Some 1,300 miles (and 22 years) separate Luis Ponce from his hometown of Guadalajara, Mexico, but the 37-year-old videographer has long since made a new home—and a new name—for himself in Southern California. His story, like that of many videographers, begins with a casual interest in electronics and a random opportunity that would prove to be a defining moment in his professional evolution.
Ponce's first years in the United States were difficult, to say the least. He moved with his family to Los Angeles in 1984, at age 15, and spent a year studying at Jefferson High School before dropping out to work full time. "I needed to work to help my family pay the bills," he explains. His first job, at a local clothing company, paid $30 a week for more than 60 hours of work. Better-paying jobs eventually followed, and by 1990, he had saved up enough money to open a video rental store.
It's been said that opportunity knocks when you least expect it, but Ponce says you have to be willing to accept those opportunities in whatever form they may come. One day, a customer came into his store asking if it offered videography services. "I didn't even have a video camera," he recalls, "but I said yes. At that time in my life, whatever service or product a customer asked for, within a week we were providing it. I had often dreamed of having a video camera and producing something with it, and this was my chance. All I did was accept the challenge."
The challenge came on a Thursday and the event in question—the customer's daughter's Quinceañera—was taking place that Saturday. (In Hispanic cultures, the Quinceañera—"quince años" is Spanish for "15 years"—is a formal event celebrating a girl's transition from childhood to womanhood, culturally analogous to a "Sweet 16" party.) "I basically had one day to buy a camera and to learn how to use it," Ponce continues. "I charged $100 for the job and handed over the tape that night without any editing."
Ponce's ambitious acceptance of that random job changed the course of his career, though he didn't really see it that way at first. "I'd always liked to take pictures and to play with electronic devices, so it was more like a fun job than a business," he says of his early photography and videography work. But by the mid-1990s, Ponce owned several pieces of equipment and was doing business as Filmaciones Guadalajara (a name he later changed to Luis Ponce Photography and Video Services). When his Amiga 2000 broke down, Ponce went looking for a repair shop and discovered The Lively Computer, a full-service computer supply dealer for animators and professional videographers in San Diego. "The store had a user group that met the third Thursday of every month, so I decided to join," he says.
By 2000, Ponce had tired of the monthly drives to San Diego and decided to create his own support network in Los Angeles. The group he founded, now known as the Los Angeles Professional Photographers & Videographers Association, began having weekly meetings "because there were a lot of people interested" in sharing information, he says. Involvement in WEVA soon followed.
No Man is an Island
Ponce's WEVA activities and his networking with other videographers informed his work over the next few years, and ultimately led to yet another evolution. In 2004, Ponce decided to change his company name yet again, to establish a trademark that didn't have his name in it. "I needed a brand name," he says. "My wife, Isabel, came up with ‘Treasure Image,' and when we saw that the domain name was available, Treasure Image was born."
In 16 years, Filmaciones Guadalajara/Luis Ponce Photography and Video Services/Treasure Image has shot roughly 800 events and a small number of music videos and corporate projects. "We try to do one project a week, and we do everything in-house," he says of the script-to-screen services his four-person staff learned on the fly and continues to refine.
Ponce estimates that 90% of his customers are Hispanic, and he takes enormous pride in the fact that nearly all of his work comes from previous customers and their referrals. "We treat our customers as friends—before, during, and after their events—and we always stay in contact with them," he explains. "If you keep your customers happy, they will always return to you. And so will their families and friends."
Word of Ponce's enormous success within the Hispanic community has spread among videographers in recent years, and today he is seen by many as a go-to guy for advice on how to tap into this burgeoning market. (Four months ago he presented—in Spanish—a session on weddings and events in the Hispanic market at the WEVA Expo.) When asked about the nuances of serving this demographic, Ponce is circumspect. "The Hispanic community works in the same way as any other culture," he says. "As long as you deliver a professional service, you'll have a lot of work. There are millions of Hispanic people already in the United States, and all of them are celebrating Quinceañeras. Many of those ladies will ultimately get married, so if you do a good job on their Quinceañeras, there's a good chance you'll be doing their weddings too."
After years of working from home, Ponce opened a small office in Los Angeles in 2004 (the same year he adopted the Treasure Image moniker). "It did a lot of good," Ponce says of the move, "because customers would come to the office and focus all of their attention on the work I was showing them rather than on the distractions at the house. That 300-square-foot office helped me double my prices."
It ultimately inspired a much grander idea too. The business idea Ponce conceived involves shared office space and a customer-allocation model that resembles the distribution of work that occurs in many barber shops. Eager to expand into a larger space, Ponce extended an open invitation to other videographers who were attending a weekly industry association meeting to join him in an enterprise that would bring 10 companies under one roof. "I wanted to open a 1,500-square-foot office with a video room, conference room, photographic studio, lobby, and private office space," he explains. "I figured, ‘If we're doing this well with a 300-square-foot office, imagine what we could do with 1,500 square feet.' The problem was that I couldn't afford that type of investment on my own—$70,000 down, plus the monthly bills and the $1,500 rent payments. It was almost impossible for one person to do, but it's a completely different situation if you divide that among 10 people."
Ponce pitched his idea in August 2005, telling meeting attendees that he was looking for "honest" people who were "willing to do whatever it takes to be successful," and that he would share more details in a follow-up meeting a few days later. "Nine people showed up," he says, "and all nine accepted the challenge." It took five months to get the consortium they'd formed off the ground, but by January 2006, they were collectively doing business as Los Angeles Professional Video Photographers (LAPVP).
Their office space, on West Whittier Boulevard in Montebello, California, houses the following companies: Treasure Image; Dan Yeniz Photography (Oney Ayala, proprietor); Trujillo's Photography & Video (Cudberto Trujillo, proprietor); Magic Dreams Studio (Jesus Segura, proprietor); Orlando's Photography (Orlando Vasquez, proprietor); BRG Digital Photo & Video Services (Martin Rodriguez, proprietor); My Discovery Studios (Norberto Garcia, proprietor); Blue Image (Carlos Flores, proprietor); and Lavin Video (Alfredo Lavin, proprietor).
(The original tenth partner—Oscar Ponce, proprietor of Shooting Star Photography—left the L.A. area and thus the LAPVP earlier this year.)
"Each of us has his own business name in the office; the only thing we're sharing is the space," Ponce says of the arrangement. "My customers are still my customers, and the customers of the other guys still belong to them. We have a secretary, Pilar Flores, who works full time for all of us and handles all of the appointments." On any given day, some of the videographers will be out of the office doing a shoot or delivering finished products to customers; others remain on site to network with other vendors or meet with prospects.
Many of the customers who come in are seeking the services of a particular videographer, but there are plenty of walk-ins too. For them, the partners have devised a unique rotating system. "On Monday, for example, every walk-in who enters the office belongs to me," Ponce explains. "If I'm already booked that day, it goes to the following partner. On Tuesday, another partner gets the walk-ins, followed by another partner getting Wednesday's. It goes on and on like that until each of us gets a full day with the walk-ins and then we start over again."
Most of the photo and video packages the partners are selling fall in the $5,000 to $7,000 range, and Ponce says they're hoping to offer $10,000 packages in 2007. As the partners mark the consortium's one-year anniversary next month, they'll continue the traditions they've established in its first year—the rotating schedule, the Tuesday night "family meetings" to address problems in the office "before they get too big"—but they'll also look to expand, just as Ponce did himself. "The consortium's goal is to open another nine studios, with all of us helping," he explains. "Then each of us will get to keep one studio without sharing anything between us. We'll try to do one new office every year; that way, within 10 years we'll reach our goal."
Ponce is confident in his 10-year plan. When the consortium first assembled, Ponce says, "there were a lot of people who told us that what we were doing was wrong or impossible to do. Of course, once we put it together, those same negative people wanted to join in." Isn't that always the way?