While many business owners and managers have found the recession tough, others were busier than others – including Skin Studios. Regardless of this, they opted to restructure the business in August 2010, focussing on their specialities to maximise profits.

Curtis Gibson has worked for Skin Studios since the company was a year old. Having started as the hospitality manager, he is now the general manager and takes care of various aspects of the business on behalf of its owners and directors, Elizabeth Hoff and Hugh Chambers.

Starting out

Skin Studios opened in 2007 as a photography studio that also offered retouching and digital hire. It was originally based in a two-studio building in Kensington, which offered various services, including studio hire to photographers.

Its owners have no prior experience in running a business – Elizabeth has a background as a fashion photographer, which she still does now on a freelance basis. She is very involved with Skin in directing the company. Hugh worked in advertising before starting the company and is now working for the 2012 UK Olympics team – as he is so busy with this role he’s less involved with the studio. Curtis started working at Skin a year after the business opened as the hospitality manager. In 2010, he became the general manager.

A new business model

In August 2010, Skin started to focus on retouching and hire as these areas were more lucrative than studio hire, as well as the fact that many photographers wanted a larger space than the studio could offer. As a result the business model was changed to concentrate on retouching and digital hire. Because the studios were no longer required, Skin moved premises to an office called The Lightbox in Chiswick.

The Lightbox was chosen partly because it was located in Chiswick, closer to the directors’ home, but also because the company required an office as opposed to a studio. In addition to Curtis, Skin has two retouchers on site and Elizabeth has an office for her business as a freelance photographer.

Although Skin found itself busier than ever during the recession, even working at full capacity the overheads for a studio were much higher than if the company was just retouching images. Curtis says that, over the years, Skin built up a very strong client base for retouching and digital hire – it simply made more sense for them to scale down and focus on those areas to maximise profits.


Skin’s clients mostly consist of photographers, glossy magazines, advertising agencies, Sunday supplements and art buyers. Marketing is mostly done via email – newsletters are sent to clients every two months, and potential new clients are found using databases such as Fashion Monitor. The newsletter shows examples of current work and gives details of services provided by Skin. After a newsletter, Curtis sends individual emails to follow up or calls potential clients.

Unusually, Skin does not use any form of social media as a marketing tool. Curtis says: “I’m dubious about whether it works or not because we’re quite specialised, we’re a bit of a niche market.” Having looked at rival companies’ Twitter and Facebook pages he has found that they tend to have only about 200 friends or followers, although he says “I do have friends in the graphic design industry who use Twitter and they say it’s very good so I have started looking at it. For the time being, emails tend to get a positive reaction and I do see an increase of work coming in once I’ve done them.”

Education vs. experience

Curtis started out as hospitality manager but after a few years had learnt enough to manage the studio and, after Skin moved to their new premises, he became general manager. He has a degree in fashion photography from the London College of Fashion but has never studied management – although he did work as the manager of a gastro pub for two years after completing his degree.

He says “I don’t know how much that [his degree] taught me as opposed to working here at Skin Studios – Skin probably taught me more in a year because, when I did the fashion degree, we were still involved in analogue photography processes. As soon as you hit the world of commercial photography it’s very digital-oriented in post-production. My degree gave me good understanding of photography but working at Skin has taught me how the commercial world of photography works which is a big step up.”

Curtis developed his managerial skills while working as the manager of a gastro pub and cites his past hospitality experience as a student as helping him to learn management. His current role uses both his past management and his photography degree – “It’s the perfect job.”

Managing an SME

One of the most important things Curtis has to focus on is customer retention – 80 percent of their business comes from regular customers. The other 20 percent is either found by Curtis or via word-of-mouth – photographers usually have the final say in who retouches their photos, so if a photographer starts using the studio they will bring new clients such as the magazines they are working for.

While Curtis doesn’t employ any particular strategies for customer retention, he says that the most important points are “Communication, understanding and being fair.” He ensures that working relationships remain as easy as possible and that clients don’t have any reason to want to use other studios.

Curtis does most of the planning for Skin, although he says that the most important aspect of running a small business is to keep an eye on costs and overheads, as well as making targets realistic and managing outgoings carefully. Another point, he says, is to keep a close eye on competitors to watch out for any new trends, and always keep in touch with current clients – he concedes that a Twitter page might be useful for this, although “It’s just finding the time to be able to do that!”