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Picture Perfect

Cameras, costumes and toddlers are all in a day's work for Lil' Angels franchisees.

This story appears in the September 2004 issue of Start Up.

For a young couple looking to open a franchise together, Lil' Angels Photography was practically heaven-sent. Three years ago, Tom Castle, 37, and Julie Castle, 33, were leafing through the Yellow Pages, looking for inspiration. When they came across the Photography section, they remembered meeting a Lil' Angels franchise owner on a cruise. Suddenly, the couple knew their search for a franchise was over.

Lil' Angels provides professional-quality photography to day-care centers, preschools and organizations for children. The company adds creative flair with its "Fashion for Kids Program," where children are photographed dressed up as anything from a race-car driver to a cowgirl.

"We felt this was something we could really enjoy," Julie says. "The initial investment was within reach, and the time to get started was minimal."

Neither Tom nor Julie had any professional photography experience, so Tom took a part-time job at a local photo lab. The couple has maintained their success by assessing and capitalizing on each other's strengths: Tom has a knack for charming children, while Julie makes the most of her business savvy. Although blending their differing styles wasn't easy, eventually the business blossomed. So did their family-they now have a daughter and a son.

Thanks to the flexibility of their franchise, these young parents only work about 10 months per year-they photograph about 6,500 kids during that period-and they spend the rest of the year enjoying family time. They charge between $25 and $100 per child. Professionally, their reputation has opened many doors. Most of their new business comes from customer referrals. "That's when you know you're doing something right," Julie says.

What they're doing isn't easy. Convincing one 2-year-old not to cry, or to pose naturally for the camera is difficult-and they sometimes photograph 60 2-year-olds in a row. "The key is to make sure the kids have fun," Tom says. "Taking pictures is a lot of pressure on them."

He and Julie never force an unwilling or scared child to get his or her picture taken, and they strive for a natural look in their photographs. Their care and professionalism are paying off-2004 sales are projected to reach between $350,000 and $450,000, and satisfied customers abound. "We've had parents who literally scream with excitement and surprise [when they see the photos]," Julie says. "Some are so overwhelmed, they cry. We get phone calls days or even weeks later, thanking us for taking such beautiful pictures."