My favorite part about running a small business (besides spending time with dogs) are the people I've been able to connect with. Over the past year, I have met and gotten to know (mostly virtually) so many amazing, creative, and hardworking small business owners - here in the Bay Area, but also all over the country. I am blown away by the ingenuity and dedication of these folks, who all have taken big leaps of faith and courage to follow their dreams.
For today's blog I interviewed Sarah Zemunski, a fellow dog walker based in San Francisco who recently launched 307 Cortland, a dog photography studio and a community space in the Bernal Heights neighborhood of San Francisco. Sarah shares with us her background and how her passion for animals and photography came together to help launch this dream. Enjoy!
Hi Sarah! To start, can you share a little bit about your background?
I was born and raised in Lincoln, Nebraska and moved to San Francisco when I was 18 to attend Photography school at The Academy of Art University. I've always had an extreme obsession with dogs, even though my parents wouldn't let me have one growing up. My mom said that my first word was "doggy." I used to ride my bike around the neighborhood and visit the dogs from different backyards, assign them names, and fantasize about owning one of them... haha, I was a creep! I checked out ALL the available dog books from the library and memorized the breeds. Whenever a friend who owned a dog had me over to their house, I would wonder; "why aren't we playing with the dog?" You get the picture... me being obsessed with dogs is an understatement! It's funny to think back to my childhood and how the only thing I ever wanted was to own a dog, and to look at my life now, where I'm surrounded by SO many dogs in all aspects of my life!
What about your interest in photography? How did that start, and when did you know you had an interest in dog portraiture?
I didn't have a huge draw to photography growing up. In high school I took a photography class, and it was one of those things where I didn't have any other particular direction I wanted to take for college, so I settled on photography. When you're 17/18 years old, you don't know what you want to do, but there's often a lot of pressure to make a decision right away. For me, photography was the only thing I was sort of interested in at the moment, so that's the direction I chose.
The first few years of photo school, I didn't really have a focus. I knew I liked photography, but I didn't know what genre I wanted to shoot. I shot anything and everything just to fulfill class assignments: people, nature, still life, documentary, fashion, etc...
While I was at The Academy of Art, I got a part time job at a doggy daycare here in the city. Aside from my school work, I began photographing "Dog of the Month" for the dogs at work. The owners of the daycare would feature a different dog every month and display the photo in the lobby. One time, I didn't have anything to turn in for a class assignment, so on a whim, I turned in one of my "Dog of the Month" portraits. I thought my teacher would catch on that I didn't actually complete my homework, but that didn't happen. My teacher and classmates were blown away by the photo!
That first dog portrait I submitted was the best work I had turned in for any of my classes, up to that point. Everyone encouraged me to keep photographing dogs, so I did - for all my classes! For my "Architectural Photography" class, I photographed dogs in front of buildings and houses. For my "Still Life Photography" class, my teacher let me photograph dogs, as long as I was approaching the shoot in a methodical way, in the same way I might photograph a still life object. For the last two years of photo school, I built a portfolio of dog work with a steady supply of dog models from the doggy daycare. Anytime I had an idea for a photoshoot, I had several breeds at my disposal to use as models. I arranged photoshoots outside of work with the dog's owners and gave them free photos in exchange for using their dogs to build my portfolio. My photo work with dogs just kept getting better and better, and everyone at AAU knew me for my dog portraiture. My senior year, I created a portfolio that included dogs & other pets/animals and it won First Place at AAU's annual Spring Show!
That's amazing! So how did your dog walking business evolve?
After the doggy daycare, I got a job as a dog walker and worked for a couple different companies. Then in 2012, I started my own business: Running with the Pack! At that point, I was planning on doing both businesses-dog walking and photography, but the dog walking business took all my energy and I stopped taking photos professionally for about 8 years.
Are you still running your dog walking business? Tell us a bit more about your dog walking services and what you specialize in.
Yes, currently I am still walking dogs! Running with the Pack is a group dog walking and boarding service for small/medium sized dogs - under 40 lbs. I do two group walks per day and board dogs in my home. We frequent the following parks: Douglass, Bernal Hill, McLaren and St. Mary's. I love so many things about this job. The hours are great. I get to be outside all day while many people are stuck at their computers. And...I get to hang out with dogs all day! Some parts aren't as glamorous-it can be a very dirty job. The poop, puke, slobber and dog hair can be overwhelming at times. There's a lot of responsibility involved. We are taking care of people's babies! Their lives and well-being are in our hands for the time they are in our care. I don't take that lightly.
There's a lot of freedom and flexibility with this job and you can really design a business that works for your lifestyle. Working for other companies, I found that I hated driving all over the city to pick up dogs, so I decided with my own business, I would only offer service in a very tight geographical zone. This is my number one tip to any new dog walkers out there: Establish how far you're willing to drive and stick to it! Be patient and only market to the neighborhoods you want to service. All of my clients are in Bernal Heights, Glen Park & Noe Valley. My pickup route is very efficient and if I had to drive any further, I would like my job much less! Also I noticed how everything flowed better when dogs were around the same size, which is why I chose to specialize in small/medium dogs, plus my small SUV was much better suited to transport smaller pups. My number two tip to new dog walkers: There is value in specializing! Find something that makes you different and design your business to be known for that one thing. The SF market is saturated with dog walkers and having a specialization that sets you apart will attract more business...I promise!
How was your dog walking business impacted by Covid, and did this influence your decision to open the photography studio?
Luckily, I didn't lose too many clients to the pandemic. A couple of them moved away, but most of them stayed on with their regular walks (which I am so grateful for!) It was during the 3 months of quarantine that I decided I would pick up my camera again and give photography another try, after an 8 year hiatus. With all the free time we had at home, I began watching online courses and doing practice photoshoots. I started thinking, I might photograph people for a change. As the quarantine restrictions began to be lifted, I photographed several of my client's headshots and family photos. I did a few fashion shoots with my client's teenage daughters. While I still photograph people from time to time, it became clear to me that dogs are my true specialty and it is the genre I prefer to focus on. Remember, there is value in specializing! I'm grateful for the wisdom and insight I've gained from running a dog walking business for the past 9 years. A lot of lessons I've learned from the dog walking business are definitely coming into play with my two new businesses.
Tell us more about 307 Cortland. How did you find the space and how did you decide to "take the leap" to opening your own studio and community space?
I never even really thought about having a photo studio for my photography. I figured I mostly photographed on location, so it wasn't necessary.
At the time I found my studio, about 8 months into the pandemic, I was following an online photography education program. The program was geared towards studio portrait photography and there were video tours of some of the student's photo studios. I thought that was really cool and that is what put the seed in my head that having a photo studio would be possible one day.
While doing my dog walking pickups, I kept seeing the "For Rent" sign on a Cortland storefront. It had been vacant for months and I started to get curious about it. I figured it wouldn't hurt to call and ask to see it, even though I really had no intention of actually renting it! Well, when I went to go see it, I immediately fell in love. My best friend met me at the viewing. I was still in the mindset of: "This is cool, but I'm not really going to rent it." My friend was like "Yes you are. This is going to be your studio." I remember saying out loud to her "What are you crazy!? There's no way." But somewhere in the back of my mind, I knew she was right.
I went home that night and began thinking of how I could make it work financially. I thought worst case scenario, if I can't pay the rent with my photography, I can share it with people. I have many friends and contacts that are artists-it could be an art gallery! My husband and I are connected to a large network of friends from our gym (back when gyms were a thing) - it could be used for fitness or dance classes! I felt like I had a fairly strong safety net if I couldn't make it work with my photography alone. So that is what motivated me to move forward with the rental process. I used every penny of my savings from the past 8 years of dog walking to pay the first few months of rent, the deposit and all the work that's gone into it thus far. It was a super huge risk to invest so much during a GLOBAL PANDEMIC, but something in my heart and soul told me to keep pushing forward and go for it!
Our love for Bernal and our community has also been a driving force behind our plans for 307 Cortland. My husband Tony and I have lived here since 2012. We love the village-like vibe of the neighborhood and couldn't imagine living anywhere else in San Francisco. We can't wait to share this space with the community!
Wow, what an amazing story! Tell us more about your photography services - how does the process work? What style do you work in?
My process is a little different than most photographers. I approach each dog photoshoot as a stand-alone piece of art. With my work, the backgrounds are just as important as the subjects. I choose a background specifically for the dog I am photographing. There's a lot of work that goes into my prep process. I shop for fabrics, stools and props specifically for the dog I am photographing. For location shoots, I drive around and scout locations. I visit the location several times and study the light at different times of day. I use all natural light, but I bounce and diffuse it, so I have to find out how I'm going to do that before the shoot. There are other technicalities I have to think about. Where will the dog sit/stand in my shot? What elements in the background will add or take away from the photo? What kind of personality does the dog have and how do they respond to treats? Some dogs will sit calmly on a stool and stare right at me. Other dogs are all over the place and a static photo may not be the best approach. This is why I schedule a pre-shoot consultation before the photoshoot. I have to get to know the dog and owner a little bit to better design my concept or vision for the shoot.
As far as pricing, I have a photoshoot fee that includes my time and creative process, the cost of any fabrics or props that go into the shoot, a bath credit at Maxwell's Pet Bar, my assistant fees, and credit towards one print. Additional prints and products are priced separately. If you go to my website, you will see the breakdown of my two session fees. My product pricing and samples are available at my studio. I offer hand-made, custom image boxes that contain matted prints in quantities of 5, 10, or 15 and canvas or metal wall art. The products are made in Italy and are an art piece in their own right. The colors and materials for the boxes and wall art are customizable, so with my help, you can design a truly custom piece of art for display in your home, based on your interior design aesthetic or the colors we used in the photoshoot.
After the session, I edit the photos extensively. I'm not sure what takes more time, the photoshoot prep work, or post work! I'm a perfectionist with my images and utilize Photoshop to control the light, composition, saturation and contrast. Sometimes, an image won't become the full version it's meant to be until I've put my special touches in post. I put a lot of work into every single image I present to my client. When I'm finished, the client will come back to my studio for their viewing session. They will get to see a slideshow of their images and decide their favorite images and what products they'd like to purchase. I assist my clients in making these decisions and help them design something for their home that will be a really unique statement piece-featuring their dog!
How has it been going so far? What has been the biggest surprise? What are the biggest challenges to doing this type of photography?
For the past six months, I've been perfecting the studio, doing many projects every single week since October 2020, with the help of my amazing husband Tony, and his team. Tony and his brother Ricardo are the owners of BBC construction. Being married to a general contractor really comes in handy! If it weren't for them and their team, there's no way the studio would be where it is right now.
Also, there's been a lot of back-end stuff to perfect, for both my photography business and for 307 Cortland...website, pricing, products, marketing, social media, logos, flyers, business cards, it's a lot! All the while, I'm still running my dog walking business. Needless to say, I am one busy lady! I spend every ounce of free time on my businesses. My weekends are for the two new businesses, so I'm glad Covid has prevented us from having social lives. It's a great excuse, because I just don't have the time!
Tell us more about the space (307 Cortland) and your vision for it. How do you envision the space in 6 months, 1 year, 5 years?
I think the timing for 307 Cortland is so perfect. 2020 was hard for everyone. As we turn a corner and more people are vaccinated, I hope things will get back to some semblance of normal. Once it's safe to do so, I think people are going to want to gather, get out of the house, and be more involved with their community. I want 307 to be a hub for everything small business & community! My hope is that in one year from now, 307's schedule will be full with events and everyone in the community will know about the space. Maybe one day, we'll be able to be within a few feet of each other won't have to wear masks. Fingers crossed!
A lot of businesses lost their shops, and may need a space to rent a few times per week. Some people undertook creative ventures during the pandemic and may want a place to sell or practice their craft. The options are really limitless and right now, we are just kind of seeing who expresses interest in the space and designing the structure from there. So far, we have a non-profit renting the space for meetings two times per week, and we have two vendor pop-up shops on the calendar for April. Other leads include salsa classes, yoga classes, meditation, art shows, networking events, workshops, and much more! I'm hoping that by summer, a lot of these leads will be ready to start renting with us and the community will be ready to participate in these events/services!
What have been some of the biggest takeaways or lessons you have learned from the last year?
"Confidence is the willingness to try!" is a big motto I've adopted through all this. Being naturally shy and filled with a lot of self-doubt, I've really come out of my shell the past year, just by taking action and pushing past the fear, time and time again. From the day I decided to pick up my camera again (March 2020) until now, my studio's Open House (April 2021) there have been so many times I've been paralyzed with fear, but chose to keep pushing forward anyways. Fear and self doubt still come up for me daily, but because I've pushed past so many obstacles up to this point, that is what gives me the confidence to keep going.
Also, perfection isn't attainable and high expectations are just disappointments waiting to happen. I'm still working on these, but...I'm learning to see the big picture and let go of the little things that don't meet my exact expectations.
Thanks so much for sharing your story Sarah! How can people contact you if they're interested in working with you?
You can contact me via email at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org, or by phone at 415-580-0523.
You can follow me on Instagram at @sarahzphoto and @307cortland