10 Years in Business, 10 Lessons Learned

This month is a mile marker that I never really dreamed of when I bought the stellarpropellerstudio.com domain name from the comfort of my condo living room on the west side of town that I shared with two roommates. I was 25, trying to figure out what to do with my BFA, still nailing down exactly what my passions were and how to express them professionally…  and now. 10 years later. I’ve been running a small business! I’m an entrepreneur! I’m making a living as an artist! (pinch me)

I feel like I did most of those things by accident.

As my business turns 10 years old this month, I’ve been doing a lot more reflecting about it, trying to really think about what I’ve learned from this journey thus far. Socrates said that “the unexamined life is not worth living,” so I’ll share 10 things I’ve learned in 10 years, if for no other reason than to remind myself  : )

10. Fake it til you make it… as long as you make it.  

A lot of photography is pushing yourself to learn and try new things, to go out on limbs and to not live a boring life. Several years back, I was in the middle of shooting a project for the local VA Hospital, and one of the clients said, “Do you do aerial photography?”

“Yes.”

(I had never even been in a helicopter)

But, I read up about it, figured out the most cost-effective way to make that happen for the client (thankfully this was before drones got big!), and I did it! The key is to bite off only slightly more than you think you can chew. I would never have tried to book a shoot using studio lights and models and tethering with the clients present on set before I had several shoots leading up to that where I had experience with those things. But at some point, you just have to do what scares you.

FullSizeRender(3)
Two of those aerial images just ended up on the front & back cover of a local mag

9. Gear Isn’t Everything. 

I don’t have much to say about this, except that I typically have on hand: 2 camera bodies, 4 lenses, and a speedlight. That’s what’s in the bag. I haven’t bought a new lens for quite some time, because I love the four I have and I feel like I have mastery of them. I like to add at least one new thing a year to the gear, but sometimes it’s as small as a new light modifier or something. Your eye matters more than your gear!

8. How You Treat People Is EVERYTHING. 

There are plenty of other photographers in this city who probably understand more of the technical things that happen in cameras and photography than I do (like the difference the thickness of glass on the lens is, how many F-stops you lose by stepping back 1 ft in a studio situation, etc.). That is great for them. But, I know that the people who like doing business with me typically do so, yes because I’m good at my craft, but mostly because they like me. And I like them. And I make it a point to try and care for and enjoy the people I’m working with because they are the real stars. It’s all for them. Treating people how you’d like to be treated is truly the best way, and people don’t want to be treated like I’m doing them a favor by gracing them with my “photographic genius” presence. They’re doing ME a favor by letting me do what I love.

SK PB-139
I love my clients!

7. Don’t Get Caught Up In Trends. 

It’s tempting… new filters, new presets, new “insert hyped up thing” here. I’ve found that if I make good images, they don’t need to be dressed up a ton to go out in public.

6. Mentors Are Key. 

Freelancing is hard enough; freelancing with no input is like death! Even cowboys needed to hang out with other cowboys 🙂  I have had a long strand of people who have believed in me, offered advice, and really propelled me (see what I did there?) into going full-time with this. There was Peter, who believed in me, got me gigs helping other photogs in town, loaned me gear when I had shoots cause I was too poor to buy a DSLR yet, and he taught me TONS about Photoshop and cameras. And I was lucky enough to have a best friend, Shea, who was about a year ahead of me in the game and so generously dished out her thoughts on what lenses, editing software, etc. were the best to buy into. I have had a hard time finding other photographers in town who were willing to meet up with me and talk shop; the industry can feel very territorial and cutthroat at times. But at the end of the day, I believe there’s enough work for everyone who should be working, and I hope I can help those who are younger get started on the right foot. (and now that I’ve put that out on the interwebs, you’ll have to hold me to it)

5. You Have to Spend Money to Make Money

Responsibly, of course. But don’t be afraid to pony up for the nice business cards that people will hang onto (I love Moo).  Or throwing in a free print or two for a really great client. Or paying for a strategically placed ad. For me, some of the best money I’ve ever spent was on becoming a member of Epicentral Coworking, a space for creatives and entrepreneurs to work together in a shared environment where you don’t have to smell like a coffee shop or look at your dirty laundry while trying to run a business. When I started working out of this space, I told people I was five years away from going full-time with my photography. After becoming a member, I went full-time in two years. The power of networking!

 

4. Shoot For Fun

One winter, I thought my business was dead. To be fair, at least once a winter when business gets slower I think, “Well, it’s been a good run, but I guess… stick a fork in me, cause I’m done.” And then, like magic, every year the phone starts ringing again and the emails roll in. One winter, I decided to punch this feeling in the face. I went to a small concert at a friend’s woodshop, and I decided to bring my camera along and just have some fun. I told my friends I was doing it because I needed to remind myself that I’m a photographer, and you know what?  It worked! Here are some of the images that came from that night, a night that reminded me that the simple act of picking up my camera can get me out of my head.

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3. Do Personal Projects

The difference between this one and the last one is intention. Personal projects require me to reflect, to think about what’s really going on in me… what do I care about right now? What message is welling up inside of me? At times, it’s led me to partner with Help Portrait, an amazing nonprofit that gets photographers to give their services away to those who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford it in an effort to give/restore dignity. At other times, it has led me to having solo art exhibits at local galleries. I did one last summer called The Valley of the Shadow that explored the subject of grief, a topic I’d become well acquainted with in 2016.

I met a photographer in Denver a few weeks ago who told me that his paid gigs are like the exercise for him and that his personal work is when he actually flexes his muscles, using the training he’s gained from doing the other. And I like that mindset. Personal projects keep me connected to storytelling, connected to myself, and connected to pushing myself in the craft.

 

Welcome, Ghosts
my favorite piece from The Valley of the Shadow

 

2. Be Authentic. 

In the beginning, I think it’s important to try everything, to get your hands dirty and to just get a wide array of photographic experiences. As the years go on, it’s important to listen to what means something to you… and to let go of the things that don’t. For me, I love people, I love stories, and I also LOVE marketing (have since high school), so focusing on events, commercial photography and weddings makes the most sense (because I also love dancing). 🙂   There are other things people would pay me to shoot, like maternity photos, but I’ve learned the hard way that I don’t do a great job making a pregnant belly the star of a photo shoot. But there are plenty of people who do!

Allison dance-9169
Oh, just me getting my dance on at a wedding I was shooting.

 

1. Be Thankful

Thank God for the opportunities He gives. Thank your clients… thank them verbally, thank them on FB, thank them with real thank you cards that you put actual stamps on. And thank the people that encourage you, listen to you, let you vent and cry, and give you business advice. Gratitude does great things in your brain and your body and it makes people want to be around you more. Which in turn, is good for making a living 🙂

Grand Junction-6123

 

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