Conversation with Shay Cochrane
photographed by Gina Zeidler
When it comes to juggling a home, family, marriage, business, friendship, and self-care, photographer and stylist Shay Cochrane knows a thing or two about making it all happen. In our conversation together, Shay speaks on how she runs multiple businesses in only 15 hours a week while maintaining a happy home and family. Read on to hear her wisdom about margin, how she fosters an entrepreneurial spirit in her girls, and how she strives to live a life that she’ll look back on and say, “I’m so glad I didn’t miss out on this season.”
How do you transition so gracefully from hat to hat (business owner vs mom) throughout your week? How have you designed your days? What does a normal week look like?
Mondays are my grocery shopping and house errand days. Both of my girls are now in school and those two things take up the entire time they are at school. Mondays are spent figuring out our week, what we have going on, if it’s Teacher Appreciation Week and I need to run to Target, etc, etc, etc. I do not even have the mental space to touch work on Mondays.
Tuesday is the first of my two work days. I have about 15 hours a week to get my work done. On Tuesdays, we get up, I take the kids to school, get home, and head right into my office. Work days (Tuesdays and Thursdays) are very focused and very intense. I always have a lot to do and they are generally very, very full. It is hard trying to run multiple businesses in 15 hours a week, but it is possible. There is no room on work days to be hanging out on Instagram, popping into Facebook, taking non-work phone calls, answering text messages—it has to be a very focused period of time. I will for sure get a text from my mom or a call from my grandma, but I have to keep the phone away. I don’t even open up personal email. It is literally just a very fast paced, full work day. We do a very simple dinner and my husband picks up the girls from school. I’m working right up to the clock at 5pm when the kids come running into my office, stepping all over props, and trying to eat candy. There is no way work can continue, it all has to stop or everything will get broken or destroyed! The rest of the evening is family time and I don’t touch work again for the rest of the night.
Wednesdays I leave open to hang out with a friend, get coffee with a girl from church, or to schedule dentist appointments or whatever it is that needs to be done that week. Wednesdays are very life-giving to me. I try to wake up and not have anything that I need to do. There is time for friendship and time for community—and that fits into my Wednesday block of time.
Thursdays, rinse and repeat Tuesdays.
Fridays, my husband doesn’t work, so we have a little variation of a family day. We’ll go for a walk, have lunch together. Lately, he’s been helping me tackle some things in my business that I don’t have time for on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
So, that is the framework of my week. Everything is very compartmentalized. There are firm boundaries around everything and what that does for me is it relieves guilt. On Mondays and Wednesdays, I don’t feel guilty about not checking email or not working on a project, because on Tuesdays and Thursdays I’m very dialed in and working the very absolute best I can. On Tuesdays and Thursdays I do not feel mom guilt about not having an amazing dinner that night or doing the laundry. My house could be trashed on Tuesdays and Thursdays and I’m not going clean it, I’m just going to work. I have those firm boundaries and know there is space for everything—space for friendship, space for dedicated work time, space for grocery shopping, space for chores—and they don’t all bleed into each other. Knowing that helps me experience a lot of freedom and allows me to be effective in those areas, because those boundaries are in place.
I’m sure the freedom you find in establishing those boundaries feels incredible. What have you done in your business to make a 15-hour work week possible and profitable?
The first way I make this all happen is by really being aware of what work is profitable and what work is not profitable. I love the “80/20 principle” in business, which is essentially that 20% of the work you do generates 80% of the revenue. Multiple times a year, I sit down and lift out all of the things I am doing—answering emails, doing an interview, taking photos for the shop, editing photos, writing a blog post, creating a newsletter, etc. I assign a profit value to each item so I can identify what the “big wins” are and what things are worth my time the most. Everything that isn’t a “big win” gets outsourced or I just have to let it go. Identifying that top 20% is only half of the problem. You have to have the diligence to stick to those “big wins” and that’s where it gets hard for me.
I’ll get swept up in email or take way too long to write a newsletter because I’m overthinking it and suddenly two hours have passed. There are only a handful of things that are the best use of my time that my assistant, Kelly, can’t do or they can’t be outsourced. Those things are taking the actual photos and generating new ideas and writing our newsletter. It’s about being cognisant of that value order and sticking to the things that are most valuable. If you are going to try to run a profitable business in a very small amount of time, you have to be super dialed in. If you are going to create a product, you need to know that that product is going to sell. You don’t have the luxury to be able to say, “Oh, I think it would be fun to sell mugs”—unless you know your clients want mugs, you know what they want on the mugs, you know what your profit margin is going to be for the mugs, and you have a market for it. That’s why we do a lot of research. I have to know what images are going to sell before I dedicate the time to it. I don’t have the luxury to try a million different things. It’s essential that I stay dialed in.
I also have to say no to so many things. And while that is frustrating at times, it can be really helpful. It allows me to do the things I really enjoy. I really cannot do it all—I can’t even do half of it. I can do maybe a fourth of the things that I want to do or that come across my plate or come into my inbox. And even that one-fourth of things is going to take me ten times longer than the average person. ‘No’ sounds like such a negative word, but it allows for a lot of freedom, enjoyment, and joy in your business and keeps me in a better mental space because I’m loving what I’m saying yes to.
The only way I can run multiple businesses in 15 hours a week is by growing very slowly and by saying no to a lot of things. I would love to launch a stock shop collection every week. I have a list at least 12 color palettes long that I would love to shoot, but we only have time to shoot two of them. I can’t tell myself to work any faster than someone else. The key to having a profitable business in a small amount of time that doesn’t spill over into other areas of your life is that you have to be prepared and be ok with saying no and growing very slowly.
This past year, you created a series of gorgeous Valentine’s Day imagery to gift to your community from some grocery store flowers, a leftover bouquet, and some flowers rummaged from your neighbor’s yard. With that post, you wrote, “The race against the clock is pervasive for me on work days. At best, that kind of pace forces me to think on my feet and trust my gut while styling. At worst though, it leaves me trying to create out of a shallow creative well that will certainly dry up do to lack of ‘time’ for seeking out inspiration and just-for-fun projects to refill it. So instead of the hundreds of non-creative business tasks that were vying for my time today—I created. Just for fun.” How do you make time and space for creative play?
I really thrive on that spur-of-the-moment inspiration. My best creative work happens not on a work day. When I have an idea, it usually happens during quiet time on a random afternoon or a weekend when I see something. I’m not great at planning. I really do my best creative work when some sort of medium inspires me. If the flowers I’m working with on another project inspire me, or a new color palette and walking around my house looking at different botanicals leads me to an idea, I’ll go and execute it.
The key is you have to make space for creative work. There will always be more urgent things to do in business. I think there’s a delicate balance between sporadic creative play scheduled throughout the year and having the margin in business to capitalize on creative inspiration when it strikes.
Everything you put out into the world seems to have that beautiful “Shay” stamp. What are some ways you exercise your eye for composition, color and placement?
I put things where they feel right. Which on one hand, helps me style with authenticity rather than creating or reproducing something I’ve seen. It can also be dangerous if you start to do the same thing over and over again. I find myself in that tension. Having developed a consistent, recognizable style, I need to be careful that I don’t just go back to placing things where I’ve always placed them. When I find myself in that place, it’s time to hop back on Pinterest, flip through a J.Crew catalog, or start to follow brands that don’t share my aesthetic and think, “Ok, how else can I attack this?”
I’d love to hear about 7 or 8-year-old Shay. Do you have any childhood memories that you fondly look back on and think, “Wow, I was meant to do this.”?
I would not say I was one of those photographers who was born with a camera in my hand. I do remember, though, being amazed by a photo of hot air balloons taken by my Dad, who dabbled a bit in film photography. I attribute that photo with being the spark that got me into photography and opened my eyes to what could be captured with a camera. I caught the photography bug in my pre-teen years and then fell in love what what I could create with it once I got older.
I also loved gardening as a kid. My mom was a wonderful gardener and loved arranging flowers. That was something I always enjoyed doing with her—working with my hands; specifically with flowers, foliage, and greenery. I had never put that memory together with what I do now until a friend pointed out to me, “Shay, it makes perfect sense that you love styling because of your love of gardening and working with your hands—that traces back to your childhood!” That was a lightbulb moment for me, where I was finally able to connect the dots on why I love the “working with your hands” element of styling.
That conversation also helped me realize the significance and value of my love of flowers, by acknowledging it as a true source of life-giving inspiration. Knowing that has helped me stay true and anchored to the fact that I need to work with my hands—and it explains why the weeks where I’m behind a desk feel draining. It’s helped me realize that I’m fueled by staying connected to nature.
How do you talk to your girls about what you do and what are some ways the you love to foster their imaginations?
I would love to say that I’m the super-fun-creative mom who does regular crafts and who has an art room where the kids can paint on the walls and experiment with all of these different mediums, but that would not be true. That is not me.
What my husband and I both value, though, is the ability to create your own business. We both love the idea that everyone has some sort of skill set or knowledge base that can be both helpful to someone else and also monetizable. We try to infuse into our conversations with the girls that they are unique and special and have been given a specific set of skills, interests, and talents. That anything can be taken and used to create something valuable that could help somebody else. That what they create can, in turn, create a business and a means of sustaining yourself and your family. We talk about that with the girls and we see that in them.
Just yesterday, my 7-year-old made a bunch of snacks—these little marshmallows rolled in cinnamon with a toothpick and cereal on top (the most darling thing). She set them up in her own little bake sale to sell them and make money. Sometimes she’ll line up all of her artwork from school and try to sell it to her little sister for her allowance money! We try to affirm that, saying, “What a fun idea! But, no you cannot charge your sister a dollar from her allowance for that painting.” So, we instill that idea more than trying to instill creativity. With that said, both of our girls tend to love the more artsy things—music, creating, imagining—so we are always affirming those gifts and encouraging them. And showing them how to take ownership over those skills and abilities and to creatively think about how they could provide a service for someone else.
In 15-20 years, what do you want to look back on and say, “I’m so glad I…”
In 15 years, I want to look back and say, I’m so glad I didn’t miss out on this season of life. I want to know that I had fun, that I did something that added value to people’s lives, and that I enjoyed doing it. But I don’t want to look back and feel like I missed it. I will be so happy to look back and know that I used my creative talents and enjoyed the opportunity, but I would be very unhappy if I put all of my eggs in that basket and got too wrapped up in creating this little kingdom for myself—of owning a business or doing anything that makes me “famous.” I want this to stay fun and contained. I will be really happy to look back and say that this was life-giving, but I didn’t let it define me and take over my life.
If you could describe the perfect weekend away from your work, would what it look like?
My perfect weekend would involve going to bed really early on Friday night and sleeping in on Saturday morning. It would involve staying in bed for a long time on Saturday morning with my husband, drinking coffee and sitting and talking while the girls get their own breakfast and watch some cartoons. My ideal weekend would also involve a little bit of productive outdoor housework. I need to get outside and work with my hands for a little bit and chip away at something. It would also involve being off of my phone and resting and relaxing to the core. A Saturday night date night or having a personal chef stop by would be great! Sundays would be very low-key with very little on my plate—getting to worship, getting out for a bike ride, playing with the kids, or spending time recharging sounds like the ultimate, ultimate weekend.