Stacey Owen and the Alpha Women of Pepper

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When faced with the prospect of burnout in her wedding photography business, Stacey Owen’s first thought was to hire an assistant. After realizing that just one person would never be able to handle the diversity of tasks on her to-do list, she founded the company Pepper. More than just an outsourcing service, this women-run agency is on a mission to help creative entrepreneurs take the “BS” out of business stuff.

We recently caught up with Owen for an extended Zoom chat to learn more about the “Peppersphere” and its many exciting projects. Read all about it below, and then jump to Part 2 of our Q&A to get the scoop on Conference + Chill (C+C). This virtual photography gathering will next be held on Sunday, March 21, and will feature talks by six groundbreaking Women in Photography, in celebration of Women’s History Month.

Jill Waterman: You're currently based in Kamloops, British Columbia. Are you originally from there?

Stacey Owen: No, I'm originally from the Yukon. I grew up in a little town called Dawson City, and spent my high school years in Whitehorse. My family's all still there, but I moved to Kamloops about 12 years ago.

What's your photography background, and when did you first pick up a camera?

My background is similar to most photographers; you start off as a hobby. My dad went to a documentary film school, so there were always cameras around the house and photography was encouraged in a fun, joyful, playful way. I bought my first film camera as a young adult; I think it was a Nikon F2. And then I got a crop sensor digital camera, like a Nikon 300, which I loved. Back in 2013 or 2014, my neighbor asked me to shoot her son's wedding, just because I took good photos. And I said, “No, I shouldn’t be shooting anybody's wedding.” I had no idea what I was doing, so it was terrifying. But I ended up second shooting that wedding, and I became really good friends with the main shooter. She's now one of my absolute best friends.

During a Trash the Dress session with a recent bride, Owen got in close for an intimate portrait of head and hands.

Is that how you discovered the wedding photography marketplace?

Yes. I had a blast and fell completely in love with weddings. That's definitely where I started shooting weddings, and second shooting a lot. People just kept asking me, so I ended up going full time fairly quickly, shooting weddings on my own. Then I got into boudoir photography and, of course, families and portraiture was a part of that process. I really love boudoir, but not in the traditional sense. For me it’s more cinematic, and about documentary-style storytelling.

Did you have a role model or someone who inspired your vision at the start of your career? If so, what's the most important thing you learned from them?

That's hard to answer because I love looking at so many different types of work from all over the world. There are so many different people, but I think a turning point for me was discovering Facundo Santana, from Argentina. His work is almost all black-and-white, and he was shooting weddings in that documentary style, which I wasn't seeing a lot in North America, and I thought that's what I would want, and that you can shoot weddings in a different way, that wasn't necessarily just pretty. At the time we were both ambassadors for Archipelago Lightroom Presets, and then we started engaging a little bit on social media. We still chat every now and again on Instagram, but I’ve never met him in person, that's 100% percent a goal, though.

What about the main shooter on that first wedding you shot? Would you consider her a mentor?

Absolutely. She taught me a lot of the basics, and she also made me feel confident. That friendship has been more than just her teaching me about photography. She taught me about being a strong individual, and a strong woman. She's a bit older than I am, and we both have similar backgrounds, coming from abusive marriages. At the time I met her, I was still in my marriage, and she helped me build my confidence as a woman to leave my ex. She is so full of life. She's like, “Yeah, you’ve got to try it. Do you want to do it? Just do it.” The confidence she instilled has helped me with both my photography and my life.

Besides shooting weddings, Owen portrays her photographic subjects through empowering narratives that she calls Noir Stories.

With what gear do you currently shoot?

I don't like having a lot of different gear options. I like being creative with what I have, shooting light, and being nimble. I use two Nikon D750s and Sigma Art primes—an 85mm, 35mm, and 24mm. I have one Nikon SB-900 AF Speedlight for when I need to use flash. I also have a FUJIFILM X-T2, which I got as a little present to myself, with a Mitakon Zhongyi Speedmaster 35mm f/0.95 Mark II Lens. I like documentary-style shooting the best, and interacting with people, because it forces you to move around and engage with them.

What three words best describe your photography today?

I struggle with three words because, as a creative, I feel like I’m always constantly evolving. What my three words might be today could be different tomorrow, because I want to express myself differently.

Owen and her Pepper cohorts take a moment out of a team meeting for a group selfie.

Tell us about your creative agency Pepper. When did you launch, how did you come up with the concept, and how many people were initially involved?

Pepper came about because I was starting to feel photography burnout. I could see all my friends and industry colleagues really struggling with things like you need to make this much money or shoot this many weddings to be successful. I asked my friends if they were feeling the same way and struggling with the same things. I knew a few photographers who brought on an associate or personal assistant, and others who had talked about hiring a virtual assistant (VA). I looked into hiring a VA, but they're only one person, so they wouldn't have all the skill sets I’d want to outsource. I also looked at hiring a larger company, but they were all very corporate, and their websites made me I realize they'd never get what I do. I think what photographers need and how we like to approach things is different than a regular entrepreneur, small business, or corporation. It’s way less formal, but it’s still professional. So, I had this idea of starting a company to fill that hole, geared specifically to photographers.

Pepper officially launched on December 1, 2018, and I put about six months of work into it before that. It was just myself initially, but my first employee, Kelsey, is still with me today. She's my absolute rock; I can't even imagine life without her.

A Noir Story frame of Owen’s first employee, Kelsey Munson

How quickly did the agency grow?

We grew way too fast. After Kelsey, I had to bring on a second person less than six weeks later. We’ve had to hit the brakes a few times because we were still a startup and working out processes. I had to be very clear in working out the procedural manual and how everything would work before taking on any paying clients. First, we did some work for free as a beta test, and then we did a second run of testing at a discounted rate, and then we launched fully.

You now have 10 women on the Pepper team. Was it an intentional decision to be an all-women company?

No, it wasn’t intentional. It happened that way for a couple of different reasons. The people we attracted, and those who applied for the job were mostly women. And the men we did interview didn’t have the right energy. I’d rather work with someone who is excited about what they do, very positive and high energy, and wants to learn more about the industry, and stay on top of things. It’s a very specific type of person who gets excited about helping other people succeed in their business. Someone told me that I only hire alpha females. They said it in a negative way, but we've taken it on as our tagline. I absolutely hire alpha females. The women on our team are encouraging to one another; they're bold, they're strong. They speak their mind. They're super smart. We care about one another. We have team meetings where we all take turns crying about something that was hard, and then we build each other up. Being an all-women team wasn't intentional at the beginning, but to be honest, I don't know how I got so lucky.

Pepper team members hard at work in a decidedly “non-corporate” office setting

In your opinion, what are the biggest advantages to working with an all-women team?

When you share your ideas as an all-women team, it's less intimidating so it feels like a very safe place. We're very open. We tell each other all the things. I think we all align with similar things in terms of humor and what's important to us. And we all have similar struggles. Some of the women on our team are mothers. One is pregnant, and one's on maternity leave. And that's a whole other challenge of being part of a startup or being an entrepreneur. I consider all the women on the team fellow entrepreneurs, but it is a different challenge, and being able to work with other people who understand that and can respect it and can encourage you or support you makes it a very nice place to be.

What's the geographic spread of Pepper team members?

It’s about 50 percent local and 50 percent outside the area, but everyone is based in Canada.

What's the demographic of most of the creatives you work with? Is there a large percentage of Canadians?

When we first started, our creatives were mostly American. But since the pandemic, it's shifted to about 50% Canadian, and 50% Americans or photographers from other parts of the world, including Iceland.

During an initial Zoom call, creatives meet with a dedicated team to learn how each member’s skills will help make their business thrive.

How many of your team are image makers or have other creative skills?

There are probably four of us I’d consider photographers. Everybody else either has photography as a hobby or an interest. Everyone admires it, or is involved in some way, and everyone has some kind of creative background or training. They've all either had their own side hustle or have been involved in someone else's side hustle. We’re definitely a team of entrepreneurs, all working together.

Your team includes content creators and project managers. Are there other skill sets?

Two team members are specifically trained in marketing and public relations. We also have a graphic designer, copywriting for sales, and someone specifically trained in SEO.

A graphic from the Pepper website encouraging photographers to leave the “BS” behind. Another branding message asks, “Are you ready to discover what success really feels like?”

Tell us about the day-to-day workflow, especially the differences between content creators and project managers.

We offer a custom Pepper team to each creative, depending on what their goals are, and the types of tasks we're taking on. It's different for everybody. First we assign a project manager to handle strategy and delegate tasks, then we bring in Pepper team members to fulfill those tasks and skill sets, as needed. It can change from month to month. Everyone meets in an initial Zoom call, where you get to know everyone, face-to-face.

So, if I'm your project manager, you say, “Okay, I want blogging, newsletters, social media, and I want you to create some stuff on Pinterest for me. And, I’d also like some PR to get booked on some podcasts.” Then I'll turn to my Pepper team to divide up the tasks, and we’ll all meet over Zoom so the creative gets to chat with the team we’re bringing on and learn about their skill sets.

For ongoing messages, we use a group communication app called Slack. There’s a main screen and different channels, corresponding to each type of task: blogging, PR, newsletters, social media, and so on. All the chatting happens within the main screen, but you can also click on a channel, and talk specifically about each thing. So, when the creative delegates to the project manager or they're talking to their Pepper team, it's all in one place and everybody can see it.

Eight Pepper team members take a moment to smile and connect during a team photo shoot.

Is there any one Pepper service that's most popular with creatives, to date?

PR is really popular, and we're really good at getting people on podcasts. We do a lot of submission work for them. But I’d say setting strategy is most popular. Creatives really need that, and they feel like somebody can help them execute it. Besides setting strategy, the process we go through when we build content is really important. If you’re a wedding photographer, instead of picking one or two things, like blogging, we’ll take the wedding you shot and not just blog it, we’ll push that same content out in all different ways, so you get the most traction with the same content. So, you're not working harder, creating more, you’re taking that one piece you've created and utilizing it as best as possible to get you the most reach. It's that service people are looking for, versus just social or just newsletters. It’s the process.

Can you elaborate on the difference between helping photographers with tasks and helping them with a more comprehensive strategy?

What creative entrepreneurs need the most aren’t just virtual assistants or someone to take over tasks; they need help with a strategy. They're so busy shooting, creating, and engaging with their clients, which is what they're meant to do. They say, “I know I need to blog because it’s good for SEO, but I don't know the best way to do it, so I’ll get an assistant to blog for me.” They can definitely do this task, but they won't know the strategy behind it. You're just doing something to do it, so it becomes busy work. We’ve evolved from a virtual assistant company to a creative agency, in order to create that strategy for everything we do. Before we work with any creative, we pull all the analytics and do an SEO audit on their website. Someone can say, “I know SEO, I know my website's good,” but what does that mean? Are you being found for the words you want to be found for, or the types of clients you’re getting? Are they types of clients you want, or are you just getting inquiries?

Pepper Zoom meetings often turn into a family affair, as in this chat between Owen and a portion of the photography team Shari + Mike.

Many of the items in the “Shop” part of your website are specific to the wedding photography market. Do you work with photographers or creatives who specialize in other niches?

We've worked with all different genres, but I’d say wedding photography is probably Number One. We’ve also worked with different types of creatives, from copywriters to craftspeople, such as goldsmiths and jewelry makers.

Ultimately, I think the types of entrepreneurs who are attracted to us are like-minded creatives who feel they can express themselves and connect with us and our approach. We're professional, hard workers with high standards, but we don't have to be corporate to do it.

Noted photographer Sam Hurd was the featured guest on Pepper’s debut episode of the audio/video series PepperCast.

Are there any success stories you can share about photographers whose work or careers reached new heights since working with Pepper?

I’d say the most satisfying wins have been when creatives feel like they're finally getting ahead, they're in a flow and they're not just struggling, and feeling behind all the time. So, relieving that feeling, because we actually have given them that structure, and that process, and taken some stuff off their plate. It's not like they won a big award, but now they're more successful in their business, and in their work-life balance.

In terms of statistics, we increased engagement on one creative’s social media stories by 700% within six months. Another success story involves a goldsmith we worked with. We got them set up in this really great structure, and flow, and we implemented some tasks with them, and then they went on their way and completed the rest of their work.

That's actually a very common approach for us, people come to us to get themselves organized, so they can continue with the best processes. In this instance, they were putting a lot of time and work into Instagram and getting some good sales. But when we did the analytics, we discovered they were actually getting more work and traffic to their site from Pinterest, without being aware of it. They were putting all this work into Instagram, when really it should have been work over there. So, we put minimal work into Pinterest just to test it, and the traffic to their website went up 300%. That's a really great example of how to discover what’s actually working for you and where you should put your time. You don't have to be 100% here and 100% there—because who has 200% to give?

Learn more about Pepper and the agency’s recent virtual creative gatherings, Conference + Chill, in Part 2 of our interview.

Have you ever hired a virtual assistant or had someone help you with a strategy for your photography business? Tell us about it in the Comments section, below.

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