I can’t believe it’s been four years since I posted my first photos to @DogsOfMKE and took my account live! My business has transformed so much over the years, and I still pinch myself sometimes over the fact that I turned my passion into the greatest job ever.
These four years have taught me a lot – not only about starting and owning a business but how to create the life I want. In this post, I’m sharing the lessons I’ve learned running a business.
When you have a new business you are pouring your heart into, it can be hard to set it down at times. Hey, I’ve been there! Working from home with a flexible schedule and few responsibilities beyond my work might make it seem like I can work at any time. But growing and running a business doesn’t have to mean working around the clock, bending over backward for every client request, or letting your work take over your life.
You can be a dedicated and passionate business owner and still enjoy some balance! That’s where boundaries come in.
Setting boundaries has been the key to staying sane, happy, and genuinely enjoying my work over the years. I’ve put boundaries in place regarding how and when I communicate with clients, my business hours, and even where I work (I keep it to my home office!). Creating these boundaries and, most importantly, sticking to them has been essential to avoiding burnout and building the work-life balance I need.
Way back when I was first getting started as a dog photographer, @DogsOfMKE wasn’t actually a business. I photographed dogs because 1) I love them, and 2) it helped me practice using my DSLR camera. As I started getting more and more requests to take pictures of people’s dogs, I started charging a very modest amount.
Over time as my business grew, I knew I needed to raise my prices for various reasons. But truthfully, the idea made me nervous. I was proud to have a jam-packed schedule with many shoots in a day. On some level, being that busy meant I was successful – even though raising my prices meant I could shoot less without earning less. I liked being able to say I didn’t have time to do things or that I was busy. It felt like an accomplishment to have so much going on in my work.
When I checked my ego at the door and stopped worrying about the number of shoots I had, I found that raising my prices made life better for me and for my business. Though I have fewer shoots than I once did, the shoots I have are with the type of clients who value their investment and respect my work. Plus, I have more time for myself outside of my business!
Taking good care of my clients has always been important to me. If I’ve learned one thing from running a business, it’s that client experience should be a priority. Communicating well and providing my clients everything they need to get the most out of their investment with me is essential. After all, you can take the best photos ever for a client, but if they have a terrible experience working with you, they won’t refer or recommend you.
Here are a few steps I take to give my clients the best experience possible:
Service providers are bound to hire other service providers at times, and I’ve learned a lot from my experience on the other side as a client! Working with other vendors has taught me what I need from a client perspective, which helps me serve my clients better.
There are few occasions where you work with as many vendors at once as you do when you’re planning a wedding. When I was planning ours (before COVID stepped in!) I saw many different ways client communication and service were handled. That experience was beneficial for me to learn how I want to do things for my clients, and in some cases, how I don’t.
Especially when you’re just getting started running a business, spending money on it can feel counterproductive. But the truth is, investing in your business is so vital to its growth and success! I learned that while some investments in your business will cost a good amount of money, some opportunities weren’t as much as you’d think they’d be for the value you get.
One great area to start investing in your business is hiring someone to do the tasks or projects that are outside your wheelhouse or that you maybe just don’t want to do! Take a look at the things that take time away from what your focus should be. You can probably find various areas where hiring someone can help you be more productive and successful.
I’ve also realized that investing time now in the things that will save you time and serve your business in the future is huge. It took me a long time to realize that taking time (or working with my Virtual Assistant to help me!) to do those tasks is worth it. I save myself hours and hours of time and mental energy by doing so.
No matter how much experience you get or how many years you’ve been running a business, making time for education is essential! Education is super easy to put off, I know! But carving out time to learn more about your craft or your industry and how you can keep improving is incredibly valuable. I heard once that Stacy Tuschl blocks off education time on her calendar like she would a meeting, and that’s a great way to make sure it happens!
I try to make a point to set time aside for education, whether it’s a course I invest in or tuning into a podcast. The Heart University and Dawn Charles’ Rise Photo Academy are a couple of my favorite resources!
As your business grows, it’s not uncommon to experience your share of negativity. With an Instagram-focused business, I’ve definitely gotten my share of negative comments and DMs from strangers and, many times, people who don’t actually even follow me. It can be frustrating and even hurtful, but I’ve learned that the best thing to do is just not respond.
Typing up a heated reply will never reflect well on your business, even if it feels good to hit “send” at the moment. When you receive hate or criticism, try to remember that the people you’re getting it from don’t know you or respect your business, and they’re not your ideal clients.
The reality is, they’re probably just someone looking for a reaction or to stir the pot. I’ve found that when you don’t respond to that kind of thing, the comments usually stop, and the commenter eventually finds something better to do.
It’s natural to want to say yes to every opportunity for your business and every client. Not everyone will be the right fit, though, and sometimes running a business means being selective.
I occasionally get emails from prospective clients or businesses where, based on how they describe what they’re looking for, I can tell it’s not something I’d enjoy. When it’s not a good match, I politely decline and recommend someone else if I can. Just because I can take that work doesn’t mean I should.
For me, recognizing the niche within my niche has been crucial to working with the right clients. Getting to work with couples and families and shooting at their favorite spot is what I love to do. So, that’s where I choose to focus most of my time!
When I was first learning how to use my camera and getting started as a dog photographer, I watched a lot of tutorials. There were often firm instructions like, “Always do this,” or “Never do that.” In four years of taking photos, I’ve learned that photography is an art, not a science. There’s no one way to do it.
A lot of the excellent photography education I’ve gotten is actually meant for wedding photographers. While I take away a lot of valuable information, sometimes specific camera settings or approaches don’t work with the dogs and families I shoot. And that’s okay! I’ve learned what I like and what works for my photos, and that’s what I do.
Many business owners can probably relate to the feeling that you could or should always be working. There’s always something to do! That was definitely the case for me, and up until the pandemic, I worked from when I woke up in the morning until I went to bed at night. I love building my business and providing great service to my clients, and I really could do it 24/7.
When COVID hit, and everything slowed down, though, I started setting office hours for myself. Every night, I’d set aside time to watch TV or read a book. In the morning, instead of jumping on my phone, I take my time starting my day. Those are small parts of my day, but they make a big difference in my happiness.
The best part? I get just as much work done as I did before. I work my booty off during my set work hours, but I am working smarter, not harder. But when that time is done, I turn work off. I make a point to spend time with my husband or to go on lunch dates with friends. You have time for the things you make time for. Why work so hard if you can’t enjoy the things you love?
One reality of running a business is that you often have to work hard even when you don’t feel like it. However, if you’re really struggling, if your work is suffering, or if you aren’t being productive, take a break!
I’ve learned that sometimes, stepping away an hour, a day, or whatever time I need recharges me, and I can get back to business. I relate taking a break to working out. Sometimes, you have to work out through your soreness to reach your goals. But, if your muscles are too fatigued, you’ll put in work, but you won’t accomplish as much. When it comes to work, you can’t do your best if you’re burned out.
Did any of the lessons I’ve learned in Dogs of MKE’s four years resonate with you? Leave a comment or send me an email at Jen@DogsOfMKE.com. I’d love to hear if you decide to apply something I’ve learned to your own life or business!