It doesn’t take a NASA engineer to take pre-school photographs, right? Wrong.
Melissa Tash, a 1992 Auburn graduate with a degree in industrial engineering, ditched her job at NASA in 2010 and became an entrepreneur by opening her own, successful photography business.
Tash, whose business, Spoiled Rotten Photography, specializes in young children and partners with a number of Huntsville-area pre-schools. Tash, whose job at NASA was focused on payload crew training for the International Space Station Project, visited with Dr. Dave Ketchen’s franchising class Monday morning in Lowder Hall.
The class is part of the Auburn College of Business’ Entrepreneurship program.
Why would one leave a steady job with great benefits at NASA to start his or her own business? Tash’s late father, Robert Russell, helped answer that question in a letter he left Melissa long ago.
“The letter said the thing he wanted for me most was for me to love what I did,” she told Ketchen’s class. “If you love what you do, then your life is like a playground. I was doing that 9-to-5 grind. But you’ve got to find that one thing you have your heart into and you will love getting up in the morning.
“I fell in love with photography. I fell in love with creating beautiful images. I fell in love with telling people's stories through their portraits. I started thinking of changing careers. The engineer in me calculated how many sessions I would have to do a week to support my family. My income was primary as my husband was a stay-at-home dad. The amount of sessions that I needed to photograph to replace my income seemed impossible.”
Then it all changed.
“Ten years ago I was sitting in an office at NASA and a friend came in with her children’s school pictures,” she told the class. “She said, ‘these are terrible. I wish you could take them.’ I said, ‘I can do that.’ So I called the pre-school and said, ‘can I take your pre-school’s pictures’?”
The answer was yes.
Tash admitted she was not clear how to take school photographs. However, that proved to be a good thing.
“I had no clue how to do it the way everyone else was doing it,” she said.
Key words: “everyone else.”
Tash developed a style – one that embodied each child’s personality in the photographs -- not the standard, run-of-the-mill school photos one will find in a yearbook. Custom sittings are tailored around each specific child.
“The biggest thing about photography is that everyone does it,” she said.
But her style allowed her to stand out.
“People were telling me ‘don’t get into taking school pictures. Only 25 percent of the parents buy them.’ I say, ‘It can be big if you give them a better product’,” Tash said.
The results were well above industry standards.
“We had an 80 percent buy rate with an average order of $125,” Tash told the class.
That was in 2003. Seven years later, she made a decision to make.
“Being a good industrial engineer that I was -- I knew I could replicate and improve the process -- so I did,” she said. “I quit the engineering job and have not looked back. It was really a leap of faith for me. But it was the best decision I’ve ever made. Pinch me.”
“What’s unique is she is bringing together industrial engineering and entrepreneurship,” Ketchen said. “The result of that is a business model that’s powerful.”
Tash said she is taking her business, which already features three photographers and seven assistants, one step further – franchising. Tash said she hopes to have 10 franchisees open by the end of the year, but said five could be a more realistic number.
“We want to grow slow and grow correctly,” she said. “You learn so much with the first few franchises.”
Tash, working with a consultant, said she has targeted specific areas for potential franchise locations, including Birmingham, Atlanta, and Chattanooga.
“Putting the franchise package together has been an eye-opening experience for me,” Tash told the class. “It can be overwhelming – all of this stuff for a tiny business.”
Tash explained her business model (brand development, mission statement, tag line, core values and brand positioning) to Ketchen’s class and offered a few pointers for young entrepreneurs.
Before anything, she had to give the business a name.
“I sat down with two friends and we brainstormed,” Tash said. “Spoiled Rotten … in the South, that’s a term of endearment, plus will you forget it?
She told Ketchen’s class that she must overcome a number of perceptions as a young, female photographer and that her business is home-based. She urged that successful businesses must build relationships with vendors and set specific goals.
“If you don’t know where want to go, then how do you know how to get there?” she asked.
Tash also urged young entrepreneurs to “seek mentors,” not to “measure success based on a bank account,” “never finance things that depreciate”, “give and you will be given back,” and “find a purpose that is bigger than yourself.”
She’s found that purpose.
“This business has afforded me a quality of life that could never be achieved working for someone else, and I cannot image ever going back to working for someone else again.”