Nathan Hamilton, IAL Photography
Family plays a critical role in Nathan Hamilton’s life. His loved ones have been with him at every step of his business journey as he’s grown In A Lifetime Photography, based in Houston, Texan. Nathan’s uncle taught him film photography in high school. The birth of his daughter prompted him to start a side hustle to gain a flexible schedule. Today, his wife and two kids encourage him to dream big, have fun, and get rest.
Episode 39 – Nathan Hamilton, IAL Photography
[00:00:55] Sanjay Parekh: Nathan Hamilton got his start in photography during high school… in the days of film photography… where he learned from his uncle. Nathan loves creating images… and seeing the way his clients respond to those images, even when they look at them years later. This passion inspired him to start his business, In a Lifetime Photography, 15 years ago. Here today to share his story and how he balances his business, two kids, and everything in between… is Nathan Hamilton. Nathan, welcome to the show!
[00:01:23] Nathan Hamilton: Thank you.
[00:01:25] Sanjay Parekh: I'm excited to have you on because not often do we get people on that have had a business for as long as you have. So, I'm sure you've seen a lot of kind of twists and turns of the business. But before we get into all of that, tell us a little bit about you and how you get to where you are now.
[00:01:41] Nathan Hamilton: My starting photography or just in general?
[00:01:44] Sanjay Parekh: Just in general, yeah. Anything you want to share with us?
[00:01:47] Nathan Hamilton: I am a native Texan. Not many of us left, because everybody else comes here. Been here all my life. Born and raised in the Houston area, which is, I'm northwest of that area now in cypress, was married, divorced now. Have, two kids. My daughter's 35, I have a son who's 20. And other than my passion for photography, I am pretty much a sci-fi geek.
[00:02:17] Sanjay Parekh: I think that's a whole separate podcast you and I can do, we'll talk about the sci-fi stuff. So, you got your start and kind unlocking your love for photography during high school. How did that happen?
[00:02:34] Nathan Hamilton: Because I was, again, the bookworm, I liked chemistry and I have an uncle who was photographer and back in the days when they put this stuff called film cameras instead of cards, he would actually develop everything in the dark room. And going through that whole chemical process intrigued me and you know, to see how it worked and how everything did and just kind of start following him from there. And kind of going through the process and then getting people's reactions. Cause, like, I'm an introvert, but I like seeing people happy. So, that kind of progressed and it kind of just took off from there.
[00:03:13] Sanjay Parekh: So, you, I'm imagining then you spent a lot of time in the dark room, like developing these photos along the way. What was, you know, like, understand the chemistry of it, but what was like the most interesting part of that process for you?
[00:03:27] Nathan Hamilton: Because, since it wasn't digital, you didn't know what you had until you actually went through the developing process. So, to take the image that's in your head and shoot it and then when you go through that process and see, okay, hey, I got exactly what I was thinking then having that kind of relief, basically. Cause you got the shot, but then knowing the client was going to like it also, you know? Yeah. That was probably the best part of it.
[00:03:56] Sanjay Parekh: So, it was really like, what I'm hearing is the surprise portion, of that. And so, now with digital, you don't have the surprise portion. I mean, you have the surprise portion for like half a second. Until you look on the screen. Do you feel like for you, has that changed the experience of being a photographer?
[00:04:14] Nathan Hamilton: It was an adjustment because initially I wouldn't even look at my camera. I would still wait until I got home to see if I got the shot rather than just looking at the back of the camera immediately. Yeah. But that also, helped me now because I can look and see what I have and make improvements and adjustments while I'm at the shoot. That way I can give my clients a better quality shoot, you know, of what they want.
[00:04:43] Sanjay Parekh: But let's talk about UB as an entrepreneur, I mean, you started this, I guess, in high school, but you didn't actually start the company until after that. But was there examples of entrepreneurs in the family? Like, was your uncle an entrepreneur or like, were there other entrepreneurs in your family?
[00:05:05] Nathan Hamilton: On my dad's side of the family, there were. My grandmother had her own business. I had two aunts who had their own businesses. So, and then, you know, I had uncles who were musicians and so, they had their gigs and things that they would do. So, the business stuff was on my dad's side of family, so, taking risks, taking chances, doing it on your own. I kind of learned that from them.
[00:05:32] Sanjay Parekh: Yeah. Okay. So, as you were doing this in high school, did you do this as kind of like a side hustle? Did you, were you making money with your love of photography then, or was this just fun?
[00:05:43] Nathan Hamilton: It was fun at first. But I kept getting asked to do it. Then it was like, okay, well if people are going to keep asking me, then maybe I can make money from this. So, that's how it turned. Because I kept, hey, can you do me a favor? Hey, can you do me a favor? And I'm like, okay, I need to start getting paid for these favors. So, it went from there.
[00:06:06] Sanjay Parekh: Yeah. So, how long after high school is it that you got official with starting a company?
[00:06:13] Nathan Hamilton: I would say probably 10 years after high school.
[00:06:18] Sanjay Parekh: Oh. So, what happened in between there? Were you working? What were you doing and then shifting to this? Yeah.
[00:06:24] Nathan Hamilton: I was working, you know, the little retail jobs, you know. The working weekends and all of that and didn't like that schedule, So, I had to start finding things that would kind of give me free time because I had my daughter in my twenties and I wanted to be more available for her, and retail just didn't do it because working nights, you're working every weekend, and I needed more available time because I'm a dad now. So, that allowed me to make that transition. I was doing photography, but then I also started working for a photo lab, so, that kind of gave me the best of both worlds. So, I still had stable income, but I also was exercising my passion.
[00:07:06] Sanjay Parekh: Yeah. So, it's an interesting dichotomy you bring up there. Like you needed more free time, but the way you got more free time was by starting a business, which traditionally is not, viewed as a way of getting more free time. Right? That's the way of getting rid of your free time. How did you balance those things?
[00:07:25] Nathan Hamilton: Well, the photography allowed me to set my own schedule. So, that if I didn't want to work a weekend, I didn't have to, if I didn't want to work at night, I didn't have to. So, I could take those daytime events. I could take one wedding in the afternoon, or one on a Sunday morning or something like that. So, I had the freedom to make my schedule, which was a lot better than, okay, hey, you have to work Christmas this weekend, or, hey, you have to work, you know, the day after Thanksgiving, you know? So, I had more freedom, even though it was more work, it was still more freedom.
[00:07:58] Sanjay Parekh: Right, yeah. When you're, when you're an employee, you basically have to take the schedule that you're given rather than the other way around. So, the other thing that happens too, with starting a business is, you know, look, you're a relatively new dad at that point. Or you have young kids. That's a lot of stress. Starting a business is a lot of stress too. So, how did you manage that aspect of it? Because just getting started, like, where are your clients coming from, right? Like, what do you do to get started there?
[00:08:30] Nathan Hamilton: A lot of support came from family. My daughter, you know, her mom, you know, grandparents, all of that. So, they were, hey, okay, we got it. You know? So, I still had time, but they were very supportive. And then as far as getting clients, again, most of it was initially friends and family. But I learned the hard way, which is something I would probably tell somebody not to do now, but, but I learned the hard way. Okay. Hey, you're going to have to go out and find them. You know? So, my, I did my first bridal show, about maybe a couple of years after I got started. And that's how I started getting my consistent base of clients was from doing trade shows, bridal shows, advertising, things like that. Stuff I wish I had known early on, that I didn't find out until later.
[00:09:22] Sanjay Parekh: Yeah. So, what does that entail doing a bridal show, does that mean going to a show and having a booth or, yeah. What does that mean?
[00:09:29] Nathan Hamilton: Yeah, So, you're going to take your work and initially I didn't have a lot of work. I had maybe two albums and a couple of enlargements I had this 10 by 10 booth. And I guess it was simple enough, but my work was good enough that I was able to get a steady floor of clients. And the booth you have. Hundreds of brides coming through that, that that whole two-day weekend. Cause it was both Saturday and Sunday. So, they were coming through, they're looking for people. They're looking at, they're looking at the quality of your work, but they're also looking at price. I mean, no matter how extravagant the wedding is, people are going to still be shopping by price. Yeah. So, I was still fairly new, So, I was cheap. So, that helped. You know, but it allowed me to get a portfolio. It allowed me to grow from there. Then I could afford to advertise more. I could get into the magazines. Cause this was before internet, So, you could get into the magazines, you could, you know, do more trade shows. So, the more work you had, you know, the more you could be seen, especially when knew what they wanted.
[00:10:34] Sanjay Parekh: Yeah. You know, that's one of the things I think a lot of people are concerned about, of getting a booth of a show like this is that I don't have enough stuff. To make it look like I'm doing what I'm saying I'm doing. Like how did you do it? Like you said, you only had a couple of albums.
Like how did you deal with having this 10 by whatever size booth and it was just you, like you didn't even have people, right. And it was just you and like, how do you make it look like, no, no. I am a legitimate photographer, not just some guy that walked off the street.
[00:11:09] Nathan Hamilton: It pushed the introvert out of me, basically, because it, you have to be confident because even though you don't have a lot, you have to still act like you know what you're doing. You know, so, they have to have confidence in your skill, even if you're not showing a lot. But then it's the quality of the work. So, they don't need a table full of albums and, you know, 20 prints behind you. If the quality of the work you have is good enough, they can see that and know you're confident enough and it, you know, confident, not cocky, but if you're confident enough, they can see the skill and they're most likely going to go with you. So, it's just a matter of reassuring them that you know what you're doing, you know, and the focus, especially with brides, is to focus on them. If you make it all about them, it's not a problem, you know?
[00:12:01] Sanjay Parekh: Yeah. You know, there's another interesting thing that you've actually touched on a couple of times that I like to dive into is being an introvert. And a lot of people view being an entrepreneur, being a founder and doing a side hustle as something that you have to be extroverted about. You have to already be that way. And it's funny because I'm very similar to you. When I was in college, I was more of an introvert, and that kind of changed for me during college and really amplified when I did my first startup right. To be, become an extrovert. But how do you, as somebody that, you know, you still, it sounds like you define yourself still as an introvert. How do you manage that flip and your mentality? Because it is very different being an extrovert versus an introvert.
[00:12:46] Nathan Hamilton: When I'm working, I basically put the hat on that, I mean, and that's probably the simplest way I could explain it, because I kind of just put myself in that mode, that for that time, this is what I have to do. So, I can, you know, use my voice to be commanding. I can, you know, talk, I can crack the jokes, I can make people smile. I can do all of that because it's required for the job. I'm still sincere, I'm still myself, but it's that part of me that I push out to make sure that the client's comfortable. Because at that point, that's who I'm focusing on. So, it's basically, like you said, it's flipping that switch. So, I just kind of put myself in that mode. For that time. It was just short term.
[00:13:29] Sanjay Parekh: Yeah. So, for a lot of people that are either introvert or extrovert, they kind of have to recharge their batteries in the way that makes sense, right? Extroverts recharge their batteries by being around people, introverts, by being by themselves. So, how do you deal with that? Because it's probably pretty draining as an introvert having to be kind of on and engage with people. How do you work with that? How do you figure that out for yourself?
[00:13:54] Nathan Hamilton: I limit the number of events I take at one time. So, if I do an eight to 10 hour waiting on a Saturday, I won't be seen on Sunday because I need that recharge. So, that my recovery time, you know? So, again, I put myself into mind, okay, I need this eight to ten hour burst of energy, and then after that I can go back into my cocoon and I'm fine.
[00:14:26] Sanjay Parekh: So, let's talk about the cocoon. Like what things do you do? Is it exercise? Is it meditation? Like, what do you do to help yourself recharge and be healthy?
[00:14:36] Nathan Hamilton: I do exercise, but the kid in me is going to probably default to, either video games or cartoons. Seriously.
[00:14:48] Sanjay Parekh: Appreciate both of those, by the way. That fantastic. So, that's kind of your off time. That's kind of what you do to recharge. Yeah. That's great. I like that a lot. So, let's talk about, you know, kind of one of the things, that a lot of people also, have in terms of doing their own thing, like what you've done. They fear things. They worry about things. And so, know, in the time that you've been doing this 15 years, like you said officially. I think there was, you know, some more time than that, that you've been doing this. What have you been worried about? What are the things that have caused you fear and how have you dealt with those things?
[00:15:33] Nathan Hamilton: One of the hardest things, especially down here in this area, is getting consistent work. Because that's your only source of income. So, you know, it's basically if you don't work, you can't eat. So, yeah, you kind of have to make that your focus and often it causes you to readjust. For example, back in 2008, We had a, you know, hurricane eye kit and after that we had a really bad housing bubble that burst. So, income down here was like little or none. So, people were not, they were not paying thousands of dollars for wedding photographers. So, you, couldn't just say, okay, hey, I'm a wedding photographer. You really had to just readjust and refocus. Okay, hey, what else can I do that will bring in income. And that's where the creative side starts coming out, and you have to take more chances.
[00:16:31] Sanjay Parekh: Yeah. So, kind of zone in on that. What did you do during that time?
[00:16:36] Nathan Hamilton: During that time, I got into real estate photography. Got into sports photography, because I was already shooting, you know, high school and college students. So, it was an easy transition there, but just kind of branching out. And then there were still companies, even though they were cutting back, they were still having events, they still needed head shots. They still needed, you know, different things for publications. Again, you have to reach out more to people that either are already in your network or find people to bring into your network.
[00:17:08] Sanjay Parekh: Yeah. So, that was a little bit of a diversion. So, are you still doing those things, or have you refocused back and now it's mainly weddings and families? Like where, where's is the business at now?
[00:17:20] Nathan Hamilton: I still do them because I like them, because I love sports. So, to be able to be on the sideline or be down, you know, under the basket, I still enjoy that, but it's not like, okay, hey I need this. So, but it's still something I do if I'm asked to do, you know, So, that's no problem. But yeah, the focus is still weddings and portraits, whether it's high school graduations, college graduation, or you know, family stuff. But that's the course.
[00:17:47] Sanjay Parekh: Yeah. The side benefit of being, right by the court or on the sidelines, even though you're working I'm sure is, you know, a good one for a job like that.
[00:17:57] Nathan Hamilton: Oh yeah. Yeah, absolutely.
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[00:18:21] Sanjay Parekh: So, let, talk about the business then itself. Okay. You know, running a small business like this, it's hard. Are there things that you've learned over the years? Are there tools, are there techniques, frameworks, like whatever it is. What are the things that you've figured out for yourself that helps you run the business better or easier or in some way that's different than anybody else that's doing what you do?
[00:18:47] Nathan Hamilton: I wouldn't say better than anyone, but what I've learned, and again, I kind of learned late. So, I would probably tell somebody not to do it that way because initially I cash flowed everything. So, it was okay, hey, I make some money, pour it right back into business. You know, pay yourself a little bit, but pour the rest back into the business. Instead of finding ways to get business financing, you know, getting the LLC set up, getting insurance, getting myself covered in certain ways so that it would be a legitimate business. So, that if I went to a bank for a loan, if I went to the SBA for a loan, I was set up and it wasn't just, oh, well yeah, he has his personal checking account, and this is how he's working everything. So, getting legitimate as the business was probably one of the best decisions I did. But then after that, It was, again, networking, whether it was with a wedding venue, whether it was with a company for consistent work with their head shots and stuff like that. So, finding people that I could consistently call on so that if the weddings were slow or if the family portraits were slow, I still had other things I could reach out and still people I could talk to because I developed a relationship with them. So, just, okay, hey, you know, I have this company I talk to, but I had a relationship with the people at the company. So, I developed a trust factor. So, relationship for me is a lot better than networking. I use networking, but it's really relationship.
[00:20:19] Sanjay Parekh: When, you kind of converted over and actually made a company and got legit like that, what was it that caused you to make that leap? Was it somebody told you like, Hey Nathan, you need to be set up this way. You're not set up the right way, or was it, you know, something else that caused you to realize that you weren't doing the right thing there?
[00:20:39] Nathan Hamilton: I wish somebody who had told me that, quite honestly it was 2020 that caused me to do that. Because again, I had been cash flowing everything, but, when, COVID hit and a lot of stuff got shut down, there were still businesses that were getting assistance from the government, but it was because of the way they were set up. So, it's like, oh, So, how are they getting that? And I'm not getting, and I've been doing it all these years. I've been paying my taxes, I've been doing all that, but the business itself was not set up properly. So, then it was me looking into, okay, how do I get my business set up properly? And So, it's only been a couple of years that I've been quote unquote legitimate, even though I've, even though I've been doing this a while, you know? So, again, that's something I wish someone had broken down and said, Hey, this is what you need to do.
[00:21:32] Sanjay Parekh: Yeah. That's interesting that, I mean, that's a really long time that you've been doing this, and you've only been, kind of incorporated or whatever for a couple of years now, right? So, that's
[00:21:43] Nathan Hamilton: Yeah, exactly.
[00:21:43] Sanjay Parekh: Yeah. And it's, I think it's one of those things, right? Like it's really easy to get lost in, doing the business instead of working on the business. Right, and realizing that there are things around the business that you need to pay attention to.
[00:21:58] Nathan Hamilton: Right. And that's what I was doing. I was so focused on getting work, getting clients, and, you know, yeah, at the end of the year, okay, yeah, file this form and pay my taxes. But I wasn't really a business person. I was a photographer.
[00:22:13] Sanjay Parekh: Right. Right. So, do you, do you view yourself now as a business person?
[00:22:17] Nathan Hamilton: Absolutely not. I have a good friend of mine that's a CPA, and I'm like, Hey, you know, he takes care of most of that, you know? Yeah. So, I mean, we barter a little bit, but I do pay him because I'd rather pay for somebody to do what I don't know how to do. And that's not me. I would much rather be shooting.
[00:22:43] Sanjay Parekh: So, that was going to be my next question. Is that something that you want to learn over time or no, it's not something that you care about at all?
[00:22:50] Nathan Hamilton: No, I would much, just, just like in the house, I'm not trying to lay carpet or fix tile or anything like that. Oh, I can hire this person to do that. Yeah. How, how much for that? Fine. Because I would much rather make sure it's done right. Then for me to be watching HGTV and screw it up.
[00:23:11] Sanjay Parekh: That absolutely makes sense. So, let's talk about that. That's a great piece of advice for anybody that's listening that might be thinking about doing a side hustle or turning that into a small business. Yeah. What other pieces of advice do you have for somebody that's thinking about starting their own side hustle?
[00:23:28] Nathan Hamilton: Make sure you have support from either friends or family. Because even though you're the term they use now Solopreneur, even though you may be doing it alone, you can't do it alone. You'll get burned out. Yeah. So, either get a couple of good friends who are going to hold you accountable no matter what the business is. In my case, I have other photographer friends that I can reach out to. We can network, we can talk, we can kind of hold each other up. Having a support group around you, whether it's friends, family, other vendors in the same field, but don't try to do it all yourself.
[00:24:07] Sanjay Parekh: Yeah. You touched on an interesting point right there is, being held accountable, right? Like that's a hard thing when you're doing something like this on your own. How do you make sure. That you're pushing as hard as you need to every single day. Do you like have a group that you talk about like once a week, once a month, about how things are going and challenges and things like that? Or what do you do for that?
[00:24:32] Nathan Hamilton: Part of it is that, you know, again, some of the photographers that I know we'll get together, about maybe once a month, check in with each other, see how things are going. But the other part is my family because, I got to make sure that I'm… Just on a personal side note, my son is on the autism spectrum. So, when he was younger there was a lot of, you know, therapy and things like that. So, all that had to go on, all that had to be paid for. So, it was making sure I could be available for him. So, when you have a purpose and when you have. Other people you're accountable for, then that kind of energizes you to just step up and do what you need to do. Because you can't half step because there are other people you're responsible for.
[00:25:19] Sanjay Parekh: Yeah, absolutely. Okay, So, there's actually a question I've been waiting to ask this whole time, and I think hopefully our listeners, want to know this too. So, you're a top-notch photographer. Most of us have no idea what we're doing with photography. So, what are, one or two hints for us taking pictures so that we can, probably not your level of photos, but maybe a little bit better. Like what can we do to take better photos?
[00:25:48] Nathan Hamilton: Be yourself. Don't try to be the top notch photographer, because we're not top notch. It's just been, you know, years of experience of us screwing up that makes us look like we know what we're doing. But whether it's a camera phone or whether you go out and get the same camera we have, it's, you know, either ask questions, learn the equipment. Because it's not just the equipment. It's Okay, I have this $5,000 camera, let me go take great pictures. It's like trying to drive a Lamborghini and you can't drive a civic, you know? So, learn the equipment, get comfortable with the equipment, and just enjoy it. Don't really try to work at it just enjoy it. And most of the best shots, especially with, you know, people who don't do it for a living, most of their best shots are going to be the ones they're not trying to get.
[00:26:43] Sanjay Parekh: Yeah. Yeah. I've seen, incredible photos that people have taken on just camera phones. Right. Like just smartphones. And it's incredible. Sometimes I see some of those photos and I'm like, I don't think I could take that photo, but maybe they weren't trying to either, and they just got it.
[00:27:00] Nathan Hamilton: I have a friend of mine who lives in Hawaii. and she sent me a shot of a double rainbow that she took with her camera phone, and I'm like, I'm literally jealous because the shot was that good. You know? Yeah. So, it doesn't take a whole lot, it's just capture what your eye sees. Yeah. Instead of get a perfect shot, just take the shot.
Yeah, sometimes it's just right place, right time, and it just happens. Well, Nathan, this has been fantastic. Where can our listeners find and connect with you in case they want to?
My website is, IALphoto.com. Or if they just search for my company name In A Lifetime Photography. I'm again located northwest of Houston in Cypress. Suburb, but if they look for a Houston photographer, they'll find me. I'm on Facebook, I'm on Instagram. I'm on TikTok reluctantly, but I'm still there.
So, phone numbers are public as well. So, I even try to help other photographers coming up because again, I try to give what I wish someone had given me. So, if there's someone starting out in business, hey, what do I need to do? How do I need to do this? Then I try to make myself available for that too.
[00:28:20] Sanjay Parekh: Awesome. This has been great, Nathan. Thanks so much for coming on.
[00:28:23] Nathan Hamilton: Thank you.
[00:28:50] Sanjay Parekh: Thank you for listening to this week's episode of the Side Hustle to Small Business Podcast, powered by Hiscox. To learn more about how Hiscox can help protect your small business through intelligent insurance solutions, visit hiscox.com. And if you have a story you want to hear on this podcast, please visit www.hiscox.com/shareyourstory. I'm your host Sanjay Parekh. You can find me on Twitter @sanjay or on my website at www.sanjayparekh.com