In the podcast episode the other day titled 'How Much Freedom Do You Have In Your Life', I told the story of my career high moment as a sports photographer- shooting the Super Bowl. It also was a low point as I realized that I had little to no control over my time or my money. The only way to make more money was to be offered one of the paltry raises that I'd seen offered to others and the only way to have more time was to, well, quit.
But what do you do when you come to this realization that you gave up your time freedom for fifteen dollars an hour? It's even worse when you are still making fifteen dollars an hour after deciding to start a family with your new wife, in your new home (with a new mortgage), and new furniture which you purchased on a credit card. It gets better when you approach your boss for a raise, after you won the biggest award in your field, and you get offered a three percent raise.
What do you do now? This was the exact spot I found myself in. You might be there right now. I was good at what I did but, at that pace, the entire newspaper industry would implode and collapse before I even got to sniff a six figure income. I had no idea how accurate that last statement would become. I'm obviously pretty good at what I do, otherwise I couldn't have been named International Sports Photographer of the Year for the most prestigious award in our industry. But I was being paid $32,000 a year with no path where they would pay me more.
So I did what any confident, strong, self assured man would do. I went home to call my daddy.
With the trepidation of a seven-year-old asking for additional sprinkles and hot fudge on my ice cream sundae, I cautiously beat around the bush to eventually ask my dad if I can do a little side work for his business. You know, 'diapers and formula' money. And just like the dad that says a matter-of-fact no to piling more sugar on top of sugar, he rejected me quickly.
You see, I used to work for my dad when I was a teenager and I hated it. I found it so boring. Many times during those years, he nudged me to get serious about the work as a draftsman and eventually I could take over the business. My dad seemed to enjoy the work but I couldn't imagine doing that work for a week, let alone a lifetime.
But there I was, not sure how I would support a baby and give my very pregnant wife a path to stay home and raise our child. And there I was, getting turned down again. Even my dad was rejecting me!
I had developed a habit of not listening to my dad throughout my teenage years and through my twenties. What did he know? His time of figuring this stuff out was long in the past and he didn't understand what it was like today. By the way, why would I listen to him when I can just figure it out myself?
Now, maybe he's made wise statements to me all of those years. Maybe I just wasn't listening. Or maybe he just became really smart and really wise at the exact perfect moment. Or maybe I decided to listen for once. Either way, the statement my father made to me next changed my life. And trust me, it was a statement.
"You haven't listened to me much, but maybe you will listen now," he stated, knowing that I was in a bind that I could no longer attempt to charm my way out of.
"You have a skill but you aren't using it correctly," he declared.
I was now listening.
"You've become a really good photographer. That wasn't the case when you started. You have tremendous talent and potential but you are settling. You could do anything- you could shoot pro shorts for magazines, you could shoot weddings, corporate work, commercial- there is no limit to the money you can make and you can also control your time. But you are settling for $32,000 a year and benefits."
That hit me like an EOS-1N camera body with a 400mm lens in the back of my head.
I hung up the phone, mentally exhausted. Yet I felt something in my stomach. I needed to do something. But what? What do you do when you need to do something but have no clue where to start? The answer was already there. I already said it.
So I did. I picked up the phone book. Do you remember the phone book? It was this giant, think book that was delivered every year with everyones phone number from that town inside of it. We now have the phone book- all of the phone books combined- inside of our phone. Along with lots of cat videos.
But I picked up that phone book, and I went to the photographers who ran businesses, and I started calling them. With no pitch and no clue what to say, I abruptly asked if they needed an associate photographer or a freelancer to work with them. I don't know how many I called. But each one said no. Rejection was the name of the game on that humid, sunny June afternoon in Southern Indiana. So I took that phone book, gave it a nasty look and hurled it against our bedroom wall in frustration.
I turned towards our still unfinished bathroom, shook my head and made a declaration. I had heard the phrase, "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em." Well, that didn't work. And I didn't have time to do nothing any longer. It was time to do something. So I flipped that saying.
"If you can't join 'em", I said to myself, "we're going to beat 'em."
I called Elizabeth, and as a surprise to her, I told her that we were starting a business. It's exactly what a woman weeks away from giving birth to her first child needs to hear.
"We have no idea how to run a business," she reminded me.
"We'll find a way to figure it out," I stated nervously.
And that is how our path towards freedom began.