One of the characteristics of successful entrepreneurs is the ability to change and evolve in order to grow your business. The drive to improve is something that Christian Oth, wedding photographer and founder of Christian Oth Studio in New York, has embraced.
“Your success in life isn’t based on your ability to simply change. It is based on your ability to change faster than your competition, customers and business.”
— Mark Sanborn
Christian Oth was named one of the world’s best wedding photographers by American Photo. The success of his business is not only contributed to his talent in photography, but also his ability to grow as an entrepreneur and lead his team.
We interviewed Christian to learn how he’s overcome hurdles and changes in the business, how he’s leveraged social media, and how he empowers his growing team.
What changes have you seen in the market and how has your company reacted?
Christian Oth: The first thing we realized was that, thanks to the rise of social media, our client has profoundly changed in terms of the way they explore options, live and share their lives. Because of this, Facebook and Instagram have become essential platforms for us. Our clients are much more visually educated and they know what to ask for. They expect even higher level of images from us as a result of this.
Another thing we’re seeing is a theme of individualism, particularly with our millennial clientele. There is a greater desire for customization and personal expression. We honor that by having better communication with the client.
By listening to our clients, our sales process has evolved into a very integrated one. We build a relationship with every client and try to spend as much phone time with them as we can. If we don’t connect with them and take a very personal approach, we won’t get their business.
What social platform have you chosen to focused on and why?
Christian: Social media is essential in both branding and sales. We trace our inquires and many are being generated from social media– particularly Instagram. That said, it’s not the lion’s share as we still have a strong referral-based business, but it definitely helps to reinforce the brand. It’s also a wonderful platform for reaching clients and showcasing our images. It really works both ways.
How are you tracking the success of your social media efforts?
Christian: We always ask new clients how they found us. This is part of the initial inquiry. In our online forms and when my account executives talk to them, we ask how they found us. We keep track of it in Daylite with Keywords.
How have you leveraged social media for your business?
Christian: We’re very focused on engagement. We make it a point to post daily, sometimes twice a day. We made a decision to keep our Instagram an inspirational platform and are not diluting it with any behind-the- scenes photos. We pay attention to what photos get the most and least likes and adjust our output accordingly. On average, our posts get roughly 400-500 likes, but when it goes up to 1,000 or 1,200, we know we’ve done something particularly well.
We use a very focused approach because we try to get into our prospective clients’ minds to see what they’re looking for. What inspires them? What hashtags are they using? What is it that a prospective bride is looking for? Photos with a fashion aspect tend to do very well in terms of likes and engagements as brides are always searching for the perfect wedding dress, accessories and hair and makeup style. These shots are both a resource and source of inspiration. We then connect with bridal fashion designers such as Oscar de la Renta, Reem Acra, Vera Wang, and other friends. We work with their social media teams to create targeted campaigns. We post at the same time, tag one another and we do Instagram takeovers. We also do this with magazines.
We continue to grow our social media following through this cross-promotion. When a respected fashion designer like Oscar posts our photos, they credit us with a proper tag and hashtag and it drives additional traffic to us. This is not unlike the benefit one gains when someone shares your post on Facebook. It’s great to have likes from your own audience, but having people share your posts or post your work with proper tags and hashtags is what helps to acquire new followers and clients. Creating these kinds of partnerships is essential.
We also are very connected with venues and hotels, such as The St Regis Hotels and several others. They frequently post our photos and cross-promote. Social media definitely helps foster that relationship.
Do you have a dedicated team for social media?
Christian: We do. We started doing social media for ourselves as a lot of small companies do. They hire someone just out of college because they know social media really well, which they do, but we found it wasn’t as effective as it could have been because there wasn’t a methodology behind it. We then hired a real social media team and they’re doing great. I had to go through a few different ones to find one that I’m really happy with.
How has the dynamic changed between your team as you’ve grown?
Christian: We had a few fundamental shifts in the company. First, it had to do with me, as the owner of the company, and the way I was running the business. I started this business as a photographer and it’s grown very organically. I was still sort of a “boss” to my employees. I’ve been discovering that I need to be more of a leader than a boss, otherwise I can never free myself from the operations of my business. Hiring the right employees was the first step.
We ramped up our recruiting process and recruited totally different kinds of people. We now have a level of employees that we never had before in the sense they have stronger networks and can relate to our clients better. I work very hard to make sure my employees are motivated and appreciated. We work hard as a team, but we also have a company culture that fosters professional friendships among colleagues. This translates into a much stronger and more productive environment.
How did you make the shift to becoming more of a leader than a boss?
Christian: The first thing I did was write a manual for someone new coming in so they know the minimum requirements and the processes of the studio. Having that guidance and having things written down helped tremendously. Some people think that makes it a box, but it doesn’t. When you have a baseline for the processes, then it opens up other areas that are more flexible for my employees to take the lead.
I have creative meetings with my staff where I propose a question or a process and ask how we can make it better. There’s always room for improvement and I like to ask my employees this because they’re the ones on the front-line.
A big part in leading is giving people ownership and other leadership positions within the company. I have a senior photo editor and she manages all of the production people in the studio. Because she has the responsibility and ability to hire people as she feels fit, she’s created her own mini team of people who work for her. She’s extremely dedicated.
This is also part of our new hiring process. I always make sure that any prospective employee meets with my team so they’re part of that decision making process. It’s a huge empowerment.
Another part of empowering my team is fighting the clock-watching mentality. I didn’t want to see the typical start of the day at 9am, an hour lunch break, and leaving at 5pm. That’s completely gone by the way side. I told my sales team that I care more about how they do in sales than what time they come in. When they do well, the company does well. The exact hours they work doesn’t matter– within reason of course.
Sometimes it’s more important for them to be out there and meeting with people. Because of this, I find they take more ownership. They have the freedom of setting their own time. Some of them work 12 hours one day and then take a Friday or a Monday off. They’re dedicated and they work until the work is done because they have that freedom.
Where do you look to for entrepreneurial inspiration?
Christian: I love everything Seth Godin. I heard him speak recently as a conference. Anyone who’s in any kind of leadership position needs to read all of his books. He’s a great thinker. I like anything that has to do with entrepreneurship that really makes you think about your processes. There are so many things that you can do better as an individual and as a company owner by changing a few habits. I also listen to Pat Flynn’s podcast “The Smart Passive Income”. If you haven’t yet, follow this guy because he will make you think differently about how you run your company and well, life.
When I was first starting out I was part of a think tank. We met with four other small business owners and it was moderated by someone with a lot of experience. The other small businesses were in various industries but we were all in the incubation stage of the business. We met every other week to set goals and do a progress report. Because you’re with others in the same stage as you, you can pool resources and get feedback.
We created this mastermind of several people helping each other with their resources and wisdom as we hit roadblocks. I was also held accountable because by the end of two weeks, I’d better have my goals finished. It helps meeting with people in the same shoes as you in the similar growing phase.