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A Picture Perfect Weekend Led This Mother Of Two To Give Her Dream A Shot

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"One of the reasons I started my website is that I wanted a place for women to come together and dream. We women need to know that we don't have to hang on to an old dream that has stopped nurturing us -- that there is always time to start a new dream. This week's story is about a working mom who wanted to capture her travels in photographs to show to her children, the way that her grandparents had. Inspired by a trip that she took with her girlfriend, she launched an idea to help others preserve their precious moments abroad -- and has since helped capture thousands of memories (and is projecting half a million dollars in revenue!)" -- Marlo, MarloThomas.com

By Lori Weiss

Nicole Smith grew up, as many of us did, watching slide show after slide show of her family’s vacations. Her grandparents had traveled the world, and her grandfather loved to tell tales of the incredible places they’d been. But he’d always remind Nicole and her two brothers, that the best place in the world, was their hometown of Victoria, British Columbia.

“As a teenager I was thinking, that’s so crazy! How could Victoria be the best place in the world?” Nicole laughed. “I thought Paris had to be so much more exciting! It made me want to see the world -- to find out if he was right.”

So just after graduating from college, Nicole set off on her own adventure. She went to Asia and taught English for a year, to subsidize her travels throughout the region.

“A friend met me there and we traveled for four and a half months. She had a good camera, so we’d take pictures of everything and mail the film back once a week, so it wouldn’t get lost or damaged in X- ray machines. One night she called me and said, ‘You’re going to kill me. The camera died on the third day.’ Once the film was developed, she could see that the pictures we’d taken each day after that, got progressively darker. We lost hundreds and hundreds of photos.”

That was 1997 and thankfully, the invention of digital cameras and smart phones have changed the picture, when it comes to recording keepsakes. So when Nicole found herself traveling the world as a marketing consultant for Microsoft, she was able to do what we all do. She snapped selfies in front of famous monuments and asked strangers to take pictures at favorite cafés. And when her best friend, Erika, agreed to meet her in Paris, she wanted to be sure to follow in her grandfather’s footsteps and bring home lots of snapshots to show her own kids.

“I was shooting a video for Microsoft,” Nicole said, “and I knew I’d have a couple days to myself while I was there. Erika was living in Copenhagen and we hadn’t seen each other in years. We were so excited to have time to ourselves -- no husbands, no kids -- just time to catch up over croissants and coffee, window shop and soak up the city.”

“Throughout the day, we’d ask people to take pictures of us, but somehow I always ended up with six chins. We tried taking a few selfies, but all we got were floating heads. So the next day, when Erika’s friend Anita joined us for brunch, we asked her if she wouldn’t mind taking a few pictures of us with my phone, so we’d have something to always remind us of the trip.

Anita was a great sport. She ran down the block, so she could capture us from a distance in really cool neighborhoods. She took shots of us on the bridge at Notre Dame and got great pictures of the two of us being goofy on our rented bikes. It really only took about twenty minutes, but I remember when she gave me back my camera, I had goose bumps. She’d captured the spirit of the afternoon in a way we never could have done by ourselves.”

With a twelve hour flight back to Victoria ahead of her, Nicole had lots of time to relive those moments, as she flipped through the pictures on her phone. And there, sitting at the airport, she suddenly realized what she had in her hands -- pictures that she would have happily paid for -- if only there had been some sort of service where you could book a vacation photographer.

That was the moment that the seeds were planted for a business that she would call Flytographer -- a concierge service that books vacation photo shoots around the world -- and sends the results via email, where they land in your inbox, just waiting to welcome you home.

“When I got back to Victoria, I started googling. I could find vacation photographers in New York and Paris,” Nicole explained, “but it was all very disconnected. There was not one service that could connect you with a photographer anywhere in the world. I thought about it every day for nine months. I had a great situation with Microsoft. I was able to work from home and pick up my kids from school. But the idea kept getting bigger and bigger, and I just couldn’t ignore it anymore. I was about to turn 40 and I knew if I didn’t give it a try, I was going to regret it.”

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So Nicole decided to test the waters. She bought the domain Flytographer.com and asked a friend, who was on her way to Paris to celebrate her own 40th birthday, if she’d be willing to let a photographer follow her around and shoot some fun pictures. Then she went to Craigslist and started scouting for photographers based in Paris. She skyped with several, until she found someone who not only had great skills, but the kind of charming personality that would make her friend feel comfortable. And then she hired him -- for Flytographer’s very first photo shoot.

“I learned a lot from that first effort. The photographer was shooting from behind, trying to go almost unnoticed -- but I knew it was important to capture faces. And after hiring a couple other photographers to follow friends on trips to London and Buenos Aires, I decided it would be best to set up some shots, and to let other moments just unfold in front of the camera.”

Within four months, Nicole had all the proof she needed to move forward and build a website. She used the photos from her test runs to show potential customers what was possible. And she joined a local incubator -- a mentoring program in Victoria, that’s designed to help local residents launch start ups.

“I kept my full time job so I could fund the business,” Nicole said, “and I worked on Flytographer at night. I started seeding blogs and Facebook pages with comments, to get the word out, and one day I got an email from a writer at NBC. She saw a comment I left on a blog post and she wanted to interview me for a story on vacation photos. Days later, Flytographer was featured on NBC’s home page right next to Angelina Jolie and Prince Harry. And the traffic on the website went up 1000%!”

Nicole began getting requests from people around the world -- and in turn, she began to build a global team of professional photographers. But the queries that were coming in weren’t just for fancy vacations in Europe. Groups of girlfriends wanted to capture weekend getaways, and a mom emailed to ask if Flytographer could capture her daughter’s group of friends, doing all their favorite things, just before they each went their own way to colleges around the country.

“One of my favorite requests,” Nicole remembered with a smile, “came from a fellow who booked a two hour shoot in Paris. We mapped out a route which ended at the Luxembourg Gardens. But he asked, if the photographer might be able to extend the session by thirty minutes, if they decided to spend a little extra time there. So we planned for that, just in case.”

“We set a place to meet and he told us to look for a man in a blue suit and a woman in a white dress. When the car rolled up, she was in a fairy tale wedding gown! That extra time he asked for -- it was so we could get shots of them with ten friends, as they got married.”

As her clients continue on their vacations, Nicole builds a gallery of photos and then sends them a private link to her website. Upon their return, they can download the pictures, order prints or have albums made to commemorate their journeys.

Just one year into her new adventure, Nicole has 90 photographers working in 75 cities around the world. The memory making entrepreneur has begun working with travel agents and international resorts. She’s pared her work with Microsoft down to just a few hours a week and Flytographer is projecting revenue of more than half a million dollars this year.

“When people heard I was planning to launch this as a business,” Nicole recalled, “there were some who had a look of terror in their eyes. They couldn’t believe I was even considering leaving the corporate world. And there were a few who would ask, ‘How’s that little photography thing going?’ They found it kind of amusing. But I was determined to prove them all wrong.”

“I knew I wanted the next ten years of my life to be a time where I felt incredibly passionate about the work I was doing. And now I do. Every time a new set of photos comes in, I feel like I’m unwrapping a gift. Work doesn’t feel like work anymore.”

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