November 2, 2021

[Case Study] How Aerial Canvas scaled to $700k/month

How to Scale Your Real Estate Photo Business & Build an Amazing Team

Brendan Hsu

In the last four years , Aerial Canvas (AC) has grown from nothing to $700,000/month in revenue. During this time, we were able to expand from two people to a company of over 100 people, with managers and specialists leading multiple facets of what it takes to run a successful agency.

This year, we’re on track to reach an annual revenue of over $7 million.

In this article, I will go over:

  • Aerial Canvas’ recipe for success
  • Why you might (or might not) want do it
  • How to build your team when you are at:
    • $0-$10k/month
    • $10-$20k/month
    • $20k-$50k/month

A Background of Aerial Canvas

First, a little history about my personal journey:

2017 - When I first visited Colby in California to learn about his real estate photography business

I started Aerial Canvas 4 years ago with my friend Colby. We already had some photography skills under our belt, but didn’t know anything about real estate or growing a photography business. We didn’t know how to sell to a brokerage, let alone a single real estate agent. We didn’t know what it meant to manage a team.

But we knew how to work hard and in those early days, just the two of us split up the duties and got to work. I focused on sales and people management while Colby tackled the creative side. I went from being nervous about picking up the phone to becoming a cold-calling machine.

Today: AC has nearly three dozen photographers taking on 700 listings monthly. In just four years, we were able to grow our monthly revenue from $10,000 to $700,000. Here’s a screenshot of our actual booking software report on our monthly revenue. (Taken in mid-October, 2021 and so our Q4 numbers aren't in yet)

Throughout this journey, I have networked and discussed different growth strategies and business models with more than 100 real estate marketing agencies. In addition to running my own agency, I am now actively consulting half a dozen media companies that bring in $50,000 to $100,000 a month each. 

Why You Should Consider Growing

Growing a business so fast isn’t for everyone. The first year of transitioning from an owner-photographer to scaling a real estate photography business was the most stressful for me.  Risking everything for something uncertain - is it worth it to hire these employees and give up profits? Being responsible for more clients, employee’s livelihoods, and bills? Doubting yourself at times, not knowing what results would happen from different trial and errors?

There are a lot of rewards that make these risks worth it:

  • Building equity
  • Freedom and sustainability
  • Internal motivation

Freedom and sustainability

If you are a photographer, you only make money when you shoot. You might feel guilty about taking time off your work, even if you're sick. 

As your business grows, it will be able to run itself. It can grow on its own, and operate by itself. You have a team to rely on to fill in your areas of weakness and amplify your areas of strength.

I have freedom now to step away from business and take a month long vacation or spend time with my family. I don’t feel guilty because I know the employees that I’ve trained can continue to manage and grow the business without me. 

Building Wealth

When your business is small and you don’t have systems or processes in place, it’s main value is the existing customers, or the book of business. You can sell this for 0.25-0.4x of annual revenue. When you are a true owner and your business can run without active involvement from you, it can be valued at 0.6 - 1.0x of annual revenue depending on your margins and scale.

For example, a $200,000 revenue solo photography business is worth 0.3x its revenue, or $60,000 in total value if you sold it today. As an agency, your business is now evaluated off of it’s margins. With $1,000,000 of annual revenue and 20% margins, or $200,000 annually, you can easily be valued at 3x to 5x, or $600,000 to $1 million total.

This scales as the business grows:

Internal Motivation

Getting my free time back and building wealth were good reasons to grow my business, but there is one more important element: because I want to.

This one isn’t about my family or what stuff I can buy. This is about the internal drive to take on a massive challenge and succeed. I get a sense of pride in building something from the ground up with my own two hands.

In the earlier stages of growth sometimes I felt like I hadn’t had a lot of free time lately. Sometimes I didn’t see the immediate financial payoff. But I could always go to bed satisfied that I took on the day and did my best.

That is internal motivation and it’s an important part of building a real estate photography agency.

First, have a mindset of abundance. Instead of cutting costs, think in terms of building value.

Second, focus on your time. I have a value for my time. Working in the business vs working on the business.

How Aerial Canvas Grew So Quickly

  • Invest aggressively in your business
  • Price to scale
  • Offer packaged solutions with innovative products
  • Focus on sales
  • Encourage all team members to learn sales and the products you offer
  • Take care of your customer
Our first AC office in 2018


You must be willing to invest in your business if you want to grow it quickly.

One of the ways that I was able to scale Aerial Canvas was by operating at break-even (and sometimes, even at a personal loss) for quite some time. My co-founder and I paid ourselves as little as possible so we could reinvest the money back into the business, worked hundreds of hours, and took out loans to fuel the company. We took it to the extreme, and depending on your personal situation, you might not be able to do this, but it was a big factor in our success.


Thanks to our market and sales initiatives, Aerial Canvas's clients book $1,000 worth of services on every order. Even so, we only makes 10-15% profit on that order.

If you aren’t pricing properly, it’s impossible to grow your business.You need to be making enough margins to support hiring photographers, project managers & customer support, and sales.

This is easier to do if you are offering a high end product but even with a mid-low range price point, you can still scale your business. You are going to need to create a greater volume of shoots, but aggressively control your costs to improve profit margin. There are plenty of agencies like F8 real estate and Lister Assister that have done this effectively, with over 4,000 shoots a month.

Here’s an example of how you do it in a mid-low range market:

  • Aim for 5+ shoots a day within the $150 range to achieve $750 topline revenue per photographer.
  • This topline revenue will easily support paying a contractor $40 - $50 a shoot.
  • This keeps production costs near or below the 40% mark (before editing).
  • You also need refined systems and processes, such as a dynamic scheduler that can handle a larger volume.

Expand Your Product Offerings

You should not just compete on price alone — doing that is a race to the bottom on price. Think about how you are going to create a refined product offering.

Is your product actually better than that of your competitors? 

Other than high-quality photographs and videos (which should be standard for your business), there are other things that you can do to attract and keep new clients.

For example, tap into trends like Instagram Reels. Film your agents in 15 seconds, introducing the properties to their audience.

Offering more services is important to scale. When you package multiple services, it’s more efficient for your photographer to deliver, and the customer gets more value. It’s a win-win.

At AC, standard photos & videos only account for 50% - 70% of our total on any given month. That means if you aren’t offering more than photos & video, you’re leaving 30% - 50% of your revenue on the table. 

Focus on sales

Don’t wait for the customer to come to you. Put yourself out there. Make sales calls and send DMs to build your network. 

On a good month while getting started, anywhere between 20-50% of our clients came from cold calls. Around 50% of our client base came from cold calls in the first 2 years.

Those cold call customers became some of our best clients, turning into repeat business month after month. Remember, you aren’t just cold calling to win that first project. Every good customer experience can turn into repeat business and then referrals.

Let’s look at a hypothetical of what could have happened if AC hadn’t cold called or hadn’t packaged our services together to increase order value.

The blue line is our actual growth over the last 4 years. Red is our growth without cold calling and orange is without cold calling or increasing our order value with packages (and this is being generous).

Which of these lines do you want your business to look like?

Take care of your customers

Making sure your existing customers have a great experience is just as important as getting new customers. It costs a lot less time and money to keep an existing customer happy than to acquire a new one. Once you earn their business, you should make sure to keep them.

Your photo quality is an important part of retention, but equally so is the customer experience. That’s because there’s diminishing returns on improving the technical quality of your photos. They might not remember how your photos looked, but they will remember how you made them feel. These are the things that make them feel good, refer you, and come back for repeat business:

  • Overdeliver on your promises. Stay late to get a project done, include a couple extra photos, throw in a free service every once in a while for repeat customers.
  • Take care of your advocates. You’ll have customers who grow your business through referrals. Make sure you take good care of them with sincere thanks with a gift basket, free service, or holiday gift.
  • Listen to your customers. Their feedback helps you refine your product offering. When something goes wrong, review your processes, add checks to prevent errors and train your employees.

Building a team to scale from $0-50k

We’ve just gone over the 5 areas that you will need to focus on developing to run a successful real estate marketing business. It’s a lot of work and you won’t be able to do it on your own. In order to scale, you will need to build a team.

You want the team that you build up (and out) to help you grow your business sustainably without wearing you down. 

Your initial team will have to train your future employees. This team will also serve as a support system for you to lean on while you have a lot on your plate. 

Here’s my advice on who you should hire and when you should hire them if you want to grow quickly from $0-50k

General mindset

Hire people you can be friends with, but don’t just hire friends. All the best photography companies I know have a very close knit team. You are going to be spending a lot of time with your first few hires, make sure it’s time you want to spend with them.

Hire Generalists

You can’t be the only one wearing all of the hats in your business.

Consider the following hires to take some of the stress off your shoulders:

  • Business generalist with qualifications in project management / sales / operations
  • Creative generalist with qualifications in photography / videography / editing

As you grow, there are going to be jobs in your business that are too small to justify another full hire. Generalists help you fill in those gaps as side work when their main job is complete. This helps optimize their time to drive top-line revenue growth and build out your systems/culture. 

One weakness of generalists is they can be good at a lot of things, but lack expertise. You can overcome this with training that you offer or hire out for. This will take a lot of up front investment, but then they become the trainers for the employees that follow. This is how you build a self-running team.

Don’t Be Cheap - Attract All-Stars

Pay your first few hires fair and competitive market rates. These are the people who will be responsible for building your culture and organizational excellence.

Be sure to hire A players who can become future managers for your business and who provide world-class service to your clients. Doing this will pay for itself. 

Hiring B players is not a setback, but you should not expect them to go above and beyond. Instead, they’re going to get the work done at a good level, and you’re going to have to fill in their gaps until you can hire more A players.

The Aerial Canvas team in early 2019. Many of our first hires are still with AC and have grown into department leads.

Scaling from $0 to $10,000 a Month

The first thing you should do is hire someone to take care of your editing.

There’s no way to sustain shooting your own photographs and editing them, then also editing your own videos all day, particularly if you are taking on 2 to 3 projects a day.

Vetting Out Editors

You can’t just hire any old Joe to edit your media. They need to be professional and high-quality, and that requires a trained editor, or better yet, a seasoned team. When you outsource your editing for the first time, it is worth it to pay a premium if that’s what it takes to save you time and headache. Hiring and managing individuals or budget editors takes a lot of time and energy and you get less consistency. Only hire teams with proven track records, even if it means paying a little extra at first. As you scale out other parts of your team and get more time back in your day, you can look at trimming costs here later.

To start, curate a sample batch of diverse photos you have taken for your company. Then, send them out to editors and editing companies. When they are all returned, compare the results, turnaround, and quality.

Pay attention to each editor’s communication, consistency, and turnaround time. If you find them to be unreliable or unwilling to accept feedback, look for a new vendor. Again, prioritize teams over individuals as you reduce the risk of unexpected interruptions to the workflow.

How Much Should You Pay an Editor?

Depending on your niche market, photography edits should be budgeted at about 10% of what you charge for photography.

For instance, if you charge $150 for a shoot, you should budget a maximum of $15 for editing. If you took 30 photos, you’ll be paying $0.50 per edit. 

This is a great way to analyze the time that you invest. If you are editing your own images and videos, you should budget no more than 20% of your revenue or time to editing. Otherwise, you should outsource editors.

Most high-end editors start their pricing in the $0.70 - $1.00 per photo range. This is a reasonable expense for RE photographers charging $200+ for a shoot of 30 photographs.

Scaling from $10,000 to $20,000 a Month

Once you have achieved the scaling of your business to earning roughly $10,000 a month, you should have enough work to bring on a second photographer full time.

As a business owner, your goal is to free up as much of your time as possible so that you can work on the business. 

This means refining your services and experience, building your sales and relationships, and building your systems and teams. 

Since you are scaling from $10k to $20k per month, your second photographer should be able to bring in an additional $10k per month on their own.

Scaling from $20,000 to $50,000 a Month

This may seem like a big jump, but the process is relatively simple. 

Once you have successfully scaled to $20,000 monthly revenue, you should consider hiring an additional photographer/videographer. Each new hire in this category should be able to help you create at least $10,000 of top-line revenue each month. 

This is also a good time to get a well-rounded salesperson or project manager on your team, one who is able to fill in the gaps that you cannot. 

Try to find a salesperson who is capable of project management or a project manager who is capable of sales. 

AC office growing (and a bit cramped).

Over time they will specialize in one role once you have scaled enough to support one full-time team member each in driving new business and sustaining existing client relationships.

The process is as follows:

  • Hire a salesperson that is capable in both sales and project management.
  • Scale your business to support two additional full-time team members.
  • Give your salesperson a full-time sales position, meaning they will no longer deal in project management.
  • Hire a full-time project manager; they do not have to be capable of sales.

Your first project manager/salesperson’s initial compensation should be budgeted at about 10% of revenue. When you reach $40,000 a month, you will truly be able to justify a $4,000/month hire to help you with these tasks. 

If you are anticipating growth and have savings set aside to invest, you can be more aggressive. It’s very likely that your project manager is not going to have a full schedule at all times. 

At Aerial Canvas, we budget approximately 8% at scale for project management. With the proper systems, we even have project managers who easily manage more than $100,000 in monthly revenue by themselves. 

We reward bonuses for overperformance here. 

If your company needs it, hire more editors and photographers as you see fit. As you scale, you are going to want a dedicated assistant / operations coordinator / customer service representative. 

They will help you with client communication, support, deliverables, and emails. With this hire, you should follow the same strategy mentioned above. 

Budget their initial compensation at 10% of revenue. So when you’re working with $40,000 a month, you will be able to bring on a $4,000/month hire to help you with these tasks. This includes customer service, operations coordination, and assistant work.

Always budget for team events to show appreciation for your staff and customers. Even if it's modest.


Before you sign up for all of this, know your why and what is motivating you to go all in on your business. We all work for different reasons - to support our family, to gain financial independence and travel the world, to build something bigger than just ourselves, something we can be proud of. All of these reasons kept me going when times were tough, but the coolest part about building a team is sharing laughter, experiencing new things, and overcoming challenges.

Some of my best memories are my team surprising me with a birthday dinner and gifts, exchanging presents over a Christmas White Elephant, taking our team to visit Alcatraz, singing karaoke with our clients, hosting everyone at our New Office grand opening.

You might have heard this one before “it’s about the journey, not the destination”. Working on Aerial Canvas in the last couple years taught me some of the most important things in life - enjoy the little things in life, give more to get more, and have gratitude for everything.

Grow your real estate photography business faster

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