We had an amazing time getting to sit down and ask Kirstie Jones about how she runs and operates her business! She shares insights to some of the resources she uses, as well as what it’s like to be a busy equestrian photographer. The full audio of our interview and the transcript are below.
Full interview audio:
Links to websites and resources mentioned:
Free photography education and business trainings: www.KMPlearn.com
Portrait website: www.kirstiemarie.com
Customer relationship management tool: www.17hats.com
Photo retouching: RetouchUp
Trevor: Welcome to RetouchUp’s interview series where we get to hear from some very talented photographers and how they turned their photography business into a success. My name is Trevor Black and I’ll be your host. We’re super excited to kick things off and have the chance to speak with the young and very accomplished Kirstie Jones. Kirstie grew up in Portland, Oregon, and started riding horses at just three years old. She grew up riding and showing horses competitively and earned a scholarship to ride for TCU’s equestrian team. She then relocated to Fort Worth Texas for college and studied finance. When given the choice between Disney+ or Netflix, she’s Netflix all the way. Her senior year of college, she purchased a camera. She started her photography business in 2013 and went full-time and all in, in 2017. She’s been featured in dozens of industry publications and covers of magazines. She was named “Best Equine Photographer” in 2020 by Show Horse Today’s Reader’s Choice Awards. Recognized in the inaugural class of Cowgirls Magazine’s “30 under 30” award. And in 2018, she was recognized by National Collegiate Equestrian Association as a “Distinguished Alumni” in Business. Kirstie, welcome and thanks for joining me!
Kirstie: Oh, thank you so much, Trevor. Thrilled to be here.
Trevor: Yeah, we’re super excited as well. And man, first got to say, Netflix over Mandalorian and Disney+, huh? Man. That’s surprising. Just kidding. I would love to learn a little bit, as I was reading kind of your biography on your website and looking at things, I was, I love the images with the horses and everything. I didn’t know this was its whole own special category of photography. Could you talk to me a little bit about kind of your, your niche, and the kind of photography that you do and what kind of got you started down that trail.
Kirstie: Yeah. So like you mentioned, I’ve been riding horses my entire life and equine photography is a big niche actually. And, you know, when I was growing up, there weren’t necessarily specialized equine portrait photographers, but there were a lot of events photographers at all of our horse shows and competitions and things like that. So, you know, when we would go and compete with our horses there would be a horse show photographer attending the event. And so as I was growing up, I had a ton of imagery of me competing with my horse, but nothing that really showed the relationship that I had with my horse outside of the competition arena. And that’s something that’s so special because horses are different than just like a dog or a pet, because of the really deep relationship that we have with them, you know, equestrians who are riding their horses and especially those who spend a lot of time riding and, or a lot of time competing. I mean, a lot of times we’re traveling the whole country and we bond so deeply because our horse is more than a pet. It becomes a teammate. It becomes a friend. It’s, it’s difficult to describe to the outside world, but that’s kind of, you know, they’re equine photography has been a niche for a long time, but what has exploded in the last five, 10 years is this portrait photography side of it where people want sessions with their horses.
Trevor: That’s amazing. That’s super interesting. Cause you, you mentioned also something, I think it was called a heart horse? Could you, is that kind of like, is that your first horse? Like what is that?
Kirstie: Okay, so that is such a good question. So people call it different things, like an equine soulmate or a heart horse. But essentially, you know, a girl might have three, five, twenty, nine-hundred horses in her lifetime. But she really, really connects on a soul level with just a few of them. Honestly, there’s going to probably be one, maybe a small number of them that change her life profoundly. And that’s, like among all the equestrians, all the horse riders, we all know what we’re talking about when we, when we talk about a horse, a heart horse. Like, you love all of your horses, don’t get me wrong, but some of them just bond with you, connect with you, just resonate with you on a completely different level. And that’s what we call our heart horse or our, you know, equine soulmate or something like that. It’s, it feels, it sounds a little ridiculous.
Trevor: No, that’s really cool.
Kirstie: But, if you spend a lot of time around horses, you would understand and catch on pretty fast.
Trevor: No, that’s, that’s beautiful. That’s really awesome that there’s such a unique bond between, you know, you and the horse. I’ve, I’ve only ridden horses, maybe three times in my lifetime. And, each time my legs hurt a lot after and, I don’t, I don’t have a lot of experience, so it’s, it’s cool to hear this from your side.
Trevor: So I mean you, so you’ve been riding horses your whole life, and then you get to college, you study finance, which is kind of interesting seeing as now, you’re kind of like this big business person with your photography business and you, and you were given a camera, what, what was going through your mind when you bought that camera? Like, did you first kind of have some interest, did a friend get you interested? It just kind of seems like you were riding horses and then all of a sudden in college, you got this camera and you’re like, Oh, I’m going to do photography now. So what was the thought process? What, what happened there?
Kirstie: Yeah. I had no intention of being a photographer. I just liked nice photos. So a few of my college roommates had DSLRs and I was borrowing them all the time and I just like nice pictures. So for Christmas I bought myself a camera. And I just went straight out into my parents’ front yard with a pasture full of horses. And that’s what I practiced on. You know, and I started on auto mode and then quickly jumped over to manual and was just snapping away. There were mama and baby horses out there. There were all sorts of beautiful horses in our front pasture and so I would just keep snapping and keep practicing. And then I started asking my friends if they would model for me with their horse and truthfully horses are the only thing that really, like, mattered to me and I cared about and I was super passionate, so I really never photographed much else. I just, you know, started with, by practicing on horses and then asking my friends to model with their horse. And then all of a sudden I fell deeply in love with the storytelling, the relationship between a rider and his or her horse. So that’s kind of just like what set me in motion. Again, no intention of being a photographer, just started completely for fun at the time, because I was a finance major like you said. All my internships were in asset management. I landed my dream job in investor relations for an asset management firm. And I was going so heavy down that trail that this is just such a fun outlet for me on the side to do as a hobby.
Trevor: Okay, and then you, I guess, cause you mentioned that you, you went full-time in 2017, but you said that you got your dream job. So what, what was that decision process like for you to have to give up something that you liked, and were good at – finance – to then be like, you know, I’m going to put my time and efforts into another thing that I like. Like, how was that process for you?
Kirstie: It was a difficult decision. I, you know, by the time, probably end of 2015 into 2016, I essentially had two full-time jobs. My photography business had grown completely organically, but very quickly. And all of a sudden I was, you know, flying every single weekend using my PTO for sessions. I was editing all night and my finance job was a lot more than 40 hours a week. I never counted my hours, but I put a significant amount of time into that job, in the corporate world. And so then, to have this on top of it, I essentially had two full-time jobs and it really just hit a point where it was very unsustainable. And honestly, I probably let that even go on too long. I probably should have gone, or made a choice, earlier than that. But it just felt like, you know, my photography business was just blessing upon blessing and it was really ramping up and it had a lot of momentum behind it. And so I made the decision to just kind of explore it and decided to take that full time and left on very good terms with the company, kind of being like, okay, if this doesn’t work out how I think it’ll work out, I’ll be right back. And kind of always had that in my back pocket too. Cause it was, I was not leaving a job that I hated. I was leaving a job that I really, really loved, but I was in an extremely fortunate place where I was choosing between good and better. You know what I mean? Like, I have this that I love and I also have this that I love. And so it was just like, I can no longer do both and it just felt like the right decision to set this in motion, see where it could go. And then in the back of my mind, I’m like, but I can always fall back.
Trevor: No, that’s, that’s smart. Yeah. Just in case, you know, have your options open, leave, leave the doors there. That’s I think that’s really smart. And I think a lot of people can relate to your situation in that the, people have one job and then they started doing photography on the side and then once they start, that the business starts to kind of roll in, they realize, man, maybe I could just put more time into this and go full-time as a photographer. So as you kind of built up your business from the ground, what were some of the biggest challenges that you ran into and how did you overcome them?
Kirstie: I mean, I was so I, I look at everything as an opportunity. So any setback is an opportunity, but I think I was fortunate that I had a very busy full-time job because from the get go, like from the onset of this being a small part-time gig, I had to work through efficiencies like crazy. I had to automate things. I needed a very efficient workflow. I needed to refine my photography business, and kind of cut the fluff and make sure that my editing time was really quick, my response time was really quick, that I had systems in place and everything like that. So I was lucky that when I transitioned to full time, I already had various, like efficient systems and processes because, I think, I mean the biggest shakeup for me was right about the time that I launched full time is also when I got pregnant with my first child. So motherhood was certainly the biggest challenge that I had faced, specifically with trying to balance, I mean time management, and, you know, taking time off for maternity leave, all of a sudden it’s like I had left the corporate world to be self-employed, well, when you’re self employed, there’s no paid maternity leave. So to just kinda like be able to enter motherhood and limited time, you know, and wanting to pour a lot of time into my new baby and my family, while also continuing to try to grow, because that was like the first year of me being full time. So I was trying to grow and establish and really make sure that my photography business had deep roots.
Trevor: Very interesting. So even though you were more than working full time hours at your finance job, in a way you feel that that really helped you because you had to, as, as you worked on photography, you had to get systems in place to be as efficient as possible. Is that right?
Kirstie: Exactly. Yep.
Trevor: Super cool. And so as you got started then, what resources really kind of helped you implement some of your systems? Like, uh, you know, I don’t know if you, you’re kind of into book reading or, you know, maybe there’s something online that really helped you, like classes or something, but I’m sure many people would be interested to kind of learn, hey, how did Kirstie, you know, get those systems implemented? What were your kind of your go-to resources? Or maybe they still are go-to resources.
Kirstie: Yeah. So, I mean, I use 17hats as a CRM, and so that handles all the invoices, the contract. I can, I can book a client so simply, which is fantastic. Cause I normally kind of do all my booking in waves, it seems, where, you know, one day I will just be like doing all contracts, all invoices, all the questionnaires, all the things, and 17hats just make that so easy cause with a couple clicks of the button, everybody is booked and in my system and then I can designate a workflow where it’ll automate email sequences and make sure that they are, you know, completely prepared and ready to go for their session. Honestly, RetouchUp is a huge piece of that because when I was working full time, like I said, I had to create all these processes and editing workflow was a really, really big one that I needed to streamline. I mean, my, I went through my, RetouchUp orders the other day. There are several hundreds of them and they started in 2013. I mean the beginnings of my business at my first order with you was placed in 2013. So like, from the get-go RetouchUp has been there for me, you know, for all of my heavy retouching items, I, if I can not Photoshop an image and get the result I want and about 45 seconds or less, then I kick it out. I’m like, I don’t have time for this. I don’t like spending my life on my computer. So if I can’t get it done in about four clicks or about 45 seconds, then boom, it gets uploaded and it goes off to you guys. So that’s a big part of my workflow, to make sure that I am turning around images to my clients in a timely manner and keeping the client experience the very best that it can be.
Trevor: That is so interesting to me, that right from the get-go, when you started in 2013, you were already looking to outsource things that you knew was going to take a lot of time and not be helpful to growing your business. What, how, how did you learn that? Like what, was it something in school with like financing and like, as you kind of learned about businesses and efficiencies, you were like, I need to do this. Or like why, why was that going through your mind? Because I feel like that’s not something that first comes up when a person’s starting. They’re like, oh man, I want to have control over this and be able to really create a beautiful product for my clients. Do you know what I mean?
Kirstie: Sure. I’ve never really thought about that before. That’s so interesting you bring that up, but I would probably say a huge part of my contribution at that asset management firm that I was at was creating systems and processes for them and improving their workflows. So from the beginning of when I got there, it was a very disorganized mess in my department and it was my job to purchase softwares and create programs and create templates and checklists and automate as much as possible. And so maybe just being in that headspace all day of just, how can I reduce mouse clicks? How can I make this faster? How can I automate XYZ? Right? If there is any single motion that I am repeating, how do I turn that into an automated workflow so that I am not wasting any time. And so perhaps just being in that headspace at my other job is what created, you know, again, I was very pressed for time, like I said, as this photography business is growing for me, I was very pressed for time. I didn’t have a lot of time. I did not, certainly did not have all night to pour into Photoshop and learn it all myself or anything like that. I love the actual session with my girls and I love building the business and all the marketing and everything that came with that and I didn’t necessarily love spending a ton of time on my computer. So, just kind of learning what I loved and I wanted to control and keep hold of that. And then things that I didn’t love or that other people could do a better job of and delegating everything that I could.
Trevor: That’s amazing. Wow. Very wise, I would say. And then kind of still, just along these, this beez, this beez haha, business line, you were quoted as saying, “For the woman pursuing a photography career, understand that you are first and foremost, a business owner. Taking pictures is probably about 5% or less of how I spend my time. In order to succeed, one must understand all facets of the business, marketing sales, accounting, customer services, etc.” Well, you know, there’s, there’s so many photographers that are a one man band doing everything themselves. And so even the marketing, sales, accounting, customer service, still kind of seems like a lot for a person to handle. Is there one key area, you know, you would recommend photographers learn the ins and outs of, you know, in order to help their business succeed or be even more successful.
Kirstie: I do, I think honing in on your client experience is really what’s going to be the heartbeat of your business because we are a service-based business. So at the end of the day, yes, technically we have a product, but for me it’s far less about either the digital image or the printed image that I produced for a client and entirely more about the entire experience and how I made them feel. And hopefully it was a life-changing experience for them. So, I think that we are a service-based business and that is really, what’s going to set up a lot of your marketing, and separate you from competitors in the industry, and be able to use sales psychology to either book people or sell people more on things. So I feel like, outsource everything you can. You know, if you’re not good with the numbers, outsource your bookkeeping. If, you know, on and on. You know, take hold of what you love, outsource what you can. But I really think at the end of the day, if you are not able to handle the marketing and sales side of it, then you do not have a business. I mean, if people are not coming into the door, then you don’t really have a business and it certainly might not be sustainable going forward. So, I think honing in on the client experience and how you can differentiate yourself from the rest of the market, that is kind of the, like bedrock I’ve built my business upon and that everything kind of grew from that.
Trevor: For you, when does the customer experience begin, like when and where? And then when does it end?
Kirstie: That’s a good question. In black and white terms, it, like, it starts in my workflow the moment that they pay me the retainer and they sign the contract, right? So as soon as the invoice is paid and the contract is signed, that is when my workflow starts. And I start by sending a welcome box with a beautiful, like 30 page magazine and a whole box full of goodies. I mean t-shirts and candles and pens and a handwritten note and a whole bunch of branded goodies. Horse treats for their horse and, you know, human treats for them, all sorts of stuff. I want them to feel showered with love, but from that process, I want them to feel known and seen and heard throughout the whole thing. And I honestly would say it doesn’t really end. After the session I deliver all their proof prints and another box full of goodies. And then about six months later, I send a postcard with an image from their session and another handwritten note but this note, by this time, you know, they’ve probably gotten three or four handwritten notes from me. And then they get added to my Christmas card list where, every single year they’re getting my family’s Christmas card. So it’s, it’s pretty ongoing from there, I mean, I, so many of my friends, clients turn into great friends of mine, and so I’m constantly checking in on them and how they’re doing at horse shows and I’m in constant contact with them on social media, replying to their stories. And, you know, I’m really just involved. I try to visit some of the really large horse shows and just hang out and spend time with them and stuff like that. So, I guess technically it starts when they sign the contract and pay the retainer. But then, I really don’t like to think of an ending. I like to think of them as like a lifetime client at that point.
Trevor: That’s super cool. Like, so it starts with them being interested in your services, signing that contract, and then there’s these multiple points of contact, very genuine handwritten notes. And then yeah, the experience sounds like, yeah, the experience, never ends. You, you always stay in contact with them, whether it be social media or at shows that’s, that’s phenomenal. Really, really well done. And, you know, just as we kind of wrap up here, I know, we’ve kind of approached that 20 minute mark now. Just a couple of last questions. I would love to hear from you, what’s been your proudest moment as a photographer up to this point?
Kirstie: Well, so this is something that I, I never ever market my business with, because I’ve built a brand of sunshine and unicorns and rainbows, and it’s all, you know, life is really, really rosy. But, the significance of what I do is really at its peak or manifested when somebody loses their horse and no longer has them. And the notes that I receive from my clients about the meaning of the images and how that meaning changes is certainly like the most profound piece of what I do. And that’s when it really is like, I understand what I do matters. And that I’m providing a service and an experience, yes, and then a product at the end that is tangible and that they can have forever. So it’s, it’s kinda sad and it’s kinda morbid. And like I said, I cannot use that for any piece of my marketing. You know, I don’t, to be super cross, like I can never say, book a session now your horse might die tomorrow. You know, I can not use any piece of that because I’m all about the love, the relationship, the sunshine, the unicorns, the rainbows. But the, just the notes that I receive when, unfortunately, a horse passes, and especially when it’s unexpectedly, you know, freak accidents or whatnot, um, happen. And when I’ve been in business this long, there’s been quite a few horses that have passed. And so, I think that’s, that’s one of my proudest moments just in the fact that, I’m very, very thankful that I can leave them with the best memories they’ve ever had. They can think back to our session day where it was, many girls say the best day of their life. And so when they no longer have that horse to hold and all they’re left with are the prints that I shipped them, that’s just, that’s pretty profound.
Trevor: Oh man, I just got chills as you were talking. It just, I can imagine what that must feel like to, yeah, to, for those riders to look back at those pictures and just remember those moments with, their horses and stuff. Gosh, that’s, that’s beautiful. Well, Kirstie, appreciate your time. I’m learning tons over here. We want to respect your time. So, I mean, just in closing, if people are interested in connecting with you, what would be the best way for them to do so?
Kirstie: Yes, so I am on Instagram at Kirstie Marie it’s, K I R S T I E E E – three E’s, Marie. My portrait site’s KirstieMarie.com. If you’re interested in any education, I offer so, so much free education, business trainings and photography education on my website, KMPlearn.com.
Trevor: Fantastic. Kirstie, thank you! It’s been a real, real pleasure being able to speak with you. We appreciate you and are glad that RetouchUp has been able to, kind of been part of your workflow and help you with all of these, these pictures that you’re doing and making all these memories for, for all these wonderful people. So thank you so much for your time. We look forward to seeing you on more covers of magazines and then following up on your story and see how big you’re going to blow this thing up.
Kirstie: I appreciate it, Trevor. Thank you for having me!
Trevor: Hey, thanks so much Kirstie, you have a great day!
Kirstie: You too.
Trevor: Thanks, bye-bye.