2008 was the boom year for everyone, right? We were all in high spirits and money seemed to be in endless supply! I served more clients than ever that year, moved from the midwest to the east coast, and spent over half the year away from home traveling to serve those clients. I learned to be incredibly efficient with outsourcing, tackling email, streamlining my workflow, etc- but the sheer amount of travel I was doing was taking a BIG toll on my personal life and I tried very hard to make sure that 2009 wasn't a repeat of that- but still ended up doing most of my wedding work outside of Massachusetts. That's just the reality of moving to a new state where no one really knows you-
It takes two years to rebuild a business after moving to a new location.
When I moved to Lowell, I made sure that I didn't make the same mistake that I did when moving to Terre Haute. In Terre Haute- I knew it was a temporary location and because of that I spent an entire year not reaching out to other people in my community- which meant I didn't have many friends that enriched my personal life. Once we knew we were going to be there another year, I decided to put myself out there more and find like-minded people to enjoy life with and it made SUCH a huge difference in my experience.
I learned that friendships are a critical part of living a balanced life.Once I moved to Lowell, I jumped right in and sought to meet as many people as I could in order to better understand the city, the culture, and the values of my new neighbors and potential clients. I found some amazing people who Alex and I became friends with quickly and my life has been so enriched because of their friendships. They are one of the big reasons why I love living in Lowell, MA.
In 2009, I decided that in order to make room for local clients to hire me, I wasn't going to take any more clients that I'd have to fly for unless it was a client or location that was super awesome. The rush of 2008 was still weighing heavily on me and outsourcing wasn't working out as well as I would have liked. Results were only 50% to MY liking (still 90% to my client's liking) and I stopped blogging a lot of my weddings because I stopped having pride in my work. I felt like I had become a machine, pumping out images on demand, without really feeling like I was able to put my soul and full attention into them. When I turned over back end production- I lost a lot of control- which I needed to give up just so clients would get their images in any kind of reasonable time frame while I was traveling to the next wedding. This did not make me happy as an artist or as a business owner.
Something needed to change.
In 2009 I was still serving some clients who had booked me during the optimistic boom year of 2008- but who were losing their jobs quickly with little to no warning. I was worried that I was going to be scrapped from the wedding budget purely because there was no longer a steady income to cover the rest of the bill- so I made sure that I went above and beyond for my clients in order to really make their investment in my documentation of their wedding a very positive and worthwhile experience. Ironically, my highest package ever was booked for 2009- which crossed the five figure mark and gave a whole new meaning to high expectations. I took half the amount of weddings that year so that I could really focus my energy on doing the back-end production to my 100% satisfaction. I slipped on my response times in order to focus on production, but I finally started to have pride in my work again and it felt so good know that I had created something as beautiful as possible from start to finish for my clients. Granted, it took a LOT longer than outsourcing and I had to borrow the time from other aspects of my business, but my love of weddings and my creative spark were renewed to the point that I finally felt like I had a soul again!
I think we can all agree that 2009-2010 were very tight years for us all. It also didn't help that I was still a "newbie" in the East Coast market and I definitely wasn't the cheapest option on the table because I was actually trying to earn a living as an artist- not just as a part-time hobbyist.
Like everyone else, I was suddenly in a position of completely reevaluating every aspect of my life in terms of its financial and personal value.Suddenly our big 1500 sq. ft. downtown loft wasn't all that awesome and that gorgeous $5000 table I wanted so bad wasn't as necessary. When the opportunity to become Faculty in Residence in the UMass Lowell Honors House came up- we welcomed the chance to take our rent payment and apply it to the debt we acquired during college and early in our careers when it seemed like there was no where to go but up. Don't you love how life can just laugh in the face of all the plans you've made?
2010 became the year of doing more with less. We all had to find ways to be more creative and to produce just as much with less of everything. As much as I hated downsizing my living situation, many very wonderful things have come out of that move. Since there was no longer room in our 750 sq. ft. faculty apartment for my office- I acquired a beautiful 450 sq. ft. space at Western Ave Studios in Lowell for HALF the amount I was paying to keep it inside our downtown apartment. Half! Why didn't I do that in the first place?!
Sometimes it takes an uncomfortable push to get us unstuck from our regular patterns of life, which we may not even realize are holding us back from having something better.
Now that I've been embedded in the artist studio community for over a year, I can definitely see the larger picture of advantages and disadvantages to owning a studio outside of the home- which makes me more informed for any future decisions I may want to make in my business. I can also definitely say that having a studio where people can come in and meet me face to face during open studio days has led to meeting some great people and working with some really wonderful clients. It absolutely helped increase my local client base far beyond what I was able to accomplish when I was working from home. Not only that, but being in a building with 40 other photographers has also helped me refine MY vision and identify what I do better than anyone else! Yes, everyone can have a camera, but everyone doesn't see the world in the same way or care about the same things. We are triggered by different things and drawn to different moments of beauty- and that is what makes each photographer's work uniquely valuable. I've learned that my strength and value is in my ability to capture unexpected human moments quickly and artfully as if it were as natural and reflexive as blinking or breathing.
This vision is what makes MY work unique and compelling- and knowing that allows me to spend more time focusing on it.
On a personal level, 2009-2010 also brought a deep depression into my life. In an effort to be healthier, have less stress, clearer skin, and sleep more - I quit drinking caffeine. Now, for someone who has had a regular caffeine drip in her system pretty much since birth, this turned out to be a terrible idea. I always thought that people who were depressed were just sad or lazy. Oh no, it's most definitely a chemical imbalance that is very difficult to reverse naturally. I tried to beat the blues by going to the gym nearly every day during the summer and still I was unable to achieve a sense of happiness that I had with just a regular cup of coffee each day. I had no motivation to do anything. I forced myself to take a shower and get dressed each day, but beyond that- I was pretty worthless. I lost interest in everything I knew I loved- my relationships, my photography- everything that made me happy before suddenly did nothing for me. Life felt pointless and directionless, but I didn't even have the motivation to end my life.
Everything just felt off and out of whack- like I wasn't even alive- merely existing on an artificial level.Eventually I decided to bring caffeine into my diet again, and sure enough I got my happy back just as quickly as I put caffeine back into my system. Amazing how much one little naturally occurring chemical found in beans and leaves can change an entire outlook on life. Thankfully caffeine is cheap, legal, and easy to get- especially with a Dunkin' Donuts on nearly every corner in Massachusetts. With my renewed sense of energy- I was ready to take on the world again- which is when I decided to branch out into the world of becoming a teaching artist in addition to the photography and consulting I was already doing.
This year I also had a wedding that was cursed at every step of the post-production process. If anything could have gone wrong- it did. It put me through the ringer in every way it possibly could have. Problems which I'm normally able to solve quickly and easily suddenly took 10 times longer and were 10 times more complicated to correct. Just when I wouldn't think it was possible for things to get worse, they would. Computers would fail, files would corrupt, uploads would stop and stop and stop, and what should have been done in 3 months took 6. At one point I just decided I was going to drive 14 hours to spend an entire weekend sitting down with the clients with my actual hard drive and a back-up hard drive (which I ended up needing to use) just so we could get the job done. I'm just lucky my car didn't catch on fire while I was traveling there- because at the rate things were going, it was almost expected.
It was like Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors where everything was going terribly wrong despite my best efforts to make it all right.Rather than chalking it up to being unlucky or cursed (though I'm convinced there was some supernatural evil at play), I used each difficulty and challenge as a learning experience and as an opportunity to be better. I became better at negotiating expectations when they needed to change for any number of reasons, I became better at dealing with tough situations over and over and over again to the point that I'm now tougher than a Las Vegas vault, and I realized that it's still worth it for me and for my clients to wait just a little bit longer to receive a finished product than to merely settle for whatever can be done quickly. I never want to repeat those experiences again, but if I have to, I now know how to deal with any number of difficult situations with grace, care, and responsible action that benefits both me and the client.
In spite of all the challenges that 2010 brought to my life, it also brought a lot of blessings.
1. I got to start 2010 with an AMAZING trip to Australia with Alex!
I still haven't even looked through all of the images I captured while I was there, but the entire experience was incredibly fulfilling and eye opening on so many different levels. I even learned how to surf (as well as learning that I need a LOT more practice!) What's even better? I may be returning to Australia for several weeks in January 2012- and I can't wait to go back!! Having fewer wedding clients and more weekday clients also meant I was able to take more weekend trips away with Alex as well as take my regular two week vacation to visit family during the holidays. After all, being able to get up and take off to anywhere in the world is one of the reasons why I started my own business in the first place! Oh yeah- on top of surfing for the first time- Alex and I also went on our first ever hot air balloon ride over the hills of New Hampshire! It was ahhhhmazing.
2. I gave back more this year than any other.I raised $400 in just 5 hours by donating Headshots for Haiti Relief in February. I donated a year's worth of business mentoring which raised over $900 for the Thirst Relief Mentor Auction. I contributed event images twice to the Miracle Providers Northeast as well as the Revolving Museum. I mentored a starting photography graduate and an intermediate photographer as part of my business internship program as well as a writing student from UMass Lowell as part of a community service learning project. I donated my time to educate photographers during Inspire Boston, Pictage U Boudoir & Lighting Workshop, and future photographers of the Boys & Girls Club, as well as continuing to coordinate a very active and educational Boston PUG group dedicated to helping photographers grow their business. This year I was also invited to present to Lowell cultural community partners on the topic of Social Media Marketing Strategies and was able to provide on the spot individualized consultations to help community non-profits leverage social media in a way that fits their organization and outreach goals. On top of donations of time and talent- I've donated regular financial contributions to local and national environmental organizations.
3. I took my business coaching to a new level.I've always given one or two professional business presentations each year as part of various conferences or invited opportunities, but after my Boston Inspire presentation, I was contracted by several local photographers to help them individually better define and refine their pricing and sales strategies as well as exploring more profitable product offerings and ways of providing service to their clients. I've learned a lot about individualizing plans so that they can work within the confines of what each business is already comfortable doing while still being able to help them recognize and implement new methods for greater success. I've even helped a part time photographer realize that perhaps running a small photography business isn't the golden ticket of easiness that they originally thought it was- which is equally valuable to their ultimate quality of life goals. I also branched out from photography by mentoring other businesses and non-profits outside of my own industry and helped them identify resources, tools, and marketing strategies that will work best in their businesses.
4. I've developed a team of contractors I can rely on when I need them.One of the disadvantages of moving every two years is that as soon as you find a good team of people to work with, you're gone and have to start over again. Now that we've crossed that two year mark and my husband is pursuing tenure in Lowell- I've been able to make longer term plans and build a network of people I can hire when I need them most. The best part is knowing that I'll be able to work with them for years to come. Now my "outsourcing" has become more like "insourcing" where contractors can come in and help me with the tasks that weigh me down and get them done in a much more focused way than I can when I'm running the business and keeping all the balls in the air. This amount of human capital alone has helped me finally provide the full level of service, quality, and delivery that I want each and every one of my clients to receive. Knowing I've made my clients happy has made me infinitely more happy!
5. My life finally has a sense of balance and peace.>
The first couple of years starting a business in a new town or a new industry is tough and not for the meek or mild. There's much more quality of life to be had in starting out by working in someone else's business before starting your own- especially if you end up realizing that you don't want to invest the extra time and work it takes to be successful. Friends and family see you working yourself like crazy with little time to spend with them or to even take care of yourself. It's hard on everyone and sometimes it ends relationships. I'm sure you can imagine that having to go through that intensity cycle for five years straight instead of just two can amplify the amount of damage it can do. Luckily my husband, family, and friends are amazingly supportive and have been very understanding, they've even helped me- maybe occasionally forced me- to take time for what is most important in life. There will always be another problem to solve or fire to put out.
Work will always be there, but quality time with friends and family are in limited supply.
When I declared that friends and family are most important in my life- I made my actions match by making sure I prioritized time spent with them over time spend doing whatever extra little thing that I thought needed to be done in my business. I've learned to schedule time with family and friends far enough ahead that a last minute opportunity to take a client isn't going to change my plans to spend time nurturing the only thing that ultimately matters and always helps me get through the tough times. You know what? I didn't feel like I missed out on any of the extra work I could have been doing because...
Money no longer has control over my life.By staying connected to a larger and longer-term perspective on life, I've been able to really tune in to where I'm happiest and what activities feed my energy versus sucking it away. It's much easier for me to let go of succubus relationships that hurt me or make me feel guilty, as well as not getting defensive when I feel like people aren't understanding me. I eliminated staying in touch with online forums that fueled my anger or disgust, and you'd be surprised how much just that one little choice eliminated a host of negative feelings that I had previously become easily caught up in. By taking my business out of my home, I've been able to be more focused on spending time with my husband when we're home together, and more focused on time with my clients when I'm in the office. Just that one little change has really made an impact on how much of my attention I'm able to focus on the things that need to be done!
Not only am I happier, but my relationships are stronger and more meaningful than they've ever been.
Now I can't wait to ring in the New Year!! I have lots of wonderful plans for 2011, and I can't wait to share them with you next week!! If you've done a year-end review, please post a link in the comments so that I can read it and share it with others who are doing year end reviews!