As my husband and I just completed another proverbial lap around the bend with the second birthday of our photo business, I am, of course, 100% qualified to speak on all things relating to small businesses. Now, old and wise, with the white hairs to prove it, I feel empowered and am overflowing with a plethora of advice for other baby businesses.
To give you a bit of a back story, our media company was born two autumns ago in the same month as our marriage. I couldn’t get a second job as I was immigrating to Canada; Jonathan couldn’t get a second job as he had a small business grant from the government which prohibited him from doing so. We were a few thousand dollars in debt already and living in a 1-bedroom apartment. Our budget was stretched to the max. It was sink or swim; book work or go hungry. But, here’s the thing: you can’t, in this industry, make work magically appear from thin air. Believe me, I tried. Because as much as I mind-melded the universe to send folks to our doorstep en masse demanding amazing photo sessions…well, it just didn’t happen like that.
I am sure that in subsequent years I will lovingly look back upon those ﬁrst two years as romantic and charming. “Oh for those simple times!” I’ll say. But for now, I too vividly remember the Cold winter nights and those seemingly unending string of silent days when all we could do was look for work and wrack our brains on how to get out of the mush pile of “photographers.” We’d jump any time the phone rang and cry to ourselves immediately afterwards when we heard a telemarketer or our mother on the other end.
Those were long days of hot tea galore, mountains of unearthed dreams and a small country’s worth of bean soup for dinner.
It’s been a long two years, a hard two years. We’ve died a little; we’ve cried a little. And I know we have a few more hills to climb before we reach the other side and can breathe easy. But, I now know that it’s worth the journey.
That’s my story and you’re in the middle of making your own.
So just take a breath, let me hold your hand and let’s go.
For anyone out there who has not attempted to launch a new business, allow me to give you some perspective. It feels like trying to get a loaded-down Antonov An-225 off the runway…when you have never been in a cockpit before. It feels like the age-old nightmare that you are in a public place, naked, with all your wobbly bits exposed. It feels terrifying, exciting, vulnerable, frustrating, surreal, too real and everything in between.
If you have, in fact, ever started your own business then you will know exactly what I’m talking about.
So take or leave the LBG manual for how to succeed in founding a small business without really dying, but here goes:
1. I don’t want to be dramatic about this, but invest in some alcohol.
We personally bought a coupon to bottle our own wine. We walked away with 90 and no complaints. A year later…we desperately need another coupon.
You have some long days ahead, my friend.
2. Surround yourself by driven, motivated people. (And people you respect in your line of work.)
Pick their brains, look at their business models, be inspired.
2b. Don’t be afraid to keep on learning, to admit that you don’t know everything.
When I started university, I was overwhelmingly intimidated by all the cool kids with their cool cameras and years of cool photo experience under their belts. I had nothing but a cheap, beginner camera and a passionate love for photography. The love didn’t do much for me in return-I was an honest-to-God disgrace to the art of photography. Bless my heart. But the passion kept me going when all looked lost.
And now, 12 years later, I’m still learning.
3. There will be dark days. Perhaps some dark months too.
Take the disappointments in stride. They will come with a vengeance. Know they don’t make you a failure, but how you react to them might. They will show your true colours. (Sage advice from the girl who has bawled her eyes out almost monthly in our ﬁrst two years of business.)
Just grab your beloved’s hand and hold on tight. Then one day, when you least expect it, you will see a tiny ﬂicker of light at the end of the tunnel. It will be confusing; you will wonder if it’s even real. Then, slowly, surely, that light will grow.
Take a whole day of rest off weekly. A day when you can’t think about the world’s problems or your own, or the blessed business. Just be. Feed your soul and do all the delicious things that make you feel alive. On these days, you can ﬁnd me in bed until dinner, surrounded by writing notes and piles of books. I nap. I eat outrageously. I don’t do the dishes. You must make your own magical day of rest.
5. Don’t be afraid to ask yourself the hard questions.
Like, “Are we going in the right direction?” Better to re-direct now than end up in a smoldering mess of train wreck somewhere down the line.
6. Comparison Will Kill You.
There will be people in your ﬁeld who are terrible at what they do but are somehow wildly successful. There will others who are better than you and who are also very successful. Basically, you will see success everywhere you look. So, stop looking. Ban yourself from stalking the happenings of your competitors if it only depresses you.
Just. Say. NO.
(You may, however, allow yourself ten minutes a week to yell and rage at the skies against all those people who make it big just by blinking.)
7. Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty.
Paint the adage that Rome wasn’t built in a day across your forehead, on your arms, across your walls and mirrors. Begin with the end in mind, but then dig yourself into the trenches for the long haul. Some days it may feel as if all you are doing is digging. For most, standing out takes a lot of endurance and just plain old hard work. (See: Never Say Never and Katy Perry: Part of Me.)
8. Make sure you are on good terms with your mother.
You will appreciate her over-the-top belief and encouragement when all the rest of the world seems blind to your talents.
9. You will get hurt.
There will be friends who support you wholeheartedly from day #1. Embrace these wonderful beings. There will be other friends, who may linger on the sidelines a bit longer and withhold their belief in you until the rest of the world afﬁrms that, after all, you do have talent. And you may have other friends who will never love your work. That’s okay. Just give them grace and believe in yourself anyway. And still choose to champion them when it’s their turn to try something great.
10. Never give up.
You may want to. Just don’t let those Very Real feelings have the ﬁnal word. It’s the tortoise who wins the race. Or, to quote my beloved Winston Churchill, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.” And one last thing – at the end of almost every wedding we shoot, I ﬁnally allow myself to grab a glass of wine. The lights are down and the music is up. We keep our cameras nearby, but in a looser grip. And then I give Jonathan The Look. I am trying to charm him onto the dance ﬂoor, a ploy that rarely works. But the principle remains – never forget to dance.
So wherever you are in your story, in life or in business, know that it’s going to be okay. I applaud you; I applaud you for the courage it took for you to step out on your own and take a risk. A freaking huge risk. You are going to do great things; not because your mom says it; but because it’s in you. And you know it too-that’s why you stepped out in the ﬁrst place. So don’t stop or slow down now. Today is the day you need to go out there and kick some ass.