How Clickin Moms racked up $2.8M by replacing the portrait studio

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By Francine Knowles

Staff Reporter

Kendra Okolita and Sarah Wilkerson were simply looking to take the best shots of their kids. But they parlayed a parental passion for digital photography into one of the fastest-growing small businesses in the country, Clickin Moms.

The Geneva-based company is the largest subscription-based online community of female photographers, with 16,000 members paying from $30 for six months to $195 for a lifetime membership. Clickin Moms offers education programs for beginners to advanced, programs targeting professionals, and a blog, retail site and bimonthly print magazine.

“I originally just started a forum for me and my friends to be able to share pictures, critique each other’s work and talk about photography,” says Okolita, who founded the company in 2008. “It was less than 100 women at the time. We started accepting other members, and about a year later it really grew from there, mostly by word of mouth.”

Revenues have spiked from $180,000 in 2009 to $2.8 million last year. This year, revenues will grow 50 percent, says Okolita, 39, the company chairman who also has worked as a professional photographer.

She says a woman’s touch helped catapult the company to the No. 6 fastest-growing small media company on Inc. magazine’s 2013 list of the fastest-growing small companies and No. 300 overall.

“A big part of what we do is critiquing each other’s work,” she says. “That’s a huge way to learn and grow. Sometimes in these more traditional forums that are predominantly male they’re more blunt and scary for somebody who’s new, who has this really great expensive camera and really wants to learn how to use it. Here, you feel safe asking what you think are dumb questions.”

Wilkerson, who came on board initially as a member shortly after the forum launched, says the supportive environment is what drew her to it. The 33-year-old CEO, Duke graduate and former attorney got into digital photography after becoming a mom.

“My husband is in the Army, and he deployed 10 days after my first son was born,” she says. “I took up photography as a way to document everything that he was missing our son’s first year.”

Wilkerson quickly emerged as a leader in the online community, and naming her CEO was a no-brainer, Okolita says. Wilkerson held the company’s first forum-based workshop in 2010 and spearheaded the development of CMuniversity, an online photography school that provides education programs to more than 2,000 photographers each month.

The company plans to host its first conference next year. Its magazine, Click, launched last fall. It has a circulation of 30,000 and has exceeded circulation and advertising goals, Okolita says.  The duo knew they were bucking the trend in launching the new print publication.

“There’s such a trend now that when people shoot images, they stay on their computer, and they are burned to DVD or added to an external drive,” Wilkerson says. “The photographs never actually see paper. That’s part of the reason why it was so important to have a print magazine. We felt so strongly about seeing these images in print. It’s completely different than seeing them online. There’s something really incredible about being able to touch it. It’s a richer experience. I think because it’s a photography magazine and it’s purpose is to give visual inspiration to people, we’ve done OK.”

Wilkerson says women are helping drive an “evolution of style” in the professional photography business.

“We’ve seen movement in the photography industry away from traditional portrait sessions in the studios,” she says. “There’s still a place for that. But we’re also seeing a real demand for lifestyle sessions. A photographer will come into a family’s home and photograph them in their environment doing what they do, really capturing these real moments. Women have really embraced that. There’s something about that emotional connection that makes them really well-positioned to capture that for families.”

The virtual company has a staff of 11 spread across the country, among them Colorado-based Wilkerson. Its 21st-century structure hasn’t always been picture perfect.

“The challenges of working remotely I think have been the most significant obstacles for us in terms of just brainstorming, efficiency and team building,” Wilkerson says.

In response, the company now regularly holds video chats and makes use of cloud-based services to allow for team collaboration. “Don’t underestimate the importance of face time,” Wilkerson advises online entrepreneurs. “It makes such a difference.”

For other virtual operators taking their shot at success, Okolita says it’s important to know when to log off. “It would be very easy to work 24/7 because there’s always more to do,” she says. “But you need to maintain a work-life balance.”

And don’t be a follower, Wilkerson adds. “In the online world, it’s so easy to get caught up in what everybody else is doing because you see everything that’s happening on social media,” she says.

“Keep an eye on competitors, but dedicate your energy to focusing on your own innovation.”

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