Do Your Dream | Kelli Trontel

April 23, 2012

I know I say this every week, but I am SO excited to introduce you to this week’s Dream-Doer.

I first met Kelli online.  I know, I know.

But as you’ll read here, Kelli was laid off from her job at the exact same time I was laid off from mine, back in 2009.  She found a link to a post I wrote about that day, and sent me an email.

After that, I watched Kelli start her own business, and she has absolutely amazed me with her seemingly limitless creativity and generosity.  When I asked her to be a part of this series, she was so excited and gracious.  And when I got the answers from her interview back, I was so happy she’d said yes.

Kelli truly inspires and encourages me.  She has that effect on a lot of people.  And I think she’ll have that effect on you.

(Plus, she is SO. CUTE.)

Ladies (and gentlemen), please welcome Kelli Trontel.


Age(ish): 33 yrs

Location: Whitefish, Montana



Your resumé in 10 words or less:  singer / songwriter / waitress / photographer / blogger / shop owner / wife / baby maker [currently growing baby #1 in my belly!]

How did your dream begin? The turning point for me was getting laid off from my “real job” which was at an advertising agency. I was  an administrative assistant [no. not working in the cool creative department]. I wasn’t being used in areas of my strengths, but I did sit in front of a computer all day which allowed me to do a lot research on what is out here – I got to follow people who were living their dream, which really inspired me.

When I got laid off… was such a weird feeling. I remember walking to my car and thinking “now what?!?” I was singing in a band at the time, but that was slowing coming to an end and my passion for photography was rising to new levels. My husband has always been such a huge support and encouragement to me and I remember the conversation that we had that literally gave me wings – and that was the green light to either go out and find a new job…or take a risk, work hard and start my own business. It’s such a blessing to have support in your life and timing is everything. I knew that I didn’t have long to get something up and running so when I made up my mind to jump into photography full time – I worked my booty off! It was either making photography happen or going out and getting another day job.

What was the thing that finally gave you the courage to start? I got laid off when the economy really started to shatter. So, the reality of finding another unstable job combined with the fear of not taking a perfect opportunity to start my business is what really gave me the courage.

The weekend before I got laid off from my real job, I was at church.  Our pastor told a story of a man who had died and  had an encounter with God, before coming back to life on an operating table. While he was in Heaven, God showed him the earth below. The man looked down and saw what looked like a bunch of ants roaming around in different directions. He asked God “What is this below?” And God answered “Those are all my people doing things that I have never called them to do.”

So the point of the service that day was around doing what God calls us to do with our life. Meanwhile, the very next day I was called into the CEO’s office and I was surrounded by a few of the head honchos explaining to me that “it wasn’t just me, but lay offs are taking place”…and while their mouths were moving….all I could hear was “Now GO, do what I have called you to do.”  Very powerful. A vision that is clear today as it was it 3 years ago when it happened.  Hearing those words JOLTED me….and I’ve been passionate about doing what I’VE been called to do with my life. Life is short. We have to get after it.

What has been the biggest surprise about owning your own business? The biggest surprise is simple, yet profound…..that “I can do it.” I used to believe that owning your own business was something that “other people” did. I didn’t believe that I was “smart” enough. I thought I had to “have it all together.” But those are lies….owning your own business demands more than “smarts” or “perfectionism.” It’s about VISION, PASSION and DRIVE. Yes, being organized and having “business sense” is important, but it’s a balance. No one will believe in you more than yourself – unless you have an amazing husband like me….who believes in me even when I doubt myself.

Have you made any embarrassing mistakes? Oh my. I think all new business ventures are built and grown upon mistakes. When you start something from the ground up – you are always in a constant state of TRUST. I always try and make the best decisions that I can, with the knowledge that I have at the time, but sometimes…..mistakes still happen and you have to be OK with that.

Pricing was something that was really hard for me to figure out when I first started my photography business. When I was building my portfolio I photographed people/families for FREE. I needed the experience and the work to show, while the families benefited from having photos. When I felt comfortable in my work and had enough of a portfolio built that really showcased what I was about – then I started to charge.

Here’s the embarrassing part…I was so nervous to begin charging for my services because I thought people wouldn’t go for it. I feared the rejection email after I replied with my pricing. So, I went from shooting for FREE to photographing families for $50-$75 dollars. This may seem totally fine, but what happened on FACEBOOK was not fine.

I had given my client a disc of their images and they posted everything up facebook, which was great! They were receiving all sorts of comments from friends and families, who were complimenting the images [thank goodness!], but then…IT HAPPENED…someone asked “Who was your photographer?” My client replied “Kelli Trontel. She is so awesome…and gives you the disc of photos…and is ONLY $75.”

Right then and there I had my “Wal-Mart” moment. Just to clarify, I have no problem with Wal-Mart, but Wal-Mart was not style/vibe I was going for, when it comes to BRAND.

I politely had to contact my client and explain to her how to “DELETE a comment” and said that she was the LAST photography session that I was charging that rate to.

One of my photography mentors in Nashville told me something so very wise after all of this went down. He said “I’d rather see you shoot for free than cheap. When you put a price tag on your work- you are putting a value on it. Don’t make the value of what you do come with a cheap price tag.”

This has stuck with me to this very day.

What advice would you give to someone trying to get the courage up to start their own business? Take the first step! I know too many people that just sit around and wait for the “perfect moment” to even begin…and that is rarely the case. You have to start somewhere…and so my advice would be ACTIVATE your dream and do something everyday towards that goal. No one is going to do it for you.

What has been the single best investment you’ve made in your business? NETWORKING! Time is money…and investing in my photography community really paid off. I learned from the best of the best….by putting myself out there and getting involved in others peoples lives. It wasn’t “just about me” and what I could get out others, but I volunteered my time and assisted on many photoshoots, which was so valuable. In return, I gained lifelong friendships, which continue to be helpful to me 3 years after starting my own business. We never know “too much” or get “beyond wise council.”

I also attended a few photography business workshops, which always gave me that boost of confidence. There are MANY workshops out there, but you have to beware and choose wisely. For me personally, I wasn’t as interested in actual “shooting” workshops because I had invested in a great community and had mentors that were available to me, but the BUSINESS side was invaluable. It was great to hear from people doing what I was doing…and making a living at it. Covering topics such as BRANDING, CLIENT EXPERIENCE etc…things that would set me a part from a very saturated industry.

What obstacles have you had to overcome? In 2010, my husband and I packed our bags and moved from Nashville, TN to Whitefish, MT. We moved to be near family and to start our own business – together. We opened up the RED CABOOSE FROZEN YOGURT + COFFEE in February 2011.

I wasn’t sure what photography was going to look like for me in the Northwest. I wasn’t even sure how much margin I would have for it, being that I would now own a retail shop that would demand a lot of my time and attention.

When I moved to this new town I was pretty open-minded about what photography would look like for me. I am so glad I was…because my photography business is not the same as it was in Nashville. I quickly realized that my goal wasn’t to be THE wedding/family photographer in Montana. I was craving a season of personal work and shooting what I wanted to shoot. To experiment.  To have no boundaries. And that’s exactly what I am doing right now. Having our retail shop as our main source of income, this has allowed me to CREATE. Photography had become a “job” for me and I was losing my love for it. So, little did I know – this move across the country was really the best thing for me creatively.

Photography now consists of a few destination weddings and handful of family shoots a year…plus photographing a ton of work for my church, which I LOVE! I photograph bands once a month and I absolutely love it!

Keeping your mind OPEN….allows you to turn obstacles into opportunities!

Is there anything you miss about life before being a business owner? This is a trick question!

Of course the thought of “leaving work at work – at 5pm” is nice, but I wouldn’t trade what I get to do – day to day – for anything. I truly enjoy what I do and I love that I get to work and spend so much time with my husband everyday!

What inspires you? music | passion | vision | creativity | new ideas | fashion | little details | pretty things.

What has been your proudest creative moment? Most recently, I was contacted by one of my favorite and most respected bloggers, Elsie Larson of A Beautiful Mess, to collaborate on a photo project with her. Again, this is  where networking has paid off. I had never met Elsie in “real life” until I landed in Springfield, MO and she picked me up from the airport!  However, we had known of each other “online” and became friends as she was opening up her own retail shop “Red Velvet Art.” I had learned so much from her in the past so I was honored to get a message from her on Twitter saying that she wanted to talk with me about an upcoming project! It was an honor to collaborate with her.

Any artists/women/entrepreneurs/anyone you really look up to?

Artists:: Allister Ann [photographer], David Bean [photographer], Eli McFadden [photographer]…these are all friends of mine who work hard and are making a living at what they LOVE.

Women:: Elsie Larson of A Beautiful Mess,  Ez from Creature Comforts Blog, Vanessa of ButterflySparks, Brooke Boling of Firecracker Studios…again, friends of mine who are KILLING IT!

Entrepreneurs:: Seth Godin, Howard Schultz, Scott Belsky….no, these are not friends of mine [haha!], but I’ve read their books and they are inspiring! Levi Lusko is my pastor and can also be added to this list too. Pastors are entrepreneurs, right?

How many hours a week do you work (be honest!)? There’s a responsibility that comes with being a business owner and you tend to feel like the open sign is always ON.

When I was just doing photography I really tried to balance work with home life. I wanted to turn off the computer and not be editing all through out the night, while not being present with my husband. So, I created “work hours” which were usually 9am-5pm. That really is plenty of time…if you manage your time. Long coffee shop discussions needed to be managed…we creatives are pretty good at being relaxed with our time sometimes.

Now that we have the RED CABOOSE…it’s a little different. Our shop is open from 7:30am-9pm and 7:30am-11pm on the weekends. Reed and I actually work the shop – behind the counter- making coffees and weighing yogurt – about 9 hours every day, but it’s really hard to “leave work at work” when it’s your baby! It’s our responsibility!! It’s what pays our bills! So, we are always talking, thinking, dreaming about our business, but we have to be super intentional to turn our conversations towards something else….especially on date nights!

You’ve got $100 extra to spend on something for your business – what’s it going to be? I’m really wanting a WALCOM TABLET…so I would take the $100 and buy of those.

What one thing makes your life so much easier? STAYING FOCUSED. Staying on track and keeping a clear vision on what’s really important in life really makes a difference. It’s so easy to get distracted and caught up in what other people/creatives are doing and you end up consuming more than creating. With so much vying for our time and attention – it can be a dangerous place to be if you don’t have firm boundaries and a strong focus.

What are your top three priorities in life? My relationship with Christ is a huge priority in my life. I’ve lived a season  [or two] completely dependent on myself and it got me nowhere. I was actually backtracking, uninspired, experienced a loss of passion and inspiration. The Creator of the universe is my source of inspiration, therefore He is a huge priority in life.

My family is very dear to me. I lost my dad and younger sister in 2010 within 6 months of eachother. It was a tough year, indeed, but I have a perspective on family and on life that I never had prior to that. Life is short. Be intentional. Say what’s on your heart now, while you have the opportunity. Take a risk. Don’t take people or opportunities for granted.

To put my hands and time towards things that matter. With the perspective of life being short…and so busy…everything goes through the filter of “how beneficial is this to my life, family, future…” Of course there are projects, meetings, conversations that I take on because I want to pour into other peoples passions, dreams and visions, but I carefully consider how I am spending my time. I really have to. There was a time where I spent more time in coffee shops have more conversations than I knew what to do with. I want to be strategic and have an impact on peoples lives…and you can’t say YES to everything.

What keeps you awake at night? Currently…a kicking baby in my belly!!! All. Night. Long.

Do you have a mantra, something you repeat to yourself? A lesson that I learned from my pastor recently is…. “I’m not for everyone.” Not everyone is going to LIKE me. Not everyone is going to GET me. I am OK with this. This is a hard lesson to learn…especially in starting a business, when you really want to win everyone over and have everyone love what you do. Sometimes that happens, but in reality that’s not always the case. So, it was such a relief to know that this is OK.

My name is KELLI TRONTEL and I may not be for everyone…and I’m OK with that.


Current favorite album to listen to?  John Mark McMillan

What calms you? Quiet time…whether that’s a break in my day or a walk around the block.

Accountant or DIY Finances? Accountant

When you’re working, do you like noise or silence? Depends on the project. I start the day off with music though.

 Want to get a glimpse of Kelli and her cute husband Reed in action?  They appeared on an episode of HGTV’s House Hunters last year, and it re-airs Tuesday night (if you’re in America, that is). Check your local listings.

6 responses to “Do Your Dream | Kelli Trontel”

  1. It’s so neat how the world is all connected. I’m pretty sure I read about her on A Beautiful Mess a while ago, and it’s so neat that you know her. I’ve been following the journey of Elsie Larson’s husband with his new band Sucre featuring Stacy King from Eisley [my favorite band ever], and I saw that Kelli photographed Eisley on her blog. But that’s enough of my blog geeking haha. I love all of these “Follow Your Dreams” posts.

    • GreatSmitten says:

      I love that connectedness! And I’m pretty sure the band photo of the girl’s arm further down is Eisley! X

  2. melissa hooker says:

    read every single word and loved it. Kelli is SUCH a creative inspiration!

  3. corybo says:

    a gentle, beautiful kick in the pants. thank you.

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