My biggest business mistake & what I learned from it


Nicole Hill


The pressures that come with starting your own business can quickly become overwhelming – trust me, I know this firsthand. From scheduling shoot dates to maintaining deadlines and building up an ever-so-precious clientele base, it can be easy to suddenly find yourself at the bottom of a pile of “to-dos.” Without even realizing it, we spontaneously say “yes” to an overwhelming number of projects that, in hindsight, we should have said “no” to. Meanwhile, we completely forget to check in on the most important part of our business – ourselves.

So, why is it that we have a compulsion to accept each and every opportunity that comes our way with a resounding, “Yes!” without really thinking about how it will affect us? This tendency to over-promise ourselves can come from a complex combination of passion and fear. The passion part is obvious – we absolutely love our businesses and we want them to succeed more than anything. But the fear part can be harder to define, and often comes hand-in-hand with the scarcity mindset that is so familiar to entrepreneurs, and which inevitably takes us further away from our original goal: to take beautiful photographs.

One of the biggest mistakes I made when I was starting my photography business ended up being the result of this very paradigm – to say yes to a project that I wasn’t sure I should take on, or to say no and risk losing the client altogether. 

A few years ago, I found myself with the opportunity to work on a rather big project with a new client and was totally over-the-moon excited about the opportunities it might bring along with it. But because of this excitement, I wasn’t quite ready to navigate the negotiations ahead of me and didn’t see the red flags that were popping up. It started with just a few unfulfilled promises by the client, but then they started slowly negotiating my rates down, making me question the true worth of the work I was producing. I accepted the lower rate, thinking that I was helping them out – small businesses supporting small businesses, right?! Wrong. 

The client continued to promise that once they had a steadier revenue stream, they would happily pay me my full rate. And I decided to continue being patient, working for less than half the rate I would usually charge in an effort to keep the relationship going and hoping it would eventually pay off. 

This should have been my first signal to rethink the relationship. I really wanted to believe that they were sincere, but you know that bad feeling you get deep in the pit of your stomach when something just isn’t right? Well, that’s exactly the feeling I was getting, and I ignored it for far too long.

When the client eventually agreed to pay me my full rate for a project, I thought that I had finally overcome the uneasiness of it all. But then, when I sent them my invoice with the higher rate, the relationship completely broke down. They denied having agreed to my higher rate, refused to pay me despite my having the agreement in writing, and in the end, I walked away with a fraction of the rate they should have paid me and a totally broken heart.

So, what did I learn from this experience? 

1. Never be afraid to say no. 

Here’s the thing – “no” isn’t always negative. Sometimes saying no means putting yourself first, or giving the projects and people that you’ve already promised yourself to the prioritization they deserve. Saying no is about knowing the value of your time and giving yourself the space to do the best work you can while keeping your own goals and vision at the forefront. And, no, you never have to give a detailed reason for why you’re saying no.

2. Don’t make decisions from a scarcity mindset.

All entrepreneurs know the feeling of scarcity – the feeling that you have to say yes because you don’t know when the next person, project, or opportunity will come knocking on your door so you better be ready to say yes to everything that happens to come your way. This couldn’t be more wrong. And, what’s worse, it’s totally damaging to your mental health and the brand you’re trying to build. Rather, try thinking about your skill as an abundance you want to share with the world, and be selective about who you share it with at first. You’re an amazing photographer, but there are only so many hours in the day, so make sure you’re working on projects that fill you. Which leads us to…

3. When considering a project, always ask yourself, “How might this get me closer to my goal or vision?”

Just because we’re providing a service to other businesses doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t keep the goals of our own business in mind, too. As with all crafts, photography can take us in so many different directions depending upon the type of work we create and the quality of clients we work with. So, before accepting a project, think about how the end product, or how the relationship, will help YOU build YOUR brand identity so that you can continue to attract more clients and projects that are actually aligned with your own brand vision. And, if a project or client doesn’t quite fit with the brand you’re trying to build for yourself, it’s okay to tell them no. By saying “no” to a project that’s not quite the right fit, you’re providing yourself with the space and time to say “yes” to a project that is.

4. Get EVERYTHING in writing.

This might sound obvious, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve come across even minor misunderstandings in the beginning of my career that could have easily been solved had I gotten the project terms in writing beforehand. Setting shared expectations about the project between you and your client is essential to maintaining a healthy relationship throughout the process, and not doing so puts you at risk for a big ol’ misunderstanding. So, before you even snap one photograph, make sure you have a contract in place, write down all the dates, deadlines, fees, payment schedule, cancellation policy, retouching, usage, image rights etc. and make sure that you and your client sign it and give the plan a thumbs up.

The most important thing to remember, though, is that you and your photography business need to be your number one priority. Taking on too many projects that don’t match up with your vision, or that don’t make you feel excited will not only take you away from your goals, but will leave you feeling drained, burnt out, and overworked. And no one has time for that! 

Still not sure if you should say “yes” or “no” to a project?

Here are a few simple, totally valid reasons why you might want to say no:

  • The project doesn’t match up with your career goals
  • You get a bad feeling from the client or project
  • You’re burnt out or feeling over worked
  • You’re just not excited about the project
  • You feel like you have to say yes (out of a sense of obligation, real or imagined)
  • You’ve had a bad experience with them in the past

As creative entrepreneurs, it’s important that we always find new ways to empower and advocate for ourselves. And giving ourselves permission to say no when our hearts just aren’t in it is essential to our growth and mental health.

So, always, always remember: Yes, you CAN say no.


  1. Sydney says:

    I love reading your blog posts. The content is so valuable for a beginning photographer. I feel so grateful to have found your platform!!

  2. Ugh I know that pit in my stomach feeling too well when working with small businesses that want a discounted rate. I’ve fallen into the same trap! Thanks for the reminder. I love all your mindset tips.

  3. Ah! I so release to this feelings! I started as a headshot photographer after working in the industry as a professional makeup artist for over 14 years. Slowly added lifestyle and my clients followed as well! However I have numerous times done shoots for named actors at the request of their managers / PR … as a pro use that having a big name on my portfolio will increase the chance of me getting more and more business. It was never the case, I shot, they used the shots as they saw fit and the world moved on! Till one crazy day in 2013, a very controversial actor I worked with said to me: “promise me you will never work for free again! Ever ! Your time and talent is worth more than my name or anyone’s name for
    that matter !” And he paid me – a very generous day rate- out of his pocket! A story I should probably share soon on my blog 🙂 So I took that check and framed it , after cashing it 🙂 It’s in my photography studio now , next to my picture with Oprah! A constant reminder that my hard work is worth more than a name !

  4. YES! Every bit of this is so on point. Thank you Nicole for sharing from your own experience to help elevate the rest of us. Truly appreciate your candid advice and honesty. It’s rest to know that we all face these kinds of struggles. Great advice! I’ll be using al of this great advice moving forward 💕

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meet the photographer


I've spent the last decade of my life traveling the world as a fashion photographer and I created Horizon Found to give you everything I wish I had when I was starting my career. Here you'll find community, inspiration, and education - to help guide you down the path towards building the photography business of your dreams. My dream is to use this platform to help build a supportive environment in the photography industry.


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