Jon Jeffress with Deep South Focus Photography

Jon Jeffress with Deep South Focus Photography

This week on The Mobile Alabama Business Podcast, we sit down with Jon Jeffress with Deep Sout Focus Photography. Listen in as we discuss his life, career journey, and how he got into the world of photography!

Transcript:

Jon:

I'm Jon Jeffress and I own Deep South Focus Photography.

Marcus:

Yay! Well, it is awesome to have you on the podcast.

Jon:

Well, thanks for having me.

Marcus:

Yeah. So you and I have known each other for a little bit now. I think we were introduced, I visited a BNI group that you're a member of and we kind of shook hands, and now Jared's in that BNI group and you're a client. And we've hung out a little bit more and see each other at Pour Baby and all that stuff. So I'm glad to finally get you to sit down and hear the story about how you got started in photography and all that stuff.

Jon:

Yeah, looking forward to talking about it.

Marcus:

So to get started, tell us the story of Jon. Where are you from? Where'd you go to high school? Did you go to college? If so, what'd you study? I know you're married, but go ahead and mention, are you married, yes, no? Elaborate on that however you'd like to. Just remind yourself that you have to ride home in the car with her when this is all finished.

Jon:

Sure thing. So I was born in Tampa, Florida, moved to Mobile in 1980 and went to the University of South Alabama briefly. While I was going there, I started working at Cadence 120 Bicycles, out at Old Shell [...]

Marcus:

Oh, right here by the university.

Jon:

[...] out at Old Shell and University.

Marcus:

I didn't realize that place has been around that long.

Jon:

Yeah, yeah. I started there in 1990 and became co-owner of the store and really enjoyed that. Met my wife, Julie, there. She bought a bicycle from me.

Marcus:

Nice.

Jon:

And she got more than just the bike. So, worked there for 15 years. Julie was in catering. I was in retail. We never saw each other. She started working for a company where she was able to work from home back in 2005. And I had an opportunity... When I was at the bike store, I did all the email marketing and website management and had an opportunity to go to work for the website host that we worked with. And so I was able to stay in Mobile and work from home and help other bicycle retailers all across the US with their websites.

Marcus:

Oh, very cool.

Jon:

And that's how I started my foray into working from home.

Marcus:

Yeah. Which by the way, if you're listening to this and you don't work from home, there's nothing that beats that. It's kind of fun, go to work in your pajamas every day. Are you still co-owner of Cadence 120?

Jon:

Nope. So in 2005, when I went to work for SmartEtailing, which was the website company-

Marcus:

Who was?

Jon:

SmartEtailing.

Marcus:

Okay. I've not heard of them, but go ahead.

Jon:

Based in Colorado. Sold out to my business partner, Brad, here, and so did the website thing full-time.

Marcus:

Nice.

Jon:

And started getting into photography as a hobby in-

Marcus:

That's how it starts.

Jon:

Yep, yep. This all started there. In 2009, I used Julie's camera while we were on vacation at the beach in North Carolina and did a nice panorama shot of the beach. And there was a photo contest at Calagaz Photos, and I entered the contest and won an award. And I was like, "That's pretty cool."

Marcus:

Oh, wow.

Jon:

And so Julie bought me a nicer camera for Christmas.

Marcus:

Supportive wife that she is.

Jon:

Yes. Yep. I got more and more into it. One summer, there was a car show at the battleship that that was going on. And I thought, "I love old cars. I'm going to go to take pictures of these cars," took pictures of the car show.

Jon:

And I'd stored all of my photos online. There's a company called SmugMug that you can put your photos online and share them with your friends and family. And the website had a built-in shopping cart. I never, ever intended on selling anything. It was just part of a subscription. And a couple of months after the car show, I got an order. And so I emailed the gentlemen and asked, "Why did you buy these photos?" And he said, "It's my car." I was like, "Hmm, that's kind of cool." And so formed our business in 2012, Deep South Focus Photography, doing car show and automotive events all over the Southeast.

Marcus:

That's pretty specific, but that's cool.

Jon:

Yeah. So not only is it just taking pictures of the cars, but we would actually print and frame the photos at the event, so they had something to take home to remember the show for them.

Marcus:

That is really cool. Now it's funny because, like even my own business, Blue Fish, I look back and I wish that I had made a decision early on about positioning, right? Because when you're an ad agency, you can work with anyone. Right? And we're going to apply the skills that we have in much the same way, whether it's a photographer coming to us or a plumber, or a school or whatever. But it makes it a lot easier if you niche down, because then you can better advertise yourself to an audience because advertising yourself to everybody is a lot more expensive than advertising yourself to plumbers, for instance. So it's interesting that you, very early on, you niched down, like to an nth degree, like, "We're going to shoot car shows." That's cool. So, but it's obviously expanded from there, but, actually, you know what, we'll get into that, but go back to college. What did you study while you were at USA?

Jon:

So since I was a little kid, all I ever wanted to be was an architect and obviously USA doesn't have architecture, but I went there with the end goal of getting into ROTC and eventually I was kind of switched to Auburn and that just never happened because I enjoyed working at the bike shop so much that I actually gave up college.

Marcus:

Yeah, that's cool. And I often say this, there's no rhyme or reason to success as a business owner, as far as schooling goes. Like we have had people on here that never really made it to high school and people that have doctoral degrees. There's no formula for that. So now go back to your very first job, this is you're 14, 15, 16-years-old or whatever. Are there any lessons that you still remember from that job that you carry with you to this day?

Jon:

This is a funny one. It was Little Caesars.

Marcus:

Okay. Pizza, pizza.

Jon:

And one of the first jobs they gave me was dicing onions. And I still remember to this day, if you put a piece of bread in your mouth while you're dicing the onions, it kind of soaks it up so it doesn't make you cry.

Marcus:

Are you serious?

Jon:

I'm serious.

Marcus:

I am today years old and I've never heard that before.

Jon:

Yep. So I'd take one of the sandwich bonds and hold it in my mouth while I was chopping the onions.

Marcus:

That is so wild. Well, that wasn't exactly what I was thinking that you were going to come up with, but okay. We will take that one as the answer. That's actually the most useful answer that we've probably gotten. So go back to Deep South, you kind of alluded to how you got started, but kind of elaborate on that whole process. You went to that first car show, made a sale a month or so later, but that's not really the start of a business, and even forming the LLC, isn't the start of a business. So tell us a little bit about the actual, "Okay, I'm a business now. I need to be at these events and I need to market myself," and all that stuff. Tell us a little bit about how you started.

Jon:

So there's the local Mopar car club that asked me to be their official photographer. And so I'd go to their weekend events and do photography there. And actually one of the guys that was at one of those shows was Jim Vaughn, who owns Innerspaice downtown. And he had his car out there and did photos of his car and never expected to happen, but he became our first in-person customer and ordered a big 12 by 36 metal print of his car.

Marcus:

Nice.

Jon:

And then that grew into going to a event in Georgia, that all these Mopar folks went to called the Shindig. And we went there and we just had a small printer. We did four by six prints. That's all we did, but if they wanted something bigger, we could mail it to them.

Jon:

And at this event, it was a whole weekend party. So on Friday night, they go to the drag strip. Saturday was the car show. Then there was an event at a race track. Saturday night, everyone was just hanging out, partying in the parking lot all night. So we had our room door open. People were hanging out on our bed, looking at photos, and we're editing photos till 2:00 AM in the morning, printing their photos for them. We went to bed that night and the next morning, Julie... It was probably 7:00, "Think we should get up and open the door?" I was like, "Nah, nah." And then literally knock, knock, knock, knock. People knocking on our door, wanting to start looking at photos at 7:00 in the morning. It's like, "Ah."

Jon:

And so kind of the instant gratification people have in their mind, they want the bigger prints and they're interested in them, but they just forget about it, out of sight, out of mind. So eventually we bought a larger printer. We're hauling this 150 pound printer around in the back of an SUV, setting it up under a 10 by 10 pop-up tent. And it's just a big pain, especially when it starts raining. So eventually we bought a enclosed car hauler, a 24 foot air conditioned trailer, that we set everything up inside there. The customers could come into the trailer, look at their photos on a big computer monitor. Had the wall full of all the sample sizes and canvas and metals that they could purchase. Every event, we did something else to make it more efficient and easier for us to do business.

Marcus:

So one of the things that people don't understand about photographers or photography as a career path is that oftentimes the money is not in the taking of the photo, it is in all of the products afterwards. So whether it's a digital version of it so that you can use it on Facebook or whether it's a print that you can hang on the wall, that's oftentimes where photographers are actually able to make a living. Right?

Jon:

Yeah.

Marcus:

But then, I also want to ask you the question of how long did you specialize in just doing car shows?

Jon:

So we started that in 2012 and literally it was until 2019 that my job at SmartEtailing started getting in the way. They started having me go to Colorado every other week for a week, for a year. And it started becoming a nervous thing flying back on Friday, hoping I get home in time to make it to the Saturday car show. And so finally decided to bite the bullet and left my job and went full-time with photography.

Marcus:

Nice.

Jon:

And so we're doing car shows full-time. That was all we were doing, but that's just a weekend thing. And that October, we had two tropical storms, back to back, that just devastated two the shows that we had planned, which if that's all we're doing now, that kind of ruined our income for the month. So we decided we needed to do something else during the week and started dabbling in real estate photography, doing listing shoots for listing agents. And that has grown and grown, fortunately, because as we know, 2020 happened, the pandemic hit. Most of the car shows got canceled. Our biggest ones of the year were just totally shut down. And fortunately real estate has been booming, and so we've been doing a lot of real estate photography now.

Marcus:

Yeah. So, I mean, it's not really just until recently that you've kind of moved in a different direction, because I always assumed that it was that your focus was on real estate photography.

Jon:

No, definitely 2019 was when we started.

Marcus:

Wow. That is so cool. So you've already kind of answered the, "Do you remember the the first time?" question, so I'm going to skip over that one. Because I mean, the fact that you had that first purchase a month or so later and the light bulb went off, "Hey, there might be something to this." So why don't you tell us, if you were talking to someone that wanted to get started in running their own business, what's the one bit of wisdom that you would impart to them?

Jon:

No matter what it is, practice makes perfect. You just have to practice your trade and get better at it. Continue in your education to just continually get better at.

Marcus:

Yeah. That's a recurring theme with business owners, because there's just so much progression and especially in creative space. Like we just did an interview with Tad Denson and he's been a photographer for as long as I've been alive, probably. But his admonition was, and I think I was the one that brought it up, that if you're not growing that you're dying, right? It's this idea that you have to either be going in one direction or the other. And I think so oftentimes, people don't realize just how important it is to continue your education and your growth and not just in your trade, but just in life. Right? So it holds true there. Is there anything that you're currently working on in the business that you can talk about?

Jon:

I'm working on expanding the services we offer to the real estate agents, doing more than just photography. We're doing floor plans so that homeowners, potential buyers, can see the layout of the home. It's one thing to see pictures of four bedrooms and three baths, but where are they in relation to each other? So the floor plans are a really nice added feature.

Marcus:

So bringing back to the architectural interest.

Jon:

Yes.

Marcus:

Are you manually doing that or is there some mechanism?

Jon:

There's actually a mechanism we use, an app.

Marcus:

Oh, cool.

Jon:

And especially with the advent of the new iPhone 12's with the built in LiDAR, it does the square footage, measurements and everything.

Marcus:

No idea. We're going to have to talk about that afterwards. Because I don't want everybody to know, but, man, I'm curious as to what you're talking about, and I consider myself pretty technically savvy. If you look to the business world, who's one person that you look to that you kind of like, "Okay, that person motivates me," or, "They've done what I'm trying to do. They're just a little bit further ahead of me, so they're kind of like a mentor." I'm not looking for a grandfather, a friend or somebody here in Mobile, I'm talking like the larger business world.

Jon:

Sure. Not necessarily thinking larger national businesses, but I actually have a mentor that does real estate photography that have been learning a lot from, and he's basically helping to teach other photographers how to scale their businesses and grow, prepared to hire extra photographers to work for you. At some point you can't do all the shooting yourself. You're going to outgrow that and need to have people that can replicate what you do.

Marcus:

Yep. And putting a process in place, that allows them to do that, but also keeps the business kind of centered around the brand that you're building.

Jon:

Exactly.

Marcus:

Right? Yeah. Because it's a difficult thing. And oftentimes, it's a scary thing, too, for creators, because you bring somebody in, there's a lot of training, a lot of mentoring that happens. And then the fear is that they're going to run off and they're going to do their own thing. Right? But the other side of it is constraining a business because as an individual, it's difficult to scale a service business if it's based on you. And so the scaling has to happen, by either you going to a value-based pricing where you can get the job done much faster than what the hourly rate would call for. So, if you can get the job done in 10 minutes, but you can charge $1,000, that would be an example of value pricing, because you're bringing more value to the client then the amount of time that it actually takes you. Or you have to scale by hiring other people and that comes with a whole host of other problems.

Jon:

Yeah. It's definitely a nervous proposition thinking about that.

Marcus:

And hiring that first person is always the most difficult, but after that, it gets a little bit easier. Are there any books, podcasts, people, or organizations that have been helpful in moving you forward?

Jon:

There's a couple of books that I really enjoyed, A Customer for Life. It's about the automotive world, but just learning how to treat the customer like they're the king. That's kind of what we do is make sure that the customers are taken care of. We're always early for our photo shoots, the agents don't have to worry about us not showing up. That's the key is to let them know that they can trust you.

Marcus:

Yeah, that's cool.

Jon:

We like to be seen as an extension of their team.

Marcus:

Yeah. And showing up on time.... It's amazing to me, especially in the housing market, when you're dealing with contractors and stuff like that. What is it? "Saying what you mean or doing what you say," I forget what the saying is there, but actually following through is something that is coveted in that industry. What's the most important thing that you've learned about running a business? This is the one that always gets people.

Jon:

Yeah, that's a tough one.

Marcus:

Let me ask you to boil down 10 years of your experience into one little thing that you would like to pass onto someone.

Jon:

Yeah. The big one is just knowing what you need to charge for your services. You need to analyze that. If you're not charging enough, no matter how popular you are, how good you are, you're not going to survive. You need to charge enough to pay the bills, pay your taxes, eventually pay your employees.

Marcus:

So oftentimes we think, "Oh, I can't believe that somebody wants to pay me X to do this," but the realization doesn't hit until later about all the different expenses that go into that. So I mean, just elaborate a little bit on, as a photographer, it's not just your time.

Jon:

It's your car payment, your personal health insurance, when you're a business owner. Someone's got to pay that health insurance, so you have to figure that into your hourly rate. You need to know what it costs you to operate on a daily basis.

Marcus:

I can't remember the name of the site and it's been too long ago now to... It probably doesn't exist anymore. But there was actually a cost calculator for your hourly rate. And it would ask you all these questions and it wasn't all the stuff that you would think, it's everything from your equipment to your software subscriptions to, do you have an office? Do you have electricity for that office, internet for that office? Healthcare? You know what I mean? Like, do you go out to lunch with clients? Do you advertise? which you should. It was a whole host of different things that people just don't realize, like, "I need to make whatever," say it's $10,000. "I need to make $10,000 just to cover all of my expenses." And then beyond that, that's when I actually start making what I'm going to pay myself salary. Right?

Jon:

Yeah.

Marcus:

I don't think people realize just how much goes into even just being a photographer, if you're not just doing it for friends on the side. Like, "Oh yeah, I'll take some pictures for you for 200 bucks," or something like that. Well, if you're an actual photographer, it's the equipment, it's the insurance on the equipment, it's the insurance to cover you in case you do something, like if you lose files or something like that. It's the data storage. Can you imagine? Don't even get me started. But the amount of money that we spend on just storage, files is just ridiculous.

Jon:

Yeah. And the maintenance of your equipment. It's one thing to buy cameras and lenses, but you have to maintain those and work on them and send them off to the manufacturer to get refurbished every now and then.

Marcus:

Yeah, for sure. How do you like to unwind?

Jon:

I'm a cyclist, obviously, having owned a bicycle store. I love to go for bicycle rides. Nothing like being out on the open road, just having the breeze blowing through your hair and just enjoying the peace.

Marcus:

I used to be an avid cyclist and it wasn't until 2000 that I kind of hung up my shoes. But on my very last ride, I'd always said that I wanted to ride... Because I would regularly ride 50, 60 miles. But I said that I wanted to ride in this one particular ride back in Virginia, it was called the Reston Bike Club Century. And I was like, "Man, I want to ride that ride." And I was thinking, "It's going to be a hundred miles. And I've ridden 60 and 70 miles on training days, so I'm going to be golden." Well, I'll never forget. We rode about 115 miles and we were still 15 miles from the end point.

Jon:

From the end?

Marcus:

And the guy that I was with... We went to stop at the stop sign and he couldn't get out of his pedals. Because if you're a serious cyclist, you're clipping into your pedals, you've got the cleats on the bottom of your shoes and you're pretty locked in. And he couldn't get out of his pedals and he fell over into a ditch. And I was like, "You all right?" And he's like, "Yeah." And I was like, "Do you want me to call my wife? She's got a truck. She can come pick us up." And he's like, "Yes, please."

Marcus:

So she came and picked us up and took us back to Reston town center, which is where the ride started. But I didn't feel bad that we didn't finish the ride because I did what I said I was going to do, which is, I rode over a hundred miles.

Jon:

Yeah.

Marcus:

... which not many people can say that they did that. But it was almost an everyday occurrence that I was getting on a bike and taking off and just having fun, going 20 miles or something like that, and just enjoying myself. Because I agree, there's nothing quite like that. And I wish that I could do that more, but there's just, I don't know. Just a weird feeling about riding a bicycle around here. It doesn't feel all that safe.

Jon:

Yeah, the streets are a little sketchy, especially with people on their cell phones all the time, not paying attention.

Marcus:

Yeah. And I always used to get out into the country and go for rides. Actually, in Northern Virginia, it wasn't so much of a big deal because the suburbs were... The neighborhoods were so big. You could ride inside the neighborhood and never leave and you'd be fine. And we also have the W&OD Trail, which was an old train railway that had been converted into a path and it was fairly wide. You could drive a truck or something like that down it and still have plenty of space. So you had people running or biking in one direction and then the opposite. So it was almost like a street for my bikes and stuff. And that was a lot of fun, but yeah, I miss it. That was a good time. So you liked to get out and go for a ride.

Jon:

Yeah, riding's a blast. Virginia, I rode from Harrisonburg to Charlottesville and back one time-

Marcus:

Ah, very good.

Jon:

... which sucked for someone from down here on the Gulf Coast.

Marcus:

Yeah, I'll say. So I went to school at James Madison-

Jon:

Oh, okay.

Marcus:

... which is in Harrisonburg that you're mentioning. It's funny because we used to, at the beginning of the season, we would drive our cars out to Reddish Knob, which was the highest peak in the area. And we would get on our mountain bikes and ride up Reddish Knob, and the goal was by the end of the season to ride our road bikes out to Reddish Knob and up Reddish Knob and back. But it was always at the beginning of the season, because they actually get snow and bad weather there. At the beginning of the season, going up those mountains, you're standing, you're literally pulling on your handlebars trying to get the pedals to go around one more revolution. But yeah, it's a good time. That's a beautiful part of the country, too, so I'm sure you enjoyed that.

Jon:

Yep.

Marcus:

Well, tell people where they can find you.

Jon:

So they can go to our website, www.deepsouthfocus.com, or find us on Facebook at Deep South Focus or Instagram @deepsouthfocus.

Marcus:

Very cool. And email address?

Jon:

JON@deepsouthfocus.com.

Marcus:

Very good. Well, Jon, I want to thank you again for coming on the podcast. To wrap up, any final thoughts or comments you'd like to share?

Jon:

Just know that professional photographers are out there. Lots of people have cameras and can take photos, but definitely if you need professional photos done, hire a professional that's actually in business.

Marcus:

Yeah. It is a big difference. I've seen some of your work on the real estate side, the still shots, but also the drone work and stuff like that. Right now the market's so hot and I don't know that photos... Photos definitely make a difference, but it's like people are putting things on the market and they're getting offers within 24 hours, but it certainly helps to sell a home.

Jon:

Yeah.

Marcus:

Well, Jon, I appreciate your willingness to sit with me and share your journey as a business owner and entrepreneur. It was great talking with you.

Jon:

Yeah. Thanks for having me.

Marcus:

Awesome.

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