Alen Palander, an Iraqi-Canadian photographer and creative director, has emerged as one of the world’s most sought-after content creators, amassing a global following, including over half a million people on Instagram and YouTube. Born in Iraq, Alen Palander immigrated to Canada at the age of six. Initially drawn to architecture and design with dreams of becoming an architect, his journey took an unexpected turn during his pursuit of a master’s degree.
Today, Alen operates Palander Studios, a thriving production company that specializes in commercial content creation and campaign development. He collaborates with renowned brands such as Mercedes-Benz, Air Canada, and Longines while finding his most rewarding work in inspiring other creatives to chase their passions.
What were you doing before you became an entrepreneur?
Before starting this business, I was pursuing a lot of education. I did my undergrad at the University of Waterloo, focusing on Urban Design and Planning. After that, I graduated and began my Masters in Architecture at the University of Toronto (U of T), but I dropped out of that program after the first month to pursue this full-time.
What inspired you to build a photography business and launch Palander Studios?
I wouldn’t say I was inspired to become a photographer; I was inspired by the art of photography. I was traveling extensively at a young age, mostly in Europe, and had a keen interest in architecture. Photography wasn’t initially in the picture. I would visit these places worldwide and share photos with my friends. They encouraged me to share them online. So, I joined social media early on when it was still new. Being new to the platform (Instagram) expanded my horizons, and it led to more people seeing my work and engaging with it.
In the beginning, it was friends and family who told me I should consider photography as a career. Afterward, it was clients who suggested I step into directing and overseeing the entire project’s scope, as I had different ideas about the industry and how products should be presented. So, it was clients who propelled me in this direction. Eventually, I started venturing into creative direction, a perfect fit at the time.
What is one common misconception about the business side of photography and creative direction?
Many people underestimate the amount of work involved. People often perceive my life as only showcasing the best moments due to social media’s nature, but they don’t see the extensive work behind the scenes. The specific path I’m taking doesn’t have a well-defined blueprint, so I’m creating that blueprint for others. I started making tutorial videos on YouTube to educate people about the process, particularly photographers and filmmakers. I’ve also been conducting workshops and meetups with other creatives to provide insights into what to expect when venturing into this space.
How did you begin monetizing social influence, and what advice do you have for creatives trying to do the same?
I remember the first time I was paid to do an ad; it was something entirely new. I hadn’t seen this type of social media activity before, where someone was asked to be paid to share something online and monetize it. This concept was unusual at the time. I got started early, which allowed me to gain the right knowledge and position myself in the industry while deciding how much to charge. I often conducted a budget breakdown of camera gear expenses, effort, and project time to determine my pricing and align it with my goals, the industry, and the lifestyle I wanted.
Managing money effectively is crucial when starting a business. Fortunately, I had a good understanding of balancing income, taking risks, and hiring staff to grow my business.
What is your take on talent management firms and the relationship between social media influencers and brands?
I have worked with various agencies for sourcing work but never in a contract where I give a percentage of my income. I never had a manager; I had an assistant who helped manage my emails and clients for a long time. I focused on business development, which was a significant factor in my success. I communicated directly with brands, not through my assistant, an agency, or a talent manager.
I built strong relationships with companies by directly working with their creative directors or strategists, which is why I have been collaborating with the same brands for several years.
How do you handle brand collaborations and what makes a successful relationship with brands?
Understanding the brand’s goals is crucial, which requires researching the brand to see if it aligns with your values and makes sense. A positive vibe with the client is essential, creating the best work for a brand involves exceeding expectations. It’s about delivering something better with a twist, going above and beyond, and giving brands a fresh perspective.
What advice do you have for brands to build stronger collaborative relationships with photographers and content creators?
Brands often seek to predict what’s right for a creative director instead of giving them creative freedom. Hiring a creative director means trusting them to create a unique vision. Brand relationships can suffer when clients try to control the creative process. It’s essential for brands to trust the expertise of the creative professionals they hire.
How has social media impacted the growth of your business?
Social media has had a significant impact on my business. It allowed brands to find me, and regular users connected with my work. It also provided a platform to sell my products online, like custom Lightroom presets. Without social media, many people wouldn’t be as successful as they are now.
Which social platform has contributed the most to your business growth?
Both Instagram and YouTube have contributed significantly to my business growth. Instagram holds a special place in my heart because I’ve been there from the beginning. I’ve only been on YouTube for the last two or three years.
What do you love most about being an entrepreneur?
The challenges of entrepreneurship are similar to those I face when traveling abroad on an adventure. It involves constant decision-making and considering different scenarios and options to find the right path, much like building a brand.
The reward comes from influencing people to change their lives or brighten their day. I never set out to be a photographer or creative director; I was pulled into this world because I had a passion for creating art. Sharing my work and getting positive feedback from hundreds of thousands of people, if not millions, is immensely rewarding.
What advice do you have for aspiring entrepreneurs?
Don’t hesitate; go for it! Take that leap of faith and put 100% of your effort into it. Be knowledgeable and sophisticated in your industry, thoroughly understanding it to make informed decisions. Research extensively before venturing into the entrepreneurial world, and pursue something you’re passionate about, but always approach it with