Post originally written for Holdfast Gear by Matthew Swaggart
One of the many emotions that one can feel daily is pride. No, not the ugly kind of pride that thrives on elevating the self above others, but the kind that warms your heart. The kind that you feel when you see your little boy get his first base hit. Or when you walk your little girl down the aisle. The kind that makes you feel an immense sense of gratitude for gifts, experiences, relationships that you realize you really aren’t worthy of.
Recently I’ve encountered some experiences related to my work that, as I have processed them, have caused me to feel a great sense of pride and gratitude for being among a group of individuals who are really a new breed – a group of individuals who have emerged in recent years as change agents in a new, recovering economy. I’m talking about those in small business. I want to take a few lines and share with you what a small business has meant to me, my family, the great company of folks – like you – who have come along beside me on an amazing adventure . As well, I want you to have some insight on some of the challenges that we have faced in this unique marketplace.
In 2011, I decided there should be a change in how we photographers manage our equipment while interacting with our clients. With a wife and 2 kids (almost 3 now!), no resources, backing, or financial support, I worked countless hours and odd jobs as a photographer to start HoldFast Gear. At the time, when the economic downturn was in full swing, starting a brand of “luxury” photo gear didn’t match anyone’s model for a good business plan. H What I felt most passionate about, as a photographer, was that deep down I knew that my ideas and my designs had value – both personally and perhaps professionally within the community of photographers that I had come to know and work so closely with. Slowly, over time, I began to build real value and meaning with the blood (that’s a story for a later time), sweat and tears that were being poured into my work. Like most entrepreneurs I worked around the clock for 3 years building Holdfast. I NEVER intended to build just a few products to sell, but a brand that resonates with photographers who appreciate function, form, and the rewards that accompany inspired work. I did design, video, and photography jobs during the day, put my kids to bed at night, and worked into the next day. I was developing my own ideas, testing my own products, and learning (probably most importantly) a lot about myself. To say the least, this meaningful journey has given me, not just a means of income, but, more than ever, a deep sense of purpose. Purpose that continues to drive me to offer creative professionals products that allow their art to flow more seamlessly. Purpose that goes beyond me and impacts the well-being of my family and a wider community. Purpose that compels me to write about the things that I care so deeply about.
Small Business and Community
“When you buy from a small business, you are not helping a CEO buy a third vacation home. You are helping a little girl get dance lessons, a little boy
Those words express so well what HoldFast has become to our family and colleagues. Now, thanks to the interest that so many of you have shown in our work, 5 other local businesses have grown considerably in my home state. I have intentionally sourced as much as possible, from rivets to leather, from communities close to my home town. Although the reach of HoldFast continues to become more remote, we are a local, home-grown company. It’s my desire for HoldFast to continue to become bigger than me. Yes, I have skin is in the game. However, I am where I am today because of community and I want the hope-filled story of HoldFast to reach others, whether it’s through the encouragement that our blog posts and photography brings, the business that we bring to our suppliers, or the ease and convenience that enhances the work of photographers at every level of expertise.
Small Business and “Competition”
The landscape of today’s economy for a startup can be unfamiliar and treacherous terrain. With all of the heart and soul that is wrapped up in starting a business from the raw material of your life, researching, developing, marketing, and delivering a product becomes a highly personal endeavor . Since starting this journey I’ve made connections with some of the most amazing creatives doing amazing things! I don’t take the community that’s been created around HoldFastGear.com , Instagram, Facebook and all the bloggers lightly. I’m constantly humbled by all of it and draw great inspiration from so many of you that I can only hope to r meet face to face at some point. Your words and work impact me. I value all of it as relationship in some form. For these reasons I think, when someone comes along and speaks out against my work , I get feelings that are very foreign, very threatening – and very much like someone isn’t playing by the rules.
Personally I have nothing against Do-It-Yourself (DIY) projects. That’s how I started this business – doing it by myself. However within this community, a DIY offered as comparable to HoldFast feels like someone has taken something that doesn’t belong to them. My moral sense flares. I think, “I would never take what isn’t mine, much less speak out against someone – declaring their work as less valuable.” .” Although a DIYer posting blueprints on how to replicate my design seems harmless enough, it feels personal. Although reason tells you that most people will not take the time to make their own cheaper version of a product, you learn that China, Mexico, Malaysia and a dozen other countries will. And they have. Yes, these cheaper versions could have the power to impact a small business negatively. Yes, I have patents on my products. Yes, the MoneyMaker is patented and it is illegal for other companies to make and sell. But when I weigh the cost of enforcing these illegal knock-offs, I have a very hard time finding any benefit – to anyone. These hurdles distract me from my passion.
Competition is a challenge to become better. Competition in the market-place is not only fair, but how true innovation takes place. I don’t see DIY as competition. Artists make art. Innovators spur new ideas and solutions. Creators bring things into society that previously didn’t exist or were invisible to the common man. In all three of these traits, you can see, feel and measure the heart in which they were crafted. A passionate pursuit of the God-given gifts inside of them. I strive to meet as many of these people as possible. The pure heart of a man or woman operating in their passion is contagiously motivating. In the same manor that these positives exist, so does the opposite. Where you find those opposites you find adversity, not healthy competition.
Small businesses like mine rely on the tireless work of writers to help get the word out about our products. In a sense, the blogosphere is the marketing department for the small business. One can have the best product in the world, but if no one sees it, no one will buy it. Most of you who are enjoying HoldFast products, first connected with us because of a favorable review you read on a blog., As a business owner, I can tell you first hand that sending a blogger a “free” product and praying that they like it AND write a good review – is a risky endeavor.. In the early years I was gambling with resources that were essential to buying the next batch of materials or paying my light bill. Thankfully, I have a REALLY good collection of flashlights. I believe strongly in the brand we have built and most of our reviews have been very beneficial in helping us get our products in front of new people. But what happens when a blogger chooses not to work in good faith? What if their idea of “sharing” information allows someone in another country to build a business off of your personal vision and ingenuity? I believe that you understand where I’m coming from. I owe so much to the many fantastic bloggers and reviewers. I’ll continue to reach out to the many dedicated folks who share the passion for our craft because I truly feel that it’s through our big conversations that the quality of the work excels and the rewards we reap expand. My hope is that as a profession we can unite around honesty, integrity, and mutual respect. I started HoldFast for the sole purpose of spreading my love of photography and the innovations that made me a better photographer with others – so others could find the same joy in their work as I have with mine. My hope is that we can all take a fresh look at our efforts and rally around what makes our profession so great – creativity and mutual respect.
Some might say that it would be more professional to not comment about the recent attempt to lowball Holdfast into a DIY project. Others suggest that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Those are valid positions. However, when I see my business, I see my growing family. I see the passion, and faith, and energies that brought HoldFast into existence. I see the communities and other small business that benefit from our products. And I also see THE PHOTOGRAPHER. I know that when there are landfills littered with broken DIY efforts, the HoldFastGear products will still be holding fast and gaining the character that only comes with the finest quality. And I know that low cost, always means lower quality – which is something I personally choose not to associate with. I know that every MoneyMaker I build is built to last forever. I choose to comment because I am involved in this community. I’m not an outside guy looking in, I’m a photographer just like you, and I care about helping people tell meaningful stories. We photographers hold a very important role in society and that is to speak a thousand words with an image. I care about that, which is why I’m being so transparent, and vulnerable in communicating my feelings to you.
This company was born through very real personal struggle and the name is a testimony to it. HoldFast to what is good. That’s not a mantra or a marketing slogan. A PR firm didn’t suggest it. I lived it. Through painful circumstances, I decided to hold firm to my principles and bank on what I knew was real in this life. I believe that the struggles we all face can be catalysts for progress. Maybe the story of this company can inspire someone to continue through seemingly impossible life events, and choose to build upward on the ashes instead of digging down into obscurity. Then, as you have heard me say so often, when you find that thing that you are destined to do, do it with everything you’ve got. No matter where you are in life, no matter how many bad decisions you’ve made, you can always find your true foundation, and Hold Fast.
Thank you photographers, artists, innovators, writers and dreamers for inspiring me and helping to build HoldFast Gear! I’m in this for you and with you.
Matthew Swaggart recently sat down with us on the AOV Podcast. Feel free to listen here.