Today is International Women’s Day. Your inbox is probably flooded with emails about inclusivity, pride, and solidarity (which is never a bad thing, right?). I wanted to share something a little different—a more personal story of what today means to me personally as a woman business owner.
Our photo studio is certified nationally as a Women’s Business Enterprise (WBE), federally by the SBA as a Woman-Owned Small Business (WOSB), and with the State of Illinois as woman-owned in the Business Enterprise Program (BEP). This means that we meet requirements for woman-owned vendor hiring for government contracts, and for private corporations with supplier diversity programs who are looking to or are required to hire a certain percentage of prime contractors and subcontractors with diversity ownership. That was a mouthful.
In simpler terms: companies and governments have an unfortunate history of hiring businesses run by white men, simply because they are run by white men. Supplier diversity and certification programs were made to attempt to level that playing field. Why is that important?
I’m going to start a flashback now the way Sophia in The Golden Girls would… Picture it, Chicago, the mid-2000’s… I was a recent college graduate who moved to Chicago and got a job in marketing with a small computer security company. I was the only female employee there, the lowest paid, and passed over for promotions. My three breaking points, in order, were:
The day a male intern was hired to assist me, was paid more than I, and played video games all day without getting fired.
The day my boss asked me to pick up his shirts at Brooks Brothers because, “we all wear many hats here, Michelle, and this is a hat you need to wear today.”
The day my boss copied my quarterly marketing plan and in an all-hands meeting presented it as his own.
I left that job and got a Director level position at a new company. The 50-something year old white male Vice President immediately started harassing me as too young for the job and said I shouldn’t be trusted to work from home like everyone else at the company, because I might “watch soap operas all day.”
So I left that company after only 3 months, and decided that I could get so much more done if other people (read: mostly middle-aged white men) weren’t getting in my way. Having a love for photography and a few years of experience in personal portrait projects under my belt, I started a photo studio specializing in headshots and corporate portraits.
I worked long hours, handled every aspect of my new business from sales and marketing, technical training, legal documents, bookkeeping, yadda yadda… but I finally felt alive. I felt like I was making something, and finally DOING something for the first time. I felt like I was in control of something. Something that was important to me. Something I had created out of nothing and was it growing and getting great feedback from people I looked up to.
The WBDC can do a much better job than I of explaining the critical importance of WBE certification for the local and national economy. I do know that 40% of U.S. businesses are women owned (yay!). But woman-owned businesses contribute to only 8% of employment and 4.2% of revenues (boo).
So for me, certification is important for two reasons. First, a sense of pride. It gave me proof of my dignity and self-respect as a business owner who was pushed down as an employee for being female and can now use that same trait to boost myself upward. And second: equity. We all need to recognize that businesses owned by women, minorities, veterans, and the LGBTQ+ community have been at a disadvantage for far too long, and that disadvantage continues. I’m not going to lie, my WBE certification comes with a little twinge of pain that it’s even still necessary today.
I look forward to a day when woman-owned businesses contribute to 50% of national revenues and not just 4.2%. And for when all women across every industry gain equal pay for equal work, and when certification process and supplier diversity programs become outdated. Because diverse-owned companies command the same respect that male-owned businesses have intrinsically held for far too long.
Shop woman-owned today, and this month. But keeping shopping woman-owned and keep hiring woman-owned companies throughout the year; we can only level the playing field together.
I’m going to get vulnerable here and expose some insider info on our financials. 2020 has been tough on all small businesses, and compared to most, we’re doing okay here at Organic Headshots. But I wanted to share some specifics to show how very close to “not okay” we and most small businesses are or could soon become.
No sales = no pay
As the owner, I haven’t paid myself since March so that we can afford our overhead and the rest of the staff can have income before me. Last February, we were under contract to buy a vacant building on the north side of the city. Building it out was going to more than double our shooting space and it even had its own parking lot! (swoon) But the pandemic slapped us hard about a month before closing, and the deal crumbled. It was a blessing in disguise, really, because sales have been down by so much since then that we would not have been able to afford the increased expense anymore. The money set aside for the down payment has been paying our current rent and expenses and keeping us afloat these last eight or nine months.
It can be hard to stay stoic some days when your revenue line stays in the red for most of the year, so when I open P&L statements I keep a stress ball in my hand and a box of Kleenex within reach. In April and May, we had $0 in revenue, since we were closed as a “non-essential” business by order of the state. By month, our sales compared to our 2019 monthly average were:
April 0% May 0% June 11% July 53% August 42% September 41% October 55% November 27%
With expenses, we spent more than we earned for six of those eight months. So graphically, our net sales looks like this:
Did we get small business grant?
We either don’t qualify for, didn’t receive, or it isn’t worth it for us to apply for any of the pandemic aid loans or grants because I’m technically the only W2 employee of the company, and even though the other photographers were working full time before the pandemic, they’re 1099 contractors, so they’re not eligible for any relief pay through small business grants.
But because of that saved down payment for our dream studio space that slipped away, we have a little savings, and we can hold out at least through Q1 of 2021 if I keep deferring my salary (and stretching my spouse’s income so we buy nothing but the essentials). But I would be lying if I said I didn’t wake up in the middle of the night now and then in a cold sweat, feeling the crippling weight of small business frailty.
We’re in this together
Small businesses are the backbone of our economy, employing 59.9 million people, or 47.3% of the U.S. private workforce. But we’re also the most fragile. Small businesses everywhere are either teetering that “not okay” line or are plummeting hard, so please check in on your neighborhood’s local places. We all need help.
The next time you need a sandwich or some clothes or a book or a gift or some photos, resist the urge to open a giant megastore app on your phone and stop by a local business. Every dollar goes directly into your neighbors’ mouths right now. And as we said it with the Chicago Loop Alliance this last Fall, if you’re not buying your vendor’s products or services now, tell them why and when you expect to be able to. We want to hear from you so we can plan for your return. Follow your favorite shops on social media. Write reviews of your favorite places or your best vendors. Reach out just to say hi. And please wear your mask, social distance, and do your part to destroy this pandemic before it destroys us. ❤
Man, this pandemic has been rough. On everyone.
And especially on small businesses like ours. But we’ve been happy to follow all state and
city guidelines for closing, reopening, and operating safely. Nothing is more important than the health and
safety of our clients and staff, so we will be taking thorough precautions
before, during, and after every photo shoot, and adjusting our procedures as we
all learn more about COVID-19 and how it spreads.
To that end, here’s a breakdown of changes you’ll be seeing in how we operate:
Increased cleaning in the studio and equipment,
using cleaning supplies with disinfectant.
Appointment booking and reminder emails provide
instructions for a safe shoot.
Staff is required to alert the Studio Manager if
they feel any symptoms or have been in recent contact with someone who tested
positive for COVID-19 so their shoots can be covered or rescheduled and they
can self-quarantine for at least 14 days.
In the studio:
Both you and the photographer must wear a mask / face covering and refrain from handshakes / physical contact during the shoot.
Everyone must immediately wash their hands upon arrival at the studio.
The studio’s HVAC system is set to continuously circulate the air for better ventilation, and a medical grade air purifier operates during shoots, with HEPA filters removing particles as small as 0.25 microns from the air.
Instead of the photographer adjusting your hair or clothing during the shoot, a mirror will be provided, and/or live-viewing of the photos on a monitor.
After every shoot, high-touch areas will be wiped with a disinfectant before the next visitor is allowed entry.
Upon arrival, you will also have your temperature taken with a contact-free thermometer and asked the following questions before being allowed entry:
Have you had a fever, cough, or cold/flu-like symptoms in the past 14 days, with or without a positive COVID test?
Have you had contact with anyone who has shown any cold/flu-like symptoms in the past 14 days?
All our staff members will wear a mask / face
We will maintain social distancing and no physical
contact with your employees while in your office.
When each person enters the room where we are
set up for photos, we will ask them to sanitize their hands (we will bring hand
Surfaces and objects touched will be wiped with
disinfectant (we will bring disinfecting wipes) between each person.
Instead of the photographer adjusting your
hair or clothing during the shoot, a mirror will be provided.
Hair and makeup artists:
Hair and makeup artists will wear a mask / face
covering and, if available, a face shield.
All surfaces will be sanitized between each
In the studio only, if you are having makeup
done you will be asked to wash your face before makeup begins.
Since a mask is not possible during makeup
application, you will be given some paper towels to hold so that if you feel a
cough or sneeze coming, you can cough/sneeze into the paper towels.
As is already customary, all makeup is applied
with as many disposable products as possible and all non-disposable products
are used once and sanitized.
Hair and makeup artists already wash their hands
before beginning, but you will now have the option of them using disposable
gloves if you prefer.
I drive all the way from Logan Square to Forest Park every 3 months for my oil changes because I freaking love my mechanic. Rod at Elite Tire was referred to me by an old friend of mine several years ago after I had this conversation with the Honda dealership I was taking my car to before:
Dealership: “You need to have your oil pan replaced. The threads on the cap are all worn and the cap could fall off at any moment and your engine will explode.”
Me: “Umm… how on earth did the threads get worn?’
Dealership: “It usually happens when the morons who change your oil tighten the cap too hard.”
Me: “But I only come here for oil changes. Wouldn’t that make you guys the morons?”
Dealership: “I don’t see the connection.”
My friend insisted I go to Rod instead because he recommended she get a new car when her old beater-mobile was giving her some trouble. He said she’d be better off selling the car while it would still get Blue Book value and getting a newer, more reliable car. She was impressed that instead of bleeding money out of her by insisting on costly repairs to an old car (as the unfortunate mechanic stereotype goes), he gave her honestly good advice about her car- advice that makes his bills and income lower than if she kept her old car.
For my first oil change I sat in the waiting area and watched Rod have the absolute most patient conversation with a customer I have ever witnessed in my entire life. A little old lady with a bit of a nasty attitude was angry because she needed some parts replaced since they were worn down and corroded. She threw her hands in the air and said, “I can’t see how they possibly need to be replaced! I’ve had the car for 10 years and only drive it once a week and have never had anything go wrong with it.” She was actually the quintessential “little old lady who only drives her car once a week to church and back and is terrified of being ripped off” right there in the flesh. Rod brought out an example of what her car’s parts looked like, and a fresh sample, and proceeded to not just explain, but physically demonstrate exactly what was happening, why, and how.
He stayed with her and talked to her like an intelligent human being for a solid 20 minutes until she was confident and satisfied. He never talked down to her or lost his cool. He stood next to her instead of talking to her from behind a counter. I sat there thinking THIS IS MY MECHANIC FOR LIFE NOW.
Every time I see Rod and his crew for my oil changes I’m visiting a model for how I want to run my own business. The office is a well-oiled machine where every task gets the time and attention necessary to get things done right, and each customer who walks through the door is treated like a good friend. Someone always answers the phone and is always at the desk to greet the next customer (99.9% of the time it’s Rod himself), and everything is done quickly as a priority but without it feeling like a frantic, high-stress environment. There’s no clutter in the workshop or the waiting area: everything is clean and under control at all times. At my most recent trip one of the mechanics had some time between cars to service so he thoroughly cleaned an already spotless bathroom.
When I talk to a new client about their photography project I channel my mechanic and treat each client like they’re my only client while I talk to them. We work together to figure out what their photo needs are and how I can take photos for them that are exactly what they need and that they can be proud of. When they have questions, I have quick answers. When my answers don’t suffice or there are follow-up questions, I keep with the conversation until there is mutual understanding and trust. I’ve had hour-long phone conversations with clients who didn’t even book me and I don’t see it as wasted time.
Keep up the good work, Rod- you’re my small business hero.
PS- there may actually be a post-it note on my desk that says “how would Rod handle this situation?”
This is going to sound like a cheesy small business owner statement, but here it goes… Every time I pick up the camera to take a headshot, I try my hardest to get some photos for my clients that they can be proud to have. I do my absolute best to listen, coach, and work with my clients to get the best photo of them possible. (Too cheesy? Feel free to finish rolling your eyes at the marketingspeak.)
Every so often I get a personalized thank you card in the mail after a session or a shoot, and it’s always unexpected and always makes my day. Today is one of those days. I checked my mail and found an awesome little thank you note wrapped around a gift card. I feel so warm and fuzzy that my clients love their photos and the experience so much that they go out of their way to show that appreciation.
It makes me love what I do even more. I may or may not have hugged the card.