Kelly Abeln is a freelance illustrator and graphic designer based in Minneapolis. She's been freelancing full time since getting laid off from a design job 3 years ago, and hasn't looked back! She loves setting her own schedule and not wasting time stuck at a desk.
We love her loose style and really appreciate her perspective on how to market yourself. Thanks for sharing Kelly!
Tell me about your path to becoming a freelance illustrator and graphic designer.
I was an illustration major at art school (Minneapolis College of Art and Design), but in my last two years I took a lot of graphic design classes and became more interested in a career as a designer. After graduating I felt like I still needed to build up my design portfolio and began a full-time design internship at a contemporary art museum in Massachusetts (MASS MoCA). This was 2009 and the recession was in full swing. Lots of talented designers were out of work and job hunting was daunting. I then applied and got accepted to the Chronicle Books design fellowship program. I got to work full-time for 6 months in their San Francisco office. I then returned to Minneapolis and spent a while job hunting, freelancing and working part-time as a designer at a nonprofit. Eventually I landed my fist full-time/permanent design job at Mrs. Meyer’s Clean Day, the eco-freindly cleaning company. I worked as an in-house designer there for 2 years while continuing to freelance in my off time. Our office was re-located to Wisconsin and I received a severance package that made transitioning to full-time freelance less daunting. I have been freelancing full-time since then, over 3 years ago!
In the beginning, how did you attract your first good clients?
My first big client was Chronicle Books. After completing my fellowship there I kept in touch with some of the designers and let them know I was freelancing. My first projects for them were small, but I’ve been working with them ever since and the scope of projects has grown! For illustration work I sent out special, targeted promos, like a copy of a handmade zine about women’s empowerment I made to Rookie Magazine. They ended up liking it and I've worked with them for years on editorial illustrations for the website and other design related items. I also sent out a lot of promo’s to magazines and got a handful of responses/jobs from that. Local design contracting gigs I got from recommendations from people I’d worked with at my job before I became freelance who had moved on to other companies.
Do you have any tips for being your most productive?
It is pretty hard when you set your own schedule! I can get really distracted by wanting to clean up my apartment or other tasks besides work that are nagging me. I try and keep regular working hours, Monday through Friday 9 - 5 ish, but I allow for a lot of flexibility. It’s important for me to not feel guilty when not working during nights or weekends, so I try and get my work done during the day. The benefit of being your own boss is that if I know I’m not going to be productive because I’m tired I’ll take the day off and make up for it later.
What has been your greatest struggle as a freelancer so far?
I think the uncertainly is the hardest part! At the end of the year it all shakes out to be a decent income, but month to month I can be either overwhelmed with work or short on work and worrying. It has been a struggle to try and enjoy the slow times and work on personal projects, and not worry about where the next job is going to come from. I’m trying to have faith in myself that I’ve made it work for the past 3 years, so I will continue to make it work even if I don’t know how. Also when I get a bunch of projects at once I have to set a strict schedule including rest time so I don’t get burnt out. It’s really hard for me to turn down a project I want to do because I’m too busy, but I’m starting to do that!
What is your favorite thing about freelance?
Being my own boss. What I dislike most about an office design job is keeping up appearances. Say it’s 4pm, you had a really productive day, ate lunch at your desk and know there's nothing you're going to accomplish in this last hour at your desk. You can’t walk out the door without coworkers side-eyeing you. I love that working from home I don’t have to deal with that or a bunch of meetings, or the other non-creative parts of a design office job. If I’m sleep deprived I’ll sleep in and work later so I’m not tired while working all day. If I complete my goals for the day I’ll go take a long walk at 3pm. The freedom to manage my time the way I think is best and most productive is my favorite part of freelancing.
Of course I still have clients, deadlines and my own admin work like invoices, but the control is priceless. I also got to take a trip to Australia for 3 weeks last year. I’d been wanting to take advantage of the fact that I can basically work anywhere, I just need my laptop, internet access and some art supplies. It took a lot of planing, but I got a lot of my work done before the trip, and spent 1-2 days a week working while there. It’s pretty hard to get 3 weeks off while working a desk job, so I’m so glad I made it happen!
How do you continue to attract your ideal clients?
About twice a year I’ll make a list of dream clients or clients I think I’m a good fit for and contact them. Either by a snail mail postcard or email. I find that marketing yourself can be really draining, so I only go after clients I really think I’d be a good fit for. I go for quality over quantity on marketing. I also go in knowing the return is going to be small! Maybe one or two clients from say 100 contacted will turn into actual jobs. However if it’s a really good fit and they becomes a repeat client the effort is well worth it. That’s all the outright marketing I do. Of course I keep my website up to date and instagram active. I keep my work out there for people to see and let some clients find me.
Do you have any tips for dealing with the nitty-gritty business details?
I have a few very basic google doc's I’ve been keeping for years that work for me. One doc tracks my income. I enter in all the invoices I send and mark them once they’re paid. This is an easy way to tally my income and who I’m waiting on for payment. I have another doc of all my business expenses. I keep receipts on my desk until they’re entered into the doc and then I put them in an envelope. This makes doing taxes and the end of the year easier, I already have docs of all my expenses and income! I do use an accountant who provides worksheets that I fill out with all my info for the year. They basically check over my work and then file my taxes for me. They also help me estimate how much each of my quarterly tax payments should be, based on how much I’m earning. My biggest tip is to not wait until the end of the year to do your taxes. I do a little work all year long so it’s not as painful in April!
Are there any projects on which you're ruminating that you'd like to make time for someday?
I have a huge list of ideas for personal projects! I started doing little autobiographical comics this year that have been really fun. I’d love to make enough to either self-publish or find an indie comics publisher to make a little book of them. I’m also eager to move into a bigger place and have room to paint at a larger scale. Currently my studio is in my 1 bedroom apartment so I’m a bit cramped. I want to spread out and get messy and experiment with different materials. That’s what I’m looking forward to.
Since you are your own boss, do you have any advice for maintaining a work-life balance?
Besides keeping somewhat regular hours I no longer work past 10pm! In general I stop well before that, but when I have a big deadline I can end up working nights. But I just know that I’m useless after 10pm, and I’ll be useless the next day as well. So I’ve made a rule that I stop working at 10pm, wind down and get to bed before midnight. I usually plan enough that I don’t turn things in late, but if I have to ask for an extension I will. It keeps me sane to think even if I’m really busy I’m going to keep a normal sleep schedule. I also mostly don’t do client work on the weekends but will draw for fun, it’s a good balance.
Any music, podcast, or book recommendations that you'd like to share?
I listen to A LOT of podcasts! Being able to listen to funny conversations while working alone from home is great. I love comedy and beauty podcasts. Some of my favorites are Throwing Shade, Comedy Bang Bang, Natch Beaut and Glowing Up. I download and intend to listen to podcasts about creativity, and other educational ones but those end up feeling like homework. I also have a Spotify playlist of instrumental or foreign-language music that I can listen to while working when I need to focus and can’t be distracted by words.
Anything else that you'd like to share?
My biggest tips for getting work and keeping clients happy are: do your best work, deliver it before the deadline and exceed expectations. You don’t have to go crazy, but even turning you work in a day earlier than requested, providing extra sketches, being gracious and polite will endear you to clients. You’d be surprised how many creatives turn in work late. I think being easy to work with is as important as the quality of your work, so remember that! People will want to work with you again if it’s a pleasant experience. You still need to stand up for yourself and make sure you are being compensated fairly, but taking the extra step, especially with new clients will make you stand out.
The 3 greatest attributes you need to be a freelance creative are:
Motivation, talent, and resilience.