In March, Nicole Smith did something she hadn’t done in just more than a year: make a profit.
Her Victoria-based company Flytographer had been devastated by the pandemic. The platform connects tourists abroad with local photographers to create professional-grade travel snaps, with packages ranging from US$285 to US$650.
When the pandemic struck last year, it put an end to travel. Closed borders meant no vacations, which meant no bookings, no revenue and an avalanche of refund requests.
“I had never factored into my business: What if the entire world stops travelling at once?” Ms. Smith said.
The initial weeks of the lockdown last year were scary. She laid off three-quarters of her 20-person staff and worried about how to keep the lights on.
But soon she and what was left of her team hunkered down to figure out a way forward. The goal became how to diversify Flytographer’s products and services to survive the short term, but also provide long-term stability in case anything such as this happened again.
Like a lot of small businesses, their first move was to set up an online store, where the company introduced a line of travel-themed merchandise, such as shirts and candles. Then their team of photographers around the world – who, Ms. Smith said, are hired for their welcoming personalities in addition to their technical skills – began to teach photography classes online. And the company began to receive the federal wage subsidy, which brought the Flytographer team back up to 10 people.
These revenue streams helped, Ms. Smith said, but couldn’t match what the company made before the pandemic. They still needed to figure out another approach if they were going to survive – and, hopefully, one that already built on their strengths.
The first step was to turn their gaze closer to home to domestic travellers. About 80 per cent of Flytographer’s clients are American, Ms. Smith said, and many began to take tentative trips last summer after the first wave of COVID-19 died down. Instead of going to big cities, however, these tourists were opting for outdoor locales, such as beaches or mountains. So Flytographer started targeting these clients by hiring photographers in more out-of-the-way places around the country.
“We went from Paris being our No. 1 city for years to Jackson Hole, Wyoming,” she said.
One of those Jackson Hole clients was Kyle Neff, an engineer in Oklahoma City, Okla. He took his girlfriend up to the mountain retreat for what he told her was a weekend getaway. She had never been and he had fond memories of camping there with his family when he was a kid.
One night in late August before dinner, as the two looked out at the Teton mountain range, a man who was passing by offered to take their photo. What Mr. Neff’s partner didn’t know was that the meeting had been staged; Mr. Neff had hired the man through Flytographer and, with him, choreographed this moment. The photographer gave the cue – remarking that “the shot is perfect” – and Mr. Neff dropped to one knee and proposed. His now-fiancée said yes.
“That day is probably one of the greatest days of our lives,” Mr. Neff said.
The domestic travel shoots, though not the original focus of Flytographer’s sales pitch, were a natural outgrowth of its platform. The company’s next new service took it a step further.
By this point, many people who could work from home had been doing so for months. The nature of work, particularly for the young and tech-savvy, had changed in the remote world and become more casual.
Ms. Smith thought it was time for young professionals to reflect that new reality online. So Flytographer introduced its newest service, called The Modern Headshot.
Anita Chauhan, a director of marketing for a startup, said she had been looking to freshen up her online presence as she took on more speaking gigs. She booked a photographer through Flytographer, wore more casual clothes, got to pick an outdoor location for the photos – graffiti alley, near Queen Street West and Spadina Avenue in downtown Toronto – and was thrilled with the results.
“She really did a good job capturing the playfulness I wanted,” Ms. Chauhan said.
Ms. Smith said that with the increased revenue through the new services, and the return to profitability, she’s got more control over the company’s direction. Flytographer got off the ground in part from two rounds of funding – $650,000 from friends, customers, and angel investors in 2014, and $1-million when more angel investors came on board in 2018. But unlike many other tech startups, Ms. Smith says she’s not looking for more investment. Instead, she wants to expand Flytographer in line with her revenue.
“For me, what feels better is to be profitable and have more control over my destiny,” she said.
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