Frozen in sharply lit pixels is a smiling family among gracefully falling autumn leaves. What isn’t seen in the photograph is the energetic and authentic personality behind the lens. Coco McKown ’04, ’10 is that person and she’s the reason such a picture-perfect scene comes together. But when I sat down with McKown to talk, I wasn’t looking to discuss how she times the moment so perfectly. I was there to learn how someone who studied musical theatre as an undergraduate and later, received their MBA, is now running a wildly successful freelance photography gig––and what she can teach the rest of us who are trying to kick off a side gig.
The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
You’re a professional, full-time, freelance photographer. How did you get into this work? Did you pick up a camera and bam, it was done?
Definitely not. I was working for the University in 2006 and doing all these photography projects part-time. It was weekend warrior stuff. My husband kept trying to convince me to do [photography] full-time. I kept saying, “I’m not good enough! I don’t have the client base!” It was a good five years working full-time and working this side business before I made the jump. But by that point, I was freelancing for the University enough that I began to get requested more. Connections with college seniors, alumni, and friends later led to a lot of success.
You went to the University of Redlands and studied music. When did you switch your focus to photography? Why not a career in music?
I knew making music my career would take more time and talent than I had. I wanted to keep that as a fun thing. I still do perform in musicals, so I get my musical theater “fix” that way. It was my connections at the University, not my major, that helped me be a successful freelancer.
Enrollment is down in colleges and universities. People are unsure about the value of higher education. Was college worth it to you when being a freelance photographer doesn’t require a degree?
It was worth it mostly because of the people you meet, and the world views you experience. I studied abroad in Salzburg, and it was something I never would have done if I hadn’t gone to college. I never would have gone to Europe on my own. I wouldn’t have fallen in love with the institution that I went to work for. I never would have met my husband. Different opportunities would have presented themselves, but all of this culminated into the awesome career I have. While the education I received was excellent, the whole college experience led me to where I am now.
Your work schedule is up to you. If you choose to sleep in, you can. If you choose to work a 10-hour day, there’s nobody to turn off the lights. How do you know when to begin and when to quit?
The kids are a huge factor in that––I have no say when I get up. But I get most of my work done when they’re in school.
Every year that’s passed, I have raised my prices so while I’m making around the same amount, I’m actually shooting less. I’m not hustling all the time like I was for the past 10 years. While fall is my busiest season (it’s family portrait time!), I can choose when I’m finished for the year. In years past, I would have hustled until Christmas Eve and put the kids in daycare to make it work. But I can make my own schedule now and I really cherish my free time with the family.
How did you decide on what fees to charge?
I checked other comparable photographers’ prices in the area. When I began to start raising my prices early on, I lost clients because they didn’t see the value. My current clients understand why I charge what I do. Just like in past years, I will raise my prices in the new year. When I first began, I took every job that came my way. My first photography gigs were around $150. I had to take on a ton of work in order to turn a profit. Now I can be pickier and really do work that excites me, not just pays the bills.
Is it true that offering free work for experience and referrals pays off?
In the beginning, I offered free shoots to my friends in exchange for them to post the images everywhere to get my name out there. Those friends still put my name out there and that was 12 years ago!
As an employee of a large company, you get paid vacation, insurance, retirement benefits, and so on. As a freelancer, you’re on your own. How have you managed?
That’s where the cost of doing business comes in. You figure a third of your business is going to taxes. A third is going to equipment. And not just camera equipment. There are so many things you need to run a successful photography business: computers, editing software, web hosting fees, gallery hosting fees, business insurance and licenses, shooting permits, etc. A lot of people don’t factor that in before starting this business. Then a third is your take-home pay.
I work with a financial planner, so I set up a portion aside for retirement and for my kids’ education. We put quite a bit away because I’d rather have that safety net. We’re definitely savers, not spenders! <laughs>
What advice would you offer for someone who wants to venture out on their own and become a freelancer?
It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. You don’t have to quit your job right away. If you want to do a side gig and do it for five years before you take the leap, that’s OK. You don’t have to lose all your safety nets right away. Make connections, work hard, and be nice to people. It’ll take you far!
If you would like to learn more about Coco McKown or see her photography collection, visit www.cocomckown.com.
About the Author | Thomas Guzowski is the Associate Director of Marketing, Communications, and Events at the University of Redlands Office of Career & Professional Development. He regularly interviews alumni in the workplace and provides insights into navigating the world of work.