Alec Johnson teaches entrepreneurs what they need to do to grow their budding enterprises. Like how he did with his own photography business, which he is expanding.
Anyone who knits, paints or does woodworking probably has thought, "How could I turn my craft into a business?"
Alec Johnson wondered the same thing as he got more serious about photography. But, unlike the rest of us, he knew just what to do.
An assistant professor at the University of St. Thomas, Johnson has taught entrepreneurship classes for 12 years, and studied thousands of small businesses, analyzing why they succeed or fail.
The place to start, Johnson said, especially for a craft business, is to decide what you want out of it. He has other good ideas, too, like keeping your day job and knowing when to say no.
"Most businesses just simply need to look the way you want it to look," Johnson said. "I get to define who and what I want to be as a photographer ... and then find somebody in the market who values that. As a starting point this is absolutely central to the craftsperson who is thinking about making a business out of their craft -- establishing why."
One way to determine that is to decide whether you want to be the McDonald's or the Manny's of yarn or watercolors.
"A lot of small-business owners out there make this mistake," Johnson said. "We try to be both. The most difficult job for a small-business owner is to say no to a client. You try to be everything to everyone and you're really poor at being anything to anyone. You hurt your reputation and you lose money on every client because you don't know how to charge and market and sell."
To avoid such pitfalls, Johnson wrote a vision statement when he started AC Johnson Photography seven years ago. It's the same one that guides him in the classroom: "I do not want to be a commodity."
"The way I define my business is wonderfully consistent with the way I get to define myself as a professor," Johnson said. "A lot of who you are in your other professional life can ... carry over into your craft business."
Johnson has taken the Manny's route, describing himself as "a fairly high-end, value-added photographer."
Sticking to his vision, Johnson believes, has helped his company grow, because it has enabled him to build a portfolio that has gotten him more of the kind of work he aspires to do.
"I want to move toward advertising-level photography, whether it's architecture, fashion, portraits or wedding photography," Johnson said. "I want clients who need something unique and original and fresh. I want to have that as part of my process. Otherwise I would have fallen out of love with photography a long time ago. I would just be a monkey snapping a shutter."
He expects his revenue to double this year, to $60,000, he said.
Johnson used savings to start the company. He covered expenses out-of-pocket for a year, but since then all of his earnings have gone back into the company.
Another way to look at a craft business, Johnson said, is as an income-substitution business: When he takes photographs, he sells his time on the open market instead of working for someone else. The downside is that, when the business stops, he won't have any residual assets to sell unless he licenses his images to others or publishes a photography book.
Johnson is one of four full-time teaching faculty members in the entrepreneurship department at St. Thomas and one of two who have started companies in recent years.
Jay Ebben, also an assistant professor, and his wife, Chantelle, sold their home-based company, Rockabye Rentals, last year to a full-time owner-operator. The rapidly growing company, featured in the Star Tribune in 2006, rents cribs, highchairs and other gear for infants and toddlers.
"The old adage is, if you can't do it, teach it," Johnson said. "I don't know if there's anyplace more important than an entrepreneurship program where somebody better be doing it."
One theme Johnson said he and other faculty members have increasingly stressed to students is to keep working while starting their own ventures.
"There's no rush to the wealth," Johnson said. "There's plenty of room in the market for everyone. You just have to build it slowly. In a craft business, you build your business one customer at a time, literally."
Diversifying key to survival
When he started his company, Johnson concentrated on residential real estate projects and landscapes, focusing on the North Shore of Lake Superior. He moved into commercial real estate photography as the housing market dried up.
Johnson has photographed several projects for commercial client Told Development Co. of Plymouth, including its Excelsior & Grand development in St. Louis Park, which combines retail and residential space, associate Trent Mayberry said.
"He'll take it a step further, and come up with a very creative shot, over and above what the standard commercial real-estate photographer would do," Mayberry said.
Johnson also has taken photographs of senior-citizen housing projects, banks and office buildings for Frisbie Architects in River Falls, Wis.
"We like to work with people who love what they're doing, and that's one of the reasons we like working with Alec," said Shari Frisbie, marketing and office manager. "He listens to what we're trying to accomplish."
More recently, Johnson has added fashion, portrait and wedding photography. Those subjects interested him and offered additional revenue sources.
"Lesson learned: Diversify, even if you're in a craft business," Johnson said. "But I've absolutely brought the same vision statement to it. Every subject matter is a different skill set, which requires different equipment, a different investment strategy and different promotional strategy."
Johnson also has begun leading three-day landscape photography workshops on the North Shore.
"I'm not doing it as a diversification strategy, but it is," he said. "I do it because I love being a teacher, I love the North Shore and I love taking photographs."