A Journey to Success with Tony Pettiford
“I was laid off from my job today!” The dreaded words that no wife wants to hear. What started out as fear of an unknown future, turned out to be one of the greatest blessings and journey in my life. I would have never had the guts to leave the stability and safety a corporate job provides, especially when I was already at the point in my life that I had a family depending on me. I started my job search journey the very next day, but the more applications I filled out and job interviews I went on, the more I knew this life had more for me, and I had more for it.
Photography and filmmaking became a part of my life at a very young age. My grandfather pastored a church in Washington Park, Illinois. It was a family affair, with each member contributing their talents to make the church run. One of my uncle’s jobs was running sound, video, and doing photography for the church. Before I was old enough to offer any real talents of my own, he took me under his wing and let me hold his lights during weddings at the church. I didn’t know at the time, but this one small gesture would someday change the trajectory of my journey.
As I grew up, I continued to learn video and practice photography, but in my family it was seen as a hobby not a career, so I went to Southern Illinois University-Carbondale to follow in my dad’s footsteps of being a computer engineer. While studying, I still dabbled in making films for my fraternity and shooting local models, but I didn’t really get serious about it until I moved to Texas.
Once in Texas, I met my wife, started a family, entered the corporate world, and was living the “American Dream.” This life left little free time, so I was shooting the occasional model or family photoshoot on the weekends and annoying my kids by constantly sticking a camera in their faces (I’m sure they’ll thank me for the memories one day), until the day I was laid off. The layoff started a time of self-reflection for me. I had time to think about my life and if I was happy. I also suddenly had the time I needed to obsess with my passion of photography, and work on perfecting my craft, which is where I discovered my true happiness came from creating. I knew it wouldn’t be easy, but I also knew there was no better time than now to step out on faith and start my own business.
My first studio was a tiny room with 8-foot ceilings, no windows, and occasional flooding next to a sign-making shop in a not so great part of town. Not an ideal place for creating images for clients. 75% of my clients were unpaid shoots. I had to take that loss in order to build my portfolio to attract paid work. Needless to say, my wife didn’t understand, but I had never been happier. I quickly found out though, that taking great pictures and creating cool videos was just the first step. To truly be successful, I would need to learn more about lighting, editing, composition, the latest equipment, and business. I set little goals for myself and spent countless hours watching YouTube videos, AskLinda, Creative-live, and Scott Kelby tutorials to help achieve those goals. They say it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert at anything, so I practiced, practiced, and practiced some more. One large pivot was working under the wing of a local Texas photographer, Eric Younkin. He brought a new life to photography by introducing me to creative lighting. My work improved, and so did my number of paid clients. I had a steady flow of bookings for weddings, graduates, models, and sports, but I was still just a solopreneur. As my abilities increased so did my aspirations to build something bigger—something bigger than me.
Growing up one of my favorite movies was “Boomerang.” Eddie Murphy played the lead ad executive for an advertising agency. He brainstormed with a team how to tell a story that would sell a product, and then they created storytelling imagery, commercials that pulled at you, and messages that persuaded you to do exactly what they wanted. This hobby I loved was being utilized in human psychology, and it was the most amazing thing I had ever seen. So, I thought, why not go into commercial marketing and advertising, and I asked myself what’s the worst that could happen? Then I wrote out a plan that would make it doable. Now I was the owner of two businesses, Tony Pettiford Photography and Clear Scope Media. Just when I had gotten great at photography, I was back at square one, but one thing I had going for me this time was clientele. It was back to studying, learning, practicing, and more cheap (but not free this time) work. I started out shooting marketing photography and videos for small businesses, schools and churches. This was not easy. I got hundreds of no’s and the occasional yes, but this meant nothing to my decision to chase. I was going up against large companies that had long histories, huge teams, and the gear I could only dream about. My hustle to feed my family was stronger than any obstacle in front of me. I believed that in order to properly grow Clear Scope Media, I was going to have to learn every skill that lives under the roof of a successful agency, and transfer that knowledge to my team. I studied digital marketing every day. My coding skills from college became useful again. I studied more than just how to be a better commercial photographer and filmmaker. I knew that I also needed to be an expert in the business of running a creative agency. Projects began to turn into contracts, and contracts turned into monthly retainers. I was able to move to a 7,000-square-foot studio with amazing natural light and controlled sound. It had always been a dream of mine to be able to offer employment to other creatives, and that dream was now becoming a reality.
Over the past few years, I have been able to work on campaigns with companies like AT&T, BET, Under Armour, Sony RCA, and many professional athletes around the country. These jobs allowed me to travel the world and connect with some of the most amazing people. Today, Clear Scope Media is a fast-growing full-service marketing agency, with a heavy focus on the healthcare industry. We have been able to design and create countless digital marketing campaigns that bring private practices and educators new business.
From the outside looking in some would define me as a successful business owner, but I have faced failure after failure traveling this road. I remember losing my first home and having to move in with my in-laws for a few years. I was once electrocuted using rigged equipment because I couldn’t afford better. There were moments I didn’t have more than $12 in the bank. I remember almost losing my marriage and family to this idea of never giving up. It would have been easy at so many different points to throw in the towel and go back to working for someone else that offered a steady paycheck. I still face failures in my journey today. I’ve learned that failure is a part of the process, and the process is the most important part of chasing any goal. You have to love the process, or it will never be worth it. I use each failure as a learning and growth opportunity. In this world we have the opportunity to be whatever we want to be, regardless of the obstacles we face, if we are willing to put in the work and sacrifice for it. I just had to stop procrastinating and making excuses on why it wouldn’t work, because knowing that you can reach and exceed any goal is the only thing that matters. The challenge of increase and growth are games I now play.
The journey of an entrepreneur is not easy, and I work more now than I did at any 9–5, but realizing early on what made me happy and turning it into a business is what allowed me to redefine work as enjoyment, relief, and excitement. My journey starts at 4 a.m. and doesnt stop until the work is done, but ever since I was laid off, I have never worked again.