Keiko Brodeur is a painter and illustrator and the creative behind Small Adventure, a line of camping and traveling themed paper goods. Her goods and illustration works have been sold and licensed by a variety of high end retail stores as well as smaller boutiques and have been published in magazines such as Lucky and Bust.
We so appreciate the honesty she shares in this interview about the struggles that come with the freedom of being a creative. Her wise words are just the motivation we need to keep going when the going gets tough.
Tell me about your path to becoming a freelance illustrator.
Technically I'm more of a business owner that designs and illustrates paper goods as well as manufactures them. Sometimes I take on freelance illustration work but not very often.
I was unsatisfied with the creative freedom I had in previous jobs and really just wanted to draw and make whatever I wanted. The best way to do that, I eventually found, is navigating the challenging route of forming your own business!
In the beginning, how did you attract your first good illustration clients and/or customers for Small Adventure Shop?
Etsy played an integral role in me opening an online shop with basically no budget and allowed me to try out products to see what kind of response they got at the low price of what was then $.10 a product listing. I fulfilled my first wholesale orders from shops that way and was able to see what sold and what didn't and what customers wanted to see more of. After a year or two I tried the Renegade Craft Fair which helped immensely in getting retail buyers interested in my products as well as expanding my customer base. In the past 7 or 8 years I've been pretty fortunate that most customers/clients have found me online or through craft fairs and I haven't had to put much marketing effort into finding new customers or wholesale accounts on my own.
You balance commission work with all the work that needs to be done for Small Adventure. Do you have any tips for being your most productive?
For me it's mostly balancing the business-y type work with the creative work that needs to get done for Small Adventure. There's a lot of both on a daily basis usually. One of my faults is that when I get stuck on something that I don't know how to do (business-y stuff) or not sure how to make look better (creative stuff) I tend to just stare at it or freeze up. Taking breaks is key and switching from one kind of task to another can also help break up the monotony. Everyone has their own tricks so trying different things until you find yours is essential. I've gotten better at being more productive over the years. Practice makes perfect, right?
What has been your greatest struggle as a freelance creative so far?
The business side of running Small Adventure has by far been the biggest challenge. I'm pretty okay at completing small tasks and taking care of the day-to-day, but looking at the big picture and being more strategic with how I operate a small business is not my strong suit. This year I'm going to be receiving business coaching from my fantastic bookkeeper which will hopefully guide me through some of this business fog.
What is your favorite thing about working for yourself?
I get to make my own schedule and work on whatever I want, pretty much whenever I want! I've found that I'm more excited about work and more productive when I can set my own deadlines as well.
How do you continue to attract your ideal clients/customers?
Right now I'm trying to make work that I would want to buy instead of boxing myself into my original style or concept. I think having a strong and consistent visual aesthetic is important for a brand. Mine is shifting a little which is scary, but overall I think it's vital for me to be making what I'm most inspired by and so far I think my clients/customers are reacting very positively so I'm hopeful it'll work out in the long run. I've also been attempting to be better on social media and sending out newsletters to current clients and customers to keep them up to date and in the know. I'm not great at it but will hopefully improve!
Last year you released the Small Adventure Journal with Chronicle Books, congrats! Can you tell us more about that project? What you loved? What was hard? What you've learned for next time?
Thanks! Chronicle Books approached me with the initial idea and they were pretty hands off about the whole process, instead just guiding me and giving suggestions when I needed it. The whole project was so eye opening for me since I had never made something that extensive before or worked with a publisher. The writing was certainly the most challenging as I don't consider myself to be a very good writer. The entirety of the project took over a year to make and it was difficult to neglect making a lot of new products for my business because of the time the book was taking up. Totally worth it though! There were a lot of illustrations that I wish I would've made a lot better looking back now, but I would certainly take on another similar project if the opportunity presented itself because of how smoothly everything went and because of the fantastic team at Chronicle.
Do you have any other exciting collaborations or commissions in the works?
I have one collaboration that I just finished up final artwork for, but I'm pretty sure I'm not supposed to mention it yet. I'll post about it when it's out. Other than that I'm mostly excited to keep making new cards and possibly some experimental products for Small Adventure this year.
Do you have any tips for dealing with the nitty-gritty business details?
If you can hire a bookkeeper or accountant as soon as you can. I just did last year and it's made a world of difference for me to have someone who stays on top of all my expenses and make sure all the books are prepared correctly for taxes. I'm positive I was doing most things wrong before. Get help wherever you can as soon as you can and you'll find you have more time to do the things that you're actually good at. I'm sure you've heard this a million times before but it's totally true and worth the money.
What do you do to stay creatively inspired?
I was actually struggling with this one very recently and felt down in the dumps about my past and current work. These feelings come up at least a couple times a year where I start feeling very depressed about myself and what I'm making. I'm sure this happens to most everyone from time to time, no matter how successful they seem. Sometimes it just takes a day of me focusing up on my painting to snap out of the negative feelings, but this most recent time it's been waves of sadness that have come and gone for most of 2017. Because of this I decided to start making paintings/illustrations that reflect what I'm most interested in instead of focusing on making them specifically for greeting cards or for products that I know will best sell for my brand. It's a very new decision that I made in the past few days so I don't know how it's going quite yet but I do feel better already. I'm hoping to keep making work that I like and would potentially purchase and am crossing my fingers that new ideas for cards and other products will emerge from this experimentation.
Since you are your own boss, do you have any advice for maintaining a work-life balance?
In the past 4-5 or so years my life has been mostly work as well as for my husband who is also a creative freelancer. This year we started setting aside one day a week to do whatever we want, no working at all on that day. Sometimes we have to fudge a little when there are big deadlines coming up, but so far it's working out really well. Hopefully some day we won't have to work as much because I think weekends are really necessary but for right now we're just doing what we can to make our lives healthier.