A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, Sharon Weil Hornstein left the corporate world following a 13-year multinational marketing career to raise her boys and pursue her passion for photography. Working primarily in color, she strives to capture images of strong yet simple subjects at a unique moment in time.
She first visited Turks & Caicos in 2012 and immediately fell in love with the beauty of both the islands and their people. She has returned over the years, camera in hand, working on her collection of images. She hopes they will serve as a striking reminder of the unique beauty of the Turks & Caicos Islands.
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Table of Contents
Thank you for joining us today. Please introduce yourself to our readers. They want to know you, some of the background story to bring some context to your interview.
Sharon Weil Hornstein: I went to the University of Pennsylvania and expected I would leave school with a fabulous, high-paying job, well on my way to success. turns out it wasn’t that easy. I floated around for a couple of years, doing temp jobs, working as a PA for Laurence Tribe, and then landed a job as a wholesaler for a group of sporting goods companies that included Rollerblade, just as they were becoming popular. That got my creative juices flowing and I learned how to market uniquely and effectively.
By 25 I left wholesaling behind to start my first business – an inline skate stunt team with a marketing spin. Rollerblade had a team so I thought why couldn’t I make an independent team and market for other companies. I collected a group of talented young skaters and off we went performing at events, collecting sponsors, doing commercials, making promo videos, and competing. But that was in the days before social media and the XGames. We had no money and were naming the tricks as we went along. I carried a huge 10-pound cell phone with me so I would always be reachable (I still have the same cell number!). It was a huge success by many measures – we had a fantastic amount of fun, met incredible people, and had loads of free gear, but paying rent was nearly impossible. So I gave it up in favor of a corporate job that allowed me to buy food and pay the bills. I spent a number of years working in financial services marketing for some amazing companies, honing my marketing skills, traveling, and learning new languages. I also started making photographs.
Photography remained a hobby for a lot of years, but when my first son was born I left the financial services world to stay home and raise him. When he was still an infant a friend convinced suggested that my photography was good enough to sell and a seed was planted. It was the perfect work for a mom raising now 2 sons. A creative outlet that let me work when I wanted and pick and choose the kind of work I wanted to do. So I practiced and improved, took classes, and discovered Turks & Caicos with my family. Over time I built a catalog of images from Turks that I felt confident selling and Sand Dollar Images was born. It has been both tremendous joy and a whole lot of work. I improved my equipment, grew relationships, learned to build a website, and threw myself into social media.
I define success in many different ways and building this business has given me the opportunity to not only make money sharing my passion but also to stretch myself by introducing new products and finding new projects and an amazing community on social media. There’s so much more ahead and I’m thrilled to chase it all.
You are a successful entrepreneur, so we’d like your view point, do you believe entrepreneurs are born or made? Explain.
Sharon Weil Hornstein: I believe that successful entrepreneurs are born and made in equal measure. They must have the ability to confidently take risks, face failure, and then take risks again without giving up. That takes a certain kind of personality. They also need to be determined, creative, and willing to think in unique, off-the-beaten pathways. Many of those skills are innate, but there are learned skills too, that can tip the balance between success and failure. You must be willing to do the hard work necessary to make a business thrive. Running a business can be all-consuming at times (actually, most of the time), so learning to manage your time and how to delegate tasks effectively is incredibly important. Understanding when to take a breath and rethink your path and be open to new ideas is vital as well. I don’t think I could be where I am now without a combination of all these skills.
If you were asked to describe yourself as an entrepreneur in a few words, what would you say?
Sharon Weil Hornstein: Creative, confident, determined, and grateful for the opportunity to share my vision.
Tell us about what your company does and how did it change over the years?
Sharon Weil Hornstein: I sell my landscape art photography through Sand Dollar Images. I have remained focused on selling my work directly through designers and to consumers so that the end product is custom printed and doesn’t require that I carry inventory. You can find my work all over the world now and I’ve worked on some really amazing projects.
My product offering has changed though. I started by offering aluminum prints only, but over time I have added to (and subtracted from) my product mix. I’ve become a much better photographer for sure. My eye is better, I read the weather better, I know the tides and the sun and moonrise, where to be when in order to capture the best images. That all takes time and practice. I’ve improved my equipment and added new styles to my work.
As I’ve grown on Instagram I’ve also found an incredibly supportive community of people who come to my feed for a moment of beauty and space in their lives. They are amazing! They feed my creativity every day and inspire me to try new things. I’ve begun to introduce eco-friendly products into my offerings to reflect my work on and around our precious islands and sea. Prints on renewable bamboo blocks and coming soon limited edition prints on bamboo paper and NFTs with a company that has a very small environmental impact. I’m also expecting to add a relationship with an ocean-friendly charitable organization (yet to be determined) as a way of giving back.
Thank you for all that. Now for the main focus of this interview. With close to 11.000 new businesses registered daily in the US, what must an entrepreneur assume when starting a business?
Sharon Weil Hornstein: An entrepreneur should assume that it’s not going to be easy. Starting and running a business takes a tremendous amount of time, focus, and hard work. Your idea has to be unique and your execution flawless. Know that you will need to make adjustments and changes as you go along so that you can stay focused on the needs of your clients. Assume that there will be costs, expected and unexpected involved. Even if you are running an “inventory free” business like mine there are tech costs, marketing costs, equipment, and travel costs.
Finally, it’s really important not to take any of it personally so be prepared to take your feelings out of the equation when necessary. People work hard for their dollars and they all have different tastes and needs. Not everyone will buy what you’re selling. Sometimes because they don’t want it, sometimes because they have other priorities. But if you can find your market, your niche, you can be successful.
Did you make any wrong assumptions before starting a business that you ended up paying dearly for?
Sharon Weil Hornstein: I’ve definitely made some wrong assumptions that I think have held me back, but I wouldn’t necessarily say I’ve paid dearly. I wish I had built my website on a more commerce-based platform from the start. I’m in the process of fixing that now, but it certainly would have saved me time (and probably made me more money) if I had started in the right place. I’ve also spent time and energy on collaborations that never materialized, and in hindsight, I should have known that they were a waste of time. I can’t get that time back and I suppose that experience has helped me see now what I didn’t see then.
If you could go back in time to when you first started your business, what advice would you give yourself and why? Explain
Sharon Weil Hornstein: I would tell myself not to have such high expectations for online sales. It’s hard to get people to part with their money online, especially when it comes to high-end art. An online presence is extremely important for credibility but my real marketing advantage is myself. Spending a lot of time with designers and make the buying experience special and personalized for clients adds great value to my art.
I would reassure myself that my strategy of not carrying inventory and printing customs was the right way to go. I didn’t realize at the time how much new work I would be able to create and how much my skills would continue to improve, so I am pleased that I don’t have to “get rid of” inventory as I continue to change and grow.
Finally, I think I would tell myself to come up with a different business name. I didn’t know anything about SEO when I started out, but now that I do, I rather wish that my company name was something a bit more unique. It’s hard to compete for ranking with companies that offer stock images of sand dollars. I’ll get there, it’s just a lot more time and work.
What is the worst advice you received regarding running a business and what lesson would you like others to learn from your experience?
Sharon Weil Hornstein: Probably the worst advice I got was around building my website. While I had no experience building effective e-commerce, I set out to build the site on my own using a template-based platform. There are so many options out there to choose from and I was led to believe that almost all of them could manage the buying experience I wanted to create. So I chose what I found most aesthetically pleasing without truly understanding the nuts and bolts and downfalls of each option. Big mistake! I wish that I had done significantly more research before setting out to build the site on my own or maybe had invested the money to hire someone to build it properly from the get-go.
It was a great experience learning to build my site, but I know that if I had started in the right place I wouldn’t have had to spend so much time and effort rebuilding to get it right.
In your opinion, how has COVID-19 changed what entrepreneurs should assume before starting a business? What hasn’t changed?
Sharon Weil Hornstein: To be honest, I have blocked COVID-19 out of any marketing and social media discussion around my business. No talk about social distancing, mask-wearing, politics, vaccines. This was a decision I made at the beginning of the COVID lockdowns because I wanted to create a stress-free, “COVID free” zone around my work to help me build positive relationships with potential clients. They could escape to Turks & Caicos for a few minutes (or seconds even) and just breathe. The result has been overwhelmingly positive and helped me create a special and positive community that I would not have been able to create in the same way before COVID.
That said, there are practical issues that all entrepreneurs should consider given the changes brought on by COVID-19. In-person interaction with clients is more difficult, shipping product is more costly and takes longer, travel is more unpredictable. Depending on your product, raw materials might be more expensive, sometimes substantially so, impacting your own product pricing as well. Service businesses that can take place online have different considerations especially when the original plan was to deliver them in person (education, exercise, life coaching, etc). Those types of businesses might require a different type of investment in technology and production equipment that the entrepreneur hadn’t considered pre-COVID.
So I would say people should assume that things will likely be different than pre-COVID, but those differences could be positive or negative depending on your model. A thorough review of your business plan before starting the business and a detailed assessment of all aspects is a wise plan before launching a new business in this environment.
What is a common myth about entrepreneurship that aspiring entrepreneurs and would-be business owners believe in? What advice would you give them?
Sharon Weil Hornstein: I think people often assume that it is easier and more fun to run your own business than work for someone else. While that is sometimes the case, it’s really important to keep in mind that running a business is a LOT of hard work. It’s time-consuming, stressful, often expensive, and risky. There are endless variables. But it can also be extremely rewarding, not just financially but also emotionally. It’s incredibly important to find something that you are passionate about doing or selling because that’s much more likely to keep you engaged, motivated and ultimately make you successful.
What traits, qualities, and assumptions do you believe are most important to have before starting a business?
Sharon Weil Hornstein: I think you need to be willing to take risks and be confident in your own vision for your business. Passion plays a big part, but also organization, focus, patience, and the ability to assess feedback and criticism. It’s okay to take good advice when it’s given but stick to your guns when your gut tells you to. You need to know upfront what direction you want to head in, be determined to stay focused on that but also be flexible if necessary. Assume that you will spend WAY more hours working (or thinking about work) than you expected, but also allow yourself to take breaks to refresh when necessary.
How can aspiring leaders prepare themselves for the future challenges of entrepreneurship? Are there any books, websites, or even movies to learn from?
Sharon Weil Hornstein: Research, research, research!!! Learn as much as you can before you set out so you start from a good baseline. Find mentors and look at examples of how people have done things well and where they’ve missed out. Consider ideas from both inside and outside your industry.
Truth is there are loads of books, websites, videos, and movies to learn from. So many, that it’s really hard now to tell who is truly an expert. So many individuals and schools are now running businesses selling you their expertise on how to grow your business, your SEO, your social media following, etc. Some of them truly are experts, but many of them aren’t. Keep in mind that their business model is to sell you a program they claim will teach you how to grow your business. So everyone comes across as an expert. I think it’s important to know exactly what you are buying before you invest in a program and be sure that it applied specifically to a goal that you want to accomplish.
Things are changing very fast out there. Read a lot and often, stay on top of trends and develop a network of people with who you can share ideas and collaborate so that you all grow your businesses together.
You have shared quite a bit of your wisdom and our readers thank you for your generosity but would also love to know: If you could choose any job other than being an entrepreneur, what would it be?
Sharon Weil Hornstein: If I really had to give it up, I’d say being a marine biologist would be an excellent choice. I could still live my life in and around the sea and have a job that I believe could make a real impact. That or maybe a professional kiteboarder 😉
Thank you so much for your time, I believe I speak for all of our readers when I say that this has been incredibly insightful. We do have one more question: If you could add anyone to Mount Rushmore, but not a politician, who would it be; why?
Sharon Weil Hornstein: A bit off-brand for Mount Rushmore, but I’d add Taylor Swift. I admire her as a gifted songwriter and composer and respect her as an artist and person. She cares deeply about her fans and her family and despite her extraordinary success remains humble and grateful. I find her a wonderful role model.
Larry Yatch, VIP Contributor to ValiantCEO and the host of this interview would like to thank Sharon Weil Hornstein for taking the time to do this interview and share her knowledge and experience with our readers.
If you would like to get in touch with Sharon Weil Hornstein or her company, you can do it through her – Instagram
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