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  • toribornholdt

6 years in business - my story, struggles, and celebrations

In case you are new to my page, my name is Tori! I am mom to three amazing kids, ages 12, 6 and 3. I have a husband who has supported me (even when things were really, really hard), and... I'm a photographer! It has been quite the journey over the last six years to get here. If you are a working mom, a business owner, or maybe you are thinking about starting a business, I hope that my story can inspire you in some way!

My wonderful family - taken by the talented Alex Mooney!

Its 2018, I had just quit my day job to be a stay-at-home mom to my oldest (6 at the time) and my brand new baby. I knew it would be hard, but I was tired of missing out on so much of their everyday lives. Sound familiar? So I quit my job at Cardinal Glennon to do motherhood full-time. Here's the kicker. I was bored. Really, really bored. Not that my kids were boring, they were anything BUT boring, but I felt like I somehow lost sight of who I was. My purpose changed drastically and I felt stuck. I'm sure this also resonates with stay-at-home moms - it is hard!!

Our family right around the time I started my business!

I had been practicing photography as a hobby since my oldest was born, occasionally doing portraits for family and friends just for fun. So when it became clear that I needed something else, this was the first thing I thought of doing. Friends encouraged me, and it seems overnight I suddenly had a business! Let me be clear, I charged next to nothing, so I wasn't profitable in the slightest. In fact, I definitely lost more money than I made that first year. (If anyone wants tips on how to NOT be profitable and almost sink your business - I'm your girl, hahaha!) No, but really, it was more for "fun", and because of that approach, I actually grew really quickly - too quickly!

Henry's cake smash, at my old studio! "Wild One" theme!

I had over 100 clients in my first year. However, I charged so little, and by the time expenses came out of my bottom line, a profit was nonexistent. In order to keep up, I was staying up until 1 or 2 am almost every night to edit, and then getting up at 5am with the new baby so my husband could go to work. It was unsustainable. But, at the same time, it felt really good to have something that I was working so hard for, and was getting success in the form of clients.

My boys at our private property - my favorite place to use for sessions!

Over the next few years, I obviously had to do some tweaking. Everything is trial and error when you have your own business. What works for others, might not work for you. What works for short-term goals, may not inch you towards long-term. When you find something that is working amazing, it may not work forever, and then you have to tweak yet again. The biggest misconception I had when I started my business six years ago was "once I get everything set up, it will be easy". This was one of the biggest lies I told myself. In fact, everything changes all the time. Even now, six years later, I'm still tweaking prices, marketing, software I'm using, products I sell, etc. I'm constantly learning and I'm ALWAYS in on-mode. The business side never "turns off". This is something I was extremely underprepared for.

Pregnant with Charlotte! Thanks to my former assistant, CK, for clicking the button on this one!

Another misconception I had when starting out was that I had to say yes to everything. If you are starting a business, please read this and then read it again. You do not have to say yes to every project, every client, or every demand. If it does not 1) bring you closer to a long-term goal 2) bring you joy or 3) bring you a profit that makes the project worth it, you should in fact say no. Boundaries were non-existent in my first year or two of business. Now, I have set business hours - I typically only work one weekend day a month so I can have that time with my family. I no longer edit late hours - in fact, I rarely edit at all in the evenings now. I have set times on my calendar where I will call clients. And I don't accept projects outside out of the genres I LOVE to do - newborns, families, maternity, cake smashes, and high school seniors. I joke that I have the same clients as a pediatrician - baby until graduation! You won't find me at a wedding or an engagement session, or doing boudoir, because I would rather spend my time doing what I love and what I'm good at. When you first start out, you think you have to say yes to build your business, but it isn't true. Not having boundaries will sink your business, because you will burn out so much faster.

Another family photo fave!

Having a family and a small business can be really challenging. The first few years, I definitely struggled with time management and balancing family vs. work. Now, I've struck the delicate, magical balance that works for us. I'm not "full-time" per say, but I work as much as I can without it interfering with my children's livelihood. I am their mom first, and I miss very little in their lives, while still succeeding in this business that I love so much. I know they won't stay little forever, and someday when they are all in school, I plan to do really big things. But for now, I'm happy taking on a select few clients each month and getting to be the mom I always wanted to be. I also have a husband that works full-time and travels frequently, so I know I need to be the parent that's here, taking care of the day-to-day.

They say something like 85% of studios don't survive their first five years, and I'm proud to have made it this far, despite a pandemic, another pregnancy and newborn, and a big move to a studio we built from the ground up! It has been full of craziness, and at times a lot of stress, but I wouldn't change any of it. I've worked harder in these last six years than I ever have at a "9-5" job, but it is so incredibly rewarding. I am so privileged to capture expecting moms, brand new babies, graduating high school seniors, and so many more "life" moments. This career has granted me the opportunity to do so many things I would have never gotten to do - travel across the country for clients, make SO many new friends, meet some amazing people in the industry, and learn things that I never would have imagined for myself. To be here is something I am thankful for everyday. And I'm so thankful for my clients that have gotten me to this point. Every time you share one of my posts, like one of my images, recommend me to a friend, or book me yourself, inches me closer to my goals.

My studio space right after we completed it! There are quite a few more props added since then!

If you asked me my top three pieces of advice for starting a small business, it boils down to this:

  1. Know your worth - this goes back to having boundaries and knowing when to say no, but also valuing yourself, your time, your skill, your talent and your mental health. Don't start out so cheaply that you burn out. Do your market research. Find out what others are charging. Find your cost of doing business, which looks different for everyone, by the way. There is not a one-size-fits-all on that. This homework is very important and will set the course for everything you do. If you take away nothing else from this blog, please please take away this.

My kids on a family vacation in 2022 - enjoying quality time together

2. Comparison is a thief - but wait, Tori, didn't you just tell us to compare and do our market research? Yes. Absolutely. It is important to do your research and see where you may fall in your specific industry. You don't want to be undercutting and selling yourself short, but you also don't want to be "too" expensive for your level of talent or service you're providing, for the particular market you are trying to break into. That being said... your only competition needs to be the you from yesterday. That's it. Your focus should be striving to be a better you. Isn't that a freeing thought? It doesn't matter where you look, there will always be someone doing what you are doing, and doing it better. I can google "newborn photographers" and I will find thousands of photographers that I consider "better" than me. Heck, there's friends of mine in St. Louis that I consider "better" than me. But here's the kicker. You are you, with your specific skillset, personality, life experiences, etc. and there is no one else that's you. So why do we feel the need to constantly compare ourselves to others (especially those of us in creative fields)? Social media is hard because it's everywhere. But I urge you to use the work of others as an inspiration and a celebration, rather than as something you see as your own shortfall. Your mental health will be better because of it.

Baby AJ - taken in 2012. Is it cute and do I love it? Absolutely. But I sure do love seeing how much my skills have improved since then! There is a lot, I repeat a LOT of pictures from this era that are very, very cringey! (Looking at you selective coloring!)

3. Do the legal stuff - maybe this seems like a no-brainer. But it is astonishing how many photographers are not a registered entity, do not pay taxes or do not have insurance. When you are first starting out, it is SO overwhelming. There is so much you need to research, paperwork to fill out, places to register, people to pay - where to start?! If you can, make a friend in your industry, someone who can mentor you with the first steps. Hire who you need to, whether that be a CPA, a business lawyer, a financial advisor - do it. It is well worth the investment to start your business out on the right foot. Missing a crucial step can cost you hundreds or thousands of dollars down the road. Do it legal, do it right. Try your best to stay organized with your finances so that you aren't scrambling at tax time (like I do every single year - 0/5 stars, do not recommend!) Do the things. Be legal. You'll feel so relieved when its done.

My assistant helping me with a bonnet! She's the best, and I'm pretty sure I couldn't fully function without her! Absolutely worth every penny.

This is longer than I intended, but it is something I'm passionate about. After a lot of missteps, tears, stress and doubt, I'm hoping I can help at least one person avoid some of that within their own business. A small business is a lot of work, but it really is so rewarding. Feel free to reach out to me if you are considering your own small business and I'm happy to help you if I am able. I've also acquired a lot of great resources over the years! I'm so thankful to have made it these six years, and I look forward to seeing what this next year brings!

Hustle on,


Traveled to Oklahoma for this client's newborn photos!

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