The Self-Employed Photographers Guide to Setting Boundaries
If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you know that I tend to write to clients. I write about things they might want to know for their wedding day, or share tips about world travel and exploring San Diego. I write about things I know, and things I think my clients will find interesting.
But this post? It’s not for my clients. I mean, sure, if you’re a client—you’re welcome to stick around and keep reading. It might provide you some insight into how and why I run my business the way I do. But really, this one is more for anyone out there who might already be running their own business, or who is thinking about doing so.
It’s for the self-employed photographers. Or writers. Or artists. Or business owners.
It’s for anyone who works for him or herself; anyone who has to find the balance in doing so.
That balance is something I’ve spent years trying to cultivate for my family and myself. It can be hard sometimes, when you love what you do so much. You can find yourself working until all hours of the night, accepting every project that comes your way, and spreading yourself far too thin in the pursuit of this dream career or goal you’re chasing.
And in the end, it can mean burning out and losing the passion that led you down this path in the first place. Or worse, ruining your family life.
Don’t let that happen to you.
One of the most important things I’ve found in running a business is the need for setting boundaries. Both with your clients, and with your family and friends. And, to be honest, with yourself.
You have to establish some ground rules for how your business will be run right up front as well as how you are willing to be treated. If you fail to do so, it won’t be long before you find yourself taking on too much, or being trampled by those looking to take advantage.
So for starters, you need to lock down when and how you want to work. What days are you open to being available? What hours do you want to keep for yourself? Do you prefer to operate over e-mail, or face to face meetings? What do you need in order to work at your best? When do you handle inquiries, customers, requests?
The answers to these questions will be different for everyone. A lot of it has to do with how you process information and what you prioritize in life, outside of your business obligations. I’ve known self-employed writers who worked best when business was handled over e-mail—most were true introverts who felt like they could give their clients their very best when they were able to think about how to respond before doing so. I’ve known photographers who intentionally kept Sundays blacked out, setting aside that one day a week to spend with the people they loved. And I’ve known hairstylists who refused to do certain styles, specifically because they saw their clients as a reflection of their work—and they didn’t want certain looks representing what they were capable of.
The thing is, you’re allowed to make those rules. When running your own business, you’re allowed to figure out what works best for you (what you need in order to provide the best service/end product possible) and to then communicate that to you clients.
Sure, you may lose some business as a result (for instance, there might obviously be some Sunday weddings you are then automatically overlooked for) but in the end, if you are good at what you do, plenty of work will still come across your table.
And it will be the type of work, with the type of clients, you are able to excel at.
Of course, the next step is communicating those boundaries to your clients. And recognizing that there will always be some who try to push past those boundaries.
I’ve worked with anxious brides who have called me 12 times a day, at all hours, in the months and weeks leading up to an event. I’ve spoken to friends who have worked with clients that routinely missed meetings and or tried to diminish and dominate them in their business exchanges. And we’ve all experienced the occasional client who fails to keep up with their end of the bargain—missing payment deadlines, for instance, or constantly showing up late to schedule appointments.
One of the best ways to communicate your boundaries is to include them in writing—establishing a standard contract you use with all your clients, one that outlines how you work. In this way, you have something concrete you can refer back to if a client starts pushing.
Another way is to live by your own rules. If you decide to not work on Sundays, don’t start answering emails on Sunday “just this one time”. Be consistent and educate your clients by sticking to your own rules. Clients will usually follow your lead.
Sometimes, though, you’ll work with someone who is just rude and pushy regardless. It might be because they’re stressed, or have other things going on in their lives, or because they simply don’t know how to behave any other way. But know this… you don’t have to put up with that. You are not a punching bag, and no project is worth letting anyone else diminish your love for what you do.
So if you have a client who is pushing too hard, address the situation calmly and as soon as possible. Keep a cool head, explain that you understand stress is taking over, but clarify how you do business and how you require that business to be conducted.
If they continue to raise their voice with you, send e-mails with derogatory remarks, or otherwise try to abuse that business relationship—consider canceling the project if you still can. Of course, this would involve your having to refund initial deposits, but sometimes… it’s worth it.
The good news is, you’ll get better about recognizing those red flags as time goes on, which will save you from ever entering into those business relationships in the first place. If you get that feeling after a meeting or phone call, trust your gut and don’t take the business.
Now… what about friends and family? Every self-employed business owner will tell you that friends and family are notorious for trying to get something for nothing. Which is fine… to an extent. You love them, and you want to help them out. But you could easily run yourself ragged catering to just friends and family, not ever getting compensated fairly for your work yet taking up all the time a playing customer could have had of you.
Don’t let that happen to you.
Figure out, early on, what (if anything – remember, you don’t HAVE to work for them) you are willing to offer your friends and family in the way of a discount. Then… stick to that. Even if your mom’s, sister’s, husband’s, mother-in-law tries to guilt you into cutting your prices even further “for family.” Know what your baseline fee is for doing the work—the point at which you are no longer making any profit at all—and never, ever, go below that.
You deserve to be paid for your time. Even if it’s friends and family hiring you.
Perhaps especially if it’s friends and family hiring you. Because let’s be honest—they are going to demand even more of you than your typical clients would!
Setting boundaries can be hard, and it doesn’t come naturally for everyone. But it’s part of running your own business, and a skill you need to work on cultivating. If for no other reason than your own sanity.