If you’re not already familiar, allow me to introduce you to Salvatore Cincotta. Recently named the #1 wedding photographer in the world by One Eyeland, Sal has a sharp eye, and some might say – an even sharper wit. This born-and-raised New Yorker is certainly not afraid to tell it like it is – to him, haters are motivators.
Not only is he the founder of Salvatore Cincotta Photography, a multiple award-winning wedding photography studio based in St. Louis, he’s also the creator of Shutter Magazine, started his own Photography School, and is the mastermind behind Shutterfest – one of the largest photography conferences in the country.
Luckily, he’s also a 17hats advocate and member, so I was able steal him for an hour of his time to find out some of his secrets to success. However, I should warn you, Sal gives advice the same way he drinks his whiskey… straight up.
1) Don’t get caught up in what other people are doing
“Do you know why race horses wear blinders? It’s so they can block out their competitors and focus on winning their own race. If a race horse was always looking at the horse to the left or right, they would miss a step. People should live their life the same way. Stop worrying what the people around you are doing and focus on your own race. Before I started my photography business, I worked for Procter & Gamble followed by Microsoft – two of the most corporate companies out there. I remember when I decided to leave P&G, my mom thought I was crazy because people dream to have that job. I could have retired from there a multi-millionaire just working my 9-5. Same thing when I left Microsoft; I was a Senior employee with stock options. My mom was like, “you’re going to leave all of this to be a photographer? Can’t you just do that on the side as a hobby?” And now here we are with one of the largest magazines in the world. And yet, sometimes, I look back and think to myself that I wish it didn’t take me until I was in my late 30’s to finally leave the corporate world to start my own business. If only I had done it sooner, I would have had more time to conquer the world. But then I realize I can’t think that way. Everything happens for a reason. I took the time during those years to really grow, mature, and learn everything about business – and all of that experience really lead me to where I am now. So it’s important to not get caught up in where everyone else is on their timeline. Some people tell me I’m missing out because I’m not married with kids. But that’s their dream. I’m living mine.”
2) Know what your product is and who you’re marketing it to.
“You can’t be all things to all people. When I first started dabbling with photography, I had no desire to shoot weddings – the genre was way too formal and traditional for me. It wasn’t until I noticed that the industry was shifting away from that a bit that I became more interested. I had always seen the world differently through my own lens – but when I showed other people my work, they told me me no one would be interested in that kind of photography. However, I still chose to drown out the noise and take photos my way. Then, suddenly, it seemed like EVERYBODY was interested in my style of photography. The truth is, sometimes people don’t know what they want until you create it and show them. However, it’s also imperative to listen to your clients. If someone comes to me requesting traditional, and then all of a sudden I have them posing on the ledge of a building, they’re not going to be happy. So what’s really important for business owners, especially photographers, is to make sure the product or service you’re putting out there is the product or service you want to deliver.
I’ve never tried to be the photographer for everyone, because I’m not. I have a unique style that only works for certain people.”
3) Oftentimes, your biggest naysayers will be your own friends and family.
“This is something entrepreneurs don’t talk enough about. We always hear the cliche – ‘screw the haters’ – but oftentimes the haters and naysayers are the people we’re closest to, and going against the people you love the most is probably one of the hardest things you’ll ever have to do. But I always tell people, ‘you’ve got to cut that cancer out of your life.’ It doesn’t matter if it’s your close friends and family – if you want to be successful, you need to surround yourself with people who believe in you, believe in your mission, and trust your vision. If they don’t, I would just wonder why you have them in your life to begin with? I realize it’s very controversial advice to give because it’s very personal for some people. But everyday I wake up and feel like the luckiest person on the planet because I LOVE what I do. I never lose sight of that because I know how many people are out there crippled and handcuffed by fear, or crippled and handcuffed by the people in their circle who don’t support them. So, while I know how hard it is to break free of that, I always remind other entrepreneurs, THIS IS YOUR LIFE. You’ve got one shot at it. For me, I’ll do whatever it takes to succeed and part of that fire comes from wanting to prove all the people wrong who’ve doubted me.
That’s a big motivator of mine. You wanna doubt me? Ok. Let’s go. Let’s dance.”
4) Growing comfortable is the death of success.
“Before you start your own business, you really need to ask yourself, ‘Am I committed to continuously growing, learning, and investing in myself?’ Sometimes, entrepreneurs will reach the point where they’ve hit all their benchmarks, so they think they can just sit back. I’ve been a wedding photographer for 12 years now, and in my market, we’re definitely one of the most established – but if I just decided to coast because of that, I’d probably be out of business within a couple of years. So, our mindset has always been the exact opposite: let’s continue to invest, continue to network with vendors – both new and old, and continue to be absolutely committed to growing this business so we can stay in the forefront. There will always be new players entering your industry who are younger and hungrier than you are, so never just expect to maintain your position at the top of the food chain without putting in the work.
Success is never owned, it’s rented, and the rent is due everyday.”
5) Get organized with 17hats
“Without 17hats, I don’t have a business, I have a hobby – that’s really what it comes down to. 17hats has given my company a professional, forward-looking presentation for our clients. It keeps us extremely organized, allows us to create automation so we’re not forgetting things, and puts a repeatable process in place which is paramount to running a successful business. There’s never a time where I’m sitting there on a Friday thinking, “Oh crap, I forgot to remind that client to pay their session fee before their photoshoot tomorrow.” None of that ever happens – and it’s 100% because of 17hats.”
Sal’s passion for the empire he’s built is palpable. As we wrapped up our conversation, I asked him “what next?” As always, he has a few innovative projects in the works, but without giving me too much info, he said:
“One thing is for sure, no matter what project I’m working on, I’ll definitely be creating something for the rest of my life.”
Sal Cincotta • Photographer • Business Owner • St. Louis, MO