Capturing Stories, Growing a Small Business

This entrepreneur (and photographer) explains the importance of balancing how to work in your business with how to work on your business.

Editor’s note: In celebration of National Small Business Week (May 5-11), we invited UPS customers and suppliers to share their entrepreneurial journeys and lessons learned along the way.

Australian photographer Sarah Matheson took her talents from one side of the world to the other. During her journey, she grew not just as an artist but also as a small business owner.

Read below about how she aligned her artistic passions with the everyday challenges of running her own business in the United States.

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Longitudes: How did an Aussie photographer become a business owner in the U.S.?

Sarah: After growing up in Australia and moving to the United States in 2011, I realized that my love for taking pictures was more than just a hobby. So, at age 47, I returned to school to study visual storytelling to develop the purposeful capture of an image instead of just pointing the camera and pressing the shutter.

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The most challenging part of growing my business has been balancing how to work in and on my business.

After finishing my second bachelor’s degree in photography, I officially started Sarah Matheson Photos in March 2017.

But before I took even one picture, I developed a positioning statement, reviewed my social media feeds, reorganized my work flow, refined my digital archive, ordered new business cards and then set about drumming up business.

These were some of the drivers of business success that I learned during more than 25 years working in business development for internet and marketing companies. Now I’m putting those practices to work for my own business.

Longitudes: What are the most important lessons you learned?

Sarah: The most challenging part of growing my business has been balancing how to work in my business (capturing photos) with how to work on my business (accounting, marketing and customer service).

I didn’t allow enough time for administrative tasks, and they started to pile up. Now I schedule two hours per week for it, usually outside of business hours.

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I learned early on that all business hours should remain dedicated to doing revenue-generating tasks. If it doesn’t generate money, then I save it for later — and that’s even harder to balance in our 24/7 online economy.

I’ve also learned the value of setting up partnerships that can grow as you grow. Centralizing and committing to one partner for each function has really helped. I use UPS for shipping; I have one printing partner.

Longitudes: What’s surprised you along your journey?

Sarah: I was most surprised by the number of small tasks that all need to be done to complete a job. When I’ve worked as part of a larger team in a larger business, I could always delegate in the busy periods.

It’s different as a sole trader. The ebbs and flows of small business are really hard to predict.

Plus, there’s only one of me, and sometimes it’s hard to find someone to pop in and do a task to allow me to step out and generate more business.

People need to be trained and supported, and that requires time. So, it’s a juggle to know when to commit to taking on team members.

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To make any business work, you need persistence, grit, determination and understanding.

Longitudes: Why are you so passionate about documenting women’s stories?

Sarah: I’m not someone who believes too much of my own PR, but recently, a global brand engaged me to do some really precious documentary work. I’m quiet thrilled and humbled!

Several of my photos ended up in a documentary about a women’s issue, and I’m thrilled to have my photographs respected and included.

Women’s issues are still under-represented in terms of documenting achievements, and I work every day to capture this history.

When I show one of my photos to someone and they respond with “ahhh, that’s a really moving photo,” it reinforces that my visual storytelling captures the nuances of connection.

My photos cause a visceral reaction in those that see them, and that means the photos work as visual storytelling tools.

Longitudes: What does it take to make a business work? 

Sarah: To make any business work, you need persistence, grit, determination and an innate understanding of what business you’re in.

I focus on the photography work I want to do, and I don’t run after money just for the sake of earning a few dollars. Doing that would mean forgoing business development time where I could be pitching a great idea to a potential client. It’s a balance, and no, I don’t always get it right.

You also need a thick skin and the ability to critically self-assess. See where you need to improve, and believe that what you do matters.

Sarah Matheson takes a picture.

Longitudes: What advice would you give someone thinking about starting their own business?

Sarah: Take a big piece of paper and put it on a wall in your home that you pass frequently. Each time you walk by, write down something about the business you want to launch. This practice will help get the ideas out of your head and into reality.

Write down what interested you about your business and what you are uneasy about. For me, it was capturing the image, documenting a moment and the nuance of connection.

Like most people, I let self-doubt creep in, but it only takes a positive comment from someone to rebuild my courage to pitch another idea or enter another competition.

Let that big piece of paper become the place where you emotionally unload all of your feelings about launching a business.

Ask yourself questions about how running a business will impact your family and be realistic about how much time and energy you will sacrifice to operate your own business.

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Remember, as a small business owner, things will go wrong.

How prepared are you to say goodbye to a private life? Are you willing to live with less sleep?

Can you handle cold calling and selling? How will you cope with waves of self-doubt, and can you come back again and again when things go wrong? And remember, things will go wrong — life is not perfect.

After you’ve honestly answered all the hard questions, researched your market and the systems you will need and determined the capital required to launch and maintain cash flow, then you’re ready to answer one last question:

Do you really want to do this every day, on little sleep, with the financial stress of waiting for a check to arrive?

If your answer is yes, then you’re ready to start your own business.

Sarah Matheson is a documentary photographer, photojournalist, visual storyteller and digital asset strategist. Australian by birth and a Chicagoan by residence, she also designs and produces large and complex digital asset projects.

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