How a Corporate Refugee Transformed a Dream Into a Profitable Gear Rental Business
by Alice B. Miller
Robert Hare Photography
September 01, 2011 — Purchasing his first DSLR in 2003 proved to be a turning point in Paul Friedman’s life. With a full-time job and a young family, he shot mostly on weekends, pushing himself to improve every day. Today, Paul is the owner of LensProToGo, a high-end photographic equipment rental company in Concord, MA, staffed by pro shooters. How did he transition from a novice photographer, to pro photographer to the owner of a successful photo equipment business? Paul shares some of his pivotal decisions, winning management objectives and his top priority, all of which have helped him grow his business in a turbulent market.
Paul recalls, “I knew very little about photography, but quickly absorbed all that I could about shooting, gear, postprocessing and everything in between, spending hundreds of hours on forums and photography sites.” As he grew more confident of his photography skills, Paul began shooting portraits, and eventually photographed his first wedding in spring 2005.
“I’m so glad I made that leap! I had spent 15 years in various corporate positions, mostly in sales and financial analysis. I had worked for big companies, small companies, great companies and not-so-great companies, but it had always been my passion and my dream to own my own business. Not a big business, but the kind of company I’d be proud of,” Paul says.
By the summer of 2006 the idea to start a camera gear rental company had begun to bubble up to the surface. Drawing on his financial background, Paul created a financial model to determine if this kind of business would be worth pursuing. When he shared his business plan with his family, they gave him their full support. His dream was starting to take shape.
“My strongest motivation was to make this business so successful I could leave my day job, never to return to the corporate world,” says Paul. “I figured that with my growing photography business and gear rental, we would be okay if I planned to leave my day job before Labor Day weekend 2006 and launch the Web site a few days before that.”
A Plan Takes Shape
Paul’s vision was to create a customer-driven, service-oriented company that would appeal to professional and amateur photographers. Pro shooters would have a working pro help them choose gear for an upcoming shoot. Novices and pro shooters could either place their orders online or order by telephone and get any assistance they required. “Communication has always been paramount with us,” Paul says. “A brief, friendly, professional email is sent when an order is placed, when the order is shipped, and one day before the gear is due to be sent back.”
Another critical decision Paul made early on—shipping their gear in Pelican cases—set his company apart from its competitors. The cases protect the gear in transit, giving customers peace of mind, and give customers a great experience when they open their cases and take out their gear. Paul says, “The motto we live by every day is, ‘Being good to your customers is good for business. Being great to your customers is great for business.’ It’s easy to say, but very few companies actually do it.”
“I had no idea how hungry people were for great service,” Paul says. “In our first year, we received all kinds of emails, phone calls and hand-written notes from customers, thanking us for our wonderful service and promising to come back to rent more gear and pass along our name to friends and family who shoot! We realized we were onto something with our high-end service strategy.”
Today, some five years later, LensProToGo still takes service seriously on a day-to-day basis. They are still staffed exclusively by professional photographers and filmmakers who answer hundreds of phone calls and emails every day. They still ship their gear in Pelican cases, provide customers with professional and timely information about their rentals, and still overnight gear anywhere in the U.S. in emergency situations.
Paul is most passionate about one aspect of the business: hiring the best people. He explains, “Our staff are hardworking, experienced, professional photographers, who share my passion for running a first-class company. They care about our customers and always do what’s best for them. I tell them their job is to take care of the business and my job is to take care of them. I pay them well, provide good health benefits, a fun working environment, pay for lunch every day, provide them with the best tools to do their job—then get out of their way. When the best people are treated well and are happy they will provide the best service in the world. Hiring top-notch people is the single most critical aspect to our success. And it’s worth every penny!”
Owning the business put Paul into situations he never could have anticipated. As he recalls, “I found myself knee deep in accounting, insurance, leases, loans and banking, payroll, legalities, trademarks, construction and office infrastructure, security, hiring, benefits, technology, social media, shipping, packaging and contracts. Just as I only hire top-notch people to work for our company, I have aligned myself with an accountant, insurance agent, lawyer, designer, developer, contractor, electrician, banker, benefits specialist and other professionals who are trustworthy experts in their respective fields. I consider them an extension of our team. We wouldn’t be a first-class company without their knowledge and guidance. If you don’t need to be an expert in a particular field, outsource to someone who already is.”
Hurdles and questions dotted the landscape in the company’s early days. Fortunately, Paul had a family to support, which served as a strong motivation to succeed. “For the first four years, I did just about nothing except work, but it’s been worth the time and effort,” says Paul. “If the business had failed, I would have had to go back to the corporate world. Noooooooo! I’d done the corporate thing and never wanted to go back. Being the best means never resting on our laurels.”
A fundamental decision Paul had to make early on was what kind of company he wanted to own: a low-cost provider—think Walmart—or a high service, higher price player—think Nordstrom. What kind of service did he want to offer customers? Would the company go above and beyond? “We knew we would go the extra mile for our customers every day. We knew we wanted to create customers for life every day. Some say we do too much for our customers, but the last thing I want to be is mediocre. We knew we had to create something of which we’d be proud,” says Paul.
Starting and maintaining a successful business has been quite a learning experience. Among Paul’s lessons learned:
“We always get further with honey than with vinegar. Don’t be afraid to reach for the vinegar if need be, but start with honey.
“At least 99 percent of customers are good, reasonable people. A very small percentage of customers cause the most problems and are not reasonable. Don’t be afraid to cut ties with them.
“When things go wrong, admit your mistake quickly and provide a solution. We’re a great company, but we’re not perfect. A wise man once told me, ‘When you screw up, either you or your customer is going to say that it’s a horrible and terrible mistake.’ Make sure it’s you saying it, then fix it!
“Empower your people to make quick decisions. Give them the tools and information they need to do their jobs, then get out of their way.
“Manage your cash flow. While our top line has always been very strong, a lackadaisical approach to cash management would have spelled disaster for us, due to the massive capital investments that we have required to grow.
“Give back. We’ve been very fortunate these past few years, but not everyone has been so lucky. We donate 2% of our gross revenue to The Seed Foundation because we believe in what they do and believe our country will be better because of their efforts. Share your good fortune with those less fortunate.”
Paul concludes, “We continually find ways to improve our operation and make our processes easier for our customers. We are the best and need to work hard to maintain that edge.”
Alice B. Miller is the owner of Plum Communications Inc. (www.plumcomm.com), a Long Island, NY, editorial services and marketing-communications company that supports the photo industry. Previously the editor of Studio Photography magazine, Alice has a growing clientele that includes photographers, manufacturers, publications and associations. She is the director of public relations for the International Photographic Council.
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