Thought Center


John D. Russell – Photographer, Entrepreneur & Leaper

I have had the pleasure of working with photographer, John D. Russell during several Habitat for Humanity events over the years. There is something special about the people you meet at Habitat builds – from the volunteers who arrive with an open heart and zero build skills to the crew leaders (made up mostly of volunteers) to professionals like John Russell, who provide their time and expertise to support the mission in other ways.

Like all of the people I have met along my Habitat journey, John has become a friend and I am so happy he agreed to share his entrepreneurial story with me. There are many layers to John, which may explain his ability to capture people and places so beautifully. As always, I hope John’s story will inspire others out there to follow their passion and take the big Leap!

Describe what you do for a living.

Photo credit: Paulius Staniunas


I am a Professional Photographer. I work in four different verticals – Lifestyle, Commercial, Travel, and I run workshops and retreats.

How did you start your business?

Like most folks; I chose a name I could use as a sole proprietor easily (my own name), opened a bank account, registered with the appropriate bodies and started marketing and networking like crazy.

Tell us about your growth thus far.

I’m coming off my most successful year financially since I’ve been in business. Growth has been steady at about 20% per year since I’ve been in business.

Describe how it feels to go to work each day?

Work? It rarely feels like work. I love what I do!

What do you love most about being an entrepreneur?

Flexibility and the ability to design a life you imagine and not a life that’s created for you.

What did you do prior to this?

I’ve held many jobs. I started working at a young age (12 y/o) but to give you an idea I’ve worked as a; newspaper delivery boy, cashier, dishwasher, smoothie technician, merchandiser, retail, camp counselor, ski lift operator, mason, salesperson, and lastly a surety underwriter.

Did anyone or anything inspire you to take the leap?

It’s a long story (read here) but basically I lost my only parent/only immediate family unexpectedly and it really jolted me. I realized life was short and it was time to design my ultimate life so I took the leap and made some radical changes.

Did you have a plan for the leap or just go for it?

I had a basic plan. Go back to college and finish what I started. After graduation, I had options – go back to work as an underwriter and corporate life or take a chance and start my own business.

How scary or exhilarating was it?

Unbelievably scary but also 100% exhilarating. Wouldn’t change it for the world.

What are some mistakes you’ve made thus far?

I’ve made mistakes in virtually every aspect of my business. Not much different than life really. We make mistakes. We own it. We learn from it. We move on so we can make other mistakes and learn from those, etc., etc. Chances are if you’re not making mistakes – you’re not doing much of anything.

What was the best advice you received?

Ahh, so much good advice over the years! I’ll summarize (in no particular order):
1. Don’t aim for perfection – aim for excellent and go execute. Perfection isn’t reality.
2. Keep learning.
3. Save some cash for hard times.
4. Always have a plan.
5. Time is precious, act accordingly (i.e. focus on the important stuff)
6. Have fun.
7. Get sleep.
8. Have goals.
9. Keep good books.
10. Pay your taxes.

What has been most satisfying about your journey?

The lifestyle. Being able to be flexible and do what I want – when I want.

Have any other areas of your life changed/improved since shifting careers?

My life is completely different now. I’m happier, have more free time, do work I’m passionate about and am deeply connected to and I make a great living. I travel often and have flexibility that a 9-5 job just can’t compete with.

Do you miss anything about your previous career?

The people. I loved my coworkers and we all got along great. It was a good group and we rocked it!

What advice would you give to others who are considering leaping?

100% GO FOR IT! Worst case scenario – you go back to your old job or find a new higher paying one. Security is a mirage and I encourage everyone to chase their dreams. When you’re passionate about something people will notice. If you provide a good or service and you’re passionate about what it is you’re doing – you will have an opportunity to be successful. That said, have a plan. Get educated about business. Go to a local community college and take the 2 intro accounting courses so you have a general idea of how bookkeeping works. Take a few business courses. Give yourself a fighting chance to succeed. Understanding your costs, and how to charge for your goods and services will make all the difference. You’ll have to wear many hats. You’ll be a bookkeeper, admin assistant, sales rep, service provider, negotiator, strategist, marketing guru, etc. Learn about each facet of being a business owner. It sounds like a lot and sometimes it is – but it’s worth it. It won’t be easy but it will be rewarding and I promise you you’ll learn more than you ever did in school. 🙂

Inle Lake, Myanmar Photo credit: Christine Dinh