In Part 1 of our chat with Stacey Owen, founder of the creative agency Pepper, she describes evolving her own photo business to build an all-women team dedicated to helping other creative entrepreneurs maximize their strategy and hone their process. We continue our conversation below by pivoting to how Owen and her Pepper team spun the isolation and hardship of 2020 into fresh opportunity for creative connection by launching Conference + Chill (C+C), a series of virtual gatherings that combine learning, inspiration, and new contacts with plenty of fun.
B&H is a proud sponsor of C+C events, with a Beer + Gear hang hosted by Madeleine Budd, from our Road Marketing team, also featuring special guests and valuable giveaways. Mark your calendars for Sunday, March 21, when the next C+C event, dedicated to Women in Photography, will be streamed over Instagram Live in celebration of Women’s History Month.
Jill Waterman: The past year has been extremely disruptive for photographers and businesses serving creative markets. How has Pepper been affected by the pandemic, and what changes have occurred within your creative client base?
Stacey Owen: Before the pandemic hit, Pepper was doing really well, and we were super steady. The team has always been very close-knit, but it was in a golden spot. We were just a year old, and everything was going incredibly well; I was so proud. We had 80 people on our waitlist, which was awesome. But when the pandemic hit, 75% of our creatives paused their time with us in the first week. It was brutal. I looked at my beautiful team, and thought how am I going to keep everybody working? It was either lay people off, which I was so resistant to doing, or come up with something. I was helping one of our creatives with a situation, and we were talking about doing a webinar and some online education. I think we've all seen an increase in these things since the pandemic started, it’s one of the biggest ways creatives have pivoted their businesses to add more offerings.
So how did you pivot with Pepper as a result of that interaction with a creative?
That conversation made me realize there are a lot of photographers I’d like to hang out with. And then I started talking with other photographers about how the best part of workshops and conferences is the injection of energy and positivity you get from all the people you meet. So, I decided that's what we need right now. That’s how we came up with Conference + Chill (C+C). We had never done anything like this before, and it was only six weeks from idea to launch. But it allowed me to keep the team together with everybody working. It was incredible. We’ve had speakers from all over the world, mostly from the wedding niche, but also other types and from all different backgrounds. One of our first speakers was Helen Sloan, the photographer for Game of Thrones. She’s one of my favorites.
Before we talk about C+C, you note that 75% of your creatives paused their work with Pepper during COVID-19. Can a creative pause their Pepper membership at any time?
No, the pause was just due to COVID. We’re normally a month-to-month service, and we have creatives who come and go as they get overwhelmed on things. We bring them in and get them set up with blogs and social media posting, things like that. We help them re-strategize, and they go off again. It’s month-to-month for a reason, because there are cycles and seasons in this industry. People fluctuate from our base package of 20 hours a month, up to full-time, and then back to 20 hours, but we need a month’s notice, so we can schedule work with our team members. If someone stops their month-to-month service, they go back on the wait list, and we bring them back in when a spot reopens. But if it's someone we've worked with before, they go to the top of the wait list.
How many Conference + Chill gatherings have been held to date and how far out do you schedule upcoming conferences?
We’ve had five gatherings since our first: Outdoor/Adventure, Film Photography, Business + Marketing, and Boudoir, with a Women in Photography event coming up on March 21. Some are planned months in advance, but usually it’s between four to six weeks in advance.
Your Women in Photography event will be held on Instagram Live, which is a different platform than past events. Why did you shift to that format? Will future C+C events continue on Instagram?
We've been working so hard to put on these events, so we're doing a shift to give the team a break. My big idea was to do a conference on a different genre every single month. There are so many different types of photography, but people get stuck in their own little worlds, and sometimes they forget to look beyond that for inspiration and learning. So that's what we’ve been doing, and it’s been fantastic. But to be honest, big events like this are very expensive and also time-consuming. I looked at our team and decided we needed to pace ourselves and take a pause to see what we’ve learned so far, identify what's worked well, and what needs tweaking.
It was a really hard decision to make to change the women's event, but we still wanted to do something. We thought, let's just make it free and hold it on Instagram Live, so anyone can have access and hear the conversations with these incredible women we're bringing on. It will still be very cool, and we’ll keep that C+C momentum going to engage our community. We’re planning some very exciting smaller events for the coming months, and we’ll also do another large two-day event in November 2021.
Who are the scheduled speakers for the Women in Photography event? Will they cover different photo/media markets and how will the event be structured?
Everything is being held on Sunday, March 21, from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Pacific time. There are three separate tracks—one on body positivity and the role of women in the industry, another on women in outdoor/adventure markets, and a third track on documentary and photojournalism. There are six speakers in all, two people per topic, with each speaker getting an hour to present and take questions, and an hour in-between each track.
We currently have Irene Yee, Olesha Haskett, Bri McDaniels, and Gabriella Angotti-Jones as confirmed speakers, and we’re waiting on confirmation for the last two. Besides being a female photographer, each speaker has or is doing something significant in her career or within the industry to help elevate women and pave the way. Not that simply being a woman photographer isn’t important, but these women are doing something extra, and are really inspiring.
Tell us more about the past C+C conferences. How did these virtual events work? Who attended and how did you spread the word?
We held past C+C events over Zoom, and for the last few we also used the online event platform Swapcard. This company started creating hybrid content for in-person events before COVID, enabling an in-person event to also be virtual. One of our goals with C+C is to do hybrid events when the world opens back up again. For example, one of our speakers was an underwater photographer from Vanuatu. Maybe she can't come to the live event, but if we're all hanging out in person, we could Zoom her in and she could still be a speaker remotely.
C+C isn’t a large event, and we don't have thousands of attendees. We rely 100% on word of mouth from the people we talk to and engage. People come because a friend told them how cool it was. Our sponsors also talk about and share events to get the word out. We had 230 people at our last event, and it was on fire. We had the most incredible feedback, and our speakers were so happy. The processes were super-flowed out and nailed down, but we need to build up more momentum. We need to be smart, so we can sustain things, and for this to be sustainable, we need a larger audience.
Who are the speakers for C+C and how do you select them?
Our speakers are top-of-the-line educators. We've had well-known photographers, but we also have undiscovered talents, and the selection process has been very interesting. There have been challenges I didn't expect, and lessons I’ve learned in choosing speakers.
Being inclusive and finding new voices was really important for us right from day one. And that’s been such a life lesson I’ve learned through this process. We definitely chose some speakers because they are well-known professionals, who are fantastic educators, really well spoken, and very proven, but we also scour the Internet to find people you've never heard of. They're so talented, and you can't believe you didn't even know they existed. It's been really special.
I knew that certain voices got amplified more than others, but when I went looking for other voices, it was so hard to find them because they were less elevated. They didn't have the platform. They weren't featured in all these different places. You had to funnel through to find these people, and the same people kept popping up over and over again.
For example, I was looking for film photographers, but almost everyone featured was a white dude. So, I turned to my network and asked, “Who can you recommend as a photographer, educator, or speaker who’s not a white guy?” And they had very few names, and then they asked their networks, who couldn’t recommend anyone either. Why is that?
I know it's hard to pick favorites, but is there any one C+C session that you’ve found most enlightening or influential to date?
They're all so good, but if I had to pick one, it would probably be our first event, because what we were doing had never been done before in the way we did it. I think the sheer pride of the whole team in pulling everything together in six weeks, and the people we met, and the people who agreed to speak was inspiring in the sense of—Look what we did just by having the balls to try.
Another favorite is the boudoir event. Even in the industry, we struggle with that term, and most of us lean towards the term "empowerment photography." There are lots of places for wedding photographers to connect, but not as many for empowerment photographers. So, to find each other, hang out, and talk about the same things within a smaller group outside the wedding genre made it such an incredible day.
The word "empowerment" tells a whole different story, and it’s much broader. As a photographer involved in this genre, what’s your take on its evolution?
I keep using weddings as an example because that's the industry I know, and the world I came from, but if you look at what wedding photography was like 20 years ago and what it looks like today, there are so many facets now—street photography, portraiture, glamour, documentary, and even empowerment. When it comes to what's popular, wedding photography can now have all these different aspects, and even commercial elements, like food, and products at a table, and all those different skill sets are applied in wedding photography that weren't there before. Boudoir photography is very similar; there are all different types of photography within that genre—fine art, storytelling, cinematic, and documentary. We use the word "boudoir" because that's what people know, and it’s used mostly for SEO and marketing. But that's not what it is. Like wedding photography, it isn't what it used to be.
Have there been any unexpected surprises from past C+C speakers or attendees based on who they are, where they’re located, or the work they do?
Having Phan Tien do a live shoot from Vietnam was pretty cool. He’s a destination wedding photographer who lives in France but was stuck in Vietnam because of COVID, so he ended up doing a live shoot with a family, which was incredible.
I also recently heard from a photographer in Guam, who told me how much she appreciated being a part of a virtual conference with so much in-person energy, meeting people face-to-face, and joking around. She was just so appreciative to tune in and be a part of a conference all the way from Guam.
In a recent article on Pepper’s blog, you say that you feel even more fulfilled by the friendships you’ve made than by everything you’ve learned at C+C. Can you elaborate on this?
In addition to education, I think C+C is a place for people to meet and connect with others who care about the same things they care about. Whether in life or in work, I think we all know that our relationships are still the most important thing anybody can have, so C+C is really mostly about that. I advanced my career because of my relationships and friendships, because we supported one another, we shared knowledge and information to help each other.
You’re currently planning for a new program called the Peppership, providing resources and guidance to photographers in need. When was this launched and when do you anticipate selecting the first two annual recipients?
The Peppership will be a not-for-profit created by Pepper, which operates like a bursary. We're currently going through the paperwork to solidify the legal side and be completely transparent. Then we’ll finalize a board of directors and collect donations. We’re asking people to donate either money or digital products, like presets, new or used gear, education, or mentorships. People are already starting to donate items, which is fantastic. Later this year, we’ll have a month-long window for nominations. Then, probably in fall 2021, the board of directors will review everything and decide on two recipients. We’ll provide each person with a certain amount of funding, plus materials and a year-long mentorship. We’ll also feature their work within that year to help them get ahead in life. Although my past was not as hard as many people's, being able to start my own photography business, make my own money, and be self-sustainable actually did save my life, and I want to do the same for other photographers who are struggling.
Are there any other upcoming programs, services, or content ideas in planning stages that you can share?
We're currently working on plans for a weekly series called Chill Talks, with a single host engaging one guest in conversation, and then opening up for a group chat. We’ll feature a different genre every week, covering weddings, boudoir, multi-genre creatives, and the faces behind entrepreneurial businesses that offer incredible services to photographers. We haven't decided if we want to hold this on Instagram Live or in Clubhouse, a very cool community engagement and marketing tool, since not everyone has access to that platform yet, so stay tuned for updates on that.
Finally, what’s the current status of creative services offered through Pepper?
We’ve got quite a large wait list right now, so we can't take on all the creatives who need our help. I resist growing the team further than its current size, because we are so close-knit, and work so well together. It’s something really special, and I don’t know if the high-touch, genuine care we give our creatives would be the same if we were larger.
But we're working on some great new content to sell through our store. Things like an actual template to walk photographers through SEO for blogging. So, even if we can't blog for you, here’s exactly what you need to know for proper SEO on your blog. We also describe the difference between SEO for your blog and SEO for your website and copy, because those are two different things.
We also offer mentorships, so even if we can't help a creative with their Pinterest by taking tasks off their plate, they can book a call with Paris, our Pinterest expert. They’ll learn how to set things up correctly, what software we use, how to schedule and maintain things, and best practices based on a given business, so it's personal to them. Although it’s only an hour-long call, we can help set out a strategy or a workflow that maybe you've been struggling with for months, so at least you have a starting point, and then you're great for the next three months.
For the full scoop on the creative agency Pepper, read Part 1 of our Q&A with photographer and entrepreneur Stacey Owen.