Meet Chris Burkard
Well, here we are. I'm Chris Burkard and this is "The Business of Photography." I think the first question you need to ask yourself is why is a college dropout, uneducated person from a small town in California with a mullet teaching you about business? It's a good question, to be honest, and I ask myself that every day. I think if anything, what I've learned over the last decade is how to fail big and at the same time succeed huge. And this is really what I'm here to share with you. This is a transparent, totally honest look at how I run my business, complete with the failures, the follies and all the struggles along the way. In reality, I want to help you foolproof your business plan. I want to help you, in many ways, pandemic proof it so that you can get through the next 10, 15, 20 years with a long term goal, with a mission statement that makes you feel passionately connected to what you're doing and really where you see the growth and where you see your business going. So I'm gonn...
a be the first person to tell you that this is an unorthodox career path, right? There's no right way. There's no wrong way. There's no straight line to really get to where you want to go. And if there's one piece of advice I just want to tell you in the beginning, is that yes, I can try to offer you directions, but if you don't know your destination, I'm never really gonna be able to help you get there. So the first key goal is knowing where you hopefully wanna end up. Even ballpark range really helps. For me, it was pretty clear. I was stuck working at a magazine store in Pismo Beach, California, staring out the window at the beach and I knew then and there that this was not the place I wanted to be. I was going to junior college, pursuing basically a career in whatever for somebody that was really important to me. And that was my mom and my dad. And ultimately I was doing this for them. I realized at the time that I was gonna let them down if I left that career and I moved on to something else, and I knew in that moment that I had to make that leap. I had to make that jump and that's exactly what I did because I couldn't keep living my life for someone else. Now, why am I diving right into this intimate conversation about my life? Because it's really important for you to understand where I came from so you know the steps that I took to get there. Now, all I can really tell you is the world, according to Chris, and my world in photography, my career path, it really started the day that I quit my job and I quit college. And I decided I'm gonna give photography everything. Five years and if I'm face down in the dirt somewhere, fine. And if I'm thriving, even better. But I knew that in that moment, I didn't care whether I was shooting action sports, or landscapes or traveling to beautiful locations. I just wanted to do something that allowed me to be creative. I had done a little art in high school. I picked up a camera. Photography was the way that I felt super expressive with the world around me. And I'm not gonna get into the whole reason of why it was so empowering, but being from a small town and realizing that there was this tool that could get me out and actually see the world. I mean, that was the most exciting thing on the planet. I wanted to know the world outside the six o'clock news and the dinner table. I never traveled as a kid, never had the means, just wasn't really something that we could do as a family. And so to realize that I could someday own a passport and I could see places that I had only seen in the glossy spreads of a magazine. That was a dream. And that's really why I started to pursue photography. Now, again, that's a huge leap from where I began. I was shooting weddings. I was shooting senior pictures. I was literally knocking on surf shop doors, asking them to shoot their interior for their website for 50 bucks a pop. I was working as hard as I could. And the only way that I was able to afford cameras in the beginning was by using my financial aid money. Sorry, mom. Sorry, dad. Sorry, college system. To basically buy cameras, attending the minimum amount of classes that I could at the time. Now I tried to take that opportunity that I was given because I had good grades and 'cause I applied myself and make the very most out of it because if there's one thing I realized that although I quit my job, education was still critical. It was paramount. Learning and learning about this career was everything to me. And I thrust myself into the throngs of trying to do internships and mentorships and really applying myself to any bit of knowledge I could find offline. If classes like this were offered at the time, I would've been all over it. Even if we lived in a time remotely close to here where there's incredible workshops available, that would've been my Bible, but they weren't. So I had to go about it the hard way by basically learning and struggling and trying to figure it out on my own. Now what I realized slowly but surely was that I needed a goal. And I guess my goal at that time was to, in some capacity document the sport of surfing because it's something I knew and it's something I was passionate about and it's something that made me feel complete and whole. And by hoping and dreaming of getting a magazine cover and working on staff for one of these magazines, I had set my sights on a really focused goal, right? Not just, "I wanna be a published photographer" and not just, "I wanna make a living," but "I want to be a staff photographer for one of these magazines. I wanna take my camera and I want to go places and shoot some of the best waves on the planet 'cause that's what I grew up doing." It's something that I knew and it's something that, in many ways, when I was young, was kind of like a babysitter. The beach for me was this place that my mom would drop me off and pick me up in the evening and gimme two bucks to get some food and lunch. And I would just come back sunburned every day, super happy. And so having the ocean as my canvas, that's really where I set out spending my free time, documenting, honing my skills as what you would call a freelance surf photographer, right? Except for I had no work and I didn't know what I was doing. Now with that, my first goals and aspirations were to get published. And so what I did was I began to reach out to magazines, finding the email of the photo editor, the editor, and just ask them for submission lists or submission requests or "What do I need to do to submit to the magazine?" And finally it was through a local surfer that I was introduced, luckily, to one of the photo editors at Transworld Surf. And his name was Pete Terrace at the time. And Pete was kind enough to give me a couple emails. He'd usually write me an email with one or two words, like "Great stuff, keep trying." And I would hang on that like scripture, I would just be like, "Oh my gosh, he said something to me," and I would work even harder the next week. And ultimately came time to send in some images. I had worked all summer long, all winter creating some work and I was proud to share some stuff. And I finally sent in some photos and he gave me a little more feedback like, "Wow, this stuff is great. Love it. Try to do this, try to do that, try to do this." And he really became one of those first mentors. He saw that this kid was driving up and down the California coast, seemingly everywhere and willing to just not sleep, work harder than anybody and go out and create images. Even if at the time they were really terrible. And I think he saw that dedication and he gave me an opportunity and I remember asking him, "Could I do an internship?" And he's like, "But you need college credit." And I'm like, "I can sort that out." And so I went back, reapplied, was able to basically get college credit for working off site at the magazine. And that's what I did. Every Monday morning, I would literally get in my car, Pismo Beach, drive five hours down to Oceanside, leave at 3:00 AM, arrive down there at like 8:00 AM and work for the week in the office at Transworld. And I would live in my truck. I would scrape pennies off the floor to buy burritos. Oftentimes, day olds and whatnot. I would sleep in the parking lot in Oceanside. It was a brutal experience, but I learned so much about the magazine. I learned so much about how they operated and how they worked and how they were based upon advertisers. That's really what fed the magazine its income and the advertisers needed to see certain images during certain seasons: wet suits or board shorts. And keep in mind, I'm telling you this story and I really want you to relate it to your own experience. What are you shooting? What do you hope to shoot? If you wanna work in this field, understand that each magazine is related in some way, right? They're all working on a timeline, a schedule, a theme, so to say. And in the surf world, it was all about what season we were in. So while I was out there busting my butt, trying to shoot photos of surfers in wet suits all year round, it was totally irrelevant to what they needed. But once I understood their editorial calendar, their schedule and, oh my gosh, there's even a thing called a media kit online that I could have just looked at the whole time. I realized the importance of research. I realized the importance of knowing who you're working with, knowing the magazine in and out. If you're not a reader, if you're not a subscriber, if you're not somebody who would be interested to pick it up, probably not the best fit for you. I became a student of this world trying to soak up and grasp on to as much editorial knowledge, editorial being the magazine world, that I possibly could. I would just pore over everything that the editors would say and the copy editors, learning about how articles are formed, how photographs without a story attached to them are really hard to place, right? And I think that's where I really became passionate about learning to tell stories because my chances of getting images published were so much higher and it was such an interesting and amazing experience to walk away from those four months of, in many ways, complete suffering and hazing, with this incredible knowledge of how that world worked. And I guess that's really where my career started, right? I aimed to kind of get the attention of these titles that I wanted to work with. I aimed to sort of create a friendship with an editor. I aimed to sort of show them that I was willing and able to work harder than anybody else. And the truth of the matter is this wasn't my only job at the time. I was still trying to make a living with my camera, shooting every single thing I could. And I'll tell you what, most of those jobs weren't glamorous at all. In fact, they aren't the Chris Burkard photos that you probably know today, and that's fine because each of us should have to give something of ourselves. This is the difference between passion, right? And anything else. Passion is basically the difference between living and just existing, right? I was truly living in this world. I was living in this workflow because I was willing to give up something for it. And I want you to think about the fact that if you're willing to give up something for it, you're never gonna not find success. It's just not gonna happen, right? And I think that was a reality in that early stage of my career was that everything I was doing was coming back to something deep inside me to prove, maybe to my parents, maybe to my girlfriend at the time, maybe to those around me in the small town that thought I couldn't make something of myself and show them that I could. And so I wanna just instill in you, right in the beginning of this workshop that you need a fire, you need a spark, whether how small or how large. For me, again, it was that approval. It was showing my mom that her sacrifices when it was just me and her, and she was giving up everything to basically raise me, that that was worth it. And that I was going to be able to make something of myself, even if I didn't attend school, even if I didn't attend college. And I think for anybody hoping to pursue this as a career, hoping to turn this into a business, hoping to really navigate the next 10, 20, 30 years amidst pandemic and recessions and chaos, like I have, that you have that light burning inside you. That thing that you can always come back to, right? Because if that's not there or if that blows out, it's really challenging. And I'll tell you one thing. I did get those stamps in my passport. I did collect that paycheck throughout my career. And those things were really fulfilling. But at a certain point, they're not enough. When it's freezing cold and you're on assignment and you're inside of a tent somewhere and the Northern lights are out, and you're beaten down and brutal and you've been working for 10 days, and the last thing you wanna do is get out and shoot, you're gonna need something greater than those things to get you out of that tent. You're gonna need something greater to put a cold hand on the camera and make a beautiful image and tell a story. And really this seems like an unorthodox way to start a business of photography course with passion. But I can't think of a more succinct way of helping you understand that these two things are completely related, right? What you put into your business should 100% be passion, right? And that is where you should focus. You should focus on the creative. You should always be able to focus on the things you love most, and you should learn to put other people and to delegate other roles to a lot of these other tasks so that you can always focus on what makes you the most happy. I think one of the best ways to really help tell this story, which is kind of the story of me, is to take you on a quick road trip down memory lane. That being all the past offices, the houses, the barns, the places that I've tried to run my business, up to where I am now to give you a realistic perspective of what that's looked like over the last decade. I was 20 years old or something like that. And I just bought some desk off Craigslist and put it in the corner of my house. And the house was so, so small that basically my desk was the largest thing in the whole place. I mean this thing was so unsealed and open to the elements. It was a proper barn. I'd find snakes in my office. I'd find black widows. I'd find lizards every day, actually, to the point where it got so gnarly that I regretfully had to spend some of my hard earned money to basically redo and seal the thing. So this place behind me was basically my first, I guess, space I could call my own. It was the first space I could claim as mine. I moved in here when I was 20 or so, and I bought some desk off Craigslist, put it in the corner of my house. And literally the entirety of my house was filled up by that desk. And it was a converted barn. It was so poorly sealed and ventilated that snakes would come in there, grass hoppers, lizards. It was not uncommon to find black widows on my desk. If a strong wind blew or if a storm, there would be buckets on the ground. It was a pretty brutal setup. But in some ways, I felt some nostalgia because it was the first place I made my own. A certain point, it got so bad, it leaked so bad that I felt like my hard drives, my images were at risk. So I had to spend some of my hard earned money to actually seal the place up. It was a barn that was on the property. And at one point it had two horses inside. It was pretty rad. It's kind of like right where I worked, right here in this little sunroom. Yeah. There's still two open stalls in the back, but hey, early twenties. 21, 22 years old. That was the humble beginnings. I think I paid about 350 bucks a month rent to my grandma for that place. But I got married at 21 and honestly, I think really quickly, my wife was like, "No chance. We're not staying here. I'm not gonna be dealing with animals crawling into bed with us and having to scoop out the remains of critters all the time." So we looked for a place to rent in Grover Beach, which was affordable, and that was actually the first place that we called our own. And that's where we're going right now. So here it is. Wow. I haven't been here in a while. So this was the second rental that me and Bre had actually. And it looks good. I think it's for sale now. Geez. We wanted to buy this house so bad. This is the house that my son was born in. Oh man. In the back, it had this separate garage and I basically built out the garage, sealed the door. And that was my first out of the home studio. And I remember so vividly, the importance. Bre was like, "You need to be working outside of your house. You need to be working outside of this place because there was a little bit too much of this, I'd work, I'd come hang out, I'd be home. There was too much mixture of church and state, right? It was just a complicated scenario. And I think the moment that I started to realize that I operated better by having a separate studio, started to open my mind up to leaving to go to the office means that when I leave the office, I can come home and I don't bring the work home with me. And that was the cardinal sin, right? Was bringing work home with you and always having a way to kind of never stop working. And that was a real eye opener. And she really helped teach me that. And after this, that was when I started to think about where in town, what would it look like if I wanted to build my own place? What would it look like if I wanted to make something that was really mine, and that's my next studio. My family growing up, came from pretty humble beginnings. And I lived in a single parent home for the first 12 years of my life. It was just me and my mom 'cause my biological father passed away. Basically, when my stepdad came into the scene, we would buy and sell fix uppers. And that was the only way we were able to slowly create some economic gain there. I think I witnessed the example of his hard work and just never stopping and never ending. And that really left a huge impression on me. And ultimately when we got into our first place, our whole point was like, "Yeah, let's make it better. Let's improve it." And so that mentality has just always carried with me. How can you make it your own? How can you be proud of that work that you're doing? It was a really great example in my life when I became, I guess you could say that age of accountability, like 12 years old. I really needed that example in my life and that made a huge difference because I think if it was me and my mom only, I don't really know where I would've ended up, but I don't think it would've been somewhere great. I just wasn't the most awesome kid, but I saw her willingness to provide and just be an incredible mom. And that was amazing. That was insane. That was such a good example to me, and she's really, from the beginning of my life until now, been like my hero, because she sacrificed so much to have me at 17. And I think that that has really been at the core of my work ethic, my mission statement, my driving force in my life is to prove that worth, to prove that there is some deeper burning desire than just to have a career, you know? But to actually make something of myself. So we're actually... Sorry for the bump. We're coming up on this place now. So Bre was like, "We gotta get out of this freaking barn. This place is gross and terrible." And we wanted to make a place that was our own. And so our first rental was right here on beautiful Atlantic City in Grover Beach. This little place we're pulling up to. And this was actually the first little rental we had. 650 Atlantic City right here, tiny little spot. Somewhere in that little tiny house, I had a spare bedroom and I actually turned that spare bedroom into my office. And that was our humble beginnings, right? From there, we knew that there was... It can, hopefully only go upward, but it was dire. It created a lot of tension, having right next to my bedroom, a spare bedroom where that was where my computers were, that where work was. And it created some hard times. And I started to have this process and realized, man, moving where I work outside of my house would be so helpful. And that's exactly what I did in the next house we ended up renting. This is interesting because I used to drive by this building, the Grover Beach Tech Center, which again is a little bit of an eyesore for a creative studio. But I used to drive by here all the time and just be like, "Oh man, it would be so sick to have an office close to the beach, we could go surf on our lunch breaks and all these things." And this was actually the dream for me. And it's interesting how your dream changes, right? And evolves and whatnot. But I got it into this place. I remember the rent was like 1,600 bucks a month and that was so steep. Again, I was living in a barn and then all of a sudden I'm in a tiny rental and then a little bigger rental. My first son was born, working in the back garage and all of a sudden I'm in this full other building. And I was so overwhelmed, but I had at the time one full time employee, I was moving to two full-time employees. And I just knew at that moment that I was gonna be so much more efficient. I was gonna get so much more work done if I had a separate space, if I had a place that I could call my own and that I could build out to be my own 'cause we were starting to do different things. We were shipping books and I was carrying some merchandise and I was needing to store more gear and my garage was bursting at the seams and I had rooms in my house that were dedicated to my work and it just didn't make a lot of sense. I rented this unit right here, number E, top and bottom. And it was really where I guess it all began. And it was like such a wild place to, I guess, at the moment, call my own. So we had the space, we had everything I thought I wanted, but the reality was we outgrew it. And it's so funny how that dream changes, right? How it evolves. And ultimately what I thought was like, "okay, I got through a year and a half of renting this place. I could pay the rent and I was still thriving as a photographer." And what I guess I realized was all of a sudden, these fears of expanding my business and growing and paying that extra money, they sort of washed away because I realized really quickly that, you know what, if I set my business up right, all of these tasks that we're trying to do, packing for gear, planning trips, getting images out late at night, shipping out stuff, was becoming more efficient. I had a spot where I could have UPS or FedEx do pickups every day. And I had a spot where people could come and work, or people could come and stay, or people could pack for trips. And that wasn't putting this emotional strain and stress on my family, my wife, me. And work was all of a sudden separated. So it gave me this validation that this career path was real, it was something I could make of myself. And just being able to separate work from home became so powerful, but like all good things, they come to an end and I needed something more custom. I needed something a little bigger, I think. We were a little limited in there. And so Bre and I bought a property that we were gonna build my office on. And we got so bogged down by permits and the city and all the stuff that it never happened. It actually just became this huge financial stress. But during that time I ended up renting another little studio that was pretty interesting, a little quirky. I should just show you so you can get the full picture. Shoot, the next place that I got into was basically a little box store because I was at the time trying to build my dream studio. Me and Bre had bought this property for super cheap and we were gonna build on it. The city was just shutting us down left and right. And so I ended up buying this little... renting, sorry, this little place in the meantime. And we went from being in this killer, pretty big spot where I was paying good rent, to this really, really inexpensive place that was right by a homeless shelter and right by the police station and right by some other kind of sketchy places. And now it's a thrift store, right behind you. Wow. Let's loop around here. And so this was this interim office period. It was a really weird time in my business. Didn't quite have the space that I needed to pack for trips or plan for trips. It was so tight. It was kind of like reverting being back into that spare garage in my house. And yeah, it was really funny. I remember being in here and we were trying to make some, we were trying to make some walls, trying to create some separation so that we could fulfill all our needs, have a spot to pack gear and this and that. And the city came to shut us down. And basically, we were flagged for not having permits and this and that. And it was such a pain, because I was trying to make it work, trying to run this studio. And it was a place that I was at the time... Sometimes you have clients come by. Sometimes you have people come to visit. You want something you're proud of. And it, at the time was a little brutal and we had five employees and it was always packed to the gills and just it wasn't working. And I think what made it stressful was the whole time I was dealing with trying to build this other place and trying to create my dream studio here, and I was getting shut down left and right by permits. See if these people can come around me here. But you know, everything happens for a reason. It's so funny how your dream changes because during this time I was so stressed out about building this dream office and I was stressed out about where I was, the security of the office was a huge issue. We had break-ins amongst other things. I found this one building that was like the dream. I had always dreamt of having a space that I could have community events and have enough space to have a small gallery and all these things and when I saw this building, I was like, what do I need to do to make that happen? I guess just kind of setting out, being like, this is the goal, this is the dream. And I watched the thing for about a year and it finally came on the market and this is the one that I'm in now. And this is the one that I poured really my heart and soul into to really make my own. And I think that in some way, making a space your own, that's the most important thing you can do. Like taking ownership, putting your art on the wall, putting your touch on it, making it feel like it's a place that you're proud of and you're proud to show people. Oh, that's such a beautiful thing. Like I said before, you can run a photography business out of the back room of your house. I've done it. I know that, but expanding that business and growing it, it's gonna be really hard. You're gonna be limited there. And so for me, I don't expect everybody to have this same dream, but this was mine and this is the path that I took to get there. Let's go check out that space now. Right. Ready. Yeah. So this is it. This is the space. I guess you could say it took 10 years in the making, but the dream for me, I think, as it evolved, became to make some sort of community spot where I could have events and I could support a team and I could actually have a gallery that's a part of my business. Bought the building, kind of went all in and made it kind of what we wanted. And to be honest, it's taught me so much about the idea of pursuing a passion and not being afraid and taking those risks and those goals and of just creating really what you want in your business. And this building is where I see myself for the long haul. It's got the space to do bigger production jobs. It's got a rad event space. It even has a killer kitchen where we can all hang out and hey, there's even a climbing wall inside. So I guess for me, this was the manifestation of all those years of random spaces. And I'm really, really stoked to be here and I invite y'all in and I guess let's just dive right in. (uplifting music)