Sitting in one of her two businesses at the outlet mall in Mercedes, Ashley Nicole Werbiski marveled at how she turned a degree in criminal justice into a photography studio and a store featuring glittery dresses for little girls.
“This whole job was made up,’’ Werbiski said in how she turned her imagination and creativity into reality.
Walking in a breezeway of the Rio Grande Valley Premium Outlets on a recent day between her stores, the Mercedes native lays out how she’s connecting her two businesses – Ashley Nicole Photography and Bailey Amber’s – to build her brand and successes.
Werbiski opened her photography studio at the outlet mall in 2016, and after initial struggles that made her wonder if her business could make it, she changed strategies and found success, recalling, “the floodgates just opened.’’ The success and confidence gained pushed her to a new ambition, a store named after her 5-year-old daughter that features party and event dresses for little girls like her Bailey Amber.
“It’s going good,’’ she said of Bailey Amber’s, which opened Super Bowl weekend of January 2019. “It’s a little scary, too, you know, the uncertainty of opening a new business, but it’s exhilarating too, taking that risk.’’
The risk taking started in 2014 after Werbiski left a job as a physical education teacher at a local private school after being unable to find a job in the field of her degree. She had begun to dabble in photography in taking photos for the school. Werbiski used that base of knowledge to open a business in downtown Mercedes in a 240-square-foot building and began developing what she called “high volume school photography’’ with the local school district.
That business – RGV Illustrated – is still operating today under her watch, and would branch out to include high school sports magazines used by local booster clubs and cheerleading squads as a fundraising tool. With that startup in hand, Werbiski took her next risk – a big one – opening a photo studio in late 2016 at the outlet mall in Mercedes with its high foot traffic, but as a premium location it brings much higher monthly lease costs.
“It was a leap of faith and we really struggled after a good start,’’ she recalled of opening Ashley Nicole Photographers. “The first half of 2017 we were just making enough money to stay afloat. I had to give up my car. That’s how bad it got.’’
Then Werbiski discovered the concept that would turn her business around. She started a monthly model search that focused on children and the parents eager to see their kids highlighted. She could use the photos and the contest attached to it in promoting her brand and building up a lagging business. It worked. The winners are chosen by a panel of judges and featured on the studio’s big storefront windows. Seeing the quality of the photos and wanting more pictures, parents began coming to the studio for family portraits and individual photos of their kids.
She began building a social media following on Facebook and encouraging customers to share photographs taken at the studio, creating a robust photo page on the Ashley Nicole Facebook page, with customers and their family and friends commenting on the pictures. Werbiski provides customers with colorful photo backgrounds as well as a large in-studio closet of clothes they can use for shoots instead of spending hundreds of dollars for outfits that wouldn’t likely use again. The popularity of those outfits led to the opening of Bailey Amber’s, leading to what Werbiski calls “all of this synchronicity’’ between her businesses.
Werbsiki, a 2005 graduate of Mercedes High School, is high-energy and personable and revels in everything having to do with the planning, execution and figuring out what it takes to be successful. She’s grateful to the Development Corporation of Mercedes for its support and financial assistance in helping her along the way, saying, “without them, (EDC), I wouldn’t be here.’’
“You have to fall in love with your idea,’’ she said of her business struggles and then eventual successes. “I like the exhilaration of not knowing for sure if it’s going to work out, but you know what? I always figure it out.’’
Ricardo D. Cavazos