What it takes to be a small business….and why it’s really, really, hard….{Northern Virginia Professional Photographer}

Being the owner of a small business is hard.  Really, really, hard.  Just when you take the plunge to open a business with a dream of doing what you LOVE for a living, you get smacked upside the head with reality.  Doing the part you LOVE is only one small element of the small business model.  You either have to LOVE being a business person too, or flail about desperately like a “Hoo in Hooville” trying to do everything a small business person owner has to do.  Because when you are a small business – especially one that is a single owner operator – you do it ALL.

Yup – all of it.  Let’s go over it –

First you have to come up with the idea for the business.  Certainly not the hard part.  Naming  your business might give you some pause, as well it should – because down the road if you don’t take a lot into account on the name, you’ll find some reason why it wasn’t a good idea, or it was too limiting, or not descriptive enough, etc.  This ties into this next part:  Marketing and Imaging.

Marketing and Imaging – you have to take that name and tell the world who you are and what you do.  And you have to do that part over and over and over again throughout the life of your business.  You have to circle back to this point many times in your business cycle to make sure the branding you’ve chosen still reflects the business you are actually running, and that folks are seeing and understanding it.  And of course, you have to come up with reasons why you are different than everyone else offering the same services…over and over again.  This one is a big hat to wear and one you have to wear  every day.  No one else will market for you – YOU are the business, YOU are the one that has to get the word out and find time to be a personal billboard, face of the business, whatever you want to call it.  Because the lines between the business and your personal life will get blurry very quickly.

Infrastructure – Constructing and building the structure of your business- even if you don’t need to buy a hammer and nails, most likely you have to build something.  In my case, I had to build a camera bag full of the right equipment for what I wanted to do – and add to it constantly.  Upgrade when appropriate,  change when needed, repair when necessary – insure it all and learn to use it all.  How it all worked together and how it didn’t.  I had to know my equipment inside and out.  And yes, I had to actually build things too – sets and props and areas to use with my subjects.  And buy more things for those sets – think outside the box about what a client MIGHT want, change it up so it’s unique, find fun and interesting angles to use it different ways, and rebuild it when it gets old, or needs repair.  Just cutting the grass in my portrait park takes a few hours a week, and my Infrastructure Hat has to be on when I find time to do all of this.  This part was expensive too – and at first I built it as I went to save money, but eventually threw in the towel and spend some  bigger “investment” bucks to give me more quickly.

And of course, you better be a computer guru at this stage  – you’ll be building a website, and that includes knowledge of how to work with computers, software, and more.  Make the decisions at this step that will allow you to showcase and SHOW your products, and get exposed in the right places so more folks see you and the steps you took to Market and Image.  And keep coming up with new ideas for new ways to maximize what you’ve already purchased, and find time & more investment dollars to shop for new things too.

Paying others to do things for you is a luxury in a small business, so it’s the first thing you try to avoid whenever possible.  Meaning, you wear a hard hat in this phase and hopefully know what HTML is, and how to swing a hammer.

Production – After you market it, and build it, hopefully they will come.  Now is when you get to do the part you LOVE.  You get to, in my case, take the pretty pictures.  After you figure out how best to control your sessions, and what literature you need to have for the clients when the session is done – and prepare it.  And of course, make time to prepare for the session itself, schedule it wisely, etc.  Work with your clients – give them the best impression you can about your business so they will like you and want to come back.  And set all the appropriate expectations about the next steps – all of which you have thoroughly thought through and have down pat to remember to tell them each and every time.  Because this is  your moment – this is where you SHINE, right?

This step also includes the production of the product – so it has to include more computer knowledge for my business, and many businesses.  I have to know LOTS of complicated software products so I can process any image I might take, and know how best to showcase the images to a client.  I have to make artistic decisions at this point, but also business decisions.  How much is too much to show?  How little?  What form should it take when you do show it?  Will it require more software?  Which means more dollars – buying and upgrading software and computers.  And networking with other businesses – figuring out costs of production so  you are priced right.  Economics 101 doesn’t cover this –  you need to add a lot into your bottom line so you are covering all the actual costs – and that means lots of analysis of every aspect that goes into the finished product – including the pretty wrapping paper and ribbon – next step.

Delivery of the product – whether you ring a cash register, or you get a printed image from a lab – you still want to finish off the final product in a nice way.  You have to plan for all products you might sell and be ready to package them all neat and pretty.  And keeping stock of all those items is another hat you’ll wear – one that also has to stay on most of the time to be on top of that end of the business.  Being caught without bags in what might be your busy season and finding out the printer who puts the logo on the bag now wants 3 weeks to deliver because it’s HIS busy season too – well, that’s not a great situation.

And will you hand your finished product off to someone, or will you ship it to them?  Are you making more time in your calendar for someone to come to you at their convenience – or buying materials to ship your products safely?  Both?  Well – sure, why not!  Offer both…invest a little more.

Is this blog post meant to be snarky?  No, it didn’t start out that way.  It started out to raise awareness to folks – you see the “push” for Small Business Saturday, etc.  You see people with signs on their cars and interesting and eclectic new businesses popping up everywhere.  Folks are getting very creative with their spare time, and in some cases, folks are actually investing in and trying to make a Small Business become a bigger business. Because if you aren’t in business to make some money – any money – you just have a hobby gone wild.  A love that you wanted to share, before you realize all the rest of the stuff you had to do to even tell someone you where here.  And if you can’t invest in all the hats necessary to wear during all aspects of running a Small Business – well, maybe you shouldn’t be surprised when the results are less than what you expected.  Because if one of your hats falls off at any time, it means a gaping hole in some area.  And when that happens, you can’t control the business, or even have a realistic expectation of what the business is capable of doing until you find a way to put the hat back on and balance it with all the other hats at the same time.

So folks, my “OPEN” sign is up.  I’m IN BUSINESS.  Small Business, but I hope after reading this you see I’m not working any less than the companies with a full board of directors, marketing staff, production crews, etc.  I just have to feed my own board of directors each evening in addition to everything else, LOL.



  1. Angela says:

    Excellent post, Patty. I just want to add the business management stuff that few people enjoy — the day to day record keeping and paying taxes on time and getting licenses, etc…

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