Freelance Illustration Burn-Out
After 15 years of a successful illustration career, I’d hit the burn-out zone. My youthful enthusiasm that had carried me was finally waning. I realized that I needed to evolve my business to stay engaged in a way that both benefited myself and my clients.
I’m fortunate to have a loyal client base, many of whom have grown with me since I first started working with them a decade ago. They’ve helped me expand by recommending me to their friends and peers. My client list and revenue has comfortably grown with my children. As the kids have become more independent we’ve been able to afford after-school care, and thus I’ve been able to work during standards business hours.
The problem is, rather than transitioning to a healthier schedule, I found myself working 9am to 5pm, AND I continued to work late into the night after the kids went to bed. I was miserable, but it had become my normal. I didn’t really realize how out of whack my life had become, until my 8 year old daughter started asking me, “Mommy, were you up late working again?”, after I’d exhibited another bout of impatience. I was grumpy all the time, not exercising nor eating well, and generally not taking care of myself. It wasn’t until those behaviors impacted my kids, that I admitted things were amiss.
How to Change my Unhealthy Self-Employment Habits?
I knew something had to change, but I didn’t know where to start. It felt like I was always busy, but where did that leave me? Did it mean it was time to hire another illustrator? But I have such a distinct niche, I couldn’t imagine finding someone that could work seemlessly on my projects… Should I expand my business in other ways, by seeking more animation work? Branch out into design? Hire an assistant?
In the end, the answer was both simpler, and more profound than my initial ideas. Rather than changing my business structure, I needed to change my approach, and focus on setting boundaries so I could take back control of my schedule and be less reactive. I started working with a business coach who led me to realize that I needed to:
- Determine my Work-Life Boundaries, and clarify then with clients.
- Set expectations for project scheduling—i.e schedule projects ahead of time
- Change my own expectations for working hours—stop working late. If someone isn’t paying rush fees (that I set!), it can wait.
- Clarify my process, so I can communicate that with clients and set expectations for feedback and thus turn-around times/ deadlines.
- Increase my rates. I’d always assumed that editorial rates (magazines) were the peak, but she explained that this should be the low-end of my rates.
- Stop paying for shotgun marketing.
- Free up time by being more selective about my projects
- Change marketing philosophy to one of engagement.
Finding and Committing to a Business Code
Like many good things in my life, I stumbled on business coach Justine Clay somewhat accidentally. An article she wrote on Freelancers.com resonated with me. And although I didn’t understand it yet, it was a great example of how-to provide valued content as a means to marketing. Chatting with her in the initial interview confirmed that we were a good fit, and that she could help someone like me who had a lot of successful industry experience, but not necessarily business understanding. As I started to work with her, I found a coach who felt like a friend, but who pushed me to self-discover where I needed to grow. There were times I felt like, “just tell me what I need to do!”, but I repeatedly realized that she was pushing me to figure it out myself, so that I’d REALLY get it.
And that’s what Justine gave me: the guidance, tools and deeper understanding to create a roadmap for myself.
Illustration is an odd business. Whenever I sent out invoices to my clients, I’ve never understood if I should mark, “product” or “service”. I finally understand that as much or more than my hands-on-skills to create artwork (a product), is my knowledge, experience, and. Ability to listen and visualize verbal/written concepts (a service)
I and my business are still a work in process; but now, thanks to my 6-months working with Justine, I know what I need to do. Some of it feels scary and pushes me out of my comfort zone, but as Justine reminded me, that’s OK and is how we grow. Thank you Justine for helping me find the yellow-brick road, and the courage to follow it!