How Donna Krischan started her photography business

Advice from A-Z
Doing Your Homework When Setting Out in a New Business
by Azriela Jaffe

(reprint permission granted by the author)

There are few overnight successes in the business world. Most luck is made. We look with envy at those who have arrived at the pinnacles of their careers, or made a small fortune doing what they love to do, and we say to ourselves, "Why couldn't I do that?" The truth is, because many of us just aren't willing to pay the price.

In my work I encounter hundreds of entrepreneur wanna-bes, but only about ten or twenty percent of those dreamers are willing to work as hard as they will need to in order to succeed as a self-employed professional. The exhaustion, pressure, and unrelenting demands of a small business catch them by surprise. They really didn't know it would be this much work.

Others set out on their new journey with their egos leading the way - figuring they know all that they need to know, and they aren't going to spend the money or time learning from others more seasoned than them. Impatient to begin their climb toward prosperity, they kid themselves into thinking that they already have what it takes, and at their age, they aren't going to become a student again.

Donna Krischan, of Krischan Photography in Big Bend, Wisconsin, is much smarter than that. She's a great example of doing it right. And, of how much work it is to do it right!

Donna was downsized out of a Fortune 20 company just before her 40th birthday. She had been an Information Systems Manager. While sitting in her kitchen, her husband asked her, "So, what do you want to be when you grow up?" Without much hesitation she responded, "I want to be a world class garden, wildflower, and nature photographer."

It was a very exciting goal. But there were three major obstacles:

First, most photographers start their careers at age 18, not 39. Second, the field of garden, wildflower, and nature photography is dominated by male photographers. Third, and most important, Donna had never touched a 35mm camera before in her life.

What Donna had going for her was a great love of gardens, wildflowers, and nature and twenty years of business experience. Her most important asset was her willingness to learn. Because she dreamed of entering a field she knew nothing about, her head wasn't filled with the egotistical notions that she already knew it all. With her husband Tom's support and encouragement, she set out to become a student of photography.

Donna did her homework and constructed a list of the top ten nature photographers. What a brilliant idea! If you are going to strive to be world-class, you must learn from world-class. Then she contacted each and asked if they would teach her photography. Surprisingly, most said "yes." Many of the photographers routinely taught workshop classes. Donna wasn't lazy about it, only attending the local adult education centers in her home-town. She wanted, after all, to be one of the best nature photographers in the world. That would require a degree of dedication beyond what her local town could offer her. She travelled across the country, to the mountains of Pennsylvania, the badlands of South Dakota, the waterfalls in upper Michigan, and the prairies in Illinois. She attended dozens of week-long workshops, and spent the rest of her time exposing hundreds of rolls of film. Slowly, she began perfecting her art and defining her photographic niche.

Being a skillful artist was not enough. She wanted to sell her photography. In fact, she established a very concrete goal for herself - to publish 60 images in national magazines in 60 months. A lofty goal, for sure.

Fifteen months into the venture, she had sold no pictures. The real test of her entrepreneurial spirit was how she handled the stress of rushing down to the mailbox every day, only to read another rejection letter. Bills were mounting up for camera equipment, film and processing, travel expenses, and fees for photographic workshops. Rejection, fear, uncertainty, and doubt, became the four seasons of her photography business.

At this point, most people quit, but Donna only worked harder, perfecting her technique, and submitting more photographs. She had a goal to reach - 60 photographs in 60 months and she and her husband never gave up on that goal.

And then it happened, a package in the mailbox with a magazine in it. She opened the magazine to a full page picture of a butterfly on a purple coneflower - her photograph. Then again, a two page spread of a fencerow wildflower garden. Then a phone call from a magazine editor wanting to hire her for an assignment. While the checks were not enormous, there was enough money to pay the most urgent bills and to bolster her self-confidence.

And what about that goal Donna set for herself? Still several months away from the 60 month deadline, Donna has published 87 photographs, way ahead of her extremely ambitious goal. Her husband Tom is now her business manager, only appropriate since he was the one who encouraged her at the kitchen table, and has been by her side through every rejection letter in the mailbox.

Donna credits Tom with being the first one to put a camera into her hands, and he's gotten his share of mosquito bites accompanying Donna on her various trecks. He also took Donna seriously when she announced her preposterous dream, even if she had never taken a picture with anything but an instamatic. He also didn't ever make her feel badly for spending so much money to learn her craft - even before those first checks arrived. Donna did everything right, and so did her husband, Tom. He was a full partners in her business before he ever got the title "Business Manager."

Update: 9 August 2008

Nine years after Businessweek published the original story about Donna Krischan's photography business. Donna has just had her 1600th flower image published, 40th cover shot made, 32nd article written, dozens of garden photography lectures given, and countless mosquito bites received. Nineteen of her classic wall images are on permanent display and adorn the lecture halls of the Boerner Botanical Gardens Education Center, Hales Corners, Wisconsin. Donna's dream has come true.

Her journey has now come full circle. Through her educational photography workshops, she now teaches others how to become a world class garden, wildflower, and nature photographer too.

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Contact Information
Donna Krischan
Krischan Photography
S78 W22750 Terrace Drive
Big Bend, WI 53103-9661

Phone: (262) 662-3319

(C) Copyright Krischan Photography. All Rights Reserved.