Each week, we seek expert advice to help a small or medium-sized business overcome a key issue.
The client called ahead of time: Could she bring her goat?
She could, and she arrived at the Chewed Slippers studio with four dogs and goat in tow, all of them dressed in their Christmas best for a holiday photo shoot. Dozens of other dogs, most wrapped in festive garb, lined the Edmonton studio with their owners that December afternoon, all eager for professional portraits.
That was Chewed Slippers's first goat, but it may not be its last. The two-woman pet photography company is showing no signs of slowing down in Alberta's capital city. The dozens of clients who showed up to the company's Christmas charity shoot is a testament to the niche market its co-founders have unearthed: professional photographs of pets – and, as their slogan goes, the people who love them.
After closing their individual photo studios and opening Chewed Slippers Inc. last spring, Amanda Adkins and Lorena Smalley have found their service in growing demand, booking 30 clients a month. They think they can grow more quickly, Ms. Adkins says, if they can convince skeptics that their service is no joke. That means snuffing out a recurring question: "Really? Pet photography?"
Really. Pets today, especially dogs, have become de facto children. Not only are scientists finding that dog-owner relationships bear striking similarities to those of child and parent, but people are spending more money than ever on their "fur babies."
The American Pet Products Association estimates that our southern neighbours spent more than $55-billion (U.S.) on pet expenditures in 2013, more than double the amount spent in 1994 after inflation. Nearly $5-billion of that is spent on various non-food and non-medical services – frills, rather than bills.
So while everyone and their dog can take a selfie with a smartphone, Chewed Slippers hopes to tap into a growing market of pet parents who are willing to open up their wallets for professional portraits.
Ms. Adkins, 47, and Ms. Smalley, 49, met in the late 1990s studying photography at Edmonton's Northern Alberta Institute of Technology. They opened their own studios, but always teased the idea that some day they might go into business together. In 2012, they made it happen, after the two dog-loving photographers saw a growing trend in pet-focused studios in the U.S.
After taking a weeklong pet photography course in Seattle, they began to promote their business, buying ads on Facebook and Google and mailing not one, but two introductory packages to every pet-related business in the Edmonton area, following them up with in-person visits. Edmonton's pet parents loved the idea, and business began to roll in last spring.
Less than a year after they began taking clients, the owners have even launched two projects to give back to their community: Miss You Already, a free service for clients with terminally ill pets, and the Christmas Paws for a Cause fundraiser, which supports a local initiative to feed the pets of homeless people, and which has been known to attract goats.
The response to Chewed Slippers was so good, in fact, that they noticed other local photographers emulating their idea. "We saw a website that was specializing in weddings, boudoir, and then, all of a sudden, pets," Ms. Smalley says.
But competition doesn't fluster the duo. Even though their business focus has meant turning down past clients, they're confident that they can sustain and grow a pet-exclusive studio, thanks to positive reaction from their community and their previous experience as entrepreneurs.
What does make them pause, though, is figuring out how to respond to that knee-jerk "Really?" and break through the skepticism of potential clients.
"If I only had a dollar for every time somebody said to me, 'Really?' Can you make a living at that?" Ms. Smalley says. "It's so new to them that it doesn't even cross their mind."
THE CHALLENGE: How can these entrepreneurs convince the pet-owning public to spend their disposable income on a service they might consider frivolous?
THE EXPERTS WEIGH IN
Rebecca Armstrong, principal and managing director of NORTH, an advertising and branding firm in Portland, Ore.
If someone really thinks pet photography is a frivolous expense, the Chewed Slippers team runs the risk of spending a disproportionate amount of time and money trying to overcome that perception. The stats support the notion that there's more than enough passionate pet owners out there willing to spend money on pet photography. The CS team should focus on finding those people.
They should also build partnerships with pet daycares and specialty pet stores where people are already willing to spend a lot of money, and expand their social media presence onto Instagram and Pinterest, where amateur pet pictures abound. Amateur pet photographers know how hard it is to take a good photo of their beloved – and Pinterest is the top social media driver of Web traffic. Get published: NORTH friend Carli Davidson has built her photography practice with the help of this gorgeous book, SHAKE.
Also, make the whole process as digitally seamless as possible. People are used to the gratification of instant sharing via the Web. A six-week wait for a final product may be a hurdle.
Angela Cooley, president, Solutions Pet Marketing, Secane, Pa.
The single most effective way to reach potential clients is through print. A combination of targeted direct mail and handout postcards can create a powerful promotional campaign.
Begin with a targeted mailing list. Base your demographics (sex, age, income, et cetera) on your current customer "type." Most likely, this is what your new customer will look like.
Design a postcard with eye-catching, heart-tugging graphics like a child or senior citizen with their pet or a woman with her goat. Your product will not be considered frivolous if you can convey, through your images, a desirable emotion. Include a coupon. They can also place additional printed postcards in the waiting rooms of high-end veterinarian offices and at the local SPCA, plus hand out cards at community pet events.
Emily Hashemi, store manager and PR director at Dogfather & Co., Toronto
Don't we all enjoy spending some disposable income on things that make us happy? You wouldn't think twice about photographing your real kids – why not preserve the special relationship you share with your fur babies?
Present your work creatively and put up examples of photos in pet shops, at pet shows and in pet magazines. Leave business cards. Some photographers print small postcards (with one of their photographs) and pin them up in dog parks. Put together a creative video of one of the photo shoots to highlight how much fun it can be. Utilize social networking apps including Instagram and Pinterest – this is key and helps a lot.
THREE THINGS THE COMPANY COULD DO NOW
Expand social media
Chewed Slippers is already on Facebook, but they should showcase their work on Instagram and Pinterest, too.
Go viral – in real life
Summer is coming. Get out to the dog park, pin up some postcards and let Chewed Slippers's work speak for itself.
Start a targeted mailing list to reach customers you aren't already reaching through word of mouth.
Interviews have been edited and condensed.