We got an email from a photographer that was all too familiar. She was exhausted, and in tears. She described herself as “at a loss.” She said her passion for photography was fading before her eyes, and she didn’t know what to do to rescue her dream. Her livlihood. She felt scared… and alone. She wanted to know if what she was feeling was normal. If other photographers ever feel that way, too. If we had ever been there before.
Here’s what we told her — and what we want to tell you, too:
Oh, friend, this breaks our heart, because we’ve been there. We’ve had those crying on the bathroom floor moments. The scared ones. The uncertain ones. The ones where we felt trapped by a monster we’d created but couldn’t tame. We get it, friend. All too well. Small business isn’t easy. It’s really, really hard. In our highlight reel social media culture, it looks effortless, though, doesn’t it? The truth — because you asked for it — is that you’re only seeing the swan above the water.
You never see us furiously paddling just below the surface, but it’s the reality of life as small business owners.
We are all swans.
As we write this, we’re in our pajamas, working from bed, drinking coffee with disheveled hair and without makeup. It doesn’t look pretty OR glamorous, even though our Instagram accounts might say otherwise! We heard a wise man say recently that every entrepreneur should wake up every morning with a strong dose of excitement, but a healthy dose of fear, too. Because both drive us forward. We should all wake up feeling just a little bit scared. Have you ever felt that? We sure have.
It takes risk and sacrifice, this small business thing. And a lot of faith, too. Let’s tackle the risk part first, since you mentioned your livelihood is one of the things fading before your eyes. In all transparency, we can’t say that we’ve ever experienced that. We haven’t. We worked a day job as elementary school teachers for four years while we built our business on nights and weekends. We lived on one small salary and banked the other for a rainy day, so that when we went full-time in our business, we’d have years and years of savings in case things didn’t go right.
But that’s where sacrifice comes in, right?
It was a long four years, especially the last few as our business got bigger. We were working from 7:00 a.m. until midnight most days to keep up with both. It was a sacrifice financially in the sense that we didn’t go out to eat a lot or buy the other fun things our friends were enjoying. Our date night budget was $25 per month. Chipotle. One and a half times.
Everything we made in our business went back into our business.
We didn’t pay ourselves anything from our business — not a dime — until months after we left our full-time teaching jobs to pursue our dream. Two and a half years after we shot our first wedding together.
It was a sacrifice.
Of time. Of money.
People poked fun at us for being cheap. Frugal. We lost our nights and weekends. We didn’t see friends as much as we wanted to. Same with our family. Because, to get real, there’s no such thing as a work-life balance when you’re working two full-time jobs, one as a teacher, and the other as a new business builder. We drove beat-up Hondas, one of which had over 200,000 miles on it and the other didn’t even have power locks or windows. We rented a condo because we couldn’t afford to buy a home. We needed the extra cash as a safety net for our full-time dream. And we hustled. We met everyone we could. We read every business book we could get our hands on. We pursued education in our craft relentlessly. We threw every thing we had and the kitchen sink at our dream.
For awhile, it didn’t seem to work.
It was like pushing a boulder up a hill with no end in sight. Progress felt slow. And, a few times, we felt like giving up. There were moments where we threw our hands up in the air and yelled, “Why are we even doing this?! Let’s just quit now and cut our losses. It was stupid idea to begin with.” But we didn’t. Because we had — and still have — a deeper why behind what we do that’s more than something you just throw away because things get hard. The road less traveled is that way because it’s harder. It’s more work. It’s less secure and more unknown. Anything can happen when you’re blazing your own trail. The paved path is simpler, maybe, but it’s not more rewarding. We know, because we’ve traveled on both.
We don’t know how long you’ve been at this, your circumstances, life stage, and the details that would make your situation easier to diagnose, but we’d encourage you to do two things. One you’ll like hearing, and the other you might not. But we feel called to say it because, thus far, we’ve been totally up front and honest with you, and that’s what we want to continue to be.
First, take a minute to applaud yourself, to give yourself some credit. Spend some time looking back at how far you’ve come from where you started in the beginning. Our guess? You’ve grown by leaps and bounds. You just haven’t noticed because it’s been happening right under your nose and you’ve been too busy to stop and give yourself credit where credit is due. Ironically, the closer you are to something and the longer you’re there, the less likely you are to notice the growth. Kids are the best example of this. Be proud. You created something out of nothing. Less people can say that than people who can. That takes courage.
Second, this one comes from a place of love. It might not be easy to hear, but please understand that our heart isn’t to make you feel down in the dumps. It’s to help you get out of this mess. Ask yourself these questions (honestly): Am I really doing everything as strategically, sacrificially and intentionally as I possibly can? Am I actually working every hour I can? Am I living on way less than I make? Can I say that I’ve done everything I possibly can to make my dream a reality?
Maybe you have. Maybe you haven’t. Maybe in some areas more, and other areas less. But we’d encourage you to go all in. Sell the car that’s costing you each month to lease and buy a beater with cash instead. Move to a less expensive place in a different part of town. Have date nights at home, budget strategically with your grocery money and shop consignment instead of retail. Save money in every place you can so you can make investments in places that will make you grow. That’s what we did, and even though it took time (years, not months) we can see the fruit of our labor — and it tastes sweeter than any temporary pleasure ever could have. We’re so glad we said “no” to good things back then, because we get to say “yes” to great things now.
People tell us all the time, Man! It’s like you guys came out of nowhere!
No way. We’ve been here the whole time. We’ve been paddling furiously under the water.
The good news? Success isn’t for the chosen few. It’s for those who choose. You’re in control of your life. You can do this.
You just have to double down.
And work as hard as you believe, and believe as hard as you work.
For as long as it takes.
And enjoy the journey. Smile at it. Even the hard stuff.
Because even though the mountaintop is the most fun part. You become who you are during the climb.
Friend, you are not alone. We know what’s it feels like to have our backs against the wall. We have permanent marks from how many times ours were.
But do you know what the exciting thing is about having your back to the wall?
The only way out is to fight your way through.
And you will.
So pick yourself up. Dust yourself off. And start swinging.
We’ll be cheering from your corner of the ring.