During one of the classes I taught at Click Away, someone came up to me and asked how I decided to go into business. I gave her the cliff notes version, but here I will share a bit more about how life was for us in 2009 and 2010 when photography went from my hobby to my career. Warning, it's long.
I'm deciding to write this now because something has haunted me since January 2010 and just this week it was released. The back story: I was working full time in my other career, getting through each day as mom to a 1 year old and living paycheck to paycheck with a husband who hated his job. We bought our first house in 2005 at just 19 and 21 years old. We thought that's what we were supposed to do. I will say that again. 2005. Literally one of the worst times in recent history to buy a home, especially when we were both in commission based careers - me in advertising sales and my husband selling cars. By 2007 we knew we wanted out and listed our home but it was too late. Our home's value was dropping $10,000 every 2 weeks and all of our neighbors were listing their homes and jumping ship. Within a year we were one of just 3 homes in our immediate area on our cul-de-sac that hadn't yet sold or foreclosed. A short time later, in 2009, we would follow suit. By 2009 the economy was trashed and we were making half of what we made when we bought our home and now we had a baby to support. I turned to an online group for support. They were moms from all over the world and we had what I believed to be a close-knit community. Our forum was double password protected and naively I felt safe spilling my secrets, my fears, and my darkest thoughts to these strangers.
It was a Friday afternoon and I was packing up to head home after a long week of work. My boss stepped into my office, asked if I had a minute, and slid a small stack of papers across my desk. I looked down and saw my own words - the words that I had typed privately in my online forum. My words where I confessed my desire to quit my job, my words where I said I felt like giving up, my words where I said that I was miserable coming to work every single day. Someone had emailed it all to my boss. How, I have no idea, but this person found a way. My world caved in around me. I couldn't lose my job, we needed my income to survive. I had worked there since I was just 20 years old and it was all I knew how to do. Surprisingly, my boss did not want to fire me. He begged me to stay, saying that we would work through it. I went home that weekend and knew that it was over. I could not stay working at a place where my boss knew how I really felt. I knew that I needed to make a change because I was deeply unhappy. I had gone back to work when my son was just 6 weeks old. I longed for time with him. I longed to take a leap of faith and pursue a different path in life, but fear was constantly holding me back. In a way, those emails gave me a release.
That weekend, my husband jokingly said, "Let's both quit our jobs and I will go back to school in Southern California" - and I said, "Okay". I cared too much, but also not at all. How could things ever get worse than they were now? We were drowning in credit card debt, we were both miserable at work, we both wanted more time together as a family, so it couldn't possibly get worse.
Well, in some ways, it did. In July 2010 we packed up a U-Haul and moved away from our home town for the first time.
We went from living in a beautiful, new, suburban single family home in a gated community to a $900/mo old two bedroom apartment in Riverside. I won't lie, it was hard for me to accept. We sold my car and lived as a one car family, eventually having to sell that car too. Will had this two year old Toyota Corolla that was worth $9,000 but he only owed $5,000 so when we ran out of money, we sold that to get the profit and bought a $3,000 20-year old Toyota Camry. We lived in a shitty apartment, drove a shitty car, and went from a two income family to a zero income family. We were starving college students.
That's where photography comes in. When we moved to Riverside, we decided that Will needed to try to finish as soon as humanly possible. We were going all in, putting all of our eggs in the "Will needs to find another career" basket. I was going to be the bread winner for 3 years while he finished his degree. That meant that I either needed to find a job along the lines of my previous profession, or I needed to use photography to earn income. I had just started dabbling with accepting money for my work, mostly from friends who would slip me a $100 bill at the end of a session as a "thank you" for shooting their family. I had no idea how I could possibly earn enough money to cover our monthly expenses, but I knew I wanted to try.
God, I fought. I fought so hard. I photographed any session that came my way. I drove all over the state in our shitty car to shoot weddings for less than $1500. I blogged, I posted on Facebook, and when I got really desperate I would even post to Craigslist looking for work. I pretended like I knew how to shoot head shots because someone offered me money to do them. I pretended like I knew how to shoot large corporate events because someone offered me money to do them. When I'd have a session cancel I would cry because we needed that $250 to put food on our table. Some days I would wake up in a panic and think, "How can I make $1000 before next week when our rent is due?"...but I'd always find a way. We lived below the poverty line and at my lowest of lows I took my beautiful, oblivious 3 year old and walked into a social services office to apply for food stamps. I gave myself a pep talk on the way there, "This is temporary, this doesn't mean you're a shitty person, people do this all the time and are okay, there is no shame in this..." but I chickened out. We stood in line and without thinking, I turned around and walked out. While I know now that this isn't true, at the time it felt like failure. I felt like I just needed to work harder and I felt deeply, deeply ashamed.
So, what was Will doing in school? He was taking 24 units per quarter. Yes, I said 24. He was getting nearly straight A's, majoring in economics, taking the LSAT, and flying through school successfully just like I knew he would. After not doing as well on the LSAT as he'd hoped, he decided that he wanted to try building an iPhone game during summer break. He had originally majored in computer science right out of high school and enjoyed it and found himself wondering why he had stopped. I had a couple of good months booking weddings, so we went to the local mall and bought him a $1300 Macbook from the Apple store. God, that was painful. That was so, so much money. It was the most money I had ever spent on any item outside of my first DSLR which was $600. That summer, while still taking some summer classes, Will re-taught himself how to program. We would sit around our small dining room table and brainstorm levels for his game. He released it and it did well! It wasn't making a lot of money, but it was making enough to help us out. More importantly, it was building his resume. After that summer, he decided to add a minor in computer science.
My photography career was growing albeit slowly. I would take on free sessions when I didn't have paid client work so that it would look like I was busy and successful. Around this time my dad got sick. Terminal lung cancer. 2011 was the hardest time of my life. We were poor, my dad was dying, and the light at the end of the tunnel was so dim that I didn't know if we would ever make it.
My dad died on December 8th, 2011 and the months before that and after that were a fog. But, we made it. I knew then that the worst had passed. No year could ever be worse than 2011. 2012 felt hopeful, shiny, and new. It was in early 2012 when I got an email from Professional Photographer Magazine. They wanted to write an article on me. It was along the lines of a young 20-something making a name for herself in the saturated Southern California photography industry. I was speechless. I cried. Had I made it? It didn't feel like I had made it. That year I was also asked to teach a Breakout Session for Clickin Moms. People were paying me for my knowledge on photography. It felt surreal, but somehow, in the fog of 2011, I had managed to do some things right. I still wasn't making a lot of money, but we scraped by and made it. I never had to get a "real" job. Photography became my real job.
In May, Will landed an internship with Amazon in Seattle. We packed our bags for 3 months with no money to our names and headed to Seattle. We were so broke when we first got there that we couldn't afford the cab ride to our corporate apartment and we couldn't afford food so my mom mailed us a box of dry goods. How ironic, since just a few weeks later he got his first paycheck as an Amazon intern making more money than either of us had ever made in our lives.
Amazon loved Will so much that they offered him a job immediately after his internship. They didn't care if he had just finished his junior year and didn't yet have his degree. We jumped. We went from living in relative poverty to earning 6-figures in the blink of an eye. Tech is a crazy industry like that, but I am proud. I am proud of how we fought, how we took risks, how we refused to give up, and how we eventually succeeded. Every year my business grew, and Will being able to take over as the bread-winner freed me. I was able to charge what I was worth, I was able to say no to jobs I didn't want, and I was able to focus on growing my business in a more long-term way. We worked as a team, first I supported him while he pursued his passion, and now he supports me while I pursue mine.
I am happy to report that in 2014 Will graduated by taking his last few classes at the University of Washington!
So no, I was not successful when I first went into business. Did I make money? Barely. I made just enough. I will never teach a class on business because I did it wrong. I did it the hard way. I did it the only way I knew how. I also know that there is no one size fits all way of doing this crazy thing we call photography. What worked for others could not work for me, and what worked for me would be a bad choice for someone else. But here I am, no longer searching for the light at the end of the tunnel, but standing in the light. Next year my career will take me overseas for the first time. Last week I taught three sold out classes and was live-streamed to an online audience. In February I am co-hosting a photography retreat. I just finished an online wedding workshop. My work is published. I wrote a book. I adore my clients.
That thing that haunted me? It was that email back in 2010. The woman whom I didn't even know who lived across the country, the one who felt the need to email my boss and try to harm me. I am free now because I forgive her. I do more than forgive her, I thank her. Had she not cut me down, I would have never been able to grow back with a stronger, happier foundation. For a long time I had trouble trusting other women, but this journey has taught me that for the most part women are amazingly supportive. Women have helped me up when I was down and desperately needed a friend. I hope that she has found peace and understands that hurting someone else didn't improve her life. I hope that she sees my story and understands that you cannot break someone who refuses to be broken.