Arianna Litrenta, Founder of Sunflower Creative Co.
My background is actually in marketing. I graduated from California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo in 2018 and came down to San Diego to work for an event company that produces food and wine festivals. They put on two events a month with amazing vendors. I got to meet a lot of wonderful people and learn the layout of my new city in just a few months. After that, I was the marketing manager for a small home improvement company. Unfortunately, that company went under at the very beginning of the pandemic. In a turn of events, the end of my marketing job became the start of my entrepreneurship.
I was 24, out of a job, and the world was shutting down. Like for so many people, it was a difficult time. It was the first time I didn’t have a job. I worked throughout college and always had internships with the next thing up. Not having a plan for the first time was uncomfortable to say the least.
When I first got started, I definitely did not consider myself a professional photographer. I picked up photography my senior year of college, where I first got a taste for food photography working as a photographer for a restaurant. But it was more of a hobby and something I never saw myself pursuing professionally. That being said, I always loved working with food and enjoyed my time as an armature food photographer senior year. While I knew I wanted to one day work in the culinary world, I just didn´t know what the path to get there looked like.
During the pandemic, I was encouraged by my friends, family and now husband to get back into photography and start cooking. I started with a blog, then combined that with my social media marketing experience and my photography skills to create a new career path for myself. At this point, I also had a ‘nothing to lose’ kind of mentality. I just jumped in and learned along the way.
With no plans of becoming a business owner, I had never taken any business courses in college. So, with little to lean back on, I leaned into the uncomfortable. I learned things as I needed them and relied on the experience of family and friends. Within months of starting this new career, I set up a business infrastructure, created a website, and began marketing myself.
Not even a year into business, I narrowed down my niche to all things food and wine, and restructured my services, I focused solely on recipe development, food photography, video creation, and written content. From the start, I had always considered myself more of a recipe developer than a photographer because that’s what came naturally to me. But as a part of my business, I had to learn more about the photography side to be able to not only pitch brands, but even be considered. Brands needed the photos to go along with the recipes, so I needed to be able own the full skill set and the experience to work in this field.
Before I could even pitch brands and grow my cliental, I needed to build my portfolio. I started to overanalyze my work and asked myself, “Would people want to pay for these, though?”. Photography is not something that you can just learn online or by taking courses without ever picking up the camera. You have to apply the practice to make it work.
It took a while to get the hang of it and find my own style, but I loved it. My first mistake: I was trying to be the adaptable photographer, thinking whatever the brand style is, I could do it for them. But I realized that that wasn’t realistic. One of the first questions brands always asked was, “What’s your style?”. Finding an answer for that, for my clients and myself, was my priority. It took time and countless reshoots to feel confident in a style that I felt I excelled in and could own as mine.
However, even when I had built out what I believed to be a strong portfolio, it was never quite good enough for me. I always wanted more- more pictures, better results, more experience. It took me well over the first year until I built a portfolio that I was truly proud of.
Credit: Sunflower Creative Co.
Credit: Sunflower Creative Co.
To get work and find clients, I relied on freelancing websites like UpWork and H-Hub. It was a great way to have showcase my portfolio and connect with brands who I had never heard of before, or who were based on the East Coast or out of the Midwest. As I became more established and owned my photography style, I started to dig deeper into researching magazines that I felt my values aligned with.
Pitching a new client, I wanted to work with was based on several criteria. For example, I always considered the size and gravitated towards smaller brands. In order to pitch effectively, I focused on finding a gap in their marketing plan or their content; something where I felt I could be of service to them. Another big thing was also the product and ingredients they were selling. I’m gluten-free and I decided that I would only work with gluten-free brands, simply because I had to develop a recipe I could stand behind. It didn’t feel right to develop a recipe with a product that I wasn’t able to try. I also didn´t want to rely on others to tell me if it was good. So, that was the first step to narrow down my “dream” client.
I feel like the best tool I utilized for growing my business and scoping out new clients was Instagram. I could see how many followers they had, what their products were, and how they would showcase them. If they had a niche product that lacked recipes showcasing how to use that product, it was an easy way for me to get my foot in the door.
As it is with most pitches, a lot of times they go unanswered. But when I received a response, I worked tirelessly to bring their vision to life, and of course deliver the best results. The goal was to always turn a first-time customer into a reoccurring client. However, in the beginning most of the work I did was one-off projects Some brands just need a large-scale job completed once that provided them with a wide range of content. It became challenging as I would find a great brand, complete a project with results they were happy with and that was that. So, I changed the way I pitched and approached clients. This allowed me to build a relationship with them work with them long term; furthermore, this made a huge difference in my business.
Over time, I discovered that I really enjoy working with magazines. I found that most magazines like to work with freelancers that they can rely on and take on multiple projects over a single month. Once they know the style of your work and can trust on what you’ll deliver, many will keep you on hand for future projects or on a retainer. While some may consider that it would be easier to just be employed by the magazine instead of operating as a freelancer, at the end of the day I found it´s easier to work with companies as a freelancer.
Now having had the privilege of being self-employed, I think it would be difficult to be a W-2 employee again. Having been an employee and now a freelancer, I personally feel that magazines or brand’s view freelancers differently than they do their own employees. While this may just be my experience, I’ve found that the clients I work with seem to have more trust in my creativity. As a freelancer, I’m granted more creative freedom than I ever was an employee. That being said, there’s obviously pros and cons that come with being a freelancer.
As an employee you have security, health insurance, and a consistent income every month. And as a freelancer you can have great months exceeding your expectations and earning twice as much as you’d make monthly as an employee. And on the other side of freelancing, you can experience month(s) of financial insecurity. The biggest downside to being a freelancer is that everything comes down to how much you’re working and pitching. If you have a month where you get sick, you’re traveling a lot, or you can’t work as much for some reason, it has an immediate impact on your financials. Without reoccurring clients or retainers, you can’t expect that a certain amount of money is going to come in each month. It’s going to change every single month, and if you don’t have a cushion, money can quickly become tight. Nowadays I have a system in place and I’m starting to get more passive income from selling stock photos, e-books, etc. As a freelancer, you must establish other streams of income to set yourself up for success.
Credit: Sunflower Creative Co.
Credit: Sunflower Creative Co.
Pricing was always tricky one for me. At first, I low-balled myself because I was inexperienced. I had just started this new business and I didn’t know the standard rates of photography services. I began to rely on brands to set the standard. However, over time I found that many offered far below industry standards and often were misleading about their budget. As a result, the first year of business I was pricing and valuing my work far below industry standards. It was only once I talked fellow photographers was I able to get a baseline of where and how to price my services.
I’ve learned a lot about it through talking to other photographers. Each photographer has a different model for how they break down their pricing. Each person prices it differently based on experience, technique, gear, and so on. While there’s no price model to go off, the biggest takeaway was understanding that you aren’t just pricing your service of photography. You must take into consideration how much do you need to live off each month for rent, utilities, gas, groceries- everything behind the scenes. That needs to be your minimum because one way or another, you need survive. And the client doesn’t see all the things that go on behind the scenes. For example, the $600 lens or the $100 backdrops you bought. All of those business expenses add up fast and ultimately need to be factored into your rate.
For me, it’s difficult not to take things personally. But as a business owner, you have to have a thick skin and be confident about your work. In the beginning, I lowered my prices multiple times. Whether it was out of desperation, trying to meet a certain income that month, or just because I really wanted to work with the brand. But I did myself such a disservice by lowering my prices. Learning how to trust myself and recognize the value of my work, even if a potential client doesn’t, is the most valuable lesson I learned as a business owner. Three years in and I still come across prospective clients that don’t understand what goes into food photography. It’s not about the time it takes me to get the right shot, it´s about paying for the experience I’m bringing to the table. It´s about everything that goes on behind the scenes, and there are so many components of it.
When I first started, I charged as low as $150 for a recipe, including three photos and the time it took to develop the recipe. And with food photography, you’re also including the styling and editing; which, can take countless time for each. To say I was undervaluing my time is an understatement. Once I got to a place where I loved my portfolio and was truly proud of my work, I gained the confidence to set my prices accordingly. If someone doesn’t want to work with me because they’re not willing to pay me accordingly for my time and experience, then I have to recognize that’s their loss and it wasn’t meant to be.
When I first started in 2020, I didn’t have a comfortable savings to fall back on. I was pouring a lot of that savings into the business for new camera equipment, starting my website, marketing, etc. I used the saying “You have to spend money to make money” to help rationalize all the expenses. But it took my business a while to get some momentum and a financial grip. Then all of a sudden, I was exceeding my previous salary and officially felt like a real business owner.
Even though there’s pitfalls to entrepreneurship, I love that I can control how much I make and bring in. If I want to grind for a month, two months or three months, and pour everything I have into it, then I can make a good sum of money in those three months. If I know upfront that I will be travelling and I won’t be here to take on projects, I can front load everything. I feel like I have new and more goals for the future and what that path looks like for me, which is exciting. I get to determine what everything’s going to look like moving forward and setting certain goals for when I want to hit them.
I currently have future plans along the lines of publishing e-books. I’m working on them right now, and I’m hoping to get quite a few out in 2023. And one day, I would like to publish a cookbook. I´m 27 now, and my goal is to have a cookbook by 30. There’s obviously so many cookbooks out there now, which makes me feel like I really have to have such a narrow, specific niche that fulfills nothing else that’s out there. I’ve been doing some research along those lines, but I haven’t quite found my niche yet. But as far as goals for my business go, I would love to put myself out there more and expand my cliental. I’ve had a lot of success working with magazines and have my eye one some big names in the food and wine industry for the future.
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