Standing Out of the Competition – and Making Money Off It
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Here’s a success story that’s actually rare in the business of photography: Matthew Kuhns tried all sorts of money-generating ideas, relying on old trade tricks until he found out that all he really needed to do was to rely on his own strengths in order to offer something different to the photography-loving crowd.
And the good thing about this really unique idea of his was he made money out of it. Find out how in this episode of Photo Profit.
Video Highlights & Time Codes:
(01:29) Differentiating yourself in your photography business
(02:07) Wonderful book – “4 Hour Work Week”
(02:40) Lean on engineering background
(03:06) Forecasting Sunrise and Sunset with Sky Fire
(04:11) An App that solves the problem to to landscape photography
(04:52) The Birth of Sky Fire
(06:21) The beta trial
(07:44) Importance of Beta Stage Feedback
(07:51) Listen to your customers
(08:55) Using Mail Chimp to email images to customers
(11:41) How Sky Fire affect your Photography Business
(12:11) Making more money now
(13:14) Providing Customer service
(15:06) Some Action Steps for Starters
Matthew Kuhns – SITE>>>
- no one bought anything
- submitting for stock websites
- art fairs and galleries
wonderful book – “4 Hour Work Week”
- work and optimizing your time and automation
- finding the right market
path to take
- lean on my engineering background
- developed algorithm development stuff
Forecasting Sunrise and Sunset with Sky Fire
- solves the problem to to landscape photography
- gets the time of sunrise, sunset, moonrise, moonset
- shows the milky way, the night sky, light pollution, terrane
The Birth of Sky Fire
- verify that there’s an actual market
- “voice of customer”
- feasibility study
- put together a splash page
- a beta trial
Importance of Beta Stage Feedback
- listen to your customers
- get that feedback
- daily email newsletter
- adding features, making it more accurate and more automated
- using Mail Chimp to email images to customers
How Sky Fire affect your Photography Business
- make more money off the App now
- paying very close attention to the customer feedback
- adding features
- primarily organic word of mouth
Some Action Steps for Starters
- read the 4 Hour Work Week book by Timothy Ferris
- get feedback early from your friends and from social media
- customers funding the product
Brent: Hey guys, Brent Mail here and welcome back to another episode of Photo Profit, where we talk about the business of photography. And today my special guest is Matthew Kuhns. Matthew has developed an App called Sky Fire which helps landscape photographers. And we’re calling this podcast “Differentiating yourself in your photography business”. So Matthew has tried a number of ways to make money out of his landscape photography. He’s sold stock photography; he’s been to art fairs and got images in fine art galleries. But he used his strength and his differentiating point to create something that’s unique and that’s different to whatever and else’s got and making really good money out of it. So if you want to make money out of your landscape photography or your photography in general, I think this is a great podcast to listen to if you’re struggling to find what it is that will make you different and stand out from the competition. Let’s jump right into it and just remember guys, all the show notes are at photoprofit.net. How are you doing Matthew?
Matthew: I am phenomenal. How are you?
Brent: Great, I’m awesome; awesomely phenomenal too. So tell me, Mathew maybe you can give us a little bit of background of how you differentiate yourself when it comes to making money out of your photography?
Matthew: Sure, definitely! I really love landscape photography. It’s what brings me joy, I love being on the outside. I think like a lot of other people started taking pictures and said “I need a website” so I put together a really simple smug mug website and exorbitant prices on the pieces and lo and behold no one bought anything. Nothing is sold and I was very sad. I went further and started submitting my images for stock websites and not much sold there but a little bit and I took it further and went to art fairs and galleries and then stuff start to sell a little bit more but still nothing to let me retire to a beautiful tropical island and so I was reading a wonderful book for entrepreneurs called “4 Hour Work Week”.
Brent: I love that book!
Matthew: Just yeah! Really a good read. It’s all about doing things that work and optimizing your time and automation so and it talks a lot about finding the right market so I started thinking about what I could do in photography to differentiate myself and not compete against every other photographer in the world for the same little slice of the pie so I thought about eBooks and teaching but honestly, Brent people like yourself do it much better than me. That’s not the path for me to go down instead I decided to lean on my engineering background and I realized when I’m not camping or hiking and being cold in a tent, I really don’t want to get up at four in the morning to go out in the snow and take pictures if there’s not going to be a phenomenal sunrise so looking into all of that and it kind of developed into some of the algorithm development stuff that I was doing at work for jet engines and I realized I could take it like a satellite data and treat it like an engineering problems. So I came up with the idea to forecast good light at sunrise and sunset and turn it into an app.
Forecasting Sunrise and Sunset with Sky Fire
Brent: Awesome! So what’s that app called, Matthew?
Matthew: Yeah the app is called Sky Fire and it’s currently available for IOS as part of the photographers of femres App and cameras now.
Brent: That’s an amazing story! So you’ve tried all these different ways of monetizing your landscape photography. Say you’ve got your website where people can buy, you’ve tried stock photography, you’ve gone to art fairs, and you’ve got your images in galleries and they weren’t producing enough to live off of right? So, we’re you actually making some sales on the gallery, art fairs and stock photography?
Matthew: Oh yes, definitely making sales.
Matthew: Yeah something around the $5,000 to $8,000 a year ranges.
Brent: Okay, so that’s always not enough to live off when you live in a western society like we do. Not even enough for one month obviously sometimes and then you’ve looked at your strength, what you’re really good at and obviously you’re good at, you’re doing aeronautical engineering and you’re a pretty smart guy and you know how to put all that information together and you’ve created an app which solves a problem, a definite problem when it comes to landscape photography finding exactly where and when the sun is going to set and it also take to count moonrise and moonset.
Matthew: The core of photographers within this app gets the time of sunrise, sunset, moonrise, moonset, it also shows the milky way, the night sky, light pollution, terrane and all that good stuff.
Brent: Wow! That’s awesome!
Matthew: Yeah so Sky Fire just builds on that very nicely.
Brent: Okay, so let’s dig a little deeper into how you’ve actually created this app. What were the first things you did when you’re considering in creating this app?
The Birth of Sky Fire
Matthew: Sure! So the first thing is I wanted to verify that there’s an actual market. A lot of times in business they’ll call it “voice of customer” so after doing some initial feasibility overviews just to kind of see “hey, is this actually something that I could probably do?” And I decided that yes, from a technical standpoint I could do this. Now “are there customers?” So we put together a splash page and basically said “hey, is anybody interested in this?” And lo and behold people were. Our conversion rate from the initial announcement was wonderful. They were around 3% and advertising on Facebook which is really good from a ecommerce point of view and basically we took those numbers and said “okay, out of all of these people who are interested maybe 30% of those would actually buy”. And that helped to let me develop some kind of a base numbers of how much advertising would cost, how many impressions I would need, how many potential customers there would be then we would know how much we could charge to make it profitable and give them the market size and how much it would cost to develop.
Brent: So you’ve done the feasibility study and you’ve realized that there is money to be made in this even with paid advertising and what’s it going to cost to actually develop the app, what’s the next step you tool?
Matthew: Then I had to actually go and make it work. That was harder than I initially thought. It took about six months till we were ready for a beta trial.
Brent: What were the problems you ran into?
Matthew: The data accessibility. So there’s a lot of weather and satellite you know, just a lot of data available out there so from a lot of different sources, you have to pars it all down and figure out what’s important and what’s not important and how it all interacts with each other. So we started simple and just looking at the Southern California region and once I had a method that was working pretty well, expanded it to the west coast and then eventually the entire lower 48 states in the U.S. that’s where we are currently at.
Brent: Okay, awesome, and then you had to somehow lie that graphically enough some nice words that people consuming the app or looking at it can understand what’s going on.
Matthew: Exactly! So the beta trials started just sending out images embedded in an email so I used MailChimp which is free and I was able to send out daily updates to all the beta users just as an embedded image. So you know, that’s how we started, low cost and lots of manual work required on my end to get that out but it got us the proof of concept, the feedback that let us refine everything and kind of show that “oh yeah, this is working, this is feasible and people are interested”.
Importance of Beta Stage Feedback
Brent: How important is the feedback that you get from people during the beta stage.
Matthew: One of the most important things you can do in a business. You have to listen to your customers. I can tell you stories about the different tech company I started which we waited too long to get customer feedback and ended up they wanted something just a little bit different and we didn’t have it.
Brent: So that can actually kill your business if you don’t actually get that feedback during that stage when you’re actually creating the product it sounds like it’s critical.
Matthew: Yes, especially if you don’t have much money to work with. So if you have a lot more money to work with you can be a lot more risky with how far you go.
Brent: So what was your budget for doing this project?
Matthew: Pretty small a couple of hundred dollars is what I think I spent for the first year since I was doing everything manually. I did a good chunk of the coding myself. I did all the rough code myself and then hired a part time employee to help clean it up and streamline it.
Brent: Okay, so it doesn’t sound like that expensive to create an App. It just takes a lot of time or if you got the skill to do it, you can for a relatively little bit of money little bit of investment.
Matthew: Yeah and keep in mind that at this point it was just an email.
Brent: That’s right.
Matthew: A daily email newsletter. So from there I took it and turn it into a web based application so it was overlaid on Google map and displayed it in a nice webpage. I kind of started a subscription fee to prove out the concept further.
Brent: Right and how did that go?
Matthew: Really well, good conversion numbers, and people where happy with it. And overtime we’ve continued to work on it both adding features, making it more accurate and more automated from my end. At the start I spent several hours a day doing updates manually, working on the website, working on the code and now in its current you know in the App Store version I automated everything in the back end so I hired 2 great programmers to help me out and they basically help me take it from something that was running at a website to something that was running in an actual App. It’s all in the Cloud on servers. We’ve got redundancy, troubleshooting, it’s all there. It’s brilliant.
Brent: Awesome, so how long did that take you? You initially said it took about 6 months to get the initial proof of concept right and then you’re using Mail Chimp to email images to customers every day. And then you went to the web application and you started charging a little bit for people to grab it on the web or it was overlaid onto Google map and then you went to the App section where you actually hire a couple of people obviously to leverage your time because probably you realized you couldn’t do it on your own. And you automated everything. How long was the timeline?
Matthew: Sure, so after we released for a couple of months, I started working with Stephen from the photographers of Femres. And we decided that Sky Fire will just be an awesome compliment to the existing App which if you haven’t heard of it, it’s one of the most popular if not the most popular App for landscape photographers. Really phenomenal functionality and so we spent about 6 months working, him and I and then my 2 programmers to assist. Basically coding, troubleshooting, and testing. I think we had nearly 2 months data as we were working on a server issues, making sure everything are feeding properly, everything is accurate, everything works flawlessly for the customer.
Brent: Awesome, from when you had the idea of creating something like this to when it was in a recently good state like this released our out of the beta stage, how long is that? Was it about a year or longer?
Matthew: To the web based version it was about a year and then another 6-8 months to get it to the mobile version.
How Sky Fire affect your Photography Business
Brent: Okay, awesome. So how this has affected your photography business where you’re selling or taking your landscape photography and you’re making money from it? How is this App part and actually differentiating yourself in finding something that you’re really good at and solving a problem? How is that affecting the business ratio? I know you are making money out of stock and fine art photography galleries. You know selling prints. How was selling the App and affect that?
Matthew: Yeah, definitely I make more money off the App now. It’s probably about 80% of my photography revenue stream at the moment. And part of it was working on the App and doing less on fine art realm at the moment. So that’s part of it as well.
Brent: So you’ve created something that’s solving a problem, and it’s on going so people need it all the time. You’ve got basically almost an unlimited customer based of landscape photographers because more and more people that actually get into photography, love lens photography so it’s a growing customer based. Everyone’s got a smart phone, Android or iPhone. So you’ve got a huge marketplace for this App. And also you’re selling it automatically, I’m guessing. When it comes to your business right now and the amount of time that it takes to run your business, it’s obviously creating updates to the App, it’s probably a certain chunk of the time but is there any other time that you spend like customer service or payment things that are not going through properly or any other parts of your business that are really consuming your time now?
Matthew: Yeah, definitely. Customer service takes a couple of hours a week at this point. It’s a new service so one of the key things that I’m currently doing is paying very close attention to the customer feedback as I try to update the website with kind of meant responsive tutorials. So the most common questions that could ask, I worked that information to the website. So that’s currently taking a lot of time and a lot of the rest of the stuff at least on the technical is automated. So that freezes me up to work on increased functionality and adding features which is kind of the fun part for me so that’s a really good way the business is structured.
Brent: Okay, and what about getting your customers the advertising, the marketing part, the client attraction module or that section. You got a great product, you got great feedback, you’re adding all these features, and you’re making the actual product better. But what about attracting new customers?
Matthew: So I tried a couple of things so far and then we’re still experimenting with you know maybe belong term optimal, it’ll probably change depending on which stage of the business we’re in as far as size. So right now it’s primarily organic word of mouth. And yeah that’s kind of the current go to and then we’ll be facing into more paid advertising in the coming months.
Brent: Okay, and what about getting a team leveraging your time more. So maybe someone that can actually handle the customer support tickets as they come through, so that you can work on the things that you like to do. Did you consider that?
Matthew: Yes, definitely and long term as soon as we or as soon as I get the website to a place where I’m really happy with, the tutorials and the explanations, it’ll definitely be handed off to a team. You know streamline and automate and free my time up to do what I do best which is come up with new ideas.
Great Action Steps for Starters
Brent: Okay, perfect. So if someone wants to take this path in their photography. They want to differentiate themselves and use their strengths to their advantage. What are the action steps that you would suggest that they take to get there? So let’s just say they’re great photographer, they’re creating amazing images, but they want to leverage that somehow. What would you suggest someone who is just starting out?
Matthew: Yeah, so definitely you got to think about it in the mindset of it’s a business. So I know other photographers have talked about this as well. I think particularly Varina Patel, they spent 80% of their time on business and 10% of their time on photography so you definitely have to go into a thinking about this is a business. So how do I make this work? You know from that point of view first. Then I’d really recommend going and doing some learning. Something like the 4 Hour Work Week just to get the kind of a good understanding of current internet based economy. What’s the best way you can go about doing this for low cost and test it early and quickly? So you limit your risk. You don’t want to spend 2 years on a project before you find out that “hey you know this doesn’t quite work.”
Brent: Exactly, so that’s basically getting feedback early, right?
Matthew: Yup, pull your friends; pull people if you have a photography page, see what they want and what would add value to their lives. It’s all about having value to the customers lives. If that’s in a fine arts perspective, you’re adding value to the client’s home by putting an image there and in Sky Fire’s case I’m helping photographers around the country make better pictures themselves.
Brent: Okay, so mindset, read the “4 Hour Work Week” book by Timothy Ferris, get feedback early from your friends and from social media or any other connections that you have. What else? What are the action steps do you think?
Matthew: I think those are the big ones. Reading the 4 Hour Work Week will give you so many ideas and so much more detailed advice than I can give you here.
Brent: For sure, how about finding the problem and then also seeing how your strengths maybe there’s like a sweet spot with the problem and your strengths come together and that’s what you focus on.
Matthew: Yes, definitely.
Brent: So when it comes to finding the problem it’s probably when you’re out there photographing you get frustrated with something that’s the problem that you need to solve. So let’s just say you wake up early. I’ve done it. I’ve gone down to shoot a sunrise at this beach that I thought it was going to be the perfect place. It had these rocks that were quite high on either side. I thought the sun was going to rise in one place so I stood there waiting; got my tripod out, my filters and everything. Perfect surf was coming in and out. I was freezing cold waiting for the sun to rise and like “When it’s going to rise? It’s my watch wrong? Or what’s going on?” I didn’t realize that it was rising a few degrees off where I thought it was going to rise. And I was actually behind this cliff faced so I didn’t actually catch the sunrise. So I wasted all day and that was the problem. And you found a solution to that. So I’m sure if people are listening to this has some other problem where you’ve got frustrated in your photography or in just everyday life and you found something that’s “Hey is there solution to this? Is there some way I can do it with my strengths? Something’s that unique to me that I can actually differentiate myself and create solution to this problem.”
Matthew: Another great example to that is company called Peek Design. So they are absolutely excellent at using craft funding to quick starter and launch their products.
Brent: That’s great. Didn’t they just launch a bag recently?
Matthew: Yes, they did. And they have several million dollars in funding I believe. So they’re doing rather well. But that’s how they go about getting their customer feedback before they have to outlay a bunch of money to manufacture a physical product which can be very expensive.
Brent: I think the crowd funding idea is such a great way to produce something because you already got a customer based before you even create a product.
Brent: Sometimes it’s hard or you create this product that you think people going to love and then you got to market it which takes as much energy as creating it so it’s better that you actually have the customers funding the product before you even create it, you really got a customer based which is an awesome concept and that’s great. So Matthew, thank you so much for being on the show. I know we’ve gone through quite a lot of things, and the show we title it “Differentiating yourself as a photographer” you know obviously finding what you’re good at finding the problem and seeing how you can solve the problem with your unique skills. You’ve run through your story on how you tried to make or you have made money in using stock photography, fine art gallery, selling prints, and then you’ve found a better way to do it. You’re using your unique skills. We’ve gone through of how you actually created this App, this Sky Fire App to help photographers or the little things and the problems that you’ve encountered. I shouldn’t say little things. Some of them are pretty big. The way you’ve gone through it, the beta stage, making sure you had people giving you feedback all along the way, then starting to charge people, and then eventually coming with an App, a standalone App that goes on the phone automated. And we’ve also run through quite a few action points that people can take if they want to follow this way and make a good income of something that they can create. Is there anything else you wanted to this podcast before we sign off?
Matthew: I just want to say thank you very much for the opportunity. I’ve been enjoying your tutorials for quite some time so I’m absolutely thrilled and grateful to be here.
Brent: Awesome, so if people want to find out more about you Matthew and your App, where should they go?
Matthew: Sure, so you can go to skyfireapp.com or you can search for us in the iTunes App Store as part of the photographers’ femres.
Brent: Thanks so much for being on the show and we’ll have all the show notes, all the links to your App and to your website in the show notes for this podcast. Just go to photoprofit.net and they all should be there. Awesome Matthew thanks so much for being on the show. And I’ll catch you later.
Matthew: Thank you very much.
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thanks brent, very interesting article.
Glad you like it. B