CD: Kyle, thank you sir for agreeing to be a part of the FUSEVISUAL Project. We’ve known each other for over two decades (hard to believe) and I’ve seen your career change as you shifted from art director/designer to ISP owner and now into commercial photography.
Tell me about about your backstory, your history and your career up to this point.
Kyle Dreier: Oh boy, if I tell you the whole story I'll look like I've got a multiple personality disorder.
Since high school I wanted to own an advertising agency. I'm not sure how that seed was planted. Well, after doing some time in agency work I became more drawn to the creative side—art direction and design. With great luck I landed at American Way magazine where I got to exercise a bit of both. Those were the days where I could pretty much work with any illustrator or photographer I chose. This is where I could name-drop to no end. It really was fantastic working with such great talents.
The pace of publishing a magazine every two weeks at American Way finally pushed me over the edge, or wall, however you want to look at it; and I opened a small graphic design shop in Dallas. That lasted until I got tired of working with clients and wanted to work with creatives. Enter the next three years of doing editorial illustration full time. Then I started DogBark.com for web hosting. That was 1999 which ended up being a brilliant year to start a web company as long as it wasn't using venture capital. We grew fast with so many other dot-coms going bust. I got the company to a point where I could pursue other entrepreneurial ventures.
I won't go into details about the Florida investment real estate company I helped start other than to say it was a great experience yet a disappointing end. Funny thing, as I look back, that's when photography was reignited for me. I got back into shooting as a hobby on trips down to the beach. You should know something about me here, I'm not really one for hobbies. I tend to try and overlay a pro forma on my hobbies to see how to monetize them. So, I started shooting resort architecture.
In 2009 I sold DogBark.com which allowed me then to be a full time commercial photographer wannabe. It was a tough year as my CPA can attest. But, it was an investing year for building what would become a decent foundation today.
You know, as I look over the last twenty plus years the thread I see touches on exploring, learning, building, refining. That's kinda the consistent part of these seemingly disjointed pursuits.
CD: Now you are running a full-fledged studio dedicated to food and table top shooting. Tell us your thoughts on leadership and building a team that supports the client and your vision. (I am interested in how you shifted and your planning for growth and what was needed.) How did your experience on the client side help you plan your business as a photographer?
Kyle Dreier: There have been a few things I've embraced about taking the plunge into photography. One is the timing of our economy six years ago. I looked at it as an opportunity to grow a business. I embraced a "never waste a good recession" mantra by doing a lot of self promotion, advertising and making capital investments in equipment and studio. You know the saying "It takes money to make money." The second thing I did was hire people who were better than me. There's nothing like bringing in excellent assistants, digital techs, retouchers to help productions reach their potential.
You mention "leadership"...well, that's a hard one. As you know, I've got some type-A and am really hard on myself with regard to my own output, but I think I'm pretty much a mediocre leader. Maybe I lead by example, but I'm not always good at setting clear directives and rallying the troops to charge forward. I think much of my leadership is about setting up processes and creating standards and communicating expectations. Maybe my crew could answer the leadership question better...but they may just smile and act like everything is hunky-dory in fear of getting canned.
So, the idea of "building a team" is huge. I think there's kind of a false impression in the general public and sometimes within our own industry that a photographer is a one-man-show. Certainly there are productions where it might not warrant a full crew, but we still have a day to day business to run which includes many facets and people on our team. It's like a dance partner...getting to know and anticipate moves without stepping on toes, or in my case running into things. Our team consists of my agent Mollie and her team Sara and Connor fielding inquiries, negotiating budgets, showing my portfolio; my studio manager and producer Erica juggling a number of ongoing hot potatoes; Rory and John first and second assisting and Danielle digital teaching during productions; Teresa and Whitney doing food styling magic; prop styling by Elaine, Shana or Ellen; Tony on retouching; and Ian managing post-production images and archiving; oh, and I have to mention our caterer Laure. We also have a number of others we turn to depending on the size and demands of a production. So, all that to say, building a team is important but also takes time...just like that fancy dancing we see on TV.
You also mention my "experience on the client side"...I think about that often. I remember how I liked to interact with photographers and how I wanted to be a part of the process. I'm sure everyone is different but for me I want as much collaboration as possible from both sides. I've not yet tossed my hands in the air out of disgust and said, "I can't work under theses conditions!" Ha! Maybe that prima donna moment will come, but so far, I'm just one to just go with the flow...and as you know the flow on a production can take twists and turns.
CD: Who were your influences: first as a designer - art director, and as a photographer?
Kyle Dreier: Gosh, I've had great instructors, colleagues and roll models all along the way. Sheri Taylor, my high school yearbook and photography teacher was way over qualified to be teaching us ungrateful high schoolers. She set the foundation for my understanding of design, layout production, dark room work and long hours required to do quality work. Eric Ligon, my first design prof at UNT taught me how to truly appreciate and develop a passion for typography. Brian Boyd, an adjunct prof at UNT and partner at RBMM in Dallas helped me to ruthlessly scrutinize concept and design. Alisann Marsh at American Way ignited my respect and appreciation for great photography. There are so many others I could name. I've worked side by side with some of the industries best and learned a lot professionally and personally.
CD: Looking back over your career, what are the most important lessons you have learned from each path you've chosen?
Kyle Dreier: Whew, I don't know. Most of my lessons seemed to involve dead ends, bonks on the head, acting before thinking and watching dollars go down the drain. I guess that means "going for it" is the lesson. Making mistakes. Trying new things. Exploring. There's that word again.
Managing expectations is a theme that comes up so many times—professionally and personally. I expect a lot. People around me expect a lot. We kinda just all have to figure out what is reasonable and what isn't. That's a big one.
Hmmm...what else? Ah, I know...even though I failed accounting twice at Baylor, something seemed to stick, and that's so important for running a business. As you know, running a business means being on top of P&Ls, cash flow, etc. I wish I had something more profound to share, but positive cash flow is a big one. As a small business you gotta know how to manage that. Oh, and pay your crew quickly...like within 48 hours.
CD: What advice would you give to a young photographer about to embark on this career?
Kyle Dreier: I've got three boys and my youngest mentioned the other day he'd like to be a photographer. I've been trying to think of ways to discourage him from considering that pursuit. Being a photographer is hard—physically, mentally, financially. Making a career of it is harder. I think any discipline in the creative industry is hard.
There's such a feeling of lack of respect and understanding. Even as I say that I imagine any career or industry has that...people just don't understand what it takes to accomplish this or that. I'm guilty of minimizing what I think it will take to accomplish something I don't know about...heck, I under estimate the time it will take to do my own work...and I that's what I'm most familiar with.
So, back to your question...I'd tell them to go to business school like I did while also pursuing your creative dream. At the least, your business education will help you keep your dream afloat one way or another. And make sure your dream is 'your' dream...don't chase someone else's dream or what you 'think' your supposed to do. Do what you want. That's where your unique perspective or unusual vision will come from.