“It gets better.”
That’s the message Angela Thomas would like to convey to those who are starting — or thinking of starting — a small business.
Thomas is the co-owner with her husband, Colin, of Thomas Photographic Services at 18705 Dixie Highway in Homewood.
Half of all small businesses fail within five years, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration. The Thomases officially crossed that threshold in 2016, celebrating in May the fifth anniversary of their studio.
The journey, though, began before the studio opened.
The couple met in college. Both attended Harrington College of Design in Chicago. Colin graduated in 2007, Angela in 2008. They moved to Homewood in 2008 and began their photography business, working from home and focusing on corporate events.
“Then the recession happened,” Angela said.
Corporate business evaporated, so the couple turned to family photography, and that has been their specialty since. They take family portraits, graduation photos, senior pictures, weddings, anniversaries, baby’s first year packages and do photo restoration.
The Thomases have also produced community yearbooks, collections that document the people and places of the village much as a school yearbook captures the essence of a class.
The first, the Homewood Project, was published in 2011, the first year the studio was open. They followed with a second edition in 2013.
In 2015, they took the photos for the Flossmoor Project, which arrived shortly after the studio’s anniversary celebration.
The latest addition to the studio’s services is a photo booth. The Thomases create special backgrounds and provide accessories, like funny hats or moustaches, and the resulting photo prints, produced on the spot, are something guests at an event can take home with them.
“Little kids especially can’t get enough of it,” Thomas said. “I think they love it so much because it’s tangible. They compare their poses. So many kiids have not seen pictures that they can hold and touch.”
Angela said opening the studio was a big challenge, but she feels like it has been a big achievement, too. It has given them the space to work and the visibility in the community that not only helps them better serve clients but also tackle projects like the community yearbooks.
Like many small business owners, they found the early years to be some of the most difficult.
“We started off with nothing,” Angela said. “We went to a couple of banks and nobody would give us a loan.”
They eventually got help from family members and were able to rent studio space, but developing that space took time.
“We had to do things very gradually,” Angela said. “We had the rule: Don’t buy things until you can afford them or unless you really need them. It’s been a gradual thing to get the store where we wanted.”
Developing a new clientele after the recession took time, too.
“It was rocky at first. Every year we got a couple more people,” she said. “When we first opened, we were like, ‘Four portraits a month. Awesome!’ Then at the three-year mark we were like, ‘Four portraits a week. Awesome!'”
During the Christmas 2015 season the couple were sometimes doing four portraits a day, she said.
Colin, a fifth-generation Homewood resident, said he was cautious at first about moving the business into a studio.
“Angela was the driving force in wanting a brick and mortar studio,” he said. “I was the cautious one, but in the end she proved to be right about a studio. Five years later, we have made wonderful connections and had great opportunities with hopefully more to come.”
With more work, the business needed more help, and the studio now has a staff of three in addition to the Thomases, including studio manager Janine Mlynarcik, who focuses on business and marketing.
Getting through the first five years was full of challenges, but it also brough rewards. Angela said the message she would like to give to those starting a new store is one of hope.
“It’s going to be hard, but you can do it,” she said. “Without our store we wouldn’t have been able to buy a house. We wouldn’t have been able to buy our car. We wouldn’t have those things if we were still working out of our house.”
Thomas Photographic Services
The Flossmoor Project, a chance for local residents to go down in history (H-F Chronicle, July 8, 2015)