When she had to shut down her successful invitations business, Rita discovered a passion for creating photo books and launched her new venture, Photovation, where she helps people tell their stories through their photo collections.
Tell us a little about your background…
I was born in Seattle, Washington; our family moved to Kennewick, Washington, when I was nine. I graduated high school in Kennewick and spent my first year of college at Gonzaga (go Zags). While I loved the people and the school, I had a deeper desire to pursue a passion in Fashion Merchandising. I had worked at Foxmoor’s and Jay Jacobs department stores all through high school and was really good at helping people with styling. So at 19, I transferred to Bassist College in Portland, Oregon and graduated one year later with an Associate’s degree in Fashion Merchandising. In search of a well-rounded education, I then attended the University of San Diego, where I graduated with a Bachelor’s in Business Administration with an emphasis in Finance.
After graduation, I worked briefly in a couple of jobs and then moved back home with the goal to save money to travel overseas. I spent four and a half months backpacking through Europe and it was the very best experience of my life! Back in the states, I was finally ready to work and ended up in Portland in 2000. I chose Portland on a whim. My mom and I drove to Portland and gave ourselves one day to find me somewhere to live. If I came up empty handed, then I was going to move to Seattle. The last place we looked at met our criteria and it turned out to be the place where I met my husband, Jim.
I actually reinvented myself in my 30s and again in my 40s. My one and only corporate job was at a high tech company as a financial analyst, then marketing manager, culminating as a program manager. I had my first child while I was employed and, although my company offered daycare onsite, it was still a very difficult transition. I remember crying as I drove home from my first day back at work (from maternity leave) my sweet baby boy in the back, happy as a clam. At that point, I decided I needed to do something where I could work from home.
Fast forward two years and, just months after the birth of my daughter, in 1998, I left my corporate job and launched an online invitations and announcements business, which was one of the first online companies to use photos in birth announcements. The company grew quickly, my husband quit his job to help run the business, and I hired two employees. I was at home with my kids and making a great income.
When did you start to think about making a change?
My company’s success lasted about 10 years, until 2008, when the online world became saturated with competitors with deep pockets and I fell behind on the dynamic technology required. My #1 rankings in Google for multiple keywords slowly disappeared. I struggled emotionally and financially. By 2010, I finally started to accept that my invitations business was not going to rebound and shut the business down. It was not an option to “do nothing;” I needed to make money for our family and I needed to rebuild my confidence.
In 2010, my husband and I bought a small photography business, Digital Picture People. We were both interested in the profession and started taking photos for the local sports clubs that our children were involved in. Not only did we take formal team and individual sports photos, but we also took action shots. I received a lot of positive feedback from the teams that saw the action photos and was contacted to make photo books. Those requests prompted me to Google “photo organizing” and I found that there was an association that supported this emerging industry.
When we started planning another geographical move, something had to give, so we shut down Digital Picture People earlier this year. Running a photography business is much more work than people realize. Our shoots required a team of three people for every shoot and then after the shoot there is a tremendous amount of time on post processing, order administration, and fulfillment. I will miss this business, but we will continue to do photo shoots of our kids and their sports.
What is your next act?
I am a professional photo organizer. I established my new business, Photovation, in 2011 at the age of 46. I manage my clients’ photo collections, which can mean a variety of things. Most often, I will organize a client’s printed and digital photos into a core file structure (a year/month system for photos that can easily be maintained), ensure that all photos are backed-up, and then help them tell the stories by making “year in review” digital photobooks or video slideshows to be played via a DVD or on a flash drive. Slideshows are popular for many occasions, including graduations, anniversaries, and memorial services.
Photos are filled with stories and for some people these stories are difficult to get through. The part I love about being a photo organizer is that I am making a difference in people’s lives. I play many roles as I work with my clients and I think the one that I like the best is the role of photo therapist.
In this profession you need to really listen to what the client wants and needs. Some clients will have a lot of grief associated with their photos and they need you to just listen as they tell their stories. I had a client who had alienated a lot of people after the death of her husband. It had been 17 years and she hired me to help her organize her printed photos. We completed the project and four months later she died. However, the gift she left her children, and the peace she felt talking about her success and failures, were priceless. Her memorial slideshow was exactly how she would want people to remember her with special photos of people she had lost touch with long ago but always had a place in her heart. It was her way of embracing and acknowledging the love that she had pushed away for so many years.
This client was in her mid-60s but most of my clients are busy professionals who are harboring guilt about not having completed their high school senior’s baby book!
Why did you choose this next act?
I feel like this next act chose me. It aligned so well with the photography business and people were asking me to make photo books. This prompted me to do some research and ask people what they did with their photos. The universal answer was “nothing.”
We have all experienced trying to find a specific photo and, with the massive number of digital photos taken today, that is no easy feat. In addition, we hear stories of computer crashes, floods, fires, and natural disasters—all of them resulting in the loss of precious memories.
How did you get started?
It is always hard to start over. As mentioned earlier, when I Googled photo organizing, I found the Association of Personal Photo Organizers (APPO). I called them the next day and have been a member ever since.
I paid homage to my invitations business by using the same company name. When I first started my invitations business in 1998, I called it Photovation – combining the words “photo” and “innovation.” In 2000, I changed the company name to one that was more directly aligned with the style of announcements and invitations I was selling, but I kept the rights to the name and domain for Photovation. As it turned out, I thought it was a perfect name for my photo organizing business.
My own passion for photos was great preparation. I had already owned a business for 10+ years so I knew the different business components I needed to have in place. I also had relationships with two local print companies, so sharing my new business with them and having their professional support was key in validating that there was a demand for this service and in convincing me to move forward.
My friends and family were very supportive. Everyone can easily relate to photos, the stories tied to them, and the lack of organization most people’s collections are in.
What challenges did you encounter?
The biggest challenge was finding training and tools to do the necessary work seamlessly. To rectify that problem, I designed a timeline form to streamline my workflow. The timeline form allows you to collect and store the client’s (and their family’s) pertinent information. For example, when looking through a client’s photos, you need to know names of family members, birth dates, and other key information in order to properly sort and then eventually rename the photos once they are digitized.
The form I designed is dynamic – allowing one to input the birth dates of family members and then calculating their ages throughout their life. It is a lot easier and quicker to look at one form and see that in 2008 Mary was 10, Erin was 4, and Tommy was 2 and then order and name the photos accordingly, versus constantly calculating that in your head or using a myriad of sticky notes. That form is now part of a 7-piece Client Forms Bundle that is sold at My Workflow Studio (MWS).
My Workflow Studio is the product of my work with another APPO member, Sherra. Sherra and I discovered we were both trying to figure out ways to improve our own workflow and at the same time develop tools we could sell to other photo organizers so that best practices were practiced across the industry. We shared the training with Cathi Nelson, CEO and Founder of APPO and Lisa Kurtz, APPO’s Director of Operations; they developed a training criteria agreement which resulted in our title of APPO Authorized Trainers. We have since been presenters at all three APPO conferences and will present again at the 2016 Conference in Anaheim.
Photo organizing is a fairly new industry and best practices are still being established. My Workflow Studio has created video and audio Master Trainings that guide a photo organizer on how to use specific software, how to organize digital photos, how to set up your office, and much more. Our Studio forms are key components to helping a photo organizer properly price the three key money-making sources: Scanning, Slideshows, and Album Design.
What did you learn about yourself through this process?
I was really sad about the demise of my invitations business and scared to start another business. What I learned is that when one door closes, another one opens. Such a cliché, but I could have easily given up and went back to a corporate job. What I really learned is that I am cut out to be an entrepreneur!
What words of advice do you have for women seeking to reinvent themselves in midlife?
Do it! Believe in yourself. I remember feeling inspired by the magazine More. There was in interview with Barbara Corcoran about how, after being turned down for Shark Tank, she went back to the producers and told them why she should be on the show. She stood up for herself—and got the job. This magazine has a recurring section on women reinventing themselves.
What words of advice do you have for those interested in becoming photo organizers? What resources do you recommend?
Join APPO: Anyone who is interested in becoming a photo organizer absolutely needs to be aligned with this association of 500+ women and men. APPO offers members a community of like-minded entrepreneurs who are working to grow their photo organizing businesses. Benefits include free training webinars, a private very active Facebook group, a private forum where you can get specific photo organizing questions answered, discounts from APPO industry partners and much more. To become APPO certified, members must complete a 5-part module that covers necessary information to be a photo organizer, 20 hours of documented hands-on client work, and two client testimonials.
Connect with other business professionals. Sometimes being a solo entrepreneur can get lonely, so make sure to take advantage of opportunities to meet other professionals. I attend APPO conferences and connect with women’s business groups to keep me grounded and realistic with my expectations. I read a lot and I have a slew of business/inspirational websites that I follow; my favorite is Marie Forleo.Invest in training and tools: Do not reinvent the wheel. Be comfortable with technology and confident with your services. Learn the area of the profession you are passionate about and be the expert. Some professionals focus strictly on creating albums and slideshows, while others prefer the organizing and detective work of managing the client’s entire photo collection. Most photo organizers, however, offer a full service solution, working with their clients for an extended period of time.
Partner with local companies: When converting photos from print to digital I always recommend a local service. Sending your precious photos in the mail is risky. If it is my client, I either hand-scan (feed by hand, white gloves) their photos in my home office or bring to a company in Portland, Picture Perfect, that I have worked with for the past 15 years.
Provide a point of difference: I offer my clients a high-end photo book. These photo books are often used by professional photographers and not available to the end consumer.
Expand your reach: I have clients all over the United States – and most of them find me based on client referral or word-of mouth. I rarely work in a client’s home. I will have an initial consultation over the phone and depending on the project I will guide them on next steps. If the client is local I will go to their home to pick up their printed or digital photos and collect any necessary information. I do like meeting the client face-to-face, however, since this is such a personal business.
Charge what you are worth: You are the expert. I first determined my fees by evaluating the work I was doing and the demand in the marketplace for it. Photo organizing is a high-end offering; my clients are ready to focus on preserving their photos and money is not an issue. I do not give an estimate on completion of a client project. There are way too many unknowns. What I do is work in phases and bill out for 2 or 3 half-day sessions (4 hours) at a time. I am in constant contact with the client so they know what I am working on and next steps. Sometimes projects shift in the middle based on new priorities. Most of my clients are long-term relationships versus one-off projects.
Be comfortable with technology: A photo organizer cannot be afraid of technology and should be comfortable working on both Mac and PC platforms. There are many tools and programs available to help with workflow. The best place to get started, however, is to utilize the tools on your computer—either Mac or PC—versus additional software. Everyone is familiar with the default “pictures” folder that is on your classic menu, or that you can find by using Finder or Explorer. This is where you build your core file structure. Once all your photos are organized here, then you can choose your favorite software for viewing or sharing.
Don’t worry if you’re not a good photographer: Photography and photo organizing are mutually exclusive. It certainly can be advantageous to have a photographer’s eye, but that comes into play more when creating product than it does in general organizing. It is also important to remember that photos are personal and about the family you are working with, not about you. Their favorite photo is about their story and memories and rarely about composition or lighting.
Find a workload and schedule that work for you: I like to manage 3-5 clients at a time. They are primarily busy professionals or executives. Most clients have me manage their entire photo collection and the duration of the project is open-ended. I usually dedicate three days a week to client work, between the hours of 9am and 3pm. If I work evenings or weekends, it is my choice to complete work at that time, but it is never because of a client appointment. The other two days are dedicated to volunteer work, administrative tasks, and overall family stuff related to managing the household. My kids are 18 (a senior in high school) and 16 (a sophomore in high school). Balancing work and home is an ongoing juggling act. I try to complete most client work when they are at school and reserve the time they are home to be focused on them. As they get older, they need me less in some ways and more in others.
Work on your interpersonal skills: You must be a good listener, embrace learning, have patience and overall have a love for helping others preserve their family memories. These relationships will prove to be very powerful; learn to connect and engage and be true to yourself. Everyone you interact with has a story. Listen and learn their story; be genuine and share your knowledge. It is important to be a giver (not a taker) in all situations. You will end up developing lasting relationships with your long-term photo-organizing clients and those relationships will end up referring you to future clients.
What’s next for you? Do you think you have another next act in your future?
I do have a next act! I am moving to the East coast in June of 2016 as my husband has accepted a job in Boston. Because my business allows me to work on my clients’ collections in my home, it will not really see much of a change. However, helping my son transition to college, my daughter to a new high school, and finding a new home will be enough of a next act for 2016!
Contact Rita Norton at email@example.com