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Differentiation: An Attitude of Mind?


In Austin, Texas, if you want headshots, you go to Korey Howell Photography. Korey doesn’t take pictures of families, or weddings, or special events, or pets. The one thing she does, and does really well, is headshots. She’s not old school (hands on lap; fake smile) or new school (capturing “lifestyle”). Instead of being overly concerned with the perfect composition or ideal lighting (“That’s what Photoshop’s for”), the person in the picture is made to look the very best of their natural selves. Which is why so many of Austin’s consultants, entrepreneurs, coaches and speakers flock to her studio, so we can look like we’re about to pick up our Academy Awards.

Liz by Olympia at Korey Howell Photography

Liz by Olympia at Korey Howell Photography

Korey Howell and her team take headshots. That’s it. Just headshots. In part, it’s that niche focus that distinguishes her from the competition. But it also has to do with Korey’s philosophy on life. As she points out, reinvention comes naturally to her. Which is how she came to differentiate her business further—with the arrival of new “baby,” Honey.

Go Get Shot

“Honey” was delivered on July 10th. She’s bright pink, weighs 10,000 pounds, and is 14 feet tall. When she’s not out on a job, she lives in a local trailer park and sleeps in custom-made covers. Honey is Korey’s new mobile photo studio. Otherwise just a big box on wheels, the truck is populated with lighting, backdrop and viewing stations built into the wall with Mac Monitors. There’s space for the make-up artist to do her thing, and the facility to open up the back of the truck if the client wants to be shot in natural light. The only things the traveling team have to make sure they’ve got with them are cameras, laptop, make-up, and the truck driver.

Meet Korey - and new "baby" Honey.

Meet Korey – and new “baby” Honey.

The idea for a mobile photo studio came about as a response to a practical business need—with a bit of creative thinking thrown in. The equipment Korey and her team used to have to haul to client sites weighs something like 150 lbs. They call it “the body bag.” After a day of running around shooting two assignments, and wearied by all that heavy lifting, one of the team members said what a pity it was that there wasn’t such a thing as a photo truck, along the lines of the food trucks situated in every spare nook and cranny in the city. That’s when Korey had her “aha” moment”

The truck was a big investment and everyone kept telling me I was taking such a chance. But Honey feels like the opposite to me—I’d be losing money if I didn’t do it. She’s put to work 24/7. During the working week having a mobile studio means that our corporate accounts can send their people out to have their photos taken, without us having to invade their space. Plus, it’s fun and the novelty helps people, who might otherwise be shy, to enjoy themselves.

The truck has a permanent location on Fridays on busy South Lamar Boulevard, and at weekends and evenings Honey is available as a photo booth for parties and other events.

Doesn’t Korey worry that, having come up with such a fresh idea for her business, a competitor might come along and “steal” it?

I’m not especially worried. On the one hand, I hope no one else in Austin would want to spend as much money as I have. But having established first mover advantage, anyone else would be seen as a copycat or ‘also ran’.

Change is something that comes naturally to me. I’m always changing my hair color and moving furniture around. New office space has become available that offers a road-facing location, so we’ll shortly be moving there. I’m typically on top of trends because otherwise I get bored if I’m doing the same thing over and over. I’m always looking for the next good idea.

In a profession that could easily become commoditized, Korey made a decision at the outset not to compete on price. “I’m the high end choice and proud of it. If you want the best experience, come to me. If you want the cheapest experience, don’t.

“Give your employees the opportunity to have a great shot taken by someone good and you are a hero to them. When it comes to differentiating yourself, it helps to be niched and clear about your value proposition. You’re not trying to be all things to all people.”

It’s All About Attitude

Speaking with Korey reminded me of a previous conversation I had with Mike Figliuolo on the same topic. Both of them appear less concerned about what everyone else is doing in their space, and trying to keep ahead of that, than running their business according to their own passions and beliefs, and allowing new ideas to evolve or emerge naturally from there.

So perhaps differentiation is less of a conscious strategy for some, more an attitude of mind? One fueled by fearlessness, as well as a continuing desire to reinvent oneself, that enables companies like Korey’s and Mike’s to stay ahead of their respective games.

Or, as Korey says: “My stepfather once told me that if you want to give yourself a raise, buy something you can’t afford and raise yourself up to meet that challenge. Honey is her own company, but we have the bricks and mortar studio too, meaning there’s no pressure to succeed quickly.”

Although I expect with such a well-executed, differentiating idea, Korey Howell Photography will see a return on that investment pretty quickly! After all, we’re talking about the

Best Little Headshot Truck in Texas Y’all!

Please be a part of this discussion. What challenges have you faced around differentiating yourself from your competitors? What insights can you share about what you learned from that experience? Contribute your comments below. We will respond to all comments. 

Update: You might also be interested in this article I found on Quibb about competitive advantage.

Key quote:

One idea that stayed with me was of single-minded focus – how focus on a particular type of user can be a sustainable source of power or competitive advantage.

About Dr. Liz Alexander

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