Adapting My Business to Quarantine & "The Front Steps Project"
by Mary Brunst
The words “virus,” “pandemic,” and “quarantine,” are all pretty scary. When all of our lives were put on hold during the coronavirus quarantine, everything seemed uncertain and fearful. In some ways, I think it felt a little like the week between Christmas and New Year's Eve… except without any of the holiday cheer, or a known end-date. During that time, it was so easy to lose track of what day it was or find any sense of a normal routine. But if you looked for it, you could see that good things were still happening. I wanted to provide something positive for people to remember the good during this unprecedented time, and the best way I knew how to do that was through photography.
Boston photographer Cara Soulia, and her friend Kristen Collins, came up with the idea for #TheFrontStepsProject over a cup of coffee. They started the project in Needham, MA on March 17, 2020, as a way to “highlight the faces of our community during a time when we might not see them in passing at the grocery store, coffee shop, on the train or at the gym.”
I found out about it when a friend of mine shared NBC’s blog post about their project on Facebook and immediately knew that it was something I’d like to be a part of. The reason my business, Mary Brunst Photography, exists is to document goodness and joy. “Providing heart-centered photography that celebrates the joyful parts of your story” has been a part of my mission statement from the very beginning. Participating in TFSP aligned perfectly with that mission statement while providing a unique opportunity to serve my community.
Although everyday life as we knew it had seemingly paused, this gave us time to refocus our attention on a lot of good things. For example, many of us were spending more quality time with our families, learning new hobbies, or finishing projects that we had put off for quite some time. We learned how to telecommute or connect with our friends and family virtually — and how cool is it that we live in a time where technology makes that accessible and possible? Good things and joyful moments still were happening, and those were the moments I wanted to help my community remember. All the while, of course, practicing safe and significant social distancing… yay for 70-200mm zoom lenses!
When Cara Soulia started photographing her Front Steps portraits she asked the families that participated to make a $50 donation to the local food bank in exchange for the photo she delivered. Instead of doing the same, I created a GoFundMe Campaign to help my friend Micah Clark. Micah is two and a half years old and has a rare genetic disease called LAMA2 Merosin-deficient Muscular Dystrophy. The coronavirus quarantine brought many difficult challenges for Micah and his family, including being hospitalized for almost the entire month of March. I wanted to do what I could to help and encourage a local family in need. Incredibly, in partnering with the community, we raised almost the exact amount of money his family needed for a new home project to aid in his care. I participated in The Front Steps Project from March 22nd to May 15th, and during that time I photographed 180 families.
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When I spoke with RMSP's Professional Intensive students in April, as they were leading up to their graduation, I encouraged them to focus on what they could do, rather than all of the things they couldn’t do because of current COVID circumstances. I hope that sharing my experience with TFSP encourages you to do the same! I truly believe that the most successful entrepreneurs are the ones that work to find the silver lining in whatever situation they are in. I realize that is an easy concept, but an extremely hard thing to execute ... especially in these tumultuous and uncertain times we are currently living in. However, I do believe there is opportunity to be found. Just because life is in chaos doesn't mean that your business has to suffer. There will always be ups and downs, and storms along the way. The times of discomfort are the times we grow the most. For me, over the past 10 years in business, I've weathered the storms by doing three different things:
I work full-time for my business, and the quarantine stopped almost all of my paying work. Corporate events I was lined up to photograph were canceled, weddings were rescheduled, and portrait sessions were either canceled or put on hold. One of the biggest struggles, for myself and I'm sure most everyone, was not knowing when things would change, or “open” again to plan for the future. However, having a strong business plan in place, I know what my "enough point" is. I know how much money I have to bring in to keep this business running. Like many times in the past, it was time to be adaptable and look for opportunities.
One of the “core beliefs” of my business is that generosity is always a good idea. A spirit of generosity causes our focus to be more outward than inward and forces us to ask ourselves how we can serve other people. For me, being a portrait photographer is having the privilege to be invited into someone else’s story and to document the memories that are being made. I truly believe that a photograph is life’s only pause button; it's a way to remember the good and count our blessings. Participating in The Front Steps Project was another opportunity to put that “core belief” into action. It was an opportunity to help and serve others.
Now, I don’t want to sound completely altruistic here. Multiple things can be true at once, and the marketing opportunity wasn’t lost on me. Everyone wants something for free. With most people home from work with little to do, a “front steps portrait” gave them something to look forward to and something good to remember the quarantine by, while providing an opportunity to help a family in need. With an empty calendar, I had plenty of time and resources to serve my community, while reaching a more widespread audience in a way that I never had before.
While not having any current work coming in, I wanted my name to stay at the front of people’s minds. You may have heard of the Rule of 7. It states that a prospect needs to “hear” the advertiser’s message at least 7 times before they’ll take action to buy that product or service. Participating in The Front Steps Project was another touchpoint and another way for people to find out about my photography business. It was a wonderful advertising opportunity.
We all have limited time and limited resources. It's important to work to maximize our efforts. Following the rule of 7, I didn't want to simply end with giving them their Front Steps photo. I wanted to make an impression, and be the person they would think of for their family Christmas card, or future photography needs. Therefore, upon finishing the project I sent everyone that donated to our GoFundMe Campaign a beautiful “thank you” card with a photograph I took of Micah and his family on the front of the card. On the back of the card was a coupon towards a future portrait session. Again, another touchpoint. And finally, as another way to keep in touch, I added all of the participants to a private Facebook Group that I created for my clients — where I share exclusive offers and the latest business news.
People contacted me to take their Front Steps portrait by seeing their friend's, or friends of friend’s photos on social media, or by Googling “photographers taking front steps photos near me." I booked a corporate headshot client because she found my website by searching for “photographers near me”. She told me, “I went to your Instagram page and saw SO MANY of my friends' portraits that you had taken during The Front Steps Project; I had to reach out!”
I sold a gift certificate for a family portrait session because the client wanted to give business to someone that was “giving back to the community during this time." She specifically searched for “photographers doing The Front Steps Project in Maryland” and found my website. I also booked a profitable job during the quarantine, photographing 8th-grade graduation photos in the “front-porch style” for The Odyssey School, a local private school and long-term client of mine. The Front Steps Project provided the idea of how they could celebrate and honor their graduates, while still maintaining all of the safety guidelines. Since the "stay-at-home" order has lifted in Maryland and normal portrait sessions can resume, I've booked 5 portrait sessions from new clients that specifically found out about my business through The Front Steps Project.
I say all of this not to brag, or draw attention to myself, but to share with you how The Front Steps Project helped me stay afloat during a worldwide pandemic. I'm so grateful to Cara and Kristen for sharing their brilliant idea and for inviting photographers all over the country to join them. It was truly an amazing and joyful project to be a part of.
There will always be storms that arise, challenging economic times that come, but I truly believe that our work as self-employed photographers is to plan for those challenging times, be willing to adapt, and always look to serve and help others. That strategy has served me well over the past decade, and I know it can do the same for you!