Evolve Founder Series: Q&A with Nicole Smith, Flytographer Founder

Nicole Smith is the Founder/CEO of Flytographer, a marketplace that helps people capture the magic of travel by easily booking a photo shoot experience, anywhere in the world.

Launched as a side-hustle in her home office in 2013, Nicole has grown Flytographer into a multi-million dollar business that operates in 350 cities globally and has earned over 30,000 five-star reviews. It was ranked as one of the fastest-growing startups in Canada by Canadian Business Magazine, called the “The Future of Travel Photography” by Conde Nast Traveler, appeared on a Netflix show, The New York Times and Oprah.

Prior to Flytographer, Nicole worked as a product manager for a Seattle-based tech startup, and spent over 13 years in global marketing and consulting roles at Microsoft. She has also served as a board member at Viatec and The Forum for Women Entrepreneurs.

1.) Tell us about your company and why you founded it?

Flytographer is a marketplace that connects people with local photographers in hundreds of cities around the world for fun, hassle-free vacation photo shoots.

The idea for Flytographer was inspired by a trip to Paris in 2011 with my best friend. I just wanted to come home with one good photo that captured our adventure together — and also showcased the beauty of the city. Try as we might, we just couldn’t get a decent selfie / stranger-taken photo to save our lives. I mean, we’ve all been there, right?  We were at brunch with a local friend of my bestie and afterwards, I asked if she would take a few candid iPhone photos of us, but from a distance, so we could capture the gorgeous Parisian architecture too. The photos were the best souvenir I brought home as they captured the spirit of our trip, and the idea was born.

2.) What were you doing before you founded your company and what led you to owning your own business? Please share your journey.

Prior to Flytographer, I spent 13 years in global marketing roles at Microsoft. I was actually on a video shoot for Microsoft in Paris when the idea for Flytographer came. I returned home from that trip, and couldn’t stop thinking about “how could I capture memories like that on a future trip?” Who solves this problem now? When I realized there was no global vacation photography marketplace, I thought well, “maybe I could build one”?  I marinated on this idea  for 9 months before having the courage to actually take the first steps. I was turning 39 soon, and told myself, “If you don’t take action before you’re 40 then forget it forever”! Flytographer officially launched in 2013 as a side hustle, all while I worked full-time at my corporate job and raised my two young kids. In the last 10 years, Flytographer has scaled across six continents, hired 600+ photographers and our team has had the honour of capturing over 4 million memories for travellers.

3.) How important is it to support women entrepreneurs in Canada?

It’s so important to support women entrepreneurs! There is deep inequality in funding – women get only 2% of venture capital. Yet women are half the population, make a majority of spending decisions within families and bring a unique lens to problems they are solving, and are thus creating solutions the world truly needs!

Most importantly, you need to “see it to believe it”. Role models are so powerful and we need to support and spotlight women who are building and creating businesses so the next generation can continue to dream even bigger.

4.) Do you think there’s enough government support and resources for female entrepreneurs in Canada?

I think we can always do better, both with government funding but also in how we as a community support and show up for our local entrepreneurs. Consider angel investing if you are in a position to, or even just making introductions, buying products from women-owned businesses, spreading the world to your friends. Every little step counts! Flytographer had support with local accelerators and some local angel investors and as a result we have created 23 full time jobs (22 are women!). Investing in women led-orgs can benefit the wider community.  Organizations like The Forum are doing really important work in connecting resources to women and underrepresented entrepreneurs across Canada.

5.) What were some of the toughest challenges you had to overcome as a woman in business?

I would probably say fundraising for my start-up. I got so many no’s in the early days. I was woman founder, over forty, single mom, non-technical and didn’t have a co-founder. And I lived in a smaller city (Victoria). None of the checkmarks in a typical angel or VC’s thesis. Plus my business spoke to women and many men (not all!) didn’t really get the concept of Flytographer. I had one investor tell me they would never be a customer, didn’t get the value prop and therefore wasn’t interested in investing. A week later he told me his wife thought the idea was brilliant and wanted to book it for their upcoming trip.  😅

6.) Can you give advice to women thinking of starting their business? What are some key tips to keep in mind?

First, solve a problem you are passionate about. A startup is a long, tough road and so if you love what you’re doing it’s going to make the lows a lot more tolerable, and the highs so magical.

Second, just get started in small ways. Create a simple prototype or MVP, chat with your target customers and iterate on their feedback quickly.

Third, you may have seasons of chaos and working too much, so be sure to be intentional and build in rest throughout the week, so you don’t burn yourself out – your health is so important and this is a marathon not a sprint.

Fourth, document the milestones or steps along the way, so you can celebrate just how far you have come! I keep an “Evidence Journal” where I list out my wins or happy moments over the years. It’s just a note in my iphone Notes app. I add to it when a new win happens, and I review it for a pick-me-up on the toughest days.

7.) What is your overall mission and purpose?

To help people capture the magic of travel so they can relive those special moments, with the people and places they love, again and again.

8.) Can you speak about the importance of diversity and inclusion in your industry?

We are a tech-driven company but are truly in the hospitality industry. Diversity and inclusion is important for many reasons. Our customers and photographers span 6 continents and it’s important our team brings diverse perspectives and ideas, and reflects who our target customers are, so we can better understand their needs and serve them.

A successful future in the travel and hospitality industry relies on an inclusive and diverse workforce and customer experience. Progressing DEI initiatives within our industry is key to fortifying organizations by highlighting new ideas, perspectives and increasing open-mindedness. 

And we especially need to see more diversity at the highest levels of leadership!

9.) What were some of your biggest achievements since you opened your company?

We have over 30,000 five-star reviews. Delivering experiences our customers truly love, and photos they will treasure forever…. is the most rewarding part.

Being able to financially support artists all over the world by bringing them jobs they can fit in around their other work.

This year we hit 8 figures in revenue – and are profitable! After nearly dying in the pandemic 4 years ago when travel stopped globally, and slowly bootstrapping our way back, this feels like a really big achievement.

10.) Where do you see your company going in the next few years and do you have any tips when it comes to hiring your core team?

We are looking to continue to scale our business profitably with ease and flow. When hiring team members we look for value alignment, in particular a strong sense of ownership and curiosity and that they embrace the principles of conscious leadership.

11.) Do you have a message to women out there who may be thinking that it might be too late to start a business?

I am 51. It’s not too late! It’s never too late. Just take the first step, and then the next best step and slowly you will make progress. I had zero photography industry experience when I started this company, and I was a first time entrepreneur. Everything is figureoutable for the most part. Just get started!

12.) What is the importance of building a solid community and network to you as an entrepreneur?

Building a community around you can be a powerful accelerator and amplifier. Finding founder friends who are at a similar stage, or a little ahead is so helpful. It keeps you sane as many people will not relate to your journey, so invest in your founder friendships and share tips!  So many people have helped me get to where Flytographer is today. In the early days you never know who will introduce you to your next rock star hire, or investor or partnership deal. Be helpful wherever you can, find local events, put yourself out there, practice your elevator pitch… and try not to take rejection personally.

13.) Why is it important to empower other female entrepreneurs?

Because women are building really amazing things that the world needs.

By empowering women entrepreneurs to be more successful and build larger businesses, it not only inspires the younger generation to dream bigger, but the more women who are successful financially and exit, the more they invest in other women and the whole ecosystem expands.

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