When Dani Klein-Williams first opened Dani Fine Photography & Image Studio in 1999, she wasn’t even 20 years old. With her eyes on the future, she also declared at the time that she wanted to marry her then-boyfriend.
Family and friends balked at her youthful long-term plans. “No one believed we ‘youngins’ could start this business or get married,” she says. “But, clearly it all worked out.”
Indeed it did: She and her husband got married in 2004 (they’re still together), and her Northampton, Mass., studio — now in its seventeenth year of existence — pulls in annual revenues in the high six-figure range, she says. Klein-Williams currently employs several full-time staff members, as well as a small creative team that parachutes in to support her wedding, boudoir and commercial photography jobs.
Of course, the road to success wasn’t without struggle; Klein-Williams has faced difficult work/life balance and hiring decisions. Such workaday challenges are common among entrepreneurs; personnel issues were the second most frequently cited challenge for participants in our three-year 1,000 Stories project (of which she was a part), though work/life balance was mentioned less often.
But enduring those growing pains has been well worth it. Her business is a success, and it allows her to pursue “the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do.” It also demonstrates that starting a passion-driven business can pay off in the long run when entrepreneurs show enough grit and common sense when navigating the difficult process of scaling up.
About two weeks before Klein-Williams was scheduled to move into her college dorm room at Salem State University, she “had this freak-out moment … where I said, ‘I don’t want to [go to college]. I want to go to photography school.’”
Her parents weren’t thrilled, but she convinced them to give her a one-year shot at pursuing her true passion. She used her college funds to buy camera equipment and enroll in a 10-month program at Hallmark Institute of Photography. (And, she never did move into that dorm room.)
Not long after earning her associate’s degree there, she bootstrapped the startup funds she needed and officially opened up her own studio. To sustain herself while building a portfolio, she worked at other studios in the area and held down retail jobs. “I was able to live — not well, but I did survive,” she says.
Within her own business, Klein-Williams focused solely on weddings at first. But she soon found boudoir photography to be a natural extension that she could market as “the ideal groom’s gift.” Even many of the commercial jobs she took later on have tied into weddings — the studio often takes photographs for florists, wedding dress designers, lingerie brands and other related companies.
She had much still to learn in her early entrepreneurial days, though. “When I first started, my main advertising campaign was printing up handmade fliers and shoving them illegally into people’s mailboxes,” she says. “I have evolved from there.”
That she has, in more ways than one. In 2001, she took another leap and decided to focus on her own studio full-time. Almost immediately, she saw a significant uptick in her business. “It made me wonder why I didn’t just jump in with both feet from the beginning,” she says. “When I decided to just work for myself, that’s when the business really took off, and really began turning a profit.”
It helps that Klein-Williams and her team put a great deal of effort into the acquisition of every new customer. “We really go after work — we don’t sit and wait,” she says. “We form relationships with companies we want to work with, and even write up proposals.” Presently, they capture an average of 40 weddings and coordinate roughly 300 boudoir sessions each year.
It Takes a Village
Over the years, Klein-Williams has been reminded time and again about the importance of relationships.
She says her team is critical to her success, though it took her awhile to find the right mix. At one point, she had a number of full-time photographers on her payroll, but creative differences made that approach tough to maintain. She has since altered the structure of her studio, and now only brings on new folks to fill supporting roles. “It works out well, except being the primary photographer for everything is exhausting.”
Indeed, this approach requires an around-the-clock time investment from her. Though she’s been able to control that side effect in some ways — commercial gigs have helped her limit the number of weekends she works, for example — she still maintains a hectic schedule.
To stave off burn-out, she makes sure to hire others to handle tasks for which she has little patience, such as bookkeeping. “I’m good at making money, but after it comes in, I don’t want to deal with it,” she says. “Knowing how to hire people for the jobs you’re not great at allows you to spend time on what you are good at.”
But among everyone in her studio, her most important teammate has been her husband, Keith. He helps with the administrative back end of the business, allowing him to work from home while taking the lead as caretaker for their 5-year-old son and 1-year-old daughter.
To Klein-Williams, the arrangement is a godsend. “I wouldn’t be able to work or travel as much as I do if I didn’t know the kids were in the best care possible. The different roles we play work very much in tandem,” she says. “It’s a really interesting partnership, but it works out great, and we are happiest in the roles we have.”
Her Next Chapters
Klein-Williams’ view of her future is bright and focused, with big things on the horizon. In August of this year, her first book — a how-to manual for other boudoir photographers called “Real. Sexy. Photography.: The Art and Business of Boudoir” — will be published by Amherst Media.
And she sees exciting opportunities for growth within her studio. “With the book coming out, boudoir is going to be an easy sell,” she says. “And weddings, we get a lot of those because we’ve been doing it so long. But we’d like to get into a higher-end wedding market, complete with higher prices.”
Several rebranding efforts, including a new logo and a facelift for her website, are all geared toward tapping into that upper echelon of wedding photography.
No matter how long it takes to get to that next level, though, Klein-Williams is ready to do what she must — especially since, almost two decades after starting her business, she has the same passion for photography as she did when she was just a teen with a dream.
Loving her work is a blessing, but succeeding has required a whole lot more. As she told The Story Exchange in her 1,000 Stories submission: “I work hard to be a good provider, and lead by example about what it means to be a dedicated business owner.”