Niki Peel

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Niki Peel International Photographer From South Africa For CulturallyOurs Podcast About Global Entrepreneurship

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Show Details

In this episode, we explore Art and Entrepreneurship as I chat with Niki Peel an entrepreneur and wedding photographer from Port Elizabeth, South Africa. Niki is such a breadth of fresh air as she shares so openly about her entrepreneurial journey for the past eight years that has finally let her to finally become a sought after wedding photographer and photography educator in South Africa.

Niki shares her tips for becoming successful in any industry – work hard, make meaningful connections and be who you are. And have fun . Do things that really mean something to you and you will have a happy life and a successful business. 

Show Notes

Karthika interviews Niki Peel, a wedding and elopement photographer from Port Elizabeth South Africa. Through the conversation, Niki shares her journey in owning her own business for the past eight years, her successes and her failures and how once she started focusing on what made her truly happy, the rest, as they say, was history.

Niki shares such valuable advice on how to be successful. Investing in genuine friendships and relationships with peers and industry vendors is the perfect way to really invest in the community – one that will reap benefits for years to come.

The Transcript

Karthika: Welcome Nikki, thank you so much for joining me on CulturallyOurs today. I am so excited to be chatting with you and cannot wait to dig into your entrepreneurial journey.

Niki: Thank you. It’s such an honor and I’m really, really excited. So it’s going to be a good one.

Karthika: I’m sure it’s going to be a great one. So let’s just jump right in. Can you give us a little bit of context on who you are, where you’re from, just to help sort of set the stage a little bit?

Niki: Sure, I am Niki Peel because nobody can pronounce my surname, Marusich-Peel. Just made my life very complicated when I got married, but I’m a wedding and elopement photographer and am based in South Africa. I am in a small coastal town called Port Elizabeth and we have very cool people who enjoy a relaxed lifestyle, lots of ocean sports and beautiful landscapes around us. So I’m basically in heaven for wedding photographers.

Karthika: That does sound fantastic. Not just for wedding photographers. I think just for our lifestyle. I mean you have everything. Now you are a wedding photographer. Is this something that you went to school for? or knew you would always get into.

Niki: Haha. So I was the good responsible eldest child that decided to study law because it was something I could make money off of and it was a good career choice. So I studied law. I went into human resources and did that for about three years. I was absolutely miserable and one day I just kind of had a phone call with my father and I said to him, I’m hating life at the moment. And he said, Niki you have to do something that you love and why don’t you do photography? I mean, you’ve always done it since you were small. I was like the family photographer. I used to take my snap camera everywhere with us. I kind of felt like the angles sang and I thought damn, why didn’t I think of that? So yeah, I quit the first of December, put in my resignation and have been coasting ever since.

Karthika: Wow! I guess parents somehow always know what we need to do even if its us kids who don’t always listen, right? So how many years have you been a wedding photographer now?

Niki: This is my eighth year. I think when things are meant to happen, they just work out. I’m really glad that everything happened as it did and it’s a good life. It’s freedom if I can call it that. It’s a lot different to working in corporates. I’m glad I had the corporate experience. It’s helped a lot in my actual business day to day. But working for yourself is completely different. So yeah, eight years of this completely.

Karthika: Yes I completely agree. It’s a whole different ballgame. When you described where you live, it sounds like paradise. It’s gorgeous weather, all the, all the makings of paradise. And as a photographer and particularly wedding photographer, how competitive is your landscape? And both figuratively and literally.

Niki: The thing about the way that I work is that I’m based in a small town, but I work, I compete nationwide, so my work is not limited to Port Elizabeth. I do a lot of work outside. I travel a lot. So if we’re looking at South Africa as a sort of competitive climate. It is very saturated. I mean the wedding photography industry is quite a saturated market. Everybody has cameras now. Everybody wants to be a photographer. And Instagram makes you awesome. So basically, yeah it’s a tough industry to be in. But the interesting thing about weddings is that it’s all relationship based. So when you’ve been in it for a really long time, the relationships that you form with people who are working in the actual wedding industry will always help you if you put effort into it.

Niki: And more often than not, those are the people that refer you. Those are the people that are speaking about you. Those are the people that are showing your images as well as clients speaking about you. So as far as a saturated market goes, there are a lot of ways to make your name and I guess wedding photography is a luxury, but people understand the value in it and are willing to spend money on it and are willing to find a photographer that is good. I mean these are your memories of your wedding. You know as long as you are constantly improving and studying art it’s not really difficult. I know it sounds very bold to say that but I’ve never experienced difficulty in getting work as such.

Karthika: That’s fantastic. And you hit the nail right on the head when you said it’s all about relationships and I think that’s true for pretty much any industry, but I know more so for photography and for the creative industry because, you know, as creatives we tend to glorify our work sometimes. And there’s nothing wrong in that. I mean, you know, you have to love what you do, but like you said, everybody has a camera, everybody wants to be a photographer. There’s money in wedding photography, so everybody wants to do that. But how do you set yourself apart mean kind of building these relationships? So maybe you can share how do you go about building relationships? Is it all online? Is it face to face or is it a combination of both?

Niki: I think it’s definitely a combination of both. I find face to face easier. I don’t know what I did in this life to end have ended up with the gift of making people very comfortable and building relationships. But that’s one of my things. Not in a selfish way to see what I can get out of people, but I find it very easy to form bonds with people and genuine caring bonds where you are actually invested in other people in the wedding industry. And that’s other photographers as well. It’s not just wedding suppliers. Everything from obviously being in a smaller town as well as easy to form those bonds with people, but I have bonded with people all over the world and that’s how I ended up getting most of my international weddings. And that’s how I am able to go visit the places that I do. So I think relationships are hands down the most important thing if it’s not just with, as I said, the wedding suppliers, your actual clients and my clients refer me. I’ve booked a wedding at the tower of London through a bridesmaid at one of the weddings just by taking the time to get to know them and chatting to them, making sure they’re okay. So it’s those little things that they’d pay off in the end. You shouldn’t be doing it because you wanted to pay off, but it’s important.

Karthika: No, I agree. And I think people are pretty savvy. They know when you are doing it for an ulterior motive and they know when you’re doing it because you genuinely care. So it sounds like you’ve got the formula right now. I feel like sometimes as people and as a culture, we don’t celebrate our successes. We feel like it’s perhaps tooting our own horn or you know, kind of being egotistical where it’s not. I think it’s very important that we can just take, especially for entrepreneurs, take a moment and sort of celebrate everything that we’ve accomplished. And you’ve been in business for eight years. So what are some of your proudest accomplishments? Proudest moments we would love to know?

Niki: Gosh, I think probably the fact that I know that my clients and people I work with, trust me. And that goes beyond that into the realm of education as well. Then people are willing to listen to me talk about natural lights with all my quirks and chaotic theories. People still trust that I can, you know, capture their wedding, that I can teach them something that for me is probably one of my biggest accomplishments. In terms of actual things that I’ve done. All of my overseas weddings that I’ve captured and especially the one in the tower of London because that was super special. I mean, not very many people get to do that. So that was really amazing. I am also speaking at an expose. The first one I ever spoke at was photo expo, which is pretty much our biggest photographic expo. Now I am part of ‘Admired in Africa’. So every year I get to join everyone and chat to them. That’s really awesome. Other than that, I think just the fact that I’ve managed to create this brand that’s so authentic and that people identify with that and I’ve been pretty true to myself and even if I say a few cuss words, people still are okay with that. I try to be super authentic and I’m really proud of the brand that I’ve created in terms of that.

Karthika: No, that’s phenomenal, and you have to be true to yourself at the end of the day because otherwise you’re going to be really miserable and if you giggling and throwing a few cuss words, that’s you. So there’s no shame in admitting that, but being courageous to say, this is who I am, I think that’s quite commendable. So I applaud you for that.

Niki: I think also a lot of people find pride in actual things that they do, but there’s a lot of pride as well into what good comes from what you do. Being authentic and having good morals, running your business in that way, is difficult in this day and age, but running your business with integrity and principles, that is important and an accomplishment in itself.

Karthika: No, absolutely. I couldn’t agree more. You said how you do it is so much more important than what exactly you do. That’s so true. Now, like anything else in life, we all have ups and downs, right? We’ve talked about all the good things, the ups, what are some of the challenges you faced and how did you go about sort of overcoming them?

Niki: Because this journey is hard. It is really hard at times and you know, when you’re really down, you get depressed, you don’t know what to do. So I just walk us through some of those scenarios and I think one of the biggest challenges is boredom. It’s getting up. I mean, I have an office at home, so getting up, making sure you get out of your pajamas. I’m getting into routine everyday, so just forcing myself to get into that routine and I’m not getting bored with what I’m doing. So constantly trying to learn new things and do things differently and look at things differently and starting new projects and a lot of that comes from who you’re around and who you surround yourself with. My husband always pushes me to kind of do things differently and look at things strategically because he is in strategic marketing, so that always helps. It’s actually surrounding yourself with people, but at the same time it’s a very isolated job. I see people maybe on a Saturday when I’m working and if I made the effort to go out. Otherwise it’s just Justin and myself. So it’s kind of balancing that isolation, getting motivation from people that you’re around, surrounding yourself with people who are better than yourself and then trying not to get bored with what you’re doing as well. There’s a lot of pride in what I do, but it’s the same thing. So sort of doing things, you know, keep your mind going, building websites and sort of starting new projects that always keeps me going.

Karthika: No that is so true. Now this kind of leads me to my next question a little bit. What is your support system? You mentioned your husband who was in strategic marketing, which is great. But other than that, what is your support system look like and be it family, people in your environment, society maybe even local organizations. Are there things in South Africa where you are that can help entrepreneurs like you?

Niki: My circle is pretty small. I know I sound like a total loner. I’m very, what’s the word I’m selective. I have a lot of acquaintances as you do in an industry, and people that you care about, but the real true friends are very far and few between. So when you do find those people and you kind of hang onto them and I can probably count them on one hand, but those people are the ones that are always turn to you as well as family. Family just kind of recharge you and they speak to you in a way that no one else will. So they’re the ones that are telling you don’t be an idiot friend. Friends was still trying to sugarcoat it a little bit. But definitely my husband, I bounce everything off of him. We don’t have a lot of photographic societies in South Africa, but we do have one community which is called Admired in Africa. That’s sort of developed over the past, I’d say three, four years and that’s put me in touch with a lot of other photographers so we speak openly and we share and we refer to each other. I was able to actually get a wedding in Zanzibar through one of my friends through Admired in Africa where we became proper friends. You know, you kind of have chats on facebook before that, but meeting people face to face twice a year, it’s like gold basically. That’s something awesome that’s just happened in South Africa and we really are grateful for that.

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Karthika: Thats awesome. Now here in the states we have a lot of entrepreneurial groups like women entrepreneurial groups or even sometimes a mixture of men and women that meet and connect with each other. They sometimes get experts to come in and talk about all aspects of business, not just for a particular industry. These are very popular here in the states and there is government funding as well for small business organizations that help the community. Do you guys have things like that in South Africa from maybe a government standpoint or even a non for profit organization that’s coming in and trying to help entrepreneurship.

Niki: I haven’t delved too much into that, but I do know that in terms of business conferences there are amazing business conferences that happen in South Africa. So that definitely has quite a big following and it’s very popular. Most of them will happen in Cape Town or Johannesburg. That’s always interesting to go to. We had at one stage a networking conference which targeted photographers and videographers and that was amazing because it was not photography related at all. It was actual business and legal stuff and you know, all the nitty gritties, which was really incredible. Governments do have small, medium enterprise funding. But there are a lot of criteria that you have to fit in order to get that funding. But it is available for people in South Africa.

Karthika: What about mentors? Have you had mentors in the past?

Niki: Yeah, definitely. And different mentors for different things. My mentors tend to be friend based, so it’s not like I am going into a business and sort of asking the CEO to be a mentor. When I started out, a good friend of mine sort of took me under his wing and he always encouraged me. So he was like a pivotal mentor for my whole business. But of late, I think it’s more just a relationships that I have with people and being able to ask them things. If somebody is into printing as a business, I would rather go to a person who’s in printing to speak about printing than to Facebook. So definitely mentors,  lots of them. But not formally.

Karthika: No. And I think that’s a great way to go about it too. Especially when you’ve talked earlier about face to face interactions, how you really value that, the bonds and the relationships. I think it sort of feels like as I’m hearing you speak, that fits so well with who you are as a person, who you are as a business. So it sort of makes sense that it’s not that formal.

Niki: When I was working in corporate, I saw that whole mentorship program happening and I just used to cringe. I was with the CEO and you like ask all the questions and get all your answers and go forth into the world. And I was just feeling like there has to be something more than that.

Karthika: No, I completely hear you. Let’s talk motivation because again, like entrepreneurs and you mentioned this too. Sometimes you’re in your office, you’re all alone, you’re editing or you’re doing whatever. How do you kind of keep yourself motivated, excited about your future, what keeps you going when the going gets tough or even otherwise?

Niki: I think it’s deadlines. At one stage I was working so much. I had tendonitis in my wrist and I had 13 weddings to edit. I cried my eyes out every morning and I used to come into my office and sit down and look at this mountain of work and all the people asking me for photos and you just have to sit down and do it. There’s no one’s going to do it for you. So by the end of that, I think that was one of the biggest lessons. Do not say yes to everything and by the end of that, when I had nothing left to edit, I swore to myself I would never be in that situation again, but just sitting in this office everyday and plowing through taught me so much because it set the termination just to get through it. I mean, you have probably, gosh, close to 100,000 images and that many weddings because actually it’s a lot. It’s going through all those images, making the efforts. I’m trying not to let people down and just putting your head down and working. So now that things are a bit more relaxed, I still am very disciplined. So that discipline is kind of stuck with me now if I have deadlines, I will meet my deadlines that they have to work through the night. So that’s kind of motivation in the sense of get it done or else. But I think that inner drive to be the best that you can be is always going to motivate you as long as you remember that you’re building something for your future and the more effort you put into something, the more reward you will get out of it. It’s hard sometimes to remember that, but what you give is what you get in life. So that’s sort of the motivation and the motto that I live by.

Karthika: That is so true. And you’re right, it is a life motto. It’s not just for business, right? I mean definitely relationships with family, with yourself. What you put in is what you get out of it. So lets talk specifics. The reason why is that for any photographer or wedding photographer, listening or even any entrepreneur listening who is maybe in the situation that you are in or just starting out, I think sometimes specifics really help kind of connect all the dots. So you’ve been in business for eight years, how long have you been profitable?

Niki: I was profitable from year 2. I think that comes down to what I mentioned before. If things are meant to happen, they will happen and I never found it difficult to start this business. So let’s just say year 2 financially profitable and year 4 or year 5 to be mentally profitable. I was working around the clock. So for me I don’t necessarily see profit as a positive because I know what my mental state was at that point. From year 4 or year 5 I kind of settled into charging more, understanding that there was demand so I could. My skills had developed to a point where I could charge more and take fewer weddings and specialized completely into weddings and elopements and leave out all the families and the portraits and everything else. That was sort of eating up my time. From about year four was when I got into my groove.

Karthika: I love that word mentally profitable because I think that is so true. We think about profits as only monetary coming into bank account.

Niki: Yes, but I think at the cost of health and the cost of stress it is almost like a breakdown. I see a lot of my friends in other industries and burnout is so prevalent everywhere. And again, as an entrepreneur, you want to do it, you do everything. You want to have your feet and your hands and your head into everything because it’s like your baby, you don’t want to go or you want that control. And you’re terrified that if you’re not doing something, you’re not making money. So you just kind of take everything. And that’s probably the worst thing that people can do. Maybe at the beginning it’s a good idea until you’ve kind of figured out what you want to do and what you want to specialize in. But as soon as you do specialize, honestly it will make your life much easier. And when you specialize in something, you can develop your skills and you’ll find that you’re able to charge higher prices pretty quickly because it’s a very steep curve of improvements at the beginning. So just being able to focus on something one thing or things instead of 100, it makes all the difference.

Karthika: I agree. Now in the eight years that you’ve been doing this, have you pivoted at all. As in products, services? If you did then how did you pivot and if no, do you sort of plan on pivoting or can you have you found your niche and you want to do this for several years?

Niki: Yeah, I’ve always been into different things. So, I mean I photograph weddings. But at the beginning I would photograph anything. So the first real pivot was specializing and saying no to family, maternity, I still do some sort of portraits and brand work and but it’s literally just weddings and elopements that I photograph now. And that’s made my life so much easier. In terms of other pivots, I’ve gotten a lot more into education and teaching, which is something that  I’m really passionate about and I’ve kind of found that I’m really good at it. So that’s gonna be the next challenge. I know wedding photographers have a shelf life so basically I need to put some thought into creating a passive income beyond my active income and planning for the future because I don’t really want to be 50 or 60, still shooting weddings. I feel like I’m in my groove now, but give it another 10, 15 years and I need to be sort of making income from other places. So I’m doing a lot of building on the sidelines into prints and education and we’ll see what else comes. But it’s a cool journey to be on doing different things for sure. And it keeps me from being bored. Even within photography, just doing different things. I got so excited that other day I created some portraits of a MMA fighters and we were in the dark during one of our power outages and I took my little led lights and we created some magical images and just from that I feel you sort of get a spark again. It’s not just the same thing. And at weddings I’m looking at light differently and I’m creating different images and that’s really exciting.

Niki:  So I guess it’s about doing things that are not your everyday sort of on your to do list. It’s about going into everything that you do, just looking at it a bit differently and pushing yourself and trying to see if you can do something cool. Obviously don’t experiments at weddings but you have to get that creativity in a little bit. And photography is a creative industry. So no matter what you’re photographing, you kind of have that in the back of your mind on how can I be creative because I want to grow as a creator, not just do the work.

Karthika: Do you employ others?

Niki: No, I don’t. I outsource a few things but I don’t directly employ people so I know my limits. I outsource my accounting for now, but most of the things I like to keep my fingers on. I did try and outsource editing as well, which was a complete nightmare. So I’ll just carry on doing that. I know there’s this movement towards outsourcing everything and using that time to make more profit for your business. But at the same time I think I do certain things better than other people can do and those things I’m very particular my editing. So I would rather just  keep tabs on that myself. I used to do graphic design somewhere in my life. So I’m able to build websites and do all of that myself, which has really helped a lot. It takes time, but when I’m finished with something I know it’s the way that I want it to be and it’s perfect. I can’t do the launch of the website, I’ll outsource that, but the nitty gritties I love that sort of thing. So yeah, that’s what I keep. I keep sort of hold onto like.

Karthika: Excellent. Now where do you, specifically Nikki, where do you invest most of your time? Is it in marketing, sales? You talked about editing a little bit. What about ideation? I mean in the whole gamut of things that you do, where do you find you gravitate more towards?

Niki: I do spend a lot of time editing, so I’m in the office by about eight, quarter past eight and onto admin and editing and all of that stuff, but between that there is some production and then marketing throughout the day. I’m always on social media and sort of putting photos up. There is ongoing and you know, keeping tabs on everything in terms of Instagram and Facebook. My ideation is pretty much daydreaming time, so I’ll lie in bed and think of all the cool things that I could do.

Karthika: I think as we all know and we all do this. We all daydream sometimes I’m sitting at the dinner table and my kids are talking and I’m like thinking of something else. And my kids are pretty savvy in terms of knowing when I’m not paying attention and they’re like, mom, did you hear what I said.

Niki:  I was just going to say as well, a lot of my time now recently has been spent not doing work as well. Not a lot of time, but I’ve made very specific times for myself to go and run or swim or just get out of the office as well. That’s one new thing which is working pretty well except for the fact that I’m always injured. Just to clear your mind a bit. It’s gold. So that’s the new thing.

Karthika: I am going to jump to that now because that was one of my questions for you. I have seen a lot of your images and just your life outside of the wedding photographer. So what do you do for fun?

Niki: Fun. What’s that? I drink wine does that count.

Karthika: Hey, that’s a lot of fun.

Niki: I mean we’ve got a cool group of friends and hanging out with them. We just get out and do stuff. The other day I went to a movie which was like the first time in ages I was like what’s going on? So that’s quite cool. And other than that I’ve started running probably year and a half ago, two years ago. There are quite a few cool half marathons throughout South Africa. We’ll get together, go through as a group. They are running friends and do that. Sometimes it is taking a walk on the beach with friends. Sometimes it is getting in the car and driving down to the garden plots and checking out the forests and all of that sort of stuff. So it’s downtime and fun time is kind of the same for me.

Karthika: You have an amazing garden too don’t you? You harvest some pretty cool. I like the orange carrots and purple potatoes. Some crazy thing like that. How did that come about?

Niki: You know I have always been an entrepreneur. I don’t even know how it got into me, but as a kid, I had a huge vegetable garden and I would make salads for people for lunch and go and drop it off. I can remember as far back as being probably five and I would cut paper and make sort of little folded paper origami things and try and sell them to the people in my parents’ office. The company would look at me and be like, oh, she’s so cute. So from doing that as a youngster, I got very into gardening and I think it’s probably been two or three years now that we’ve had a garden. I have a theory that grass is a waste of space. So my darling husband and I took up all the grass and put in box gardens. I’ve been planting since then. At the moment it’s not running too well because we have a drought and we are on water restrictions. So all the washing machine water is going into the garden. But yeah, it’s not looking great at the moment, but we are still trying. I have onions at least.

Karthika: I remember seeing these amazing pictures of these really different produce. And I was like, oh my God, she’s a wedding photographer. When did she get time?

Niki: So my theory is that if I’m going to do something, do something different. I mean, I can go to the store and buy potatoes. I cannot go to the store and buy purple potatoes. So definitely grow purple potatoes and carrots and whatever else I can get my hands on. So yeah, that’s my thing. I love it.

Karthika: So perhaps in the interest of time, let’s kind of wrap this up with a few more questions. What has been the most, if you could say, the most important part of your entrepreneurial journey so far?

Niki: I think just self development. Knowing that I’m growing and developing and creating a brand that’s become recognized, the independence that comes from that. Recognition is always a good thing. At the end of the day it means a hell of a lot. So I think being recognized as a South African wedding photographer, there’s something behind that that I’m incredibly proud of. And adventures. I am adventurous at heart and I’m proud of the fact that I brought that into my business and I get to sort of do it all. I get to travel and it’s an important part of my brand. So all of those things are super important and they mean a lot to me. That’s sort of the journey so far. Those are the things that stand out most towards me. Being in charge of your own destiny is definitely a plus.

Karthika: I love it. If you could go back in time to when you started Would you do it? Would you change anything about it?

Niki: The journey through corporate. I definitely wouldn’t change that. It really did teach me so much. I’m going on my own, I’ve done a lot of stupid things. I’ve wasted a lot of money listening to other people. So the only thing I would really change is just to listen to my intuition a bit more. When people were saying outsource, I did. I spend hundreds of dollars outsourcing my editing and it come back terrible. And I’ve used three editing companies in America and they just horrific and then I’m sort of like, I shouldn’t have done it. There’s small things that I would change. But overall the journey itself has been so incredible. I wouldn’t change it much about that.

Karthika: Yes you learn something from every situation, good or bad, as much as you know, at that time you’re like, why the hell am I going through this? But I think, you sort of learn and I love it when you said you wouldn’t change a lot of those things because it taught you so much. Now what lies ahead for you? Are you living your dream or what comes next? Can you share with us a little bit?

Niki: I don’t think anyone can create some pretty good curated insta life. My dreams are always going to be a bit wacky and out there, so as soon as I reach one, probably another one will will take its place. I have an awesome life and I’m very grateful for that life. We travel and we enjoy life and even just living where we do, we feel the sunshine on our faces, which is something that a lot of people don’t really get during the day. So I am living a dream. I don’t know if it’s the full dream yet, but I’m always scheming and I think just to, as I say, develop that passive income. That’s the next big thing and build a little empire so it’s all in my head. Still is not really done on paper yet. And the first phase is coming when I’m launching a store. So that will sort of be the portal through which everything runs and that’s the first phase. And then onwards to world domination, I guess.

Karthika: Well! we will be following your journey. Thank you so much Nikki. This has been such an amazing treat and I love your enthusiasm. I love your energy. I love those giggles. Just brings a smile to my face and I don’t know if you can see, but I’m smiling, so thank you so much.

Niki: Thank you so much for having me.

 

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