Episode 4
Jim Kennedy, self-made photographerHow multiple tragedies were a catalyst for change for one entrepreneur determined to find freedom and live life on his terms

A picture-perfect childhood shattered by tragedy caused Jim Kennedy’s life to spiral out of control with drugs, crime and violence. However, a big life change at 19 forced him to reframe his mindset, allowing him to pursue a path to freedom and develop a passion for enriching the lives of others through a photography business and service projects around the globe.

Jim Kennedy, one of Orange County’s most sought after wedding photographers, is no stranger to hardships both personally and professionally. The path he traveled to become a successful entrepreneur was full of heartwrenching detours and setbacks, starting with the loss of his parents in his early years.

As Jim’s life began to spiral out of control with drugs, crime and violence, he made a hard pivot when he learned he would soon become a father. He grabbed a camera, bought a book on photography and started to sell his services door-to-door.

Today, the success of his business, Jim Kennedy Photographers, gives him the freedom to pursue his passion projects that enrich the lives of impoverished people (and stray dogs) all over the world.

Follow the captivating twists and turns of this entrepreneur’s success story for a healthy dose of inspiration. You’ll love hearing about how he took chances and followed his heart to conquer tragic circumstances and false summits as he built a life of fulfillment for himself and his team of photographers.

Below is an edited transcript of the conversation. In the episode, you’ll hear:

  1. How to develop a new business venture in a competitive market
  2. The importance of trying new skills
  3. Why it’s better not to postpone personal passions
  4. The impact of getting curious and pivoting when necessary
  5. How language shapes your mindset in life and business
  6. The value of evaluating expenses — bigger isn’t always better

Developing a new business venture in a competitive market

Chris Allen: Well, Jim, it’s so awesome to meet you, sit down and chat with you. It was good getting to know you just even before we started recording. And getting to know how big of a heart you have and how much you like to give back. We’ll talk about that.

Jim Kennedy: Sure.

Chris: But it’d be really good to just let everybody know about Jim Kennedy Photographers. Tell us about your business.

Jim: Sure. So we’re based in Orange County, California. We’re a wedding photography studio and we’ve grown a lot over the years. I shot my first wedding over 20 years ago. And it grew into a team effort where there’s five photographers now. Four [plus] me. We do about 150 weddings to 200 weddings a year.

Chris: Wow.

Jim: We’re known in Orange County. We’ve been going strong for all these years, which is a pretty tough market to be in. I just love it. I love weddings. It’s been a passion of mine. Ever since I did my first wedding, I knew this is what I wanted to do and it’s just taken off. I think that passion’s turned into the success of the studio because all my team feels the same way I do so it’s worked out well.

Chris: So what’s a competitive story? So you’re in probably a pretty competitive market, right. What’s a great competitor story that you actually won a wedding that you knew you were competing with?

Jim: Well, it’s hard to really know that, I guess, because the brides aren’t really telling who they’re interviewing you against.

Chris: Yeah.

Jim: So I don’t look at it that way. I guess the competitive story on my side would be just reactions to people as I’ve grown over the years, how I took my business. When I first started my business, it was just me. I was working super hard, getting my referrals up, and I would shoot maybe 90 weddings here by myself. And I was referring another 50 to 60 to my friends. And after a while, I realized, “Why am I doing this? I’m not getting any referrals back.” Because no one’s working as hard as me. So I’m giving away hundreds of thousand dollars worth of business. That doesn’t work for me anymore. And I said, “I’m going to find a photographer that wants to work for me.” That’s how I grew the team one at a time. So I got that person busy enough and I grew another one and kept going.

Chris: Okay.

Jim: So a lot of my competitors around town weren’t too happy with my team effort. Because they felt like when people refer my studio, if I was booked, then I could pass it on to my other team. That wouldn’t go to them. So the competitors in town weren’t happy with that. I was sucking in all the business.

Chris: Yeah, there you go. How do you get your business typically? Is it mostly word of mouth at this point?

Jim: Word of mouth, yeah. Referrals.

Chris: That’s great.

Jim: I figured that right out of the gate though, that’s how you had to get your business going. The first year, I did 15 weddings. My second year, I did 54. Third year, 76. Fourth year, 98. I still remember the numbers because that’s how fast I grew. But it was just building that referral base right out of the gate. It’s all that really matters out there.

Chris: Do you set goals for how many weddings you do?

Jim: Not anymore because they just come. Whatever I can take, I’ll take basically.

Chris: Well, what’s unique about Orange County weddings as opposed to other weddings throughout the country?

Jim: Well, I feel like we have a strong wedding market in general. First of all, year round weddings — weather’s always good there. Some states have wedding seasons, in a sense. From super high-end weddings we have, to lower-end weddings, and the middle-of-the-road weddings. So there’s just a huge market there. Which has turned into a huge market of photographers too, that have swooped in on that area. Thousands upon thousands of photographers.

Chris: Wow.

Jim: So it’s tough to keep competitive out there, because there’s just so many to compete with. The digital age opened that up more, I think. People just grab a digital camera and they watch a couple YouTube videos and now they’re another wedding photographer.

Chris: How many weddings do you think happen in a weekend?

Jim: I couldn’t even imagine. In Southern California?

Chris: Oh yeah.

Jim: Probably 1,000. Who knows? I have no idea. I never really looked at that number because I couldn’t imagine. Thousands maybe.

Chris: Yeah, it seems like it would be a lot.

Jim: Because you’ve got San Diego, Orange County, LA County, which is millions upon millions of people. There’s weddings everywhere.

Chris: Well, what’s peak season for you? How many weddings do you do in a weekend in peak season?

Jim: It could be anywhere from four to eight at the studio. We did eight, May 5th, 6th, 7th weekend, we did eight that weekend. There’s five photographers so we could do three or four a Saturday and build from there.

Chris: All right. Well, what’s maybe the most memorable thing about one of your team members? Something, like, they’re unmistakable because of X.

Jim: Well, my team members — I think it’s crazy because we sync up so well. They’re like family. And every one of them that I brought on, they’ve become almost like a sister to me. Right now, four of them are females that work for me right now, but they’re all super family. And they’ve all had the same big hearts and the passion that I do for their clients. I get so many reviews from couples on them, as if it’s their studio. They approach it that way. And they’re all the same that way. I wouldn’t say one stands out [against] the other one, because they’re all exactly the same. I can’t imagine having a more committed crew. I mean, they built me a decade. All three of them, three for 10 years, one for seven years. And they’ve never thought about going off on their own.

How giving employees autonomy helped grow the brand

Chris: What’s your secret to get somebody to buy in like that?

Jim: I think they know right away that I care so much about them and their success. I do. I shot for a studio when I first started way back in the day. And I learned a lot there, but I knew I was not valued as much maybe. I could tell just by the pay; it was just enough to get by. Me and my team — they make more on the wedding than I do when they shoot the wedding. I make sure they’re overly compensated. I’m conscious of their time and effort, all that stuff. I want it to feel like it’s their business, too. And they do, then they have the freedom to do whatever they want. They’re almost like a co-owner in a sense. That’s how I treat them. So they don’t have the desire to take off and compete with me.

Chris: So you’re bringing in the leads, right?

Jim: I book everything. Yeah, I bring in all the leads. I don’t do anything. I just tell them where to go.

Chris: And they get to be creative and feel like they have ownership.

Jim: And they have the whole week off. They work the weekends [and have the] week off. You can’t beat that life.

Chris: You can’t beat that. Especially in Southern California, that’s amazing.

Jim: That’s the goal for me. I just took what I learned when I worked for a studio. I learned what I liked about what the guy did or what I didn’t like, and I just changed it. And when I broke off from there, that was a big step for me leaving that studio where I learned everything but I just knew it was time. I saw how far I could get with that studio.

The path to entrepreneurship can be surprising

Chris: Well, I mean, your pathway to entrepreneurship’s kind of an interesting one, right? Tell us a little bit about that story. How you got into entrepreneurship?

Jim: It all started, I guess, when I’m young. I mean, maybe I was always hustling my whole life, I guess. I mean, it didn’t start on the best path maybe. Not the most legal path initially, I’ll be honest with you. When I was in high school, I lost my mom. I was young. From there, I fell down a rabbit hole. Hanging on the wrong crew. Fell onto drugs for a while. Realized I don’t want to pay for these drugs. So then I decided I’ll sell them for a little while, make the money, do them for free. But I learned quickly that was a mistake. But what I did learn from that is I learned how to read people. This is an odd path to think how I got there, but it’s so crazy.

Chris: These are skills that work along the way.

Jim: I’m telling you, it worked out. So I did that. Thank God, I’m not promoting this, but I learned how to read people really quickly. I went down that path and then once I realized that was a mistake, I got out of that path and then I went to a couple jobs, sales jobs. I was selling beer for awhile. Then I was selling cars for awhile.

Chris: There you go. You were doing the sin trades. You’re a drug dealer, to selling beer. Then used cars?

Jim: New cars.

Chris: Okay. Good. I was just kidding. I thought you’re going to work your way up and...

Jim: I should have, I should have. I’ll just have a fast forward, pass a little bit and go back to that later about that history. But once I found out I was good at people skills... I never had a passion in photography ever in my adult life. I never even thought about it. And then a buddy of mine was working for a place that did kids’ pictures on ponies for a company. This is a crazy story, too. And he goes, “Hey, Jim, I [take] pictures on the weekends. We buy a pony, we can go hustle and make some money.” And I go, “All right. Let’s do it.” So we went to a horse auction, bought a pony, bought a van, trained it how to jump out of the van.

Chris: This is some guy’s random idea. And you—

Jim: He worked for a company that did these pony pictures at fairs and stuff.

Chris: So he had already done this.

Jim: He did it for a company.

Chris: And you then found a pony.

Jim: I told him, “We could probably do it on ...” We talked about, “We can’t probably do it on our own. You don’t need to work for somebody to do this.” So we went and bought a pony.

Chris: That’s that entrepreneurship.

Jim: Exactly. We hustled all day. But this is a long time ago. We did it. We were making 200, 300 bucks each a day. Just walking around with a pony all day. And back then, it was good money. We were 22.

Chris: What was that conversation like with parents in the park with a pony?

Jim: It was better than that. We’d go door to door. Knock on the door. It was good. I mean, people liked it.

Chris: So what was your pitch? You walked up, you knocked on the door. You say?

Jim: Doing pony pictures in the neighborhood today. 15 to 40 bucks. It was cheap. People flock to us. We’d have moms flocking out the neighborhood for us. They’re lining up for us.

Chris: No way. That’s like [the] ice cream truck on steroids.

The importance of trying new skills until something clicks

Jim: Exactly that. Anyway, that’s what started my whole photography path. People that know me in the photography world can’t believe they went to all these famous photo art schools and all this stuff. I go, “No.” “Well, how did you get started?” “Little pony.”

Chris: Door-to-door pony picture sales.

Jim: But it worked out well. So we did it and then we bought a second pony. Then we bought a third pony. Then we trained people how to do it. We had about four ponies at one point. We’d drop people off in different neighborhoods. Back then [there] was a Thomas Guide. I don’t think anybody knows what Thomas Guide is. It’s the map book before phones. We’d give a Thomas Guide, grid it off. “You go here. We’d go there.” And tell them where to go. “We’ll pick you up in a couple hours.” So, it was our little business and it took off.

Chris: That’s amazing.

Jim: That’s what got it started.

Chris: So as a drug dealer, did you have a similar playbook where you were set up multiple people? I’m just kidding. It seems like you’re good at deploying teams of four or five.

Jim: I could deploy teams. I was solo back then. Me and my buddies.

Chris: Okay. Got it, got it. Sorry. That’s probably a sensitive subject.

Jim: It’s not, actually. I look back on those days and laugh now because it was a short time in my life, from maybe 17 to 19 years old.

Chris: You’re 19 years old selling pony pictures?

Jim: No. I’m talking about the drugs because that’s what you’re about to ask.

Chris: I was about to say...

Jim: No, 17 to 19 was that time of my life. It came and went pretty quick, but I learned a lot from it. Made my mistakes, learned from it, and got past it. The pony pictures came later like maybe 24, 25 years old.

A picture-perfect childhood shattered by tragedy leads to downward spiral

Chris: So you jumped over this one, but it seems like something worth chatting about for just a minute, was you experienced loss with your mom. Stitch that together, leading up to maybe a victory in your life. Because it seems like you had experienced loss, you maybe lost direction a little bit, and then started to find something. Talk about the experience of loss and maybe the reflections you’ve had along the way.

Jim: Up until my mom passed away, we had the perfect little blue collar life. My mom was a stay-at-home mom, [had] dinner on the table everyday at 5:00. My dad was a truck driver. Pretty much gone a lot. But we had a blue collar life. But then, also, my mom gets diagnosed with cancer. Then fast forward a little bit, she didn’t make it. Just started my senior year in high school then. That was a big jolt, obviously. Basically, I had a perfect little home life.

Chris: And brothers and sisters?

Jim: I had a sister. And she was basically going into high school at that point. We had the perfect little family. Then my mom passed. Since my dad’s a truck driver, never home. So my sister gets shipped off to live with a family member. And then I’m finishing my senior year basically alone in the house because my dad’s always gone. So from the perfect little family, now I’m just alone in the house. That was a big jolt. And that’s why I kind of felt...

Jim: I mean, I made the wrong choices but I gravitated towards the party crowd. They were just easy to hang out with. They took my mind off everything. That’s why I went down that path. But [it] led me down the road I touched on already. I used to avoid drugs like a passion because I’d always turn it down, turn it down. Even when I worked at a pizza parlor, the owner of the place would always offer his drugs, that kind of thing to the employees. And I always turned it down... until that happened.

Chris: What part of the country?

Jim: This is California.

Chris: Still California?

Jim: Yeah. All of this is Southern California. Then he’s the one that introduced me to... I finally gave into that once my mom passed. I worked at a pizza parlor. Then the drugs came in there and I started doing it with employees and it led me down [that] path. But having done all that, then I get in trouble. I mean, I could get into it a little bit. Like I said, I started selling drugs, which wasn’t the best thing. But I was everybody’s friendly drug dealer. Everybody loved Jim.

Chris: Friendly neighborhood drug dealer.

Jim: Because I only did drugs for a short bit and then I stopped. Because I realized this isn’t for me. But I did keep selling them past doing them — because of the money.

A life-changing wake-up call that inspired dogged work ethic

Chris: And did you ever get in trouble?

Jim: I did. That’s what was a jolt. We had a house. Then by this time I moved out of my dad’s house. We had a big two story house in Whittier, we get raided. The cops come flying through the windows and stuff. You hear those cop shows like the guys pound[ing] the doors? The big thing? That was my house. The doors didn’t open. They jumped through the plexiglass windows, cops everywhere. But I didn’t have anything on me. They came at a bad time. I had like $50 worth of drugs on me. That’s all they had that night. But that was a big wake up call.

Chris: I would say.

Jim: I did get arrested that night. I had to go to court, go through the whole nine yards. Around this time though, I was still trying to think, toying with things. I still had the “I don’t care about life” attitude a little bit, I’ll admit. So while this is happening, my girlfriend gets pregnant, and that was the big turning point. At 19, you don’t want to be having a kid. Even looking back then, I was like, “Oh my God, my girlfriend’s pregnant, I can’t believe this. I’m screwed.” That’s what my mindset initially was. Looking back now, which I’ve told many people, that was the best thing that could ever happened to me because I left. I literally walked away from all those friends, the whole drug scene and never looked back. So from 19 years old, I haven’t...

Chris: It called you out of it.

Jim: Called me out of it. 19 years old and on, I never touched a drug. I never did anything ever again. All because I got my girlfriend pregnant. That son’s doing great now.

Chris: That’s so incredible. How old is that son?

Jim: 34 now.

Chris: 34. Wow.

Jim: That was good. I mean, looking back, even my girlfriend’s parents weren’t a fan of me. They weren’t [fans]. But they saw how I gave that whole world up. And then I went and got a job, and a second job, and a third job. I was working three jobs. And that work ethic kicked in.

Chris: Did you consider that moment some sort of divine intervention or...

Jim: A little bit. I used to always think that my mom was looking over me a little bit.

Chris: Well, that’s good. And called you out of it, got you set on the right track.

Jim: Called me out of it.

Chris: You leave the drug scene as a dad and you enter into a sales career.

Jim: I know. Exactly. So that was a big thing. Obviously, I got [those] three jobs. Then I was working horrible jobs. I hated them. But I was working at a mail room for an office building in the morning. Then going to an Italian restaurant in the back, washing dishes. Then cleaning car dealerships at night for a janitorial company. That was my life. And I go, “This isn’t going to work.” My buddy had worked, got a job at a car dealership selling cars and he said, “Jim, you should come do this. You’d be good at this.”

Jim: I went and got hired there. So that was a game changer. I was able to quit all three jobs and just focus on the car sales. Again, car sales, I attribute car sales to my long-term success. I did that for about three years and that’s where I really honed my sales skills and learned. I could figure out in two minutes how much money they can spend or what they’re thinking.

Chris: So break that down for a second. What are some of the signals that you looked for and how do you use that skill of being able to understand people and...

Jim: It’s the questions they might ask. They might tell me about their lives and just how they’re living their lives, where they’re living. Just all these little things, I can completely figure out how much money they might have to spend. Or they start talking about certain subjects. If they just focus on the price of a car or payment. Just stuff like that. Just little things that maybe I know what I need to focus on to get the sale done. I figure them out quickly [and if they’re] look[ing] at too expensive a car, then I’ll flip them into something that’s a little more affordable, but close to what they want. So I was really good at just figuring them out and putting them where I needed to get them. It worked out well. I don’t know. It felt natural to me. But I literally attribute that, my success, to those days, is figuring people out.

Chris: That’s amazing. Well, how’d you get into photography... so, you’re selling cars. Were you still doing pony picture sales?

Jim: No.

Chris: You went into cars and you went back...

Jim: Cars [were] before ponies.

Chris: Cars [were] before ponies?

Jim: Before ponies. I’m not a photographer yet. So that was that.

Chris: All right. So you’re selling cars and then...

A college degree may not be necessary for your career path

Jim: Selling cars. My kid’s maybe six months old when I got this job. My son was about six months old. So I did that for about three years then I realized I didn’t want to really do that anymore either. It got old. Because back in those days, car sales were always just about getting as much money as you can at the same time. So it wasn’t like a feel-good sale, I’ll be honest with you. It was like me trying to bury you into a car payment and make the biggest commission I can make. I knew I didn’t want to do that.

Chris: So it didn’t resonate with you?

Jim: Didn’t resonate with me. I didn’t feel good about it. Even though that’s what you have to do. The sales teams, that’s what you have to do. Then I wanted out of that. So then I started applying for...Somebody I knew went to work for beer sales, a beer sales distributor for Miller Beer. And I go, “That’s a decent job.” I can sell beer, be a beer rep. Because it had all the things you might want as a parent. The 401(k), the car allowance. All the stuff you might want, medical insurance. But you needed a college degree to get this job, which that wasn’t me.

Chris: So how’d that happen?

Jim: But I was relentless for this place. That’s why it proves to me ... I tell people, “You don’t have to have a college degree to be successful in this life.” To me, I think it’s pointless. If you don’t have the opportunity to go, who cares? You have other opportunities because it’s proven to me. This is a corporation, a corporate job. The only little bit of a corporate job I had in my life was this. But the guy finally gave in to me. I just kept calling him even though he kept saying no and I just ... He finally said, “Okay, Jim, I’m going to give you a chance. You won’t leave me alone.” Because I was always cool about it. I called him. He’d always laugh at me. We’d laugh about it. And he finally gave me a chance.

Chris: How many times did these phone calls happen?

Jim: It probably went on for about three months of me just going back and forth with him. But he finally gave me a chance and I got in that job. Everybody was happy I had this job, my wife’s parents, everybody’s happy. But about six months into it, I go, “I’m unhappy.” Because I looked at what I was doing, I looked at somebody that’s [at] the same corporation, 20 years later doing the exact same thing I was doing right now, they’ve been doing it for longer.

Chris: You saw your future.

Jim: I saw my future. It was horrible. I remember getting trained by the guy driving me around and just listening to his life. It just sounded horrific. He didn’t do anything. That was his job every day and go home on weekends, rinse and repeat the next week. So then I go, “I gotta get out of this.” That’s when I kept my feelers open. That’s when the pony thing came out of nowhere. This is maybe eight months into the job. Now I’m quitting the job. The guy that gave me a chance... The funniest thing, though, is I told him why I was quitting, the guy that hired me, and he goes, “You’re doing what?” He couldn’t believe I was giving up a good corporate job to go pull ponies. I should never have told them that. But literally, it was the best decision I ever made.

Chris: You’re like, “It’s complicated. There’s a pony involved.”

Jim: I always tell people too, that’s a small decision of life you make. I mean, that was a big decision, but still, it wasn’t that big of a deal. I made this decision [to] see what happens. I mean, what do I have to lose? Even though everybody was against it. My family, “What are you doing?” My wife’s family, “What are you doing?” But I wasn’t going to live my life like that.

Chris: Why was that so visceral for you to go... You come out of loss into a really bad situation that you’re like, “Man, this isn’t for me.” And then you go into another, “This isn’t for me.” Why was it so visceral for you to be like, “I just have to do this.”

Freedom comes in many forms; don’t wait to pursue it

Jim: It’s weird. I think back and I still wonder where that’s embedded from for me. I don’t know where it comes from, to be honest with you, because it’s always been there. I don’t know what it is. I just always had that feeling. I said, “I don’t just wanna do something for the rest of my life.” Maybe, I guess, I could look back like this, I think my mom ... Well, my dad had passed before this, too. I didn’t even touch on that. So I lost my mom and then three years later before my son was born, my dad passed. I think that might’ve been part of it. Because I listened to my parents even talking as I was growing up, they want to do this, they want to do that. But they never did anything. “Someday, we’re going to go here.” Or “Someday we’re [going to] go there.” And then they died.

Chris: So you have a “Life is short” perspective.

Jim: I think that was where it really came from. It had to be that because I just always think about that. My mom was obsessed with Egypt. Went to the King Tut exhibits, all that stuff, as a kid. Her dream was to go there someday. Did she ever go there? I’ve been there already. I’ve been all over that place. If I want to go somewhere, I’d go. I don’t hesitate. I’m going to go do it. I don’t care if I have 1,000 bucks... Back in those days, I had no money in the bank. I don’t care. If I could survive somewhere in China, say, for three weeks, I’m going to go for it. That kind of thing. I feel like that’s where it comes from. Because people just wait until retirement to do anything.

Jim: I can’t wrap my mind around it — why people do that? Most people I meet are like that. All of my friends are like that. I travel alone all the time. Because they’re just, “No, I can’t, I can’t, I can’t.” Why? It’s always an excuse. It drives me up the wall. That’s always been embedded with me. Same with these jobs. I knew I was going to not have a happy life... I looked at how unhappy these people were and it wasn’t going to be for me. Or some people, like I said, get happy. Eventually they settled, they just settled. “This is my life. I’m going to make the best if I’m happy.” But that wasn’t going to work for me.

Chris: So, how did the pony picture sales evolve?

Jim: Once I took that job, I quit my beer job. I told the guys I was quitting for that. He gave me a bunch of grief about it. Pretty much laughed at me, really. But anyways, I went on and did it. I felt it evolved [well]. Me and my buddy, like I said, we had one pony. We turn it into a business. We had one pony. Then two, three. Then we had four ponies. We trained them how to jump out of vans. People would still laugh at us about what we were doing, but we were out making pretty good money back in those days. And we made our own schedule.

Jim: So now I’m working three, four hours a day. Making a lot more than I made in the beer company, honestly. And I saw the freedom happening. And then I saw, “Well, this could lead me...” That’s what got me into photography. I didn’t know how to take a picture. I took the camera on auto the whole time. We knew how to do four poses. Camera on auto. Didn’t know what I was doing. [I’m thinking this] photography thing is pretty good — it creates freedom for me, I think. And I saw how people reacted to the pictures, so excited. So I said, “I can get into this. I feel good about it. The money’s there and I can build from there.”

Chris: So back in the day, when is this with the pony pictures? I mean, is this ’90s?

Jim: Yeah. Early ’90s.

Chris: Are you doing Polaroids with instant delivery?

Jim: Not Polaroids. We’re doing film, but we take it to a one hour lab, come back the next day. One day turnaround.

Chris: So you had to come back?

Jim: Yep.

Chris: Okay. Did you upsell or did you find other people? What did you do?

Jim: I did all the sales. Because I’d like to come back and sell them. It’s easy because you take the picture during the day, then I’d go back at night after we’re done shooting, then I’d run around the same neighborhood and do the sales real quick.

Chris: Okay. So what you would do is you would get all the pictures taken. Then, what conversion rate would you get? You’d take the pictures and then you came back with...

Jim: Eight 5x7 photos. That’s it. We sell them for $5 a piece or we say two for $30. Four for $40. That kind of thing. Just to try to get 40 bucks out of them. That costs us a dollar to print those. So it was great.

Chris: That’s great.

Chris: Did everybody buy?

Jim: Yeah. Everybody would buy. The people we’d get 20 bucks out of them, they were fine. We’re not going to not sell anything. We’d always time it, too. We knew what cities to go to, like when their paydays were. We knew how to time everything, what neighborhoods. We had it all figured out.

Chris: So you had a grid, you knew the timing, you knew what to charge, you had good packaging and you had a sales process.

Jim: Exactly. And we made it as refined as possible. It was just really easy.

Chris: And it was all built around creating freedom in your life?

Jim: Freedom in my life.

Chris: It’s amazing.

Jim: It was awesome. It was all about freedom. I wish more people would be like that these days. I think some people are starting to. I think it’s just so important to have that freedom in your life.

Chris: That’s so good. What did you start doing with your freedom?

Feeling stuck? Get curious and creative

Jim: Well, at that point, nothing yet. Because I’m still trying to get on my feet. Because for the first few years, we’re making money to pay the bills. And then from there, I learned how to...I wanted to maybe expand into family pictures now where I want to take it up a level. So [I had to learn] how to do family pictures, I wasn’t working in a studio. I knew the beaches people take family pictures on, so I would just go sit on the beach and watch photographers do their thing. I would just sit there and watch them until I got comfortable with posing and stuff like that. I was there to watch them that way. Then I could start trying to sell myself on doing family pictures. Because like I said — no schooling, nobody teaching me anything.

Chris: So you’re a self-taught photographer.

Jim: Yeah. I sat on the beach and watched people take pictures. Then once I got that going, I jumped into the family pictures and I learned that business. Then I learned another person was doing baby pictures in-home. So I learned how to do that on my own and I turned it into a business. I buy a telemarketing list and we can call people who just had babies and do free home sittings for them. That was another business I had. I just bought telemarketing lists. All the hospitals would sell the list of all the new parents and you’d call, “Hey, you’d won a free portrait session of your baby from the hospital.” That was our pitch.

Chris: That’s amazing.

Jim: They’d say, “Okay, come over.” People just let us come to their house. It was crazy. Like, “Okay, come on over.” I just called over the phone, and the next day I went to their house to take pictures. But I guess back then, people were more trusting, I guess.

Chris: How much did the hospital sell this list to you for?

Jim: I mean, it was probably $400 for the list or something each month. Not that much. You’d make it back in a couple sales.

Chris: And then you had people calling out just to get photo sessions.

Jim: Calling to make appointments all day long. Then I’d go shoot for a few hours a day and knock that out so that was good. All this led to my journey. Then I’m just taking pictures. Still just getting by. What really opened me up for freedom was when I fell into weddings because a friend of mine... This is a big thing when I say little decisions in life make a big deal. Not that the big decisions don’t mean anything. Even buying a house, a car, who cares? I mean, it’s little decisions would set you on another path.

Jim: So one time, this girlfriend of mine, I was in family portraits. She was the second shooter for a wedding photographer and she said, “Jim, I’m so sick. He can’t find anybody. Can you just go? I know you know how to use the camera.” I didn’t even own good gear then. So I go. But I knew I was interested in that. I remember to this day, I was supposed to go to Vegas with my friends that week. I canceled my travel. “I’m not going guys. I’m going to do some wedding.” They said, “You’re doing what?”

Jim: So I went, rented gear. I told the guy I had my own gear. I lied to him. I said, “I have all the gear. I’ll be there.” I went and rented everything. I mean, I lost money on the wedding, basically. But then once I did the first wedding with him, I saw, “This is what I want to be doing.” I saw he had a good life going, owned a home, had a family, and was charging a lot of money. I go, “This is my next thing right here I’m going after.” So I went and bought a book — How to Photograph a Wedding — that kind of thing.

Chris: Wedding Photography for Dummies.

Jim: Because that was the only one time I worked with him before he called me back in. So then I had a couple friends that I do weddings for practically for free. So I went and bought a book, How to Photograph a Wedding. My early wedding pictures were horrible, so cheesy. But that’s where it started. Just out of a little book I bought.

Chris: Do you have, like, “This is a pricelessly bad shot” frames?

Jim: I don’t have a frame. I should, though. Just the cheesy stuff.

Chris: You’re like, “This is horrible.” Are you pretty hard on yourself as it relates to photography quality?

Jim: I am. Even nowadays, I am. And I’ve shot a thousand weddings. Every wedding, I’m so obsessed with making sure I come through with the client. Because, ultimately, I do have a passion for the people who hire me. Even the pony picture days, I want them to be happy. And I think that’s what turns into your success, too. You got to care about your clients.

Chris: After that wedding, was Jim Kennedy the Photography Business born for weddings or...

Jim: No. That guy called me back a couple times. I worked for him for three years, actually. And that’s where I learned a lot of the business in Orange County. I got a feel for it. What he was doing right, what I thought he was doing wrong. And he was a successful wedding photographer in that area actually back then. This guy I was working for.

Chris: Were you an apprentice in your mind?

Jim: Yeah. I was second shooting. Then he let me work in the studio for a little bit. I figured that all out. And then he had me shooting for him. Kind of like I have a team now. Nobody had teams back then, but he had me shooting for him at that point. But I was doing all the work. I was doing the selling, I was doing the editing. I was selling myself and he was charging a good amount of money for me and paying me basically nothing. So I knew that wasn’t going to last long. Then probably once he did that...

Look for opportunities to pivot (especially if you’re feeling undervalued)

Chris: You knew the value of sales.

Jim: Yeah. So I just said, “I’m done. He’s not doing anything for me so I’m just going to move on.” He was shocked when I quit that day. And even he resented me for it actually for six months. But I was always honest with him. And he called back six months later and apologized because he knew he treated me badly. But that was a big decision for me, too.

Chris: So you knew what it felt like to be undervalued.

Jim: Undervalued. And I was always honest with him.

Chris: And you’d been an entrepreneur, so you...

Jim: I knew I could go for it. I’m not scared of risk. I knew I was leaving a job that’s keeping me steadily working, but there wasn’t enough money there to keep me... It’s not like I’m leaving a job where it was a lot of money where I am risking losing something. I knew I could still make the money. He’s paying me to do whatever if I had to. It was that kind of thing.

Chris: Wow. So you quit and then what’d you do next?

Jim: Started my business. I guess before this is when I did the trip to China. It was a little before that time, too. Before the travel started. It was before I started my business. It was early stages with him.

Chris: And so you have a family at this time and you’re starting to travel?

Jim: Yeah. I had a family. I had my second kid, so I have a daughter too, three years later. So now I have two kids and now I [am starting] to travel, too.

Chris: So the trip to China, how did that happen and...

Jim: This is what spawned my whole thing about traveling, which I think is so important for people is to get out there. I was a car salesman for three years. I had a good friend there, a Chinese guy, actually. I left there, but we stayed in touch. He called me one day out of the blue, he said, “Jim, I have this friend out of China. They really need an American salesman to come work for them. For these little jobs here and there.” I go, “Are you sure?” He goes, “Yeah, you’d be perfect for it.” So I met with the person, they said they need somebody to help Chinese people to get into the consulate to get their visas. I said, “Okay. I’ll just go for it.”

Jim: I’d never been anywhere at that point but I knew I’d always wanted to go somewhere. And they were paying the bills for the trip. I was still nervous about it, though. I said, “Hey, can I bring a friend? Can you guys pay for it? Just so I have somebody there with me.” So I talked to them into it. I brought somebody with me to do it with me. We got over there and I figured it out quickly. But we were staying in an apartment in a local neighborhood in China. No tourists. It wasn’t touristy at all what I was doing.

Jim: But that’s what spawned me to stay away from the touristy stuff. Because I was actually meeting real people, eating dinner at their houses, and making friends with their family. It was really cool. But again, my sales thing kicked in again there. I was able to sell our way into the consulate. A lot of people aren’t able to do it. I was able to talk our way in to get them to the front of the line. Even my buddy who went with...

Chris: So you started adding value?

Jim: Yeah. Adding more value. But my buddy who went with me was doing the same thing. He was able to get anybody in. So they used to call me over there Big Lucky. Because everybody they gave me, I’d get into the consulate. That’s why they had me back nine more times. So I’ll say I did so well. So for a year and a half, I spent a ton of time in China.

Chris: That’s so incredible.

Chris: What were the drivers for you continuing to do that?

Jim: Once you get a taste of that, you want more. A lot of people have never been anywhere, but they don’t... “Why do you want to go to these places?” I think once you get a little taste of it, you want more. Just to see the families how they react to you helping them being a part of this change in their life.

Chris: But you left Southern California for these extended periods of time to basically go stand in line in another country for another person.

Jim: Exactly.

Chris: That’s what I’m saying. Walk me through why that was a thing for you. Why was that so motivating for you?

Jim: I think when this lady told me the story of how these people that I’m helping out have worked so hard to try to get a break in life, to get a chance to come to America was the dream. But sometimes, it’s hard for them to get through this line. It sounds crazy, but back then, it’s how it was. It just inspired me to, especially when I got over there, I met the people... I guess when I first said okay I wasn’t really sure how much I’d be drawn to it. I really didn’t know what I was getting into until I got there. And then I started talking to these people and seeing...

Jim: I mean, these young people have been working so hard or [their families have] pitched in money to get this one person to America that will change all their lives. The American dream. When I saw that and I saw them in tears when they got approved, when they came over the... I literally had moms drop onto their knees on the streets of China hugging me. They couldn’t believe it. Because they knew their lives changed at that moment. So that happened the first time and that’s why I wanted to keep doing it.

Chris: Over what period of time did you continue on with these trips? So this is with the car sales. I’m trying to keep the timeline.

Jim: Sure. I’m doing the family [photography] stuff, trickling into little weddings [around] the same time. There’s no success in my life with photography yet. Like I said, when I went to China, I had no money, but they were paying the bill to go there so I went for it.

Chris: So you’re a proponent of the American dream over in China, helping... How many total people do you think you helped?

Jim: Probably about 20 or so.

Chris: That’s amazing, man. I’ve never heard somebody that’s like, “I’m going to go across the world to go stand in line for somebody for them to achieve the American dream and be able to come to the US.” Have you stayed in touch with any of these people?

Jim: One of my friends married one of them.

Chris: Really?

Jim: Yeah. That’s crazy. They’re still married.

Chris: Now you’re a matchmaker.

Jim: Twenty-five years later, they’re still married. That’s crazy. But that’s only one, though. That’s the only one I stay in touch with. But it was good. That’s what spawned my real passion in life is getting out there and making a difference in the world. By starting my own business enabled me to do that because once I got kicking, I started making the money and then I opened the doors for me to be able to do what I want to do. Once I left, I started my own business.

The language you use matters: “can’t” is a fixed mindset

Chris: So yeah, talk to us about how Jim Kennedy Photographers was born.

Jim: When I left, I told that guy I was leaving him. I was with him for three years. Right away, I hit the ground running. Like I said, my first season, I did 15 weddings. So it was pretty slow but enough. I just took those 15 weddings. I was able to market them into many more weddings. Because I was doing slides of the weddings with quick turnarounds. Every venue knew me. I’d give them pictures the next day. I made sure everybody knew Jim Kennedy, so they would not forget me. And every time I did a wedding, I’d make sure every vendor remembered me. Then the word of mouth can spread pretty quick. Like I said, I only did 15 the first year, but did 54 the second and then 76. And at that point, I was turning away weddings because I was booked.

Chris: Because it was just you.

Jim: It’s just me.

Chris: What made you decide to scale after 70 plus weddings?

Jim: I feel like I was... [as I was saying] at the beginning, when I was saying I was referring so many weddings out and not getting any back from anybody, and I started doing the math. Not everybody wants to run their own business, I’ve learned. People say, “How do you get good...” A lot of people, the excuse I hear all the time, “I can’t trust anybody to do as good as I’m going to do it.” I don’t understand that concept.

Chris: It’s an excuse.

Jim: It’s an excuse. The whole world runs around businesses run by other people. How come you think you can’t find good people? I mean, look around. Not everybody wants to run a business. Everybody works for me, they don’t want to run a business. They love the freedom they have with me. I almost think if I work for a Jim Kennedy, I might like the deal I have right now, too. It’d be hard for me to leave me if I was working for me. Say if I just paint that picture in a sense, could I make it so easy for them? They’re making most of the money in the wedding. I’m doing all the back-end sales and stuff like that. And we’re all winning.

Chris: This is going to sound very psychology-esque, but I read a lot of books. I just read one recently. Just the word “can’t” that you just talked about, “I can’t trust somebody.” The difference between someone who’s neurotic versus somebody with a character disorder. The words that someone with neurosis, somebody that’s neurotic, they are the ones that will take responsibility and they take more responsibility. It’s like, “It’s my fault. I shouldn’t do that. I couldn’t do that. I should not have done that. I should do more of this.” Those are people who take probably too much responsibility for their own actions.

Chris: And then on the other side are people with character disorders that say, “I can’t do that” and “I won’t do that.” It’s not possible, that fixed mindset. These are very real things for people as it relates to... I called it a ceiling. I’ve run three businesses. I got three businesses to five million in annual recurring revenue three times. And I had this ceiling that I had. And this mindset that you’re talking about, somebody saying, “I can’t trust somebody to do it as good as I do” — they’ve hit a ceiling.

Jim: That’s true.

Chris: I’m interested to learn from people, like, “What was a ceiling that you had?” or some fixed mindset that you had that you pushed through or you helped somebody else push through?

Jim: Well, as far as my ceiling goes, I don’t think I had one ever. I don’t think I really had to deal with that much, really. Even the people that brought on with me, I feel like this just fell in sync and everything just happened organically in a way. So I never really had to battle through that.

Chris: So how do you encourage people to do that? Because you’re helping people push through some boundary that they had at the consulate to try and get them in. What are some of the things you encourage people to do to get away from that fixed mindset? Those ceilings that they have?

Jim: If you’re talking about people just generally with life...

Chris: People around you.

Jim: Okay. Not just my team working for me. I just try to lead by example. I just show them what I’ve done. The people have followed me a little bit, say with my travels and stuff like that, then they get a taste of it. But I think it’s so important to have your character strong and people, you have a good name for yourself. All these things factor in when you’re trying to pull people to your side. So if you’d ask around, everybody knows Jim. Like, “Jim’s not going to do you wrong. He’s gonna make sure you’re covered.”

Jim: Even the people that work for me, they knew coming into it, they felt really good about working for me. I proved it to them really quickly. So I think that’s what it boils down to. You got to lead by example. I know it’s kind of cliché, but it’s true. They got to know they could trust you, the people around you. Once they see they can, I think they’ll run through brick walls for you. That’s how I’ve looked at it the whole time.

Chris: So what would be, for somebody who has that “I can’t do this” mindset, what would be some things that you would say... So, leading by example is great for people who are following you, but maybe what is something you’d say to them to encourage them or woo them out of that mindset or to consider an alternative?

Jim: If they said I can’t do this, whatever they were saying they can’t do, I might just show them maybe a way they could. Like, “I can’t travel to this country right now. I just can’t do it.” I might show them a path where you can do it. Or, “I can’t ...” Think about hiring another person. I’ve talked to other studios. I’m an open book. The photographer, I’ll tell you how I did it, I don’t care. Because I know nine times out of 10, they’re not going to do it anyway. I’ve learned that, too. I used to do little workshops. I would tell my whole story, every little thing I did. And I still have no competitors in Orange County that do what I do. I don’t mind sharing everything. I want people to succeed. I don’t care. Whatever the roadblock is, I would convince them otherwise. That roadblock should be let go of, so that’s how I look at it.

How hitting a false summit can embolden you to effect change

Chris: Okay. What point are you doing... I liked hearing in some of the stories [where] we were learning more about you, you talked about this false summit where you’re doing a lot of high volume, a few years into the photography studio you hit a false summit. Talk to us about that moment.

Jim: Sure. So when you get to a point... That’s why I feel like, “Well, where am I going to go from here?” So now I’m thinking about, “Do I want to own a job or do I want to own a business?” That was my mindset at that point. At that point, I was by myself. So, basically, I owned a job. If I stopped working, I stopped making money. It was done. So I didn’t want that because I knew I couldn’t have the freedom. And I was starting to get where I was losing that freedom a little bit because I was working a lot. So building the team was the key, where I can own a business now — [where I can] create more freedom for myself.

Jim: And that’s what when I hit that ceiling, that was my next avenue to go for. Because I didn’t want to just own a job anymore. So I tell people, I tell photographers always, “Oh, I can’t get photography.” If you stop working tomorrow, you stop making money. Me, I never have to shoot another wedding again. I just keep booking my team and I’ll still make an income and they’ll be happy, I’ll still be happy. And I can just take the rest of the time off. So I just look at it that way. Just owning a business, not owning a job, and expanding my business that way. But not going too big.

Jim: Another thing people, I don’t know, people try to go too big, too. I look at my life, what I need to make and live the life I want to do. It really doesn’t take that much money to live a good life when you think about it, if you do make the right decisions in life. I figured that out quickly, too. I’ve been all over the world. I know people who run $10 million, $20 million companies and their lives are boring. They do nothing. They’re so consumed in their business, they have no life. But I’ve taught people how to travel cheap and have a better experience than staying at that Four Seasons. I teach people how to run a business on the slim. You make a good profit and you’re living a good life. I can only do what I’ve learned over time on my own. Like I said, I never went to college. I have no business experience. I have nothing. I just learned on the streets, basically. But you can still enjoy life.

Chris: Self-taught entrepreneur.

Jim: You can build a good life without having to overdo it, in a sense. Sometimes you go too big, then you’re more tied down again. Because now you have so much more responsibility.

Chris: So when you were doing 300 weddings a year, you all of a sudden get some big IRS bill. Talk to us about that one.

Jim: I definitely have my roadblocks. Well, basically what it was, this was when business was booming and I still didn’t know what I was doing. So I got an accountant back then who was referred by somebody. I didn’t really do any due diligence. It’s like, “All right, we’re fine. Let’s go with it.” It wasn’t really the IRS, it was actually the state franchise board sales tax. My accountant was doing that wrong.

Chris: Because this is a service.

Jim: Yeah. So it was a service. But come to find out, you’re supposed to charge your sales tax on this. And he did it as he did it.

Chris: Because you’re selling as if retail with the photographs.

Jim: Because you’re creating pictures and albums...

Chris: Do you have to do that in digital today?

Jim: No, you don’t. If you don’t give them any product, you’re clear in certain states. In my state, it’s like that. But back then, he didn’t know that. I didn’t know. I didn’t know what I’m doing. I’m just telling him, “Here’s what I’m making. You figure it out.” To the tune of $150,000, all of a sudden I got this bill and they were auditing me. And this account, when I saw him, this accountant said, “They’ll go away.” Then I realized this guy was scared of the debt. “Just lock your door during the day. Eventually they’ll give up and not bother you anymore.”

Chris: That was his advice?

Jim: That’s what he told me. I realized I made a mistake. I’m like, “I’m screwed.”

Chris: Lock my door.

Jim: So I thought it was unbelievable what I got myself into. But they came after me and I had to pay it. So I had a year and a half [to pay] 8,000... 9,000, whatever it worked out to be. I paid it. But it was a huge hit out of nowhere.

Chris: That’s a massive setback.

Jim: It was a big setback.

Chris: How many people were working for you at the time?

Jim: Then, we probably had about seven photographers and I had editors. I was pretty big. And then I decided really just... It was tough. But I found a new accountant, thank goodness. So the key, when you’re starting off to success, get the right accountant because that could steer you wrong. It was disappointing. Because I actually liked the guy initially. That’s because he was a friendly guy and I thought everything was fine. And then his true colors came out. It’s okay, though. I learned from it. It’s all good. I worked through it. I made it, I got out of it.

Chris: It is amazing to me how many people that I know have had surprise tax experiences that have really shaken their business. I remember, it was my first business. I was actually selling real estate. It was the first time that I’d started an S corporation. Well, it was actually before the S corp. I was doing a sole proprietor. And all of a sudden, I get this... I’m saving 25% for taxes and then I get it’s actually more like 40% or 50% that I’d have to pay. It’s like, “Okay, now I need to figure out how to move money around.” And that maneuvering is remarkably difficult and it is an inhibitor. It is something that’s like, “Hey, I just want to take pictures,” or, “Hey, I just want to make cupcakes.” I didn’t realize that. I have to figure out how to manage that since...

Jim: It was at the beginning of my success, too. So it was right when my business just started booming. So it’s not like I was 10 years into it where I hit, maybe I could have absorbed it better. It was right when the money started to come in heavily. Now I’m getting this big bill out of nowhere. I’m finally getting ahead, then this happens. But again, I guess all these things that happened in life for a reason. That I learned my lesson, got a good accountant and they got me on track and all was good. It was tough at the time. I look back on it and I just laugh now. It figures, another thing in my life. Little road bump.

Chris: So, are these W-2 employees that you have?

Jim: 1099.

Chris: They’re 1099. Okay.

Jim: That’s kinda changing now in California. Those laws are always changing, too. They’re fighting off that 1099 stuff, too.

Chris: Okay. All right, well good.

Jim: It works out good.

Chris: So now, talk to us about... talk to us about growth and where you guys are at today and where you’re headed.

Carefully consider your expenses; bigger isn’t always better

Jim: Back in those days, we had big studio offices, all that stuff. And then, over time you grow, you get bigger. I moved into a bigger studio. We were doing great. We still stayed busy all these years until... I was taking the big fast forward. Because we were just booming, always shooting. Most of my team stayed, [they were] with me forever. Then I realized I was overdoing it on the expenses. I kept getting a bigger space, bigger space, but I was, “Why do I need all this space for?” Then I decided to downsize. Go back downsizing, take things back down a bit. Because I was trying to do 300 weddings a year. We didn’t need to do that many to make the money. So now, I got rid of all the big expenses and then I moved out of my big studio.

Jim: We got a small little office. And then now we’re doing maybe 150, 200 weddings a year. Doing just as well and less to manage, more freedom, less photographers. That’s why I’m never adding more photographers. We have a little core of five. That’s all I’ll ever want. I never want even one more. That’s like, “Smaller is better.” I realize that, too. Because sometimes you get too big, too much to handle. I figured out quickly that [we were] spread thin a little bit, the freedom was fading away. So I scaled it back down quickly and got the freedom back.

Chris: So you’re doing 300 with the big spaces and the full studio. And then you’re like, “Hey, basically, we’re gonna go office and shoot on site, shoot remote the whole time.”

Jim: We didn’t need studios. I didn’t care about those. We didn’t really need it.

Chris: So you went from 300 to 200 a year. You cut a third of your clients because it... Do you think that the studio was a way to close deals or did a third of those people absolutely want studio shots, too?

Jim: The studio was more to impress people when they came in. I knew most people were meeting at Starbucks and stuff, most photographers. So I was getting these sweet spaces to sell how great we were doing, in my mind. That’s why I have the space. Because we weren’t doing a lot of studio shoots in general. We’re weddings.

Chris: So it was a glorified sales office?

Jim: Basically. We do some studio shoots, people wanted mostly weddings. That’s where the bread and butter is at. And once I figured that out and then generations change, too. [With] time, I saw the younger generation, as I was going on and the digital age hit, those people didn’t want to come in for meetings. Even pre-COVID, I used to tell people we hardly do any in-person meetings anymore for consultations. But 10 years before that, I was doing meeting after meeting after meeting. People wanted to do face-to-face meetings. But I think the generations have changed because everybody’s just about the digital world now. “Let’s do a FaceTime.” No one wants to come in. Time, time, time. Which worked for me.

Jim: I didn’t even need an office anymore because even pre-COVID then I had... Actually, I got rid of my office even pre-COVID before things shut down, because we weren’t even doing any face-to-face meetings anymore. Because people just didn’t care about it. The generation has changed. People changed. The younger generation grew up on cell phones and FaceTime, stuff like that. They were all about just Zoom, that kind of thing, which made my life easier.

Chris: So much easier.

Jim: So more freedom now. Now I could do whatever I want wherever I want. I could be roaming the world doing meetings and booking weddings. And now it just made it even better for me.

Chris: That’s been one of my favorite parts of our conversation, is just... And getting to know you is this idea of these personal projects. Talk to me about Love the Locals.

Jim: So through my travels...

Chris: The stuff you’re doing with all your new freedom.

Creating freedom in your business can give you the opportunity to give back or pursue true passions

Jim: Well, through my travels, after China, I was born to travel. I’ve probably [been to]... I’ve even lost track, maybe 30 to 40 countries. I’ve lost track multiple times. But I’d always go to third-world countries most of the time, outside my comfort zone. That was where I like to travel. But I’d always find little ways to give back. So initially, I remember traveling through Egypt, I would take pictures of families in the middle of nowhere. They probably never had their picture taken. And I’d run to find a photo lab in the city and come back the next day. They were reluctant to let me take their picture. But then I came back the next day with photos, they’re, “Oh my gosh, you got a picture of my kid.” Then they all wanted to come into the village, come out for photos. So that was fun.

Jim: Then I saw how just giving back in the smallest levels — little things make a huge difference in people’s lives — and they were so excited. That’s what spawned me looking for bigger projects. I remember [in] Vietnam one time. I saw this group building a house or a hut for somebody. And I was with a translator, like, “What are they doing over there?” And he goes, “Let me find out.” He walked over and asked what was going on. And he said they would just do projects for people. And I go, “I bet you I could do that. I bet I could try to find people that we could start our own little company.” And that’s how Love the Locals spawned.

Jim: I want to backtrack a little bit on that one, though. Other things, little things that happened. So this guy I was talking to, me and my friend were traveling through Vietnam. We booked this little off-the-grid tour. So I get car sick, really bad. Whenever I’m on a tour, I gotta get that front seat of the van. So I jockeyed for the front seat. But by me doing that, I was sitting next to the translator the whole trip. It was a five hour drive. We talked the whole time. We actually became buddies because I get car sick. Otherwise, I’d been sitting in the back of the van. Probably never would’ve had a conversation with this guy. So we talked about stuff, where he was from. We learned all about each other. Then through the whole trip, we’re constantly talking. Now we’re buddies.

Jim: Then that’s when I saw this little project going on, he found out for me. I go, “Give me six months, I’ll be back with a group. We’ll do that.” And I made it happen. So that was what spawned Love the Locals. I brought my team out with me first to test the waters. So we found a family in the middle of rural Vietnam. We showed up at their house and we built a bathroom for them. They were using a dirt hole.

Jim: We just showed up. He would do the homework. He’d find the family need before he got there. And when we got there, we would hit it hard... so it was amazing. We built this bathroom. We’re digging holes, moving bricks. My group just loved it. It was hard labor, but they were so happy to see these people changed. That bathroom changed this family’s life, believe it or not.

Chris: So true.

Jim: It’s the little thing. Once I did the first one and I go, “Okay, we’re going to do more of these.” Then I would go every six months. Because in Vietnam, there is only a certain time of year you want to be there. When the green rice paddy fields are green, and it’s pretty. So every six months, I would go there. I did that for about four or five years. Then COVID hit. That’s when I stopped, otherwise I’d still be doing it now. That was amazing. But also, I’d do it in the country of Myanmar because I love that country, too. I’d go check and figure it out there. So I would just reach out, email people there. I would do all my homework online, call people to other countries and [see who] would be open to helping me do that over there.

Jim: I’d find a translator and I’d just go over there and figure it out on my own. I did trips in India like that. But Vietnam and Myanmar were my main tour trips that people really liked the most. And once you do a little bit of that, you just want more of it. People, like I said, change their mindset. People that had never traveled, but they always heard about Jim’s trips through the whole wedding industry. Even my couples heard about them, my couples would come with me. They go, “My wife now, the whole reason I’m married to her is because she heard about them on a trip. She wanted to go on one.” And that’s how we kind of got connected. Everybody talked about, “These trips change your life, these trips change your life.” Because everybody just couldn’t believe we’re building a water basin for a family.

Jim: But another thing about these trips... You might just write a check to a charity, right? But does that really impact you? Do you really feel anything just giving away money? Yeah. It’s a good thing. Don’t get me wrong, that’s a good thing if you can afford it. But it’s nice when you can actually be face-to-face and really experience it one-on-one with somebody. And also during my travels... there’s voluntourism, they call it. It’s an industry out there. But they charge people 4,000 or 5,000 a person to go do these trips. And I’ve figured it’s so expensive. Most people can’t afford it. I was charging 1,000 bucks to a person. Just enough to cover the expenses and build this thing.

Jim: I was showing people how it doesn’t take a lot of money to make a difference. People say, “Why do your charity thing, Jim?” Because these charities are raising millions of dollars [but] you’re not going to be a part of it. They’re helping a lot of people, yes. It’s a small little touch in life, but it’s going to impact you for the rest of your life. Because no one’s really doing that. I mean, just trying to make a difference in twenty families’ lives over, say, four years... that goes a long way.

Jim: There’s other ways to give back in life without having to just write big checks or be a part of huge charities. There’s plenty of that going on out there. There’s not much going on out there. What I was doing, just small impacts on people. I don’t know. I’ve never seen anybody doing what I was doing out there. I’ve been all over Vietnam and China and all these different countries. It’s all more big scale stuff.

Chris: It’s very American. It’s got to be big.

Jim: It’s got to be big.

Chris: If it’s not big, it’s not important.

Jim: The only person I saw was the one who spawned my idea, but that was a college group on a college trip doing that little project. That spawned it for me. And there’s no way somebody could actually sign up to do that. There was a college that came out and did that. Then I made it possible for other people to do this kind of stuff. We’d find families to build them a home. Or water basins, homes, and bathrooms is what they needed the most. Because their homes were on the sticks. One time I was hiking through Vietnam, this is a good story. I was hiking through Vietnam. Middle of nowhere, I found this little old couple living up the mountains in this little shack. I mean it wasn’t even...

Jim: They just have two of these tables, just enough for them to sleep on. Holes [in the roof], raining through it, chickens running on their bodies. They were just old. It was horrible. So I rallied, I went down to the village, and rallied my friend. I didn’t have a group there with me. Just my now-wife was with me. She thought I was just showing her Vietnam and I go, “We’re doing a project.” And I canceled the rest of our trip. We rallied the village. We went up in the mountains and built this couple a new hut.

Jim: They were probably close to 60 or 70 years old, but they’re living... It was horrible. But it cost me maybe 400 bucks to make it all happen in a week. And now, the people have a nice place to live. It didn’t take that much. You go down the street, you see somebody who might need something in another country. Maybe figure out a way how you can help them and you could leave that trip a much better person.

Chris: What do you think drove you to do something like that?

Jim: I think it just goes back to those China trips. Seeing just how I just helped... just me helping somebody get [in the] door to a place, they were in tears how it changed their life. And then from there, I just wanted to be... that’s why I call it Love the Locals. Because I only like hanging out with the locals. Period.

Chris: That’s so good.

Jim: That’s the best way to travel. Be with the locals. All these people say, “How do you afford to do one of these trips?” People ask me about it all the time. I can stay in Vietnam for a month for $1,000. I save money when I go to Vietnam. I go out to eat in Orange County, it’s $150. That feeds me for a week in Vietnam or two weeks. I tell people, you actually save money when you travel if you do it the right way.

Chris: That’s a great story. Well, talk about what Rhona to the Rescue [is].

Jim: That’s our dog rescue that we started. My wife’s passion has always been dogs. So she drew me to that one, rescuing dogs and fostering dogs. During COVID, that’s when that started, because now we’re limited to what we can do to give back anymore. Because we weren’t traveling anymore. My wife saw a dog being rescued out of a meat trade in China. Her name’s Rhona. And that’s what spawned it. She followed this dog. The dog made it to America. This rescue in China rescues dogs on meat trade and ships them to America or the UK to find homes.

Jim: My wife followed the trail of this poodle. We applied for it and got it. Drove it to Seattle, brought it home. And that’s what spawned us to do more for the rescue. This dog’s so amazing. So now we foster dogs. We’ve rescued other dogs from China and we’ve sponsored. Rhona to the Rescue’s actually a legit non-profit set up. People could donate. We find different dogs in need or different causes out there in the dog world that need some help. That’s been a little fulfilling, too.

Chris: That’s awesome. Now you have an RV.

Jim: Because of the dogs.

Chris: Because of the dogs. And you’re spending time traveling around doing that, too.

Jim: During COVID, we didn’t want to sit around and do nothing. We decided it’s time to figure out something else to do. So we bought a used RV and that’s been our COVID travels until now. I think it’s starting to open up a little bit. So we’ll start hitting the road here soon.

Chris: Hit the air to go to some other country.

Jim: Yeah. Get out there somewhere. But I went to Honduras recently, a few months ago, for a little project there. It was fun. But it all spawns for my business being able to give me the freedom I want. That’s what it all comes from. Back to my photography business, I can make my own schedule, I can block out two months at a time if I want to. Even the people that work for me can block out. They have the same freedom I do. I tell them, “Anytime you want to block out. I don’t care if you all block out at the same time, it doesn’t matter to me. None of us will shoot weddings that month. You can do whatever you want. You’re your own person.”

Jim: I don’t want them going, “I’m blocked out. She’s blocked out. I need you to work those weekends.” I don’t look at it that way. I don’t care. We just won’t make that money that month but no big deal. Everybody’s having a good life. That’s what enabled me to do that. That freedom is building a business that you can block yourself out and be able to have the freedom to go do things.

Chris: I’ve enjoyed the freedom and how you use that freedom to go create connections and to make a difference. It’s an amazing story.

Using the negatives to develop a sunny disposition in life and business

Jim: So that’s been good. Because I don’t make the freedom so I can just sit and do nothing. I like getting out there and meeting people. But again, at the end of the day, I feel that’s what life’s all about. Getting out there. You only live once, which probably spawns back to...because my parents died young. Another thing, a little wrench in my life I could just touch on really quickly, I was adopted and I never knew that until I was in my 20’s. My parents never told me. That’s why I look at life. My friends all trip out of how calm I am about everything. Me and my wife have never had an argument. Nothing fazes me because I’ve been through so much crap in my life, I don’t care how bad things can get. Nothing bothers me.

Jim: I see people get worked up over the dumbest stuff. I just think, “This is crazy.” But I always have these crazy things happen. So I found out I’m adopted, [when I was] about 23 years old. My parents had both passed away by then. My sister calls me out of nowhere. I guess a relative told her. This is a big family secret no one told us. So my sister goes into a crazy mode. She’s three years younger than me. So we’re not blood sisters, we find out. But I still love her, she’s my sister. Anyway, that was an interesting time, too. I figured that one out. That’s why thinking back on your life as a young kid, things started to make sense. I never saw pictures of my mom pregnant. Just little things I just started thinking about made sense to me, but I never held it against them because that was their decision.

Jim: It was different then, it was a different time. That’s how they felt. It was fine. I mean, I wish they would have lived longer so I could talk to them about it maybe as an adult. Then, fast forward to about two weeks ago. I have a sister who came out of nowhere. Messaged me, “I’m your half-sister, Jim.” Just literally two weeks ago, I connected with a sister. We had the same mom. Because of ancestry.com.

Chris: Seriously?

Jim: Seriously. My life’s always got crazy little stories that happened. And that was one.

Chris: Well, it’d be good to hear about all of the surprises.

Jim: That was a good one. But I think just learning... I mean, even back to the days when I was dabbling with the drug world, I remember there was one time... this is a bad story. I was taking a shower at my house. All of a sudden, my shower door opens. A guy with a gun and a guy with a knife ripped me out of the shower. I’m naked. They were coming to rob me because I was the guy back then. They thought I had stuff. They threw me on the bed. Duct-taped me all up. My head, my feet, my hands, everything. Threw me on the water bed. Back in those days, it was the cheesy drug dealer water bed.

Jim: Anyway, all these things happened to me, but I’ll look back... I remember laying there thinking, “What’s my mom’s thinking right now?” I almost feel like she was overseeing me that day, too. I literally shouldn’t have got out of that situation. I talked my way out of it. Most of the time I would talk and talk and talk, try to talk my way out of it. To the point they were just looking so pissed they didn’t find what they wanted. They duct-taped my mouth, too, and left me there. My eyes, I couldn’t see anything. I was just laying there. And all of a sudden it got quiet. I go, “My God, they left.” I thought for sure I was going to get stabbed or something. Then they left.

Jim: Took me about three hours to get out of that tape and get out of there. That’s another thing that happened in my life. As I just think about all the things I got myself into myself on my own bad decisions or things that are just thrown at me, not my decisions, just makes you the person you are. I wouldn’t change anything about my life. Even my mistakes. Because who knows where I’d be right now. Even if I wasn’t put up for adoption. Who knows? I’d be a different Jim Kennedy. Who knows what would’ve happened? Life’s crazy. Whatever they throw at you, go with it and make the best of it.

Chris: That’s so good.

Jim: I’ve never been unhappy ever. That’s my outlook in life. I’m always happy.

Chris: Because it’s a choice.

Jim: It’s a choice. It’s just easy. I used to go to villages. Another cliché people say, you see the poorest family in the middle of nowhere. They’re the happiest people I ever met. It is true, though. They have nothing and they’re happier than most people I see around town where I live. They’re always worried about this or about that, those stupid things in life. I think all those travels really helped me be that person... to lose my parents, the bad decision times, my early days. But thank God, by 19, I figured out that wasn’t the path I wanted to go down and I never look back.

Rapid fire questions and closing

Chris: So good. Well, I have some rapid fire questions for you.

Jim: Let’s do it. I’m ready.

Chris: I only dabbled in photography and video, but there’s typically a preference. So, a camera question. Are you a Canon or a Nikon guy or something else?

Jim: Sony.

Chris: Sony. Okay. I think you’ve taught a few people on our side.

Jim: Sony’s where it’s at. I was a Nikon guy before that, but I switched to Sony.

Chris: All right. Have you ever seen someone get stood up at the altar?

Jim: I’ve had people bail out that morning. I’ve gotten calls the groom had cold feet the morning of the wedding a couple times, actually. And then the wedding got called off that day. I couldn’t believe it.

Chris: Did you still make them pay?

Jim: They already paid. Balance is paid in advance. They lose everything. So that was a good one. Actually, the makeup artist called me and said, “Jim, the wedding’s off. The groom took off.” And that was that. I’ve had some crazy stuff [happen] at weddings.

Chris: All right. Are you married?

Jim: I’m married.

Chris: Okay. What was your wedding like? Where’d you get married?

Jim: In Myanmar. We eloped.

Chris: You eloped?

Jim: To Myanmar. Yeah.

Chris: Oh my goodness.

Jim: Mark was our officiant.

Chris: He was?

Jim: Yes.

Chris: I did not know he was ordained.

Jim: I got a video to prove it. Because Myanmar’s one of our favorite countries and we had been there multiple times. We got married in front of a 1,000-year-old temple in the middle of nowhere in Myanmar. Just rolled up on it. We scouted out, found the temple we liked the most, did a whole wedding there. Seven people there, actually, total. Counting me and my wife. It was amazing. Myanmar was a special country, which you can’t even go there to anymore because the military took it over. It’s disappointing, but that’s an amazing country. I hope to go back someday.

Chris: I’ve seen a lot of pictures from that country. It’s definitely one of the places I would’ve loved to go.

Jim: It’s epic. And the people are so amazing. It’s just so sad what’s going on there now. But my time there was special and I love it. We even have a couple kids there that we sponsor, which is nice.

Chris: That is nice.

Jim: I would even backtrack to travel one more time. I want to mention something else. Another thing that was good for me is that I have spent a lot of time in India. I would do a lot of volunteer work for a thing called Her Future Coalition, and it’s amazing. They save girls from the streets, train them with jobs, and get them independent. I’d go over there, take pictures of them. They want me to photograph them, but not in a way that would make you sad. You want to show the happy side. That was huge for me.

Jim: These girls, oh my God. The stories they had would’ve break your heart. But seeing how happy they are now. It’s crazy. But that was a huge part. Going to India had such an impact on me. Because these girls, they have letters like their parents sold them for 50 bucks, they grew up in a train station. Parents are selling you for money. Story after story like that. And these girls, how they could bounce back...You have no problems here in America.

Chris: No problems.

Jim: America has no problems. I mean, it’s sad what people complain about here. That was so huge for me, too. Those people I met in India. That’s why I’ve been there nine times. I volunteer every time I go there. It’s such a big deal what this group’s doing. And so many groups over there are doing a lot, making a lot of difference in India. I love being a part of it there. I highly recommend if anybody gets a chance to go do something like that in India, because that would really flip you around. You would know how good you got it here.

Chris: That is good.

Jim: So going back to your question. Sorry.

Chris: Well, who’s been the biggest mentor in your life?

Jim: It’s weird. I haven’t really had mentors. Because I lost my parents early. It just been me just figuring things out on my own the whole time. Because most people, a lot of people I hung out with early on in life weren’t making the right decisions so I jumped ship from there. I think the mentor would be my mom, even though she’s passed. Because she was such a good mom and how she would think of what decisions I’m making. Because even through school, I was just an okay student and I would just getting through school and I never went to college. So I never had a really true mentor, I would say.

Jim: [I think about] what my mom would think of me now. That’s my inspiration. Then my kids. They were born [when I was] so young, I knew I had to come through for them. Thank goodness I did. My son grew up. He was a Navy SEAL for 13 years. He grew up to be such an amazing kid. I could easily have made a decision not to have that kid. And they’re such good kids. My daughter’s great. That was my inspiration, the kids and my mom. I would call them mentors. Even though they weren’t showing me how to do anything, I just knew I had to make things happen for them. That’s how I looked at it. I didn’t have a mentor.

Chris: All right. Last question. What would you say to young Jim Kennedy if you could talk to him today?

Jim: I think about that question sometimes because I’ve heard those questions asked many times on different podcasts, but it’s hard to say. Because I feel like you could look back and say, “Hey, maybe don’t make this mistake, don’t make that mistake.” But then again, if I didn’t make those mistakes, it might have changed my life. So I do think about the question. To me, it’s hard to really say. I just don’t really have one, to be honest. I guess, looking back, I really don’t have one. It sounds crazy to say that because I feel like if I told myself to do something differently, it would change my life.

Chris: And you wouldn’t do anything differently.

Jim: I wouldn’t do anything different. Even the mistakes I made definitely had to be made. Even though I would never want my kids to make those mistakes or thank goodness they didn’t. But the fact that I came out the other end, I mean, why would I change it? Say I was the perfect model student and went to college and didn’t fall down the wrong path. Then I might have fallen into some normal life. I mean, the kinda life I didn’t want.

Chris: And then you would not have gotten married in a Myanmar temple.

Jim: Exactly. So that kind of stuff might not ever happen. So that’s why I think about when you look back, what would you tell yourself? Just enjoy life. Be happy. I guess, the thing is, which I am, it’s like what’s important in life? Be happy. And if you’re happy, you live good. No stress, you’re healthy. Stress would kill you, all that stuff. Being happy is the key. I remember I saw a TED Talk a kid did once. He was a 13-year-old kid. He did a TED Talk. It was my favorite TED Talk. His parents would [ask] him, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” He would tell his parents, “I just want to be happy.” That’s perfect.

Chris: That’s awesome. It’s been incredible sitting down and chatting with you. I appreciate you taking the time. What’s next for Jim Kennedy?

Jim: Just keep at it. Keep my photography business going. People say, “How long do you want to do this for, Jim? When are you going to retire, Jim?” I always tell people, “I retired 20 years ago.” Once my business took off, I was retired. Because I’ll never be a retired sit-around-and-do-nothing guy. I’ve been retired. I’ve done everything I want to do. I travel when I want, I do what I want. I’ve lived a perfect life. You could be retired at 28 years old if you do things right. You still have to work. But if you enjoy what you’re doing, it’s cliché, but if you love what you’re doing, you’ll never work another day in your life. That whole saying is cheesy, but it’s true.

Jim: I like doing weddings. I can do what I want. I retired 20 years ago. I’d say, “I’m never going to retire. That’s what I love. I’m not going to retire. I’m going to always do something.” And I could keep doing the wedding thing forever, until, I guess, my brides retire me. The future holds more travel, more projects — see where the next projects might lead me. I’m looking forward to getting back out, doing those tours again. I’ve just been waiting for things to get totally back to normal. We’re getting there. That’s the future. More weddings.

Chris: More weddings, more travel.

Jim: Exactly.

Chris: All right. Hey, great to spend time with you. Thanks for coming to the studio.

Jim: Thank you. Good deal.


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