Starting your business is scary, and half the time even the most experience entrepreneurs feel like they have no idea what they're doing (**cough** me **cough**), but there are a few important things that I learned from my time in the corporate world that all entrepreneurs should consider when they first start out.
1. NEVER, and I Mean NEVER, Steal Another Person's Work and Pass it Off as Your Own.
Not only is this practice shady AF, and will hurt your business in the long run when clients discover what you deliver doesn't match what they saw on your website, but it is illegal. There's this thing called copyright and intellectual property. If you are caught using another person's images uncredited on your site, even if it's the type of work you aspire to create, you could end up with a lawsuit on your hands that could crush your business before it even gets off the ground.
2. Understand Photography Copyright.
If you're a wedding vendor who isn't a photographer and you want to show off your skills, whether they be calligraphy, design, jewelry making, florals, you name it, it's likely you are going to need photos to do that. Maybe you are skilled enough with that iPhone to capture stunning photos, but chances are every now and then you need to use photos from photographers who you've worked with either on weddings or styled shoots.
In most of these cases, and this is something even couples don't always understand, the photographer holds the copyright to all of those images. Your work might be in them, but they created the image and therefore the copyright is theirs. This means you need to 1) get permission from the photographer to use their images and 2) always credit their work. If you don't, you could once again end up in legal trouble, or at least with a really angry photographer on your hands.
Things are a bit different if you are a vendor who is hiring a photographer to photograph your work for your exclusive use (like for branding images for your site). In those cases, you should carefully review the contract you sign with a photographer and determine who holds the copyright to the images and what the conditions are for using those photos. Some photographers are willing just to be cited in the footer, and some photographers are willing to sell you the copyright for an additional charge or license you the images. Either way, figure it out in the contract phase, not once your site goes live.
3. Speaking of Contracts, START USING THEM NOW.
If you are starting a business where you provide services to other people like couples for their wedding day, you need contracts. You need contracts for everything piece of work you do. Even when it comes to buying something in a store, you get a receipt, which is a form of contract. It has information like return policies. If you are delivering work and you don't have a contract you are doing yourself a HUGE disservice, and are leaving yourself open to risk. Contracts aren't just there to protect your clients, they exist to protect YOU. Think through the worst case scenarios and include clauses that protect you in the event that a member of the couple ditches out on the wedding or the wedding is cancelled at the last minute, and ALWAYS, ALWAYS include a payment schedule.
4. Contracts Don't Have to Be Daunting, Tools like Dubsado Make it Easy.
There are a slew of online software options that make it easier than ever to track payments, send contracts, and keep tasks and customer data all in one place. We use Dubsado and it has literally changed our lives. If Word Doc contracts and Google Spreadsheets are getting you down, consider switching now. Use code "catalyst" at checkout and you could save on your first month or first annual plan.
5. Consult with a Lawyer.
Okay, maybe you don't need a lawyer on retainer, but at least hire one to review your standard contract before you send it out to clients. It's an important step to ensure your contracts are actually legally binding and that you will be protected if a client every takes legal action against you. Our favorite is Caroline Fox of The Engaged Legal Collective. She even has affordable starter courses to help you start your business on the right legal footing. This includes things like making sure you register your business properly, you think about trademarks, and that you are set up to handle any legal trouble that might come your way.
6. Don't Hide Who You Are.
People have a lot of opinions about how separate your personal life and business life should be, but ultimately, couples and clients are working with YOU and that's means they need to get to know who YOU are. Trying to maintain one face for your customers and another for your friends and family is stressful, and usually leads to some issues. I'm not saying to be your casual non-professional profanity-slinging self on your first client meeting, but don't go to extremes to create a "public" persona, because sometimes that can have legal ramifications. For example, always do business under your legal name or your business name. If you are trans, non-binary or gender non-conforming, your legal name might not be what you want to be called, but this is when you should consider consulting with a lawyer about how to best handle the paperwork, because unfortunately, paperwork with your chosen name, if it isn't yet your legal name, may not be binding.
7. Think Long and Hard About Rebranding.
Maybe you are someone who has a lot of ideas and has a hard time sticking to just one business. That's cool! But consider evolving your current business before shutting down and opening multiple different businesses. A single business entity that has been around for a number of years carries more clout with customers and also with banks in the event you ever need to apply for a business loan. Shutting down a business quickly because you feel it doesn't represent you, and then starting a new one, can be damaging in the long run and can give off the impression to clients that you are unreliable or don't know how to handle a business.
8. Never Forget the Importance of Customer Service.
Listen, we all screw up. I screwed up yesterday. I was running errands, looking at my friend's baby, and trying to write a Facebook post all at the same time, and of course I hit publish before I realized how many typos I had made with my tiny iPhone keyboard. A client brought it to my attention, and I felt terrible, but I responded quickly and we got things fixed. I also offered them a freebie in exchange for their patience. When clients are unhappy, they tell other clients. It's one thing to be like "SCREW YOU, DUDE" to some alt-right bro who is clearly not someone you want to do business with, but when someone in your target audience is telling you something is bad, like your site is crashing or your content seems to have strayed from your mission, LISTEN TO THEM. If you don't and you are flippant about hearing their concerns, your reputation can get tarnished and FAST.
If somehow you have made it through your career without angry or upset customers, then God bless you, but it will happen. I spent years working with a corporate customer service department hearing complaints and prioritizing issues. Someone is always going to have an issue, it's just a matter of when. Be prepared to handle them quickly and professionally when they arise.
9. On the Flip Side, Set Boundaries.
Most of us are small business owners. For some of us that means we are doing it all, all by ourselves. Burnout and setting boundaries is hella important so that we all take care of ourselves and have the energy to keep running our business, taking care of our partners and families, and taking care of ourselves. So if you get a frustrated customer emailing you at 9PM on Sunday night, it really is okay to not respond as long as the request isn't urgent. Put up an out of office message, but be sure once your work day starts Monday morning to prioritize that customer's concerns.
10. Success Means Different Things to Different People, and That's OK.
Imposter syndrome is real, and even the most successful people in their fields feel it from time to time. It's important to not get caught up in comparing yourself to other people on the internet. You never know what their work day really looks like or what their measures of success might be. Spend time each year, each month, each week, setting your own standards of success. Maybe this means small goals, like sending those 5 emails you've been putting off, or finally learning how to set up that Mailchimp RSS campaign (OMG RSS NEWSLETTER CAMPAIGNS HAVE SAVED MY LIFE). Each week doesn't need to be a lofty goal of making $30k and reaching 1.5 million Instagram followers. Take things one step at a time and get there at your own pace, otherwise you will burn out, and burn out FAST. Focus on keeping your inner fire burning and take on your goals one step at a time.
Jen Siomacco is the CEO and Creative Director of Catalyst Wedding Co. She works to mesh together her love of feminism, love stories, equality and design into the layout and brand of Catalyst while she sits on her couch and snuggles up with her SUPER lazy cats.