- Maggie Sutherland is a full-service photographer — and she homeschools her four children.
- She’s faced many business challenges, from moving cities to finding clients during the pandemic.
- Here’s how she manages her kids’ daily lessons alongside her business, as told to Robin Madell.
This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Maggie Sutherland, the 32-year-old founder of Sutherland Photography in St. Louis. It has been edited for length and clarity.
I’m a mom and have been homeschooling my four kids for seven years. I also run my own full-service photography business, which I officially started in 2020. My clients typically spend between $1,000 and $4,000 a session.
I’ve always been interested in photography. My dad studied photography in college, and my grandparents had a darkroom in their basement. But I didn’t really get into photography until I was in high school, when I started taking classes on it.
I started with mostly landscape still life and moved on to taking pictures of my kids once I had them. An old friend pushed me to finally start my business and take clients. I love it because new subjects are really fun — as much as I love taking pictures of my kids, they don’t always get into it.
Each client takes 10 to 12 hours of my time
I limit myself to working with one client a week so that I can give each client the experience they deserve and limit the potential for COVID-19 exposure.
We start with a quick phone call so I can learn about what they’re looking for, followed by a consultation where they come to my studio and we plan the session, props, and outfits. They have the opportunity to look through my offerings, decide how they want to display the photos I take in their sessions, and secure their date.
The length of the session varies. It can take an hour for a family or maternity session, or it can take three-plus hours for a newborn. I have everything they might need — snacks and drinks, as well as toys for subjects’ siblings to play with.
After their session, I invite them back for a session-reveal appointment, when they’ll see their photos for the first time. From there, I hand-edit their chosen images in a fine-art style, which can take 20 minutes or up to an hour per image, and order their products. They come back a few weeks later to pick up their artwork.
I’ll usually do editing or other administrative work in the afternoons if I’m home, and I’ll wait to return phone calls until the evening, when my husband gets home. My sessions usually take place on Saturday mornings.
My husband goes to work about 4 a.m., but my kids and I all get up about 7 a.m. Then everyone does 2 chores.
We start school at 8:30 a.m. Everyone has their assignments in a binder ahead of time so they can always start working if I need to help the younger kids.
For each kid, I plan a semester’s worth of lessons in Excel. I print out three to four weeks at a time in case they really love something and want to speed through it — or if there’s an illness, we can easily adjust.
In the mornings, I start with my oldest, then my second oldest, and match up their science and social-studies lessons so that they’re learning the same things at the same time. Then, I match my second oldest’s remaining subjects with my third child’s lessons the same way.
We start with math for everyone and then move on to language arts. From there, we do science together and listen to history lessons. We use a curriculum called “The Story of Civilization” and love listening to it in the car. We also listen to books on tape while running errands. Our favorites are from “Magic Tree House.”
We usually finish up all the work I need to help them with by lunch. After lunch, they work on any independent work like reading or Latin and have free time after that. My 10-, 8-, and 5-year-olds all play baseball and softball, so spring and fall get extra busy.
I really love homeschooling because the kids have the freedom to follow their interests, whether they be sports or cooking.
Once the pandemic started, we had to drastically change how we spent our days
Before the pandemic, we spent a ton of time at museums, science centers, and aquariums. We were just out in the world learning about life. We had playdates and hiked with friends at least once a week. We’ve had to cut way down on our excursions and get creative when COVID-19 hit.
There are a bunch of online tours of museums and cool documentaries we’ve watched, but it isn’t the same as going and experiencing that for yourself. Outdoor activities like baseball, hiking, and the zoo have been an OK compromise, and we’ve spent a lot more time with bookwork.
We recently moved from Knoxville, Tennessee, to St. Louis, and trying to restart my business in a new location wasn’t easy
There are fewer networking opportunities now, so it’s just harder to get your name out. I would have been going to benefit dinners or visiting local businesses to partner with, but I’ve changed my marketing to focus more on search-engine optimization so clients can find me online more easily.
I’ve hired an SEO guy — whom I found from a photography business class — to help me work on that. We also moved my website to a host that’s better for SEO and customizing.
I’ve been reaching out to other small businesses through email instead of in person. I basically just introduce myself, share how I found them, and try to connect with them before suggesting we partner up. Partnering with other businesses could mean providing promotional photos and headshots, the partner displaying my artwork with my business cards alongside it, promotions for the partner’s customers, or collaborating on giveaways or advertising. It depends on what the partner’s business is and how we can best help each other.
A lot of times, I’ll find a prospective partner on social media and slowly start chatting with them to see if we would be a good fit. I’ve found a bakery, doula, and chiropractor to partner with this way. Referrals from previous clients are also a huge part of my business.
I really focus on customer service and creating a custom experience for each of my clients
I spend a lot of time planning and getting to know them so that coming back for next year’s family portraits is an easy decision for them. At the end of it, they have beautiful artwork on their walls that their friends and family will see, so that certainly helps.
I’m hopeful that restrictions are slowing down with COVID-19 so that I can work on marketing in more ways — like going to community events and getting my name out more.