“Photography didn’t define me. It’s just the medium I choose to express.” – Biff Ulm
This quote, more than any other, encapsulates the man behind this story and his philosophy of life. A philosophy that is transferable to us other humans even if we feel we can’t accomplish half of what he has done so far. Because for Biff, it’s not one focus, or one craft, or one skill. It’s not about the achievement of a project that speaks to success. Instead, success in life and art finds the completion in its intention, held delicately with the importance of relationship. Relationship to his work yes, but more critically to his wife and children, family and friends.
As Katrina and I spent the morning with Biff, I started to realize that before me was a man who engaged with the world not as a consumer, but as a partner and contributor. An artist who understands business and makes it work for his values, not the other way around. We visited Biff at Zaiser’s, his family’s business of the last 30 years.
All the things you didn’t realize you needed
This is what meets you when you “shop behind the red door” in downtown Nisswa, MN. This little town of around 2,000 residents has purposefully kept big box stores out, and locally owned small businesses thriving. They have created a place where shopping strives to be a form of entertainment not a chore to be done.
Biff’s secret to getting the inside scoop of what customers want? He runs the register so he can experience his customers engaging with the products and witness their genuine responses. The spirit of always learning, growing, understanding and making adjustments when necessary is a foundation to his life work.
This was true even in his work as a sought after photographer in Minnesota. Vada-Voom Photography was his bread and butter for 15 years. While abroad in his twenties, Biff encountered an Ansel Adams display and moved his attention from news journalism to photography. His passion continued on to wedding photography, and with his savvy mind and mad skills, designed his business to fit his lifestyle, not the other way around.
Biff found a way to turn wedding photography into a fully conceptual process that ignored the standards set by the wedding industry. Throwing away a shot list, he approached his clients with an attitude of, “Come along on this adventure with me. You pay, I get to pick the location.” And people did. And the results were breathtaking.
An artist finds their greatest truth within the freedom to truly create and imagine.
“We have a path, but there are lots of options when taking it if you think about it.” – Biff Ulm
Even within the intention of his work, Biff realized a lot of compromise was happening in his life. Work was dominating his time and energy which grated against the balance he was striving for. With that, he left photography after more than seven years to run Zaiser’s full time.
With a priority on quality, Biff has created a community with his staff built on a common purpose. His store tells stories, and his employees have the power to re-imagine the space in order to fulfill that purpose. Charming, fun and knowledgeable, the staff are able to help with whatever needs you might have.
When Biff is not at his shop, he has ventured into new creative project with his son. Exploring the intentional space of his land, resources and craftsmanship, they have decided to build a Timber Frame house to host company or use as a personal get-away.
Let that sink in. What would life look like if all of us took on hobbies of this magnitude.
Biff and his son took a class on how to build a Timber Frame house at the North House Folk School. A way to honor craftsmanship. A method to enrich their relationship. An opportunity to invest in their future and family…and he is taking his own approach to it.
As he has with every other decision in his life.
A dream and idea, done in a way that honors his spirit and respects his life.
If only we all could be so brave to do the same.
Want to stay inspired? Follow Biff on Instagram.
Bonus: In his free time (I know right?) Biff serves as a board member of Bridges of Hope in which he has a deep passion for the work. You can see the light shift in body when he talks about this aspect of his life. Follow the link to learn more!