My first 3 years!

I never really imagined I would be writing a blog post about how I built my business. Over the last few months I have done some mega reflecting into how I’ve been able to sustain a profitable business for six whole years! How the heck did I get to a spot where despite being in the middle of a global pandemic, I know for certain my business will continue to thrive (regardless of 2020’s setbacks), and my doors will remain open?


It’s almost scary declaring that. Like, what if this time next year I see this post pop up on my timeline and I’m essentially putting my foot where my mouth is? Obviously, anything can happen. I mean…. Obviously! Just look at how 2020 is working out for all of us!!

The past few months have been hard for many reasons, but that’s not what I’m here today to talk about.

During my reflection over the last several months, I’ve really just looked back on where I started and where I am now. How have I been the breadwinner for two years running in a household with two incomes? How have I found myself in a completely debt free business? How have I come to gain such a following filled with such incredibly wonderful and genuine people, who trust me…. small town Jess who started this business off of a wild chance from a Craigslist ad?

That’s right, fam!! I started this business off of a Craigslist ad. <cue the embarrassment>

For the looooongest time I had forgotten where my first couple found me. They weren’t a Coral Compass Couple at the time, though I’m fairly certain I can call them the OG’s! After some deep diving into my archives and SUPER old, SUPER unprofessional emails, I realized that my first ever couple who hired me was from a Craigslist ad I placed that was actually targeting family sessions. Booking a wedding was not even on my radar in 2014!!

Sure. I had picked up a camera and played the part of that girl at a wedding with her camera just taking photos for my own self. And sure, I really really loved it! The whole idea of me taking wedding photos and detail portraits has been around for a very long time. So long, I remember taking my photos into Ribbet and color splashing the heck out of them. ‘Cause that was the thing back then!!

This bride and groom took a chance on me… off of a family portraits ad. For whatever reason, they saw that ad, shot me a message, and booked me. I remember meeting with my bride and her mom at a local cafe in downtown Portsmouth. I was nervous. I didn’t know what to expect. I was completely unprepared and was so not qualified to be handing over a contract for a wedding when I had never photographed one in any capacity other than being a guest. 

They knew this… and they took a chance on me anyway.

Looking back I am completely horrified at the fact they had me take their photos. But I vividly remember how proud I felt after I uploaded those incredibly grainy portraits. I remember there was this one shot she really wanted in front of an old church in Portsmouth, and I nailed it! It was that photo that made me think “huh. Maybe I could do weddings?”

That one shot was the one that inspired me to really look into doing this. To really look into taking photos as a side job. I wasn’t 100% certain I would be a wedding photographer, but after that wedding the tiniest spark in me started a fire, and that is where my business really started.

October 2014 was the year I officially established myself in the photography world. What is now Coral Compass Photo Co. actually first started out as JD Photography!! From there it’s been a complete whirlwind, so let me speed up the process a little bit!

2014 I had one wedding and a few miscellaneous sessions.

2015 I had a handful of weddings and a bunch of other portrait sessions. I mostly made fake studio setups to take photos of my kids!

2016 I moved to North Carolina and that’s when the first big shift started. 

In August of 2016 (prior to the move) I remember having this conversation with my now husband while I was on my break at work, talking about how much I wish I could just be a photographer full time. I remember he was on speaker phone in my car and we were nailing the details down of my move to NC, and how I was just so nervous I wouldn’t be able to find a job down there. I remember him saying “you will be a full-time photographer someday! I know it!”

He had the greatest amount of faith in me. More than I ever had in myself at the time. My dream of running a business seemed so far out of reach, and I literally remember thinking to myself after I hung up with him, “one can dream, but that’s never going to happen.” I was a broke parent of two children about to make a move to North Carolina. I had only a Canon Rebel and a stock lens. Nothing else. The gear I have now? I had next to none of it.

I’m being real with you about the situation because I see so many people posting in various places about how they wish they could do this… or how they could only dream of doing that. I see people picking up a camera for the first time with doubt illuminating from them… and I remember sitting EXACTLY where they were and thinking “that’s never going to be me. I will never do this for a job. I’ll never be good enough for that”

I started from ZERO. I was gifted a camera and I made the rest happen. Those first 3 years were the seeds to Coral Compass Photo Co. I did not have the luxury of buying the newest and fanciest gear. I didn’t have the ability to invest thousands of dollars right out the gate. I didn’t have an insane following and at the time, I felt I was so far from relatable.

But what I did have was the tenacity, the drive, the ambition and the DREAM. If you don’t have a dream, a vision or goal, then stop what you’re doing and make one for yourself. I didn’t build my business hoping, wishing and waiting. I went for it. I took the long route for sure. I did things the hardest way possible.

But I did it.

Six years in the making and I have a business I am proud of. I’m not where I want to be just yet, but I am thrilled with the results of the seeds I planted from 2014 to 2016. Everything I have put into motion has pushed me through one of the hardest years as a business owner yet. And honestly… I’m doing alright!

I realize literally at this point in my writing that this blog is going to actually be a series. There’s too much to my story that can’t fit into one post. I have a lot to say and all I want is to inspire people to push their boundaries and set forth their legacy.

2017 is really when the tables started turning for me, and in 3 years time SO much has changed! And I am excited to dive into it with everyone!!

First Q + A
  1. If you could go back in time when you started, what would you change?

If I could go back in time to when I first started, there is probably A LOT I would change. I wouldn’t change my journey, but I would have at least tried to do things a little easier. When I first started on my journey to being a wedding photographer, I literally didn’t know what second shooting was (it’s when you’re the secondary photographer on a wedding day and shooting behind a lead photographer). I didn’t know I could ask to shoot behind someone else to experience a wedding day! So that’s the number one thing that I would do differently.. If I could go back to the beginning, I would have tried to shadow someone else in order to learn the ins and outs of weddings. Because in doing so, I would have fast tracked my business by at least a year or two.

  1. Why is photography your passion?

This is always a hard question, isn’t it? Why are we passionate about something? Photography has been the one thing I am really good at. Maybe I haven’t been all that good since the beginning, but it’s always been something that has felt great to me. When I would go to work at a normal 9-5, I didn’t feel like I was really making a difference. I didn’t feel connected to people, or like I really had a purpose. When I have my camera up to my face and I am out in the field taking photos, literally nothing else matters. I’m connecting with others, I’m building relationships, and I can literally see the barriers of those in front of me start to come down. Because they trust me and what I can make. And then when I get back home and start sifting through all the images I took, I still blow myself away sometimes. And that’s not to be cocky or arrogant… It’s because sometimes I forget even what I am capable of. I’m passionate about making memories for others, yes. But I’m more passionate about making photography an experience for people. And I think over the last two years, I have really pushed hard and accomplished that.

  1. How did you “build your audience,” as in gain more clients?

Building my audience and client base has been a ton of hard work, but more importantly, it’s been about consistency. Showing up every single week and nearly every day in some capacity has been, I know, the key to bringing me where I am in my business. People want to see you. They want to know you exist and you’re operating — and… and this is important… people want to see you’re legit. Every day that you show up is another day your name is being put out there. From 2017 to 2018, people recognized my name and inquired with me because I was showing up in wedding groups very often. Now, my strategy has shifted only because I planted those consistent seeds in those groups. There’s a lot that goes into building an audience and gaining more clients. But being consistent is the key.

  1. What made you choose this type of career?

I chose photography because it is what truly makes me feel fulfilled, as cheesy as that sounds.For the longest time I wanted to have a dedicated career in the medical field. Photography was something I really enjoyed but I never thought I could make a career out of it. Specifically, I wanted to be a trauma nurse or surgeon. I was an LNA for several years before moving onto the admin side of things, and eventually I was in my final semester of my Medical Administration program and dropped out to pursue my business full time. I plan to hit on all of this in my next post when I talk about 2017 (the most pivotal year for me), but photography was supposed to only ever be something part time. As much as I dreamed of being a full time photographer, it wasn’t 100% on my radar. Until the end of 2017.

  1. What kind of advice would you give to someone just starting out?

Again, be consistent. Show up and dedicate a fraction of each day to your photography. 30 minutes. An hour. Show up. Be authentic. Be honest. But more importantly, be consistent. It will be harder in the beginning. You might not have tons of content, and you may feel overwhelmed. But consistently learning, practicing, researching, LEARNING, will do so much in the long run. If you don’t have enough content? See if you can participate in a styled shoot. You don’t have top notch gear? I didn’t either. Learn the gear you do have inside and out. Can’t pay hundreds of dollars to take other photographer’s courses? Google what you’re trying to learn and practice.

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