Do you remember autumn 2012? I do. Milton had a room open for rent in the basement.
Now we call the lower floor the “garden level”. It’s friendly and lively, with delicious smells from our bakery that fill our other renovated studio spaces. In 2012, it was undeniably a basement. The classroom-turned-studios were spartan and had two selling points:
1: They were affordable.
2: They had ceilings...?
At the time, the hallway leading to the studios had an exposed ceiling made up of rusty boiler pipes and old wires. Two fluorescent lights plugged into extension cords flickered irritably whenever you walked through. The lights revealed webs gone old and dusty from spiders that had abandoned them for better locale.
There was a need in Alton for reasonably priced commercial space. Despite this, I didn’t imagine this as the first choice for a family photography business. Little did I know...
Carrie Carpunky had been using her in-laws basement as a photography studio. Not having access to private space for clients, not to mention room for her props and backdrops, was becoming a problem. Plus, she knew there was only so much her business could grow without testing the limits of even the most gracious family hospitality.
Surprisingly, Carrie wasn’t the only photographer looking at the open basement room. I didn’t know anything about either potential tenant. They both seemed like they’d pay their rent...and that was about as far as my own sense of judgement had developed. I was still green myself at running a then-fledgling incubator.
I also hate choosing sides…
So I told them both “I’ll rent to whoever gets here first.”
Carrie’s apprehension gave way to her ambition. Check in hand, her eyes began tearing up as she signed the lease on her first commercial space.
She now had a six month trial lease and plans to shoot enough family Christmas card portraits to make it work through the winter.
If you had told Carrie in 2012 that her business would be what it is today- she would’ve thought you were out of your mind. Like most new business owners, she faced the same fears we all do. We all say the same things to ourselves:
I don’t have a business degree- how can I run a business?
Am I charging too much? I’m so new, why would anyone pay for this when there are so many other photographers?
Will I be able to make my rent? What if I’m lying to myself?
But 2012 Carrie had the one quality in spades that indicates future success: determination.
Year One...Her business grew. She traded for better props with other photographers until she could invest in buying them herself.
Year Two...Her business grew. She reinvested in herself, learning from the industry’s leading professionals how to constantly become better.
Year Three and Four...Her business grew. She moved to a better space inside The Milton Schoolhouse- and then upgraded a second time.
How many small businesses can tell the same story of growth year after year? Only small businesses ran by people determined to turn their passion into a profession. Entrepreneurs like Carrie.
Two stories stick out to me when I think about Carrie and our business together these last five years.
The first, was a cancer scare.
Carrie had beat cancer just prior to starting her business. She went in for an annual evaluation and they found something. She had just moved to a higher cost studio inside Milton and came to me preparing for the worst.
Her business was doing good but she couldn’t sustain paying rent without working. For me, it was the first time I realized that my commitment to providing a space for small businesses came with a greater moral responsibility.
Facing what could’ve been a six month gap in rent, there was no choice to make. Here was Carrie, who - just like me - had thrown everything into starting a small business. It was just starting to take off. I wrote in my journal that night,
“I’ll do whatever I need to- this should be the least of her worries.”
Fortunately, the scare was false and her business continued to flourish without gap.
I admired her determination. It was contagious working alongside someone also passionate about their work. Carrie’s presence challenged me to define my mission at The Milton Schoolhouse. I knew I wanted to be more than “a landlord”. The Milton Schoolhouse was meant to help Alton grow successful small businesses.
The second story happened soon after Carrie committed to leasing our premiere studio (the current studio down the hall from Maeva’s).
Her business had grown so much more than she projected that she had found out her quarterly tax payments weren’t going to cover what she owed. Can you imagine growing so much you surprise your accountant?!
I can’t remember the amount but it was some four-figure number that would’ve made anyone freak. Carrie didn’t freak. She rolled up her sleeves announced a surprise mini session weekend.
She booked that weekend full and worked her butt off. The next week, I remember her grumbling about “so much editing”. I did my my best not to burst into laughter. I wanted to throw my arms around her and say,
“Oh my god, do you realize what you’ve just done? You were able to handle something that could’ve paralyzed or shut down an entrepreneur. Your business has made it- you’ve made it!”
And she is still making it today. It’s be an incredible privilege to be the place Carrie chose to turn her hobby into a full time profession. Having her personality in my life, day after day, has been a blessing beyond words.
That’s why it makes me happy to echo the announcement that Carrie’s studio will be moving next month to a storefront location in downtown Alton. It’s a huge move for her business- she’ll be taking on a space that is double in size of her current studio and offers great amenities for the moms and babies who adore her.
When she told us privately I was shot back in time to 2012 when she had that same wide-eyed and breathless look signing her first lease. Five years later, maybe we both have a little more wisdom around the eyes. As she humbly stated, “I hope it’s a good move- I hope it works.” my gut response is “Of course it will.”
Carrie Carpunky Photography is the fifth business that has started inside The Milton Schoolhouse and successfully grown beyond our walls, and the third to relocated to a larger studio in Alton. When new business join us, I’m proud to state that we have a 82% success rate of our start-ups surviving longer than 3 years. These statistics are fantastic and we get them by offering opportunities that no other commercial property in this region does.
With growth comes the bittersweetness of saying “au revoir” to an amazing part of our Milton Schoolhouse family as Carrie Carpunky grows into her new space- and the fresh excitement of knowing there is now another space in our building for someone else’s passion to come alive.