Article by Cheryl Harris Forbes
Photos by Shana Sureck
Like millions of other business people in 2009, Heather Conley found herself fielding the brunt of the Great Recession. A corporate operations professional with five years at Stanley Works in New Britain, CT, and another 20 in the marketing field, Conley was hit with the news of an impending layoff. Viewing this as a chance for a career reset, she skipped the usual panic, reactivated a long-held desire to work for herself and handled the would–be crisis with a strategic plan and unconventional implementation.
A hint about her future surfaced after befriending a freelance commercial photographer, whom she had met at Stanley, when they collaborated on a photo shoot. She was attracted by his creative experience and the variety of his work. Conley, a photography enthusiast hooked since getting her first point and shoot camera in 2005, began wondering if she could convert her hobby into a freelance career.
Shortly after their initial conversation, Conley began exploring the possibilities. She knew that to get insider knowledge about commercial photography, she needed to get close to the work and routines of a skilled professional. Her second action was a bolder move; she asked him for mentorship and hands-on training. He accepted her offer, an arrangement that lasted two years.
Even with the requisite knowledge and technical skills, launching your own venture brings a new set of challenges. “These days, cell phone cameras are as common as ballpoint pens. Everyone thinks they’re a photographer,” Conley observed, “I continue to find myself challenged by a seemingly overwhelming current of established competitors and public paparazzi.”
In seeking help with her business dilemma, Conley connected to the University of Hartford’s Entrepreneurial Center and Women’s Business Center. There, she found the answers and support she needed. By juggling her calendar, and squeezing in both day and evening classes, Conley carved out time to take full advantage of the business operations, management, marketing, and social media courses. Private appointments for one-on-one business counseling provided additional focus. “My experience working with my advisor, Lacey Banks McGill, has been phenomenal. Getting advice on my specific business issues was valuable beyond measure. There wasn’t a cookie-cutter approach, and it was clear that Program Manager Shelli McMillen, Lacey, and the center staff really care, and are knowledgeable about the support needed in small business today.”
In addition to classes and coaching, Conley participates in the Women’s Business Roundtable. “It’s my peer support group. We come together to learn from the experts on a particular subject, and then we share our real-life experiences. It gives us a chance to learn from fellow women business owners, and to offer suggestions, support, and help. I’ve picked up some game changing ideas there. The center is the place I’ve come to count on for advice, alliances, and professional development.”
During the process of working with her advisor and taking classes, Conley decided to reposition her business, Heather Conley Photography, with increased specificity. In targeting her market, she decided on what she calls “places and spaces”, a personal reference for architectural photography. Her clients are high-end real estate developers, construction and architecture firms, interior designers, and municipalities. The niche takes full advantage of her skills and sensibilities. “I studied textiles, communication, and art. I have spent a lot of time with my father, a cabinet maker, and admire the skill and artistry of his work. I see buildings and landscape design as works of art. I’m always thinking about how to best compose the vision of design, quality of craftsmanship, and elegance of execution in the images I create.”
Conley’s methodical approach, attention to detail, and bottom–line orientation, haven’t kept her feet from leaving the ground. As part of her quest to deliver images with eye-popping detail that distinguish her enterprise as a leader in the field, this happily driven entrepreneur takes off in what her more conventional peers would call flights of fancy. On any given day, you may find Conley in a utility bucket 20 feet or higher in the air. “I guess you can say I’m a get-it-done type of person. This part of my work is an adventure. It’s so gratifying to show clients images that present their completed projects, properties, and communities from an entirely different perspective. That’s why I do it and it is just plain fun! “
When she’s not up in the air, Conley spends time supporting clients’ goals, marketing campaigns, and solving their business challenges. She says, “Gone are the days when a business wants to juggle three or four different creative consultants on each project. Because of my corporate communications and project management experience, I’m able to save them money and add value. I can art direct and manage their marketing needs from concept to completion. My ultimate goal is to provide them with excellent customer service and visually communicate the specialty of the work they offer in a way that gets them more of those projects.”
Conley is narrowing her focus even more to include more landscape architecture projects. Recent assignments gave her the opportunity to photograph the Connecticut Science Center, Eastern Connecticut State University, several streetscapes, and a nature preserve. Recently Conley’s work was picked up by ArchDaily.com. The online global architectural blog gave a nod to her DIY vs. PRO gallery of images, showing amateur and do-it-yourself (DIY) smart phone photography side-by-side with her commercial work. Her professional images continue to speak for themselves.