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A photographer’s journey into entrepreneurship

By Danielle van Wyk

“Passion builds a business, being financially smart makes it sustainable,” says photographer and owner of her own wedding-centric photography company, Ashleigh Swartz.

In certain circles the name Swartz signals a charismatic powerhouse behind the camera. As this redhead excitedly tells the story of how she fell in love with photography and decided to start her own business, her enthusiasm is clear.

This week Justmoney chatted to this 25-year-old to understand what makes her tick, what her thoughts on money management are, and the financial advice she has for other young entrepreneurs.

For Swartz the journey began when she attended a one-day photography workshop at the age of 17.

“One of my parents dropped me at Bergvliet High school for a one-day photography course. There were many facets to the course, but I started playing around on Photoshop and found it fascinating. I remember being in awe of how you can manipulate images and essentially alter reality. I just knew I wanted to be behind a lens,” adds Swartz.

When she found photography – or as she puts it, when photography found her – she knew it was what she wanted to pursue.

After matric she enrolled at Prestige Academy and began a two-year photography diploma course. After graduating she went on to do short internships at a few magazines, and then a longer stint at a stock photography studio. Eventually she settled at a photography company that focussed on weddings.

“I learnt so much in this phase of my career. I was gaining experience and developing new skillsets such as art directing, which I loved. And learning more about myself as a photographer and which direction I wanted to take my career in,” Swartz says.

But still she knew she could give more and do more.

“Even though I was learning and growing, it was not on my terms. I hated the corporate structure and lifestyle and craved something more flexible where I could dictate my own day. But I wasn’t quite thinking to go it alone yet.”

This was until Swartz started taking on more responsibility at work.

“I found myself running the show, from administration and editing to handling the invoicing and still maintaining my photography responsibilities,” adds Swartz.

“I remember having a conversation with my then-boss while he was out of town. He said I was being paid too much. This while I was running the entire company. When he returned, I handed in my resignation.”

Fearful but motivated by the idea of being her own boss, she persevered.

“I didn’t fully understand what it meant to start my own business. But photography lends itself to being relaxed and easy to market. Social media soon became my business playground. I just thought I’ll wing it, keep active on social media, and start booking clients,” adds Swartz.

However, like every entrepreneur knows, it isn’t always this simple.

“I had to get my finances in order. I arranged with my boyfriend to take over our joint car payment and tried as far as I could to minimize my other expenses. For financial advice I went to a family friend who worked as an accountant,” Swartz explained.

She was fortunate enough to already have camera equipment and gear of her own and admits that this offered some financial relief.

“I did my sums. I figured out that for someone who was starting out without camera equipment it would cost anywhere between R70,000 to R100,000. A brand-new, decent camera body can cost anything from R30,000 and up, a good lens can be from R16,000 and up, and then there's still memory cards, flashes, tripods, hard drives, and computers. You can opt to purchase gear second-hand but it’s still quite an expense,” says Swartz.

Swartz started saving immediately after her first pay check. She has a fixed savings account but is keen to diversify as her business grows.

“I have always been good about saving. This has carried me through immensely in the last nine months of having my own business. Even without forking out for equipment there are a lot of other expenses to consider, such as insurance, tax implications, office space, and office amenities,” she says.

Have a look at this article comparing the interest rates of different savings accounts in South Africa.

Her most important financial lesson?

“Even though my relationship with money has always been a healthy one, being an entrepreneur has taught me so much more about effective money management.”

She advises that anyone who wants to start should do just that, start.

“There will always be a million reasons as to why now just isn’t the right time. But start anyway. Also, don’t be afraid to ask for advice. Your job as a self-starter is to learn,” she adds.

“On the financial front, start saving as much as you can as early as you can. Find a trusted financial advisor who can help you navigate the financial requirements of running your own business. Being smart about your money and your business is half the battle won,” Swartz says.

She is currently saving towards expanding her business.

“We have a responsibility to ensure that we get it right. A responsibility to make our money work for us and for those who come after us.”

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