This month we are highlighting Mary Claire Carroll in our Member Spotlight. Mary Claire started her business, Carroll Photos, in 1985. Her decision to start her business was somewhat serendipitous—she just woke up one morning and said to herself, “It’s time.” As Mary Claire puts it, “it was more emotional than logical.” She had been working full-time and doing freelance photography work on the side, which she loved. She decided it was time to do more of what she loved, and to have more control over her time.
Her Business Evolution
One of the first things Mary Claire did when she started her business was to take business classes in accounting and marketing through UVM’s Extension. And in later years she worked with business coaches and the Women’s Business Center. She was constantly reminded about the importance of paying attention to her financials. “You can’t make decisions (on pricing, for instance) without knowing what you need to make.”
In the mid-1990’s, Mary Claire decided to give up processing her own film and started farming out that work to local labs. It gave her more time to focus on the people side of her business rather than the technical production side. Sometime in the 2000’s she went digital and found herself doing more of the ‘processing’ again. Only this time Mary Claire’s new tool was a computer. Her new process would entail shooting a session, downloading the shots, editing the shots, sending them to the client, and then processing. She rarely has things printed now. Clients want digital files that they can use. Going digital definitely changed the way she did the work and looked at the work. One thing she can say about her business is that she is constantly learning.
Ten years ago she started making cards. This was somewhat serendipitous, too. An image she had shot of the Round Church in Richmond had been published in VT Life. Years later she was still selling prints of the images. Mary Claire wondered if she could build on the success of that image. She sat down with a friend, Kathie Cooke, the owner of the Paper Peddler, who coached her on making cards. She started selling them through the Paper Peddler, and then she joined artist cooperatives and started selling through those venues. She also began selling prints. This side business to her photography business started to grow, not fast, but steadily.
Her Personal-Business Synergies
Mary Claire is a person who loves the outdoors and often she takes her camera with her when she is hiking, kayaking, or just enjoying the scenery. During the pandemic Mary Claire began posting these images daily on LinkedIn and Facebook, along with a written commentary. She was surprised at the positive reaction to her posts. “People needed some beauty and hope during this time, and apparently they found that it in my posts.”
When asked what the benefits of self-employment are, Mary Claire was quick to respond: “The freedom to do what I love. That’s huge.” And the opportunity to help others with her photography. She also identified the ability to be able to balance her life. Self-employment gave her more options. For instance, when her son was young, she could volunteer at school, and be there when he got home.
“To plan and schedule my life, it’s a privilege and a gift.” She acknowledges that her husband’s employment covered the healthcare piece and provided a steady income. There are times when she feels she would have been better off financially if she had not chosen the self-employment route, but she feels the rewards far outweighed the stress of lean times. The connections she made through her work have led to amazing opportunities. She was able to be on boards of groups such as the Vermont Commission on Women, Vermont Works for Women, WBON, etc. She became politically active and lobbied in D.C. She also feels it helped her family to have her be self- employed.
Being self-employed allowed Mary Claire to do the photo projects that energized her. For instance, for the Labor of Love project for Vermont Work for Women, she travelled around the state taking portraits of thirty women. This exhibit travel to different VT communities and ended up in the Statehouse, as did several projects done for the disability community, and the Council of Rural Development.
One long time challenge Mary Claire sees for women business owners is being taken seriously, even by other women. As she puts it, when women own businesses, particularly if they are solo entrepreneurs, people think you are doing it just for fun, as a hobby. It was never a hobby for Mary Claire. She always worked hard and understood that she provided an important service to individuals, organizations, and businesses.
Another challenge is in pricing one’s services and products. Especially a service. Determining the value of your work is critical and it is also difficult for women. Women have a tendency to give things away, and to not charge enough. She had a breakthrough about 10-15 years ago. She raised her prices and people reacted by saying “Oh you’re too expensive! I can’t afford you!” But instead of giving in and devaluing herself, she recommended other people who might be able to help the potential client.
Mary Claire shares these lessons learned in words of advice for other women business owners:
“Trust yourself and your ability.”
“Don’t be afraid to ask for help.”
“Build yourself a good network of support.”
“Have a real solid business plan and know that it will change.”
Mary Claire appreciates the opportunity provided by WBON to learn new skills that help her grow her business or sustain the business during a crisis like the pandemic. The biggest benefit of her involvement with WBON is the support and inspiration she receives from the amazing women in the organization.
WBON members represent a diversity of industries, perspectives, and experiences. Be inspired by our Member Spotlight posts, an intimate look at one member, written by another WBON member. This month’s Member Spotlight was written by WBON member Marie Eddy, Eddy Career Services