This December marks the 5th birthday of my business, New Work Photography, and the signpost that I am now out of danger of becoming the typical statistic – a small business that never makes it to 5 years old. This might sound a little pessimistic but if you’ve been there, you’ll know it is something to celebrate with enthusiasm!
I remember, just before Christmas five years ago, receiving my certificate of business registration in the mail. It was the best Christmas present! I ran around excitedly and showed it off to anyone who’d listen.
What a naïve young thing (even at 29) I was then. Little did I know how much work was before me, how many days I’d spend pouring my blood, sweat and tears into my business, how many nights I’d lay wide awake thinking of ideas or stressing out about money or my long list of to do’s. How it would put everything I thought I was sure of to the test – my identity, my values, my sense of self-worth, my friendships and even my relationship.
Of course I’d heard that starting a business from scratch and making it work is tough, really tough… but if I’d truly understood how hard it would be, I probably wouldn’t have ever begun. Thank God I didn’t know.
Because not only has the last five years been the ride of my life, taking me on a curly and winding, up-and-down rollercoaster of exploring, taking risks, having fun, making mistakes and learning, but it’s spat me out the other end as a whole new me.
So, on the 5th anniversary of beginning this journey called running a business, I want to reflect on what I’ve learned and share some home truths. Maybe you’ll relate, or maybe you’ve had a different experience, or maybe you’ll take something from this to help guide you as you start your own journey.
Truth 1: Starting and running a business you are passionate about will inevitably involve all of you.
For a while (a long while) it’s all you think about; it consumes you. When almost every waking moment (and many non-waking!) is spent thinking about your business, it becomes a huge part of your identity. It’s a pathway, an anchor, it’s the edge of a steep cliff.
It will test you in ways you could never have predicted. It will make you think about, challenge and stretch every part of you – mentally, emotionally, spiritually and physically. You will question things you previously took for granted as fact – about yourself, others, the world.
Does this sound over the top? Yet it’s true. Starting a business (particularly for the first time, I imagine) is a lot like backpacking around the world on a shoestring budget: it’s a fun adventure where every day holds challenge and surprise, and plenty of opportunity to test yourself and to think about who you are and what matters to you in life.
If you’re growing a business you care deeply about, you will be forced to involve your body, mind, heart and soul. If you hold any little thing back, your business will highlight it for you, and make you face it.
Truth 2: You don’t have a business just because you have a certificate that says so!
The first thing you think when you ‘open the doors’ to your new business (whether that’s a literal door, or your website going live or you starting a blog or Facebook page) – is that the customers will just come.
Gaining and demonstrating your experience both in your industry and as a business owner or thought leader takes time to establish. So does clarifying your business goals, your brand message, your communication modes and methods, your procedures for best practice (and for happy customers).
Every job is a learning curve in the first few years, every marketing idea you try is a big risk as you go from knowing nothing (but thinking you know plenty) to knowing a tiny bit to knowing a bit more to knowing enough to do things well, but with still plenty of room for learning.
After a while (and for me, it was a long while, as I struggled with learning how to run a business, refine my craft – which was still quite new after a career change – and learning all about how NOT to launch a website), the customers do start coming, but many of them aren’t serious – they’ll go through the enquiry and consultation stages and never end up committing to a purchase, or they’ll book in but they end up causing so much trouble and costing you so much time and money that you end up wishing they had never knocked on your door.
After a while longer you learn a bit about how to structure your services, do your job beautifully, communicate your offerings and brand, and price your products… and you start to attract better customers, customers that really do want to work with you and appreciate what you do. This did not really happen for me for the first two years. (Yes that’s what I said, two years.)
Not long after I started my business, I decided to have a ‘launch’ event to attract new business. What an expensive mistake that was. It cost me 4 months and all my money and left me in debt for a year afterwards. On the surface the event looked like a success – it was big and flashy, people came, had a good time – but underneath it was just a misguided, money-guzzling marketing mistake. Needless to say, no big boost in sales for my business. My message was too mixed, my target market wrong, my portfolio of work too thin at that time. The value I received from this mistake was in the painful lesson: stick to what you love to do, do only that and do it brilliantly. I should have used that time to refine my photography skills, build my portfolio and learn how to demonstrate my work online in an effective way… not to plan a red-carpet event to ‘show off’ my business. It’s a lesson I will never forget.
Truth 3: You cannot run a successful business that is doing great things without personal risk and loss.
To stand out as a business doing interesting things that challenge and change our world (even if in just the smallest way), you will have to put yourself and your ideas out there, and in so doing, open yourself up to professional, financial and emotional risk.
Not everyone will like what you have to say. Not everyone close to you will be happy for your successes and your bravery at trying something bigger than what you’ve done before. Not everyone will understand.
You will lose friends. You will lose followers and customers as you learn and grow. You may even lose a close relationship (or come close, as I did).
BUT – you will make new friends who understand and support you, who have things in common with your new work life and values. You will build new or stronger relationships through your experiences and trials. You will gain better customers and followers who are more aligned with what you believe in and appreciate what you can offer.
This inevitably leads you to the last truth:
Truth 4: You will be a completely different person after 5 years in your business, than you were when you began.
Experiencing the loss of a couple of friendships and criticism from people who didn’t like my work or what I was saying on social media made me a stronger, thicker-skinned person with (eventually) a strong belief in my values and abilities.
Making painful mistakes that cost me money and brought me heartache made me work harder and smarter, and taught me how to value myself and my time, so that others would value me. It made me a much better photographer, speaker, writer and brand consultant.
At times when it felt like no-one else believed in me (although that was only my perception), I had to learn to stay true to my vision of what my work life should be like, and learn to believe in myself, even when I was experiencing more failure than success. Ignoring the suggestion to ‘just get a job’ was in fact the harder choice to make, but ultimately the most rewarding and true to me.
Going without a reliable full-time income (and later, without a reliable part-time one) from elsewhere intensely challenged my ingrained beliefs and feelings about money. I’m still working on clearing these issues and letting go of trying to control the future, and I still have to remind myself that I’ve proven that I’m going to be ok, that I’m all I need to fulfil any goal I set.
Starting a business – in a difficult economy, in a competitive industry, in the arts, AND in an area where only clients educated in marketing see its true value – is no walk in the park. But after 5 years giving it a real go I’ve survived and am beginning to truly thrive – and I’m a much more confident, creative, wise, strong and self-reliant person because of it. I enjoy a life of daily freedom of choice and creativity, having fun and meeting fascinating people, and every day is different. I get to do the things I love most in the world and get paid for them – photograph, write, talk with people and help people creatively. I get to build and shape my own future. I get to continue being my own boss.
Pretty cool birthday present.