Handling It All: One Entrepreneurial Photographer, Five Businesses
Eliesa Johnson at her work desk. (Photos provided by Eliesa Johnson)

Handling It All: One Entrepreneurial Photographer, Five Businesses

Eight tips for managing multiple brands without losing your mind.

When I began my journey as a freelance photographer, I didn’t know much, but I knew a couple of things. One: I wanted to create work that was remarkable, and Two: I wanted to build something that was ‘bigger’ than myself. 2018 marks my 13th year in business and I’ve grown from a girl with a camera to owning and operating five photography brands. This growth has happened organically over the years and much of my success is also because of the amazing team of artists that are also a part of the brands. Here they are:

I get asked all of the time, “How do you keep up with it all? Especially in the busy season – wait, do you even have a slow season?”  While I often feel like my head is spinning with the endless to-do list, I do feel like we have set up a great structure for all five of our businesses to run with a team of 14 independent contractors. Whether you are a freelancer with one brand or a few under your belt, here are some tips on how to keep it all together:

1. Self-Discipline

Absolutely none of the other words in this blog matter without self- discipline. When you run your own business, you simply have to be self-motivated. I laugh when people say, “It must be nice to write my own schedule.” It is nice and definitely has its perks, but it also means that I have to be real with myself when it is time to rest and when it is time to continue to work.

2. Work Smart

Creating an efficient structure around the studio has greatly helped with our workflow and the production time that it takes after a shoot is complete. Time management is essential and structure (yes, and all those google docs) really help our studio go-round. We try and stay focused, yet flexible with our work days. Let’s break this down a bit:

Focus — Our production deadlines and turnarounds are quick. When I am working on a job, I definitely focus on the edit immediately afterwards. I like to turn around complete editorial projects in 1-2 weeks and wedding edits in 6-8 weeks. A strict timeline like this helps us to stay on top of the work and our clients’ deadlines, but it also allows us to not get buried in production. I like to work in the present and not feel like I’m behind. This is challenging sometimes, because the various distractions in our lives (the internet, social media and phones). One thing I’ve been practicing this year that has also been wildly helpful is this: Before I even think about opening my email in the morning, I spend the first 90 minutes of my work day focused on creative work. It’s been a game changer in putting my energy into the part I love most about my job.

Flexibility — Every day around here is truly different. We stay very flexible within our structure, so should a meeting, new job, or urgent deadline happen, we can accommodate accordingly with our clients. It is a WIN when we leave the studio feeling entirely accomplished. But we also know how those days go when you come into the studio, your internet is down and you need to re-think ALL the things you were going to get done that day. We also do try and keep ‘office’ hours, so we can have time for life in the evenings with the rest of the world.

3. Build Your Team

Whether it’s bringing help into your business through an intern, hiring your first employee, or simply outsourcing certain areas, building your team is essential to your sanity and your growth. Here are some of the roles we have to make our business happily function:

Editor — Outsource editing, both weddings, editorial and commercial work

Studio Manager — Social media support, behind the scene work and special projects.

Bookkeeper — We meet once a month to reconcile our books and pay taxes.

Photographers — All Independent Contractors full of talent to help assist and lead our Rivets, Photogen Inc. and Restaurant Project teams.

Producer — Not every budget can support hiring a producer, but when we can – it’s a game changer to have someone help manage the production of a big shoot.

CPA — For help with all those taxes and corporate filings every year, while also assisting with financial planning.

Insurance agent — Worth gold. For obvious reasons.

Lawyer — I am going to say this once, if you have a business, please, please, please invest in a good business lawyer. It matters to protect yourself and your business. Creating strong contracts and having someone to bounce legal advice off of when needed is essential.

4. Communication

Our team is in constant communication with each other. Whether it is one of my own shoots that I need assistance for, or a Rivets / Restaurant Project shoot where I need to give support to our team, it is incredibly important for me that all of our photographers feel supported. If our team is happy, our clients are definitely happy, so that is a major priority for me. We have a monthly email that goes out to our people as well, keeping everyone up to date!

5. Know When to Take a Break

Work hard, play hard. Some work days for us are 15 hours, others are 2 hours. We know when we need to push it and we also know when we need a break. As the owner of this operation, I need to often remind myself that a break is necessary. When we rest, we refuel, and are ready to go for all of our clients!

6. Give Yourself A Boost

Seriously, everyone deserves more high fives in life. Yoga is a luxury for me, so I make the effort to get there when I can. I also frequent the offices of Constellation Acupuncture for some body maintenance and self-care.  A couple of years ago, I set aside two whole weeks for myself in Tulum, Mexico—just to relax. This was the first time that I had done such a thing and now I am a believer. A trip like this is now becoming a yearly ritual.

7. Look Ahead

I keep a quote on my phone as a reminder that says, “Be proactive, not reactive.” I love this quote; it reminds me to always look ahead and think about what is next. A lot of our job is reacting to others’ requests. We could spend ALL day taking care of others, and though that is an important part of our job, we also have to look at the big picture of the work we are doing and make sure we are happy. We need to make sure we are pushing into areas that are inspiring to us and helping us grow.

8. Have Fun

My work is my life, but I also have a life outside of work. I feel so very grateful to wake up every morning and be SO excited about going to work. I am surrounded by THE most amazing artists, clients, and freelancers who I am lucky enough to collaborate with on a daily basis. The longer I do this, I am slowly but surely finding a balance between my work life and personal life – both of which are amazing. It’s so important to let loose and have some fun. For me, there is nothing better than booking a plane ticket and seeing the world!

I know a lot of these tips might seem like common sense; however, as I kept getting asked this question about “how I manage it all?”, I realized this: The secret to ‘doing it all’ is that there is no secret. You just actually have. to. do. it. You have to wake up every morning with that self-discipline, determination, and desire to pursue the dream.

It also takes way more than just yourself. It takes the support from those around you to help realize that dream every single day.

So, find your people. They will be your greatest asset.

And then figure it out.

Little by little.

And then one day you wake up and realize you are ‘doing it all’ and absolutely living the dream.

Eliesa Johnson
Photographer and Entrepreneur

Eliesa is a Minneapolis-based photographer and the owner of The Restaurant Project, Eliesa Johnson, Photogen Inc., Rivets and Roses and ELIESA Consults. Her work is regularly featured in Food & Wine, Mpls.St.Paul, Delta Sky, the James Beard Foundation and various ad agencies. “It is my goal to create visual stories and find the connection between the subject and the viewer. I like to show the moments that are unseen and share them with the world.” Eliesa and her crew are located in Northeast Minneapolis and travel often.