Lessons From The Past
As we head into the end of the third quarter and start planning for the next year, it’s a good time to look back and see what we can learn from the women business owners who have come before us. You’d be surprised at what they can teach us and how much of their advice is still relevant today.
I’ve written before about the different challenges female business owners face from their male counterparts. And I always love listening to stories of how women across the ages have made a difference in the communities and the world. One of the advantages of my long commute, yes, I still do that, is I listen to a lot of podcasts. With an hour and a half minimum drive each way, I tend to binge listen to those podcasts. A favorite is Stuff You Missed in History Class (MissedinHistory.com). Their November 11th, 2019 podcast featured Francis (“Fanny”) Benjamin Johnston, the first professional female photographer. I highly recommend the episode, and all of their podcasts to you. Three things I love all in one episode: a female business owner, a first for women and history. I mean what’s not amazing about that?
What struck me about this particular episode is Fanny Johnson wrote an article in 1897 for the Ladies Home Journal titled What a Woman Can Do with A Camera. What does a woman from the late 1800’s have to teach us about business? Surprisingly, a lot. Some business truths are universal and timeless.
Much of the article focuses on the craft of being a professional photographer, but a good portion also focuses on what it takes to be a female in business at a time when women’s roles in society were very limited. You can find a full reprint of the article at https://www.cliohistory.org/exhibits/johnston/whatawomancando/ The article was so insightful it was re-run in its entirety a year later in a general photograph magazine (the guys didn’t want to miss out on her advice). Her tips are still relevant 125 years later!
Who knew you could take advise from a female business owner and 125 years later it would still be good? Given who Fanny was? Likely she did.
I’m going to give you the roughest thumbnail of who Fanny Johnston was. For more details, please check out Stuff You Missed in History Class’s amazing podcast.
Frances Benjamin Johnston (January 15, 1864 – May 16, 1952) was an early American photographer and photojournalist who is most known for her portraits, images of southern architecture, and various photographic series featuring African Americans and Native Americans at the turn of the 20th century. Fanny’s family was well connected in Washington, D.C, (yes, she was from the DMV area too!), and Fanny was able to leverage those relationships into an amazing career.
While she didn’t identify as a “suffragette,” Fanny’s independence and career was a-typical of her time, and she embodied much of the concept of the “New Woman.” Her self-
portraits often depicted her in slacks or in non-traditional poses. Her 1897 article is a blue print for women in business, regardless of what type of business. Here are her business tips.
TIP 1: Choose the business best suited to your personality and talents if you want to be profitable.
In order to solve successfully the problem of making a business profitable, the woman who either must or will earn her own living needs to discover a field of work for which there is a good demand, in which there is not too great competition, and which her individual tastes render in some way congenial.
There are many young women who have had a thorough art-training, whose talents do not lift their work above mediocrity, and so it is made profitless; others who, as amateurs, have dabbled a little in photography, and who would like to turn an agreeable pastime into more serious effort; while still another class might find this line of work pleasant and lucrative, where employment in the more restricted fields of typewriting, stenography, clerking, bookkeeping etc., would prove wearing and uncongenial to them.
From the start, Fanny is talking money. She’s focused on how to make her and other woman’s businesses profitable. Many people shy away from talking money. Women in business must get comfortable talking money. Period. End sentence. If you are going to have a business, do so profitably. By focusing on profitability from the very first line, Fanny is emphasizing a critical point in business. We’re here to make a profit. Making that profit allows us to fund our lives, hire employees, and make an impact on our community. Profit is not a dirty word. If your business isn’t making a profit, it’s not a business.
In Fanny’s opinion to make a business profitable, business owners must find the line of work “pleasant” and “congenial” to them. Does this sound familiar? It should. We’re constantly told to “to what we love” for our business, to use our hobbies as the springboard for our businesses. Now, 125 years later, the words are different but the sentiment and wisdom behind them are the exact same.
There’s another point she raises here that’s worth pointing out for its historical context as well as the reality that is still with us today. Fanny says her advice is for “the woman, who either must or will earn her own living.” Two thoughts here. Fanny was writing and working in a time when very few women were allowed to have interests outside the home much less become business owners. Yet, Fanny makes no class distinction. She’s writing to the female business owner who became one out of necessity as much as the one who did so from desire. Fanny also takes a slight dig at the idea that a woman of a certain class must be trained in the “feminine arts,” i.e., needlepoint, painting, music, etc., even when they have no skill. She points out it would be far more profitable and satisfying for all concerned to let women employ the skills they have regardless of class.
TIP 2: Patience and hard work are the keys to profitability.
In discussing the secret of success, Fanny said (with a few changes in parentheses from me):
The prime requisites—as summed up in my mind after long experience and thought—are these: The woman who makes (a business) profitable must have, as to personal qualities, good common sense, unlimited patience to carry her through endless failures, equally unlimited tact, good taste, a quick eye, a talent for detail, and a genius for hard work. In addition, she needs training, experience, some capital, and a field to exploit. This may seem, at first glance, an appalling list, but it is incomplete rather than exaggerated; although to an energetic, ambitious woman with even ordinary opportunities, success is always possible, and hard, intelligent and conscientious work seldom fails to develop small beginnings into large results.
I’m not sure there’s a lot that I can add to this tip. We’ve all heard the story of the miner who was digging the mineshaft only to give up just before the big strike. Patience and the willingness to work for results is one of the hallmarks of a women owned business. Know there will be set backs. There will be times when the best course of action, the good common sense, will be to abandon a tactic, plan or even product line that isn’t performing and move on. This is where the right community, see Tip 5, is critical.
One more thing I do want to stress in Fanny’s list of character traits that are needed for success of a female owned business: equally unlimited tact. The bad old double standard is unfortunately alive and well today. What my male colleagues can “get away with” is not the same thing as what I can as a woman in business. The word coming out of my mouth or actions I take that would be perceived negatively as overly aggressive and strident while a man saying the exact same words or taking those exact same actions would be praised as being a “go-getter.” I am still interrupted in discussions more than my male counter-parts. Female business owners often find the only thing they get from crashing against the glass ceiling is bruised and bloody.
Yet, there isn’t only one way of dealing with a glass ceiling. They don’t always have to be shattered. They can be tipped over or circumvented. We can and should be redefining the playing field. Unlimited tact is the way we do this.
In a nutshell, have patience, take action, work hard, and weather the setbacks. “Success is always possible.”
TIP 3: Price your work appropriately.
Women struggle with how to price their services. We’ve all heard the report that women still make less than men for the same work. Not surprisingly, Fanny had thoughts on pricing as well.
She said, “Good work should command good prices, and the wise woman will place a paying value upon her best efforts. It is a mistaken business policy to try and build up trade by doing something badly cheaper than somebody else.” Read that again.
“It is a mistaken business policy to try and build up trade by doing something badly cheaper than somebody else.”
Memorize it. Believe it.
You don’t build a successful business by merely doing the work cheaper than someone else. Underbidding is the surest way to the poor house. Not only are you not being paid the value of the product you produce (no one can pay you what you are worth. You are priceless.), you are going into time debt.
If I charge you $500 for a task that I should charge you $1500 for, there are only four possible outcomes:
1. I spent 1/3 of the time really needed on the work and you get an inferior product or service (poor quality);
2. I spend the full amount of the time on the project, but then don’t have time for more profitable work meaning I’m always struggling to stay afloat (subsistence or scarcity mode);
3. I spend the full amount of time on the project, and then work myself to exhaustion doing more of these jobs at the wrong price to make the money I need (time debt leading to scarcity mode); or
4. I do the work, can’t pay my bills, close my business and get a job (death of the business).
Does anyone think any of those options makes for a good result for your client or you? I hope not.
Yet, women business owners can unconsciously pick one of these four options. We do this by subscribing to false mantras like “I’ll make it up in volume” or “I’ll discount my rate this time to get them to like the service/product and charge them full price the next time” or any other of the host of bad business advice “they” peddle. Did you ever notice the people giving you that advise don’t have successful businesses? Wonder why? They likely took their own advice and couldn’t run a profitable business.
The reality is: (1) you don’t make it up in volume unless you’re talking about massive volume and a low delivery price point and (2) if you discount your rate once, the customer is
going to expect you to continue that discount. But most importantly; (3) if you underprice yourself, people will (almost) never tell you they would have paid more for your service or product. The one exception I’ve found is when the person is someone you won’t ever deal with again and who wants to gloat you left money on the table. Don’t be afraid to put a realistic price on your services or products.
Know what your competitors are charging. Know what it costs you to produce the result you’ve promised both in monetary and time costs. Price accordingly.
Your clients will pay you, even pay you a premium, for consistently excellent work.
Trust in that. Fanny did. And 125 years ago, she showed us that this works!
TIP 4: Don’t be a jerk.
Fanny advocates “tact.” Kevin J, Anderson’s, a many-times over best-selling novelist with over 100 books in print, modern take on this tip is, “Don’t be a jerk.”
You can say “no” without being insulting. You can and should guide your client away from a bad decision with tact and grace.
I’ve had clients propose absolutely devastating courses of action. I talked them off those particular cliffs by asking questions like “why do you think that is the best choice for your business at this moment?”.
Often your client’s potentially bad decision is because they lack the information that they need to make a better choice, or they haven’t thought through the ramifications of their choice. Tactfully asking questions can help them see the better path through the minefield.
TIP 5: Your Network is Key.
Okay, so Fanny’s article doesn’t discuss networking or how connections can rapidly accelerate your success, but I suspect she didn’t say this because she lived it. Every day. Her life is a testament to this fact.
She was given her first camera by entrepreneur George Eastman, a close friend of the family, and inventor of the new, lighter, Eastman Kodak cameras and film process. She received training in photography and dark-room techniques from Thomas Smillie, director of photography at the Smithsonian, also a family connection. When she opened her D.C. studio, she took portraits of many famous contemporaries, including suffragette Susan B. Anthony, writer Mark Twain, and Booker T. Washington, principal of the Tuskegee Institute. Well-connected among elite society, she was commissioned by magazines to do “celebrity” portraits, such as Alice Roosevelt’s wedding portrait and was dubbed the “Photographer to the American court”.
If you weren’t born with the connections Fanny was, you can create them. Network and connect. You can’t build your business sitting behind a computer screen.
The pandemic got us all into some really bad habits. Our offices became a few shuffled steps down the hall from our bedrooms. There was that whole pants debacle that I’m glad we don’t have to relive. We stopped collecting around the water-cooler (well, okay we stopped that decades before the 2020 pandemic, but you get my point) because no one was “in the office” anymore. Now that we can go back out and socialize again, it’s a challenge. But that’s not because there aren’t any events. It’s because we’ve gotten out of the habit of going to them. In the DC Metro area, there are thousands of networking and other social events a week, In the Fairfax, VA area, there are hundreds.
Go out and meet people. Let others see the passion that made you decide to be a business owner. Connect genuinely with them. Don’t focus on what those people can do for you. Make your primary goal to help those people connect with others – clients or centers of influence. The right people will appreciate those connections and work to help you connect with the people you need to know. Making connections is what female business owners excel at and when we leverage this skill it is why our businesses thrive.
TIP 6: A WOMAN ONLY NEEDS COURAGE.
I can find no better words to end this post than Fanny’s own conclusion.
Above everything else be resourceful, doing your best with what you have until you are able to obtain what you would like. Resource, a good sense, a cultivated taste and hard work for a combination that seldom fails to success in a country like ours, where a woman needs only the courage to enter a profession suitable to her talents and within her powers of accomplishment.
Success is always possible. Even now in this challenging time. Thanks Fanny.