Multi-talented Vanessa Malzahn is a New York based personal branding photographer and positioning strategist for online entrepreneurs who need lifestyle photos that strategically tell their business story. By handpicking a select few clients, Vanessa only works exclusively with entrepreneurs who see the value in storytelling and the necessity of having images that mirror their next level of success.
It didn’t all start there though, because before Vanessa became an established photographer she was a lawyer having passed the New York Bar, and further ended up at a big corporate bank in Manhattan. Like most hungry for more entrepreneurs, Vanessa left the corporate world to pursue her own entrepreneurial venture full-time.
Evidently clear from her perfect ability to capture photos that tell a greater narrative, coupled with her many years as an online business owner, marketing and branding consultant, all of these contributing factors help Vanessa better serve her clients.
Can you share your journey with us so far Vanessa?
My journey so far is that I do a few things: I have a photography business, a consulting business, and an e-commerce business. It’s been extremely rewarding to follow my passions, but also grow in my strengths, figuring out where what I’m best at and making a living doing that.
What is the story behind your journey prior to a career in photography?
I’m a lawyer by trade. I went to law school, took a corporate job at a big bank in NYC and spent 3 years feeling sorry for myself and hating what I did. I don’t actually think a corporate job is inherently bad. I actually don’t think everyone should bash on having a 9-5 the way they do. The problem was, it wasn’t for me.
I remember going through the front door in the morning and feeling the pit in my stomach. I couldn’t explain it. I felt so unfulfilled, so unhappy. Sometimes I would just cry because I had no clue where to turn and no clue what else I could be doing.
That’s when I found photography. I always loved taking photos. But for fun. I was the friend that took the “good” photos.
One day it all changed. My friend posted some photos I took of her and someone asked who the photographer was. Rather than saying “oh my friend took them,” she said I’ll send you her information. I remember running so quickly to Pinterest to find out how to make a pricing sheet.
That was the turning point for me. I started to get paid for my photographs. I didn’t have a website. I didn’t have a focus. I took photos of events, parties, children, pregnant women, couples, food; If you were hiring, I was shooting it.
I simultaneously discovered podcasts and started listening to them on my commute to work on the subway. It felt like there was a whole new world out there I had no idea excited. It felt so exciting. No one I knew at work could relate to my excitement about an online business.
I remember the day I looked around and saw that I couldn’t spend my career in a corporate office. I looked up the ladder, the ladder I was basically climbing and realized, whatever was at the top was not for me. So I quit.
I quit with no plan except the faith that my startups would work and the belief that if all those people who talked about going after their dreams made them come true that I could do the same thing.
And here we are today. I walked out and never looked back.
What motivated and inspired you to have a career in the photography industry?
What motivated me was that I loved telling stories visually. I’m not the greatest writer. That’s not the way I express myself best. But images, moving and still, speak to me on a very deep level. I just love the medium.
I don’t know if I ever had a moment where I was like “ok I’m going to be a photographer.” It was more like one thing led to another, but it all stemmed from something I loved, and more importantly, I wanted to spend the time to improve upon.
What training or courses did you undertake?
I don’t know where I would be if it weren’t for creative life. I learned so much from taking courses on that platform.
What are you learning about in the business of photography so far?
So far, I think the two things I have learned that have made a huge difference, is that photography is a business, it’s not just taking pictures. Then I have also come to realise that by finding a specific target audience, has made all the difference in the world for me.
My business took off the minute I started to have a specific focus. I now focus solely on personal branding for entrepreneurs with an online business.
I used to be afraid of focusing on a particular niche, however, it has made everything about running my business easier. I always know exactly who I’m talking to and I know exactly what I offer. It’s either for you or it’s not.
What about any challenging times you have had to overcome? When were they and how did you learn to overcome them?
One of the most challenging time I’ve had was realising that I had to go out and get the business. That putting up a website alone wasn’t going to cut it. Also, understanding the seasonality of the business. There are times when you’re very busy and other times when you’re less busy. Learning how to plan out my year was challenging. I was learning on the fly.
The most personally challenging moment was the so-called shame surrounding calling myself a ‘photographer’. Since I’m a lawyer by trade and not a trained photographer, I used to hesitate before introducing myself as a photographer, which made getting the business in very hard. I believe that as I wasted too much time downplaying my skill set simply because I didn’t have a degree in it, I missed out on a lot of opportunities. Thank goodness I’m over that now.
Right on!!!! Go you!! So have you ever had to deal with any doubts of contention or lack of support from relatives or friends? If so how did you push through?
My family and my husband were and still are 100% supportive and my biggest fans.
I didn’t have to deal with lack of support from anyone, mostly because for nearly a year, I only told the people who were really close to me that I started this journey.
I avoided everyone’s opinions on what they think, or feel, or would do in my situation, and just followed my heart and leaned on my closest friends and family members to push through.By the time I shared my story publicly, it didn’t bother me what someone thought about my personal decision to leave a corporate position and pursue starting my own business. It was probably one of the best decisions I made.
Did you have a mentor that advised you whilst getting started?
Yes. After listening to so many podcasts about how so many successful entrepreneurs had coaches or belonged to masterminds, I wasn’t going to be left out. Coaching and masterminding has been and will continue to be something that I invest in. Learning from the mistakes and success of someone else is priceless. Especially if they have something you want to also have.
A seminal moment so far?
The moment I decided to have a focus and stick with it. That was huge and made all the difference and will probably continue to.
What does success look like in your eyes?
Success is walking my dog in the park in the middle of the day, and calling my husband to plan a midweek getaway upstate. Success is to take my friend out to dinner and not worry about the price. Success is realising that the way I make my own living matters to me but I don’t have to compromise my dreams based on fear.
Success is getting paid well to do something that comes naturally to me and seeing how much it affects someone’s life. Success is waking up every day, feeling blessed that once upon a time I wanted this life and now it’s here.
That sums up a lot and we couldn’t agree more, so what outlets do use to market yourself?
For a long time, I used referrals only. Now, I go where my clients are. I attend meetings where entrepreneurs are going to be. I collaborate with others who have my audience’s attention. Since having such a clear focus I have found that marketing myself now, is so much easier than before.
What are the top 3 social media platforms you use that are the most effective to show your portfolio?
I just use Instagram. I don’t even show my portfolio in a traditional sense, I mostly share it when I’m sharing stories or what I’m up to
I realised that every time I hired someone, whether it was a photographer or a designer, though I had to love their portfolio in the first place, the real reason I chose them over another talented person was that I personally liked them.
The portfolio is just an entry point; the extra stuff is what makes me, and probably most people, go the extra step and open up the wallet to give up the coins.
What is the best piece of advice you have received to date?
The best advice I’ve ever received was from my brother who told me that I can’t be halfway in a pool. It’s either I’m going to swim or get out of the pool.
He was referring to me feeling scared to do certain things in my business. He kindly told me to get over myself because I’m already in the pool, I started the business, now I need to go after the clients I wanted.
You can’t half-ass your dream. You either go after it or you don’t. It was the right kind of tough love I needed from him to get me back on track.
We will raise a toast to take all the swimming lessons in the world! So what is the best advice you could give to our audience of women looking to have a future career in the photography industry?
My best advice would be to figure out what you want to be known for, get specific, then go after that one thing, for at least 6 months. It will change your business.
That goes for focusing on one type of client, or a visibility strategy on one platform or using only one type of medium. It could be just the type of photos you take. Just pick one thing and commit for real.
What Youtube or online space channels are watching currently?
I don’t really watch Youtube consistently. When I need to learn something visually, then I use Youtube. I don’t have a channel I watch the same way I listen to podcasts.
What is a good article or book you have read recently?
I read two great books that I recommend: The Pumpkin Plan and Profit First. Both by Mike Machalowicz. They both changed my mindset, one book was to do with finding your niche and the other was how to make money first in your business.
How do you wind down?
I love cooking. It’s one of my most favorite things to do. It’s never a chore to make dinner or any meal really. I enjoy the entire process, from going to the farmers’ market and shop for the ingredients, to thinking through what I want to make, to actually making it and then enjoying it. I’m here for all of it.
Don’t worry, we won’t hold our breath for a dinner invite!! Lastly, to wrap this up, what projects do you have coming up for 2018?
Currently, I’m working on a new service package where I plan the photo-shoot for entrepreneurs, even if I’m not their photographer, they walk away with a clear plan of the exact shots and style they need to update their website and create images they can actually use to brand themselves and their online business.