SUNDAY PROFILE

Why Chinese director of Fortune 500 multinational retailer quit to focus on his hobby of photography

Ge Weiqi upset his parents by turning his back on a high-powered job to open a small studio in a Shanghai shopping mall taking children’s pictures – but he has no regrets

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 11 February, 2017, 11:01am
UPDATED : Saturday, 11 February, 2017, 11:01am

GE WEIQI, 39, tells MAGGIE ZHANG why he turned his back on his successful job as a senior director at a Fortune 500 multinational retailer to follow his passion for taking pictures and open a children’s photography studio in Shanghai

What were you doing before you launched your children’s photography business?

After graduating in international trade from China Textile University, now renamed Donghua University, 2001, I started work in textile sourcing and trading. By the time I was in my early 30s I was a senior director – the youngest in China at the time – involved in global sourcing for the US discount store retailer, Target, in Shanghai. But in November 2013 I quit my job to run a full-time children’s photography business.

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Why did you get interested in photography as a career?

Photography has always been my hobby. I had started to rent a studio from 2007 to practise taking pictures for fun and also hone my skills. It evolved into a place where photography enthusiasts could meet up, and that was the starting point for making it a part-time business. By 2011, we were running a high-end children’s photography studio just at weekends. It was such a success that for years I was always fully occupied at weekends. The popularity of Weibo – the Twitter-like service on the mainland – helped us to easily build up a good reputation simply by word of mouth. Many well-educated, reasonably paid people were willing to spend an average fee of 4,000 yuan [HK$4,640] to 5,000 yuan for a selection of simply executed photographs of children and their family. Our unfussy style was rare then because the market was dominated by studios that relied heavily on fancy indoor staging and the like.

What made you decide to do it full-time?

To be frank, I made the decision recklessly. At the time I was facing a career bottleneck. I was 35 and felt middle age was fast approaching and had this drive to create new things that had new value – such as new products or new business models. I could see little chance of accomplishing that while doing my management job. I had sometimes missed the enjoyment of my early years, when I saw my work with designers, buyers and suppliers turned into a finished product for consumers. At the same time I felt happier when I was being creative taking photos of children. I felt as if I was having an early middle-age crisis while going through adolescence. I didn’t want to keep following the set path anymore – of being a good pupil at school, a good boy at home and a good employee whose ultimate aim was to climb up the corporate ladder. I really wanted to follow my heart and devote myself to the studio business full time.

Did you get support from your family?

My wife backed my decision. But my parents were strongly against it. They thought I was out of my mind – to quit a stable and decent job and take on all kinds of uncertainties at such an age. They had been proud to tell other people that their son was a senior manager at a famous Fortune 500 multinational company, but that wasn’t the case when their formerly obedient son became a photographer running a small business. That was not the success story they had imaged. They still hold that view even now.

Did the running of the studio go as smoothly as you expected?

Not at all. The heyday of the business saw people paying an average price of 7,000 yuan for a package of different photographs, but there was a marked decline in the growth of the business, partly linked to a drop in Weibo traffic. Trying to make the studio work as a full-time business changed things completely. To make things worse, the partners and I disagreed about the direction we should be taking, so I made the painful decision to halt the old business and open a much smaller concern, called POP Studio, in a shopping mall.

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Why were you so determined to make that change?

I didn’t believe my idea would take off at first. My barber had suggested that I rent a space at a mall right next to his children’s barber shop, so we could make use of each other’s resources. But I was worried because I had seen studios leaving malls to move into creative centres where rents were cheaper and there was much more space. The limited space of a mall would mean I would have to change my business model, produce work faster and more often. Yet after monitoring the number of people coming into the mall for just one week, I changed my mind. Children’s services and restaurants are the two most popular businesses in a mall. Shopping malls are also transforming themselves from simply retailing to providing other experiences to cope with the growing competition from e-commerce. So they welcomed a business like mine by offering a rental discount because I can help to attract families to the mall, which benefits other businesses.

How’s your business going now?

The initial investment involved hundreds of thousands yuan. I am the main investor. We have three full-time staff and three to four part-timers. We are making money, too. My biggest headache now is hiring and retaining the right people.

How is your business benefiting from China’s second-child policy?

The policy helps my business. Roughly half of our customers are families with two children. Some existing customers returned when they had their second child. So I can see a clear boost to our business thanks to the policy of allowing all families to have a second child.