We here at GOBankingRates want to help get our nation’s small businesses back on their feet after the COVID-19 pandemic. To do that, we’re highlighting readers’ favorite small businesses around the country, and shining a spotlight on what makes them special to their customers and their towns.
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In this edition of our Small Business Spotlight series, we’re featuring Quinn Kirby Photography in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Owner Quinn Kirby is an award-winning photographer who captures life as art through moody, emotional imagery. Here, we chat with them about starting their own business right out of college, how they’ve used this business to help elevate other creatives and why authenticity is so important for entrepreneurs.
Was there a particular moment or experience that inspired you to start your business?
I graduated from Central Michigan University with my bachelor’s of science in photojournalism with a minor in entrepreneurship in May 2020. This was at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. I had been booking shoots here and there since 2016 but hadn’t incorporated yet since I wasn’t making a taxable income and was nowhere near able to financially support myself.
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Like many other mid-pandemic college graduates, I applied to hundreds of jobs after I completed my education. It wasn’t until after who knows how many applications that I saw my file folder full of unique, thoughtful cover letters for what it was — a waste of energy and time. I was fed up with being ghosted and turned down by corporations, and decided I needed to turn that energy into filing for an LLC. If I wasn’t going to get hired by someone else, I was going to make the opportunity I was looking for.
What did you take from past experiences or jobs that you knew you wanted to be a part of your new business?
Growing up, I had no idea what I wanted to do solely because there was so much I wanted to do. I wanted to be a firefighter, then I wanted to be an Olympic gymnast, then a singer/songwriter, an author, a screenwriter… When I finally decided on directing movies, it was because I knew how many people with a singular vision it took to make something beautiful come to life.
It’s a good thing I tried it out, too. I attended a film camp the summer of my junior year of high school and hated it. Maybe it was because we had to make a short film in 30 hours, maybe it was because I was the oldest person in my randomly assigned group, maybe it was my lack of experience — maybe it was all of the above. Regardless, my desire to direct films died that week. Fortunately, my desire to create with people stayed.
I went into college thinking I would be able to create with people most authentically through photojournalism. However, near the end of my education, I realized I was not the person best suited to tell the stories I most wanted to tell. I either didn’t know enough context to present them correctly or couldn’t in good conscience stay “neutral.” Thankfully, creative photography satisfies my need to connect and create intimately with people, and I still use my photojournalism experience to volunteer in community circles.
What has been the most rewarding aspect of being a business owner?
One of my favorite maxims is, “A rising tide raises all ships.” Most of my sessions nowadays involve working with creatives, and seeing my images empower people gives me chills. A few of my favorite stories involve people I’ve worked with on multiple occasions: I helped develop aspiring model Janeigha Cummings’ portfolio, and she walked in New York Fashion Week 2020; Dayon Lewis (Lord DLew), a music artist I’ve done personal branding shoots with, recently moved to Los Angeles to pursue his music career; and I created marketing content for Mount Pleasant School of Dance, a dance studio that just upgraded to its second location. Creating with these innovators allows me to blend [my] passion with theirs.
How has the pandemic affected your business?
The lockdowns allowed me to develop my brand, technical knowledge and customer experience. While the pandemic prevented me from executing the service in my business name, it provided time to set a decent business foundation. Of course, it’s been devastating for the general population, so recognizing that it was an opportunity for me has been an interesting thing to wrestle with. I’m still not entirely sure how to talk about it.
How can people continue to support your business during this time?
There are multiple ways folks can support me and my business. For one, I am always open for booking inquiries. If you’re looking for anything in particular, I feature four packages on my website at QuinnKPhoto.com: Stylized sessions are for creatives and entrepreneurs, and often fall under the genre of personal branding. These sessions are for models, fashion designers, music artists, speakers, entrepreneurs, creatives, etc. I also provide senior sessions for graduates who want a creative, nontraditional senior photo experience.
Things become broader within my love sessions. I chose to call them “love sessions,” not “couples sessions,” because not everyone “in love” is part of a traditional couple. Families, best friends, polyamorous relationships and the like fall under this umbrella.
Thanks to my background in photojournalism, I also provide event coverage. This package has many purposes — concerts, personal celebrations, business parties, nonprofit events — the list goes on.
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I can be reached at Quinn@QuinnKPhoto.com and am always open to travel. If folks aren’t currently looking to book a session, you can always keep up with me on social media at @QuinnKPhoto on all platforms.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to start their own business?
Have a father who ran multiple businesses over the course of 26 years. No, really. It’s been a privilege to be able to pick my father’s brain for business tips and advice. Unfortunately, much of what it takes to become successful in business is who you know until you’re the one to know.
The good news is, I’ve found Facebook groups dedicated to my industry incredibly helpful. There are also mountains of knowledge online (think, your local library’s website, state and federal resources for small businesses, and SCORE).
Additionally, I — along with many in the United States — have been able to explore socially again and this has brought back networking opportunities. I’ll reference my initial point and say how important it is to connect with folks within and adjacent to your industry. In the same vein, be authentic. Don’t go into each conversation pushing your product or service on people. Make a genuine connection, look to learn, and maybe they’ll be the ideal client you’re looking for. If not, congratulations! You’ve made a new friend. If so, congratulations! You’ve made a new friend and a new client! Ultimately, it’s about embracing all kinds of experiences and using them to inform your business decisions and creativity.
This interview has been edited for clarity.