I often compare the entrepreneurial lifestyle to a roller coaster. The thrill is unlike any profession, sheer kinetic energy drives the train it up and down, friction wheels control lateral motion back and forth. Often you find yourself upside down or through some gauntlet that turn the stomach muscles. If the train were to de-rail; a complete disaster.
In preparation for this article I reluctantly went down a rabbit hole to learn more about how a roller coaster is built and what makes a thrill ride, thrilling. While it was quite interesting to learn a glossary of “CoasterSpeak” such as an Anti-Rollback Device or a Dead Spot, what was even more interesting was how each inversion or element truly parallels my life.
The Chain Lift
At the close of last year, I made a clear, concise decision to step away from the business of education in order to completely immerse myself in evolving my photography business and reaching new clientele. I sacrificed content creation and curriculum for self-learning through photography projects completely out of my comfort zone. These projects forced me to invest time into learning new lighting, new cameras and greater production value in less time. I learned about teamwork, leadership, communication and people. I also changed my marketing approach, and invested a lot of money into new techniques, such as new directories, new consultants, new assets, customized client gift boxes and nationwide portfolio reviews. I did it without a focus or budget. I completely improvised.
All of it felt like throwing a baited hook into a deep endless ocean, hoping for a bite you may never actually feel on the rod. It was a slow build and welcomed a lot of anticipation and even anxiety. But, eventually, the “click-click-click” of the chain lift gave way to gravity to the drop.
I suppose the drop is the part that people love the most. It’s the thrill, the reward after the anticipation of the chain lift. Most raise their hands and scream in joy as gravity pulls the train down to the earth at an incredible speed. That the sinking feeling in your stomach when on a rollercoaster is caused by a change in force experienced by your organs. When in freefall, every part of you is accelerating at the same rate, which gives you a similar feeling to weightlessness.
I felt the weightlessness as I checked my P&L report only a few days ago. I made the most money I’ve ever made in my life. Throughout the year, I found myself pausing in front of a bank teller to snap a photo of a big check. On occasion, I would screenshot my online banking report in disbelief. I’ve never really had real sustainable money. I have been broke and in debt my entire adult life.
That is why this year was so incredibly rewarding. My business doubled its annual income which afforded the ability to pay off my debt and make some big purchases including a Phase One IQ3 50MP camera system and a lot of new grip equipment. Beyond the stakes, 2018 afforded me a fiscal bedrock for personal growth.
I think when the train thrusts into a corkscrew inversion, it can rattle the sense of harmony. When I reflect on the corkscrew year, I think of the airport, the roadside hotel, an open road and my Nissan Cube. We traveled domestically across 16 states and internationally to Puerto Rico, Belize and Tanzania, twice. I summited Mount Kilimanjaro, snorkeled with sharks In Belize and devoured street Pinchos in Puerto Rico.
Just before Thanksgiving, I found myself packing for another adventure throughout Bangladesh, only to be cancelled the day before due to security.
I suppose traveling has always been apart of my job, since my first international trip to Tanzania, Africa in 2015. I’m definitely no longer the green globetrotter I was several years ago. I’ve settled into my own system for the 10 hour flights and the weekly road trips. But, this year presented its new challenges for production on the road.
At the start of the year, I was approached by an agency based in Sarasota, Florida that handles advertising for tourism departments across the United States. Kentucky needed unique and new marketing photography for the new year and I was the awarded for the job. I was thrilled to show off the beauty of Kentucky. But, anxious with the heavy responsibility. This was completely new territory, semi-lifestyle photography I hadn’t really shot before. I knew we had to have the speed of a run-gun editorial crew, but the production value of an advertising crew. The job took myself and an assistant and half-ton of production equipment to small cities I never knew existed, country stores, distilleries, tobacco barns, caves, lakes, open fields, mountains and forests, all in my Nissan Cube. We figured out what worked and what didn’t. We developed small systems to expedite packing and increase proficiency. Fortunately, we made an impression. So, we were asked to do the same in Delaware a few weeks later.
2018 was one heck of a corkscrew.
The Bank Turn
I always remember the sharp bank turn. It’s the turn that tips the train laterally to the point it feels like you may fall out of the seat. The turn takes you in completely different direction into unknown elements on the track. In 2015, I started a health journey which led to the loss of 130 pounds and an entirely new lifestyle. I dropped a lot of the garbage in my diet and added real organic food and drink. Green tea instead of Red Bull. A bison burger instead of a McDonald’s cheeseburger. Vegetables instead of bread. It was life changing. 2018 brought its health challenges, I kick started the year by climbing the highest free standing mountain, Mount Kilimanjaro for the second time. I felt good and wanted to reach my personal weight goal, except I didn’t come close.
While on the road for Kentucky tourism, I found myself was full speed sprinting, two cameras attached to my shoulder strap, up a mountain trail off the side of Natural Bridge State Park. I needed a specific shot of the rock bridge, but only had 5 minutes to do so before we had to get on the road to our destination. Adrenaline was high and I used every ounce of energy to get the shot and back down the mountain on-time. As soon as dropped the heavy cameras from my shoulder and sat in the car seat of my Cube, I felt a pinch in my neck. It didn’t feel sharp, but dull and annoying. I had trouble sleeping through the entire production. It effected my work, my mental and physical strength and caused discomfort.
Upon return from the production I consulted my health and wellness coach Sol Perry on the issue. The pain had become worse and had spread down my left shoulder into my upper back. I couldn’t do a push-up, my entire left side wouldn’t fire or engage. I lost all motivation to exercise. I had to make it right, I had to heal myself. First, I went to my massage therapist for an intense massage on my shoulder, I wanted it to work, but it didn’t. It only got worse. Then I started to see a sport physical therapist twice a week, I thought it worked, but eventually the pain only shifted. I was told that I had spent my entire life in a state of Kyphosis. Hunched over a guitar, a computer and a camera. This injury was a bomb waiting to explode, the trail run was just the spark.
The pain had moved from annoying to crippling. It bothered me when I stood, sat, shot, slept and ate. I burned out creatively and had little desire to work because of it. So, I took a medical leap and received Prolotherapy and Ozone therapy. Prolotherapy is an injection of concentrated dextrose that can trigger the body's healing response. Once activated, the body will start to strengthen and repair damage. Ozone is an injection of colorless gas made up of three oxygen atoms to instantly improve the body's intake and use of oxygen and to activate the healing. In a nutshell, it's a jab-jab-right hook system to expedite the healing process. Not like a steroid or cortisone, it’s not a band-aid. It a real fix and it worked, immediately. Today, the pain is nearly gone and recently I was able to a push-up, again. Everyday I’m working to better my posture and fully recover my back and shoulder. Thank you Dr. Cruz.
This bank turn was sharp and hard, but I’m moving onto the next inversion.
The Vertical Loop
A loop can be disorienting and daunting. You don’t know if you’re upside or right side up until the horizon comes into clear focus after the loop. In November, I received an email regarding a possible project for Delta Air Lines. This was huge. I was shocked and immediately engaged. The project request was simple: a group shot of their top employee’s in Atlanta on one shot day. The client requested a bid which included a creative treatment and it had to be delivered in 48 hours. I remember asking myself, “Uh, what’s a treatment?”
I went into a blitzkrieg. Dove into research, consulted my closest colleagues and even went as far as to hire a storyboard artist to bring to life my creative ideas into drawings. After an overnight crusade in Photoshop, I put everything into a professionally designed 16-page PDF and sent it away at sunrise. I was proud of myself. The liaison for Delta Air Lines seemed impressed with my punctual delivery and unique approach. We all seemed very hopeful, even secure. I waited and waited. Then…
“Unfortunately Delta has decided to move forward with another photographer for this project. They really liked your work and the concepts hit the mark, as did the budget, but they ultimately selected another photographer based on his extensive experience shooting large groups.”
It was the greatest let down of the year. I really wanted the job, not for the money, but because it was f***ing Delta, a name which can hold weight with future prospects. Nevertheless, Sometimes you win and sometimes you learn. I have to think it only means I’m doing something right. It sure threw me for a vertical loop, but I have my eye on the horizon now.
This year, I learned a lot about people and production; leadership and livelihood. I've learned even more about myself and my mantra. Let’s review the highlight reel.
We successfully wrapped production photography for History Channel and the new season of "Swamp People."
In partnership with Waterboys and Worldserve International, I successfully reached the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro with NFL athlete and two-time Super Bowl champion Chris Long and his Conquer Kili team, with the mission to help the clean water situation in Tanzania, Africa. This project marked my second summit on the "Roof Of Africa.”
We wrapped a series of personal work in San Pedro, Belize and San Juan, Puerto Rico.
We photographed Whitney Nash and Sara Robertson for O, The Oprah Magazine.
We photographed jockey Victor Espinoza for Flatboat Bourbon and Liquor Barn.
We photographed Kentucky Derby track fashion for W magazine.
We successfully wrapped the 2019 advertising campaign for Kentucky Tourism.
I spoke on the topic of "Stop Taking Pictures, Start Telling Stories" for TEDxTylerPark in Louisville, Kentucky.
I started a coaching platform to individually consult photographers around the world.
We photographed NBA athlete Malcolm Brogdon in Tanzania, Africa for his new intuitive Hoops20 in partnership with Waterboys and Worldserve International.
We successfully wrapped a new feature on Nashville, Tennessee for National Geographic.
We photographed Triple Crown Winner and legendary thoroughbred Justify for Churchill Downs.
We successfully wrapped the 2019 campaign for Delaware Division of Small Business.
I sent 12 of my most valuable clientele and partners a customized wooden gift box.
I purchased a Phase One XF IQ3 50MP camera system.
We moved into a new home.
We adopted a German Shepard, “Ragnar.”
I became a coffee snob.
Behind the brand is a collection of people who I owe a debt of gratitude: Alexandra Hepfinger, Mom, Dad, Andy Hepfinger, Colleen Hepfinger, Hunter Zieske, Louis Tinsley, Ahmad Merhi, Danny Bloom, Emily Maddox, Nayo Ayegbajeje, Craig Oppenheimer, Stacy Swiderski, Jess Dudley, Jordan Hartley, Coury Deeb, Justin Gustavision, Reid Olson, Drew Layman, Ryan Galanaugh, Bethany Hood, Anastasia Gerdes, Tyler Anderson, Danny Alexander, Sol Perry, Dr. Andrew Baer and Dr. Rafael Cruz.
Last year was the year of Fear, Food, Focus, Love, Loss and Grit. Naturally, those strong adjectives still applied for 2018, but felt different. 2018 presented a lot of success and a lot of failure, which burned new awareness and forged a path for a better future and a better me. It was the best fiscal year of my entire career thus far but, it was also one of the most internally challenging. With every step back, there was a new step sideways and forward. I am forever grateful for this year and this life.