18th October, 2017
I would never claim to be an expert on business, but as I’ve been working as an independent illustrator for a number of years now with some success I feel that I can offer a few insights into what and just as importantly what not to do when you're starting out as a freelance illustrator.
For the purpose of this blog post I’m going to assume that you already have your place to work/hardware/software/pens/paper/paints etc all ready. If you’re unsure of what you need and what you don’t need then you may want to check out my earlier post Starting out as a Freelance Illustrator - Part 1.
Have some Self-Belief.
I know that’s corny and probably very un-British of me but this really, really important. If you don’t believe you can do it, you’re going to have a difficult time convincing other people (i.e. clients) that you can do it too.
I hooted with derision when my husband first suggested I set up my own business as we had 3 children of 5 years and under. But I was hard-working, organised and had lots of skills I didn’t want to see going to waste and after a few months I realised that yes, not only could I set up my own business, but that I could also make a success of it too.
For starters you need to remove phrases such as ‘would be illustrator’ from your vocabulary, anything that implies you might not know what you’re doing. Obviously, I’m not suggesting that you should lie but you need to instil confidence in potential clients. Confidence that you are competent and able to fulfil their brief, on time & skilfully. ‘Would be illustrator’ doesn’t really cut the mustard does it ? – It makes me cringe every time I see it in people’s bios. You can have a great portfolio but if you don’t take yourself & your business seriously others probably won’t either.
If you’re promoting yourself as an illustrator then that’s what you are. No one else is going to believe that you are an illustrator if you sound like you’re not sure yourself.
Working freelance/independently whatever you call it means you are running your own business. Even if that business is only 1 person, you. Get used to the idea that you run a business and think like someone who runs a business. I don’t mean wear a 1980’s power suit and start smoking cigars but what I’m trying to say is take it seriously. Don’t go into setting up your own business in a half-cocked way. You need to get business cards printed, register yourself with HMRC (if you’re in the UK) or with whoever your countries tax body is.
Get yourself out there and get some Commissions.
The most obvious first step is to put together a portfolio and get it out there with your name attached to it. You don’t have to include all your work in your portfolio, it’s probably better if you don’t. But what you do need is an accessible – ie easy to use, professional looking & pleasant to look at portfolio which not only shows a consistent body of work of but also your contact details. You can also include a bit of information about yourself, how much is entirely up to you. Personally I like to keep it brief because I don’t think any potential client needs to know my innermost thoughts & feelings, even less my family background but I know there are plenty of people out there who like to share.
On your portfolio site it’s always a good idea to include a few links to other places where your work appears such as Behance, Pinterest, Instagram, other blogs, your shop, published work if you have one etc.
It goes without saying that client testimonials are a valuable asset to your website as it a client list when you eventually build one up. It will all help to not only sell you as a great illustrator, but as someone who is good to work with too.
When you put together your website – either by designing it yourself or using something like Squarespace you need to make your website as easy & intuitive to use as possible. Remember, the purpose of your website is to get your portfolio in front of potential clients as simply as possible. Making those potential clients click on lots of links before they even find your portfolio is not a good idea & trying to stand out by calling your portfolio page link something obtuse like ‘all my lovely things’ instead of ‘Portfolio’ may make a potential client pause just long enough not to click on the link. If you need anymore convincing there’s an excellent book on web design called ‘Don’t make me think’ by Steve Krug.
I know it’s great to be creative, but you really need to make it as easy as possible for people to see your work and commission you.
Website Management Basics
I’m not going to cover how to properly manage your website just now, I’ll leave that for a later date. But a top tip to be going on with would be to remember to name your image files & web pages properly so they can be ‘read’ by Google – eg instead of naming an image showing an illustrated bowl of spaghetti image1.jpeg call it illustrated_bowl_of_spagetti.jpeg then it will have a much better chance of appearing in that Google search that your potential client does for illustrated bowls of spaghetti.
Ditto naming a webpage page1.php isn’t going to result in it appearing in too many web searches either.
Promote Yourself -Now this is where it starts to get tricky.
Obviously your website if it is designed & coded well with all the correct tags, keywords etc will be your first & initially your most important method of self-promotion.
These days there are numerous social media websites - too many to mention I don’t need to list them all but Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest are a good place to start. I’m sure that you’re familiar with many more. Now let me be clear......I consider social media to be a necessary evil. As far as business is concerned there is no other way than social media to get your work out there in front of so many people so quickly.
** Even though I moan about social media I have to admit I use it lots and I’ve had some really fantastic commissions and sales from potential clients seeing my work over social media. **
There will be some types of social media that appeal more than other to you. I suggest you stick with the ones you like for starters and then dip your toes with the others when you feel you want to. My favourites are Twitter & Pinterest and I struggle to get excited about Instagram, largely I suspect because it’s very mobile based and if I’m away from my desk I don’t want to be staring a mini version of my monitor rather than spending time with family & friends. You may love Instagram – lots of people do & it’s a great way to get your work out there.
** Don’t forget to promote your successes on social media (& the successes of others). Recent completed commission, personal work, support for good causes it’s all a good way to get your name & work out there. **
It’s not all about Commissions
In between and alongside commissioned work I like to work on my own designs which I sell retail & wholesale...sometimes I like to take a break from drawing maps. This is a good way of trying out new styles/tools, making money and promoting your work as each completed piece for sale gives you a great opportunity to promote yourself online numerous time. You may even decide to put together a wholesale catalogue to send to retailers, but that really is a post for another day.
Stay away from Freelance/Job bidding Websites
There are probably people out there who will disagree with me about this, but I would strongly recommend staying away from any freelance job site. You know the ones I mean…I’m not going to name names, but the websites that encourage you to bid for work against every Tom, Dick or Harriet. They may seem like a good idea when you're starting out but freelance job websites are very bad news for professional illustrators & creatives in general as:
- they reduce fees to the lowest common denominator worse still they give the impression to potential clients that commission fees are lower than they actually are.
- your level of legal protection is shaky at best. Better to find a client who you can actually speak to and who will accept your own commission contract.
Join the Association of Illustrators
I don’t get a cut from the AOI, honest, but as well as a great place to market yourself I’ve found then to be helpful & supportive and invaluable for advice all sorts of things from agents to pricing and copyright law.
Sort Out your Paper Work
Make sure you have a contract ready to go. It doesn’t have to be a fancy, expensive one penned by a solicitor. The AOI have plenty of sample contracts that you can use.
Take Regular Breaks during the Day
It’s difficult when you’re busy and sometimes even more difficult if you’re not busy as you feel you should be beavering away looking for your next commission. But it’s really important to take regular breaks from your desk. No matter how much you enjoy being creative, it’s not physically or emotionally good for anyone to be sat drawing for hours on end. You'll end up with a bad back, a sore shoulder or worse still, a repetitive strain injury.
Remember to take time off at regular intervals to walk about, go for a walk, make a drink, sit outside and get some fresh air, visit a gallery or park, go shopping. Inspiration can be found anywhere.
That's it my list of how to go about setting up your own freelance creative business. It's my no means exhaustive, but I hope it will at least point you in the right direction and provide a few tips that hadn't crossed your mind before.
9th October, 2017
Recently I’ve been asked a few times about how I started out as an illustrator & how I set up my business. It must be a sign of the times, either that or a sign my friends children are starting to get to a working age and have career choices to make. Below is by no means an exhaustive list. It’s based on what I experienced in the years I’ve been working for myself and it’s what I wish I’d known/thought of when I first set out on my own. If you’re considering setting up independently I hope you find this helpful.
A friend once expressed surprise that I didn’t ‘just work on a laptop in the dining room’ this article hopefully dispels some of that way of thinking.
Somewhere to Work
You will need an actual physical place to work and store all your work related paraphernalia, whatever that might be. These 2 places don’t have to be next to each other but you will need them both.
If you’re lucky like me you will have a room to call your own – well almost my own, at the moment I’m sharing my office with Hammy, my oldest daughters hamster. It goes without saying our resident feline furball is also up here a lot at the moment ;) As you can see from the picture above my work space if far from stylish, but it does the job.
If you don’t have the luxury of your own office room is there a section of a room/entrance hall that can become a dedicated space for your desk? – Ideally one away from grabby little children’s hands – although with 3 children of my own I appreciate this is easier said than done.
Apart from an actual workspace you will need storage for your work ‘stuff’ such as:
- Filing/receipts that show all the incoming & outgoings for your business for at least 5 years (please note this is recommended by HMRC in the UK, it may differ in other countries).
- Archive work & commissions.
- Packaging & stock if you intend to sell your illustrations/cards etc (don’t underestimate how much a 3 boxes of 12 A2 cardboard tubes can take up.)
- Drawing paper, paints, a drawing board etc
You get the idea; the list is pretty long.
Some people choose to rent out office space in a unit or co-operative. I’ve never done this so I can’t really comment. What you gain in comradery from other renters & keeping work & home physically separate I guess you lose in the cost & commute. You may want to consider this option when you’re more established.
Some people can maybe run a business from a stylish coffee shop, using a neat looking MacBook with a child perched on their knee but as far as I can see this is a myth. I’ve never met anyone who did this, in fact I think they only exist on TV. This brings me onto my next point….
Time to work
This is possibly even more obvious than my first point but as someone who was used to multi-tasking it took a while for the penny to drop.
You will need to give yourself time to work, uninterrupted time and if necessary from time to time, you may have to extract time from other activities, like sleeping. When I first started working for myself my youngest was only 2 years old. For more than a year I got up at 5.30 to get 2 hours in before ‘getting children up time’. I’m not going to pretend that this was great & empowering in any way, it wasn’t it was totally rubbish. But it meant I had 10 extra hours a week to work uninterrupted & it enabled me to build good foundations for my business.
To work effectively you need serious, dedicated work time. Not work time while you’re caring for children, or watching TV. If you have children you will definitely need some childcare, either that or prepare to have a nervous breakdown.
Hardware, Software & Tools of the Trade
Because I don’t know what type of illustration you do I’m going to generalise here. You will at least need some kind of hardware, either a desktop or a laptop. At the very least a tablet of some kind to receive emails, update your website, do your tax return, assuming you do it online, look for contacts, read blogs like this one etc. the list is endless.
Software depends largely on how you work. I primarily use Adobe Illustrator to produce the final version of my illustrations, an ancient version of Fireworks to edit image files for my website & Etsy shop & online promoting, MS Excel to record all my finances & MS Word to produce invoices/quotes. Obviously I also have PDF readers, web browsers etc. You may prefer Photoshop over Illustrator or an online invoicing service over DIY Excel. You may, or may not have older versions of software & not had to succumb to the evil that is subscription software. Whatever your hardware & software choices you need to have it in place & working well. There is nothing worse than a flaky software/hardware combination when you have work to do.
By tools of the trade I mean things like, paints, pencils, paper, charcoals etc, whatever your chosen medium.
I favour pencil & a good, solid angled drawing board. I also have my trusty Wacom graphics tablet. Even if you don’t spend a lot of time online I’d really recommend a tablet & pen mouse. Once you get used to them they are better for your hands & posture than a mouse.
Get a Proper Business email Address & some Business Cards Printed
When you set up your website the chances are you will also have the ability to set up numerous email accounts under the same domain. I think it’s always a good idea to use that rather than a Gmail or, God forbid, a Hotmail account. It just looks a lot more professional. Also don’t forget to get some business cards printed.
When I first started out working for myself I inwardly cringed every time I handed out a business card. But if you want potential clients to remember you, distributing a few well designed cards could make all the difference. I use Moo mini cards and carry some in a felt key ring so I always have some with me.
Register with HMRC & Business Insurance
Register yourself with HMRC (if you’re in the UK) or with whoever your countries tax body is. If you don’t, the tax man will find out and you will face penalties. It may seem a bit scary at first, but it’s not difficult to do. You will be sent a unique ID number & a password so you can login to your records & do your tax return. I do my tax return online – that isn’t difficult either as long as you record all your incomings & outgoings as you go along. You can start and save it and come back to the return as and when you like. Believe me if I can do it anyone can. I have trouble with my children’s primary level maths – something I’m not proud of.
Who would have thought you’d need it for illustrating? If you have people visit you in your home/office you need to make sure you’re covered it they fall down your stairs because of that ball the cat left at the top. If you visit your clients in their office you need to make sure you’re covered when you accidentally spill a coffee on their new super-duper laptop. And if you never go out and only communicate with your clients over email you need to make sure your illustrations don’t show something inaccurate likely to damage a client’s reputation and that will leave yourself wide open to prosecution.
Some people also choose to take out insurance against illness & injury in case they can’t work.
Lots of Hard-work
I know, working for yourself, who would have thought you’d have to put in lots of hard work? I think there is (a now diminishing, thankfully) idea that if you work freelance/independently then you’re relaxing at home most of the time watching ‘Homes under the Hammer’ and eating chocolate digestives. Sorry to be the bearer of surprising news but if you want to make a success of your business then you are going to have to work your socks off, at least until you have some sort of client base and a more regular workload, then you can just relax & work very hard J. The thing about working for yourself as opposed to working for a company is that you have to do EVERYTHING. You don’t just get to do the lovely drawing design stuff, you also have to:
- promote your work,
- find new business opportunities,
- follow up existing clients,
- Quote & follow up said quotes
- Invoice & make sure your invoices are all paid
- File all relevant legal documents such as tax returns, receipts, expenses etc
- Get professional insurance
- Keep you online presence ‘relevant’ & up to date.
There’s probably more, I’m getting exhausted just thinking about it, but I think you get the idea.
Self Belief & a Positive Mental Attitude
Last and by no means least this is what you need from the word go when starting out as an independent illustrator, but more about that next time.....
7th August, 2017
Who doesn't love a cup of tea? Now imagine caring for someone even more than that?
One of my latest prints was originally designed by me as a gift for my husband - who is also a huge lover of tea. We needed a funky print for our newly decorated kitchen so while the kettle was boiling I sketched this out on a piece of graph paper. After a bit of tweaking I was so happy with the finished print I've decided to make it available to buy.
An A2 size version, printed on uncoated 250gsm is now available in my Etsy shop.
Also this month I'm very excited to announce that Artifact Puzzles has launched a 493 piece wooden jigsaw version of my British Isles Illustrated map.
At the moment it's only available in the USA but they are currently looking for a UK retailer.
14th July, 2017
My latest retail map is now available to buy over on my Etsy shop - it's an A1 illustrated map of Europe and the Mediterranean including some of North Africa showing main towns, cities, places of interest, landmarks, food and flora & fauna.
The map would make a perfect gift for children and adults alike who will love studying the map and learning about our European neighbours - it's also a great introduction to geography which can help develop a child's coordination and observation.
To celebrate the launch of this map I'm running a competition over on my Facebook page. All you have to do for a chance of winning is leave a comment under the Facebook post and share the post, Easy peasy :)
16th June, 2017
It's been a good long time since I've had an opportunity to post anything new due to a mixture of hard work, stress & family illness but at long last my Illustrated map of Europe & the Mediterranean is (almost) ready to hit the shelves.
The draft print has been pored over and now I'm waiting for the first stock to arrive back with me. Meanwhile here is a sneak preview of what to expect.
9th January, 2017
After a lovely Christmas and relaxed New Year I'm back at work and raring to go.
At last the latest book by the wonderful, award-winning novelist Julie Klassen has been officially released in the UK. The novel is set in the imaginary rural village of Ivy Hill during the Jane Austen era and is full of mystery and romance........and I'm excited to say it features a map of Ivy Hill drawn by yours truly.
Designing the map for Julie's latest novel was a lovely project where I could let my imagination runaway with me as I researched old maps and books from the era.
As 2017 unfolds I will be sharing some other work I completed during 2016 as well as talking about my new & exciting projects so watch this space.