Starbucks to Studios: Establishing a Workspace

Following on the heels of Eugen’s post last week about co-working, I wanted to talk to someone who’s worked through it all. Jessica Blaine Smith is a Toronto-based portrait and wedding photographer. Originally, Jessica met with clients in coffee shops. She graduated to a shared studio space in 2005; using a common area for meetings, and shooting in the studio. In 2009 she took over the lease agreement, and now rents and sublets space to a number of creative professionals. She sat down to share her experience as someone who has worked hard to establish a place and a brand.

KNOCK TWICE: You originally met with clients in coffee shops; what is an advantage to having a mobile work space?

JESSICA BLAINE SMITH: There’s no cost, and that’s great. But travelling around to meet my clients became tiring. I had enough of dragging albums to coffee shops, albums that are worth hundreds of dollars, and I’m putting them on sticky Starbucks tables to show people. Travelling around takes a lot of time, especially when you have to make sure you arrive there early to get table space. But no overhead is a bonus, obviously, and and I think clients appreciate it when you can go to them, and meet them in their neighbourhood.


KT: You’re the leaseholder of 303 Davies. How many people do you rent to?

JBS: I currently have five tenants. The space has four offices, so I rent out three of the offices. There are actually four people in the offices, and one part time shooter. She rents for 16 hours a month of shooting time. And then occasional renters for either shooting or meeting space.


KT: One of the offices is your own?

JBS: Yes. I found that when I took over the lease and got my own office there, everything changed for my business. I took myself a lot more seriously because I had a proper workspace, and I found that my clients took me a lot more seriously because I had that space. So while it was an advantage before that I would travel conveniently to them, I think it changed their thinking about me because I had an established space. I thought people might not like that travel, for example if they live in the west end, and my studio’s in the east end. But the have to go to the dress shop, they have to go to florists, they have to go to the bank…you’re used to running errands in proper spaces, so it’s not a big deal. When you have your own space you’re able hang your images us on the wall, and control the sound, and control the atmosphere of the place.


KT: Studio 303 is an office and shooting space. Do you think you get more jobs because you have a shooting space available to you?

JBS: Definitely. I get a lot more jobs because of it, because art directors and other clients know there’s no additional fee for a studio rental, which is a huge advantage for them. It seems that these days a lot of photographers don’t have their own shooting space, so they have to add a few hundred bucks onto a job for rental. Whereas if I already have that space available it saves the clients money, and they like that. Especially if you’re working with repeat clients; they’re familiar with your space, and they know how it works, so they feel comfortable there, they’re more likely to hire you again.


KT: What facilities are available to people looking to rent at 303?

JBS: I primarily rent to photographers looking for shooting space. The shooting space is part of the studio and can be closed off so it’s private, or left open. I offer half-day and full-day rentals during the day. And there’s also a meeting space area, which can be rented independent of the studio. There is a 40” flat-screen in the office, so if you’re meeting with clients, you can bring your laptop and have the images up on a nice big screen.

If you know that you’re going to be renting multiple times a month, then we can arrange a regular monthly rate that you pay in exchange for regular shooting hours per month. We have a studio calendar available online through google calendar that allows you to see the availability of the space and make your bookings.

And there is equipment available for students; I have a Speedotron lighting kit with three heads and a softbox. I make this available to Ryerson students because I know they have experience with this kind of kit. Backdrops are available for rent at $50 per session, in a variety of colours. I offer a 25% discount on studio rentals for students.


KT: Do you think there is a benefit to working in a shared space?

JBS: When you’re an entrepreneur, you’re often working by yourself. Before I had the office I was working from home and often wouldn’t leave the apartment, wouldn’t get out of my pyjamas, would forget to eat lunch, and you don’t realize how unhealthy that behaviour is when you’re in a rut. It’s great working with other people because we all have our own business. Those of us sharing the studio all do different things, so it’s not competition and it’s nice to be able to work together. I have a graphic designer in the space, and it’s great to have a second set of eyes when I’m working on layouts, for example. Or if your having trouble with a client…even how to word an email, it’s good to have people to bounce ideas off of….and to remind you to eat lunch.

When you’re working for yourself, it’s so important to be in an environment where your working with other people. I think that’s how you become better, and stronger, and more confident.


KT: What piece of advice would you give emerging creative professionals?

JBS: As scary as it is, you just have to take risks. When I took over the lease of the space people thought I was crazy because the rent was hight, and I had to fill the offices, and it’s a big responsibility, but you just have to take risks and do it. You might fail, but you learn from it. And you might be successful.  I think a lot of people are good at saying they’ll do things, but not many people are good at actually doing it. If you believe in it, just do it.


Studio 303 is available for full-day, half-day and long-term rentals. For more information visit:




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