There are some people you meet in life by chance. A passing moment or shared experience (good or bad), that sticks with you, later to be told at dinner parties over one too many beers. That’s how I met the guys at Niseko Photography.
Stranded in Sapporo in a hotel, enjoying our free complimentary apologetic breakfast, I got chatting to Elsie Nielsen. The snow was coming down hard (as it had been doing for weeks), and our plane had been grounded. Like me, Elsie and Darren were hoping to get back to Australia. It was Elsie’s brothers’s wedding (they were the photographers), and with the snow storm outside, it looked like they were going to miss it. Stress levels were high but as is often the case, you make friends in dire situations. Through the delays, multiple connecting flights, lost bags and 56 hours of stress I got to know two amazing people who chased their dream and worked hard to make it a reality. Though I just scrapped the surface of their motivations during our snowed-in Korean Airlines disaster, Elsie’s energy and love for what she did was infectious. I knew she had an amazing story to tell and one that would light a fire in anyone thinking of throwing it all in, chasing a dream and moving to the mountains to start a business.
The thing that got me through was the dream. The dream to give up having the house, the car, the STUFF… for life.
Hey Elsie, so what are you doing in Japan?
Myself and my partner Darren (aka Krusty) own and operate a photography and guiding company called Niseko Photography. We employ a creative collective of photographers, videographers and guides in the powder snow mecca of Niseko Japan.
I do all of the administration, HR, bookings and design. I am also a photographer and building constantly on my mountain guiding qualifications.
What was it about Niseko Japan, that made you quit your job and take the risk of setting up a business in a foreign country?
This was our absolute dream, but we did not have a cent to our name… I honestly could not be happier with this life choice!
OK well, where to start? I was always a little different to everyone else. While my friends were winning academic awards and athletics, I was more into art, music, skiing and horse-riding. However strangely, I never pursued art or action sports as a career and instead went to university to do a science degree. Shortly after uni I landed an office job where my career blossomed and I went on to become an Executive Officer at 25. I owned a house, had a fiancé and generally thought I had nailed it.
But I wasn’t happy. In fact I was absolutely miserable, and because of that everything came crashing down shortly after. My relationship fell apart, I lost my house and then to add salt to the wound, both my Mum and Dad fell critically ill. I left my job and moved back home to look after them. It was at this stage, nearing a full breakdown, a good friend invited me to get away from it all and go to the snow for a week. I had no skis at the time so he taught me to snowboard. I loved it!!! So much so, that night I went home, drank an entire bottle of wine and then applied for a job with Ski Japan in Niseko. I got the job the next day, flew to Japan, met my partner and the rest is history.
However… after 3 years of trying to be a seasonnaire in more office based roles, I was still unsettled. I did not feel I was in the right career and kept dragging Darren back to Australia to try and be a part of the ‘real’ world again. I become the Associate Director of a Melbourne based company and tried to settle down. But it still wasn’t me. Finally the opportunity came up to take over Niseko Photography where my partner Darren had been working. This was our absolute dream, but we did not have a cent to our name. After a million phone calls, applications and proposals, and many more tears and near heart attacks, we finally made it happen. Through buying this business I have realised that I am in fact a creative person inside… my photography has progressed significantly, I am studying design online full time and training to become a mountain guide. I honestly could not be happier with this life choice!!!
What kept you up at night the most during this decision making time? Tell us about your fears.
Money. We had no money at the start. Where would we get money? We had to borrow money. What if we made no money? How would we pay back our loans? What would we do after the season? How would I get work again if I gave up my career? Would we be happy? And on and on it went every night, every day a million thoughts of this kind went through my head.
The other fears were, I haven’t been doing photography all that long. What if I am no good? (segway- Darren was the photographer and I only started learning since I was with him and was always nervous to practice around him). Then worse, my photos are crap. I cannot do tours… I am a fraud! It was exhausting, but the thing that got me through was the dream. The dream to give up having the house, the car, the STUFF… for life. The opportunity to live in one of the most beautiful, snowy parts of the world, running our own company, snowboarding and being creative… together. This by far always outweighed all of my other fears and kept me going. Darren also kept me going. I am highly strung but he is my polar opposite. Although that can cause issues at times when running a business together, it also helps to calm me down and see things more clearly. We are a great team and I am very lucky to have him.
What did you have to learn very quickly when setting up the photography business in Japan?
Owning a business in a foreign country, particularly Japan is hard. Really hard… at first. Everything is overwhelming, and takes you at least 10 times longer than it should. To get our phones turned on this season took a month, with numerous visits to the phone shop. BUT once you have done something once… you know how to do it and so every time it gets easier.
The other one is community. Ski towns have a community and it is one you must respect and be an integral part of. Business in a community cannot be ruthless like it is in the city. Yes you need to make money, but you still need to be respectful of others and keep your friends close… and your enemies closer (although hopefully we don’t have any of those yet!).
What is an average day like running a photography and touring business in Japan?
The rewards far outweigh the challenges. Where else can you ride the deepest snow in the world, be creative and have so much fun for work?
Get up early! Snow clearing the office and vans can take at least an hour each morning during peak season. Then it is back inside to check the weather and avalanche reports and make sure everyone is ready for their day’s tours. Have you got waivers? Have you got avalanche safety packs? How many customers? Pick up points etc. etc. Sometimes I feel like a mother duck. Then I either have to get ready for my own tour, or turn to the computer where I could easily spend 15 hours straight, just responding to emails (and then I still wouldn’t get through them all). If on a tour, we normally all return at about 5 or 6pm, where we then upload our photos, before editing and sending them to the customers. After that there are social media updates and more emails to respond to. I am normally just uploading the final Instagram picture as I fall asleep at about 12.00pm.
During peak season my average working day was about 16-17 hours and our staff often do 12 hour days. Despite the long days, the rewards far outweigh the challenges. Where else can you ride the deepest snow in the world, be creative and have so much fun for work? This year our photographers were incredible and I got so much pleasure from learning from them and also seeing them progress throughout the season. Yes their legs and backs were tired, but they returned just about every day with smiles on their faces, stories of pow turns, jumps and hundreds of magnificent photos. Our customers are also amazing, all keen to have a good time and get those famous Niseko powder snow, face shots!
As a female, do you have any specific challenges in the business, Japan or when out in the backcountry?
My lady friends shred, and an oestrogen-powered ride day is off the hook fun!!
I think the biggest thing is just not having time for myself or my friends, and being so far away from my family. Darren is amazing, but he is not exactly the most emotional man, so sometimes it can be hard for him to provide me the support that I need. I think the biggest thing I learnt this season is that I just need to see my friends more often and that chick time is really important. Women definitely need their girlfriends in their lives to make them truly happy. Also my lady friends shred and an oestrogen-powered ride day is off the hook fun!!
You run female specific camps, can you tell us a bit more about that?
This year we teamed up with Shades of Winter (SOW) to host a chick’s ski and board camp. Caja Schoepf ran the camp with help from Aline Bock and Lena Stoffel. These women rock!! I cannot tell you how much I admire them and Sandra Lahnsteiner, who is the producer of the SOW films. I really want to host more of these camps in the future and help women to get the opportunity to progress their skills with other like minded women. If I hadn’t had to work, I would have taken a week off and joined the camp myself (maybe I will next season!).
We also offer Ladies Only photography tours, but they didn’t really take off this year. I would love to hear from readers if this is something they would be interested in and how we could make it work.
What do you think makes a great Japan powder skiing photograph?
Pow in the face.. with maybe just a ski pole showing! And massive smiles!!
But to be honest, pow shots are very tricky. Often you take photos that look all time on the viewfinder, get them back to the office only to find the camera has focused on the snow falling just in front of you rather than the skier/boarder who is now out of focus. It does become tricky to master the pow shot, so when we are not taking customers out, we spend a lot of time taking photos of each other, refining our techniques and getting the shots!! Our photography skills also need to be quite diverse. In amongst the powder we shot 3 weddings this season, as well some architectural and product shoots.
What are your dreams for Niseko Photography?
Once you have successfully run one business, you realise that despite being hard work, it is actually not that hard!
I really just want Niseko Photography to continue to be what it is now – Niseko’s most professional photography and guiding company. I want everything we do to be quality, new and exciting and I want to have the best creative team in Hokkaido. In saying that, eventually Darren and I have dreams of expansion but I think this would be separate to Niseko Photography. It is funny, once you have successfully run one business, you realise that despite being hard work, it is actually not that hard! Now, when we are not talking about Niseko Photography, we are dreaming up 100 other business ideas. In fact I am also working setting up a separate design company as we speak.
What advice would you give to another girl wanting to set up their own business in a foreign country? Anything specific to winter tourism?
- Go for it
- Be brave
- PLAN PLAN PLAN
Before we took over Niseko Photography, I took a year getting to know the company and going over the books. I wrote a 70 page due diligence report, a detailed business plan with long and short term projections and goals, and finally a marketing plan. I am a little OCD and it might have been a bit of an overkill, but it ensured there were no surprises and that we were prepared for just about anything that could or would happen. Proper research and planning in the beginning will make running the business a pinch in the end, particularly in the snow industry which is competitive and your market can be limited. Get a good accountant, see some business advisors or a mentor and collect as much knowledge about business, as well as the area and your target audience, as you can.
What is the best advice anyone has ever given you and who gave it to you?
Man I have two, and both are as cliche as you can get. Ready…
- Do what makes you happy. This is from my Mum and Dad. I have been lucky that they have always supported everything I have ever done, no matter how wild, or different, mainstream or non-mainstream. Without them I definitely would not be the woman I am today.
- There is no such thing as can’t – this was from my 1st grade Physical Education teacher and it has stuck with me forever. Now if I want something I make it happen.
In a way I think both of these sayings are so cliche because the seem so absolutely ridiculous to everyone’s day-to-day life. I have spent so long trying to be something that I am not (a corporate woman) but I have finally realised that the real me is not only a better and happier person, she is also an incredibly savvy business woman. I CAN own my own business in a foreign country, I CAN take great photographs and I CAN actually design. If you had asked me 12 months ago if I COULD do any of those things I would have laughed in your face… or possibly cried.
What is the one thing you wish you knew when you first started the business?
That it is not that hard to run a business. Yes there is a lot to think about, but if you have a good product and you set yourself up right, you will kill it. Knowing this would have saved me many sleepless nights in the beginning.
For more info on Niseko Photography please visit the website www.nisekophotography.com or email Elsie directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can also follow Niseko Photography on Instagram, Twitter or on Facebook. Elsie is happy to give advice to anyone else looking to set up an action sports business.Niseko Photography also advertise for jobs in Niseko in August/September if you are a photographer and or guide and looking to work in Japan for the winter.
Thanks Elsie, your story is hugely inspiring and your photos are wonderful. See you in Niseko for some more of that famous ‘tits deep’ Japan powder snow! You really are living your dream :-)