chamber of commerce members, even stay-at-home moms with kids (and expendable income).
These 25 contacts were offered a free session and a free 8X10 in exchange for 25 names of friends and family that were “exactly like them.” This way, Jen was able to leverage social proof and word of mouth to book herself solid for 3 months, and her business was just beginning!
BONUS: This list was an ongoing source of revenue, as they could go back periodically and “recruit” new names from clients in exchange for a free print or other promotion.
Solid pricing structure
One business practice that Jen employed was to create a pricing structure that worked for her. Here are her suggestions:
1) Find out what you need to break even
2) Find out what people most commonly buy and what they need
3) Price each individual product, keeping in mind an 8- to 10x markup
4) Create your collections, the lowest of which still covers your breakeven point
When should you share an online gallery with clients?
If you find yourself wondering this question, know this: Jen noticed that her sales were cut in half when she only offered galleries to clients versus in-person sales (sitting down with the clients in person and giving them the opportunity to touch and feel the products. Keep reading for an awesome projector hack that brought up her IPS even more!) I hope that answers your question!
Jen’s business handled IPS in a couple of different ways. Before they had a retail space, they went to the client’s home, which really got the clients invested because Jen would walk through the house and plan with them where and how to display their prints. This strategy allows you to really guide the client towards what works best for their home because you can see it and frame things in an appealing way.
PRO TIP: Jen would schedule a session AND the in-home viewing whenever the client called to book their session. This streamlined the process and eliminated the tedious back-and-forth as well as gave her a deadline to get all the images ready.
When Jen had studio space to do her IPS, she decided she would try to sell the “portrait wall, not the wall portrait.” So she would create wall displays with 5-9 images for the clients.
PRO TIP: Talk to the women. In Jen’s experience, photographers need to be able to speak to women, whether it’s a bride or a mom or a high school senior. Find out what they want out of their session, then deliver. Jen would find ways to create an emotional connection in each shot, whether it was by posing, catching a goofy impromptu moment or by capturing the different relationships between each family member. This created emotionally rich images that were irresistible to her clients—they wanted to buy all the shots!
“Be a sales maker, not an order taker”
Boom! Do not hand the images off to your clients and assume they know best. Guide them through the process.
One awesome way Jen did this was with a projector coupled with ProSelect software. Say the client decided on an image for the wall art. Here’s how Jen would get the right size (and increased her sales exponentially):
Instead of using a measly old laptop to view the images, Jen would project them on the wall at a ridiculous size. Then she’d begin to make it smaller and ask the client to stop her when it was the right size for their wall.
Usually they’d stop at around 24×30 and gawk at the price tag. Magically, they’d go down one size more and the price would be just right!
Never say no
Hmm…that could go several ways, but right now we’re talking about digitals. You may be shocked to learn that towards the end of Jen’s business, 65% of customers ordered digitals only!
Here’s the thing. Instead of fighting the current, Jen decided that as long as she was being compensated for her time and artistry, she ultimately didn’t care how the clients were viewing the images. Her advice? “Never say no—just put a price tag on it that makes you happy.”
More advice for newbies
Be prepared to hustle. 80% of your work will be what pays the bills and puts food on the table. It may not be the most creatively stimulating, but you need it. The other 20% can be the fun stuff.
Additionally, if you really need that creative outlet, be sure to schedule playdates with yourself! Jen would schedule fun shoots for herself once a month and really found a lot of benefit in having the time to experiment with new techniques, poses and lighting. In turn, this feeds back into your everyday work and makes you a more well-rounded photographer.
AdoramaPix for printing, naturally!
ProSelect Software for sales (and that awesome projector tip)
Animoto and Photodex Pro Show Producer for slideshows
Triple Scoop Music and Song Freedom for music that evokes all the feels
Larson Juhl frames
Larson softboxes and reflectors (now SweetLight Systems)