Up and Coming - An Interview With Austin Pekarek March 03 2015, 1 Comment

In 1999, when I was just 12 years old, I taught myself HTML, designed my first website, and started selling sunglasses online.  While my friends were out playing games in the summer, I was at my computer learning how to run a business and market a product.  I have had the entrepreneurial bug ever since.  

I started my photography business when I was 18 and at 19, I received a message from a photographer (and serial entrepreneur) named Adam Schmidt.  Adam ran a photography forum that I contributed on frequently and he sent me a private message with the most encouraging words I've ever received.  He told me how far ahead of the game I was at my age and what all he KNEW I would achieve in my career.  The message still brings me to tears on occasion because it was the first time someone with real world experience had ever said something like that to me, and it made a tremendous impact on my career.

As I have continued in my career, I have always found it important to reach out to young entrepreneurs and give them the same encouragement that my friend Adam gave to me.  Today I want to share with you a photographer who started his photography business while still in his early years of high school and who I believe can be a future leader in this industry.  So without further adieu, let's talk with Austin Pekarek!   

-Brett Jarnagin

So tell us a little about yourself, Austin!  Where are you from, what type of photography do you specialize in, and how would you define your style? 

My name is Austin Pekarek. I currently reside in a small town in Southern Missouri called Mountain View. The town population is around 2,700! I am currently 18 almost 19, and look forward to seeing what the future holds for me!  I really specialize in wedding, and senior photography. However, part of growing a business is expanding what fields we work in and this year its a goal of mine to really market more to families and children.  I am also working on expanding into high volume photography like school portraits, proms, sports contracts (aside from the ones I already hold.) It's hard to define my style because I work with such a broad spectrum of clients, however, I believe I have a simple, yet elegant style that showcases people and makes them look the best that they can. 

I started my photography business when I was 19 and was definitely the youngest photographer I knew of at the time.  You are only 18 and you have already built a successful business.  When did you get started running your business and when did you decide this is what you wanted to do for a living?
From the moment that I picked up the camera that I was given, I knew that I was going to love this hobby I had found. I mainly shot still life photography at the age of 13. Then I realized that I could turn this into a business. I started shooting for the yearbook at my school, then the news paper, then getting paid by clients, then getting hired on at news stations as a freelancer, and now to where I am today full time working around the clock for the most amazing clients in the world. Only the last two years have I decided that this is what I am going to do for a living. I have been able to connect with so many people, and gain so many new friends that I don't think I could visualize myself doing anything else. I really have to step back from time to time and look at my life and realize how blessed I am and how hard work really does pay off. From a young age, I learned that nothing in life is free, that has always stuck with me. I have worked for everything that I own up to this point of my life and I know I will continue to do the same as I age. 
What was the biggest challenge of starting at such a young age?

 Starting out so young, the main thing that was always hard, especially when I wasn't able to drive, was trust. I felt like people really undervalued what I could do. Many looked past me because they believed I was only a teenager with a camera. Thankfully, those clients who trusted me have got me where I am today and I am ever so grateful that they put trust in me and still continue to work with me to this day! I am grateful that now I don't look my age, so people hardly ever believe I am 18, almost 19. I look more around the age of 22-24, I believe that has helped me gain some credibility as well. 
What has been the biggest benefit of being a young photographer?
The biggest benefit to being a young photographer is really quite simple. Being young does have its edge.  Only being graduated from high school less than a year, I am able to connect pretty well with the seniors and younger wedding clients! I know what the younger generation likes and I am able to provide that. Most of my seniors parents always talk about how back in their day senior portraits were taken in studio in a chair with lights and a camera. The whole idea of senior photography has evolved into something amazing, its nothing like it used to be! 
What is your favorite thing about being a photographer?
I love almost everything about being a photographer. I am able to meet some amazing people, travel the country, see new places, connect with people, and do what I love all at once. I honestly don't know of another job that would allow me to do this. Of course I could get a 9 to 5, have set hours, and when I leave work, I have nothing to worry about. Whats the fun in that though? I love knowing that I always have something to finish or something to complete. It makes me strive to work harder and harder. I can honestly say, being a photographer is one of the most rewarding jobs that there is. 
What is your least favorite thing about being a photographer?
As much as I do love being a photographer, there are parts of this job that I do dislike! The biggest thing that always sets me back, is the back end work. Post production, album design, print ordering, etc. I often find myself up late at night doing these jobs that I really need to not be doing. This year, I have made it a goal of mine to have these jobs outsourced so I am able to do the parts of this job that I love - shooting, connecting, and selling! 
What has been the highlight of your career so far?

This is a hard one. There have been so many times in my career that almost make me break down and cry because I can't believe what just happened!  I will say that the highlight of my career would have to be the time I attended FotoChaos 2.0. This was my first time attending a conference and WOW, the support was crazy! I was able to connect with some of the most amazing people in the world, many of which I still talk to today! I still owe everything that has happened to me to David and Whitney Scott. Meeting them has to be one of the highlights of my career. 

I once knocked over a 150 lb wooden kneeler at the start of a wedding ceremony… I bumped it while trying to get in position and turned back to watch it tip over and land with a huge crash.  I had about 20 people come up to me after the wedding cracking up about it.  I played it off pretty well but I felt like a huge jackass in the moment, haha.  What is the most embarrassing thing that has happened to you in your career?  

haha! This is great! I can honestly say, I haven't had any moments in my career that have embraced me too badly. One time I was shooting a senior session and the whole session I didn't realize my zipper on my jeans was down. The mom of the senior finally told me at the end, the whole drive home I was just hoping that I didn't flash anyone. 

Lightroom or Photoshop and why?
I use both. Lightroom is great for those sessions that don't need cloning, or any type of work that requires the subject to be altered. I also like the simplicity of Lightroom and how it can be used to edit images quickly. I also prefer Photoshop if I need to work with layers. I love the ability to use layers and masks to help better an image where its needed. It's a hard pick between the two because both are such powerful tools that can be used alone to create great images, but together they are amazing. 

If you could only show one image to a potential client, which one would you choose and why?
I would show this picture because the impact it has. its printed on metal in my studio, and clients always Ooo and agh over it! 

Can you share some images of your studio space?
Only showing the outside as the inside still isn't quite the way I want it, sooner or later it'll be perfected! 
The most successful business people I know are avid readers.  What is your favorite business book and how has it helped you in your business?

I have really enjoyed many books. However, the most popular one that I have read, and adore, is the Seven Levels of Communication. This book has taught me everything I know on how to communicate with people, and how I need to treat people in order to get referrals! 

You recently attended the SYNC conference.  Can you share what the most valuable piece of information you took away from that experience?

Attending SYNC was a crazy experience in its self. I'm only 18, I flew across the country to go to a convention where I knew very few people, and my parents were okay with it. That alone scared me. Anyway, the most valuable piece of information that I have took from SYNC is that money does not define how successful we truly are. Some photographers are happy make $50,000 while others need their studios to do $1 million a year in sales. This year really taught me to find my happy place. I believe I am almost there! 

Who are some photographers that inspire you?

Rod Evans, Gary Box, Bambi Cantrell, just a few who I love! 

Aside from the photos you take, what is it that sets you apart from your competition both in your business and your personality?

I believe the way that I treat my clients is a huge part of why I am set apart from my competition. I treat each client like a friend, I text them, message them on Facebook, put them in statues, I do things that friends do with their friends, but I do them with my clients. It makes them feel at home, which is exactly what I want them to feel when they leave my studio. I can talk to my clients like they have been my friends for years. It makes their experience much more pleasurable. 

Personality wise, I honestly don't know why people like my personality. I am just very laid back, modest, and simple minded... there isn't much to like personality wise. I wake up every day, put my jeans on like everyone else, and drink my coffee. 

What has been your most effective marketing strategy for bringing in more senior and wedding clients?

Bringing in senior clients, I must say the most effective way I have done that is word of mouth. I also found great results in what I done with a local coffee shop. Most of the high school seniors after school will go into the coffee shops, and get coffee, sandwiches, soups, etc. I made cup coasters that had my logo on them and offered a 10% discount if they mentioned they saw the coasters and booked with my business. It was a huge success! Clients were messaging me pictures of the coasters left and right! 

For weddings, word of mouth is HUGE. I have traveled the US doing weddings the last two years and it's all thanks to word of mouth and Facebook. I can honestly say even though I have to pay for people to see my posts on Facebook it is well worth it because it reaches people outside of my market that I would otherwise not be able to market to without spending thousands and thousands of dollars!  It's made the world a very small place! 

Part of building a remarkable business is doing things that are worth remarking about.  I find that those are often the things that clients don’t expect.  What do you do in your business to go above and beyond your client’s expectations?  

Phone calls, quick reply times, hand written notes, gifts for clients. Those are all things that really help clients feel at home, when a client gets a hand written note, and a gift from their photographer, it makes them feel special. Of course they're going to tell their friends to go to someone who gives them a gift, I know I would! 

What are some of your goals for 2015 and beyond?

This year I am hoping to hit 100-125 seniors and grow my school portrait business. I am very excited about that!  In the further future, I would love to have opened multiple studio locations with photographers working under me. That's something that I am looking forward to doing and hoping that I can make happen before I turn 30!  I have 11 more years to make this happen! 

If you could give one piece of advice to someone starting a photography business, what would it be?

A lot of photographers are very arrogant, a lot of them get a ego that surrounds them, they get used to the "idea" that everyone likes their pictures, and that everyone loves what they do. I will tell you, DO NOT, get a ego with this industry, it will KILL you. Stay level headed, keep educating yourself, and never think of a plan B... plan B only distracts from Plan A... forget plan B. 


 Austin Pekarek is a professional photographer from Mountain View, Missouri who specializes in senior portraits and wedding photography.  He started his photography business in high school and continues to grow it each year.  See more of Austin's work at his website or follow him on Facebook here!