Focus On: Kristina Dowler, Virtual Assistant and Photographer in Stafford, VA

I believe in a world where we cheer one another on and we don’t see any other entrepreneur as a competitor. (It’s why I love the Rising Tide Society so much!) I love when I see other business owners support one another and I can’t possibly count all of the times I’ve been inspired or motivated by another business owner. It can be a lonely world, sitting in a corner of your home, balancing the roles of parenthood, wife, photographer, creative and just overall human with obligations to friends and the house and hobbies and passions. It feels a lot less lonely when you celebrate all the other people who get it.

Our first Focus On is a spotlight on Kristina Dowler, the owner of K. Dowler Photography (and eventually Dot the I’s Outsourcing), in Stafford, VA. Enjoy this peek into her business, her balance and her dreams. Be sure to follow her, cheer her on and stay tuned for more entrepreneur spotlights every two weeks.

Introduce yourself!

Kristina Dowler. K. Dowler Photography (and eventually, Dot the I’s Outsourcing). My business started as family photography.  But now, the primary focus of my work actually winds up being my virtual assistant services for other small business owners, though. I’m located in Stafford, VA, but I work with clients all over the country as a virtual assistant (VA) and content creator. 

Primarily I help clients with blog writing/SEO optimization, social media content creation, Pinterest management, and client management (workflows, scheduling, etc). 

When did you start your business? What inspired you to do this?

I received my first camera from my grandmother my senior year of high school. She bought a “fancy camera” for our trip to NYC and then didn’t learn how to use it. So I did. I walked all over NYC taking photos of show posters and I was hooked. In college, I started to take things more seriously. I had a few mentoring sessions, second shot some weddings and took a ton of promotional photos for friends and their recitals, projects and so on. It went from there. I closed the business when I got married and started working in an office but then realized I wasn’t going to go to graduate school and re-opened the business. A few months later, we moved into our townhouse. That summer, I started noticing there was a need for people who could write and manage calendars, bookings, and other behind the scenes work among business owners. I met with another photographer here locally about my photography actually but during our chat, came to realize my skills could be used other ways. After that, I started connecting with business owners and offering virtual assistance. It grew from there. Through word of mouth, a great blog post by Nicole Starr, (and lots of luck), I grew my VA work to a place where I could leave my office job and stay at home with my son when he was born in January 2018. That was such a blessing and absolutely terrifying at the same time!! 

I still offer photography services but, to be honest, the VA work pays the bills (well, my part anyway). I’m in the process of designing some templates and other means of passive income now too as I move towards wanting to work less so I can be with my son.

As far as what inspired me? My son and my husband. Especially once I knew I was pregnant, I knew I wanted to find a way to be home with him when I could and still provide. I love writing; I love organization; and the skills I had at my day job of a research assistant really fit well into this kind of work. I’m not sure if I was inspired or if it just happened to be a good fit for me. But, once I knew I was really helping business owners have time for their families, lives, projects… I was hooked. A side note...I wanted to be a therapist and work with those suffering from trauma for the longest time, and still do. I want to help people. My whole life has been built around serving and loving others. Right now, in my life, this is how I’m helping people. (I will tell you it took therapy of my own to come to terms with that!). 

K. Dowler Photography, Virtual Assistant and Virginia photographer

About how many hours a week would you say you spend on your business? What are some of the behind-the-scenes things that your business requires that people may not realize? 

Whew. Let’s see here… David goes to daycare three mornings a week for 5 hours each time. So that’s 15. I usually still try to work during his naps in the week, so anywhere from 8-12 more hours. So that makes… 23-32. I’d say safely, I work at least 25-30 hours a week. Most of that is working on client work and not necessarily building my own business. One of the goals I have for the fall and winter is to spend some of the time David is not in daycare (his naps!) working on building resources for other business owners, future VAs, and clients. 

People think that all I do is sit at a computer all day and sit on social media. I spend a lot of time there, yes. But I do so much more than spend all day surfing Instagram. I write blogs, I optimize posts and websites to help my clients reach their clients. I do write social media captions… but I also spend time researching, interacting with posts, and finding ways to make my clients stand out. I create graphics, write newsletters, and send way too many emails. But it’s all worth it to know that my clients get to have breathing room in their own lives. 

On a scale of 1-10, how balanced would you say you are between your work and family/personal life? How do you try to balance both worlds?

Oh my goodness…. I’d say I’m maybe a 7. My husband would probably say less! I really struggle with this. I’ve always felt like I have to be doing something - even before I went full-time with this. And now, I feel like I always have to be on, always have to be perfect, and available. That’s not the case and that’s how I’ve gotten burned out before. We took a big trip to Disney this summer and I realized just how burned out I was. On that trip, I vowed to make changes. I’m definitely still learning to balance things, but I try every single day to be better.

A few things that helped majorly:

  1. Take your work email off your phone! I met with a friend at lunch the other day and he was flabergasted I don't’ have it on my phone anymore. But it’s so freeing. I will say I do still spend too much time on social media on my phone, but at least I’m not sucked into work every second. When I have emails on my phone, I’m more tempted to check them and feel like I have to pull out my laptop and work. Which is terrible - especially when it’s just me and my son! 

  2. Daycare! I didn’t know if we’d wind up using daycare for our son. But now that we’ve started, I can’t imagine going back. Those 15 hours are golden for me. I can work, knowing I won’t be interrupted or have to stop. I can focus and be totally in office mode! It’s hard to come out of it some days but when I see how much I accomplished, it’s amazing.

  3. No work in the evenings. I’m still really struggling with this one but evenings are the only time I get my husband and son in the same room at the same time, except on weekends. And as I get ready to start playing cello for a new show, that will change. I have to heavily safeguard my evenings as family time. Some weeks I’m really good at this. Others, I’m not. When I’m sick or have lost day work hours, I will cram a few hours in the evenings. But I always feel guilty. So… take my advice, and just WALK AWAY until the morning. 

  4. Have off days. While I’m still working this out too, I try to remember the days that David isn’t in daycare are about him and me. Sometimes this means we catch up on errands. Others we spend all day playing outside and doing the things he loves. Some days it’s a combination. But having the bulk of the day to  take care of the house, errands, and be with him make me feel more in control the rest of the time. 

  5. No more work on vacations. Unless it’s an emergency (and let’s be real, I’m not a doctor so my work isn’t really an emergency), I’m making an effort to not work on vacations. This means I have to hustle leading up to it but vacations really need to be my time to relax and be with family! I didn’t work in Disney this summer and it was beautiful. For all of us. I could be present, I didn’t need my phone, I slept better even. 

I’m not perfect when it comes to balance. I started therapy in June for anxiety/anger stemming from postpartum life and work and I’ve learned that my boundaries have to be stronger so I have room to breathe. Everyone’s will look differently but know that there’s no wrong way to create space in your life. And I promise, the world will not end and your business will not die if you walk away for a day or two… or even a week. Taking time away is HUGE. 

What would you say is the biggest challenge in owning your own business?

I have two: Balance and TAXES! I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels that way! It’s hard to feel like I can take time off. But I didn’t start working for myself to work all the time. I’m still struggling with that, but I’m trying. I know when I take my time off, relax, and refocus, I’m a better mom and business owner in the end. I feel like the other part of this is learning to set boundaries for myself and my clients. I’m the kind of person who feels like I have to respond as soon as I see something or someone will leave me/not want to work with me. But I have to give myself room to breathe. Email has to be turned off, you know? I have to learn how to say no. People will live and I’ve found that my best clients are the ones that really understand boundaries - mine and theirs. 

And taxes! People don’t realize that not every cent I make goes to us. Every single time a transaction comes into my account, a portion goes into another account to pay my taxes. I got hit with a big tax bill last year because I forgot to pay state taxes quarterly (thanks mom brain). It’s nice to have flexibility and all that, but we really aren’t millionaires!  I’m not in this for the money for sure! It’s frustrating at times to see money just disappear that way, but I know it’s necessary. 

The other thing is the anxiety that comes. I love the flexibility of what I do but sometimes it can feel like I don’t know how the next day will go. For a long time, I struggled to create a schedule because of my son. He didn’t nap well, or once he did, it changed again. That’s motherhood, right? But it has been difficult for me to adjust. I struggled to figure out how to balance things for awhile. I’m still not perfect, but I think it’s much better than it was. I have to learn to feel less guilty when I choose one over the other, even knowing at the heart of it is that my son is the most important thing. 

What has been your proudest moment/greatest victory as an entrepreneur?

Being able to go full-time was huge for me. I didn’t think I’d be able to do it after a few things fell through, but I’ve rallied. I’ve found amazing clients and knowing that I support them while they support my family is an incredible feeling. Anytime I get an inquiry because of a current client, my heart swells. I LOVE knowing my clients are happy - so those are always victories to me! 

What is the hardest part of being a business owner?

I think for me, one of the hardest things is remembering to keep my business separate from my emotions. I don’t mean that I can’t be friends with the people I work with. Because I totally am. But learning to separate something they don’t like from myself is hard. I take a lot of that personally because I love this job and my clients so deeply. So when I hear something (even a minor tweak needs to be made!), I feel like I’ve failed. People are handing me pieces of their business and I want to do everything I can to help them. I want everything to be perfect and I worry a lot about not being perfect. I don’t want to let anyone down. 

I think the other thing is just people’s expectations. People think because I work from home, I can do whatever I want whenever I want. And while I do certainly have more flexibility than so many other people, it’s not always like that. I still have responsibilities. My work still has value. Knowing that my work means something to me should be enough, but sometimes it’s nice to know other people know I’m doing something real, too. 

How important is it to you to support other entrepreneurs and business owners? What are some ways that you try to do this?

So important! My whole job literally revolves around finding ways to make my clients’ lives easier. From implementing better templates, workflows, or schedules to taking blog writing off their hands entirely…. Whatever it is, I want to find it. Outside of my actual work, I try to support local businesses whenever I can by buying and eating locally! 

What are your one-year and five-year goals for your business?

Long-term goals for me are really to develop more templates, resources, and some small education pieces for other business owners, future VAs, and my clients. I’d love to redo my website and get my VA business branding/website/social media moving forward. I think things like redoing pricing and more procedural updates are always on the calendar, too! I’m almost to a place where I really can’t take on more clients so that’s an exciting achievement too, I think. 

I’d also like to find more ways to utilize my Psychology degree… whether it’s just helping other business owners realize mental health is important or what. But I think finding ways to encourage them to take care of themselves is always a good thing! 

Our biggest long-term goal is moving my business to North Carolina (Manteo). We’d love to move our family there in the next 3-5 years and I think my business is key to that happening! 

What else would you like to share? You can share anything here!!!

Being a business owner is hard. Every day is hard - even the good ones. There’s so many things pulling you in various directions. I try every day to be a good mom, business owner, VA, wife, housekeeper, sister, daughter… and the reality is we can’t be great at everything. We can be good at one thing at a time. So try to keep your focus where it matters in that moment. If I’m with my son, I try to be 100% with him. If I’m working, I try to really focus on what I’m doing. Trying to do too much at once will make everything really hard. So find ways to make things easier on yourself! That looks differently for everyone, but whatever works - go with it! And never be afraid to ask for help. Whether it’s childcare, therapy, or just a giftcard for a meal out - use your village.

Despite the hardships of being a working mom, I love every minute of it. I’m thankful for the flexibility I have. I’m thankful I can be with my son. I’m thankful I can squeeze in doctor’s appointments or extra cuddles when he’s sick and not have to worry. But there’s also a lot of fear in what I do. If my client load changes, our paychecks change. A sick day for me can mean I’m behind a whole day on multiple people’s calendars. It’s a lot - it’s a balance. Really, I think entrepreneurship is about balance at the end of the day. We just have to learn to get better about it (and really prioritize what matters most to us). 

My family is my priority. Although some days it probably doesn’t seem that way to them, I do this for them. I do this so I can be there and support our family without the stress of a 9-5. But my job isn’t a 9-5 so that comes with it’s own challenges. I wouldn't be able to do this without my husband, Ryan, or my parents/sister/grandparents who help regularly with David. I do this for my son, I really do. It worries me though that someday he’ll think all mommy did was work. But I hope that I get better about building in margins so he remembers the fun stuff - not the times mommy had to sit and work.

Seriously though, a huge thanks to my family. I love them all to the moon and back and I just want to thank them for loving me even when I feel crazy because of what I do. And a huge thank you to my clients, without them, literally none of this would be possible.

How can people find you and reach out to you?

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