Four years ago Bill Robinson retired from his three-decade career as general manager of a La-Z-Boy furniture chain in a small town outside Detroit and, with his wife, moved to the Bay Area. They had been hoping to move to Northern California when they retired, and the idea fit in well with Robinson’s dream: He wanted to get into the tech industry.
Eventually Robinson realized his dream—via a part-time job at Whole Foods that paid the bills, and which he says he still takes on seasonally because he enjoys it. But making the switch from La-Z-Boy sales to tech wasn’t easy. Silicon Valley was hiring software engineers, not “furniture people,” and after pounding on a lot of doors, Robinson realized that he’d have to think outside the box.
Undeterred, he decided to immerse himself in learning 3D photography. With a new skill in his pocket, persistence and a vision for how this emerging technology could be used, eventually he built his own 3D photography business.
We caught up with Robinson by phone in Oakland, California
What inspired you to make the transition to tech?
I’d sold furniture for 30 years and was tired of it. I’ve always enjoyed tech. I’ve been a big tech user, and since we were moving to the Bay Area it was either banking or technology.
How did you finally break in?
When I found that my skills weren’t directly transferable to tech, I started going to Tech Demo meet-ups that I found on meetup.com. The meet-ups are where startups demonstrate new products. At one of them, I saw an inventor demonstrate his 3D camera for the first time. As we sat there, he moved the camera through the audience, then pulled up the results on a computer screen, and I thought, it’s like Google Earth for interiors. I knew I wanted to be part of it.
I approached the company and talked to them about my skill set, but like everyone else they were looking for software engineers. So I proposed testing their camera for them, and they agreed to give me a camera and cover my expenses. For the first three or four months, I tested it in various environments to see how their camera worked. I tried it in real estate projects, I scanned an aircraft carrier and an engine room, I shot the interior of a science center. Operating the camera is like leaving a trail of breadcrumbs through the forest. When you go into a property, you start at one point and move through the space by placing the camera every few feet.
I thought turning 3D photography into a full time income would be too far down the road, so in the meantime I worked in in furniture retail full time in the Bay Area. Then two years ago, I quit selling furniture and switched to part-time work at Whole Foods so I could build a 3D photography business. It worked well, because I could call on clients during the day and work at Whole Foods at night.
You worked at Whole Foods, going from a six-figure income in Michigan to minimum wage in Oakland. How did that feel?
It was a great experience actually. I got to move from rural white America in the Midwest to working at a store alongside young people with tattoos from different backgrounds and ethnicities. It gave me an understanding of the reality in urban areas. I still enjoy seasonal work at Whole Foods to connect with kids—the millennial generation—and to keep my employee discount!
Can you tell us how you managed to turn 3D photography into a full time business?
I’d never been involved in a startup company, and I had to create a market for my 3D photography. Real estate is a natural for 3D photography, because it allows customers to move around interiors and see all the details. Resorts use it to entice visitors, and it’s starting to be used in insurance, construction, hospitality, commercial environments and retail, too. Not only does the camera produce 3D imagery, but any of the 3D spaces I create can be turned into a virtual-reality experience.
It’s a leap from furniture retail to 3D photography. Were you able to use any part of your La-Z-Boy experience?
We all have things we’ve learned in the past that we can apply in ways we haven’t thought about until we get into a new situation, and my sales background has turned out to be very beneficial for my business since it involves calling on realtors. I needed to be able to go out and talk to potential clients and get them to buy what I was selling.
My past experience also helped because understanding space transferred well to using the camera to show space. I have a good understanding of natural traffic flow, focal points and key visual spots. For example, I know that people naturally stand in a home facing the fireplace mantel and want to know what the view is from the kitchen sink.
Age brings experience and skills—were there any downsides?
Only in that I don’t understand social media as well as I’d like. Also, you have to be in decent shape to do this job—not great shape, but you are walking up and down stairs, moving, bending. Still, it’s not as physically demanding as being a product demonstrator, which many seniors do and that involves standing for hours.
What are some of the challenges and rewards you’ve found in 3D photography?
For me it was a challenge to create a market for a product that didn’t have one. 3D is still an emerging technology, and people don’t know they need it yet. It’s not like you buy the camera today and tomorrow you’re making money. You buy it today and build your business over time—you’re not going to get rich quick.
There was also a steep learning curve. I had to learn real estate, then the tech side of a website, social media and the higher-tech applications of this product.
The upside is that 3D photography is easy to get into. And the downside is also that it’s easy to get into, because that creates competition.
The rewards are a whole new career that I love that pays well and allows me a lot of flexibility. I like the freedom of having control over my schedule. I can work seven days a week or three, depending on my needs.
What does aging with attitude mean to you?
Always being open to self-examination and change.
What kind of training you’ll need
The 3D camera itself is very easy to operate and no photography experience or training is required, though practice leads to better results.You do have to learn how to promote your business and the technology; half- and one-day courses in social media and other types of marketing are widely available, and small business administration help may be available. Entrepreneurial types who are comfortable cold calling and talking to strangers are best suited to this business.
$6,000–$7,000 for the camera, iPads and tripods. Robinson pays the company that developed the camera and software, Matterport, a monthly subscription fee of $49 to $150, plus a nominal fee for the first scan for each space.
Besides the financial outlay, building a 3D business involves some investment of time for marketing.
How much you can make
Robinson’s 2016 billable total was $75,000 after only a year being in business full time. He averages $250 per job for real-estate projects, and the average house takes about two hours to photograph with minimal to no post-production.
Robinson estimates that a retiree looking for a relaxed schedule in the 3D business could net $35,000–$45,000 “without killing themselves or driving for Uber.”
See Some of Robinson’s 3D Experiences
Most of Robinson’s projects are real estate related, but he has also created 3D experiences of exhibitions and art shows. Here are his three favorite projects: