We had the good fortune of connecting with Nina de Zayas and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Nina, what was your thought process behind starting your own business?
1. I launched From the Hip because I saw an opportunity to do something different as a creative business owner and believed that, with the right people, we could create a studio that was unique. Since I was a kid, I knew I wanted to be an artist. I spent my adolescence and early adulthood working hard toward that goal with my education, earning an MFA, and teaching art at the collegiate level. That all constituted an important foundation in terms of being prepared to delve fully into entrepreneurship. I’ve half-jokingly said that From the Hip is a group of artists who are really good at running a business, but the truth is that a lot of the feedback we receive from our clients echoes that idea. People love their photos, but more than that, they love the experience of partnering with a reliable, professional team.
2. Risk taking: how do you think about risk, what role has taking risks played in your life/career? Risk is just another word for opportunity. Your mindset affects the way you parse it but it’s a neutral entity on its own. If an opportunity frightens me a little bit but is also a little intoxicating, that’s a great indicator that it may be worth pursuing. I work alongside four very talented artists every day at From the Hip. All of us have a strong anti-complacency stance — it’s a dealbreaker in terms of being here full-time. We all want to learn, grow, and do new things within the scope of our work, and that necessarily involves taking calculated risks. Of course, it’s also important to be comfortable with the fact that not every opportunity pans out the way you’d envisioned. In those scenarios, you should still learn valuable lessons along the way and wind up in a position where you’re presented with other opportunities you wouldn’t have had otherwise.
3. Other than deciding to work for yourself, what was the single most important decision you made that contributed to your success? There’s a popular Japanese concept called kaizen, which fundamentally means a commitment to continual improvement. Wanting to always be better than you were yesterday is a philosophical choice, but it’s also a micro-decision that we make countless times each day, whether it’s critiquing one another’s sessions or looking into a new system for executing a process. As with risks vs opportunities, I think you can see this dichotomy negatively or positively. For me, it’s completely positive: we are proud of the work we do today, and we will be more proud of the work that we do a year from now because we will be stronger, more creative, and more efficient in what we do. On a practical level, we try hard to hear what people outside of From the Hip have to say about our company. What is remarkable to them, what are they surprised by, what do they think you can improve? People on the “outside” see a different reality that isn’t aspirational; they see how things are. Putting ego aside and truly listening to their perspective is a priceless, fertile launchpad for improvement.
4. What is the most important factor behind your success / the success of your brand? Legitimately trying to make our clients happy. One of our biggest values at From the Hip is being gushworthy. It’s not simply treating people the way you want to be treated; it’s creating such an awesome experience that the recipient will want to go tell everyone about how fantastic it was collaborating with us. People talk about doing what you love. I get that. Realistically, that’s also a naive and privileged idea. As someone who does get to do what they’re passionate about, I recognize that I’m incredibly fortunate. Not everybody gets to do what they love. But everybody does possess the opportunity to make people happy with what they do. Instead of focusing inwardly (“I want to do what I love”), you can focus outwardly (“How do I make people love what I do?”). The irony is that by focusing on making others feel good, we invariably derive more happiness from the exchange, too.
5. What’s the most difficult decision you’ve ever had to make? The choice to grow our team from a wife-and-husband duo and bring aboard our first employee has to be up near the top. It was a difficult call because it fundamentally altered not only how our business operated, but also what it meant and what our aspirations would be. It was scary thinking that, in addition to our own livelihoods, we’d now be responsible for someone else’s career. The difficult part of the decision was really the due diligence, thinking through the various responsibilities and changes that would unfold. But once we realized the manifold ways in which it would allow us to provide our clients with a better overall experience it became an easy call.
6. Work life balance: how has your balance changed over time? How do you think about the balance? The notion that there is some optimal work/life balance is a dangerous myth, in my opinion. Working long hours because you’re excited or in a state of flow or because you’re up against a deadline? That’s cool. Taking more time off because you’re not up to it or the workload is lighter or you need time to reinvigorate? That’s cool, too. There shouldn’t be guilt in either circumstance. My spouse and I work together, which means we are almost never not “working” in some fashion. Conversations will naturally veer back to work because we are both enthusiastic about what we do. For years during From the Hip’s infancy, we’d routinely work 60, 70, 80 hour weeks. It was grueling and fun and difficult and thrilling. We didn’t see our friends as much during those days but we were creating value in other aspects of our life. That isn’t a trade-off, it’s just living your life the way you want to live it. What I find vital in regard to the work/life balance idea is the notion of being kind to oneself. If you’re in a creative funk or just having one of “those” days, it’s crucial to recognize that and then proceed accordingly. Go for a run. Eat that ice cream. Put on a favorite record. Go home early. Whatever it takes to get back to a place where you can be yourself again and make people happy by giving them your best is what needs to be done. We’re all people, not machines.
7. Do you have a favorite quote or affirmation? What does it mean to you / what do you like about it? “The genius is in the doing.” If I had a personal/professional mantra, this would be it. The gist is that the best idea in the world is worthless until it’s put into action. You can always refine and retool something. The importance is to just get “it” done — a first iteration — and then build from there. It’s one of the things I love about punk rock and DIY culture, too: there are no prerequisites in life, just people who take a leap to create something because there is gratification in the act itself.
What should our readers know about your business?
I wholeheartedly believe that From the Hip is unique in what we do, beginning with the way we’re structured. Everyone here is a full-time, salaried member of the team, which provides us all with security and stability. It also means that everyone here is fully invested in doing their absolute best for each and every one of our clients. Plus, it allows us all to focus our efforts in the areas where each of us are most exceptional. I’m not aware of another company in the state that is set up the way we are, with insurance and benefits and an awesome, brand new headquarters that gives us almost 3,000 square feet of space for shoots, meetings, and post-production. From that setup flows everything else that we’re known for: vibrant photos, attentive care, prompt communication, and the ability to tackle all of a given client’s needs. Our team has expertise in everything from social media management to drone videography. It would be hard to throw something at us we haven’t done before! And that’s all intentional, the result of busting our butts each day to earn that business and gain the experience. There have been so many lessons along the way. Number one is honesty. Expect honesty and demonstrate it. There’s no communication and no happiness without candor (even if it hurts at first). Do the right thing, especially when nobody’s looking. When you’re giving: your time, attention, and talent, are usually more valuable than your money. Listen. Neuter your ego. When you appreciate someone, tell them. When someone bothers you, tell them. (That one takes a lot of work for some of us!) Know your value but also know that your value is not aspirational — it’s premised on what you’ve already done. Ask for help. Surround yourself with good people; one toxic person can poison everything. Don’t compromise your values, flaunt them. And remember that your business isn’t everything — and it certainly isn’t you.
Any places to eat or things to do that you can share with our readers? If they have a friend visiting town, what are some spots they could take them to?
Here’s a pretty perfect day. Carryout breakfast from Cuba Bakery in Aurora complete with croquetas, pastelitos, and a cafe con leche (grande, por favor). Streamside hijinks in Clear Creek County, which has so many majestic, under-the-radar trails. A picnic lunch someplace pretty there. Back to the city, with a stop for a cone of sorbet at High Point Creamery before seeing what’s new at the MCA Denver or the Colorado Photographic Arts Center. Definitely happy hour cocktails at Annette; that’s non-negotiable. Maybe catch a Rapids match or an Avalanche game, or just do some people-watching in RiNo. Then for dinner, takeout from Urban Burma eaten straight from the container while we stream some embarrassing rom-com.
Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
For this shoutout, I want to thank the leadership team at Spruce Mountain Ranch, a gorgeous event venue in Larkspur, Colorado. Tara Ames, the owner, is a paragon of business leadership. She’s a smart, strong, inspiring woman who leads by example every day. I’ve learned so much simply by watching the way she runs her business with integrity, warmth, and compassion, but she has also taken time over the years to be a confidant and collaborator. She is truly remarkable. Brus Osborne, their Director of Business Development, has become a dear friend and an invaluable mentor. I can never thank her enough for the way she’s taken me under her wing, sharing her insights and experience, but also just being an incredible person to turn to in times of motivation or uncertainty. Her honesty and care mean the world to me. Brus is universally adored in her industry and by her clients. Last, though certainly not least, is Erin Mondragon, their Director of Marketing, who has always been there for me as a sounding board for floating new ideas, a partner for new initiatives for the Ranch’s clients and ours, and as a thoughtful friend. It’s been so hard not seeing Erin during the pandemic and I wish I could give her a gigantic hug right now to let her know just what she’s meant to me personally and for my business this past decade!