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Lola Melani never thought she’d be a photographer one day. 

Although she was artistic growing up—and was attracted to all styles of art, like poetry, music, and drawing—pursuing a career in art didn’t feel like an option. “My parents wanted me to have a stable job as a corporate office worker, so they pushed me to get a degree in economics and then an MBA,” Melani shares with Thinkific.

When she graduated from her master’s, she received a DSLR camera as a graduation present. This camera “completely changed everything,” according to Melani. 

“I was mesmerized by what I saw through the viewfinder, and I started taking pictures of everything—especially people,” she shares. “Simultaneously, I got my first corporate job, which I hated from the first day I started. I didn’t feel like I belonged there.”

Determined to find a different path for herself, she devoted all of her free time to editing, playing with home studio lighting, and exploring portrait photography. “Little by little, it became my biggest passion,” reveals Melani.

In 2012, she left her corporate career and opened a home-based studio from her living room, which grew into a big studio in Manhattan, New York. Now, she’s based out of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and offers both photoshoots and online courses through her Thinkific site, Lola Melani Academy. Since, she’s developed 11 online courses and, for the past three years, has made $300K in annual revenue—solely from her Thinkific site. 

What’s even more incredible is that she did all of this after immigrating from the US from Russia with just $300 in her pocket. Here, she shares her journey of developing the career of her dreams.

Skip ahead:

  1. She found her niche

Before launching the Thinkific branch of her business, Melani built her brand around 

motherhood and maternity photography, which she has a particular affinity for. “I love offering women the gift of feeling empowered and confident by capturing their vulnerability in this stage of life,” she explains. “It’s incredibly rewarding working with new life. Being part of that moment with someone is special.”

She says that maternity and motherhood photography also allows her to retain clients for a few years. She shares, “Maternity and motherhood photography has become extremely popular in recent years. People start with pregnancy shoots, and then they want newborn baby photos, and then people come back when their kids are toddlers.”

Through sharing her stunning portrait imagery, her Instagram account grew organically, drawing in mothers and photographers who were equally as passionate about motherhood and maternity photography. Now, she has a following of over 104K. She also shares her images on her Facebook page, which has grown to over 18K followers.

“Thanks to my growing followers, I started doing in-person workshops in 2017,” says Melani. “The demand was so big because they messaged me from all over the world asking for tutorials on how I did certain things.”

  1. She launched an online academy

With followers from around the world increasingly expressing their desire for remote workshops, Melani became motivated to learn how to teach online in 2018.

However, she was intimidated. 

“I didn’t know where to start, and I kept postponing it,” she shares. “When I got pregnant, it pushed me to go online since I wouldn’t be able to travel or teach in-person for a while.”

She began researching different e-learning platforms and found Thinkific. She developed the Lola Melani Academy to house her courses, and launched her first one, which was about editing photos. “I never looked back; Thinkific is my home for the academy,” she says. 

Once doing her research, she learned that Thinkific offers a wide range of options for content creators.

“It’s so simple,” she states. “I downloaded it to make sure it was user-friendly, because it’s just me—I don’t have a technical team—and realized it was doable.”

Now, Melani has 11 courses—with plans to launch more. While most cover motherhood and maternity photography, she created some boudoir courses, too. Each is pre-recorded and is between two to three hours in duration, but she also offers a membership course: The Lola Melani Collective. This collective is an online education and coaching program for motherhood and maternity portrait photographers that want to level-up their businesses. Here, she posts new content every month. 

In each of her courses as well as her membership collective, students have access to a Facebook community where she can answer people’s questions. “I know that Thinkific offers a community; I haven’t had a chance to dive in and explore this feature yet,” she says. 

  1. She marketed her academy organically

Since Melani had grown such a loyal following, her online course success came quickly. Over the past three years, her courses brought in $300,000 per year. “What’s incredible is that I’ve been lazy with my marketing,” she shares. “That’s pretty much all sales that have come from organic leads.”

Her audience is made up of mostly female motherhood and maternity photographers between the ages of 29 to 45. Her sales are thanks to the community she created online of photographers who are big fans of what she does—as well as the way she teaches. “They keep buying the courses,” she says. “Once they buy one course, they don’t stop and they continue buying my other courses.”

Although she has an email signup option on her website and offers some lead magnets, her goal is to create a lead magnet for each course and create email automations to keep her students coming back. But since becoming a mom twice in less than five years, she shares that she hasn’t had the time to focus and create a crystal clear marketing strategy. However, she says that lately she can breathe again and has more time to figure out how to market to photographers who don’t know her yet. This will help ensure that her audience continues to grow. 

For those wondering what the future of content creation and marketing looks like, Melani thinks that using AI will help creators immensely.

“AI is taking over little by little; it can help with marketing and creating funnel sales pages. These things are becoming easier, so you just need to hop on this AI train and go with it.”

  1. She did her research

Before choosing her courses’ prices, she did market research. This involved taking courses from other educators.

“I saw what was included in other courses, how they were priced, the content, what I would change, and what I would add,” Melani shares. “That’s how I figured out the prices. It’s been five years and they haven’t changed.”

This helped her make an informed decision, settling on pricing her courses between $159 and $359. To collect payment, she uses Thinkific Payments. “It’s to easy,” she says. 

In total, she has around 3,500 students and over 18,000 enrollments, since most students have purchased multiple courses. 

  1. She kept her content creation process simple

As a busy mom, Melani keeps her content creation process as simple as possible. “I like to keep everything simple in my art, work and business,” she shares.

While many course creators can get away with filming themselves, the nature of Melani’s teaching doesn’t allow for that. “Since my courses are mainly on technical skills, I show behind the scenes. I want the photographers to have a feeling that they’re present with me at the studio. For that reason, I need several angles and close ups to be able to create amazing educational content for my students.”

To do so, she hired someone who she trained to be a videographer. “We started from scratch, her and I. We literally went to the store, bought a few microphones, made a lot of mistakes, damaged a lot of content, and learned a lot,” she laughs. 

“We are completely self-taught,” she continues. “I taught myself how to use the film editing software, The Final Cut, and I taught my videographer how to do that, too. Every course we build is created by just her and I.”

In terms of her content design, her main focus is on creating content that is helpful to photographers—and that helps them to succeed “instead of just focusing on making some quick money by offering something that no one is ever going to implement.”

“I create content filled with everything I know in order to make my students my fans,” she adds. “My Instagram inbox is always full with messages of photographers saying how grateful they are for my courses. They thank me for sharing and not holding back. Seeing their success keeps me going.”

  1. She honed in on the right mindset

From starting her business in her home living room to creating a full-fledged photography company with an online academy, Melani has made big steps since 2012. 

When asked about the biggest key to her success, she says it’s her mindset. “From day one, I focused on having a clear vision of my final goal and taking small steps every day towards it,” she explains. “When I first launched the academy and I only had that small course on editing, I was already visualizing how I would have a whole range of courses for people.”

“I also never let anybody tell me that I couldn’t do something that’s outside of my ability,” she continues. 

Melani recommends those who want to create an online course to “just do it.”

“I think things are shifting to becoming less perfect,” she shares. “You don’t have to have a huge production company to produce a course. Everybody can become a course creator with just an iPhone pro.”

She also warns creators to not try to copy or replicate what others are doing; she emphasizes the importance of being authentic and creating from that place. “Focus on what you love most and what you’re passionate about and what you’re good at,” she advises. “Don’t hold anything back. Just be you and build a unique product and you’ll be unstoppable.”

Curious about trying online course creation for yourself? The time is now—and you can get started with Thinkific for free

“It’s never been easier to build your own course with all of the amazing tools that are offered nowadays to content creators,” says Melani, excitedly. “If I could do it in my living room on my laptop and make $1.3M in sales, you can do it too.”