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“We endeavor not only to change pets’ and their owners’ lives, but to evolve the entire photography industry.”

Kim Rodgers, Bark Pet Photography - Owner & PhotographerKim Rodgers went to college as a photography major, but left with a degree in graphic design. After putting down the camera for a few years to pursue a graphic design career, she decided it was time to get back into the photo world. So, she picked up a camera, pointed it in the direction of her dogs, and started shooting.

Kim quickly became obsessed with capturing great images of the animals around her – images that speak to each pet’s personality without becoming a cheesy portrait. Images that are artistic, sophisticated, and just plain cool-looking.

If Kim Rodgers is the face of Bark, Sarah Sypniewski is the tail.

Sarah Sypniewski, Ninja Dob Concepts - OwnerSarah does a lot of the behind-the-scenes stuff, like marketing, managing the business, writing their newsletter, blogging, and wrangling their subjects with a variety of treats, squeaky toys, and her winning personality.

Bark Pet Photography is a Los Angeles-based pet photography business with an underlying mission of giving back to local animal rescue organizations. Their work has been seen in places like the Wall Street Journal, TMZ, People Style Watch Magazine, and Dogs Today Magazine. Voted best pet photographer in the Los Angeles area in 2011, Bark Pet Photography has gone from a small idea to a full-fledged business and industry leader.

Sarah Sypniewski & Kim Rodgers, Bark Pet Photography - Co-Owners

NinjaDog Concepts is a logistics company that provides 24/7 service to find lost dogs. They employ a combination of tactical strategy, ground operations, and technology to search for and recover missing pets when owners do not have the time or capacity to do it themselves.

Sarah Sypniewski & Kim Rodgers, Ninja Dog Concepts - Co-Owners

MO: How did the two of you initially meet and what inspired you to open a business together?

Sarah: We met online, actually, back in 2004, and have been dating since. Kim has always loved photography and dreamed of doing it professionally, but didn’t think it was possible to make it in such a competitive industry, so she went into graphic design. In 2009, Kim’s hours were reduced at her day job, which gave her time to explore her hobby. With my encouragement and support, as well as our shared experience in marketing and brand building, we launched Bark Pet Photography to fill a financial–as well as creative–need. We didn’t necessarily set out to become the best, but we have quickly found that people like what we’re doing. And that just makes us work even harder! More than anything, what keeps us going is our love for animals, especially the homeless ones. A good photo can be a shelter pet’s ticket to freedom. It may be their only shot, so to speak, and we are happy to be the ones to try to give it to them.

MO: What influenced you to buck the long-standing photography industry traditions and include prints AND digital negatives in ALL sessions? Do you think that this decision gave you an edge over your competitors?

Kim: We see the traditions as being just that–tradition–and it needs to evolve. Charging extra for the actual images was a good starting point and made sense when the photography industry first started, but technology being what it is today has made that model stuffy and static. The whole reason we photograph pets is so people can HAVE these images! We don’t want them locked up on our hard drive; we WANT people to post these images on Facebook and share them with one another. We created a business model that we always wished existed as consumers, and one that we really believe in. It’s transparent, consumer-friendly, and encourages word-of-mouth marketing, which are all good things. There’s no hidden cost or obtuse references to a “printing credit,” which is what a lot of photographers offer. What you see is what you get with us.

When we first started that model, people thought we were crazy and our competitors hated us. Now, we’re seeing pet photographers (and even non-pet photographers) adopt this model little by little. Our clients often tell us that our pricing structure was the deciding factor when they were figuring out who to choose among L.A.’s top pet photographers, but our hope is that it becomes the next standard. We endeavor not only to change pets’ and their owners’ lives, but to evolve the entire photography industry. And this isn’t to say that you should be giving away all of your digital negatives (trust us, you shouldn’t) or that everyone should price their services the way we do, but we would encourage others out there to really consider things from the consumer’s point of view. What kind of value would you expect out of a $400+ photo session? What would you need to walk away with in order to feel satisfied? Once you figure that out you’ll be able to stand behind whatever pricing strategy you choose.

MO: How have you managed to build Bark Pet Photography out of a tiny investment and without the assistance of any PR or marketing firms?

Sarah: We are tireless hustlers. We started the business with a used camera and a wicked obsession with social media and Internet presence. We approached our friends and family and even strangers at the dog park to let us build our portfolio, in addition to working with animal rescues that can’t afford a professional photographer but benefit tremendously from the skills of a budding one. We created services we would want to buy and priced them fairly low for the first year while we gained experience and built our reputation. The images soon spoke for themselves, and people started talking and we started building relationships with fellow pet industry entrepreneurs in our area and we’d invest our time and energy into working with them whenever we could (and to this day, our strongest partnership is with Pussy & Pooch , a pet boutique we worked with our very first year).

We put the rest of our resources into web-based presence and marketing. I had the experience with social media and Kim had SEO ranking down. Because there are two of us, we had twice the power when it came to pounding the virtual pavement. We knew that to get noticed, our ranking had to be killer. And that’s paid off–70% of our private business and 95% of our commercial business comes from our clients finding us online.

MO: What have been some of the advantages and disadvantages of running two businesses and co-authoring a book with your significant other? How do you manage to keep any balance between work and your home life?

Kim: To be honest, it can be trying at times, but at the end of the day, we want to see our businesses thrive and there’s nothing better than always having someone there to support you. Sure, you’ll hit some bumps along the way and may need to work out how to effectively “work together,” but for us, the benefits have far outweighed any negatives. Keeping a balance between work and home life is probably the biggest challenge of all when working with a significant other, especially when there’s no “office” to commute to on a daily basis. Ultimately, we try to consciously schedule our lives so we at least have an entirely free weekend or two each month where we’re committed to not working!

MO: Can you talk about the book that you were approached to write?

Sarah: This is a prime example of why investing in an Internet presence is important. Wiley is the publisher behind the “For Dummies” books, and they have a whole department devoted to trend research. They figure out what’s hot and then they find experts to write “For Dummies” books on those topics. They were on the hunt for an expert to write “Dog Photography For Dummies” and found us by Googling and put us into the ring with 2 or 3 other photographers. To this day, we still don’t know who our competition was and why we ultimately won the contract, but we do know that we went through several rounds of vetting: first, they looked at our website and our credentials, like education and experience. Next, they looked at our platform–how well-established we already were and did we have a following that might buy a book. Finally, we were asked to complete things like writing a Table of Contents and sample chapter.

What was particularly serendipitous about this is I had just given notice at my job (I had been in the nonprofit sector for over ten years) to pursue my dream of writing and tending to our business. It was a decision I anguished over for a long time. I finally gave my notice. A week later, Wiley came knocking. So I think the two of us had a great combination of a photographer and a writer and we were proven. It was kind of like fate. So we wrote it, and it came out in November 2011.

MO: How did you come up with the idea of Ninja Dog Concepts and what were the biggest challenges in putting the business together?

Sarah: I didn’t set out to create another business, but I think that’s part of being an entrepreneur–you’re always watching for opportunities and ready to act when you get them, which is what happened with NinjaDog Concepts. In July 2011, a dog had been adopted from one of the rescue groups I volunteer with, Molly’s Mutts and Meows, and we all received an email that she had gotten out and gone missing. Since I was a freelancer, I volunteered to help look and flyer. I soon discovered that there is a lot of amazing, free tips and steps on the web for people to follow when their pets go missing. Who knew there is actual research and strategy involved? I didn’t at the time. But I got up to speed, and used those techniques on the hunt for Bella. We found her in 3 days. Then another dog in another rescue got out…and I volunteered again. We caught her, too. So after this happened several more times to much success, I saw the need was there. I don’t necessarily sell the techniques; they’re there for the taking. I sell the service that will put those techniques into action. It’s much needed because people often don’t have any idea what to do or become paralyzed by emotion. Even if they can think clearly, they can’t drop everything and search for their lost dog 24/7, even if they want to. That’s where I come in.

Putting the business together and getting started was actually pretty easy; it’s growing that is the hard part. L.A.’s huge, so I often need to hire contractors to help me flyer, which can drive the cost up. My operating budget is extremely lean, so I don’t have a lot of wiggle room. I could really blow up if I could do some fundraising. Truth be told, I’m only just a novice when it comes to the world of raising capital and working with investors. Nonetheless, I could see this business getting turned into a really successful franchise if I could figure out the financing!

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