We live in an age of social media influencers, the gig economy, and buzzy phrases like “side hustle”. Everyone is trying to make it, showcase their talent, and ultimately, get paid. When you’re a creative freelancer, in many ways, you’re on your own trying to make it.
I’m a freelance Illustrator who works nights and weekends creating work to sell, taking on commercial design projects, and selling my wares at craft markets. I’ve done just about every type of gig you can imagine: custom tattoo designs, wedding invitations, event posters, and editorial illustrations to accompany articles. Now over ten years in, I’ve learned quite a bit along the way. In an effort to share best practices I’ve gleaned along the way, here are my top ideas for how to survive (and even thrive) as a creative freelancer.
Say Yes (But Also Say No)
When you’re starting out or trying to live off of your creativity, it’s tempting to say yes to everything. There’s also a lot of advice out there that says “say yes” and good things will happen. While I do agree with that sentiment, to an extent, there will always be projects that aren’t worth your time.
A word of warning: people who don’t want to pay you will find you. Practice this question for when random people reach out: “What is your budget for this project?”. Also, be mindful of the person’s tone in the email. Are they demanding? Are they scatterbrained? Do they promise exposure in place of payment?
Don’t sell yourself short. Watch for red flags and ask questions before you commit. If the email is super sketchy, I give you permission to not reply.
Practice Your Pitch
It appears, especially on social media, that exciting jobs are handed out to successful artists. Something you don’t see is that part of the process is pitching yourself. Researching companies and publications to pitch yourself to is vital to getting more eyes on your work. Do you follow brands that utilize illustrations that you like? Is there a magazine you subscribe to that values high-quality design work? Seek them out. Don’t expect them to find you in a sea of talented creatives. Not sure where to start with drafting your email? Use our handy email pitch template.
While doing research, if you find submission guidelines for a publication or organization, follow directions. Companies don’t publish those for fun. They want to make submitting to them a uniform process. Don’t ignore guidelines; use them.
Do your research, build a simple spreadsheet to organize your contacts, and start reaching out. The key is to not be annoying. Keep your email simple, include links so they can view your work, and be gracious. You want to be top of mind, not a pest.
It’s exciting to fire off a bunch of emails to promising new clients. However, don’t expect to get a paid gig right off the bat. Or, even at all. Yes, sometimes you’ll just have to try and try again. Failing is part of the process. Learning to accept rejection as normal can help you maintain the confidence and drive you’ll need to keep trying.
While hearing no or nothing (most common) isn’t fun, when you finally get a positive response, it’ll feel so incredibly rewarding.
Refresh Your Online Content
Your online presence is important. Focus on what you can handle. Rather than creating a social account on every platform and rarely utilize them, pick the ones you will use. Do you have a hard time planning content to post and staying organized? Try using a social media scheduling Trello board; this template may come in handy as a good starting point.
A website is only as good as it is updated. Make sure you refresh your portfolio and contact info. Make it as easy as possible for people to find examples of your work and how to contact you.
Along with keeping tabs on clients, you’ll want to pay attention to the amount of money you spend on supplies and tools. When jobs or orders start rolling in and you’re seeing payments come through, don’t forget about the expenses you have that go into running a successful business. Keeping a close eye on what you spend your money on (work-wise) can help you make informed decisions about what you need vs. what’s draining your profits.
Personally, I just keep a simple spreadsheet to track income vs. expenses for each project I take on. Many creative acquaintances of mine who need more formal tracking swear by QuickBooks software. It’s not cheap; so consider starting in a spreadsheet and then taking the plunge with the software once it’s necessary.
You may have a lot of good ideas but bouncing those ideas off of others is vital. Like many creatives, I come across weird situations, random product ideas, potential work-related purchases I need to decide on, etc. It is very difficult to make all of the decisions by yourself when you work alone.
Just as we use the internet for almost everything, you can also find other freelancers through Facebook groups, Meetup groups, and people who follow on Instagram. Keep in mind you don’t have to find people exactly like you. In fact, it’s better to have a diverse group of people to bounce ideas off of. Find your people, keep in contact, invite local people to meet for a coffee, and help each other be successful.
Running your own business, no matter how big or small is a lot of work. It never stops. You’ll have to become comfortable with continually working on all of the tasks above. I’d love to say that the steps in this blog are “set it and forget it” but that’s a lie.
The good news is, the more you consistently work on your business, the better your chances are of getting more work. And then, you won’t have to pitch yourself as much. Owning a side business isn’t easy, but if you love what you do, it’ll be worth all of your hard work.