The Last Word: Change Is Hard—Change After 30 Years Is Even Harder

The Last Word: Change Is Hard—Change After 30 Years Is Even Harder


That’s why it was a particularly difficult decision for me to step down as president of Unique Photo and the camera store I reinvented almost 10 years ago. I understood I was leaving our family legacy—the business that my mom and dad started in 1947—and the only industry I have ever really known. I knew in my heart it was time for a new challenge. I also knew that there’s no better time to move on than when things are going great.

© Neil van Niekerk
Matt Sweetwood © Neil van Niekerk

Over the past 30 years, Unique Photo has navigated ever-changing waters to become one of photography’s success stories. Ten short years ago, the industry was transitioning to digital technology, camera stores were failing, and we needed a new business model. With some luck and divine intervention, we developed and opened a new kind of camera store in Fairfield, New Jersey—a store based on customer experience and knowledge. We developed a premier education program that transformed the retail experience. I can proudly say our Unique University has inspired thousands to love and appreciate photography—and hopefully stay involved for life.

My belief is that customers buy experience, not products. If you educate customers, you go from being adversarial to being their teacher—putting you on the same side of the counter, literally and physically. If the customer experience in the store is dazzling, customers will come. We have become known as leaders and innovators with a gilded reputation for service. I am proud of what we have accomplished and honored to have assembled the best staff on Earth.

I am also proud of the accolades we have received for our branding and marketing. If I could leave my fellow store owners with some advice, it would be to become social media power users. It was a strategy I implemented in a desperate attempt to build a brand from scratch with little time and money. You must find the time and know-how to use that essentially free medium to build your brand and business. It really works. If you doubt it, check out my Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn. Feel free to borrow ideas.
This decision is bittersweet for me. I have made countless friends at the office and in our industry. I will always have photography and the photo business in my blood—meaning you’ll still see me around quite a bit. I still have a lot I can share and help within an industry I have grown to love. You’ll surely see me on TV where I frequently appear to talk photography. You’ll see me doing my best to support and consult for those companies in our business where I can make a positive difference.

But I am also looking forward to the new challenges this change brings. This is an opportunity to do something new and meaningful with the next phase of my life. I am writing a book, Man Up, and blogging for the Good Men Project and LinkedIn. And if you need an innovative speaker for one of your events, I’d like to be there to inspire your audience.

Some people have said that I am getting out of the retail business because the end is near. I don’t believe that for a second. There are more pictures being taken than ever, and recent surveys show millennials are using cameras at record levels. We are entering a new phase again, and those who are driven and innovate will surely find success. So if we all want it badly enough, a great future is there for the taking.

Matt Sweetwood was president of Unique Photo, a state-of-the-art camera store in New Jersey, for 30 years. He has been credited with the reinvention of the successful modern camera store, which includes the highly acclaimed in-store education program, Unique University. Sweetwood has been a regular contributor on national TV as a photography expert and is a business and marketing consultant to the photo industry. He is also president of the board of directors for the Josephine Herrick Project, a 75-year-old photography-based nonprofit. Sweetwood also writes for the Good Men Project and is known for his advocacy of single dads.