In the course of one week, Jonathan Johnson learned that his wife was pregnant and his accounting job was being outsourced. Instead of returning to the nine-to-five grind, Jonathan decided to give his dream of owning a small business a chance. Four years later, SnapSeat Photo Booths—which started as a single photo booth in the back of Jonathan’s Subaru—is now a thriving business, with four employees, four booths, and an impressive roster of corporate clients. We caught up with Jonathan to hear about how he built his business on Thumbtack and to learn what new pros can do to win jobs right off the bat.
How did you get started on Thumbtack?
Three years ago, I was building SnapSeat from the ground up and had no clue how to find customers. After a failed attempt at building SEO to drive traffic to the website, a friend of mine suggested Thumbtack.
When I first started, I thought: I’ll put $50 into this and see how far it takes me. But after weeks of having zero leads, all of the sudden my inbox was full of job requests. I started quoting right away and I haven’t stopped. I wouldn’t have been able to build a business without Thumbtack. They gave me my first ever client, and they’ve given me many more since.
Where did you get the idea for SnapSeat Photo Booths?
The idea first came to me in 2009. I realized how underserved the market was for instant event photos, so I booked a couple of gigs to try it out. Back then all I had was a camera, a tripod, lights, and an instant printer.
I was working as a business manager and accountant at the YMCA at the time. A week before I was laid off, I was at a YMCA event with a photo booth. I saw it and had an epiphany.
Do you have any big lessons from those first few months?
It definitely took time to learn who SnapSeat’s customer was and to build a profile that matched. I didn’t know how to configure quotes that worked and our prices were way too high. At the beginning I figured that offering a high quality service meant charging top rate prices. Of course, we didn’t have any jobs under our belt so that wasn’t going to happen. I brought the price down to a reasonable rate to get my name out there.
My first job was a sweet 16 party of 15 people. I loaded my one photo booth into my Subaru in the middle of a snow storm, drove the 40 miles to the party, and set up. It was a hard won first job, but it gave me momentum.
SnapSeat has been growing l ever since. We upgraded from my Subaru to a minivan to a real transport vehicle. After trying out many different models, we now we have four high quality booths and four employees to help operate them.
How has Thumbtack helped your business grow?
I lost my job at the YMCA and found out that my wife was pregnant in the same week. Which is to say that starting SnapSeat was a huge gamble. In the beginning, I worked part time as an accountant to make ends meet. After a year on Thumbtack I was able to quit my accounting job to run the business full time. Last year, we were hired 239 times on Thumbtack and each job paid around $950 on average. Some paid way more.
75 percent of our business came from Thumbtack when we were starting out. These days, that number is closer to a third. Our largest job of 2016 came to us through Thumbtack. We were hired by a major brand management company to run the Lexus photo booth at the Connecticut Open Tennis Tournament.
What do you suggest for people just getting started on Thumbtack?
Once you’ve setup your profile, keep in mind that what Thumbtack recommends really matters. That means completing your profile, uploading pictures and videos, and asking for reviews. If you’ve been hired before, post reviews from past jobs on your profile. All of these things make you look legitimate, whether you’re already established or just starting out. Once you’ve built your profile, be willing to spend the money to quote.
Having a well-formulated quote is so important. You should acknowledge your client’s needs and be grammatically correct. And you have to follow-up after your quote. I find that a lot of the time, the people who complain about not having success are the ones who shoot off a quote and expect the customer to do the rest of the work. You have to come back to them.
At SnapSeat, we spend time every day going through past quotes to keep people engaged. We’ve created a system to follow-up at least once in the week after sending a quote, and then monthly after that.
Last week I went through all 16,000 emails we quoted in 2016 to find every request that was actually for 2017. We sent follow-ups, wishing them a happy new year and returning to their quote. We ended up with three new jobs.
Do you have any tips when it comes to evaluating quotes?
Thumbtack gives you good cues about what a client is looking for in the request. You can get a good gauge for what kind of event they’re putting on and what they’re looking to spend. The kind of event matters; we’ve found that a wedding or a corporate event generally has a higher budget. The number of people matters; bigger events will have higher budgets. Where the event is matters; an event in New York City will pay much more than one in the suburbs.
In time, we’ve found our quoting sweet spot. We’ve learned a lot about providing the features that our corporate clients are looking for and we have a quote just for them. We get around half of the corporate clients that we bid on, and that really pays off.
Any tips or secrets when it comes to asking for reviews?
Especially in the beginning, when you’re still starting up, you have to be forward about asking for the reviews. But if you serve your customers well, the reviews come naturally.
I do think that I curate my reviews more than the average person. After an awesome event I will go out of my way to ask for a review. But when I do, I’m clear. I ask, “Would you feel comfortable leaving a five star review for me?” And if they say no, it’s an opportunity to get better. I always ask why.
Do you have any advice about targeting customers on Thumbtack?
When we first started and wanted to get customers, we were willing to travel pretty far and to work with small customers. Now we’re more selective about which clients we do and don’t quote on. Understanding your client’s budget, what kind of competitive pricing you would have to offer, and whether that makes sense for you, is fundamental to knowing how much to spend on Thumbtack.
Be prepared. For us, request volume is seasonal. There are months and even days when activity is insane. For us, June 4th, October 15th, December 15th, and August 27th are always overbooked. We triple-book every Thursday in December for office holiday parties.
What’s the secret to sending the perfect quote?
We quote our clients in the same way as we provide services. We’re very upfront and inclusive, so our quotes are long-winded (we use all 1,000 characters). We choose a package that will work based on their request and explain every feature in a robust way. We never hide fees and always leave room for follow-up questions.
What’s the key to being a Top Pro on Thumbtack?
All Thumbtack Top Pros have something in common: we have seen Thumbtack work and we believe in it, so we continue to invest. Being a Top Pro is about being active and making changes when you have to.
Do you have a favorite Thumbtack story?
As a business owner and an entrepreneur my mind goes to my biggest-ever customer—and we landed them on Thumbtack. It’s a real testament to our work on Thumbtack that we were able to find this really amazing week-long photo execution job.
That’s one of the special things about Thumbtack; you never you know who is on the other side of a quote. I’ve done jobs for H&M, Kenneth Cole, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Lexus. We’re always surprised to see so many huge clients looking for local vendors on Thumbtack, and we’re happy to be a part of that.
Is there anything that Thumbtack has helped you be the first to do?
When I first started SnapSeat my dad told me that he had always dreamed of working for himself but never been able to because of his family.
Five years ago I was just a guy with a camera, a tripod, and an idea, and Thumbtack was there to give me my first clients. Owning a business can be hard, but now here I am living out my own version of the American dream.
[Photos via SnapSeat]