“There is freedom waiting for you,
On the breezes of the sky,
And you ask ‘What if I fall?’
Oh, but my darling,
What if you fly?”
(erin hanson)

It’s been over six years since I started my photography business.  Some days its feels like a life time ago and other days I feel like the past six years have passed in the blink of an eye.

The process of creating Behind the Lens: The Business of Photography workshops and accompanying workbooks gave me a lot of opportunity for self-reflection.  As I worked through each workshop I had flashbacks to what those earlier years were like.  There is nothing I regret because in the end the lessons I learned, the people I met, and the path this journey took helped shape both my artistry as a photographer but also the foundation of my business.  At the same time there are a lot of raw emotions and memories that surface as I reflect on how Sara McConnell Photography came to be.

I poured my heart and soul into the Behind the Lens workshops because I know what it’s like to struggle as a business owner: to feel overwhelmed, isolated, and like you have nowhere to turn for questions and support.

If I could write a letter to seven-years-ago-Sara, this is what I would tell her:

1. Listen to your gut

There were so many times my consciousness was literally screaming “No! Warning! Danger!” and yet I still shushed and closed the door on that voice to instead listen to others’ advice or to follow a path that seemed safer and easier.  Learning to mindfully hear my own voice as well as the voices of others expectations, shoulds, and musts, helped me to find the clarity to make decisions that were in my best interest.  You are an expert on yourself: don’t forget that.

2.  Pay close attention to what scares you

I am, by nature, a pretty cautious and anxious person.  This means that oftentimes the voice in my head is screaming “No! Warning! Danger!” (are you noticing a pattern?) but I learned that wasn’t actually me.  When I learned to identify my fears and why I was reluctant to make certain decisions it was easier to decide if it was a worthy and valid risk or if I was scared because I was afraid of failing, being embarrassed, or disappointing others.  Remember FEAR is often false evidence appearing real”

3.  Focus on your business as much, if not more, than your artistic skills

Thanks to my entrepreneurial and business-minded husband this was one of the least painful lessons to learn but in the beginning it was hard to avoid the myth that “my beautiful photos will sell themselves”.  I made a lot of mistakes, some costly, and I keep making them, but focusing on the foundation of my business from the get-go gave me stability and the opportunity to grow.  One of the reasons I decided to offer a free “Passion +” workshop to other photographers was to help others better understand how photography businesses are often built upside down, which leads to instability, frustrating cycles of reactive business decisions, and an inability to make any profit.  The hardest part is that when you’re trapped in this exhausting place it can be hard to see or understand how to get out of it. “Small business isn’t for the faint of heart.  It’s for the brave, the patient, & the persistent.  It’s for the overcomer” (Unknown) 

4. Learn from a lot of different people

When I first started my business I focused all my efforts on learning from other photographers.  I quickly realized that there are a lot of problematic patterns in our industry and that if I was going to succeed I also needed to look outside photography for models of success.  I love business almost as much as I love photography and am always reading books, taking courses, and ‘talking shop’ with other business owners.  Looking at my business with ‘fresh eyes’ and from the perspective of a business owner, rather than just a photographer, has helped me take advantage of amazing opportunities but also to learn from some incredible people.  “Learn from the mistakes of others.  You can never live long enough to make them all yourself” (Groucho Marx)

5. Don’t feed the llama

As a new photographer I wanted to fit in.  There were so many talented photographers in the city and I was excited to be one of them.  But when I found myself on the receiving end of a lot of criticism I ignored my gut and thought “it hurts but they’re just trying to help me”.  In a desperate attempt to feel connected and a part of a community I listened to a lot of criticism that I soon realized wasn’t intended to be constructive or supportive.  Be open to feedback, mentoring opportunities, and criticism but only if it comes with kindness, respect, and authenticity.  Let someone else feed the drama llama.  Drama does not just walk into your life.  Either you create it, invite it, or associate with it” (Unknown)

6. Find a tribe with the right vibe

I spent a lot of time feeling isolated and trying out different groups and business-related friendships until I found people who fit with my values, beliefs, and were the right mix of supportive and real.  Everyone loves to hear how amazing they are but I also need friends who let me know when a business decision I’ve made is, frankly, crap or I need to be challenged when my own fears and ‘shoulds’ get me down.  Surround yourself with the dreamers and the doers, the believers and thinkers, but most of all, surround yourself with those who see greatness within you, even when you don’t see it yourself” (Edmund Lee)

7. Boundaries are your best friend

When you are passionate about something it can be hard to put limits on how much time you dedicate to it.  Photographers get into this professional because they love what they do but passion is a finite resource and unless you’re able to put boundaries on the mental, emotional, and financial resources you dedicate to your business, you may find yourself burned out before you even get started.  I’m not going to lie, this was one of the hardest lessons for me to learn and I still struggle with it.  On the plus side I know it’s because I absolutely love what I do; on the down side I know it will be my undoing if I don’t take care of my self.  “When you feel yourself becoming angry, resentful, or exhausted, pay attention to where you haven’t set a healthy boundary” (Crystal Andrus) 

If this letter to seven-year-ago-Sara resonated with you I’d love for you to join me on either January 30th or February 6th