This week’s Small Business Star is Sue Westwood-Ruttledge, Cheshire-based photographer, who runs www.horsephotographeruk.co.uk and www.dogphotographeruk.com
Sue has always been self-employed, having run a health and fitness franchise and a construction business. She set up her current company five years ago after discovering a passion for photography while on a family holiday.
She talks to us about how finding a focus for her product helped her business to grow and why she’s now made the decision to expand through franchising her business.
“A few years ago, I took some time off working following a period of ill-health. I went away on holiday with my family, took lots of photographs and was really pleased with the results. So I decided to buy a good camera and take a 12-month course in photography. I set up a jack-of-all-trades website, offering to photograph weddings, babies, anything really, but I lacked focus and found that I was just ticking over.
“I fell into specialising in horse photography a year after I’d set up the business. I’m passionate about horses myself and when a client asked me to take a picture of her wearing a ball-gown while riding her horse I spotted a niche.
“I posted a picture on Facebook and I got three bookings straight away, followed by a further six on the same day. The business snowballed after that and now I’m generally booked eight to 12 weeks in advance and I’m now taking bookings for October. Having a focus has really helped my business to grow.”
“The focus is unique. The pictures I take are a mixture of portrait, fashion and art. I photograph people on horses wearing glamorous clothing, from ball gowns and evening dress or even wedding dresses, in fact anything other than jodhpurs and riding boots. I aim to capture that unique bond between horse and owner.
“And because many horse people have dogs, they often ask me to photograph their dogs, so I seized the opportunity set up a website for dogs, too.”
“Last year I found I was at full capacity, taking enquiries from all over the country and it wasn’t possible for me to take on all of that work. I looked around and noticed that there weren’t many photography franchises. So I decided to set up a franchise, which launched in January. This means I can oversee the business and maintain quality control, but somebody else is taking the photographs.
“I’ve got two more franchisees signed up, and policewoman and a solicitor both looking for a change of career, are interested too. I’ve also had enquiries from a man about taking on a dog photography franchise, so it’s all looking very positive.
“I plan to have eight franchises running in a year’s time. At the moment, I’m still running my own businesses, but want to take more of a back seat on the photography and concentrate on running the franchises instead.”
“The biggest risk I’ve taken is to set up the first franchise. I had to invest a lot of time and money setting up the legal side of things and getting trademarks in place. But I took a calculated risk and weighed up the pros and cons and it’s paid off already as we’re in profit and only launched in January.
“The biggest mistake I’ve made is paying for advertising. I spent a lot of money advertising in horse magazines and didn’t get one enquiry. I’ve found the best way to get customers is through word of mouth and social media, particularly Facebook. This is how I’ve built up the business."
“At the moment, the scales are tipped in favour of work, when it comes to work/life balance. I have a lot to manage as I run my own business, am setting up franchises, have two kids, a self-employed husband working six days a week, dogs and a horse.
“I do everything and it can be difficult to juggle. I work most nights, often until midnight. But I do try and take one day off at the weekend and I’m always there to drop off and pick up the kids from school. Most importantly, I do all of this because I want to - I’m quite driven.”
I’d advise anyone setting up in business to specialise. Don’t attempt be a jack-of-all-trades. Focus on one area and be the best you can in that area. That way, you’ll find people come to you because you’ve built a reputation as a specialist in your field.”