Refining their image

OLDSMAR

Scott Kelby and his buddy Jim Workman were two guys on the fringe of the 1990s tech boom. After their day jobs, they would spend hours publishing a free magazine called Mac Today.

Like thousands of other entrepreneurs, they fantasized about turning their hobby into a booming business.

Then, on a lark, they scheduled a seminar in Tampa on a relatively new program called Photoshop. About 170 paying customers showed up to learn how to digitally change photos. And a flash bulb of inspiration went off. "I think we're in the seminar business," Workman said at the time.

Since that first Photoshop seminar in 1993, the market for digital cameras and photo editing software has erupted. Kelby has written dozens of books, oversees the 74,000-member National Association of Photoshop Professionals, and appears in weekly episodes of "PhotoshopTV" that get more than 1-million hits online. From an office in Oldsmar, he directs about 90 employees in Kelby Media, which brought in $20-million last year.

Says Kelby: "I wake up every morning and think I can't believe I get to do this for a living."

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Kelby, 48, grew up in Lakeland and had a varied career as a rock musician and financial adviser before he and his wife, Kalebra, began a graphic design business in Dunedin. They were friends with Workman and his wife, Jean Kendra, because Kelby and Kendra had worked at a bank together. The four eventually became the core of the training and publishing business.

Kelby and Workman, who retired a few years ago, both loved Macintosh computers. They came up with the magazine thinking, "maybe we could get some free software to review. That would be the greatest!" Kelby said.

They were barely breaking even in their first year, 1993, when Workman bumped into a man who was making good money refurbishing Mac computers — which he sold by advertising in Mac Today. Workman had an epiphany: the magazine might not make money itself, but it could help them make money some other way.

So they started using their own magazine to advertise Photoshop seminars in various cities. Kelby taught seminars, Workman moderated them and their wives handled logistics, administration and money.

Books soon followed. The partners took a risk and spent $25,000 to self-publish Kelby's first book on Photoshop skills. They broke even within weeks and eventually sold 22,000 copies,

"Then a publisher came a-calling," Kelby said.

Now Kelby says he has written 52 books, some of which are revisions of earlier titles. Last week, three of them were among the top 10 computer titles on Amazon.com, and his publisher calls him "the world's No. 1 best-selling digital photography author."

Kelby's writing — clear and peppered with humor — is a key to their success, Workman believes. A sample: "We usually wind up shooting portraits of our friends, many of whom (on a looks scale) fall somewhere between Mr. Bean and Jabba the Hut."

Kelby also has written guides to iPods and digital cameras, but said he keeps writing about Photoshop because it's "about the most fun software that was ever created for something that wasn't meant to be a game … nobody says "I can't wait to open a spreadsheet.' ''

In one of his latest magazine articles, for example, he shows how to create words that look like they were carved from bluish ice.

Kelby and his partners expanded their reach by founding the National Association of Photoshop Professionals, which draws thousands to its "Photoshop World" conferences.

All this creates a delicate set of business relationships because, "It just so happens that they've built a business around an Adobe product," says Chitra Mittha, Adobe's senior product marketing manager for Photoshop.

But everyone's happy, because Adobe makes money selling its program, Photoshop, and Kelby Media makes money by explaining it. Adobe does give Kelby and other authors advance information on the latest upgrades.

The companies generally don't pay each other money, except in some very specific circumstances such as when Adobe helps sponsor the Photoshop World conferences.

Adobe does not get to control what Kelby says in books or magazines, both sides insist. And Kelby says that although he loves Photoshop, he does not hesitate to point out imperfections.

If Adobe ever produced an inferior version of Photoshop, he says he would let his readers know and tell them: "I'm flying out to Adobe tomorrow with a torch and a pitchfork."

Times staff writer Curtis Krueger can be reached at ckrueger@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8232.

Refining their image 09/27/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 10, 2008 12:38pm]

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