Interview with Aanchal
Interview with Aanchal Wadhwani, founder of Matryoshka Studio production company and co-founder of Academy of Design.
A story about turning your passion into money making business, through persistence, love and connections.
Tell us about yourself and your business
My name is Aanchal. I am 25. I was born and raised here. I actually started my career in fashion design and my first business when I was 16. I was making handmade jewellery, it wasn't even a registered business. I was studying design, and I couldn't get an internship, I was too young. But I wanted to know what it's like to actually work in the industry. So, I decided to start selling to figure out how the market works in Hong Kong. A year down the line I actually had two stores selling my products, which I never expected. It was really a very small profit at the end of the day but I think it was a very big learning experience. So that is how I started Matryoshka...
Matryoshka, like a Russian doll? How did you come up with this name?
I found it online, I didn't have a name and I was looking for pretty words. I saw this word, and I felt connected to it. I felt like I was a big doll and inside of me are these little dolls, like my potential, my creativity, my inspiration.
How did you get from jewellery into photography?
I was studying fashion design, so I had a bunch of outfits that I would lend to stylists or photographers. This is how I got to know people in the industry.
Along the lines, I picked up Photoshop as well. I really liked it and I would do it in my free time. And then some of the photographers started asking me to retouch pictures for them and that became my part-time thing. Eventually, when the photographer backed out for a photoshoot I was working on, the model and the stylist asked, “Why don't you take the picture?” I was nervous but I did it. They really loved the pictures, the model agency really liked the pictures, and then I started building clientele based on that.
It all happened during my study years and after I graduated I was only 18, and I decided to do 3 more years but in marketing and promotion of fashion. During that time I was full-fledged doing photography, so Matryoshka turned into photography production company. It just happened gradually really.
So what do you think, what helped you to move from one business to another, what as the leading line?
For Matryoshka I would say it's the contacts really. They came up to me asking me to work. And people actually responded to the work. At the time I really wasn't charging anything. I was just trying to build my portfolio.
Tell us about your business today. What is that that you do, how does the brand look like?
So 8 years after I actually started doing photography, we do full-fledged production. We are shooting MTR ad campaigns and we do videography as well. I have someone who does it for me but we create stories, short films, documentaries, we like to explore what makes Hong Kong beat. At the same time business-wise we shoot campaigns (fashion related, beauty, magazine editorials, campaigns, MTR ads).
This is what Matryoshka does. But on the other hand, you have an
Academy of Design. Can you tell me more about it?
So when I was studying design (I was about 17) my partner came to my school and we became friends. We both have explored different types of education in design in Hong Kong. We also have lots of friends who went to different institutions like Poly U, SCAD. What we realised, that a lot of educational institutions would claim to provide classes in English, but when you show up the teacher can't speak any English. And if you want classes in English, those are really expensive.
We saw that there is a gap in the market for affordable classes in English. We had the idea of running classes on weekends, Saturday or Sunday for a couple of hours. The education department said we can do advanced certificates for a year, and if they study for a year they just have to come once a week. So we put the rate as low as possible in monthly fees. We brought in some of our friends who actually work in the industry to teach. They provide better information of the industry than people coming in after studying a degree to become a teacher. One of our students is designing for Miss Universe Thailand.
When we see our students achieve something, it makes us feel really good. We did that for 2 years but my partner has his own business and so do I. And it makes it really difficult to handle another commitment for very long so we had to downsize the classes to short courses, so we have 3-month programs right now.
In your industry what are the challenges?
For photography, I'd say that there's a lot of people with the same technical ability. And there's a lot of people who have cameras. Everybody owns a DSLR camera. Having the equipment and having the technical ability is easy, but to market something, or to understand someone's branding, to know how to sell a product through a visual, is a whole other thing. A lot of clientele do not understand the difference between, so they question the pricing.
For the academy, I don't really think there were many challenges for us. I felt like there was a big gap in the market as it is. So putting my foot in there wasn't difficult. It was a challenge to get the license to do it. It took us a couple of months. We had the idea and we had to get a place, and once you are renting a place then you can apply for the license.
And there are rules. So you can't have an academy in a certain location, like in a building that has a club. There are a lot of restrictions.
True, some information we might not know till starting. When was your photo studio opened?
The same time as the academy. 2 years back. Because I joined it together, it was the same location.
Do you remember how the decision to go and get a studio came to life, when did you decide that it's necessary to get a studio and get the academy, were there some turning points that led you to these things?
I think for the academy, I had to have a venue. The circumstances pushed into that right. I could combine the photography studio and the design school. Every weekend we would convert the studio into a classroom and back again on Monday. But my business was suffering because I spent so much time creating and recreating, so I found this location further away but the size was much nicer. I think it comes to a point in your own business you need the space because for us when we shoot campaigns we need to build a set, and we need to have all of this stuff. If I rent someone's studio I can't build something in their studio.
True, one needs to know when to grow. And in the very beginning, when you were starting your business, what was your biggest motivation, what was your inspiration?
My passion for whatever, whatever I am doing. I just really love it, I can't stop doing it and so I just kept going. There would be times when you fall and you think I am never going to come out of this, it is never going to get any better. Times when it feels like it's the end of the world really.
Can you describe that, like what was the case when you felt this is the end of the world?
I am not great at marketing I'll be honest. So when I was younger I felt like I couldn't push myself, I couldn't reach new clientele, I was just stuck with whoever I knew or I was charging very small fees and I wasn't going anywhere fast. And I was under pressure, I was going to graduate so if I can't do well here I am going to get a fulltime job and I didn't want to do that. I didn't want to let go of this business that I started when I was 16, I felt like I had to keep this going. I had that pressure and I felt like I'm not going anywhere, I am not earning enough money to survive without studying. And that I had to give this up, I had to get a fulltime job. But then I couldn't stop it.
So what did you do, what were the actions which helped you to save the situation?
I just went crazy. I started emailing tons of people and calling my colleagues, and I would walk into magazines. A friend from the UK told me that it is very common for makeup artists or photographers to walk into the magazines and introduce themselves. So she went with me. She sat me down and she said 'We can do this'. We were about to graduate and sort of unsure. We started knocking on magazine's doors and they found it crazy, there were weirded out. But we did it anyway. We went every day.
Which magazines did you go to?
Any. Everything. We found their address online and they shoot fashion, they shoot beauty, they shoot things that we can shoot, we are going to go and throw ourselves there. And I think it was just a matter of exploring myself without the fear of getting rejected. Initially, I would just expect something to happen. Because I was really bad at marketing.Honestly, I didn't know what I was doing. So, at that breaking point, I just threw myself at them.
What was the result?
I started getting a lot more responses, one of the magazines we walked into actually booked us for an event.
Key magazine.But they are an international magazine so I think they were a bit more open, but the local magazines found us really weird. It was funny. I didn't know what to do so I just did it. Whatever companies I could find I'd contact them and try to offer my services, even at a lower rate just to keep doing something.
And when we decided to start the academy, I had income from that, so I didn't have much pressure with photography at that time, but I used to do it for the love of doing it.
And so up to date, what was your favourite shoot and which shoot was the most difficult, which you would remember forever?
The best shooting would be, La Vie en Fleur, Life of Bloom. But it was a shoot that I'd seen online, and I wanted to recreate it, it was not a paid project, it was just a group of friends coming together to create. We all gathered together, we shot it and it is one of my favourites, I don't know how else to describe it.
Do you remember who was your first big client, how did you acquire them? Someone that made a big difference in your career.
I was about 18 at the time. And my photography business was very small. The income was very little per job. And then I had this client who was from mainland China, and they had about 300 outfits to shoot in one day, 10 hours. So at that time, I think I had earned about 20,000 HKD and I was really happy with it. And I was like, “Oh my gosh, I'm an 18-year-old kid and somebody is actually willing to give me that much money to shoot their clothes!”. I had to rent a studio I had to pay for a model, I had to pay for the makeup and hair, so my overall earning really wasn't that much but it was great that a company that could trust me enough at that age. I didn't put my camera down for 10 hours, there was no toilet break, no lunch break. I was so excited when she gave me the project, I said, “Anything you say, I'll do it.”
This is the power of being young right? Would you do that now?
No, because you can't get the quality after you shoot. At the end, when you are really tight on time, you know you have to finish and there are still 30 more outfits and you only have an hour left, you just keep throwing, you keep shooting.
And if there is someone who really loves shooting, and would like to do that professionally, what would be your advice, your recommendation?
I would say, just keep shooting no matter what, keep building your portfolio because as the times change you have to change too. You have to keep doing new things. I still try to do creative work because that is where your conceptual ideas, your mind starts, and that is what sets you apart from other people doing photography.
And what helped you move from hobby to business?
I'm very entrepreneurial. Everything I did I would ask, “Can I earn money out of that?” I've just like been like this because my parents are both very strong, my dad is a business owner so I grew up watching him having to do that. Try to get inspired and create something fresh and new and something that is very you, then build the style that is your own and keep on creating something that is different.
Now, once you've been 8 years in the business, which were the best marketing tools you used to acquire new clients to promote the brand?
I would say Facebook and Instagram. Social media. I find clients through that or they find me. I think Facebook pages and Instagram profiles are like portfolios. They don't have to click your website to see it. If you go to a website, it's more like you have to select a service from this. ButforInstagram it's more like browsing.
I think the brands I work with already have a very big social media presence. If I'm on the same platform as them and they've come across my profile, it's very easy for them to relate, because we are using the same platform to promote ourselves. But for some photographers shooting events or family photos, Instagram might not necessarily work but if they use Facebook groups there is a group for like mums, it might work better. And hashtags are great if it reaches the right people they can do wonders actually.
Which is your most successful hashtag?
It changes. I research a lot, but then I always like to hashtag Hong Kong photographer so if anyone is looking for a photographer in Hong Kong they type that and they can find me instantly.
Were there times when you thought, “this is great but I want to have more income from what I do”. And what did you do when that was the case?
I just kept trying.
Did you add other services or did you increase the price? What was your approach?
I added other services. So I started by doing just photography. Then I built a platform for contacting models for a job, and I could provide my client with a service of finding models. Then I added make-up and hair artists because I knew which artist to work with and which stylists to approach.
And then videography came in. It started this year. So I felt videos are the next thing for photography and a lot of my clients would ask for behind the scenes videos. So my clients have that option. I feel like that really makes a difference.
Sounds very practical, what do you think, is the hardest part of running your own business? Which challenges did you come across?
The hardest part was having to do it alone. But once you have the resources to delegate, that makes it a lot easier. Initially, it wasn't difficult for me to do the job that I was doing because I love it so much. I keptpractising and my skills kept on improving. But to do it on my own was a lot of pressure. Even with the academy, when we started we started just the two of us and eventually, we were able to delegate the tasks, we had an assistant, we had other people helping us.
At which stage did you add an assistant?
When I could afford it I did. I knew I needed it. It would be very difficult for me to finish or accomplish something, get the shoot to look a certain way because I lacked people. But then eventually when I was able to reach clients with bigger budgets, it was when I could include an assistant. It's all about being able to afford it. I wouldn't just hire somebody without having resources to get that money back.
The statistics say, that women prefer to start small and gradually build it up whereas men at the beginning of their business generally have more funds available and they are more readily use these funds.
What was the biggest mistake you made at the beginning of your business?
Not knowing what I was getting into. I liked photography, I was just doing it because I loved it. I didn't think about it as a business. I was studying at that time so I didn't think I had to earn money.
If I went back now, I would tell myself to think more about the strategy of how to approach people or how to do the shootings or the price points that I work with. I remember one of the first shoots I did, I just started with 500 dollars. To do that shoot I spent so much time editing the pictures. I didn't think that my time accounted for something at the time. I just thought that is a part of the thing I have to do. I spent a lot of time studying design but they never really teach you to how to market, how to sell, how to brand yourself.
Is that something you have helped people in your academy with? And what would be something one should know about trying to sell their creativity? What did you learn the hard way?
Value your own creativity! Everyone looks at creativity differently. So if I tell you this is a piece of art ( pointing at a cup), you might think this is just a cup. So there is a different value to it, but there is a general value to certain things. So you have to know how most people look at it.
Another mistake I made was not understanding that my clients don't know anything about photography. I would expect them to know how much work I have to do to get to that outcome so I didn't think I had to explain the process.
How did you overcome that?
Every time I met a client I outlined the price, but they just didn't understand. Then I'd go home and think about why they didn't understand. I wanted to figure it out myself. Finally, it occurred to me, it is perhaps because they don't know anything about it. So when I met the next client I would try to explain more, experiment. “So I need a makeup artist, they have to do this, I require these things to get this image, and that is why it's going to cost this much.” And they might have their own team of makeup and hair artists, so I could take that off the budget. The negotiations happen and then the client seems to understand why it is costing that much and they can customize to their own budget and we can work together to create something instead of solely stating a price.
Clear communication is a winning one!
Yes. And to experiment. Local school does not focus on communication. It is more like memorizing and studying. So you don't learn how to communicate with others or figure out why they think the way they think. Literally, you don't spend time understanding people. A lot of people who study overseas come back and they bring a different mindset. It took me time to experiment and to learn how to communicate differently with different people.
Running your business is a learning process, what are the advantages and disadvantages of having your own business?
You can work at your own pace. And you can learn a lot about yourself. About other people. And the system. But then the disadvantage would be that you have to figure out when to stop and change. If you don't know you are going to get trapped. At the end of the day, you are not just making beautiful pictures or drawings, you are still selling something. Trends stop after a year and we need to change. You need to be open to things that are different. You need to be open to that change. In all creative industries.
What would you recommend to someone who was trying to make a business out of their hobby?
I feel like the mistake is that they forget why they are passionate about it in the first place. Suddenly their focus is not to do it because they like it, but because they want to make money. They forget the reason they fell in love with it in the first place. They lose the drive. And then once they don't see money out of it, they just give up. Or the way they approach it becomes different.
You have to keep reminding yourself of why you were passionate in the first place. That is why I like shooting creative projects every now and then, even if I am busy. I would try to fit in something that feeds my creativity, no money involved, just a good team that works together to create. And I feel like that sorts of grounds me and reminds me why I like photography in the first place.
Do you have any business mottos or a business philosophy? When you feel down and you feel like you can't do that anymore, is there something you do which helps you to get yourself together and go back to work?
Usually, I am the type of person that if I feel down about something it doesn't carry a lot to the next day. I think it's a fresh day, it's a new start. It's the past now. So if I don't love it I am just not going to do it. So it is never a difficult decision for me to go back to work. Maybe that is why I've stuck around for so long because I just like it.
How do you recharge?
Sometimes there are no ideas coming. I either go the library and I start looking at old magazines. Photographers who used to shoot many years ago because that is how I get inspired. And I love Pinterest. So I would go on and I would look, and when I see images, I think I wish I'd thought of that first and that inspires me to do something new.
What a powerful story about persistence, entrepreneurial spirit and success.
Thank you for your interview and I am sure that your story has empowered many inspiring female entrepreneurs to try even harder to make their dream come true.
You can learn more about Matryoshka studio at:
Or get to know more ab Academy of Design at:
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