Building an Empire with Sal Cincotta
Thirteen years ago, I quit my job in pursuit of being a professional photographer. Believe it or not, I didn’t do it for the money. I had no idea that there really was any money to be made in photography. I wanted to do what I loved doing. That was my main motivator. Today, I often find myself laughing with my financial planner when she reminds me of my goals at the time. I said, “If I could just do $150k per year, I will be alright.” I kid you not, this was our conversation. My boss at the time thought I had lost my mind when I gave notice. Why would I ever leave a six-figure corporate job to be a “photographer”? He could not wrap his head around it. To be honest, as I reflect back, I am not sure what I was thinking either. The path has been anything but easy.
Sure, hindsight is 20/20. It’s easy to pound my chest 13 years later and act like “I knew it.” It’s easy to see a company that’s won Inc 5000 Fastest Growing Companies three years in a row and forget the sacrifices that were made along the way. I nearly bankrupted myself multiple times in the process.
Today, I’m not chasing $150k, I’m chasing $10m. You read that right—this is not a hobby or a passion project, this is my American Dream. Not bad for a kid from Brooklyn. A kid whom they told he wasn’t smart enough, fast enough, or talented enough. They made one mistake—they underestimated his drive, his determination, his heart. I am not merely a photographer, I am an entrepreneur. I own over eight companies and real estate around the country. It started with one company, Salvatore Cincotta Photography. Just like you, I started as a photographer.
I risked literally everything I had in pursuit of my dreams. I will never apologize. There is nothing to be sorry for. We all need to dream big, and I am a true believer that we can do anything we put our minds to. I will never tell anyone, “You can’t do it.” We all have the naysayers in our lives. Shit, to this day, having accomplished all I have, I still have naysayers. It’s like cops and robbers, peanut butter and jelly, or any other opposite pair. We need naysayers in our lives—without them, who would we prove wrong when we finally kick ass? The naysayers are idiots. They try to project their insecurities and failures onto the dreamers of the world. They are like cancer, sitting in their little groups, festering and mocking others. It’s easy to sit on the sidelines talking shit when you are too much of a coward to go out there and try it for yourself. Life is too short—don’t let fear of failure or the negative people in your life ever stop you from chasing your dreams.
So, how can you build your own empire? Here are some of the things I have learned along the way. I hope they help you find your path or at a minimum avoid some of the mistakes I made in my journey.
Surround yourself with good people.
I have to remind myself of this statement daily. The number of negative and shady people you will run into along the way is just almost unfathomable. You will find yourself wondering, are there really that many shitty people in the world or am I just really good at attracting them? Here is what I have realized: If you are chasing what I like to refer to as rare-air, that elite level, the top 1 percent of your peers, that mean, there are a lot of people just routing against you.
I’m not trying to be this super pessimistic guy, I really am very positive, but this is experience and reality talking. For the most part, people will scoff at your dreams. I mean after all, if they can’t chase their dreams, why should you? They won’t be that blatant, but it’s there under the covers.
As I have grown as an entrepreneur, I have become incredibly stingy with whom I let inside my inner-circle. Today, I am blessed to have people close to me who truly share in my happiness, my success and my failures. They want to help however and whenever they can. We celebrate successes together and share in the disappointment of the failures. They are more than peers or co-workers—they are part of my family.
Don’t trust anyone. Everyone has ulterior motives, and that’s truly ok. You’re probably thinking, whoa, how is that ok? Well, think about it—you have motives when you reach out to a vendor to partner, don’t you? Motives are ok, just understand that most people are not operating out of the goodness of their heart. So, instead of being surprised every time someone acts in their own best interest, understand that we all do. The real power here is knowing what their motivations are. Once you know and understand what is motivating someone, you will never be surprised.
Better yet, you will place yourself in a much better position for your own goals. Knowledge is power, my friends.
It takes more money than you think.
Trust me when I tell you, you will burn through cash like never before. I learned this the hard way. Things cost money. Nothing is free. You can only barter so much, and I am all for putting in the sweat, but I significantly underestimated how much actual money I would need in the beginning. I am always transparent about things. I almost bankrupted myself three times in the beginning. I thought I was going to lose everything, but I never gave up. It motivated me to work harder.
The burn rate is a measurement in business on how fast and how much capital is being used to operate the business. In the beginning, expect a very high burn rate. You will need equipment, sample products to sell, office supplies, computers, etc. It’s easy to think you can make do with what you have, but I am telling you, do it right the first time. It will actually cost you less in the long run.
Put a plan together for equipment, marketing, insurance, and everything else you think you need to start up and run your business. This is your master list, and it will help you truly wrap your head around how much this crazy dream of yours is going to cost you.
There is no Plan B.
Plan B is a complete distraction from Plan A. Too often, we quit when it gets tough. That’s the easy thing to do. I give up. It’s too hard. I’ll just go back to whatever job I was doing before. Or better yet, the job I never quit to begin with, so nothing lost, nothing gained. How pathetic. Truly. I mean, are you going to commit to this empire you want to build or not? You think this is easy? You want to be part of the top tier, but when it gets a little hot in the kitchen, deuces, you’re out?
This is what separates the winners and the losers. Winners are afraid of losing it all, just like you. Winners are taking risks, just like you. The difference? Winners push through the darkness. Winners don’t have “Plan B” in the back of their minds. When that’s sitting there, waiting, then the second things get a little tough, we abandon ship. That saying, “It’s darkest before dawn”—yep, that’s what that means. Keep pushing. Success is so close and you don’t even realize it.
When I quit my job, there was no Plan B for me. I never thought to myself, “I’ll just go back to my corporate job.” Plan A was the only path for me. I had to succeed. I had to find a way, and I would not quit until I did. When it was darkest, I knew, this is where others quit. I kept telling myself to keep pushing. We are close. Keep pushing, this is where others quit. I will not die on this hill today.
Be more than a photographer.
Are you just a photographer, or are you an entrepreneur? Every business is faced with challenging questions like this. What business am I in? It’s a fair question. I think the best answer is: You are in the business that makes money. That’s the business I want to be in. So, of course, photography is what your true passion is. How can you monetize that? How can you leverage your wealth? Businesses based solely on your effort are businesses that usually don’t survive long-term. You will eventually hit a wall. The business can’t scale if you are the only resource it has. In addition, if you don’t work, you don’t make money. See the issue here?
Instead, look for other ways to generate income. Real estate is a perfect way. Rental income will allow your money to work for you. You buy the property while someone else pays off the mortgage. I own several properties, and it’s helped me build my personal wealth.
In addition, I have looked for many other ways to add value to the photography industry. I know this industry. This is where I will grow new opportunities. What do you know? Where can you add value beyond just photography? Is it video, or marketing? See where my mind is heading here?
Your photography can and should be a massive tool for you to use in other areas. Sure, I love shooting weddings and high school seniors, but is that all I can do with my craft? No. There are other opportunities for me to grow my business. As an entrepreneur, you need to look for ways to expand your business beyond the obvious. Make no mistake; this is a lifelong journey. I’m not going to be able to tell you, do “this” and “that” will happen. That’s not how it works. I have tried and failed more times than I care to remember.
Your goal should be to find ways to build wealth and income beyond your core business. Today, I am looking at restaurant franchises to invest in. Tomorrow, something else. The point is, I am trying to grow each and every day.
Work harder than anyone you know.
Hustle. Every day. Every week. Every month. Every year. I have been hustling for as long as I can remember. When my competitors are sleeping, I am working, I am thinking of ways to elevate my companies. When my competitors are on vacation, I am working. On average, I work 16-18 hours a day, seven days a week. You might be thinking, that sounds miserable. Not for me. This is my happy place—I love building successful businesses. I love experimenting and seeing it succeed or fail. Wake up, and try again.
Work hard. Play hard. It’s more than just words on a page. It is truly how we live our lives. I have had the opportunity to travel the world, meet incredible people, taste incredible food. Every day I remind myself how truly fortunate I am.
But, I fail. Trust me when I tell you, I fail a lot. And trust me when I tell you, I don’t give a shit. I wake up and go at it again. Nothing worth doing is easy. It’s about having the right attitude. I know that I am willing to outwork and outhustle my competitors. I know that I am willing to make sacrifices that they are not willing to make.
This is your secret weapon. At least, it’s mine. This is that heart and grit I was telling you about. Let your competitors underestimate you, and use that to your advantage. It will be their downfall.
I truly hope this helps you better understand the path that lies ahead and motivates you to build your own empire.
And never forget, this all started in the basement of my home from my core business, Salvatore Cincotta Photography. If I can do it, you can do it too.