Cole Roberts — Planning Your Own Exit

Cole Roberts, co-founder of Nordica, Way Up North, and now Kolla, talks with us about the risks of entrepreneurship, how he stumbled into the world of wedding photography, and why you should plan for your own exit when you start your own company.


Velare: So how did you and Jakob start getting into weddings?

Cole: We came into it with nothing and I’m not exaggerating at all. Like he had done one wedding in Finland and I had done one wedding in [my hometown] actually, that never has been shown everywhere. So we had to kind of had two weddings and we were sitting there, we were like, okay, what do we do? Like we want to do weddings. But we realized we have to just get hired. So at that time we just kind of thought, “Okay, if we can like network our way into success, let’s try that angle.”

So we would just do whatever it took to like shake hands with people. And we turned into these crazy networking guys. And a lot of the work that we did, had nothing to do with weddings. But it’ll all along the way we would be like, “Yeah, we’re wedding photographers!” So we just kinda scrapped it out, I guess you could say to get jobs whenever we can. Like we were getting paid in shoes and we’re like, okay cool, we’ll take the shoes because we were taking pictures of someone who made shoes for example.

So it was pretty, uh, pretty raw I guess you could say. And we did a lot of stuff in 2010, 2011 that that probably will never see the light of day and that’s okay. But we were just like doing whatever we could because you know, beggars can’t be choosers and if you’re starting out, I mean, what else are you going to do but work and put in the hours.

How has your perspective changed from your early days of starting a wedding photography business with Jakob to where you are now with families and multiple businesses?

Well I think, naively, success 10 years ago would have been stability and you know, paying the bills and getting to a place where you didn’t feel like you had a hustle for every check that you got or every job that you got. But now I legitimately don’t think like money is a motivator. It doesn’t feel that way now and I think we’re more motivated by what can we create that’s going to have longevity because if we can create something that we legitimately believe in and money’s not a motivator to create whatever that is, then that’s going to end up standing on its own legs over time. And then, you know, a byproduct of that is sure you’ll make a few bucks.

I feel like we’re getting into our groove a little bit as entrepreneurs and I think success for us right now will be to be able to continue creating brands. That seems to be ironically enough what we studied when we first met a long time ago. And I think that’s kind of where we’re going to find our groove and where success will be for us.

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"Nobody's going to buy our brand or any other brand unless you hand them the keys to a functioning factory."

What were some of the inspiration behind starting Kolla? I know that’s a huge jump from weddings to e-commerce. What led the conversation moving that direction?

I think with wedding photography there are very, very few people out there who are going to do wedding photography their whole careers. Like you guys are in the industry too and you probably can count on a few fingers, people who can make it last. So in the backs of our minds, we’ve always been like, okay, well we can’t pigeon hole our careers in weddings even though we love doing them. And sure, you know, we want to keep doing them, but we’re not going to do them forever.

We just established that first of all. And then second, Jakob actually came up with the idea of like, how do we sell all this work that we have catalogs of. In addition to that, like how do we sell our work with other photographers who also have these catalogs of work just like dying away on hard drives. So that was sort of the very bare bones beginning of how we camped with Kolla. And then it kind of just evolved from there. I would say it took a year and a half from when the idea was born to the day we pressed publish on the site.

And along the way we, like we just kind of had to identify where would Kolla fit in this market of wall art. Because you know, it is competitive. There are other businesses out there selling posters and motivational quotes on cheap paper, imported from China. Like there’s a lot of competition in this market. So we needed to really identify where do we fit into this mix before we go all in. And then once we kind of felt like, okay, that makes sense to us. We’re at a good price point, the product’s good, we liked the brand, let’s go for it. So it took a long time.

With Kolla you guys are doing outside funding, you’re raising money and you also have been pretty clear that your end goal is to have an exit within three to five years. That’s an entirely new way of running a business compared to running on wedding photography company or even running a conference. What led you to make some of those decisions about running a company that you plan to leave?

This is quite a departure from what we used to do, but we want to have the kind of business that has an end goal. And maybe the goalposts shift a little bit over time and they probably will, but to start the business from the understanding where we need to build a business or systems are in place so that one day hopefully we can sell it off and if we do sell it off, those systems are in place for the buyer.

So it’s as much for us as it is for whoever hopefully would buy the brand in the end because nobody’s going to buy our brand or any other brand unless you kind of hand them the keys to a functioning factory, so to speak. So yes, we did say, “Okay, we want to sell this in three to five years.” But really it’s as much internally as externally to have a goal like that because internally we need to really have our shit together to even consider selling it.

With starting Kolla, there’s a lot of things that you could have pursued that you chose not to pursue. Have you ever had to kill some entrepreneurial ideas that you had because they were just bad ideas?

Yeah, for sure. You kind of think yourself to death almost, with being an entrepreneur, where you just think about something so often and think about so many new things that could work. And what’s the expression there? You get paralysis by analysis. And sometimes it makes no sense. Sometimes it’s better I think. And I wish that we’d do it more where you just put an idea out there and actually do it rather than thinking it to death. I do think it’s like a double-edged sword in a way when you’re thinking about entrepreneurial ideas or something new where maybe something great is being passed by just cause you’re thinking it through too much, as opposed to just putting it out there.

"If you feel like you have a little bit of that business [vigor] inside of you, start planning for an exit right away."

A big part of your brand is obviously international. Did you find yourself at some point just exhausted with what that means to be an international wedding photographer? Do you find yourself looking back and being like, “man those things that I really valued and I thought were really important now I’m not so sure?”

To me it’s interesting at least like, cause what we do brand Nordica as this international machine, this juggernaut traveling and world, or at least we did for a while. But when we were in Vancouver, we could have rode off into the sunset doing as many weddings as realistically we could book. We were doing a lot of local weddings in Vancouver and we had placed ourselves in the market very quickly, like our Google organic search results in Vancouver where untouchable. But then we thought it was a good idea to just up and move to Sweden. So I mean there’s like a, how do you say it? Different ways that we can look at how Nordica evolved over the years.

At the end of the day, I do think it’s unrealistic to think that you can travel to super exotic places nonstop and call it a career when you have wife and kids or husband and kids at home. I mean it’s no secret the divorces in our [industry], in wedding photography that happen. And why do you think that is? It’s not all amazing airport lounges and traveling, like that’s not what it’s all about. So we had our taste, and it’s not like we’re shutting it down, but the days of traveling to New Zealand for one wedding is done. Those days are over.

I think you hit the nail on the head, Cole, with the idea that weddings are kind of a seasonal aspect of life. For those young photographers that are still finding their footing, but they know this isn’t the end game for them–do you have any advice that you’d give them about what to do next with a career outside of weddings?

What I feel like is, okay, so you want to be a wedding photographer. But deep down you’re feeling in yourself like are you an artist? Or you have a little bit of business vigor that you feel is in there somewhere? If you feel like you have a little bit of that business inside of you, start planning for an exit right away. And that doesn’t mean you to shut the doors to your wedding photography business. You can still do it, like it’s a great thing that you can do on the side.

What I mean is like, unless you’re like, dude, like Fer Juaristi who is like one in a million who could probably do weddings for as long as he wants or Danelle Bohane or some of these people who are complete one-offs, who are true artists and have the talent to be artists in weddings for the long haul. Unless you’re legitimately like that, which you’re probably not, like there are very few out there who are, I would start planning for an exit right away.

And that does not mean that you need to shut it down. As I said, you can still do weddings, but I dunno, I think maybe I’m sounding super negative here, but I wish Jakob and I, like the one thing that I wish we would’ve done, and I guess we’re doing it now, but I wish we would started other businesses sooner because we could have maintained Nordica, you know, we would have had to work harder, but that’s okay. Nothing wrong with putting in the hours, but the sooner you start something new, the sooner you’re going to see if it succeeds or if it doesn’t, you can move on to something else. That’s kind of what my take is.