Jonathon Russell and his wife Beth are currently living the dream.
They run a photography / videography business in Maui called JBR Life Photography, which they started back in the summer of 2015.
In mid-2016 they both realized the impact adding a drone to their list of tools could have, so Jonathon enrolled in Drone Pilot Ground School to help prepare for the FAA’s Part 107 exam. When the Part 107 test went live in August of 2016, Jonathon was one of the first people on Maui to take (and pass) the exam.
Even though Jonathon and Beth live in one of the most beautiful places in the world, they work hard, and they’ve managed to build their business to an impressive size in a fairly short period of time. To give you a sense for how much their business has grown, the last time we spoke Jonathon told me that his son was moving out to Hawaii with his family to work in their business.
So how did they do it?
Let’s take a look at Jonathon and Beth’s story, and how they were able to arrive in Hawaii with almost no clients and steadily build their business up to where it is now, with over 200 property shoots a year.
How Jonathon and Beth Started Their Business
Jonathon and Beth’s path to Hawaii was a winding one.
Jonathon grew up in East Tennessee, where he spent most of his life. Once leaving Tennessee, they were on the go for years. In 2011 they moved to Alaska, where they bought their first DSLR camera and started learning more about photography. For three years they lived in an RV, traveling around doing work as guides for extreme adventures, and then in 2014 they started a photo company in South Florida.
But it turned out South Florida was oversaturated with photographers, so they moved to Oregon, where they continued to struggle with getting their photography work off the ground.
In the summer of 2015 they were considering moving to New Zealand for six months when they saw a Craigslist ad that read, “Come to Maui and be a resort photographer!”
When they first saw the posting, they thought it had to be a scam. Who would advertise this kind of dream job-opportunity on Craigslist?
But they were intrigued, so they followed up and sent some resort photos from their portfolio.
And it turned out to be a legitimate job posting—after a few months of interviews, phone calls, and planning, Jonathon and Beth were moving to Hawaii.
Sales 101: How JBR Life Photography Grew from 0 to 200+ Clients in Two Years
Up to this point there’s a fair amount of luck to Jonathon and Beth’s story. After all, how many Craigslist postings inviting you to move to a tropical island turn out to be real?
And yes, they were well positioned to jump on the opportunity because they had a diverse portfolio, and because they were flexible with where they were willing to live.
But all of these things just got them to the starting place of building a successful business—one of the key factors that really helped them grow their client base once they arrived in Hawaii was Jonathon’s background in sales.
A shot taken by Jonathon Russell of Kilauea, the world’s most active volcano
Can You Sell This?
When Jonathon Russell began building JBR Life Photography with his wife Beth he had a leg up on the competition because he had a background in sales.
He told us that when he was younger he had one of the hardest sales jobs in the world, which was selling time shares in the Smoky Mountains. There were all kinds of challenges with this work—the potential clientele didn’t have a lot of disposable income, and much of the tourism in that area comes from people driving in for the day . . . and then driving back home.
But out of that experience, Jonathon learned how to be both persistent and patient, and he values these as two of the most important skills when it comes to getting new clients. He also emphasizes things like body language, the way you inflect your voice, making eye contact—all of those ingredients that go into having a real conversation, where people feel like they’re really being heard instead of sold to.
My advice for young photographers who want to start a career in photography is to make photography your minor, and business your major.
– Jonathon Russell
Granted, we can’t all spend a few years selling timeshares in the Smoky Mountains. So how can you fast track your sales skills if you’ve already got a drone services business you’re trying to grow?
Jonathon recommends “going to YouTube university,” as he puts it. Meaning, going on YouTube and tracking down sales resources.
Sift through the top sales content out there until you find something that resonates with your personality and the kind of approach that you want to take in sales, then study that person’s advice. Make sure to practice what you learn when meeting with potential customers and, eventually, it will stick.
One of the biggest lessons Jonathon learned from his time in sales was “to shut my mouth and open my ears,” as he puts it. Meaning that it’s important to find what the client’s need is, then address that need, instead of just carrying out the same plan to sell someone in every single interaction.
A promotional video from JBR Life Photography for Paradise Ridge in Hawaii
This means that Jonathon does a lot of listening, using what he calls a consultative approach where he makes sure potential clients feel like he’s paying attention to what’s most important to them.
Instead of being prescriptive and trying to nudge them into a certain decision, he lets them figure out what’s best for them, guiding them along the way with statements like, “I’d recommend hiring a professional because . . .” instead of a more aggressive approach like, “I’d recommend hiring me because . . .”
Along the same lines, Jonathon told us that he really emphasizes education when working with clients. By this he means explaining the value of professional services, and why, when it comes to hiring a drone pilot, it’s important to get someone who is FAA certified and has experience flying, as well as taking and processing aerial shots.
Growing a Client Base
To find new clients and grow their client base when they first moved to Maui, Jonathon and Beth used a tactic we’ve heard about from other successful drone pilots, where they’d offer a free shoot to a realtor for a property that wasn’t selling.
This approach allowed potential customers to try out a new tactic for selling their properties without taking any risk. And it worked. Many of those realtors ended up hiring Jonathon and Beth, and then spread the word to their friends and colleagues.
But they didn’t create their business over night. Building a client base was slow going at first, and they could only get one real estate job here or there.
It wasn’t until midway through 2016, after they’d been in Maui for about nine months, that business really started to pick up.
Adding camera drones to their list of tools was an important step when it came to growing the business. Jonathon says that without being able to capture aerial stills and video he thinks their business might still be struggling. But his commitment to listening, and to delivering high quality materials to his clients also helped, and meant that his business both retained the customers it had and gained new ones through word of mouth recommendations.
By the end of 2016 JBR Life Photography had shot 55 properties, and the business was starting to grow.
In 2017 Jonathon and Beth shot 206 properties—almost four times as many as the year before—and their business grew so much that their son and his family moved to Maui to get involved.
Fast forward to today, and at this point Jonathon and Beth don’t have to go looking for clients.
They get so many phone calls and emails from new clients that they’re plenty busy just doing the work that comes to them. They were able to get to this place by using a consultative sales approach, going door to door meeting with realtors, listening carefully to what each prospective client needed, and making sure the work they delivered was of the highest quality, every single time.