Clickin’ mom – Nicole from Bear & Dragon Photography

Mum-of-three Nicole Gustafsson of Bear & Dragon Photography has captured many, MANY intimate moments with families from all over the world, right here in Brussels. In this interview she tells us a bit about what it's like to run her own business.

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Please tell us a little bit about yourself: where are you and your partner from? How did you end up living in Belgium? How many children do you have? What ages are they?

My name is Nicole and I am an American expat living here in Belgium for nearly 10 years.

I was born and raised in San Francisco and began my career there until I fell for a charismatic, goofy and unfortunately Stockholm-based Swede. Feeling that it would surely be better to co-locate on one continent, we moved to Brussels in 2009.

Since then we have added three little ones, a daughter (7 going on 16) and two boys (5 and 2.5).

Tell us about your company / business / activity / service: where did the idea for your business come from? how long have you been running it? what were you doing before you started it / what do you do alongside it?

I began working as a photographer around six years ago, when our first baby was about a year old.

I always loved photography, somehow managing to take three semesters of the same photography class in secondary school, just to gain access to the dark room. 🙂

I went on to study business and finance and worked for about eight years as a business consultant. I loved this time with its high demands, long hours and exciting international travel but after starting our family, I wanted a different lifestyle.

Luckily I was able to grow my passion for photography into a full time second career that still lets me collect my kids at 15:30 each day though I do miss out on some Saturdays!

Did you find it difficult to set up your activity in Belgium? Who did you turn to for advice and support?

To get started, I reached out to the lovely local community to offer free photo sessions. Anything to get in there and practice!

Along with additional studies, taking thousands of photos and a lot of hard work, Bear & Dragon has grown into an enterprise I can be proud of.

On the business side, I worked with Louise Hilditch at Local Knowledge to do the official registration of the business. 

What are the best and worst things about being your own boss?

Best is that I can take the business in any direction I like and am always working to improve and refine what I am offering.

The worst is I am somewhat of a workaholic and it is always difficult to set limits. Especially when you truly love what you do. 

Have you always had an entrepreneurial spirit?

Yes, I think so. The consultancy I worked for was extremely entrepreneurial and in a lot of ways, your success there was defined by how you grew your own business along the way.

I am a person with a lot of energy and often see opportunities I wish I could grab but there are only so many hours in the day! 

Was your family (parents, partner) supportive of you setting up your company / business / activity / service? Would you encourage your own children to be their own bosses? (when they grow up, that is ;))

My parents never quite grasped what I did in my consulting career (creating behavioral change to align organisations around their strategy through experiential learning).

So when I said I wanted to pursue a second career in photography there was probably some relief. 🙂 Also concerned through, because in a lot of ways I was defined through my work and did love that time. But overall they have been very supportive.

I would encourage my children to follow their dreams. My husband and I differ on that somewhat as he wants to make sure they make practical career choices. If they have an idea and want to start their own company I would be more than supportive.

Do you feel that being a parent has any influence on how you do what you do? e.g. your own boundaries, or how you handle employees who have children

Being a parent influences every aspect of my life and work. Especially since I work with families!

I take a very relaxed approach to reading the mood and feeling with each family, to try to create an environment where they can relax, have fun and enjoy each session.

You just can’t fake it with children, they know when you are genuinely happy to play and be around them.

To me, without this level of connection and engagement, you cannot capture beautiful and real moments. Without my own little people around to teach me these things, I would be lost!

What are your top tips on balancing home and work life? How do you stay organised throughout the day and get time for everyone and everything?

I wish I knew the magic trick here.

I think it is important to be realistic about what you can achieve and even when you want to do more, you have to pace your incoming work.

Identify your more productive times, for me it is first thing in the morning, so I wake up early to answer emails and prepare for the day.

I live by my calendar. If it is not scheduled then it does not happen!

To maximise your time with family, hide your phone and be present!

Can you recollect any funny child-work balancing stories?

When children and work collide, it is rarely funny! But I can confirm that as soon as I get a work call, my children instantly turn up their volume by 100%.

Do you have any tips for parents who dream of becoming entrepreneurs / becoming their own boss, but just can’t get started?

If you really want to get started on a new venture, set a budget and time period you are willing to devote to the enterprise and jump in!

Reach out to others in the field to ask for support or mentorship. Look for innovative ways to get your work in front of people and believe in yourself!

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