All pros start by selling themselves short

As soon as we decide to take money for what we love to do, a new era in our life begins. Often this is the step from a casual hobby, from an amateur to a professional mindset. Suddenly it’s all about delivering, meeting expectations, deadlines, and much more.

The fact that we usually sell ourselves short at the beginning is inevitable. That’s because we misjudge the workload due to lack of experience or endlessly tweak the design out of insecurity before presenting it to the client. Or maybe we’re just happy to make a little money doing what we enjoy the most.

When I decided to go into illustration, I quickly realized that my prices were too low. But at the same time, I realized what I needed to work on to change that. With the increasing quality of my work, an optimized working process, and a focused, sophisticated online portfolio, I would be able to raise prices confidently.

So it’s all about working on ourselves first. The best part is that with the increasing quality of our work and the courage to share it with the world, people will take notice and eventually hire us. And that’s so much more pleasant than knocking door-to-door and making uptight sales pitches.

Quick thoughts about the illustration business and storyboarding

I have the impression that the market for illustrators is large and diverse. Books, magazines, movie posters, product packaging, t-shirts, vehicles, and websites are a few areas we can create illustrations for. Agencies can even build multi-million dollar advertising campaigns based on the works of a single illustrator.

Some areas, however, seem to be a bit more saturated. For example, this may apply to children’s books after reading articles and speaking to colleagues. But even that shouldn’t stop us from going all the way in if this is our passion. Apart from that, there are still other areas which we can enjoy.

Children’s book illustrators, for example, could also offer storyboards. They are skilled at freehand drawing and creating entire series of illustrations. They usually can visualize quickly. That skill is necessary for creating storyboards. Storyboards are a daily tool within the creative industry, whether for commercials, game apps, or movies. Speed is essential here. Advertising agencies might call in the morning and ask for a storyboard for a pitch at noon. A fast and reliable illustrator is precious.

PS: Personally, I’m not very comfortable with storyboarding. You can find a little anecdote about this in my last post.

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 finished illustration.

Such phases can be helpful and reassuring for both parties, especially if it is a long-term collaboration with dozens of illustrations. A test 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 usually is not necessary for most clients, 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.

All our quote distinguishes between pure production and the actual usage fee. Let’s say 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 €.

Regarding a test, it’s just fair when the risk is shared. The client only pays for the pure working time 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.

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.

A finance warning by my accountant when starting a business

At one of my first meetings with my accountant, he told me 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. Many find it difficult to internalize that the money in their account is not 100% theirs, but part of it belongs to the tax office. In Germany, you are on the safe side if you set aside 1/3 of your income (excluding sales tax) for the tax office and health insurance.

Wouldn’t it be sad if we had to end our long-awaited dream of launching our restaurant, product, or service just because we spent money on a vacation, a car, or a watch? Money that didn’t belong to us in the first place? Wouldn’t that be unfair, irresponsible, and negligent to ourselves?

And even worse, wouldn’t we be depriving our fellow human beings of the result of our passion? An invention, a film, a product, or a service that might have simplified or beautified their lives?

Especially at the beginning of our project, until we can assess the financial situation more accurately, humility seems to be the virtue with which everything stands and falls.