You guys work so well together! What’s your secret?”
We’ve heard it a few times. And we’re proud of it. An unlikely couple that regularly finds a rhythm working hand-in-glove. While we don’t have any secrets and we’d be the last two people on earth to say that our relationship is exemplary, we’ve discovered a few tricks for working well together as a couple and running Greenwell Photography.
Jumping in with both feet
Andy and I met six years ago — a late-in-life romance that caught us both off guard.
We met online and, several days later, in person. The chemistry was immediate, and the connection strong. We sat in a Mexican chain restaurant, laughing, for hours. He was completely different from anyone I’d ever dated — creative, quiet, funny, smart, mysterious — and I was smitten like a school girl.
Within weeks, he invited me to go to Atlanta for a job, where he’d be teaching lighting techniques to the camera crew of a major news organization. It sounded fun to travel together, and I pictured myself shopping while he worked and then us having nice dinners out when he finished each night.
Little did I know.
Our first day in Atlanta, I drove to the TV station with him and helped him unload the truck. I planned to duck out after that. But he needed help setting up, so I stuck around to help before heading out to explore the city. And the next thing I knew, I was pretending to be on-air talent as the camera crews practiced lighting me indoors and in the hot ATL sun.
By the time we returned from the grueling but exhilarating week of work, I’d learned how to set up lights, take behind-the-scenes photos, and (most importantly, I discovered) pack the truck. And I was hooked.
A partnership blooms
Over the next few years, as love blossomed, so did our working relationship. With complementary skill sets, we had fun figuring things out together, often late at night. I’d drive 12 miles several nights a week to help him at the studio after my day job…and to spend time together. As a small business owner, he was never really “done” working.
When we decided to merge our households and lives completely, we searched and found a house with a separate structure that could be converted to a commercial photography studio. With the help of friends and a few miracles, we moved in and got the studio up and running in just two months.
That’s when the real business partnership was forged.
Making it work
Living under the same roof, we hit our stride in working together…and we began to see the business grow significantly. We are still figuring out a lot of things, but here’s what we’ve found works well:
Play to each other’s strengths
Andy is a creative genius at photography. His work stands out from that of others, thanks to his commitment to quality, technical acumen, and creative problem solving. The business works best — and he’s happiest — when he’s focused on shooting, exploring new techniques and equipment, teaching skills to others, or dreaming up new ideas. He also scrupulously maintains the website by refreshing it with photos fresh from recent shoots, which helps SEO.
I handle client communication, developing proposals that help us stand out from the competition, invoicing, and creating marketing materials, such as flyers, blog posts, and emails. I also request reviews from clients after a job is complete, because favorable online reviews are crucial for small businesses. (Note: if you work with a small business that you like, write an online review for them. It’s life giving).
I’ve also found that, after a lifetime of sitting at a desk, I truly enjoy the physicality of setting up and tearing down photography gear. It’s satisfying and self-contained in a way that, say, writing a strategic plan can never be. Now I often fuss at Andy and tell him to leave “my” lights alone when it’s time to tear down. I enjoy putting everything in its place.
I’m a leader by nature and generally like to take charge of any endeavor I’m involved with. I shied away from that description for years, but it’s true.
But the photography business is HIS business and HIS name is on the door. I’m very clear on that, and, uncharacteristically, I defer to his judgment for business decisions. (Occasionally I spout off opinions and we discuss, but he gets to decide.) Plus, I still have a full-time day job where I enjoy some autonomy and leadership, and I operate a freelance writing business on the side.
When we are shooting, he’s the leader, unquestionably. My job is to assist and help him take great photos. I’m fine with that. He focuses on solving technical problems — a constant process for photographers. I communicate with the client, hold reflectors, take behind-the-scenes photos, retrieve gear, set up and tear down, and make food runs. Again, the physicality of assisting is refreshing for a lifelong desk jockey like me.
Because I have hired photographers in past marketing roles, he defers to me on client issues and relies on me to establish the branding and tone of communications.
If we were both photographers, it would not work for us.
For couples to work together, it’s critical for clear roles to be established and respected.
Don’t disagree in front of customers or employees
Working with your life partner can be complicated. It’s easy to slip in and out of business roles and into personal roles while working. That can be good, such as when you share a smooch while talking about how to light a product.
But it’s not good to slip into the personal relationship in the presence of customers or other photography assistants.
Disagreement is especially inappropriate. Speaking only kindness to each other in front of others prevents them from getting a bad impression of your business and translates into a positive experience for everyone. It’s also good for the relationship.
As elsewhere, manners and gratitude make a big difference.
Respect each other’s limits
In addition to different skill sets, Andy and I have completely different body clocks. I’m a day person; Andy is a night owl. He hits his stride late at night. Me? Not so much. That can put stress on the working and personal relationship when he’s just getting going as I start to crash.
To spare the personal relationship, we have minimized late hours by planning better and setting up gear so that Andy can work solo after I retire for the night, and I’m working on being more aware of my state of mind so that I can signal him when I need to quit.
It’s an ongoing process to establish and respect boundaries, and a requirement for a successful working-together couples.
Separate the relationship from the business
No matter how stressful or busy or frustrating the business becomes, a couple that works together needs to carve out non-work together time in their schedules. Whether it’s a nightly walk or regular dinners out, having time together where work talk is forbidden is an important part of maintaining a solid, growing personal relationship.
Business is business, but love is the reason for living.
Share in the success
The best part of working together is experiencing success together. Whether it’s a successful project and a happy client, a personal goal achieved, or landing a job after working hours together on a proposal, succeeding together is intoxicating. You gain appreciation for another dimension of your partner that you would never see if you didn’t labor together.
Celebrate together. Acknowledge each other’s strengths and what they did well.
The work continues
The business, which grew exponentially in 2019, was shut down for four months in 2020 due to COVID-19, and, like many businesses, we are in the process of reframing and rebuilding it.
The relationship, which grows and changes as we do as individuals, did not shut down, although it experienced new stressors. Loving relationships always involve reframing, rebuilding, and reimagining. And it’s a lot more fun than business.
If you work with your beloved or are considering working together, you’ll learn that it’s both fun and challenging, depends on a shared commitment, and requires complementary skills and temperaments. When you do it well, it enriches your relationship and brings you closer, which is far more rewarding than any financial success.