Some people believe blood and business don’t mix. Obviously, those people haven’t met brothers Caleb and Levi Ely.
They launched Ely Bros. Photography two years ago, business is booming, and when asked what it’s like toiling side by side day after day, both men had nothing but positive things to say.
“It is seriously awesome,” Caleb says. “We get along really well and we can be blunt with one another without taking it personally.”
In fact, Levi says working with a sibling is better than most people think.
“We were raised well, so we don’t run into the problems that others would,” he adds. “Thanks, Mom and Dad.”
Read our joint interview with Caleb and Levi −who say their titles at Ely Bros. Photography are “general manager/owner/photographer/older brother” and “production manager/owner/photographer/younger brother,” respectively− to learn how they got their Clintonville-based business off the ground, who is among their trusted mentors, and what advice they have for creatives looking to profit from their art.
Melanie McIntyre: Tell me about your photography training background.
Levi Ely: We have zero formal training when it comes to photography. Years ago, I looked into photography degrees at various schools, which seemed cool until I saw the curriculum. Painting classes, drawing, art history…and one studio lighting class. I thought this was a photography degree. So, I picked up some books for the basics, used online sources −blogs, tutorials, et cetera− and studied pro photographers’ techniques. Lots of practice, trial and error, and shooting for free.
MM: What inspired you to start your own business?
Caleb Ely: We are both married and have always worked at places that would simply hire us. Neither of us have any more than a few semesters of college. Growing up, we were always coming up with business ideas. We’ve always had the desire. So Levi was shooting a lot and getting better and better. He text messaged me one day and said, “We should start a business.” I said, “Okay.” So we did.
MM: Google search “Ely Bros. Photography” and above your company’s website address it reads, “Wedding photography that doesn’t suck.” Is that your slogan?
LE: [Laughs] I wouldn’t say it’s our slogan. It is more of a mission statement.
CE: We also use “Wedding photography for people who hate wedding photography.”
MM: You focus on wedding photography, but you’ve also taken photos for the Metropreneur website and I hear you’re working on a project for Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams. Are you branching out?
CE: Currently, we shoot 30 weddings a year and we try to only work with clients that we get along well with− fun, artisic, and, often, inappropriate people. But, yes, by word of mouth we do shoot other things, mostly for local businesses and organizations and usually for ones that we think are awesome. Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams is one of them. We are also working with Betty’s Family of Restaurants, and have worked with Firefly Play Cafe and Slow Food Columbus. We really try to be involved in Columbus’s small business community. We want to support interesting, creative, and necessary businesses. And we do it with photography and participation.
MM: When you decided to launch your business, what were some of the first steps you took?
CE: We came up with a name, we bought a website template, we had business cards made, we created a Google local business listing. We charged very little and put everything back into the business. No loans.
MM: What resources did you utilize to get up and running?
LE: Google. God bless the Internet. Since we’ve started, 90 percent of our business has come from people finding our local business listing through Google searches. The percentage isn’t quite that high now, but, still, a lot comes from that. We kind of did things backwards. We didn’t nail down all of the insurance, tax, and business stuff until after we had already started.
MM: Did you have any local advisers, role models, or mentors you relied on for advice and input?
LE: Nick Fancher at Shutter-Think Photography was a huge help to us. People kept saying how the market was oversaturated with photographers and that it would be really hard to get anywhere. Nick kept telling us that we were good and that we weren’t charging enough. He also shared his business practices with us. More than anything, Nick helped boost our confidence. It means a lot when it is coming from an amazing photographer like Nick.
MM: What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced as business owners and how did you overcome it?
CE: When you start a business that is based on being creative, you probably did it because you loved it, not because you wanted to be wealthy. Same for us. We were never happy with our work. We were always thinking about new lenses, cameras, lighting, computers, et cetera that we “needed.” We were just barely getting by on the business end of things. We asked David Bock of Cathy and David Photographers in Bloomington, Indiana what advice he would give to us as a business. He said, “Stop working on your photography and start working on your business. A new lens is not going to bring you more clients.” That statement was a wake up call. Now business and marketing are passions as well.
MM: What have you done in terms of marketing?
CE: Once we had a Google local business listing, we asked our clients to write reviews. It stands out when you have 20 reviews and others have five reviews. It gets people interested. We also partner with other offbeat wedding-related vendors −Virtue Salon, Bella Moda Company, DJ Barticus, et cetera. We suggest them and they suggest us. We have a Facebook local business page. It is like a super blog! We also run a Facebook ad. You can fine tune your ad to a very specific market based on what info people have in their profiles. So far the Facebook ad is really the only marketing that we have paid for. And it is working well.
MM: What advice do you have for someone who wants to make a living doing something arts-related?
CE: Don’t start a business until you are at least mostly happy with your work. And then, work mostly on your business. Find unique and creative ways to be noticed and remembered.
MM: What’s the best thing about your job?
CE: Being in charge of how successful we can be.
LE: No uniforms. And the mountains of cash we make every minute.
CE: Oh yeah, the cash. Some people have “the Mondays.” We call ’em “Million Dollar Mondays.”
MM: What’s the worst thing about your job?
LE: Cleaning up after Million Dollars Mondays.
Anything else you think I should know?
CE: We love our wives and kids, we love what we do, we love pizza, and we love Ohio.
To learn more about Ely Bros. Photography, visit ElyBrothers.com.
All photography provided by Ely Bros. Photography.