Small Business Spotlight:
HeadShots Inc is a photography service and portrait studio based in downtown San Francisco’s financial district. In just one year, Owner and Head Photographer Dan St Louis has grown the studio into one of the city’s leading photography services. In his first year at the studio, Dan delivered over 1,500 headshot sessions, and his work was featured on the world’s largest photography blogs: 500px, PetaPixel, ShotKit, Fstoppers and DIYPhotography.
How did your business get its start?
I started taking headshots in college back in 2015. Most of my initial clients were either applying to law school or to an investment banking internship — so they needed a half-decent LinkedIn profile photo. At first, it was just a side hustle used to pay for beer money and trips with friends. The photos weren’t very good … but I learned A LOT about photography, marketing and business operations, all at once.
Back in 2019, I was working at a local software firm. Frankly, I wasn’t very happy in that role. I worked for a wonderful company, but I felt like my true calling was elsewhere. So, I decided to use my sales skills to start offering headshot sessions again. I reached out to some local businesses and co-working spaces via email, and to my surprise, business took off like wildfire.
What were the biggest challenges you faced in starting your business?
Unsurprisingly, the biggest initial challenge was in finding enough customers to pay my bills. There are a lot of photography services in San Francisco. You have cheaper, low-end services that are only slightly better than a selfie. You also have super-premium services that cost as much as most people’s monthly apartment rent.
From the beginning, I learned that I needed to focus on 1) limiting my offering to professional business headshots (no acting/artist work) and 2) coming up with packages and marketing that were tailored to my client base. This strategy appears to have paid off, as 95 percent of the sessions we do on a monthly basis are lawyers, realtors, entrepreneurs, salespeople, c-suite executives and bankers. There’s a lot of demand for great professional headshots among the business community.
Why was it important to be located in San Francisco?
San Francisco is such a great market in which to offer B2B and B2C business services. On the B2B front, it seems like every major company has some sort of outpost in San Francisco. For such a long time, this city has been at the forefront of innovation — which compels the world’s best companies to build a footprint here. That’s awesome for companies like mine. On the B2C front, you have an affluent and educated customer base that’s hyper-focused on their careers. That’s a great market for a services company, as clients are willing to pay for great service.
What makes you different in terms of your culture, products, services, inception, etc.?
The biggest two differentiators are flexibility and coaching.
On Flexibility: For individuals, we do everything possible to make the booking and photography experience as smooth/flexible as possible. For companies, we offer an extremely popular “Corporate Pass” program, which allows businesses to send employees to HeadShots Inc whenever they’re hired. Employees book sessions on our website when it’s convenient for them, and we keep track of the client’s branding guidelines to make sure all employee headshots are consistent.
On Coaching: Anyone can buy a $7,000 studio setup and start offering headshot sessions. However, there is an art and science involved in coaching clients toward success. It’s no surprise that most people hate getting their headshot taken. We try to make the process as painless and fun as possible. Often, that involves lots of jokes and loud music at our studio.
What are some challenges you see facing your industry?
The biggest challenge my industry faces is the rush to commoditize photography. Right now, there are four or five “apps” that are competing to offer the cheapest possible price for photographers. While this is attractive to an unsophisticated consumer, most people don’t want a rushed/sub-par experience. So, I think we’ll do okay.
How has your business adapted to cope with COVID-19?
Luckily, “Media Services,” which includes photography, has been listed as an essential service. However, I’ve cut our operations to the absolute minimum. I’ll always sacrifice the quantity of business for the benefit of safety. We actually just published a piece on a prominent photography blog about how to reopen a portrait studio during COVID-19. You can check it out here.
The BIG takeaway is to make sure that you’re following all local, state, and federal guidelines. That means the studio is sanitized daily, the photographer is always wearing a mask, and most group sessions are canceled/postponed until we can offer them in a safe manner. I’m also pushing more sessions to outdoor settings. But, things are picking up. We’ve had more bookings in the last five days than in the past three months combined.
I think people are booking now that they can finally get a haircut.
How can your business help other businesses as well as people in their everyday lives?
You and your employees’ headshots are your company’s first impression to the outside world! If you operate a B2B or high-end B2C business, your “About Us” page is likely the second-most-viewed page on your website. We show your people at their best — so that prospective customers feel comfortable doing business with you.