Many people dream of starting their own business. What prompts some people, and not others, to take the leap?
Often, it doesn’t take much: just a small push and a bit of gumption.
Take John and Carolyn Brzezinski, a husband in his early sixties and wife in her late fifties, who recently retired from their respective careers in construction and architecture to start an online business, University Icons, which sells fine art photographs of university campuses. Over the last two years, the Brzezinskis have spent their days traveling across America, capturing university buildings in all their glory, and selling these photographs on their website. Their story goes to show that you don’t need to be young or even particularly web-savvy to create a thriving e-commerce business.
John Brzezinski, a construction manager at Northwestern University, has always been an avid photographer. Over the years, Carolyn, a municipal architect, had toyed with the idea of selling his art. It was the recent recession, which hit both of them hard, that prompted the couple to take their idea seriously. “At that moment, the market didn’t need any architects or anyone in construction departments,” she says. “It was shocking: We had a daughter with a year left of college and the way forward seemed confusing.” But rather than simply falling into despair, the couple decided to dust off their old business idea and see if it had legs. “We were convinced that we could figure something out,” she remembers.
The Brzezinskis believed there was a big market in high-quality photographs of campuses. Students spend only a brief period at their college, then leave with many fond memories. As they start their grown-up lives in nice apartments, it seemed reasonable that they would want artistic pictures of their alma maters to hang on their walls. “Our business plan came together when we realized that nobody else was marketing or showcasing the beautiful architecture across colleges,” Carolyn says.
They started by selling their products to the Northwestern University community in Evanston, Illinois, where they live, and found that there was indeed a demand for their products. Besides students and professors, the universities themselves started purchasing the art for donors, retiring staff members, important alumni, and even conference rooms on campus. So the couple decided to take their camera on road trips to capture other campuses and grow their business. Carolyn, who is passionate about urban renewal, loves identifying the particular nuances in the architecture and identifying their history. John, for his part, works hard to capture these buildings at exactly the right angle. They have currently visited over 500 college campuses and have thousands of photographs in their inventory, which they put online on their e-commerce site.
While this lifestyle seems idyllic, it also demands a lot of hard work and energy. “Like typical small business owners, we’re doing everything,” Carolyn says. “We do the photography, plan the road trips, marketing the products and sending off the images to buyers.” Even road trips are complicated. The couple needs to map out their trajectory very carefully so that they can capture buildings when the light is just right. They also try to show up when the campus is as empty as possible, which often means showing up early on Sunday mornings. It’s always a logistical puzzle, but the one nonnegotiable part of these trips for these couples is the small reward of visiting a nice restaurant in each new town they visit.
One of Carolyn’s biggest challenges has been to learn everything there is to know about online marketing in a very short time. University Icons has a presence on all the major social media sites, as well as Etsy, which occupies much of Carolyn’s time. Pinterest has been one of the best platforms for the business, since it is so visually focused. “It is very time-consuming to keep up with social media marketing,” she says. “You really need to be paying attention all the time, because things change so quickly.” But these efforts have been paying off. Not only do they have a steady stream of customers purchasing products on their site, but restaurant chains, like Potbelly’s, have purchased pictures for their locations close to universities to show their allegiance to the community. One day, Carolyn hopes that a national brand like Starbucks will chance upon their site and request images for their shops near campuses. The couple’s business has been doubling every year and it provides enough of an income for them to live comfortably.
Even though the work can get hectic, the Brzezinskis consider themselves very lucky to have gotten their business off the ground. They are both doing exactly what they love: John enjoys taking pictures, while Carolyn enjoys researching architectural icons, visiting them, and sharing them with customers. They are also getting to spend their golden years together, seeing the country and earning a good living.
“We’ve had to stretch out a little bit and learn new things,” Carolyn says. “But we are still very much engaged in our passions which are architecture, photography, road trips, and restaurants.”