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5 Business Lessons as a Creative Entrepreneur

At the beginning of May this year, I felt that I needed to take a short personal sabbatical from running my business that has been in operations for 11 years now. I thought I could use the extra time to learn new skills, spend time with my kids, catch up with people but in reality, I realized that I could never really disconnect from my work.

In the middle of May, I attended the National Achievers Congress and that event made me think about how I have been running my business all these years. As a result of conversations with so many other friends, family and entrepreneurs, I’ve written down some of my reflections regarding business as a creative entrepreneur.

1. Self-employed vs Business owner

Even though I have staff working with me, my mindset has not moved beyond a solo self-employed entrepreneur to a business owner. A self-employed person would dabble in everything, from marketing to sales to operations… the list goes on. Basically, in Malaysia, we say, “one leg kick all”. According to this website, it has the definition of “Perhaps a direct translation of the Cantonese phrase, yat kiok tek, it describes a job or situation where one has to do everything, and not usually by choice.” If everything in your business depends on you, you’re self-employed. To me, this is a sure-fire way to be trapped for a long time. To transition to a business owner, I need to have scalability. Part of this involves automations.

Part of my dream would be to have financial freedom within the next 5-10 years so that I can be free to make choices about how I would like to spend my time daily. Over the years, I’ve automated some of my processes, so that’s great, but I need to be more intentional about thinking how to work with amazing individuals so that they can take the business to a different level. Which brings me to another point.

2. Get the right person on the bus

I heard about this principle through Cavemen, a group of amazingly talented business coaches who dress in crazy outfits and run life changing programs. The principle runs around the idea that you need the right people on your bus (the business) that are going in the right direction as you and on the right seats. Unfortunately, you also have to get the wrong people off. As I discovered, some people are extremely talented, but they are not doing the right job. Some people, over time, decide that their direction is no longer the same direction as yours, and that’s ok because people change and they move on. But the most challenging and difficult of it all would be to identify people who are wrong for the business and politely showing them the door (no kicking involved!). Get the right people doing the right job and the bus will move efficiently.

3. Communicate your ‘why’

So how do you get the right people on board? You need to communicate your why – why are you doing what you do? Why should this person join alongside you in this journey? Learning to communicate this why took me years to perfect. I only wrote my vision and mission statement last year (after 10 years of running my business). As I did more self-reflection, the why became clearer and clearer. But sometimes I fail to share my thought process with the team. So I am running this business and I think everyone is running behind me, but in reality, they might be clueless.

4. Stop being a perfectionist and too ‘creative’

Years ago, I couldn’t bear the thought of hiring a digital artist to edit my photos because nobody could do it as well as I could (or so I thought). In my mind, I had to control the entire creative process and my way was really the ‘best’. But my practical husband told me that I had to change this mindset. After I released control, I realized that other people can do a better job and that I now had time to do other things! (look at point number 1 above). Naturally, I had to think of ways to ensure quality is maintained through the years even with different people on the team. When I opened my mind, I found that other people’s ideas added so much value to the company.

5. Always learn. Always innovate.

10 years ago, I could count the number of female photographers in one hand. Things change. Instagram became popular. The students I taught in college when I was a freelance lecturer suddenly grew up and became my new competitors. I could choose to be bitter or choose to collaborate. I could choose to moan about the economic situation and how it affects my business badly, or choose to think of ways to innovate. One of my values in life is being hardworking. It probably came from my mum who sold did direct sales of Pyrex during the day and baked cookies in the wee hours of the morning so that she could earn enough for our future. But working hard needs to be coupled with working smart. Keep moving. Keep learning. Keep implementing fresh ideas.

It’s still a journey. There’s so much to learn. But journalling my lessons down this way helps keep me on track. Onwards, to a better and greater future!

Pride That Blinds

As we argued over a petty little issue (in my mind, that is!) in the car on the way to Krysta’s school, we heard a little voice in the background saying, “Say sorry, mummy and daddy!”. It grew louder and louder as she realized we had ignored her for the 4th or 5th time.

“SAY SORRY, MUMMY AND DADDY!”

My mind went back to the times when this same 4 year old toddler was forced to say those very same words to her 2 year old brother after a fight. Over some toy or something like that. She had ignored me, refused eye contact with her brother and just muttered the barely audible words, “I’m sorry.”

I was cornered. I had to say sorry, though inside, I just wanted to hang on to my anger. Or my pride. I couldn’t tell the difference. So with no eye contact, I muttered the words, “I’m sorry” trying my best to have the most sincere tone I could muster, while failing miserably. She must have thought it was sincere enough as she started singing to break the deathly silence that was in the car.

That evening, I was in a rather bad mood as I was driving home. I was stopped at an intersection, but since I couldn’t really see the road clearly, I had to drive a little too far forward, partially blocking the road. In the distance, I saw a bus coming, and I thought briefly, maybe I should reverse, but I didn’t. The bus driver actually stopped his vehicle right in front of my car and gave me a signal to prove I was in the wrong. And though I knew it, I felt pride welling up inside and excuses coming out of my mouth, though no one was in the car.

It was then that I realised, how easily we allow our pride to blind us of our mistakes. How as human beings, we don’t like feeling inferior or wrong. How natural it felt to be defensive and angry even when the fault lies with us. And how difficult it is to admit that you need to back off, say sorry and just move on.

My marriage needs my humility, not my pride.

20160813-ALEX_GRACE_10TH_ANNIVERSARY-076

5 Business Lessons as a Photographer

businesslessons-photographerIt’s amazingly my 9th year of running my photography business, officially as a Sdn Bhd / Private Limited (those freelance days were too carefree to count!). It’s a Monday today, and all my staff are not in the office, as we usually take the Mondays off after a weekend wedding shoot to rest and recuperate. I decided to stay home and do some work here too, in between cuddles with my 15 month old son who is growing up too quickly.

On days like these, I take time to think about the business and how we can grow moving forward. Being a natural worrier by nature, it takes extra effort on my part to surrender my business to God and trust Him to bring it forward. Ever since the GST was implemented last year and everyone cut down on their spending, the economic situation has been down. Together with my entrepreneur husband, we’ve diversified our businesses and also made hard decisions to focus when the time is needed.

I don’t consider myself an expert, but here are some thoughts that I have gathered in my years as a full time photographer and mother running a business:

ONE. Outsource – As an artist, one of the pain points I had was actually running the business. I hated doing anything related to accounting (though I did go through some years of basic accounting in school). I know of many photographers who have done jobs but failed to send invoices, only to realise a few months later, that they didn’t get paid for it. So I suggest finding people who are really good at what they do, pay them to do it, and then you can focus on the parts that you love, creating art!

TWO. Marketing is Everything – One of the first things my husband wisely said to me when I first started out… “You can have a website, but if no one can find it, then you’ve already failed in your marketing.” For me, the easiest way to start marketing myself was through my blog and Facebook. I set aside a budget so that I can boost posts when needed. I also started networking with people who are not already in my own usual social circle, like meeting new mothers at playgroups. Start small, start somewhere.

THREE. Don’t Put Yourself Down – There will be days when you feel down. It will come. You will doubt yourself and wonder why you ever started a business in the first place. Just keep your head up, and try to be as optimistic as you can. Pray. Talk to more people. Keep on blogging. Think of new ideas. Don’t give up too quickly.

FOUR. Innovate – Since there are obviously so many photographers in the market, I have to think of ways to innovate my business. How can I be remembered? What can I do that is different from the rest? Can I think of new ways to do old things? One thing I started doing in recent years was approaching baby stores to sell my photography packages to new mothers. I received quite a few enquiries and sales through this method, which was great!

FIVE. Take Time Off – When you run your own business, it’s pretty much on your mind 24 hours a day. I find it really hard switching off, and sometimes catch myself rambling about some random work issue to my husband before  I doze off at night. It’s ok to take a break once in a while and recharge your creativity. When you feel tired physically, just do something totally different the next day. Read a new book. Exercise or travel. Cuddle with your kids. I find that when I am recharged this way, I am a much better person, which eventually leads me to become a better photographer.

20150925_FAMILY_PORTRAITS_ALEX_GRACE_115Alex and Grace while on holiday in Bali.