Elopement, weddings, do what makes you happy with Sam Starns

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Guest

Sam Starns

S Photography provides couples with the opportunity to elope. Her book Elope Your Life was released in November 2020.

Sean has founded multiple companies and done multiple 8 figures worth of business.

He’s currently advising, consulting, and investing in business just like yours.

He knows where you’ve been, and he knows where you’re going.

Book a call with him today to see how he can help you get there smarter, faster, and in a way that aligns with your life goals.

Timestamps

00:00 – Guest Introduction
01:55 – Get to know Sam
03:29 – Sam’s bad wedding experience
04:37 – Starting her company and its challenges
12:33 – Important lessons Sam picked up
14:53 – Company growth and future plans
17:17 – Work-Life Balance
18:48 – More insights from Sam
20:57 – Follow up with Sam

Transcript

Read the transcript
Sean Weisbrot:
Welcome back to another episode of the We Live to Build podcast. It’s funny how many people I talked to that started a company to solve a problem they encountered, where they found no other solution or the solutions they found didn’t do a good enough job to satisfy their need. Today’s guest, Sam Starns, is no different. Before getting married, she was a wedding photographer, so you would think she enjoyed weddings.

But after regretting her own traditional wedding, she wished there was someone who could have advised her to find the strength within herself to fight for the wedding she really wanted. That led Sam to start her own company, which specializes in advising, planning, and leading couples to experience a custom elopement-style wedding with under 25 guests in the most beautiful parts of the world. With nearly a decade of wedding experience, Sam has traveled to numerous states and countries for elopements to jumpstart the transformation for real change, and to encourage anyone to become their authentic self. So, without further ado, let’s talk to Sam about her experience in becoming an entrepreneur and how she’s learned to run her business.

Welcome to We Live to Build. My name is Sean Weisbrot, and I’m an entrepreneur, investor and advisor based in Asia for over 12 years. Join us every week to fast track your personal growth so you can meet the ever increasing demands of the company or companies you are passionately building. Time waits for no one. So, let’s get started now.

So, before we get started on where you came from, why don’t we tell everyone real fast what it is you do right now?

Sam Starns:
Yeah. So, I am an author and primarily an adventure elopement photographer, and a lot of people ask me, what the heck is that? And it is essentially a photographer who specializes in helping capture and create those amazing wedding days that have very few guests, and they’re usually outdoors in epic places that really represent the couple.

Sean Weisbrot:
Where are the places that you normally go to?

Sam Starns:
Um, I travel all over the globe, but some frequent locations are Alaska, Glacier National Park, Oregon, the Northern California redwoods, and Hawaii.

Sean Weisbrot:
Did you have anyone in your family that is entrepreneurial? Where did you get the sense that being an entrepreneur is something that’s that could happen?

Sam Starns:
So funnily enough, my parents are not incredibly entrepreneurial, entrepreneurial oriented people. My mother is a med tech at the local VA. My dad has done a lot of different sort of jobs. He has raised exotic birds, so he has owned his own part time side business. But this really came out of a want to build something, because I realized from my own life that there was a place in the market for an adventure elopement photographer, and I had wanted that for my own wedding. And I realized that other people want that, too. And so, I sort of carved my own place in this niche because of that.

Sean Weisbrot:
You had a wedding experience that wasn’t what you wanted it to be. So, what was that wedding experience? What was it like and why was it not what you wanted it to be?
Sam Starns:
The time that we were engaged was about six months, and I had brought up to my now husband and my family and stuff that I wanted to elope. And of course, as one can imagine, there was a little bit of blowback. Ultimately, I fell victim to those societal expectations and those norms that people want to follow for weddings. And we ended up having about 100 to 120 person wedding on my parents ranch, and a lot of that time was spent with me organizing things, and I didn’t have a day that really represented me or our relationship. And my husband, Brian, had kind of realized he wanted to elope a little bit too far down the planning road. So, it was a larger wedding, and ultimately I didn’t really enjoy myself. My husband didn’t really enjoy himself, and we didn’t really get to spend time together on the day. And we really, really felt the day didn’t represent us.

Sean Weisbrot:
I’m sorry you got to experience that. I haven’t had a ceremony, but I know that with my wife, we also had the societal pressure. And in Vietnam, I think the pressure is even more, because it’s about giving the parents face. How long from when you had these feelings of, I’m not happy with this until you decided to make your own company, to help other people, to have the experience they did want.

Sam Starns:
So, I had done part-time wedding photography for several years up to that point. It was only a couple of months after our own wedding that I decided to focus and niche down into just elopement photography and just photographing intimate weddings and adventure elopement with 20 to 25 guests or less. It happened with one couple who had hired me a few months after my own wedding, and they were having some planning issues, and you could tell that the bride was stressed out and we had talked, and I asked her what’s going on? And she just vented and said, I wish, I wish we could elope at a waterfall with like five people. And I told her, why? Why don’t you? She’s like, we can do that? I said, yeah, and I told her my story and that was what changed everything for me. Realizing that there were a significant amount of other people out there that felt like I did in regards to their wedding.

Sean Weisbrot:
Did you have any fears about getting into this business?

Sam Starns:
Oh, yeah, 100%. And I think, I think those fears are good to acknowledge and good to at least have in the beginning, because I come from a small town and every photographer here is a jack of all trades, a generalist. So, they do newborn senior photos, weddings, headshots, uh, real estate, photography, anything that would get kind of referred their way. And with the income, the average income of our town, and the traditions of our town, it was very concerning that I wouldn’t be able to have enough clients and referrals to support a full-time elopement photography career.

That was a significant worry. I ended up that shift in mindset of realizing that I’m able to serve more than just my town, and now I have one couple in the past three years that has actually booked me. That has been a local couple. Everyone usually comes from at least 180 miles away, if not across the country or across the world.

Sean Weisbrot:
Great. How long did it take you to get over that fear?

Sam Starns:
I think it’s really important to acknowledge that fears can kind of evolve. It took me probably a good year of really, really making my foundation very, very solid with search engine optimization and experience and all this stuff. And now it’s the fear isn’t, I guess, necessarily a fear. It has evolved into, man, I wish you know, I wish I had more local couples, but it’s not even a concern at this point.

Sean Weisbrot:
What was the hardest thing about starting your company?

Sam Starns:
I think that was probably it, the getting over the fear of how am I going to make money. How am I going to be successful with this niche that no one in town seems to understand? There’s a lot of resources about how to actually start a business, you know, filing your articles of organization, that sort of thing.

I worked in a law firm before, so I was already familiar with a lot of the business and contract law. So that stuff wasn’t scary. It really was finding the clientele for a particular niche that hadn’t blown up yet. And, you know, back then, I came in right after the ground floor was laid for adventure, elopement being a niche. And now it has just exploded, partially because of Covid, but because it has gained more traction just in general.

Sean Weisbrot:
What were you the most excited about in starting this business?

Sam Starns:
One of the things I was excited about was getting to create art in epic places. That really resonated with me. Some of my favorite places are Alaska Glacier National Park, the California Redwoods, and because I am knowledgeable in those locations, I’m able to share that and people see that, and that’s where they end up booking me for primarily. So yeah, the traveling and the creating art in these amazing places that I love.

Sean Weisbrot:
You were talking about the first year and how you were creating a solid foundation. So, what did year two and three look like?

Sam Starns:
If the first year was just scraping by, year two was probably 4 to 500% more in terms of bookings. You know, if I went from, let’s say, 2 or 3 elopements to 10, 15 and that was probably roughly around what year two was. And then the percentage sort of slightly leveled off. Um, in that parabolic fashion, those years were a steady increase in not only clients, but more inquiries as well as a broader range of locations. So, it wasn’t just Oregon anymore. It was, oh, you’re an expert in these locations. Do you travel there? And it was a lot of spreading awareness of how much I do travel.

Sean Weisbrot:
And so how do you manage all of the travel?

Sam Starns:
So how couples book me is depending on where they want to go. I provide certain collection options, package options for them that include my travel. So, I’ve calculated all the travel out based on certain areas. And with that, I book myself and everything. I also am sort of partially a planner for them, so I help them with, hey, do you need Airbnb recommendations? All this stuff? So, it’s sort of, you know, a way for passive income because I have an Airbnb affiliate or associate profile so I can earn passive income that way. With the travel, they don’t have to worry about me at all.

And I sort of block out my time during the year in regards to what location is best, during what time of year, and so I might go back to locations multiple times a year, but it’s not so spread out there. They’re very much in chunks throughout the year in order to maximize my time. It also serving them as well, because I am very clear in this is when I will be there, because this is the best time of year to go. You don’t want to go during another time. And so, it kind of serves a lot of different purposes for how I set up travel.

Sean Weisbrot:
And how do people find you and what percentage of those people are from word of mouth?

Sam Starns:
For me, word of mouth is actually one of my least documented ways of referrals. I have really great SEO, and I’m working on shifting my SEO currently because I currently have a trademark and that needed to have some adjustments on my website. I have great SEO. I also have a great evergreen content usage with Pinterest and reusing those over social platforms. I have a very active blog, so a lot of people find me via SEO and Google. That is my highest-rank referral for inquiries as well as my highest booking referral. You know, word of mouth is actually very, very, very low. And the booking rate for the few word of mouth I do get is very low.

And I’ve found through research and tracking all this stuff, it’s because elopements don’t tend to have all those guests there that actually get to see you interact and work in person. And I found that for traditional Wedding photographers, word of mouth is a lot higher because of that. On top of that. Eloping is not nearly as popular as a traditional wedding. And so even though they might think you do great images, if you don’t photograph their type of wedding, you know it is what it is. On top of that, I’ve found that at least in my niche. Word of mouth referrals are typically looking for a certain price point, and I usually tend to be out of that price point.

Sean Weisbrot:
It’s cool that you recognize that and found another way to get people to come to you. Do you do any paid advertising at all, or is it mostly just through the content and the social media?

Sam Starns:
The vast majority is through content and social media and, you know, my website. But occasionally I’ll do Google ads or targeted Facebook ads and retargeting through several different landing pages and freebie offers that I have that typically happens between November and February, which is what’s called engagement season, at least in the United States, in North America. So-

Sean Weisbrot:
What is the most important thing you’ve learned through all of this so far?

Sam Starns:
One of the most important things I’ve learned is service. My business is not just about providing an elopement day and photos. Eloping is not about the photos for me, and I say it on my website. So, I want to be able to serve them by helping them craft a day that is representative of them. That is something that will transfer into the rest of their lives by, you know, feeling more empowered and feeling more self-aware and being able to grow in who they are as a couple. And so that’s-that’s my why. And that’s why I want to be able to serve them. And I’ve found that finding your why and being able to serve in that capacity, while we always want to price ourselves profitably and-and talk about the finances and be very aware, I have found that that has been a primary reason of why I am so successful financially.

Because it isn’t selling. It isn’t, you know, pushing something. It is genuinely wanting to serve the couple and, you know, giving them options to, you know, upgrade their album collections or upgrade their wedding collections, their, their photography collections, and if not, if that’s not the right choice for them, totally great. But looking at that and looking at that, you know, add on aspect as a way to serve them and genuinely believing that that has helped me and been the most important thing, I think in order for me to be successful.

Sean Weisbrot:
I totally agree. Understanding your why is important. I don’t know if you’ve heard of Simon Sinek. Uh, he’s a well-known speaker and he has a book called “Start With Why”, and in it he talks about people don’t care about what you do, they care about why you do it, they care about how you do it. And so yeah, I think that’s a very valuable lesson for anyone to learn.

Like in any business. I’m sure that you have 20 competitors around the United States, but people come to you because it’s about them, where the other people probably focus on the day they say, this is it’s about the elopement. It’s about that. And you say, no, it’s not about that. It’s about you. And so that’s a very powerful differentiator that you make very clear. That’s your USP.

Sam Starns:
Yeah. And I will say that, you know, people think oh adventure elopements. Just a few people, but it’s actually way more than, um, you know, 20 there’s absolutely hundreds if not thousands of elopement photographers that just want to specialize in elopement. And so, that’s really how powerful the why is like you said.

Sean Weisbrot:
Have you hired anyone as of yet? And if not, are you planning on it?

Sam Starns:
Currently, I have a part time office admin assistant, so she does things like is an admin for my Facebook page. Uh, she will optimize my images on my website. She does packing for me. She just does odds and ends admin errands, things that I can offload to her so I can do more specialized things. I also have a social media strategist and someone who makes sure that my social media is active and posts and schedules for me, and I also am taking on an elope your life. Uh, my trademark team member. Uh, I’m in the process of onboarding someone after their final sort of callback audition in order to be able to serve couples.

Sean Weisbrot:
Do you have plans to hire anyone else during this year, or do you think more growth will be in 2022?

Sam Starns:
I think this is a really good, solid position for 2021. I don’t want to make any huge jumps without sort of filling out a couple more things, but um, having another team member on is definitely not out of the realm of possibility or, um, hiring more full-time team members.

Sean Weisbrot:
Cool. So beyond just hiring people, I guess, what do you what are you looking forward to this company looking like in the next five years?

Sam Starns:
I love images, I love being able to do what I do, and I think I would still do that in some capacity, but there is a desire to sort of diversify and expand on top of it in your life. And you know that-that empowerment and that individuality and that confidence that comes with standing up to people and eloping and doing something that’s outside of society’s norms and traditions and expectations and really applying a lot of your life to other things. So, having unique Airbnbs to offer or, um, you know, I have a book out right now and I’m actually going to be speaking and giving a Ted talk in April. So, diversifying the trademark into multiple different concepts that overlap. And that’s, that is what a lot of your life is. But I want to be able to manifest it in more ways.

Sean Weisbrot:
I don’t know why, but when I hear that name I just think franchise.

Sam Starns:
Yeah

Sean Weisbrot:
Like, it sounds to me like you could let people pay you to train them in your why and use your name to do things with your style. But their time, their ambition.

Sam Starns:
Yeah, that’s absolutely possible. And you know, who knows? That might be a thing in the future. Look, your life is very franchisable, expandable in that way.

Sean Weisbrot:
What’s something you’ve learned recently, that you’re either looking to implement or have already started implementing in your business or your life?

Sam Starns:
You know, I think this might be an answer that’s not given very commonly, you know, because everyone wants to talk about business hacks and these organizational hacks or outsourcing hacks, you know? And while I have recently outsourced my editing so I could spend more time doing other things, something that I have learned that is very important is managing work-life balance.

And so, you know, I have got an office, so I, I’m not working from home. I go into my office with my assistant, I come home and yes, while I do occasional things at home, the balance allows me to be my best self in order to serve my couples and my clients. So, the knowledge that you can only serve someone to only a certain capacity if you are not, you know, 100% energized and your your cup is not 100% filled. So, take care of yourself in an effort of conscious selfishness, in order to be able to perform the best of your ability for your clients.

Sean Weisbrot:
That makes so much sense. I know a lot of people follow Garyvee, and I have to say, I’ve said this once before, I’m gonna say it again. I can’t stand the guy because all he promotes is not work life balance, but rather forget your wife, forget your kids, screw everything. Just hustle until you die and you will make it. It’s just not a good way to live.

Sam Starns:
Yeah, agreed. He has great points, but ultimately, I feel like it’s a slightly skewing towards the toxic work level.

Sean Weisbrot:
What’s something I haven’t asked to so far that you wish I would ask?

Sam Starns:
Oh man, that’s really, really difficult. Um, questions. I get the most are what are some favorite elopements you’ve done? What are some like crazy cool places you’ve been? How to get these people in the mindset of, oh yeah, this is possible on your allotment day. You know, a lot of it is sharing your expertise. And a lot of people are really afraid to give things away. Give information away, because that’s sort of what they feel like is, you know, why people hire them. And it’s taken me a long time to figure out, give it away, because when people see you giving away all this information, they think, oh man, if this is the top-notch information she’s giving away, imagine what mind-blowing information she’s holding back for just her clients.

When I give this information away on how to elope in Alaska, what kinds of things you can do in Alaska, Glacier, Scotland, Hawaii, and getting people to dream. And I mean, overshoot your goal. Absolutely overshoot your goal, because then people are going to land in something that’s really, really cool in the middle. It’s sort of a kin to how three package or four package pricing structures are overshoot, knowing that if you land that, that’s super awesome. But, you know, somewhere in the middle is where you want to be. So always trying to inspire people on what is actually possible.

Sean Weisbrot:
Great! Well, you’re free to answer those questions for yourself if you want.

Sam Starns:
I keep coming back to a few that just have really interesting activities because of who the couple is. We visited a reindeer farm before we hiked up a mountain and visited an abandoned mine, and we went to a glacier the day before because they had multi-day coverage. Another couple did a 3 and a half hour horseback ride on the island of Kauai, and then went and visited some beaches. I have a couple that is potentially interested in going to Alaska this coming, uh, this coming winter, next winter 2022. And they are interested in doing an aurora borealis sort of event with dog sledding.

So, I tell people, the sky is literally the limit. Helicopters and airplanes. Next week, a week from yesterday, I will be in a hot air balloon at sunrise over Moab because a couple wants to elope and include a hot air balloon in their experience and their adventure.

Sam Starns:
Well, Sam, it’s been fascinating talking with you. I really appreciate your time. If you like Sam and you want to learn more about her, check out “Sam starnes.com” as well as “Elope Your life.com” to check out her book again. Her Ted talk at Ted Roseburg will be in April.

If you liked this episode, please leave a review on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to us, because it really helps us out by getting the algorithms promoting us to new people who might enjoy what we’re doing.

Entrepreneurship is a marathon, not a sprint, so take care of yourself every day. Thanks, Sam.