How to Turn a Passion Into a Career

Christophe Testi was working as a software engineer when he decided it was time to try making a living doing what he loved: photography. Testi, who moved to the U.S. from France in 2000, started selling photos part-time in 2004.
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Christophe Testi was working as a software engineer when he decided it was time to try making a living doing what he loved: photography. Testi, who moved to the U.S. from France in 2000, started selling photos part-time in 2004. He created his own photography company in 2008 and went full-time in 2010. His company, Creative Shot Photography, offers a broad variety of photographic services, including maternity, newborn, kids, family portraits, weddings, architecture/interiors, corporate/commercial and events. He has a well-equipped studio setup in his garage in Mountain View, California and also does a lot of location shots, including at nearby Cuesta Park as well as at scenic sites around the San Francisco Bay Area.

The Start

How did you get started with your business?

I started by selling scenic and other photos online through microstock sites such as Shutterstock and Dreamstime. I met a lot of friends in the Bay Area, Las Vegas and Los Angeles through those sites. One friend invited me to spend a weekend working with models in his studio, and after that I felt I could do the same kind of business. At that time I still had my day-time job, so on weekends I took pictures of friends at different locations around the Bay Area. I had the opportunity to buy an entire studio lighting setup from a retiring photographer, so then I just had to upgrade my cameras. I used the pictures of my friends, and of course my family, as examples of my work. My first maternity pictures were of my wife and me, using a remote-control shutter release.

Everything came together. I started by setting up my studio in my garage, because I didn't want to rent a studio. I needed to show my wife that I could make a living by doing what I love doing. Little by little, people liked my work, the business built up and I got great reviews on Yelp. It got to the point where I had to make a choice. I had a full-time IT computer job that was taking a lot of time, working with big clients. I had to decide if I stop that or not? I couldn't tell my [photography] customers "I can't come do a photo shoot, because I'm working at my day-time job." By that point I saw I had so many requests that I said "OK fine, if I quit my full-time job I'm still going to be able to pay the mortgage."

Who was your first customer?

One of my friends started his own small business like me. He came first for pictures of his family, then hired me to do all the executive portraits for his company.

How did you fund your business in the beginning? Have you taken on any additional funding since?

My business was self-funded. Because I was a software engineer, I probably had a good salary compared to other careers in the Bay Area. I had some savings, and used most of my savings to invest in cameras and equipment. Some of the funding came from the stock photography sales, which provided a reasonable income every month. This helped me purchase camera lenses and software.

Running the Business

How did you learn to run your business?

I am mostly self-taught. I learned a lot from the network of photographer friends I met through the stock photography sites, and also from online forums. Also my computer knowledge was very helpful to build a very efficient and automated website.

What was the biggest mistake you made in your first year?

The biggest one was not charging enough, and working way too hard. But I think everyone does the same thing. It may have been a mistake not to spend enough to advertise my business. The biggest mistake was taking every single job. I wasn't selective enough, so maybe I missed better opportunities because I was taking tiny jobs for a small price.

What's the smartest thing you did in your first year?

I think it was that I proposed all my friends to have photo shoots with me. We did photo shoots at all sorts of places in the Bay Area, They shared their positive experiences on social media. When you're passionate about what you do, people are more inclined to write good reviews. Today I get 90 percent of my business from Google search or Yelp. I only advertised at the beginning on Craigslist. I think I am now one of the most reviewed photographers in this area. To stand out from the crowd of photographers, amateurs, professionals and freelancers, you need to find ways to differentiate yourself and offer something unique.

What's the most rewarding thing about running your own business?

When I work on pictures I've taken, I see the smiles, families are happy, running around having fun in the park. When I see them happy it makes me happy, if I see them smile it makes me smile. Some customers have me print their photo on huge canvas or metal print and hang it above their fireplace.

What's the most challenging thing about running your own business?

Because I always have requests to do photo shoots, it is difficult at times to balance family life and work. My biggest challenge right now is to find a way to grow my business without getting burned out myself.

What's the most surprising thing about running your own business?

I guess it is to see a lot of customers coming over and over, which is a good feeling. Also the difference of shot assignments. One day it may be a magazine cover of a Google exec, another day a doctor who is being profiled, and recently I had a policeman coming in. You never really know what to expect, so you get very interesting projects. It's always a good experience.

What business owner or entrepreneur do you admire most? Who is your role model?

I think I admire Tesla founder Elon Musk the most. I think he's a visionary, like Steve Jobs. He's very smart, and is also always pushing things that are very important for us to survive.

What I've Learned

If you could go back to when you were starting your business, what advice would you give yourself?

Again, to be more selective on what kind of job to take. Don't say yes to everything.

What do you wish you had known before you started your business?

Because I started slowly, I studied a lot of other businesses and worked with other people trying to do what I am doing, and I think this worked very well.

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