Life Planning When Your Life is Planned For You

One of the things I struggle with the most as a self employed small business owner (and wedding professional) is life planning. My family and close friends know that every ounce of my life, details and events big and small, are planned and scheduled months (sometimes years) in advance. Admittedly, there is basically zero spontaneity in my life. There’s just no room for it!

 
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The big things…

Kyle and I chose our wedding date based off of my historical least-popular weekends and then delayed our honeymoon until my wedding season was over.
We schedule our vacations sometimes 10+ months in advance so that I have guaranteed down-time during wedding season.
We are constantly looking 2-3 years into the future when it comes to making financial and personal decisions.

… and the small things.

Celebrating birthdays with my family can be hard. I often end up missing them.
I’m never available on the weekends during spring, summer or fall (when the rest of my family isn’t working) so I miss out on the family BBQs, quick get-togethers with friends, family beach trips, etc.
It can be really hard to explain to some of my family members why I can’t adjust my schedule.

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My clients plan their weddings sometimes 2 full years in advance which means I’m filling in my calendar and committing myself to clients on certain dates many, many months before they actually happen. And I can’t just back out if I instead want to go to brunch with my girl friends. First off, I wouldn’t anyway. But, you know what I mean. There is no calendar shuffling or postponements.

I’m completely, wholeheartedly, and passionately dedicated to my business. I love serving my clients (almost) above all else. I’m in love with what I do and have a hard time imagining my life without my business now.

So, when it comes to making big personal decisions in our lives, the first thing Kyle and I talk through isn’t our hopes and dreams… it’s the calendar.

Years ago, I came across this Life Planning Outline from Katelyn James (a wedding photographer, educator and one of the small business owners that I admire the most). It’s similar to how we make big decisions and set goals!

There are lots of things to be weighed and considered. The pros and cons. The timing. The alternatives. Our wants, dreams and fears. The worst case scenarios. How we’ll handle failure. Who we need to loop in and consider. What is the potential impact (positive and negative). The financial aspects. There are a ton of financial decisions to be discussed when one of you is self employed.

You’re probably thinking… Savannah, you think about all of that before you plan a vacation!?! Well, yes and no. I’m not able to live a life of spontaneity and I do feel a deep sense of comfort in having control over most aspects of my life and of our journey together as a couple.

Sometimes it all just happens naturally in one conversation and sometimes we need to actually break out the pen and paper, make spreadsheets, jot down our notes and thoughts and really brainstorm every aspect of a goal or decision. It just depends! If you’re a small business owner or a busy creative, I highly recommend this method of thinking for big changes, goals and timelines in your own life! Write it out and weigh all of the different considerations! I think it helps to see the big picture more clearly and make smart choices.

My 10 Commandments of Email

One of the biggest chores that a small business owner can face is managing their email. It overwhelms us. It can soak up hours and hours of our time. Today, I want to share with you my 10 Commandments of Email - the rules I follow to ensure that my inbox is helping me grow not causing me stress!

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As a photographer, my email is the center of my world. Email provides written proof of conversations all in one designated space. It allows us to be professional in our responses by providing hyperlinked resources, attachments and personalized branding. What I’m also trying to say here is… you should not be doing business over Facebook Messanger.

I recognize that I am the minority when it comes to photographers and creative small business owners. I love email. I do. I have a system that works for me and it’s allowed my business to grow and thrive. But I have watched a lot of photographers lose clients and experience a lag or even the downfall of their business because of their email. 

Listen, I’m here to tell you that you need to be dedicating a ton of time and attention to your email (or commit to outsourcing those responsibilities) if you want to succeed, grow and make money. Bottom line. 

Each email you respond to promptly and thoroughly is a step towards securing a new client or making a current client happy. Those people are more likely to sing your praises and in turn, give you referrals and helping your business succeed. Have you ever reached out to a company for help solving a problem or an answer to a burning question and not gotten a response… or gotten a crappy one?! Remember how that made you feel? We all love amazing customer service and while email is often a huge chore, great communication is VITAL to success. 

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I think that being an email junkie has actually helped me not feel swallowed up by my emails. Staying on top of them is key and I dedicate about 20 - 60 minutes each weekday to email depending on the season. Some days, I skip it all together because I’m always caught up!  I don’t normally reply to emails after 4 PM on Friday through until Monday morning during wedding season. However, I am guilty of being on my email until 9 or 10 PM some nights during the week if something comes in that I can answer really quickly. However, that works for me right now! The moment it stops working, I’ll implement stricter email hours.

 

You can enjoy time with your family, relax in the off-season, travel, run a successful business and not be totally chained to your inbox. IT IS POSSIBLE! 

 

I try as often as I can to abide by all ten of my commandments below. Do we all make mistakes? Absolutely. But these are rules that I live by as best as I possibly can for my own mental health, happiness and business health. 

My 10 Commandments of Email

01. Always use a salutation and a closing. Start your email with a greeting and close it with your name. 

02. Learn to craft, save and use canned responses for the emails that you’re sending over and over again like inquiry replies, pricing questions and client reminders. While you’re at it, create labels and folders within your inbox. Once an email is completed, move it to the designated folder. Never delete! You don’t know when you might need to reference it.

03. Tackle your email first thing in the morning. Clear your inbox before you do any other tasks. 

04. If you’re overwhelmed, set email “hours” and stick to them. For example, make it a part of your routine that you have a dedicated inbox time from 8 - 9 AM every Monday - Thursday and don’t reply to emails at 10 PM if that isn’t something that works for you.

05. If an email comes in during the day and it can be answered in under 3 minutes, answer it immediately. Otherwise, wait until the next morning. 

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06. Train your clients to send the big, important things over email. Even if you don’t mind texting with your clients, some things are better left for email. If they have a question that cannot be fully answered in under three sentences (or if you need to do research, send attachments, confer with someone else, etc.), just ask your client to please shoot you an email! If you’re only replying to them via email, eventually they’ll know to reach out to you that way first.

07. Never field inquiries over Facebook messenger, texting or phone calls. If an inquiry comes in through one of these communication channels, kindly ask the potential client to email you. It’s really important to simplify your to do list and keep all of your communication in one place but it’s even more important that you can reply to inquiries via email where there is more opportunity to showcase your brand and secure a booking. As a side note, I always recommend turning OFF the messanger option on your business Facebook page.

08. In any normal circumstance, you should be replying to all emails within 24 - 36 hours at the absolute latest. We live in an extremely fast paced world and mere minutes can be the difference between booking a client and losing one. I have had many clients tell me that I impressed them not necessarily by my work but by my promptness and thoroughness with my replies. I have in fact booked weddings because I was the first person to reply. This is especially important if you are a wedding photographer or specialize in a life-changing event like newborns or maternity. The reason a client is reaching out to you is because their world is changing. The biggest thing that has ever come into their lives is the literal reason they want to connect with you. Most major companies now have live chats and some are 24 hours. So when your clients are accustomed to chatting their cable provider about their bill at 2 AM and getting an immediate solution, they will naturally expect to hear from you within a short amount of time about photography. It’s just how our world works now and we as creatives and small business owners need to adapt. 

09. Use vacation responders. If you’re not going to be checking email, don’t have access to it or just need a break during busy season, working weekends, traveling and more, set up and use an auto responder. Not everyone who is reaching out or inquiring with you follows you on social media. Even if you’re sharing endlessly over on your Instagram that you have the flu, that your kids are sick, that you’re on vacation with your family or you’re at a conference… the person emailing may not know that. And frankly, they may not give a sh*t. If you’re not able to respond to emails within 24-36 hours at the latest, you need to be using an auto responder and include the date when the person can expect your reply. 

10. Most importantly, never let any emails just sit untouched in your inbox. If you can’t get to it right away, you need to let the person know. In college, I was taught the “24 Hour Email Rule” and I subscribed to it passionately until this year. Now, it’s just not a practical part of my life as a wife and business owner. Occasionally I will receive a communication that requires research, connecting with a third party or a completing a project on my end. If I receive an email and I know that I cannot reply to it fully within 24 hours, I will sent the person back a brief email letting them know that I have received their email and will be in touch before a certain date with a longer reply/solution to their problem/answer to their question. Just acknowledging that you received the email is enough to buy you some more time. 

Are you ready to ditch the stress that organizing and running a creative business can bring?

If you’re making adjustments to your schedule and workflow, you’re dedicating time to your email, you’re being strict about how you communicate with clients and yet you’re still feeling overwhelmed and bogged down by emails… then you need to consider outsourcing this part of your workflow.

I personally don’t think that email is a part of my business that I could ever outsource however, I very much enjoy communicating with my clients. I believe that my business model teaches clients that they have access to me personally so it’s really key to my brand that it stays that way. BUT. I know a lot of photographers who were so overwhelmed by their email that it was losing them money and growth. In that case, yes. I believe you need to be outsourcing by bringing on either an assistant or a virtual assistant.