Studio 94 has been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, but they have not let it break their spirits. The unorthodox ownership of the photo studio is what has kept the business afloat.
As a small business owner in this time, Kyle Robinson of Studio 94 has dealt with the challenges the pandemic has brought, and he and his company have powered through. Things may not be the same, but the company has adapted to the new normal.
Robinson’s “people first” business strategy has played a big role in the continued success of Studio 94.
“The best advice I can give to anybody is care about people. Care about people no matter who they are. Whether they are the principal of the school or the janitor, you care about them the same,” Robinson said during an in-person interview.
Background of the Business
Kyle Robinson opened his photography studio in 1994 under the name “Classic Photography.” He decided to change the name because in Robinson’s words they are “very forward thinking, anything but classic.”
Robinson didn’t take a traditional route to starting a business. After dropping out of school to become a rock star, Robinson started taking pictures of bands on the side “‘till people said I’ll pay you to do that.”
While working for a commercial photography company, Robinson was doing independent work as well as constantly upgrading and acquiring new equipment.
He was doing all kinds of photography, until he found portraiture.
“I just couldn’t find what I wanted to do, and I leaned toward portraiture, I really enjoyed the portrait work of it in people,” he said.
Robinson found his style, but his niche came to him. Schools began reaching out to him to handle the senior portraits.
“I had this opinion that school photography wasn’t special or good even,” Robinson added, but his view on senior photos changed.
When he was just 11, Robinson’s older brother passed away.
“His senior picture was all I had to remember him by,” Robinson said. He was drawn toward this line of work knowing the impact that he can make.
Impact of Photography
According to Robinson, “Photography is a very emotional job.”
Robinson has countless trophies and awards in his office. He said that he won these national awards “not because I was striving for it, but because I treated people well.”
Robinson’s caring nature is credited to what sets his photography apart.
“When you care, people relax, they look better, they look more comfortable,” he added.
As lighthearted of a guy as Robinson is, he is extremely focused on the product.
“I constantly strive to make beautiful portraiture. We’re doing work that no one is doing,” he said.
He understands the significance of his work. Robinson notes a huge motivator for him was the first time a customer passed away after graduating. Robinson knows that pictures are a way to remember people.
Just last winter, they cleared out the studio for a 17-year-old with cancer to do her shoot. What normally would be an $800 to $900 shoot, was done for free.
“People first” will always be the way Robinson runs his business, and he credits it toward his success.
“I break a lot of marketing rules, but it works,” he said.
Early COVID-19 Struggles
While work has remained fairly steady for Studio 94, no small business has been without obstacles since the pandemic hit last March.
Studio 94 was among the 43% of small businesses that temporarily shut down.
“I didn’t know what was going to happen to be honest with you,” Robinson said. “But I believed everything was going to be okay.”
When the lockdown began, the company screeched to a dead stop for two weeks. They could only answer phones and push back dates with clients, some of which still haven’t been photographed.
“When the lockdown happened, we shut down, we scaled back to my wife and I,” Robinson said. “We weren’t letting people in, we sent them to work from home.”
Across the nation, small businesses had to reduce employment by an average of 39%, so Studio 94 was not alone.
Some employees even quit because they wanted to take advantage of unemployment benefits rather than work from home.
With no kids on campus, there were certain services the schools under contract didn’t need. Yearbooks and other deadline-based commodities were pushed back and ultimately discarded.
Graduates of the 2020 class kept calling to get their iconic cap and gown shots, but they were unable to fit them in. Some clients cancelled entirely due to individual concerns about contracting the virus.
Studio 94 had to close two locations, both in Anaheim, Calif. and Vista, Calif. The studios in lower income areas simply didn’t have enough willing customers. Families in these areas didn’t have the extra money to pay for photoshoots when they have higher priorities.
The business had previously worked with low-income schools for practically free, but during tough economic times this became less of an option. While Robinson isn’t a money driven person, in his words, “I’ve always been aware that more has to come in than go out.”
“We are taking a hit,” he said, referencing his business.
After constantly calling the Governor of California Gavin Newsom, Robinson got the go-ahead to re-open in April of last year after a month of being shut down. Newsom doesn’t have the final say however, so Robinson knew he was risking arrest if the Riverside County authorities enforced the lockdown laws.
Adaptations & Adjustments
As the demand for senior photos remained high, Studio 94 had no shortage of customers when they opened back up.
The issue quickly became fitting in all of the clients with the new restrictions.
They went from photographing three clients per hour to two. Backing off by 33% means that the season goes that much longer.
“We see less people per day, but the amount of clientele has remained consistent,” said photographer Christian Magday.
“This is mainly due to COVID restrictions. The work environment is pretty much the same other than having to remain cognizant of COVID restrictions and disinfecting,” Magday said.
Studio 94 and its employees have put extensive precautions in place to keep everyone safe.
Clients aren’t allowed in the waiting room, and there are designated entry and exit doors. Group sizes have been limited as well. Some clients even request the studio is cleared so that they are the only people in the building. Social distancing is enforced at all times.
As an experienced photographer, Magday says social distancing doesn’t impact his work. “I don’t think social distancing has gotten in the way of producing great shots as the photos and poses I take don’t require me to be close to the subject,” he said.
Plexiglass barriers and constant cleaning have also been essential. “We followed all the guidelines and no one from here has gotten sick,” Robinson said.
Robinson has succeeded in keeping his clients and employees healthy. While these precautions are vital to keeping the workplace safe, Robinson says that faith has a lot to do with it.
Living by Faith
“I pray over this place every day,” Robinson said. Faith is what has kept him positive in these tough times. He added, “That’s the real answer, I’m living by faith.”
The pandemic has been brutal on business owners everywhere, but for Robinson, living by faith relieves him of financial stress.
“I could live without money; I’m not interested in it at all. I’m interested in satisfaction, in accomplishing things, and enjoying your life. You got to enjoy your life,” he said. For him, part of enjoying life is reading scripture. “The time I don’t spend on a motorcycle or with my family is spent in that book. It’s the most amazing book [the Bible] in the world.”
Studio 94 is only behind God and family in Robinson’s life. Keeping the place running means everything to him, but he couldn’t do it alone. Robinson credits his wife of 24 years in keeping the business alive through the pandemic, as she handles all of the finances for the company.
“She has been the most important part in making this thing work, she’s been amazing,” he said.
The battle is not over yet as the pandemic continues on, but for Studio 94, and all of us, the light at the end of the tunnel is growing brighter. For now, work resumes as it has since the beginning of the pandemic.
“Everyone who is coming in to work in these offices has made a commitment to stay healthy,” Robinson said. “So far it has all worked out. Everyone has worked together.”
Aside from COVID-19, the future of the business may look different. With fewer people buying pictures due to a changing industry, Studio 94 will have to adapt once again.
“The future is definitely different,” Robinson said. “But in order for us to be here we’ve had to reinvent ourselves over and over, and we’ll just do that again.”