By: Lauren Drell
Seems like everyone’s a photographer these days. Take a stroll through any New York neighborhood and you’ll generally see a few Canons and Nikons in action. With advances in digital cameras in recent years, the equipment may look professional, but many of these photographers are amateurs simply snapping pictures for fun. How do they learn the nuts and bolts of photography? Well, last year, thousands of them cut their teeth at the Digital Photo Academy, the brainchild of magazine-executive-turned-entrepreneur Richard Rabinowitz.
Although Rabinowitz himself is not a photographer, he parlayed a career in magazine ad sales into a successful photography academy in 60 cities across the United States — all of which he manages from his apartment in the Big Apple.
You weren’t always an entrepreneur. Where did your career begin?
I was in graduate school to be a shrink. I did all four years, but I quit without getting my Ph.D. I started selling ad space at Women’s Day magazine. I didn’t know what it was — I thought it was a pennysaver! I had no experience other than selling ads for the college newspaper, and I was good at it, so I figured I’d go to New York and make it happen. Most salespeople are like, “Hey, let’s go to a baseball game!” which I do, but I also knew follow-up and research from grad school, so they kept promoting me. I later became the ad director and then the associate publisher at Elle, then I became the publisher of American Photo and Popular Photography.
So how did you go about launching Digital Photo Academy?
Around 1986, there was this big battle between Canon and Nikon, and Nikon’s marketing director wanted to somehow parlay the professional shooters into ambassadors and show on a mass level that the pros were using Nikon. We figured, “Let’s take some famous photographers, put them in the magazines and take them to New York to mill around with the magazine’s readers and learn some photography lessons.” We didn’t know if people were just going to come in from Long Island for the day and go home the next day. But 45 people flew in from all over the country — one guy from Israel! — so that was in 1987 when the Nikon Mentor Series got off the ground. Nikon’s thinking was, the pro photographers like this because they’re in the magazine as “the guru” and they get paid to go to these amazing locations, and the retailers like it because they could accompany photographers on these trips. And my company liked it because it was very profitable. Hachette Filipacchi was good at letting you do whatever you wanted as long as you came up with the money. So it worked very well.
A few years later, Jim Malcolm from Sony said he liked the concept but wanted to update it. Sony was coming out with new cameras, and they bought all the Minolta technology because Minolta had gone out of business, so they wanted something that was classroom-oriented, not out in the field like the travel program. So we came up with Sony Digital Days in 2002 — every weekend, production and teaching staff traveled to a different city. I called it “the circus comes to town.” A teacher and producer would rent a Marriott conference room in Indianapolis on a Friday night and give slideshows and demos of Sony equipment, and move on to the next city on Sunday night.
And that idea birthed the academy?
Yes, Digital Days was very lucrative, but I realized that if it’s just one weekend, it can be a total bust. The teachers wouldn’t be back until the next year, so there’s no ongoing relationship between the photographers and consumers. It suddenly clicked, so I went to Panasonic and changed the concept from one traveling teacher to more of a franchise model, with 50 teachers who live in the top 25 markets and do five classes a month — for point-and-shot, digital SLR, etc. — and we’d take them out in the field. The classes are more intimate, and by the end of the year there are more people exposed to the products than with Sony Digital Days.
The teachers in each city would develop ongoing relationships with the students and the retailers, who helped me find the top local photographers and were excited to host free in-store retail events.
You worked in publishing for decades. What made you finally leave?
I discovered over the 25 years of my “professional career” I was an entrepreneurial spirit and a good salesman. My dad was an entrepreneur, too. He didn’t go to college and didn’t like corporate culture, so he started a glass contracting business in Miami Beach. He started this big, local company just with money from my mother’s fur coat, which he hocked. I grew up thinking corporations squash individuality and were these evil empires. Once we launched the Nikon Mentor Series, and the magazine was making huge profits off of it, I started thinking, “This should mean big profits for ME!” I left the corporate job in November 2006, which was hard, because it was cushy and I had an expense account and all that. DPA was formulated in early 2007, and the first class was in June 2007 with eight students…. I had a very nervous stomach.
The great irony, of course, is that you yourself are not a photographer. How does that work?
Jill [Enfield, Richard’s wife] is the one who got me in to photography. I know nothing about technology and all these digital cameras. Jill does all that. But I have a very good eye…. I tell Jill to get this shot and that shot. I got involved in photography magazines because the CEO of Hachette came to me and said, “How would you like to see your wife’s photographs on the cover of American Photo?” He was offering me management, and at the time I was focused on becoming a publisher, so that pulled me over from Women’s Day, and from there I took opportunities as they arose.
How did you finance DPA?
Between all the sponsors, we launched with a little more than $1 million in June 2007, not including the student enrollment revenue. My sponsors were really happy because we were really engaging the students, who were of course buying equipment and also pursuing a passion and learning how to shoot. Our sponsors included Panasonic, Manfrotto, Nik Software, Lensbaby and a few others. Panasonic was the big one that underwrote DPA, but a lot of these little companies don’t have the money to market in the field, so they sponsor us and we work as an ambassador. Now I have 60 sponsors, and in 2010, we had 4,100 students.
How do you increase your enrollment?
It’s been growing steadily — in 2008, we had 1,800 paying students, in 2009 we had 2,600, and in 2010, we had 4,100. There’s word of mouth, and then we do city-specific e-mail newsletters. We’re rolling out around the country now with Living Social — we got 500 students in New York from a one-day announcement. We’re rolling out to Chicago, Tampa, Dallas, Washington and Atlanta. It’s growing nicely.
What do you consider your strength as an entrepreneur?
Bringing the right people together. I can acknowledge what I’m not good at and find the people who make things happen.
What’s the toughest part of growing the business?
The hardest part is knowing that I need to invest and build apps and all that stuff — and knowing it costs thousands of dollars. But we’re going to branch out and do the digital stuff.
The academy operates out of your apartment. What’s that been like?
Well, I realized very quickly that it’s always been “Jill’s house” and “Jill’s studio,” not mine! It’s a very casual setup, and I really like it this way. I like the circus, it amuses the hell out of me — people are always staying there, students are bringing their laundry over and sleeping in the living room. I think it was good for my daughters, too, to grow up like this.
What’s the next step for DPA?
I want to do online continuing education classes — let the people who took the live class get a discount for programs where every month we give them an assignment and they can have an interactive conversation with a teacher online. Then I want to go international as well, and host trips to places like Viterbo. I’d also like to branch out to movie lessons.