Keiko Brodeur

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. 

Keiko Brodeur | Freelance Wisdom

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?
Keiko Brodeur | Freelance Wisdom

"Everyone has their own tricks so trying different things until you find yours is essential."

Keiko Brodeur | Freelance Wisdom

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!
Keiko Brodeur | Freelance Wisdom

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.
Keiko Brodeur | Freelance Wisdom

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.
Keiko Brodeur | Freelance Wisdom

"This year we started setting aside one day a week to do whatever we want, no working at all on that day."

Keiko Brodeur | Freelance Wisdom

The 3 greatest attributes you need to be a freelance creative are:

Willingness to work alone a lot of the time, patience with how long it might take you to achieve the success you want, passion for the work you're doing!

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Molly Jacques

Molly Jacques is a lettering artist who has had the opportunity to work with some of the best brands around including Nike, TNT, Cole Haan, Entertainment Weekly, and Post-it. She got her start lettering for Sugar Paper while she was one of their shopkeepers, put her personal work up on Pinterest, and the rest is history. Get the inside scoop on her freelance journey below!

Molly Jacques | Freelance Wisdom

Tell me about your path to becoming a freelance designer and letterer.

In a way, I fell into freelancing out of necessity. When I graduated with a BFA in 2010, we were knee deep into the recession and jobs were really scarce. I started freelancing in addition to working odd jobs cleaning houses and nannying because it helped make ends meet. In 2012 though, things shifted for me - my lettering and calligraphy started becoming very sought after as not many artists were practicing this particular skill and it gave me some great leverage. I was able to start freelancing full time in 2012 after that shift and I decided I really liked working for a variety of clients. Things kept rolling and before you know it, six or seven years flew by and I'm still freelancing, ha!

In the beginning, how did you attract your first good clients?

In the very beginning, I worked part time at Sugar Paper in LA (in the shop) and after proving myself to have a distinctive eye paired with solid skills, they started hiring me on a freelance basis to create custom lettering for them. So, to answer the question, I'd have to say I attracted my first client by taking a super entry level job and proving my worth.
Once I left Sugar Paper and moved back to Michigan, where I'm originally from, I landed my first big, exciting freelance job with an ad agency (the job was chalkboard lettering for a Macaroni Grill TV commercial) after they saw my work on Pinterest. This was back when Pinterest was first blowing up on the scene and (again) I was one of few people who were practicing this craft and doing well. I think it really helped attract that first good client.
Molly Jacques | Freelance Wisdom

Can you tell us a bit about your teaching? What inspired you to offer in person workshops?

I started teaching around the same time I started full time freelancing (2012). It all started when many of my friends and colleagues kept asking me how to do calligraphy. I taught my first calligraphy workshop as a guest of a floral planner and they filled the class easily.
I was curious if I could plan a workshop on my own, so I found a venue close to home, set a date, and posted registration on my website, hoping someone would sign up. Sure enough - people FROM ALL OVER THE COUNTRY signed up. I kid you not. I was so blown away. That is pretty much where teaching started for me. Over the years, I've gained some serious experience through freelancing and teaching and I now offer online classes in addition to in person workshops.
Although recently I've taken a bit of a step back from teaching because of my freelance work load and juggling family life, I still teach as much as I can in person (as well as online).

Do you have any tips for being your most productive?

My productivity ebbs and flows. I have a hard time concentrating and often get sucked into work that I want to do instead of work that I need to do - it's hard sometimes, working from home and staying on track. I would have to say that my tip for other artists who work from home and have problems keeping attention is to structure your day into a section where you get done everything you NEED to get done that day, and then save an hour or two for productive self-driven projects that will potentially bring in income.
Also, having a studio space that is conducive to productivity is key. Keeping all of your most-used art supplies in an easy to reach spot is helpful.
If you work better around people - head to a coffee shop to work. If you work better alone - stay at your home studio. It's different for every artist.
Molly Jacques | Freelance Wisdom

"Structure your day into a section where you get done everything you NEED to get done that day, and then save an hour or two for productive self-driven projects that will potentially bring in income."


Molly Jacques | Freelance Wisdom

What has been your greatest struggle as a freelancer so far?

Hands down, organization. I have to force myself to stay on track with lists and I've had help with setting up organizational systems within my business. I'm really grateful for my art rep who helps with client management and my Mother in Law who helps with bookkeeping. Having help with the things I struggle with has really shaped my success as a freelancer.

What is your favorite thing about freelance?

The ability to work with a variety of clients on vastly different projects.

How do you continue to attract your ideal clients?

I'm very active on social media and promoting my own work, which helps. Likewise, I make sure to share my best work and try to get it in front of the right eyes. I also have an art rep - she is great at continuously updating potential clients with my recent work.
On a similar note - many artists think that having an art rep guarantees them full time work. This isn't true. I work very hard to attract clients, and I consider my rep and me a team.
Molly Jacques | Freelance Wisdom

What do you do to stay creatively inspired?

To stay inspired, I make sure to get involved with my life outside of my work. My husband and I love the outdoors and rock climbing, so we find time to take our daughter with us on hikes and climbing trips. Having the ability to hit the refresh button really helps me get inspired.

Do you have any tips for dealing with the nitty-gritty business details?

For sure. If you are good at bookkeeping and your freelance business is a pretty straight forward income stream, it's totally doable to make it work without hiring someone to do it. I recommend Quickbooks for bookkeeping and invoicing.
That said, my business is pretty unusual. I have income coming in from not only lots of different clients, but also sources of residual income from royalties, my own website, my foundry, etc. It makes things very confusing (not to mention I'm already bad at organization), so I have my Mother in Law help with the bookkeeping and I hire an accountant to file my taxes. Doing so allows me to spend my time on things that I can actually get paid for and it gives me a peace of mind to know my books are squared away.
Correct bookkeeping is very important as a freelancer. Did you know that if you are a freelance artist, work from home, and make over a certain amount of money a year you are at higher risk to be audited? Freelancers are a red flag to the IRS. This means, it's important to always pay the taxes you owe and keep a solid record of all of your write-offs.
Molly Jacques | Freelance Wisdom

Since you are your own boss, do you have any advice for maintaining a work-life balance?

Set studio hours and only break those hours if it is absolutely necessary to meet a deadline.

The 3 greatest attributes you need to be a freelance creative are:

Obsession, dedication, vision.
Molly Jacques | Freelance Wisdom

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Emily Blistein

Emily Blistein is the curator behind Clementine, a nationally recognized boutique that celebrates beautifully crafted gifts and handmade wares. While owning and running Clementine, Emily consults with makers to grow their wholesale lines and is a contributing editor for Oh So Beautiful Paper. She also offers styling and creative direction services with You're So Golden. Oh, and did we mention, before all this, Emily was a lawyer!

Read on to find out how Emily so seamlessly weaves these creative entrepreneurship and freelancing opportunities together. 

Emily Blistein | Freelance Wisdom

Tell us about your path to becoming a freelance creative of this magnitude.

Each new branch evolved really organically and often some dropped off as others emerged. I loved owning a retail store and interacting with customers, but very early on I realized that my true passion was helping smaller designers gather the resources and craft the image that would propel them into the kind of business that fit their life and talent. I was so lucky that Nole took a chance with my column on OSBP and I was pretty surprised with how incredible the response was. Once I realized that there was hunger in the product design community to hear more from the retailer perspective, I went with it. My relationship with Etsy developed because I took the time to respond to some early inquiries about how to build a good wholesale platform and as they talked to some of their top sellers, I was referenced as being helpful, so opportunities to partner kept emerging. I love being able to speak honestly and give real actionable tips to small creative businesses.
The unifying thread, from my days in policy and advocacy through my current consulting work is that I am deeply curious in helping other people tell their stories, and I feel most satisfied when I can help others gather the resources that they need to thrive. In my former life I was an attorney for survivors of domestic violence and a policy director for women’s health. I believe deeply that all women deserve the skills and resources to live free, independent lives. Helping women excel in their businesses is my current venture, but I’m always open to the next branch on this path!
Emily Blistein | Freelance Wisdom

In the beginning of Clementine how did you attract your first good clients?

Well, having a retail storefront means that my customers came right to me, but consulting clients emerged because I just honestly cared about my vendor relationships. I wanted to help them look and feel as professional as possible and I love to chat, so I was having a lot of conversations! I finally found that I was spending so much time giving advice. I loved it, but in order for it to be sustainable, I had to structure and charge for it. I always want it to be affordable – because I know how tight money can be for small business owners! – but I also really believe that women should be paid for their work, so I was honest with them and a wonderful side venture emerged from it.

You balance so many different ventures, not to mention being a mom of young boys! Do you have any tips for being your most productive?

First, let’s get real: I don’t know what it looks like from the outside – but it’s much more of an awkward dance than a balance. I discovered that I was pregnant a month after opening Clementine, so I really don’t know what it’s like not to be a mom, wife, and small business owner at the same time. They are all incredibly amazing, and also incredibly stressful.
My biggest piece of advice for being productive is to really respect your personality type. I’m motivated by creative sparks and ideas, I’m also motivated by deadlines, and I’m flexible and easily flip from task to task. I am a real extrovert and I get a ton of energy by interacting with friends and fellow small business owners, but I’m easily distracted by them too. So my productivity can be sporadic – I have learned to dig in and tune the rest of the world out when inspiration strikes (this leads to a lot of late nights, but that’s when I dial in). If you’re more of a list making planner, I can’t help you (maybe you can help me!), but I can tell you to honor that tendency and set up an office and life that support you in it.

"My biggest piece of advice for being productive is to really respect your personality type."

Emily Blistein | Freelance Wisdom

What has been your greatest struggle as a freelance creative so far?

The hustle. Look, I appreciate all of the well designed pro Biz Lady/Hustle/”quit your day job” talk and merchandise out there, but the truth is: most of our work is done alone and it’s hard to feel like you can take a day off. When Clementine closed at the end of January I was burnt out (that’s a big understatement). I needed to take some time to recalibrate. I didn’t have the energy to hustle for clients, so I hibernated for a few weeks (but when you hibernate, there’s no money coming in). When I emerged, I was really ready to work with clients again, but I needed the downtime.

What is your favorite thing about freelance?

At the heart of everything, I really get a buzz from helping to propel other creative businesses forward. There is an incredible feeling of satisfaction when a client is gleeful about what they’re going to do next after our consulting calls. Freelancing allows me to do this in the best way possible. I get to be incredibly nimble and design work that matches my best skillsets. I get to personalize my advice (a hearty blend of cheerleading, coaching, honest truth telling, and resource delivering) to meet each client where they are. There is an intense joy in being helpful and feeling like I’ve crafted a little niche within this community that is valued. I have learned again and again to trust my gut about what was needed in our creative community, and as long as clients meet me there, I’ll keep going!
Also, I get to pick my kid up early from school, after years of being tied to the shop every day, that feels wonderful!
Emily Blistein | Freelance Wisdom

You recently closed the brick and mortar of Clementine and it will now live online. Can you tell us more about that decision?

Last summer I realized I couldn’t keep going at the clip (and in all of the directions that I had been going in). I was lucky to have a pretty great retail experience. I loved my vendors, adored my shop and customers. I was energized and received wonderful feedback that kept me going strong for over five years. But retail is incredibly hard: It’s difficult to make money, it’s easy to get in debt, you think about your shop all of the time, and you can’t truly take a vacation. The foot traffic in my town began to decrease which made this place I loved begin to change into a burden for me and my family. Meanwhile I was doing more consulting and freelance work, and I really didn’t have the energy to do everything well. Once I entertained closing the retail shop, I knew it was the best decision for me. Keeping the online shop allows me to keep a toe in the retail world, so that I can continue consulting with direct knowledge, but it gives me my time back.

You're So Golden is a side venture of yours. Can you tell us more about this collaboration? What are your current dreams for this offering?

From my vantage point as a retailer, I know how important good photography and a cohesive product line is. A lot of the creative consulting that I do for brands in the early days is to help them tell a compelling story, and it became obvious that many of them needed images to match their narrative – often this isn’t as simple as product-on-white photographs. For creative brands, I think it’s important to show inside the studio and create a full world for products to inhabit. My visual arts background allowed me to begin offering styling and creative direction services and then I found a photographer turned friend, Jessica Sipe, who was always able to tell my business’s story so well with her photography. We began partnering to offer creative brands a fully packaged service where they work with me to develop creative direction for their line and then I style the shoot alongside Jessica. It’s a side gig for both of us, so we’ve been lucky to get to work with a small portfolio of brands who can really launch their lines with these images.
Emily Blistein | Freelance Wisdom

I think it's safe to say you are a serial entrepreneur. What is one piece of advice you'd give other women with those same entrepreneurial tendencies?

Spend some time really investing in books, courses and coaching early on to create a vision of your venture. Once you’re in it, I find that it’s really hard to stop and make big picture decisions so do that work early on when you have time. Also, find your own cheerleaders and some trusted critics – you’ll need both to keep going and to know when to turn off or hop off.
Emily Blistein | Freelance Wisdom

"Find your own cheerleaders and some trusted critics – you’ll need both to keep going and to know when to turn off or hop off."

Emily Blistein | Freelance Wisdom

How do you stay creatively inspired?

When creativity is your business, it can be really hard to actually be creative. I found the store so energizing for so many years, I halted almost all of my personal creative endeavors. Then I really missed them. I used to paint and sew and draw and write and I halted all of those things with my business. I’ve taken it slowly – I buy poetry books and try to read them on vacation, I just started taking a drop-in figure drawing class and I’m making plans to do more now that I am regaining some of my time back.

Do you have any tips for dealing with the nitty-gritty business details? 

Yes! If you are bad at it (or if it weighs on you), pay someone else to do it. And if you can, hire a mentor or coach to help you hash through the big picture of your business so that you can stay on track and accountable.
Emily Blistein | Freelance Wisdom

Since you are your own boss, do you have any advice for maintaining a work-life balance?

1. Find good friends and be a good friend. Ask for support and offer it.
2. Indulge in things that restore your energy.
3. Figure out how to have tough conversations with your partner. I’m better at some of those things than others.

The 3 greatest attributes you need to be a freelance creative are:

Creative vision, curiosity and the willingness to learn on the job or make up a job that doesn’t exist!
Emily Blistein | Freelance Wisdom


Photography Credits: You're So Golden for Clementine, Of Unusual Kind, Bees Wrap, and Red House. 

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