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13 min read

You Can Get All Your Business From Referrals? It's Possible!

You Can Get All Your Business From Referrals? It's Possible!

Sarah Montani

Sarah Montani is a professional photographer based out of Franklin, Massachusetts. Photographing 30 -40  Bar and Bat Mitzvahs per year, Sarah has established herself as one of the top Mitzvah photographers in the region. She founded Sarah Montani Photography in 2010 with the intention of providing clients with photographic options that are personalized and affordable.

Sarah holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Boston University and has been an avid photographer since the age of 13. When not taking pictures, she enjoys spending time with her husband and two children, birdwatching, and collecting antiques. 

What you'll learn in this episode

  • What day in and day out of one-person business looks like
  • How your business can evolve over time
  • Why your niche may not end up being what you thought it would be
  • How to move from a marketing-based business to a referral-based business
  • How to foster a referral-based business
  • How to pivot when the unexpected happens
  • Simple tips for staying focused

And so much more!

Connect with Sarah Montani

Resources Mentioned in the Episode

Want to share your experiences and learn from other one-person businesses? Be sure to join our community! It's free :)

Like this show? Click on over and give us a review on Apple Podcasts Thanks!


Full Episode Transcript

Sarah Montani (00:00):

That generated no return. So that was just kind of a waste of money, kind of a silly thing looking back like, why did I do that?

Intro (00:08):

Bigger doesn't always mean better. Welcome to the One-Person Business podcast where people who are flying solo in business come for specific tips and advice to find success as a company of one. Here are your hosts, Joe Rando and Carly Ries.

Carly Ries (00:26):

Welcome to the One-Person Business podcast. I'm one of your hosts, Carly Ries.

Joe Rando (00:31):

And I'm Joe Rando.

Carly Ries (00:33):

And today we're interviewing Sarah Montani, a solopreneur based out of Franklin Massachusetts. Sarah is a professional photographer and while she has extensive experience photographing various types of events, she photographs over 30 Bar Mitzvahs per year, which has established herself as one of the top Mitzvah photographers in the region. She's been recognized as one of the top five family photographers around Boston by Boston Parents Paper, and was voted the gold regional photographer and number one photographer in Franklin in Wicked Local favorites in 2016, 2017, and 2018 Readers Choice Awards. In addition, Sarah volunteers her talent with various nonprofits, and you can find all of those on her website. She also just happens to be Joe's sister. So Sarah, welcome to the show.

Sarah Montani (01:22):

Hi. Thanks for having me.

Joe Rando (01:24):

I really wanted to have you on Sarah, not because you're my sister, even though you are awesome, but because I've just been blown away watching you build this business and creating something that a lot of people aspire to. In fact, we had a guy named John Jantsch on a recent podcast talking about this concept of building a referral engine. You are so busy and booked so far into the future, and as far as I can tell, you spend most of your time doing the work that you do, taking the pictures, processing the pictures, getting them out there, and very little time involved in sales and marketing. So I just thought it would be really interesting for our listeners to understand how you did it. How did you go from getting started, to creating a referral engine that kind of works while you sleep?

Carly Ries (02:10):

Yeah. Which made me very intrigued. Let's actually dive into that. Sarah, just to piggyback off what Joe just said, can you elaborate on your day in and day out, and why you decided to become a one person business?

Sarah Montani (02:24):

My primary area of photography is event photography, which is not how I started out. I started out pursuing family portraits, but I've been phasing that out of my business model for the past few years. I mainly focus on events. And within those events I am primarily a Bar Mitzvah photographer. Pre C O V I D was photographing, I'd say about 40 Bar Mitzvahs a year.

Carly Ries (02:53):

Oh wow.

Sarah Montani (02:55):

With maybe five to 10 weddings thrown in here and there

Carly Ries (02:59):

And sleep sometimes.

Sarah Montani (03:01):

When I set out to do this, I really didn't have a plan. This was 11 years ago and I had been just home with my young kids and needed to get back into the working world, but really wanted something that had hours opposite of my husband's. He works a nine to five, so I was trying to brainstorm something I could do on nights and weekends. It was actually his idea, suggesting I start doing photography professionally. It had always been a hobby of mine and I had been doing it on the side as favors for family and friends. So, that's sort of how it all got started.

Carly Ries (03:45):

Well, it sounds like you have really made a business for yourself. As Joe mentioned to me offline as well, you're basically now just going off "word of mouth", that's how people find you. How did you get clients in the beginning and when did it start shifting to a referral-based business?

Sarah Montani (04:04):

When I did first start out, I was advertising it, ads in the local paper, a lot through Google, some Facebook advertising, wedding planning sites like The Knot, and they were all pretty effective. It was probably around 2015 or 2016 when I really had gotten my name into the Bar Mitzvah circuit. And it really started to shift to a word of mouth business just because every mom that would book me would then refer me to her friends or, getting my name in with some of the other local vendors, the DJs and the party planners and, having them refer me is really how I got my name out there and how I sort of operate my business at this point.

Carly Ries (04:58):

Do you do anything to create those referrals, like a referral program, or do they just happen naturally?

Sarah Montani (05:03):

I did many years ago. I had a referral program and anytime someone referred me I'd give them just a small $15 gift certificate that they could put towards ordering prints. But eventually it just became too difficult to keep track of that. I'd get a lot of bookings from people who said multiple people referred you. So it was really hard to keep track of that referral. Now. it just sort of happens naturally

Carly Ries (05:35):

That's awesome.

(05:37):

I think something that every person strives for.

Joe Rando (05:41):

I just have a question. I think part of the magic has to be in something that you're doing. I know you've focused on the bar mitzvah circuit, but what about the process of working with people? Is it the way that you work with people, the final product being superior to other alternatives or something else that makes them refer you as opposed to some other photographer?

Sarah Montani (06:08):

I think it's a little bit of all of that. I think it is sort of the nature of how mitzvahs work. They happen in clusters as opposed to weddings where people just get married whenever it feels right. For instance, one temple that I work at frequently just assigned their dates for 2024 on Monday. So I've been inundated this week with inquiries and they're all for the same temple and the same year. And a lot of them are also return clients because I've already done the older siblings, so they right away know we want Sarah again. So they reach out with two, two and a half years in advance. I think I built up that repertoire just by the way I approached working with my families. They're my families, they're not my clients and I get to know them as much as possible.

(07:03):

And because it is such a small community, I see them at their friend's events and everyone else's events. I work with them throughout the entire process and I'm there with them throughout the entire day. I'm there in the morning at the temple, I'm there all the way through the party and I'm really the only vendor that is there from beginning to end. There's so much communication between us. I really try to work towards remembering everyone's names, not working off of a shot list. Just treating everyone like I'm part of the family. Then I like to also think it's a result of the quality of the finished product as well.

Carly Ries (07:43):

Yeah, absolutely. Well, it sounds like you have a well oiled machine considering your pipeline is two and a half years out right now.

(07:53):

Is there anything you wish you would've known ahead of time before starting this business?

Sarah Montani (07:59):

I definitely wish I had more background in business. Sometimes, I do feel like I know the photography end of it or the technical end, but not the business end and that certainly came to a front March of 2020 with Covid and everything just completely shutting down and having a business that was completely decimated. I probably would've made a lot of different choices having known that was gonna happen.

Carly Ries (08:32):

I think a lot of people would.

(08:36):

Don't think you're alone in that. So speaking of which, there was a lull in the business, obviously events were shut down. It was crazy. How did you embrace uncertainty in regards to income, in regards to schedule, and how would you recommend other people embrace it?

Sarah Montani (08:55):

I don't embrace it at all. I used to in that, I always looked at it like, I could take any given year and look at how many contracts am I already booked for two years in advance and think of them as secure. Now I just don't feel secure about anything. I mean the event industry was just completely shut down. We were the last to be reopened. Right now, I don't feel secure that my event this Saturday is going to happen. I don't feel secure about my event next Saturday. I just had an event from March contact me that they are scaling it back.

Carly Ries (09:44):

You just don't know. Is that when you have to pivot your business ideas since you're so event focused? Is that when you start doing like senior portraits outside or kind of pivoting where you want to focus your business? Or do you just ride out the storm?

Sarah Montani (09:58):

So it was a little bit of both. I've been trying over the past few years, before Covid, working to reduce the number of family portraits I offered and sort of phasing that out of the business. That was sort of the plan. I dialed that back, still working with the families I've been working with for years and the senior portraits I've been doing. It was never the plan to remove those because 90% of my senior portraits are kids whose Bar Mitzvah's I already did. It's a little more difficult in living in New England and the fact that the events are to some degree a year round industry where outdoor photography is very seasonal. So as far as looking at this winter, if events are to be shut down again, there's not as much opportunity to fill that in with other types of photography.

Carly Ries (10:55):

Right. So with that, let's say 2019 and before and then right now when things are open, it sounds like you want to jump on the opportunities that you have and you're pretty busy when that does happen. So what is your advice for staying focused when you do get a flood of emails like you did this week, when you have a family, and are running your own show?

Sarah Montani (11:18):

I guess the number one trick to staying focused and drink lots of coffee.

(11:32):

I've learned to set my out of office more, just to have that separation. When I'm starting to get really overwhelmed with inquiries and in the meantime need to deal with putting together new contracts and working on the photos I already have, I'll set my out of office for the day so I can just get back to that later and not look like I'm being rude or being flighty. I can focus on what needs to get done or what has a deadline, and then get back to those emails in a couple days.

Joe Rando (12:10):

Such awesome advice, shutting off all those chirps and Bings and beeps and just sit putting your head down. Great advice.

Sarah Montani (12:22):

When people reach out to you, they tend to want an answer right away, but if they get that out of office, they're a little more patient waiting a couple of days to hear back, even though I'm right there in my office editing photos.

Carly Ries (12:37):

Let's hope those people don't listen to this podcast. Yes. they'll start calling you. Just kidding. We hope everybody listens to this podcast. So, obviously Covid threw things off. That was completely out of your control. You said that one of the things you wish you would've known ahead of time was just having a little bit more of a business background. In terms of being in your control, what would you say in the past 11 years has been the biggest mistake you have made as a one-person business that you wish you could have changed back when it happened?

Sarah Montani (13:08):

I definitely made some mistakes when it came to marketing. Early on I remember taking out a lot of money to advertise on a shopping cart, you know, the little panels on the shopping carts at the grocery store, and that generated no returns. So that was kind of a waste of money, kind of a silly thing looking back like, why did I do that?

Carly Ries (13:31):

It feels cool to have your face places though.

Sarah Montani (13:36):

And definitely in the beginning not always standing up for myself, not pricing out the way I should have. I've definitely increased my rates over the years, but I think in the beginning I was lacking some of that self-confidence. Eventually I did increase my rates. I didn't lose any client interest or anything, and in fact it's been busier than ever. So, my rates are competitive, but still affordable. But definitely at a better price point than when I started out.

Carly Ries (14:06):

We hear that a lot. So let's actually flip that question. At what point did you have your biggest "aha, I've got this" moment. Do you remember where you were like, yes, I've made it as a photographer?

Sarah Montani (14:18):

I think when I realized I had sort of found my niche. I hadn't planned to become a Bar Mitzvah photographer. I'm not even Jewish. It was never the the business plan. But suddenly getting to this point where realizing, you know, this is what I do and I'm good at it and I enjoy it and I'm part of this community now. This specialized event community would really be that moment where I got there.

Carly Ries (14:49):

Absolutely. We had you on the show today because we knew the success you've had as a one-person business and you're in a position to give advice to others. So I want to ask, "what is one piece of advice you received on your journey that you'd want to share with people?"

Sarah Montani (15:05):

I would say again, I think I'm sort of repeating myself with this, but the advice to increase my rates, and Joe is one of those people who offered that advice. I was lacking in self-confidence at the time, but it was the right move.

Joe Rando (15:21):

Actually, I gotta give full credit, that actually came from my father, Sarah's father as well, who said, if you're that busy, raise your price. Sarah said, I'm so busy, and I just repeated it.

Carly Ries (15:39):

Well, I'm glad you said "so busy". And that brings me to my next question. You said you have all these emails, you have a lot of project management that takes place. What tools do you use to manage your business and make sure you stay on top of everything?

Sarah Montani (15:53):

My calendar is my best friend. When I have just the general calendar and then detailed calendars based on each year. I've been really working to try and redirect people to inquire through email because it was getting very disruptive or confusing, I should say, to have people inquiring through Facebook and Instagram and all these other contact areas. You can set up automated things that say, "please email me", try to get everything filtering in through the same way. I guess that would be it. I actually started to use LifeStarr to stay organized.

Carly Ries (16:33):

And we did not pay her to say that.

Sarah Montani (16:35):

No, you did not.

Carly Ries (16:37):

But I'm glad it's working. So when you were starting a business by yourself, you said you had to educate yourself on the business side. Do you have any resources you'd recommend for people going in a loan in business? Not necessarily photographers, but just anybody that's a company of one.

Sarah Montani (16:58):

I can definitely answer it from a photography standpoint. I use this site called Smug Mug. It's a great way to put a lot of it into one place. It's the file transfer, it's the ordering, it's how the clients order their prints, it's how they see their proofs. It's also how I host my website. So it's nice, I'm not hosting my website here and then using a different website for file transfer and then contacting a different photo lab to print photos. It's just all one stop shopping.

Carly Ries (17:48):

That's great. I think people will find that super helpful. We are actually in the fun round. You made it past all the intense questions. So take a break, have a sip of coffee. We just like asking these because sometimes people do just need to take a break. If you're one-person business, you get so stuck in your day in and day out that you just need to unwind. What is your favorite movie that always puts you in a good mood?

Sarah Montani (18:13):

The first Jurassic Park movie. Dinosaurs always cheer me up.

Joe Rando (18:19):

Well there's a lot of history there. Carly, she's actually been on dinosaur digs This is a dinosaur person. She could have been in Jurassic Park,

Sarah Montani (18:29):

I could've been a paleontologist instead of a photographer, but here we are.

Carly Ries (18:34):

I was just gonna ask. Okay. good to know. I'll have to hear more offline. Now I'll have the theme song song stuck in my head the rest of the day. So thank you for that. Then what is your favorite song to pump you up?

Sarah Montani (18:47):

I would say it's Venus and Furs by the Velvet Underground. I am subjected to a lot of poppy dance music through work, and it's not my favorite type of music. It's nice on my way to work or my way home, clear on my mind with something a little bit more edgier and creative.

Carly Ries (19:11):

Yeah, that makes sense. I can imagine a bunch of 13 year old music that DJs are playing right now, little different.

(19:22):

Then lastly before we wrap up, how do you define success?

Sarah Montani (19:28):

I would say hearing things and people reaching out to me and saying, I've heard so many good things about you, or, so many of my friends recommended you. Hearing these people approach me already knowing so much about me and knowing that they'd like me to photograph their event.

Joe Rando (19:49):

That all makes really cool sense to me. Because when you think about it, your definition of success is having a referral engine, which is why you probably have a referral engine.

Carly Ries (20:03):

There you go. Well, Sarah, thank you so much for coming on this show today. Where can people find you if they want to learn more about your business?

Sarah Montani (20:12):

Thank you so much for having me. If anyone's interested, my website is sarahmontaniphotography.com. There you can see my portfolio, my rates, there is a contact form, so you can get in touch.

Carly Ries (20:27):

Perfect. And all of these will be in the show notes. Joe, great referral for this show. I'm really glad we had her on.

Joe Rando (20:33):

Awesome. Thank you, Sarah.

Sarah Montani (20:40):

All right, thanks

Carly Ries (20:42):

There you have it. Thanks for tuning in and be sure to visit Lifestarr.com/podcast where you can listen to all episodes as well as subscribe to the show wherever you listen to podcasts. See you next time.

Closing (20:55):

You may be going solo in business, but that doesn't mean you're alone. In fact, millions of people are in your shoes running a one-person business and figuring it out as they go. So why not connect with them and learn from each other's successes and failures. At Lifestarr, we're creating a one-person business community where you can go to meet and get advice from other solopreneurs. Be sure to join in on the conversation at community.lifestarr.com