During our interview, Jim Miotke, the owner of BetterPhoto and author of photography books, shared how he turned his photography school and publishing website from a labor of love into a successful business, how he overcame a sense of betrayal and anger when a friend left BetterPhoto to set up a competing company, how praying about supply has brought abundance and family into his life, and more.
What does BetterPhoto offer?
The main thing BetterPhoto offers is the opportunity to learn photography. It’s a website that’s a school. We have 100 different photography classes taught by 30 of the best names in the business. Glory be to God, we’ve been able to bring together photographers who are well-respected and well-known within the business, most of whom have written books, to teach classes that people from around the world take online. It’s flexible in that you can learn the principles any time during the week, bending around a busy schedule. At the same time, you have a sense of structure -- a professional photographer is looking over your shoulder, so to speak, and directing you to get out there to take pictures. That’s very motivating for people to get the job done. People are really loving it; it’s been very successful.
What else do you offer?
We also run a monthly photography contest, which is open to anyone. You can upload one photo a day. We get about 36,000 photos a month from around the world. It’s a fun, inspiring activity. We also provide turn-key solutions for publishing and sharing your own photos via a website. A very special community has developed where people from around the world are coming together to share photos, ask and answer questions, and enjoy learning photography.
How have you used the Bible in your career?
There’s one idea that I really like in James: “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning” (1:17 KJV). First, it’s the right source: the gifts aren’t coming from me or another person, but from God. It’s a humbling affirmation that God is the One doing the giving; therefore, He deserves our gratitude and appreciation. The other thing I love is that there is “no variableness neither shadow of turning.” We’ve had our fair share of challenges. At one point, one of our key people left and started up his own photography school and took a lot of our customers with him. We’ve also had times of financial strain. Seeing that there’s “no variableness” helped us realize that there is constant unfolding of good from God, even when it doesn’t look like there is.
Can you explain a little more how this concept of “no variableness” helps you?
Most everybody would say that we have to go through both hard times and good times, ups and downs. Before I studied the Bible, I, like many others, would get scared when things were going really well because I’d think, “Now something bad has to happen; it’s been too good for too long.” But I’ve realized that this is not true; the good can continue because there’s “no variableness”; good doesn’t disappear. And if I’m going through hard times, the concept of “no variableness neither shadow of turning” brings my thought back to the perfect, loving, and good Father. The Father won’t give his children a “stone” when they ask for “bread” (Matt 7:9). God meets our needs.
How did you respond when the person left your company and stole ideas and customers?
Right away, there was the feeling of anger, based on betrayal and theft. Someone we thought was our friend was going to be our number one competitor. We thought about suing him for theft of intellectual property, which we easily could have done on principle. We were also tempted to sue as a competitive move so that this new potential competitor would not have a chance. Turning to prayer and to the Bible revealed two choices: we could either sue and put a lot of financial and emotional resources into that activity, or we could put all that energy into making our offering the very best it could be. This last idea was a very clear thought from God, so that’s what we did.
There were several other times when the temptation arose to sue, especially when he persuaded a couple other instructors to go with him. But we just listened to God’s directing, guiding thoughts, which said, “Don’t give him any attention. Don’t fight him. That would only bring attention to him and would bring him to the attention of our customers.” I’m reminded of a statement by Ursula LeGuin that goes something like, “When you fight an enemy, you make it more real.” So instead of fighting an enemy and making him more real, we stayed focused on making our business the best, on magnifying the good. We’re doing great, and his business is not a threat, which it would have been had I been tricked into going down the other wrong path. It’s been an interesting lesson: it seemed like an end, but it was a beginning that forced us to get our act together.
Are there any other Bible ideas that have helped you respond to difficult situations?
Most recently, I’ve been thinking about David and Goliath, since we’ve been facing issues that put us in the “David” position. The team that makes up BetterPhoto is very small. There are huge companies out there now getting very interested in photography. They’re becoming the huge “Goliaths.” So every now and then, I have to remind myself to focus on what I know, to do good, to go forward with a sincere desire to be the best we can be, not to take any short cuts or cut anyone down, to do things in the name of the Lord, and to trust that we will be directed in the right path. Even though these really big companies are out there, we’re continuing to grow.
What inspired to do start BetterPhoto?
I went to school wanting to be the next great American novelist. But it was just too hard for me to get over the fear of putting myself out there. After four years of staring at a blank page, wrapped in fear, I decided to try something different. I got back into photography, which is a good creative outlet for me. Ever since then, we have been taking things one step at a time, constantly turning to the Father and asking, “What’s the best next step?”
What do you mean by “back into photography”?
I first took up a camera in high school, but I wasn’t serious about it until after my wife and I graduated from Berkeley; took a 7-week bicycling and train trip to England, Scotland, and France; and discovered that all the pictures we took were just awful. When I first saw those vacation photos, I felt that extreme motivation to learn. I started reading lots of books about photography and got a job at a camera center selling cameras. I also got to use the cameras. My boss was very passionate about photography and taught me a lot. It was on-the-job training. I started taking clients for portraits, weddings, and other events.
So how did you end up as an online business owner and photography author?
Around 1995, a friend did her master’s thesis on the web. I had never seen that before. I got re-excited about writing again. I could post my own photos and write when I wanted to without having to get approval from an editor. It opened up channels for me. I got a book called HTML for Dummies and taught myself what I needed to know. When you’re really passionate about something, it makes a big difference. The book had the wise advice to write about what you love. So I posted my Top Ten Photography Tips. That was the beginning of BetterPhoto. People started writing in questions, and I would answer. One thing led to another, and soon I had a photography forum on the site; and soon after that, I created a way for people to upload their own photos to the site.
Around 1998 or ’99, I got an email from an editor at Random House asking if I would ever be interested in writing a book. Ten seconds later, I contacted her and said, “Yes, I would.” That became The Absolute Beginner’s Guide to Taking Great Photos. It acted as a great business card. I was given the opportunity to write for Amphoto, which is considered to be one of the best publishers in the photography business. I just finished my third book for them on photographing children. I’ve done books on digital photography and nature for Amphoto. Because BetterPhoto is in the title, people come to the website. In my experience, the books don’t bring in a lot of income, but they’re an effective marketing device, open up avenues, and provide a lot of credibility.
Still, for a long time, BetterPhoto was a labor of love. I had to keep my day job as a web developer and photographer and do BetterPhoto in the evenings. I got a job at Alaska Airlines and had a lot of on-the-job training learning ASP technology. Whatever I learned during the day, I would come home and practice at night on BetterPhoto. Eventually, BetterPhoto got to the stage where it seemed right for me to make BetterPhoto my primary job because it was becoming so time-consuming and busy. Even though my wife, Denise, was really scared, she agreed that I should go for it.
Why was it scary to make BetterPhoto your primary job?
Denise and I had learned that financial issues can be very challenging. At one point, both of our incomes were commission-based. Neither of us had a steady paycheck, and that was very hard. We vowed at that point that it would never happen again. I needed the safety of a day job. When photographers tell me they want to become full-time professional photographers, I tell them not to quit their day job. I have learned through personal experience that it’s really bad for creativity to have to put bread on the table; it’s just too scary. Some people can do it, but that kind of pressure kills my creativity. So I was as surprised as Denise when I got the feeling that it was time to make BetterPhoto our full-time venture and my primary source of income. Though this was frightening for me, it just felt like the right thing to do.
And that kept you going and gave you the courage?
Yep. There’s a passage I love in II Corinthians about the idea of God providing abundant supply so we can do whatever we need to do: “And God is able to make all grace abound toward you; that ye, always having all sufficiency in all things, may abound to every good work” (II Cor 9:8). God provided the idea of BetterPhoto, which had enough activity to grow into a business. And there have been enough people who have appreciated the idea to supply an income that provided financially for us -- enough to adopt three children from Russia. We never imagined that that could be possible. A big part of being able to adopt was the business. We were able to go meet our children on the other side of the world and fall in love with them and have a burgeoning family. That was a fantastic healing! I love the Bible verse, “God setteth the solitary in families” (Ps 68:6). And the truth is that God has set up this business as a source of supply both for our family and the people visiting our site. It’s an exchange of love, and it has provided us with what we need to bring together this wonderful family at home.
It sounds like you have a lot for which you’re grateful.
We feel so blessed that we have this amazing creative business. I get to be an inventor. I’ve become close friends with the people whose books I grew up reading. I get to travel and go on photo shoots in beautiful places with people I respect. And after that friend left to start his own business, the team at BetterPhoto became even closer. BetterPhoto is giving to them, providing them an income. Working from home, I get to spend a lot of time with my kids. So even in the darkest times, we can realize that it’s a wonderful blessing.
Could you ever have imagined yourself doing what you’re doing?
No. The funny thing is that I was terrified when I was 16 or 17 about what I was going to do when I grew up. My friends always said, “You worry too much.” I think a lot of people worry about their career. I had at least 20 jobs before I met Denise. I guess if I didn’t like something about it, I’d try something else. That’s helped me a lot to find BetterPhoto. I look back on all my worry with fondness because there is no way I could’ve known when I was a teenager what I was going to do because the web hadn’t been invented yet. It’s just been, “All glory be to God!”