As Katelyn Alsop recalls, she stumbled into the hobby that would help her become a millionaire before she turned 30 by accident.
Alsop, 35, is a wedding photographer and mom of four — soon to be five — in Richmond, Virginia. Her wedding photography and online education business brings in close to $240,000 per month, according to financial documents reviewed by CNBC Make It.
Growing up, Alsop "wasn't passionate about photography," she says. "I didn't take a photo class in high school or college …. It was never something I considered trying."
Alsop was, however, artistic, and entrepreneurial. She started her first business when she was 15, called "Katelyn's Krafts," painting and selling decorative ornaments, bowls, plates and more.
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During her second year of college at Christopher Newport University, one of Alsop's friends asked if she wanted to photograph students around campus together.
"I thought it would be fun to try something new, even if I was bad at it," Alsop says. That semester, she bought her first camera, a Canon Rebel XSi, for $700, and took it with her everywhere. She enjoyed capturing the rare moments of pure, unadulterated joy: her friends having a snowball fight in the quad, students crossing the stage at graduation.
In 2008, after six months of photographing people and events for fun, Alsop turned her hobby into a full-fledged business, Katelyn James Photography, that she ran from her dorm room.
In 2016, right after her 28th birthday, Alsop made her first $1 million profit. Here's how she turned her photography side hustle into a multimillion-dollar business:
Building a strong personal brand early on
In Alsop's first year of business, she was still a full-time college student, but she managed to spend at least 40 hours per week growing her photography side hustle: driving to shoots, editing photos and sharing the finished albums on her blog.
That blog turned out to be a tremendous asset for Alsop's budding business.
"I started sharing personal stories about my life on the blog, and people really gravitated to that," she says. "I think openly sharing my life with people really helped me build trust with potential clients because people saw me as someone who was transparent and genuinely cared about others from the content I was sharing."
There were some nights in college Alsop would stay up until 3 a.m. writing a blog post or updating the photos on her website — but it never felt like work, she says, because it helped her track her progress, and she liked seeing the positive impact her words, or photos, would have on the people who saw them.
"I might not have slept for a few years, but didn't feel like a sacrifice at the time because I loved it so much," she says. "You never want to push yourself to the point of burnout, but when you're really passionate about something, you'll feel energized by it, and the time you spend working on it will just fly by."
In 2010, when Alsop graduated college, her photography side hustle became her full-time business. While she started out accepting "any and all" shoot requests, from engagement celebrations to professional headshots, she quickly realized she enjoyed photographing weddings the most, and decided to make that her specialty.
During her busiest years, Alsop would photograph 40-50 weddings. Her website captures it all: first looks between bride and groom, candlelit ceremonies, euphoric crowds doing the Electric Slide on the dance floor.
Motivated by the success of her blog, Alsop started selling online technical courses for photographers on her website in 2015. There are tutorials on editing, posing and lighting techniques, as well as business courses, like how to market your photography business and build an effective personal brand.
To this day, Alsop maintains an active blog, writing about a range of personal and professional topics from how she decorated her son's nursery to the best photography equipment to buy.
'It takes a village to build a business'
Alsop credits much of her success to the people she's surrounded herself with since starting her side hustle: college roommates who cheered her on when she cashed her first paycheck, her family and friends within the industry.
"I've always had an incredible amount of support, and that kept me going on the days I wanted to quit," she says. "It takes a village to build a business."
Alsop's husband, Michael, quit his job in 2013 to help her run Katelyn James Photography. Alsop's sister, sister-in-law and other relatives now work for her as well.
Early in her career, Alsop organized a series of meetups for photographers she met through friends or her blog, hosting dinners at Chick-fil-A and parties in her backyard.
Networking helped her build valuable professional relationships that, in turn, strengthened her business: Other photographers began recommending Alsop for events they couldn't shoot themselves, as well as her online courses to people just starting out in the field.
"More hustle is not the answer, and it's not the path to fulfillment or balance," she says. "I've given myself permission to ask for help …. As a business owner, you have to outsource your help instead of drowning in the daily grind of your business by yourself thinking, 'That's just the way it is.'"
She also learned valuable negotiation tactics from her peers. Alsop's rates started low — $750 for six hours of photographing and editing — but as her skills improved and she learned what other photographers were charging, she raised her rates, which helped her earn six figures by 2013.
Last year, Katelyn James Photography brought in about $240,000 per month in revenue. A majority of that, roughly $230,000, is passive income from her online courses and trainings.
The rest is from her photography business: Alsop typically shoots four weddings per year, charging at least $12,000 per event.
"My greatest accomplishment is the financial freedom I've created for myself and my family with this business," Alsop says. "Nothing can top that feeling."
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