Minnesota

Kelly Abeln

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!

Kelly Abeln | Freelance Wisdom

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.
Kelly Abeln | Freelance Wisdom

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!
Kelly Abeln | Freelance Wisdom

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.
Kelly Abeln | Freelance Wisdom
Kelly Abeln | Freelance Wisdom

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.
Kelly Abeln | Freelance Wisdom
Kelly Abeln | Freelance Wisdom

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.
Kelly Abeln | Freelance Wisdom
Kelly Abeln | Freelance Wisdom

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

Motivation, talent, and resilience.
Kelly Abeln | Freelance Wisdom

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Jena Holliday

We are excited to introduce yet another lady whom we've had the privilege of meeting through our Creative Lady Directory, Jena Holliday. Jena is an illustrator, designer, mother, and creative living in Minnesota. She founded Spoonful of Faith studio, where she focuses on crafting whimsical illustrations and designs as well as coaching mothers through their own creative journeys in her community Mother Creative.

Jena Holliday | Freelance Wisdom

Tell me about your path to becoming a freelance artist, illustrator, and educator.

Well I have always been creative. From a young age, I would sketch comic strips and draw people I did life with. I never took it too seriously until after I finished college with a degree in marketing. I decided that I wasn’t really doing what I loved to do, and then after the birth of my first child, I got an insane passion to go for what I always dreamed of. Art started taking root again in my heart and I started sketching illustrations and sharing them online. Immediately, people noticed and were asking me if I would sell them. I remember being so scared and working for pennies because I just didn’t believe people would really pay me to do something I really enjoyed.
From there, the work continued to come, projects came, and then even children’s book projects and proposals were being sent my way. At this point things were doing well, but I was still working full-time in social media marketing. I really enjoy marketing, but art and illustration is truly what I was made to do. At a really wild time, I was pregnant with my second child, I decided to take the leap to freelance and it’s been a thrilling, fulfilling, and adventurous ride. From there I’ve seen the need in the market for women, especially mothers, to be encouraged in being creative. I’ve also seen artists struggle with marketing and “selling” their work and through my past experience and passion for art – I started teaching tips and tricks to women through Mother Creative, an online community I launched in March of this year (2017).

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

I would say that sharing my work has always brought in good clients. I also have always used word of mouth and have never been afraid to ask people for work. I figure it’s my livelihood and if I am not willing to go out and get it, I could be missing out on an opportunity. I landed a future interview with a pretty big publication because I just asked for it. I also landed a book project with a nonprofit by just sharing my work and having the conversation of what I do. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve gotten more “No’s” than “Yes’s” but when that “Yes” comes it could be the chance you’ve been waiting for.
Jena Holliday | Freelance Wisdom
Jena Holliday | Freelance Wisdom

Do you have any tips for being your most productive?

Work in blocks. This could be hourly blocks or days. I like to set certain days for certain tasks. Because I work from home and often have my kids around, it’s better to have a set idea on what type of work I’ll be getting into for the day. It’s all still a process and ever-changing for me.

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

I would say figuring out what works for your business. In the beginning you are usually willing to try most anything to make money and to get experience. But as you keep going, you will have to start determining what you really want to do, and sticking to that can be difficult sometimes. When I first started, I had a shop and I didn’t really put much thought behind it. I closed it and just recently decided to relaunch it in a brand new way that is more in line with my brand. Find what works for you and your business and don’t look at everyone else! I will also just say figuring out the ebbs and flows of your business can be a struggle at first but when you discover the equation you’re golden.

What is your favorite thing about freelance?

Setting my own goals, plans, days! Being able to work from home and spend time with my kids when I want to. Working in my PJ’s or the local coffee shop! Freedom to work the way that works best for me.
Jena Holliday | Freelance Wisdom
Jena Holliday | Freelance Wisdom

How do you continue to attract your ideal clients?

Relative to illustration/design projects: I have to share my work. I share it on social media, newsletter, and sometimes on my blog. I try to show them what I am working on, so they can get a better idea of what I am working on and maybe it will spark a conversation or lead. Also, I am not afraid to reach out to past clients to see if they have friends or family that may need work. I think word of mouth is more powerful than anything.
Relative to my shop: My background is in marketing and I actually really enjoy analytics. So, that means I often do a lot of research on things. It can be as simple as what are my clients responding to in my shop or on social media. I then use that data to help me create products I think they will love.

How has becoming a mom changed how you work and/or the types of projects you take on?

Woo! Being a mom has totally transformed my work life, mostly my time and what is important to me. Time is scarce, so being productive is very important. I’m such a free spirit so this didn’t come easy for me, but overtime I’ve gotten much better with time management. I work from home and have a 3 year old and 1 year old around – so working is tough sometimes. I have had to set up childcare for certain days of the week so I can dedicate myself to work. I also have played the naptime game, where I get to things while they nap. I also try to bring them into my work. Showing my 3 year old what I am illustrating and setting up a space next to me that she can paint and draw on has worked wonders!
Jena Holliday | Freelance Wisdom
Jena Holliday | Freelance Wisdom

You do a wonderful job sharing your personal life in a professional space. How does this openness affect your client relationships?

I actually believe it brings in my ideal client even more. Many of the people I work with are passionate, have strong faith and have strong ambitions or goals – which are a lot of the things I often talk about in my personal side of my work. I believe that the personal side makes us who we are, it is the drive behind what we do. So sharing my kids or my faith – has only benefited me. It has allowed me to align with likeminded people and brands – which has brought in clients I have only dreamed of working for. I also feel like because my clients feel like they know ME, they in turn trust ME. And upholding that trust through my work has continued to bring them back time and time again.

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

Before I was a mom, I could literally work around the clock – not saying it was the best, but I just didn’t mind it. Now I know for the good of my family I have to set boundaries. I would say that having boundaries has saved our family. Learning when to say “No,” or when to make the tough call that you are not going to work and you are going to spend time with the kids, it can be hard at first. But what I have learned is that there will always be stuff on your to do list. You can always find something that needs to be done, but your kids will not always be around. So cherish this season you are in, right now, and don’t forget to appreciate the little moments that are often passing you by.
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Jena Holliday | Freelance Wisdom

Can you tell us a bit more about Mother Creative and the motivation behind this community?

Sure! Mother Creative is a community of women and mothers to encourage and empower each other to go after their God-given dreams and potential. I believe women often get stifled and fear and doubt creep in, especially after having children – and I strongly believe that you can continue to walk forward in your passion and creativity in every season of your life.
What I strive to do within the community is provide resources with tips and tricks of what has helped me and other women, as well as provide interviews of other women who are totally killing it!

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