By Lynne Strang, Late Blooming Entrepreneurs
For years, Mike Kane was a top-level local government official whose primary responsibility was to encourage people to visit their local parks. Ironically, the demands of his high-pressure job left little opportunity to get away from his corner office and enjoy the outdoors himself.
All of that changed when, at age 58, Kane started Michael Austin Kane Photography, which specializes in landscapes and other forms of fine arts photography. The walls of his Ashburn, Virginia-based studio feature an array of his dramatic images, from black-and-white shots of waterfalls along the Potomac River to gorgeous color sunrises at North Carolina’s Outer Banks. As his own boss, he can go out whenever he wants to photograph the beauty of wildlife and vegetation found in nearby areas, including some of the parks he managed for so long.
Creating a Plan
Kane’s involvement in photography began when he was growing up in New Jersey. After watching his older brother, an amateur photographer, he decided to give it a try. Once in college, he took photo classes and built his own dark room.
At that point, snapping pictures remained just a hobby. Not long after he graduated from East Carolina University, Kane joined the Fairfax County Park Authority, which manages close to 23,000 acres of parkland, nine recreation centers and several golf courses. During a 28-year career, he rose through the ranks and became the Park Authority’s executive director, a position he held until his retirement in 2006. A three-year stint with the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA) followed, during which he formed a new plan.
“I always had an interest in starting a photography business but didn’t pursue it until later,” says Kane. “I gave myself a year to see if I had what it takes to make it work.”
In 2010, he enrolled in The Washington School of Photography, a program that emphasizes the business side of photography as much as its artistic side. As a result, Kane learned about copyright protection, model release forms and legal issues, among other areas. One assignment was to prepare a competitive analysis and three-year business plan, an exercise he thinks is imperative for any aspiring entrepreneur. “Out of that, you define your niche that separates you from everyone else,” says Kane.
As a business owner, Kane believes family support is essential, especially for a home-based photography operation like his. “It’s important to have people who can look at your work and give you a perspective you don’t see, which my wife does,” he says. “She provides ‘a little angel voice.’”
Strengths and Weaknesses
Kane’s philosophy is to “celebrate strengths and concentrate on weaknesses” – or more specifically, to learn ways to overcome the latter. His biggest struggle is finding time to better understand social media marketing, an area he sees as critical to his success but doesn’t enjoy. “I’m about 40 years too old,” he jokes.
In addition, he’s had to adjust to certain realities that come with downsizing. “Before, I was running a $60 million business with 3,500 employees,” says Kane. “I didn’t have to worry about $100 expenditures, but I do now.”
“As an individual, I thought I’d be able to do things more rapidly but they take a lot longer than I thought,” he adds.
Still, he’s thriving in his new profession and taking advantage of its many opportunities, which include teaching a class in digital photography and meeting new people. “For anybody starting a business, networking is an important, constant process,” says Kane.
He also derives personal satisfaction from seeing people enjoy his photography. “It’s a real honor,” says Kane, “to have someone want to hang my work on their wall.”
What Matters Most
Ultimately, the most gratifying part for Kane, who describes himself as “a visual artist,” is when he can “tell a story, set a mood or show something compelling” through his photographs of nature and the scenery he encounters during his travels. One of his favorite places is Maine, where he’d like to live and host travel workshops one day.
For now, the D.C. area and its surrounding region provide plenty of possibilities for his photos, which have appeared in The Washington Post, local retail establishments and several exhibitions. He’s also content with his workspace, a far cry from what it used to be.
He no longer has a corner office with an impressive view. He doesn’t even use a real desk anymore – just an old table acquired at a local thrift store. But none of that matters to Kane.
In fact, he couldn’t be happier.