Finding your niche may be the hardest part of getting started as a creator. Passion is an excellent compass, but even when you know exactly what you want to do, that’s no guarantee it will grow into a sustainable business.
As author Kevin Kelly has pointed out, it’s your ability to keep exploring and iterating that tends to lead to long-term success. But new creators often feel pressure to decide their fate right out of the gate. So what happens when the world turns upside down, macroeconomic conditions change, and you have second thoughts about your first steps?
For some creators, the key to progress may be trying a new niche. Marina Williams is a creative entrepreneur who started as a portrait photographer, became an educational content creator, and then pivoted again into event production, founding the popular photographers’ retreat Colorpop. But it took a lot of leaps to land the worklife she enjoys most.
Williams’ introduction to photography was in middle school. “My grandfather shot film,” she recalls. “He gave me all these old film cameras and taught me how to use them. When I started high school, I saved up and bought my first SLR and started doing photo shoots around town with my friends.”
She went on to study photography at Florida State University, and after graduation found a full-time position as an in-house photographer for a kids clothing company in Utah. Though she enjoyed the job, she quickly realized it wasn’t her passion, so after a year, she left to start her own business as a freelancer in 2019.
“I started doing mostly senior portraits and some weddings engagements—pretty much everything to pay bills,” she says. “But my passion was creative portraiture and women's fashion.” Then the pandemic hit and all of her shoots were rescheduled or canceled. So she adapted by taking self portraits in her home and sharing her process on Instagram and TikTok.
“People were really excited,” she recalls. “I started pumping out some free education tips, videos, guides. It sort of snowballed from there. Now photography education is what I do full time.”
In 2021, as in-person events became viable again, Williams decided to leverage the following she’d been building online through her educational content and host her first Colorpop event.
“My business partner and I organize 10 epic photo shoots in three days in everyone's favorite locations here in Utah, like the salt flats,” she says. “It's definitely a trajectory for my career I did not expect, but I'm very happy I'm able to do what I love for a living.”
Building a business
Williams estimates the majority of her audience are people who just got their first camera and are still learning how to use it. “I love creating education around that,” Williams says. But about a year and a half ago, she says she hit a “huge turning point” where she realized online education was where she was putting the least amount of her time.
“It's a trajectory for my career I did not expect, but I'm happy I'm able to do what I love for a living.”—Marina Williams
“I was focusing probably 70% of my time on answering emails, booking shoots with clients, going to photo shoots with clients, editing the photos—and it was making me about 10% of my income,” Williams recalls. “I was making more money doing education but I wasn't spending any time trying to grow that side of my business.”
Though it was scary at first, she stopped booking as many shoots, and started to focus more on creating educational content for TikTok and Instagram—and her pivot paid off.
“That's what makes me happy now,” she says. “I wouldn't have been able to do that if I didn't look at my career from a larger angle and be like, ‘Okay, this is what needs to happen to be able to go where I want to go.’
Learning from mistakes
In her previous role, Williams saw firsthand how the clothing company managed their photography department. But when she hosted her first Colorpop event last year, she had to hire makeup artists, hairstylists, art directors, wardrobe stylists, and models herself for the first time.
“Something that takes a lot of creators by surprise is the entrepreneurship aspect,” says Williams. “The business side is always a little bit harder for me to grasp, but it just takes practice.”
“I wouldn't have been able to do that if I didn't look at my career from a larger angle and be like, ‘This is what needs to happen to be able to go where I want to go.’”
Williams said she’s had to learn the best way to manage employees and communicate her vision. And there have also been things she never anticipated—like how to process payments from the international photographers at her event her.
"I feel like I learn the best when I make a mistake,” says Williams. “I’m like, ‘Okay, not doing that again!’”
Work that doesn’t feel like work
Williams says the most rewarding part of her latest career is having the time and freedom to pursue her passion projects, thanks to the passive income she receives from other parts of her business. She has a thriving subscriber base on Patreon, and like many creators, having an online storefront has been key to her success.
“I started with guides—digital PDFs that I sold on my website,” says Williams. “Then I started selling my editing presets that are a downloadable file people can use to put on their photos.”
Though she takes joy in every aspect of her job, Williams says what she enjoys most is putting together all the pieces of a new project after gathering inspiration from Pinterest, magazines, and social media. “Coming up with the concept, making a mood board, hiring models, deciding on makeup and wardrobe looks—all of that is equally as fun to me as taking and editing photos,” she says.
And even though most of her business is now built around helping others step behind the camera, she still relishes the chances she gets to be a photographer again, too. After the most recent Colorpop event, Williams says stayed up until midnight organizing and editing photos. “It just didn't feel like work,” she says. “That's the best thing.”