Generator Ep. 021 – Cat Ford-Coates: Shift Your Focus with a Studio Takeover

In this episode, Maine portrait photographer Matt Stagliano talks with Cat Ford-Coates: photographer, educator, coach, and founder of The Studio Takeover. Cat has been a powerhouse in the portrait photography world since 2015 and is one of the primary mentors in The Portrait System. She worked closely with Sue Bryce for years, using those methods to build a profitable and sustainable portrait studio in Asheville, NC. With her own approach built on experience, Cat has taught thousands of students over the years, and has recently created The Studio takeover, a full featured online education platform catering to photographers that want to level up their business. She is a keynote speaker at events like The Portrait Masters and WPPI. For more information or to see her work, you can find Cat online at, or on social @thestudiotakeover

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Video Version

Full Transcript of Generator Ep. 019 - "Finding a Quiet Kind of Magic"

Matt Stagliano 0:00
So we meet again folks, welcome back to generator here we are at episode 21. And this week’s episode is pretty special for me. My guest is Cat forward coats. Now cat is an award winning portrait photographer with a studio based in Asheville, North Carolina, and she has been a fixture in the portrait community for years. Not only was she one of subraces official mentors in the portrait system, but she has helped 1000s of photographers, including me build profitable and sustainable studio businesses. She’s got a no nonsense approach to systems and workflows and finances. But she also teaches a wonderful way to connect with clients. I started working with cat back in 2018. And quite honestly, she’s become like a sister to me. She was my first business coach, and I rely on her probably more often than she realizes cat has recently launched the studio takeover, which is a full blown education platform for photographers looking to level up their business with expertise in all aspects of building a successful studio, from marketing to finances. She’s become a go to speaker at conferences like WPI and the portrait masters. She’s a little bit country a little bit rock and roll and I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s been incredible to watch how much she produces year over a year, and how far she’s come in the five years that I’ve known her. In this episode, we talk about business, of course, but also about the ups and downs of creating an education platform from scratch. We talk about rebranding and content creation and building community and so much more. We’ve packed a ton into this hour and I can’t wait for you to hear it. So let’s get started with my guest Kat Ford coats

There we go, What are you drinking?

Cat Ford-Coates 2:09
Bourbon some Elijah Craig. I was like it’s Christmas time. I’m gonna go talk to Matt. I’m gonna bring some bourbon.

Matt Stagliano 2:16
That’s That’s my girl right there. Little Elijah Craig. from the inside out, it’s great. Have you been? Have you been? You’ve been super busy with the studio takeover.

Cat Ford-Coates 2:30
Oh my gosh, so busy. And like, it’s so funny. Because all year I’ve been at this like high pace of motion. Like, I think I’ve been back and forth Arizona like six times, maybe seven. Vegas, the UK, Germany, Italy, Mexico, like, and I kind of hit a wall. And as I was building takeover and building the the platform, the education platform, I was like, this is this is too much. This is not sustainable. I teach sustainability like, what are you doing? And so the q4 has really been pretty terrific in kind of slowing down and curating what it is that I’m teaching instead of just teaching on the fly, like off the cuff, it’s been really nice to just like, be at home, have a Christmas tree, like, live my life a little bit instead of just, you know, chasing what I think I’m supposed to do and saying yes to every opportunity now it’s great. And enjoy some whiskey.

Matt Stagliano 3:37
I saw this shift in you know, a couple months back, it’s probably longer than that. But time is irrelevant. These days. You shifted from all of the things you were doing to just labeling yourself. I’m a creator. And I noticed once you started saying I’m just a creator, not just a creator, but I’m a creator, that things really started to fall into place for you that you were really intentional about everything that you were doing and didn’t feel like you were running around. Do I have that just about right? Yeah,

Cat Ford-Coates 4:08
absolutely. So I’ve been with with Sue Brice now since 2015. When she started developing herself value platform, of course, I was 1,000% in even having been with her for eight years already. Right? She still has this way of teaching you that gets right to the heart of things. And when she said I don’t work I create I went Oh, right. And that for me was really like okay, what do I need to do to you know, because I’ve been mentoring now for like five or six years. And this evolution with studio takeover from just being one on one or small group coaching into like, a real deal education platform was gonna take some intention. And, you know, creating that education from a space of love, instead of just recycling the same things I would say over and over and over again, I was like, No, I need to be teaching people instead of just regurgitating content. That’s not to say that like, you know, I know the content backwards and forwards, but organizing in a way that makes it mine. And putting that emphasis on the heart space, the mindset space, and the same things that I teach my students about, you know, time blocking, and setting those intentions and creating what it is that I want to create. Well, they all are true for this too. And, you know, in order to walk the walk, that’s exactly what had to happen is I had to look at everything from a space of creation. And what’s really been exciting about it is, you know, when you create with clients, there’s always like a collaborative component, even when they’re like, No, you just do you. Right? Like, there’s still an expectation there. Now, what I get to create, still has some of that, but now it’s based off of what I know that I needed, you know, 10 years ago, right? How do I create with abandon? How do I fail and not hate myself for it? How do I build this sustainably. Without all of the mishap and the pitfalls? It

Matt Stagliano 6:25
sets up the studio takeover? And some of the questions I wanted to ask you about that because I was watching. I was watching shift. And the shift Workshop is all about the heart. It’s all about defining what it is that you want. I know that I’ve struggled with answering that simple question, what do you want? Since I heard, Sue asked me that months and months and months ago, maybe a year ago at this point, I struggle with it, because there’s always something in my brain that wants to take priority, right? So if I say for example, what do you want? Well, I want to have financial freedom, live successfully with my portrait business. That means I, personally, let’s throw numbers around, let’s I want to make $20,000 a month. Now I know that in order for me to do that, I need to have my systems in place. And I also need to really break down into bite sized chunks, how I’m going to do that. So it doesn’t sound so insurmountable. Right? And when I do that, there’s always something that takes precedence. For me, I know that’s a symptom of not setting boundaries. How do you define what it is that you want? And then keep that picture clear, and work towards it every day? So I think when

Cat Ford-Coates 7:50
we pull numbers out of the air like that a femoral I want to make 20 grand a month, then you have to say, Okay, do I want to net 20 grand a month? Or do I want to make in the studio 20 grand a month? Is it congruent with what I’m doing now? Right? So if you’re only doing three grand a month, right now, 20 is probably kind of a tall order, right? But if you want to net 20 grand a month, then you need to be doing at least 30, probably right? In order to just double. So addressing congruence, the I think is something that a lot of people miss, but in the definition of what it is that you want, you know, the SU calls it the unfolding, right? Like my want is, I want more than just small group coaching, I want a platform. And that means that whether I have 20 mentees in that platform, or 2000 mentees in that platform, or 20,000 mentees in that platform, right, I have to treat every single broadcast every single course every single post in the private groups, right, like they’re the only one in the room. You know, it’s so I keep that in front of me by just saying like, I am doing what it is that I want at the scale I want. Not yet. Right, but I am so like, if it’s a portrait studio space, right, let’s take it out of the education piece and just look at, okay, in the portrait space, you’re saying, Okay, I want to let’s say it’s net, I want to net 20 grand a month. That means I have to do 60 grand a month, but it needs to be more than that. Right? Not the number, but you have to tie your heart to it. Right? Like, okay, let’s take the numbers, the financial numbers out of the equation and say, Well, what’s your average sale? Your average sale? $3,000. Right? That means if I can do, I don’t know, five sessions in a month, right? So there’s five sessions and the goal is 60 grand. Well, that’s 12 grand a session. So maybe we’re off balance there, right, but if it’s 10 sessions, are available. Okay? That means that my average sale needs to be six grand. How else might this work? If your average sale is three? Does that mean you can do two people in that day? Or is there something you can adjust in your pricing that allows you to increase your average sale? Is it incorporating a sales area? You know, like, there are a million ways to look at it. But then it goes from, I want to generate 60 grand, so I can net 22? How many people do I need to be in front of? So if I need to be in front of so many people, like is it the podcast? Is it networking groups? Is it inviting people out for breakfast every morning? Right? How do I increase those numbers? To start increasing referrals and opportunity for me to ask for a sale? That’s kind of how I look at it. Like I keep that in front of me. Okay, well, I know if I need to hit 60. Then now the unfolding of that the next step is how many people do I need to be in front of if everything stayed the same? Is there anything I can innovate? That allows me to generate more revenue? Right? Is there a passive strategy I can put into place? can I implement a subscription for the people I’ve already worked with? Right to start building those numbers so that I can hit that goal and hit that target? I

Matt Stagliano 11:20
know a lot in there for a lot of people are their own limiting beliefs. We’ve had conversations about limiting beliefs and fear. What are you seeing in your students and your mentees when they come to you? What do you find that they’re looking for? Right? What’s the most common thing that they are typically up against? Generally speaking, and correct me if I’m wrong, when folks are seeking you out for education and mentorship? There’s already an established business behind them for the most part, right? There are some some some new folks as well. But for the most part, there are folks that are looking to really level up and get get themselves on a bigger track. Well, they

Cat Ford-Coates 12:05
want to scale, right. Yeah, they want to go from that like inconsistency space, and they want more money, they want more bookings. Right? When really, the issue is not necessarily that they need more bookings, like, yes, that’s a truth for them. But their systems aren’t in place. Right? They wanted to like piecemeal, the system based off of their community or the market or, you know, like, somehow they’re special. And guys, I love you a minute, but you are not special. You know, there is a system and a recipe involved in, in creating sustainability in your portrait business. There just is and there are a million ways to do it. Right. The way that I teach is the way that works for me has worked for me for the last God, it’ll be 12 years in March. No

Matt Stagliano 12:57
kidding. Yeah. And

Cat Ford-Coates 12:59
I didn’t discover it until I found, you know, Sue Brice. And here’s the thing, I came into her system and her education, thinking the same thing. I want more bookings, I want more money, but I’m special, nobody will pay that here. And all of that really just wound up to being about me and what I felt about myself when I thought about my work, because I didn’t have there was no way for me to self validate. Right? Because I failed that a college two times, I just crushed another business that I was running, right? We shuttered our doors the same year. And I was injected from another industry entirely for being too old. So I was coming into this space, like really super disempowered in my ability capacity to create anything sustainable. It wasn’t until I stopped making exceptions for myself based off of my limiting beliefs of nobody will pay that in my town, or I’m not good enough. You know, and I say quotations and it sounds like oh, she’s kind of being a bench, right? But it’s true, because it’s the same limiting beliefs that we all run up against. Every single person I’ve ever worked with has run up against this, and I still run up against it. Every time I raise my prices, any of that comes up, it comes up in me like people really good at what you don’t start innovating and tweaking the system until after you’ve found success in the fundamentals of it. Once you had success in those fundamentals, that’s really when you can start innovating and tailoring to you. But you can’t do that on the front end because you don’t understand the why for all of the steps yet.

Matt Stagliano 14:41
Ya know why is important? You know, I think there’s a lot of folks that that hit a hit point. They’ve either enjoyed some success or on their way to enjoying that. But then things slow down or shift or change. And the desperation starts to creep in. And we start changing more more variables than we should, at a given time, instead of just changing one thing at a time measuring it, seeing how it works. All right, that wasn’t it. Let’s try this over here. I know that a lot of folks, and I’ve been victim to it as well, we just want to say nothing’s working, I’m going to change all of it, I’m gonna blow it up. And I’m going to start over again, or I need to redo my website, or I need to avoid doing all the hard stuff because I need to print these accordion cards or whatever it is when instead, it’s really stepping back again, looking at what is it that I want? How am I going to get there? Where are the real holes in my systems? And how do I move forward and change one thing at a time, so that in aggregate, all of it starts to work better? Well,

Cat Ford-Coates 15:45
because we want to change all the things at once because it’s faster. Sure, right? Like, I don’t want to change this one variable and then measure and then another week later, change another variable, because that takes like how many how many weeks? Right? So we want to change everything at once and think that we’re smart enough or analytical enough to see what it was that triggered the shift, right? But we’re not, and then everything blows up in our face, then we’re shooting everything we don’t want to be shooting, and working with clients we don’t want to be working with and producing work we don’t want to make, but then it’s all in the name of a chair, I gotta pay my mortgage. Right? Like, I’ve definitely done that 1000 times, right, like, I don’t know what I’m gonna do to fix it. But I gotta pay this rent today, thinking

Matt Stagliano 16:31
about that and projecting it on to you with the creation of the studio takeover? What have you been learning as you’re built going from, you know, having students and mentors and doing your online coaching, like you’ve been doing for years to building an actual platform? What are the things that you’re learning in doing that?

Cat Ford-Coates 16:51
Oh, my gosh,

Matt Stagliano 16:53
do we have enough time?

Cat Ford-Coates 16:57
Well, it’s funny, I just sort of came into it, like, Oh, I’ll be able to just run a zoom and attach the zoom to the website. And you know, like thinking, that is not the case, at least not to have anything like password protected. And so there’s this, of course, when you start a business, they tell you like, list out everything, you know, all of your charges, and so on, and then, you know, triple it for what you think you’re going to need. And it’s so true, even in this space. And I see why other people do it with investors, as well. And you know, like self funding, you know, bootstrapping is always how I’ve done anything. And so yeah, like, I’m learning all sorts of things, I’m learning about my own boundaries, and my own pace. Right, so I’m still taking studio clients, in addition to my associate photographer, but my ability to turn things around is taking much longer, because I’m giving myself the space to create the courses and the materials and the content. And the advertising and I’m learning a whole other new realm of marketing, that is just sort of like a an amplified version of what I would do for the studio, you know, we have the podcast now and a tic tac, and, like, all of this stuff that that I’ve never had to rely on before. But knowing like the impact of podcasts, you know, like giving people an opportunity to, to engage with your energy and your voice is just a way that people consume content these days. So to reach a bigger audience, you know, learning all of the things and you know, one of the, one of the collegiate industries that I failed out of was audio engineering. So that’s been kind of fun to be like, Oh, hey, finally, 20 years later, I get to put some of this to use. Now, what do I remember from those courses? That’s another story. But yeah, like, just everything is at scale at this point. And so, you know, I’m a bull in a china shop, like, I will just show up and break everything and be like, well, I guess I’ll figure it out.

Matt Stagliano 18:56
You know, one of the things in shift is, well, one of the quotes that really got me was create the path and release the how. And I’ve seen you do that over and over and over. And I’ve tried to instill a lot of that in my own stuff. When I’m, I’m a creator, I like to come up with the ideas. There’s no stopping me when I’m in that mode of creation. However, there are far more ideas than there are minutes in the day. How do you accomplish all the things that you want to accomplish? I see you creating content nonstop. And it boggles my mind that you actually sleep. So how do you manage the content creation, the platform building, the shooting, managing your employees, all of that, and don’t just say calendar? How do you how do you manage all of that stay sane, but also stay upbeat about what you’re doing and not feel defeated? Inevitably on those days where it just gets overwhelming. Well, I

Cat Ford-Coates 20:02
think that’s really what I ran into in like September October, like was that I hit a wall, you know, even and you know, my my time management, my time blocking is pretty much my Bible. And I was not allotting enough time for all of the things it put me in such a mode of Chase. And for anybody, if you followed me for any extensive time, you know, one of my favorite things to say is stop chasing, like, I can feel it when it comes up. And I’m like, no, no, this is not for me, right. But that’s really what what happened was, it was just I was chasing all over the place, because I wasn’t giving myself the opportunity to hold the hell even create the boundary in the first place, let alone hold it. And so I think it really, you know, as far as the content that I’m creating, is because I am a creator, it does not matter what I’m creating, right? It could be a business plan, it could be a few, it could be a course, it could be a painting, doesn’t matter. Like my, my brain doesn’t really separate. This would be perfect, right? Like, because it’s photo, it was really just about learning how long it would take me to create something, how long does it take an editor to edit the thing? How long does it take me to film the thing, then I just made a spreadsheet. And this is just for the course content, like not even you know, the social content, or the marketing or the sales funnels or the landing pages are La la la, la, la, la La, right? I had to understand what kind of boundaries I was working with. Because in the studio, like as a photographer, I’m pretty fast. But I didn’t start that way. Right? I started with these types of photo shoots, these portrait sessions, were running like four and five hours, and I loved every second of it. But then I started looking at the math. And like, Well, yeah, it’s awesome. But if I could get this down to two hours, I could do three times as much, right? Oh, if I could get this to two hours with the image selection appointment, now I’m now we’re really talking, I could do four? Well, if I’d have just a long day, I could really do 10. And that’s when it was like, oh, but to do 10 in a single day. That means I need support. I need an assistant and I need somebody else to handling image selection. Okay, what’s the cost on that? Versus what I would make? And then I was like, Oh, now we’re really talking. Right? Because if I do that, you know, two days a month, three days a month, four days a month, then, like we’re looking at exponentially more money. And when I shifted from just, I love shooting, I love empowering people. I love all of their great field good stuff. Right? From, you know, the artist side of me to the business side of me. I’m not available for the struggle anymore. I’m not the late mortgage payments, the do I pay the power bill or get groceries? Like those conversations? Were my life for 20 years in adulthood. Right. And so when I shifted from that, that’s really what I just started dialing in on process. And the same is true for takeover. Right? It’s okay, how much time do I need to do this thing? All right, I need to organize it. So it’s not just what are we shooting today? I don’t know, I just got a model. Let’s see what happens. You know, and I’m sure it will probably turn back around to something like that, because I think I do a lot of my best work off the cuff, like with limited planning. But right now I’m micromanaging myself, because I don’t want to just create, I want it to be world class. I want it to be so valuable for people. It’s like hell yes. A full body. Yes.

Matt Stagliano 23:57
In the final product that I’m seeing you put out the effort is far and above anything else that I’m seeing anyone do. The production value that you’re bringing to some of these classes is phenomenal shine, marketing, creation, foundation of freedom, right, you’ve you’ve leveled up so far in terms of production value, it’s wonderful to see not only does it create value for for your students and for your subscribers, but in terms of longevity as well. Nothing’s dated. It all looks great. And it all sounds great. And there is a quality that lets people know that you’re just as invested in this as they are. You’re not just a fly by night throwing education out there, which seems to be what a lot of folks are doing these days as they struggle to fill their pockets during the lean times. Everybody’s an educator now. But to see you lean into this in the way that you have has been really cool to see that it can be done at a high level and with wonderful value and and you’re there all day, every day, communicating with the community communicating with the students. I love seeing someone that is so invested in the future of their own students. How has it been building that community? Right, coming from portrait masters and Sue Brice world? And as that has evolved, I’m sure there are tons of lessons in there about building community. What are the things that you’re applying now to build this new community?

Cat Ford-Coates 25:32
It’s interesting, you know, I mean, the portrait system with with Sue, was a godsend exactly when I needed. Yeah, that education and that community, and one of the things that Sue has always been really great at is building that connection. And I don’t think my work would be the same, even remotely without connection. And I’ve, I’ve brought that connection, right, that ability to connect by seeing people and hearing people and holding space for them from like, this space of how it was modeled to me by Sue into my work with my my studio clients. And I think that is probably one of the you know, after the posing and the lighting, like it’s that connection to people heart to heart, right, that allows people to get value from anything, when you’re dealing with creatives. Like everything about their business. 90% of them are artists through and through, right, there’s 10% that are like, oh, you know, like, this seems like it would be fun for a while we’ll give it a whirl, right? And you’re like, why are you here, bro. But the other 90% really is that, you know, they’re, they love to do this thing. And it means so much to them. Right? And they want to provide this experience to their customers, their clients. And that’s also like their biggest strength and their biggest weakness, because it’s tied to their heart. That’s where all of those limiting beliefs and those blocks come up. So what I’m taking from the portrait system is that ability to connect, and organize. And I do give a shit, right? Because every single person that comes through my doors as an educator, like I can’t get to my next level without them getting to theirs. So if they’re struggling with like, well, I have a good average sale, it’s like 1700 bucks, but I only get like one or two people a month. Great, let’s get you to for a month, right? Because that in my world is success that’s holding space for you to really get it and to pick up that volume. Because once you have even a minimal win like that, right? Going from $2,000 a month, to what, three, six, almost 7000 a month, right? Like, that’s a big shift. And that gives you security. And when you can get to like a safe zone where like your minimal survival budget is met, then everything else you can gamify right. But if you’re in such a place where it’s do I pay the power or my insurance, or do I go into day 10 For my mortgage versus paying it on time, so that I can eat and put gas in my car, then it’s never gonna work. Because you’re always in that chase mode.

Matt Stagliano 28:38
And it’s exhausting. It’s exhausting to be in that chase mode. And it’s exhausting to have everything running through your head all the time, I’ve got to do this, or I’m not going to eat or be able to feed my family or put my kids in school or buy Christmas presents or whatever it is, like there’s always going to be something where it’s going to kick up in you a little bit of that Chase. And this is where I know for me it has it, I have to have unerring faith in myself that everything that I’m putting in place is going to work. Now that’s not to say that I have blinders on and that I don’t need to change things that I’m doing or adjust the course and you know, level up in different ways. But there’s got to be that internal faith, I think once it starts to creep in that you’re not good enough or this is never going to work. Those are the harder blocks to get past for me than networking or connecting with people. It’s my own belief in itself. And one of the things that I found in portrait photography, because you and I base a lot of things on that interpersonal connection, making sure that we have a solid connection with the clients. I find that these same feelings of inadequacy or impostor syndrome, whatever you want to call it are Common Regardless of industry, I think it’s Joe Lully, you know, cultural this point. And it always reminds me to keep coming back that if I’m holding space for someone, they’re there and feeling safe and heard and seen, and that reflects back on me. And I start to think about, you know, what, things aren’t so bad not to say that they’re their problems are worse. But we all have these issues. I’m not alone, I can relate to other people. Regardless of what they do, we all generally have the same struggles. And it’s the connection that has allowed me to see that, rather than treating people as a product or a means to an end, there’s got to be that connection, because I think that adds so much more into what we do and what they receive. As part of the experience. I saw that you’ve created this create workshop, and you talk in there in the description of it a lot about connection. Can you talk a little bit about what you’re doing with create,

Cat Ford-Coates 31:08
so create, you know, I am an educator, as an educator, I would say my number one purpose is to get money in the hands of photographers, right? Because there’s this like, I know, it sounds dramatic, but there’s this like, cancerous assumption that because we’re creatives because we’re photographers, we have to work for cheap. That’s just a load of bullshit. It’s interesting, because in my business, like when I get into those, like 10 day sprints, right, where it really is just 123123123123, I can make a lot of money. But I also am cookie cutting. And so yes, I can make a lot of money, very systematic, and you know, just make it happen. But at the very same time, when that’s occurring with when I sit down with a customer, and they’re, we’re getting ready to go into their shoot, and I just immediately start directing and shooting instead of connecting. That’s when I know I’m way out of alignment, right, that I’m just walking through and just going through the paces. But my work is always at its best when I stop and take an opportunity to connect not only with the person in front of me, but with myself and what I want for this experience, whether that’s for me or for them, when I started, it was during COVID, I started shooting self portraits. It was really just to kind of experiment with light. And like, you know, I would bring home a couple of units and like just experiment like, Okay, let’s see if we can replicate window light, you know, using gels, and shooting through windows and like all of this stuff. But that’s when I started getting really excited about shooting again. And of course, you know, we’re slapping the middle of the pandemic, Nobody’s going anywhere. I’m not photographing anyone. But that’s when I was the most lit up about creating. So as much as I want everybody who who works with me to be sustainable and making money. I also want to remind us all that we’re artists, we might be artists who also happen to be business owners or business owners who also happen to be artists. But they don’t have to be mutually exclusive. It’s funny, I put out like one of the magazine covers before the workshop, and one of my students, she texted me and she was like, this light right here, how, how how and it was like, You got to play, you got to play. And it’s through the connection to yourself and giving yourself permission to explore and giving yourself permission to fail. Failure is exactly how I walk through everything in this space. And when you get to fail with art. I think there’s this like, it can be a little bit of a roller coaster, but it’s always the end result is always Oh my god. Yeah,

Matt Stagliano 34:03
I love risk. And I’ve talked about this before about the difference between fear and risk and risk is moving forward anyway. And despite the fear, I think there are moments in life where we kind of put it all on the line. What’s one big risk that you’re glad you took? Oh, it doesn’t have to be with the studio but just in general in life, right. You’ve been through a lot of different careers as I’ve been what’s one risk that you’re glad you took?

Cat Ford-Coates 34:32
I think I’m glad I took all of them. So one of my top three in sacred money archetypes is Maverick and they are the risk takers. I love taking risk. I get excited about taking and like in kind of a weird probably somewhat self deprecating kind of way. But like even when I first invested in my education with Sue, right like I was Oh broke I overdrafted My Account investing in her course. Or when I bought my house, I was bartending this was in, we closed on the house in 2010. In June, in February of that year, I was bartending at this place, and they were closing for renovations for two weeks. And I was like, You know what, I’m gonna take this two weeks, and I’m just gonna hammer on my credit report, right, and I dove in like, face first, that closure turned into like nine weeks. And through that entire nine weeks, I was writing letters and on the phone and like all of this stuff declared on my credit report. And that had that not occurred, I would not have purchased a home for months later on zero deposit. But that risk, and that was me finding out that I was never going to be in a position to own a home, I often refer to my time as a bartender is the time I put my life on hold. And for a long time, I was really scared that I put it on hold for too long. You know, a lot of people go into the restaurant business, like, it’s just that bridge job. Right? And then I was there for 12 years.

Matt Stagliano 36:10
Now. That’s career. Yeah. Yeah.

Cat Ford-Coates 36:12
It’s a career. I was really struggling with, Oh, my God, what if I can never get out of here? And if I can never get out of here, can I ever live my life, like really live my life. And so I don’t know that that’s really a risk, per se. But the risk to me wasn’t like a financial risk it was, am I going to find out that I’m just not good enough?

Matt Stagliano 36:33
What’s the worst that can happen, right can’t be any worse than the position that you were in, why not bet on yourself and move forward. If you’re not able to clear up your credit report, you’re not really going to be in a worse position, you can keep working on it. So there’s this moment where you do have to bet on yourself. I know, for me, it was when I lost my job in corporate, I was doing consulting, and I was just done with the whole corporate thing that I wanted to do something radically different. And so I threw myself into photography, and started building this career. And I think that, for me, was a risk of saying, Alright, I can do this, I always have something to go back to what’s the worst that could happen. I get myself into a little bit of trouble. But I’m not setting myself back decades. But if I’m successful Boy, oh, boy, I get out from under the thumb of corporate America and I can really live life for myself, hell or high water, like I’m gonna make something happen. Was there a piece of advice that echoed in your head? Was there something that someone told you? Was it something that you told yourself? Was there a phrase or something that was going on your head that you just had to follow that voice into, you know, this next phase of life,

Cat Ford-Coates 37:51
I think, for me, like, I really tried to keep it very light hearted at that time, because I feel like everything was on the line. Looking at it logically, right? Like, we can say, like, you can always keep working on your credit report, and you know, like doing whatever. But I knew that if I wasn’t successful at this thing that I never would be. So if I didn’t keep it really light and like, Oh, this is fun. And I’m gonna go do you know, these phone calls today. And like, I’m gonna haggle with some creditors, like, you know, all of that, you know, I’ve struggled with, with depression, like my entire life. And that comes from a chemical imbalance, but it also comes from self worth. And you know, at that point in time, I was drinking every day I was smoking every day, I was not taking care of myself at all. I think the last time I’d seen a doctor at that point was probably 97. Yeah, the risk was that I was going to find out I wasn’t as great as I always thought I would eventually be, and putting myself in a position to learn whether or not that was true was really like, take out snow or never. I’ve

Matt Stagliano 39:07
seen you change multiple times. And always Phoenix out of that growing, there’s always a better version of cat that comes out of that fire. The Phoenix always rises into something better and something bigger. My

Cat Ford-Coates 39:23
default is to burn it all to the ground so that I can rise up. Right, but that’s also my self sabotage too. So yes, the end result is too cat 2.0, whatever. Right. But on the same token was the Phoenix and part of it really necessary? Right,

Matt Stagliano 39:43
and this this was going to be the question is, you know, what does break the mold mean to you? Does it mean just stepping back for a moment, taking assessment of everything in front of you and figuring out a new path forward? Or is it burn it down? burn the bridges, just cauterize everything and start something new. What it what is breaking the mold feel like to you?

Cat Ford-Coates 40:06
Historically, it has always been burned into the ground, right? Like, I’m not just gonna quit, I’m gonna walk out and I’m gonna take everybody with me, right like that big dramatic martyrdom bullshit. One of the things that I really like to remind myself and teach on, you know, is enough is a decision not an amount.

Matt Stagliano 40:26
That again, enough is a decision and not an amount amount,

Cat Ford-Coates 40:30
right? So enough is whether we’re talking about I am enough, whether we’re talking about, you know, anything, I’ve had enough of this, yeah, is a decision. But it also requires that I place new boundaries, right. And so I can choose to Phoenix that I’ve had enough, torch it, burn bridges, ruin relationships, law, or I can simply just have had enough and walk away, you get to decide what that is. Right. But for most of my life, it was towards it.

Matt Stagliano 41:06
You and I are a lot of like, in that there’s parts of my life that I even still try to forget, you know, just, I can’t I can’t go back to that period of time in my mind, because it’ll drum up all these feelings. And, you know, think about lost opportunities, because I was stubborn, or, you know, blind to what was being presented to me or whatever the fact is. My default very similarly is to nuke and pave. That never existed. Let me come up with a new version that 2.0 3.0 I think we’re up to, I don’t know, 7500. there abouts. But I’ve never regretted not doing any of those things. And I’m a big believer that all of those things led me to where I am. Absolutely, that’s, that’s not some cliche Instagram thing that really is I’ve done a lot of thought about this. And the, the paths that have led me through life, have brought me to a place where I’m infinitely more content, happy, there are still struggles, but I’m infinitely better off with myself where I am now, because of all of those things. If I were to write your book today, what would the title of chapter one B? Where do I start in the autobiography of cat?

Cat Ford-Coates 42:28
Oh, probably my death. Instead of the chronological she was born in New Jersey in 1976. Right? It’s, I would probably like, as far as my, my autobiography goes when I start with like, either at her death, this is what happened. Right? Or the impact. You know, I was listening to your podcast with Johnny Edward a couple of days ago, yesterday before he made a comment. And it’s funny too, because I texted him and I was like, Ah, Mr. Rance man. But one of the things he said, I don’t know that it was triggering, but it definitely like caught my attention. He was saying something about legacy and how portrait photographers lean into this space of legacy and and people in 300 years are gonna give a shit about your photo. And I think that the purpose of legacy isn’t just so your grandkids have something to glom on to when grandma tells them about their great grandma, you know what I mean? Like, your legacy is, you love yourself enough to be timeless. When I think about the autobiography of cat, my legacy isn’t going to be only a catalogue of self portraits, or only the students that I’ve helped, or only the people that I photographed, the legacy of cat is more about the power of changing lives through legacy. Right? The ripple effect in this space is gigantic. Because as portrait photographers, we impact everyone’s life that we photograph, whether they realize it at the time or not. I was photographed when I was 15. And it was the first time in my life that it wasn’t a surprise that I was in the room. Right? Like I was there modeling for this thing. And a professional photographer was like, okay, cool. And like we did a photo shoot and blah, blah, blah. And I didn’t realize that until God 30 years later, that that actually changed the trajectory of my life because somebody didn’t wasn’t seeing me as this awkward, fat, stupid human, but actually as a valuable contributor to this project. And if that’s what we do for every single person we work with Holy shit. So chapter one can be about that impact that butterfly effect because what happens when that woman leaves your studio or that Young girl leaves your studio or that young man leaves your studio, or that older person leaves your studio, and they’re walking taller, maybe they’re taking a different risk. Maybe they are not hating themselves quite so much in the mirror. Maybe they’re asking for that raise or deciding to bet on themselves to buy the house, because of an impact that you had on them through your work together. That’s legacy. That’s what we lean into. It’s not about the photo just for your, your grandchildren or your great grandkids. Like, yes, that’s a byproduct. Sure. But

Matt Stagliano 45:37
I love the secondary and tertiary effects that we have the potential to give to people, that it doesn’t just end when they walk out the door, they are going to go someplace and feel great about themselves, you’re going to treat the folks around them differently. People that see the photos will think of them differently, and perhaps in a much more positive way. I mean, it’s just it’s, it’s I’ve been watching a lot of Ancient Aliens lately, right. And a lot of a lot of how the universe works. And you know, this is kind of like my nightly thing. And what I drift off to sleep to is thinking about black holes and quantum entanglement and just getting real nerdy, inevitably I come back to how am I making an impact in the infinitesimally small amount of time that I’m here that I’m interacting with people? What is the impact that I’m leaving? And I struggle with that on a daily basis? Am I being impactful? Not only for others, but for myself? Am I doing the things that my legacy when I look at it? At the end of my life? Will I say, Man, I I wish I had done more conference calls? You know, I really wish. I really wish man,

Cat Ford-Coates 46:58
I really wish I would have worked harder. Yeah.

Matt Stagliano 47:01
So when I think about all of that, and the concept of legacy, I think you you know, you tuned in on something that Gianni said that I think struck a lot of people, because it just makes us think about what it is that we’re doing. Why are we here? Why are we doing what we do? Why did we choose this profession? Why do we choose to interact with people the way that we do? I keep trying to scale it back and say, Alright, if I’m only known for the art that I create, what would my art say? Because I’m not going to be around to tell people what it means. What would your art say about you? If people were to look at this body of work, not know who you are not be told what do you think your art would say?

Cat Ford-Coates 47:44
There are definitely many tracks, I could go down on what I hope it says how people receive art how people consume art, I have to leave that to them. My intention could be that she gave a shit. Empowerment is such a cliche word right now it’s a trigger word. You know, the same with like alignment, or, you know, insert whatever. My goal is to illuminate the grace and the strength of every single person, I photograph. And I don’t care who you are, right? Whether you’re five, whether you’re at whether your man, woman, trans, non gender, non binary, whatever, like, my goal is to show you that you are whole exactly as you are. So that would be my hope that it’s received that way. Beyond that, as far as like, adjectives to describe it, I would have to leave that to, to the masses, or the one person that sees it in 100 years.

Matt Stagliano 48:46
No, I love the fact. And I think that is the mark of truly someone that is an artist that puts their art out and lets folks interpret it how they will. And I’ve really liked that and there wasn’t a trick question to try to guide you into that. But I think you answered it perfectly. We we get so wrapped up in what we want other people to think about what it is that we do, rather than just creating in the moment of where we are in our lives and just creating that thing, right. And oftentimes, we look at things in our own art. So singularly I like this photo. I don’t like that photo. I like this lighting. I don’t like that lighting, rather than looking at all the variables, what was going on in our lives. What was our connection to this person? And all of those can be different to everybody when they look at it. So I love the fact that you answer the question that you leave it up to the viewer because I believe the same thing. I know why I produce what I produce. But what you see in it is a reflection of your own life experience of the way that you will I mean that’s,

Cat Ford-Coates 49:49
that’s how we do everything right, like your perception of anything is based off of your own your own current space. Sure, um, one of the things said I’ve always really admired about your body of work as a whole is I can always tell with your work specifically, whether like looking at it on your website or scrolling through on Instagram or, you know, insert vehicle here, right? I can always tell when you are feeling constrained or unsure of yourself. Versus when you’re in like, a fucking free moment. Right like there is this, the way you architect your composition is wildly different. When you’re going through motions, versus in play. Sure. Like, and I think that’s so interesting, because not everybody shoots that way. Right, you would think that that would be like a kind of common piece. In my experience, like, it’s actually very few and far between, because most portrait photographers, right that are in the business side of it, just want to show it being pretty. Right versus like, actually connected, speak with their work. They want their work to speak for them. But they’re not really sure what they want to say, like when you see like, do you guys like color, black and white? If you’re asking me that, then you don’t know what you’re trying to say, with your imagery. And you are really terrific at like, No, this is obviously constructed this way. Period, the end, thanks

Matt Stagliano 51:45
for saying that. Yeah, it’s it’s, it’s something you know, oftentimes I don’t, I have to rely on again, the belief and self stop the conscious questioning about what you’re doing, just do the thing. And a lot of times, I let my emotion rule, how I’m shooting, sometimes I’m creating a product you want to add yet I can give you a head yet, here we go, right. And it’s not even gonna be necessarily an artistic headshot. It’s just alright, I’m making a product because you want me to create a product. We’re not there collaborating and working together in the same way that I would in a more freeform artistic type of shoot. And it’s interesting that you you notice that because I don’t even know that I noticed it. But now that you bring it up, it absolutely makes sense. Because I find myself in different headspace is, the best work that I ever create, is when I don’t give a shit. When I’m just there in play just in the act of creation. That’s when I create my best work the stuff that I’m like, oh, did you? Did you see this? This is amazing. And then I get back to the studio. And I’m like, There’s no way I’m ever going to be able to create that again, right? Not in that environment. And it’s a really strange battle to fight. Because I’m proving time and again, oh, I can make this. And then over here, there’s the part of me well, no one wants that. They just want the straightforward. They just want the head job. And I find they don’t know what else to talk to them about it. I noticed very similar things with you. There’s an expansion that I see when you go into these modes of creation. I see you explode with that, whether it’s competition season, or whether you’ve started a new campaign and you’re energized. It’s explosive, color and light and design. And styling is astounding. So when I’m looking for your work, I’m like, God, damn, she can do anything. And I think that’s the mark of an artist, or a photographer that loves failing forward, like you talked about early on, that isn’t afraid of risk. Like we

Cat Ford-Coates 54:03
talked about? Yeah, no, I’m definitely not risk averse.

Matt Stagliano 54:06
Do you find that that’s the maverick part of you.

Cat Ford-Coates 54:10
1,000% live on the wrist and golf involved. I want to do it more. Even without evaluation. I’m like, let’s go.

Matt Stagliano 54:18
I know you’ve got the studio takeover. And that’s consuming an inordinate amount of your time. But looking at 2024 as we’re here at the end of this year, at the end of this amazing creation period for you. Where’s 20 2014? You know,

Cat Ford-Coates 54:32
24 I’m, I’m really looking forward to just focusing on takeover right now. Using that as a vehicle to make really fun art and using it as you know, teachable moments. Yeah. You know, like there’s there’s some travel still involved. You know, I’ll be speaking at WPI in March. I don’t want to make anything concrete outside of studio takeover right now as far as like plans For the year, you know, like, there’s some vacation time, like, locked in there and a couple of spots. But like, that’s my priority. And making sure that you know, like my associate photographer is supported. And you know, they’re in motion. And that leadership’s there. But at least now I can point them to videos instead of just teaching in the moment. Like, that’s what I’m really connected to right now. And that’s my, my focus. So when it’s about like, what’s next in 2024, is the evolution of that platform and connecting with all of the people who are trusting me with their businesses and their education, to help all of them Elevate, because I think that, that evolution will have a ripple effect. So incredible, that I’m just not even prepared for yet.

Matt Stagliano 55:52
Like I said earlier, insane value in what you create, going through all of the videos on the site, trying to keep up with what you’re putting out. Because there’s so much literal drinking from the firehose, and it’s not rehashed content from other platforms. It’s your own style. It’s your own method. It’s your own insight. And that’s invaluable because it’s all based on real world experience. So as I go through shine, and shift and foundation of freedom, and really shoring up the parts of my own business that I take for granted, or have gotten lazy with having everything in one place, with that edgy kick in the ass that I need three to 400 times a week. Having you be there and providing all this is astounding for those people that are listening are on the fence about getting in touch with cat or looking at her as a as an educator, I can say firsthand, I’ve been studying under you for what, five or six years now? I think 20 Eve 2017. there abouts, I think is when I started with you. It’s been life changing. So I cannot wait to see how you build this platform out. And I like to think like, oh, it’s gonna be like, when I was there in the early days, and you know, suddenly, the studio takeover is this massive platform. That’s what I’m looking forward to. And I hope you are too.

Cat Ford-Coates 57:20
I mean, it’s it’s out there. Like I can see it kind of like, you know, like a twinkling light on a Christmas tree. It’s really powerful when you start to think about connection. You know, we talked about connection with, you know, the Create workshop and how we photograph people, but the connection that you build in relationship with students to friends to family, you know, like, you started working with me, I think it was in 2018?

Matt Stagliano 57:46
I think yeah, it was 18. Yeah, it’s about that’s about right, because I think you were

Cat Ford-Coates 57:49
on my like second or third like mastermind call mastermind or something. But since that time, I’ve watched you go from like, it won’t work here to diversifying your offerings to working with me on film crews. And I would I would easily say like you were one of my closest friends. Right? And in that, like support, an ebb and flow of that is next level. Yeah. Right. So it’s not just about like, yes, I would love to see studio takeover be wildly successful and have 1000s and 1000s and 1000s of photographers, like just out there, you know, crushing it like Yes, right. Like I Dream of Jeannie, like, wiggle my nose make it happen. The level of connection that occurs with people when not just they trust me. Right, but they start to embody what they’re learning. Yeah, that sets me on fire. Yeah, right. Like to see them go out into the world the same way that confidence is built in the studio, right? They go out in the world, and they start commanding these professional rates and they’re excited to work with these people. And they’re excited to make not just make the money but to make the art like and know that they’re cared for. Like holy shit. Do you like that’s, that’s like the expansion I’m looking at? That’s what I want to see.

Matt Stagliano 59:18
There’s no doubt that that will continue cat. Thank you so much for being here. I know we’ve been trying to do this for a while. We’ve talked over and over and over about getting on here and just having a real live conversation. And, you know, I will also plug your podcast, which you just started right? You just released the first couple of episodes. They’re out on YouTube. Where can people find all of that?

Cat Ford-Coates 59:42
Oh my goodness, the studio All of it and the podcast itself as the studio takeover. It’s on all the platforms, the apple that outcast, the Spotify, all the things. But the source for all of it is that the studio takeover

Matt Stagliano 59:55
I can’t wait to see out at WPP I did buy a ticket. I don’t know I’m getting there yet but I will be out there and I will be going through the whole portrait masters and W PPI the full the full boat. So I’m hanging out there and I can’t wait to spend an inordinate amount of time following you around. So I think it’s gonna be I think it’s gonna be a great time we’ll we’ll have some Elijah Craig, when we get out there. What do you think? Yes, we

Cat Ford-Coates 1:00:22
definitely will we definitely.

Matt Stagliano 1:00:24
I’ll talk to you soon. Take care.

Cat Ford-Coates 1:00:26
Thank you

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Ep. 027 – Focal Points with CoHost Jonny Edward: The Recap of WPPI 2024 (Part 1)

This is another installment of a sub-series of Generator called “Focal Points” where Maine photographer Matt Stagliano speaks with Jonny Edward, a commercial and portrait photographer, as well a top-tier educator based in Denver, Colorado about a variety of topics.

In this episode, Matt & Jonny recount their vastly different experiences at WPPI 2024 in Las Vegas. This is Part 1 of a two part episode.

There will be more topic explorations on future episodes of Focal Points so stay tuned for those!

For more on Jonny Edward’s photography and educational courses, please visit

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