As freelancers having a side hustle is the best we can do. For ourselves, our business, and for our clients

Having a business besides freelancing is the best we can do. For ourselves, our business, and for the clients.

Being a freelancer as an illustrator, web designer, or translator means earning a living with commissions from various clients. Our goal is to generate the commissions that suit us and that appeal to us. We want to develop and improve in our profession and eventually be happy with what we do.

Pursuing a side hustle can be a valuable asset for freelancers in this regard. Having an extra pillar of income can give us the freedom to say No.

At the beginning of my career as an illustrator, I accepted every possible request. On the one hand, I had the time, and, on the other, I desperately needed the money. So I took a storyboard assignment from a big advertising agency without hesitation. And I did so even though I was aware that freehand drawing was not something I was particularly good at. It was a nightmare. Neither was I fast enough, nor could the quality of my loveless drawings meet the client’s expectations. Nightshift, after nightshift, I tried to get the best out of it.

The final result was finally acceptable. But the road to that point was arduous for both parties. It should be clear that the agency has not contacted me again to this day.

Being able to refuse requests is essential for our business, so we can concentrate on offering what we like most (and, therefore, usually do best). But above all, it’s about fairness to the customer. Who wants to hire an unmotivated freelancer who only accepts the job to be able to pay her rent? A well-paying client has the right to the best version of us. Anything else borders on theft.

Let’s hold the urge to spend too much energy on an inquiry before we get a concrete order confirmation

Some customer requests are particularly exciting. For example, when it comes to soccer-related illustrations, I’d love to get started right away with the first sketches, even before all the conditions are clear.

But despite all the euphoria and confidence about working with a client, we must not underestimate the time and work we invest even before the first brushstroke. Email correspondence or calls alone can sometimes take hours in total. There are questions to answer, joint, binding schedules to set up, fees to negotiate, and sometimes, additional requests like, “Tomorrow, I’ll present your portfolio to the team. Could you help me with that by…?”

Carefully clarifying this framework in advance is essential and part of freelancing. However, let’s be sure about what and how much we are willing to invest before reaching an agreement, so we don’t waste our and the client’s valuable time.

Only the visualization of an idea makes it one

Sometimes we have clear pictures in our heads. Be it an idea, an illustration, or a clear vision of which new table would fit perfectly in our living room. As clear as the images may appear in our mind’s eye, trying to describe them to another person is usually doomed to failure.

The same is the case with music. We ask a friend, What is the title of this song? and start whistling, humming, or tapping the melody. In our head, it’s spot on. But the other person has no clue at all. On the other hand, we don’t understand why she can’t recognize it. After all, it is so obvious! Only when we finally remember the song’s title enlightenment strike, Oh I see… I would never have recognized that.

We are primarily visual beings. Seeing and recognizing comes easily to us. I never explain my illustration ideas to the client. I have to show them. For one thing, when I try to visualize them, I first recognize for myself whether the concept works at all. On the other hand, they give the customer and me a joint basis for discussion.

1 + 1 = 0

Humans are sensitive creatures when it comes to paying attention. In design, illustration, and especially advertising, the now hackneyed-sounding guideline “Less is more” applies. After twenty years of experience, I can agree with this, too, when conveying messages to the viewer fast and immediately.

Let’s take my Mindshot-series as an example. I don’t refer to the minimalistic, black-white-red drawing style, which is just an inevitable reflex to the attempt to visualize complex content in a concentrated way. It’s about the message.

After hundreds of illustrations and thousands of ideas and attempts, at some point, I was able to realize: The illustration collapses as soon as it is overloaded with information. So the challenge is removing as much information as possible while it still works. As in preparing the poisonous blowfish, this sometimes requires meticulous dissection.

We see the principle every day in advertising. Effective advertising conveys one main piece of information (always on an emotional level).

A car ad cannot unfold all the benefits of the vehicle on an A4 page or in a 20-second commercial. It cannot show to the same extent how fast, environmentally friendly, safe, economical, exclusive, status-enhancing, and beautiful the car is.

Well-done advertising distills the product’s advantage and conveys it unambiguously. Otherwise, our brain pulls the handbrake on too much information and turns its attention to something else.

To pitch, or not to pitch, that is the question

Yesterday’s post was about the possibilities and benefits of a test phase before the client and we commit to a long-term project.

Today, we’re talking about pitching projects. In a pitch for illustration projects, a client or agency asks several freelancers for the same project and decides on the most suitable choice after a test illustration.

Usually, pitches will not be paid, which we should keep in mind when considering participation. In the beginning, I sometimes participated to gain experience. And because I had more time than clients anyway. Today my portfolio is expressive enough to give potential clients an insight into my work and professionalism.

I would generally advise against unpaid pitches. But there are exceptions. Whether we want to invest our valuable time depends on the project. My last participation was in 2019 when a Berlin advertising agency was looking for an illustrator for an exciting project: designing the German Basic Law for its 70th anniversary. Several articles, such as Article 1: Human Dignity or Article 38: Elections, would be illustrated in the process, a lovely project that was immediately close to my heart.

The agency liked my Mindshot illustrations, which are usually provocative and, topical, socially critical. They are thought-provoking through visual surprises. But they can sometimes be controversial. The question was whether I could charge this minimalist style with a purely positive and friendly message.

But it wasn’t just the agency that wondered about this. I was asking myself the same question. And so, in this case, the pitch was also helpful and valuable to me. Otherwise, the project could have been a nightmare and agony for both sides.

After the client finally decided to go with my style, I could dive into the project with confidence and a good feeling. You can find the result here.

When the client asks for a test phase, we can say yes, but…

From time to time, new clients ask for a so-called trial or test phase. They want to ensure that we are the right or best choice for their project. In the illustration, a test phase can be in the form of initial, rough sketches or one actual illustration.

Such phases can be helpful and reassuring for both parties, especially if it is a long-term collaboration with dozens of illustrations. A first illustration shows the client how we work, communicate, consider their requests, deal with feedback, and whether we stick to the schedule.
As illustrators, we, in turn, also get an impression of the potential collaboration with the client. Do we receive the briefing and necessary information in time to meet the deadline? Does the client respect the discussed number of revision rounds?
After the test illustration, both parties can exchange ideas, express their wishes and suggest improvements to make the process more pleasant and efficient. It is a two-way approach, with the option to pull the handbrake after the test phase.

Such a phase is usually unnecessary, as we present our work and references in our online portfolio. But if requested, we must be paid for our work, even if a collaboration does not arise afterward.

Our quote distinguishes between pure production and the actual usage fee. For example, we charge 1000 € for the creation of the illustration. If the client or we decide against a collaboration, we still charge 1000 €. If, on the other hand, the customer wants to use the illustration, we set the additional fee for the usage rights, for example, 2000 €. So in total, it is 3000 €.

It’s just fair when the risk is shared. The customer only pays for the pure working time for the phase and has all the options in his own hands afterward. At the same time, we get adequately compensated for our time and work, with the prospect of a continuing, fruitful, and pleasant collaboration.

Do what you love and don’t spend money

Necessity is the mother of invention, they say, and yes, from my own experience, I can confirm that financial pressure can inspire creativity and productivity and drive us towards our goals. Many inventions in the history of mankind were born out of desperation and misery.

However, one of my goals is to enjoy life for as long as possible. The stress I feel from lack of money feels unhealthy. Unhealthy for my body and mind.

In addition, we always talk about creative freedom. But how can creativity be free if I depend on it to pay the rent this month?

Lack of money can make you inventive, but it also has the potential to lead us astray. It makes us accept commissions we don’t want on terms that aren’t ours. We begin to throw our principles overboard and, in the worst cases, lose the fire within us with which we started.

We need to protect our dream from these influences. Financial reserves are, therefore, so crucial for self-employed and freelancers. My finance accountant opened my eyes when he explained that most startups and freelancers don’t fail with their businesses because their products, service, or ideas are wrong or bad. They fail because of financial mismanagement (find more here).

A new car, the most expensive smartphone, or a bigger apartment are worthless if they sabotage our passion.

Austin Kleon puts it this way in his terrific book “Keep going”:

“Do what you love” + low overhead = a good life.

“Do what you love” + “I deserve nice things” = a time bomb.

Embracing the good pressure, discarding the bad one

Some projects, be they commissions or study projects, still make me feel stressed and nauseous from insomnia just thinking about them. The pressure I felt at the time while creating was not a good one, not a healthy one. Maybe it was beneficial regarding my productivity and focus, but only because I hadn’t yet learned to activate either early on. Although perhaps the result was convincing, in the long run, the process was destructive. I simply started to work on the project too late.

Bad pressure is the pressure we feel when the deadline is eight in the morning, and we’ve worked through the night until five minutes to eight under intense pressure. We are exhausted, haven’t eaten for hours, haven’t had anything to drink, and are dissatisfied with our creative results. There is nothing we wish for more than to have just a little bit more time (which would have been possible if we had managed to start working earlier).

Regardless of whether or not the client or professor is happy with our work, we have failed — not just because we pushed our bodies and minds to an unhealthy limit. We risked diminishing our enjoyment of our creative work in the long run because of our procrastination and poor planning. For our life, this would be a real tragedy.

We feel a good pressure early. It’s the kind of excitement and nervousness that drives us to our desks to do the work. We’re nervous because we don’t know where the journey is going. Can we meet the client’s expectations? Is there enough time for the deadline? What do I need to get done this week to keep on schedule? Good pressure pushes us right from the start. If we ignore it long enough, it turns into the vicious monster that hunts us through a creative hell.

Let’s not explain the idea. We need to show it

An idea that works in our head can collapse as soon as we try to articulate it. An idea we can articulate can crumble as soon as we try to visualize it. Only an idea that can stand up when visualized has the potential to work.

When I’m working on a conceptual illustration, it sometimes happens that an idea pops up, and I think, “That’s it. That’s on the spot”. But after years of experience, I’ve learned to be especially aware of these “flashes of genius.”

It would be nice if I didn’t have to be. If I could just call the client right after, get their convinced and enthusiastic confirmation, and start executing the project. I would save the client and myself so much time.

But what if the idea fails on paper? What if, for example, the provided color palette is unsuitable for that particular idea? If I underestimate the final format and dimensions? If elements don’t work together the way I thought they would? Or if, on reflection, the idea is simply not original enough? Then I wouldn’t be able to avoid a humble phone call telling the client, “Sorry, that was a dud. Everything back to zero.”

Instead, let’s put our ideas through their paces by creating a visual prototype. In an illustration, that might be a sketch. In a commercial, the creative director and intern might perform the spot. When it comes to movies, a “treatment” is needed.

We have to put the idea into a form that we can actually show and present. Only then can everyone involved see if and how well it works. Everything before that is Russian roulette.

Let’s use more ways to gain money like the seniors in Ogimi, Japan

The Japanese village Ogimi is called the “village of longevity” due to the high percentage of centenarians. (If you want to know more, I recommend the book Ikigai-The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life by Héctor García & Francesc Miralles).

“One hundred percent of the seniors we interviewed in Ogimi had a primary and a secondary occupation. Most of them kept a vegetable garden as a secondary job and sold their produce at the local market.”

Ikigai by H. García & F. Miralles

As freelancers, these seniors can be our role models. As illustrator, for example, in addition to commissioned work, we can sell paintings and products, give local workshops, or offer online courses. There are plenty of opportunities, and who knows where and to whom the additional financial pillar will lead us?

Finding the value in our work: Let’s not sell ourselves short

That is not meant to sound like well-intentioned advice among friends or family to empower or motivate each other. As freelancers, figuring out the market value of our work is a concrete task.

We can keep several factors in mind and observe them constantly: How high is the demand for our service? How quickly can we deliver? Is there a measurable added value for the customer due to our service? What is our reputation? How do we convey our experience, professionalism, and credibility to build trust?

We can never quantify this value precisely to the cent. After all, a car dealer would never consider pricing a car at 23,742.29 euros but, i.e., 25,000 euros. However, what we can work out and set in advance for any price negotiations is a red line, a lower limit for our fee. Once we have established this, we can gratefully and confidently reject requests below it.

In the long run, our goal is to steadily and reasonably raise this red line with the help of our gained experience and expertise.

Got a new job request? It’s “No” or “Now”

When we receive a new job request as freelancers and have agreed on the general conditions with the potential client, there are only two possibilities for how to proceed: It’s either no or now.

There are many good reasons to say no and even more reasons to start working immediately, as soon as we accept the assignment. In my first post, you will find some of them.

10 rules and habits I have established for my illustration business

1. the first hour of the day belongs to me
2. start immediately with new commissions
3. never miss a deadline
4. embrace constructive criticism 
5. never repeat cooperation with a client who shows no respect
6. save as much money as possible
7. save the name of a new contact on my phone so I know who is calling
8. when working with an advertising agency, always ask who the client is
9. never work without a backup (Time Machine on Mac)
10. Remember: I am not my work

Fear and financial pressure are lousy advisors, but a great kick in the…

When I decided to start freelancing as an illustrator over ten years ago, fear was a constant companion for a long time—the challenges of making a living doing what I love most seemed enormous.

After turning down a permanent contract with a global fashion brand and thus financial stability, I started from scratch. I had no personal illustration style, no portfolio, no contacts, and of course, no clients. All I had was my savings, which would only keep my head above water for a few months with a modest lifestyle, on the one hand, and my dream, on the other. This dream had stuck, and it would not let go of me now.

During these months, I woke up several times sweating and breathing heavily. In my dreams, I had given up on my goal. I found myself in a job interview or the office at one of my past jobs. It was a nightmare. That doesn’t mean that working there was a nightmare—quite the opposite. But the feeling of having given up my deep desire made me panic.

Those nightmares, and the fact that my savings were melting away over time, really chased me out of bed to my desk early in the morning. Who knows if I could be living my dream job as an illustrator today without that good dose of anxiety?

Looking back, I appreciate the pressure and value it for the future. Feeling fear can be a sign that we are right on track. It means we are serious, and it matters to us. Instead of paralyzing and blocking us, what scares us now can give us the last bit of motivation to get exactly where we want to go.

Declining job requests? Let’s look for patterns of annual fluctuations

That’s it. I had a good run, but it’s over now. In my first few years as a freelance illustrator, these words crept into my head from time to time. For months, exciting emails would flood into my inbox: client inquiries, interview requests, collaboration requests. I could barely keep up with responding and creating proposals.

But suddenly … silence. The only emails I was still receiving were the faithful spam from some guy named Manuel Franko, who was desperate to give me tens of millions of dollars if only I would click on his link.

Seemingly from one day to the next, the requests stopped. The first two weeks I still enjoyed because the last months had been full of overtime. By the third, I was getting nervous. Still nothing … it seemed like someone had turned off the switch.

Then finally, the redemption. A new request. Then another one. Soon I was busy again, and my worries vanished.

Over the years, I could recognize a rhythm. The months in which I received fewer inquiries had always been the summer months, the vacation season. So it was no wonder the curve went down here before it shot up again in late August.

With that in mind, not only could I calm down when inquiries were low. I could plan with it for vacations, personal projects, website updates, and more.

Because of our inexperience, such fluctuations can cause existential anxiety. Over time, we recognize patterns, incorporate them into our lives, and use them best. The important thing is just to be on the lookout for them.