Drawing Them In
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Drawing Them In
An Intuitive Guide to Getting Clients as a Freelance Illustrator
Written by David Miranda
Edited by Bianca van der Meulen, Sunbird Creative and Anna McCarty, Producer & Editor
Illustration by Jazz Miranda
Table of Contents
As a freelancer, I feel overwhelmed by how much I could be doing in any given moment. It’s easy to lose track of a clear path forward and get distracted. So when it came time to get serious about marketing, both for myself and my side projects, I was truly lost. For the sake of achieving my mission, I swallowed the deep distaste I had for self-promotion. I read “business development” books and applied “marketing tactics.”
But every time I tried to be a better salesperson, I failed. And, what’s worse, I felt like a fraud!
The advice I was getting from marketing professionals didn’t seem to help. They didn’t speak my language or seem to care about the same things I did.
The one thing that kept me going was just doing what naturally came next to me. If talking to a friend or reaching out to an illustrator I'd never met seemed like the next step to solving a problem, that's what I did.
It didn’t always go as planned, but it led to some surprising opportunities. And that’s the very definition of progress. Each time I’ve done something for my career that felt both challenging and true to myself, something wonderful happened—and I enjoyed myself in the process.
One of those wonderful opportunities was to interview over 30 artists at different career stages, from new illustrators to creative directors of large agencies. Talking to these creatives has made me realize how common our struggles are. Which is great news! If I could identify with freelance artists who had mastered marketing, nothing was stopping me from mastering it too.
If you’re anything like me or the artists I’ve interviewed, you’ve been either paralyzed by uncertainty or overwhelmed by marketing jargon. Perhaps you’re in that state right now. You're hoping to find out how to get a mountain of high-quality projects and this book isn’t the first rock you’ve turned in search of answers.
Don’t get me wrong. There’s a lot of good advice out there about marketing. But there’s not a lot of advice for us. As freelance creatives, we are a unique breed. It’s hard for us to “sell ourselves,” but we also connect deeply with other people who share our passion.
In my experience, illustrators have a deep set of natural skills and strengths they can tap into when it comes to marketing. I’ve combined my own experience and the insights of dozens of very successful creatives to develop a framework that taps into who you are and capitalize on what you already know. Leveraging the intuition you already have about marketing will help you get new clients in a way that doesn’t feel like pulling teeth. This book gives artists permission to do what naturally comes next to them, without worrying if they should be doing more or be further along.
Note: The strategies in this book help you use the time, interests, and strengths you already have to get more clients. We don’t talk about online marketplaces, SEO, or social media marketing, because they can get overwhelming quickly. The confidence and community you’ll build through using our strategies will set you up to take advantage of other digital marketing tools when the time is right.
Here is this book’s promise to you: It will prepare you to take practical steps that will, in time, get you clients with a minimal amount of anguish. Spend even 30 minutes with it, and you’ll feel more capable of taking steps that will make a difference to your freelance business. You might even start to get into this whole marketing thing! So, get ready to get your head in the game.
-David Miranda, freelance developer & designer
How to Play the Freelance Game
Have you ever played a game you knew you couldn’t win? Unless you’re a glutton for punishment, that’s a terrible situation to be in. The best games feel like a challenge you’re confident you could win—if you focus and do your best.
High stakes and uncertainty are essential for a fun and fulfilling win. And yet, when it comes to the business side of creative work, they’re the very things that hold us back. Any creative who is striking out on their own faces the fear that they won’t “make it,” that they’re not “cut out for it.” And with these fears looming, marketing yourself and running a profitable business can often feel like a game you can’t win.
Let’s be real, the odds are daunting. You’ve got a lot of hurdles to overcome to get more—and better—clients. But so what? That’s the nature of this game! If it were easy, every doodler would become a professional illustrator. But not everyone has the grit and open-mindedness to stay in the game long enough to win.
This book is going to help you over a few of those hurdles, including how to think about self-promotion and business development in a healthier, more intuitive way. We’re going to show you practical steps for getting more clients. But if you come away from this book with only one thing, remember this: Freelance illustration is a game you can win. And it’ll be a lot easier to win if you know the rules—and a few cheat codes.
Illustration by pixeltrue
Step 1: Learn the cheat codes
TLDR: It’s all about mindset.
If you’ve been struggling to get clients, it’s probably not information you’re lacking. If you have an internet connection, you have more information than you know what to do with. It’s more likely that your brain needs a good spring cleaning. You need to replace some ineffective ideas with new ways of thinking about both yourself and your clients.
The first cheat code is this: Think like your clients.
How often do you really think about them? And when you do, do you think about them as human beings with their own goals and dreams? Do you know what those goals and dreams are?
Successful marketing is all about aligning with a potential client. There are certain things they probably want to know: what you do, how long you’ve been doing it, how much you charge, your process, what you're passionate about, how to hire you, and if you're reliable. If they have to spend a lot of energy figuring each of those things out and the path to working with you is mysterious and foggy, they’re likely to go down another path that’s clearer, with lots of helpful signposts.
Your problems and your clients’ problems are connected. If they don't know what services you offer, for example, that’s a huge disconnect. It’s also probably a sign of your own struggle—you might have a hard time figuring out your services because you're relying on other people to tell you what they should be. Figuring them out yourself would take hard work and introspection, often with late nights and existential panic breaks.
It may seem counterintuitive, but the best way to connect with your clients is to connect with yourself. If you don’t know the answer to “What do you offer?” because you’re overwhelmed by the question, you can fix it by taking a step back and reconnecting with your purpose. Your first priority should be creating a psychological environment that isn't overwhelming and in which you’re able to choose a positive and impactful next step easily.
Once you figure out a direction, you can lay out out a path for your clients to follow. When you’re focused, your clients will trust you more and they’ll be willing to pay you what you’re worth. Your mindset is ultimately going to make or break your business. You can use all the right strategies and never reach your goals if your head is in the wrong place.
That’s the bad news.
The good news is that you can fumble and fail your way to ultimate success with the right mindset!
So how do you get there? Here are some useful cheat codes that will start you out on the right foot, no matter which strategies you decide to use.
Illustration by Jazz Miranda
Shift perspective from…
For this result:
I’m solving problems for other people by doing what I enjoy
Getting more clients and connecting well with them will become more natural and intuitive.
Knowing what makes me happy will make me a better freelancer
By starting where you are and focusing on what's truly motivating to you, you set yourself up for providing lots of value to other people by doing what you love.
Giving my mental and emotional health attention will help me be a better artist
Your emotional well-being will show up in the quality of your work, your work ethic, your reliability, and your communication style. A happy, healthy mind is key to building a sustainable freelance business.
What’s ultimately good for me is ultimately good for my clients
By working in a way that’s sustainably motivating, you will be able to serve clients better and for longer.
I’m putting my energy into building a life and community I care about and the kind of work I want will follow
The business side of your work becomes more meaningful and you stop seeing your client relationships as a burden.
I will talk to people I want to communicate with
People who matter to you will find you more quickly and connect with you more easily.
I work because I love to create
Clients know they're in good hands when the person they're working with is passionate about their craft.
I can ask for what I’m worth
Asking for a high sum is a signal to clients that you know what you're doing, understand how much value you provide (including all the unseen project management tasks behind the scenes!), and are professional and reliable.
Clients need me
When you realize that there are people out there who are feeling very dissatisfied with who they've hired so far and are desperately looking for someone just like you, you can reach out with confidence.
I will focus on one thing at a time
Focus is a rare and super-valuable skill. Multitasking and overwork lead to lack of motivation, half-baked ideas, countless unfinished projects, unrealized ambitions, and shallow relationships.
Step 2: Choose your own adventure
Now that you’ve loaded some cheat codes, you’re ready to play the game. It’s time to step out into the world and get more clients. But how?
In the next section, we’re going to dive into three strategies that you can try. Each strategy will impact your business. What level you reach depends (mostly) on the consistency of your effort and how soon depends (mostly) on chance. There is no magic formula. But the more you play the game, the more chances you have to win.
For each strategy, we explain:
The likelihood of getting more clients
The difficulty level
The potential for positive emotional impact.
And how to implement it
Note: These ratings are based on our own experience—so you may find that a strategy with a so-so effectiveness rating works extraordinarily well for you, or that a strategy with a high emotional impact rating doesn't benefit you quite as much. The hope is that this guide will set you on a path of self-discovery and experimentation. Choose and combine different strategies to see what works best for you.
Step 3: Power up
Each of the strategies includes an advanced tactic. If you’re already doing the basic strategy, take a look at the ways you can power up.
We suggest you practice all the basics before powering up. No matter how quickly you get a return on your investment, all three practices will serve you long-term. Powering up any individual strategy can multiply your success in all the others—but only if the others are already in play.
At the same time, your business is your business! You have to decide how much you want to challenge yourself, where you can invest your time, and where your focus should be. Now let's get started.
Strategy 1: Talk to people you know
●●●●○ impact on getting clients
●●○○○ difficulty
●●●○○ positive emotional impact
One-on-one interaction with clients, friends, and partners is the foundation of a freelance business. Heck, it's the foundation for all business relationships, period.
It would be amazing to wake up in the morning looking forward to a day filled with friendly client interactions and talking with people you respect about projects you love working on. However, these kinds of days are rare and professional relationships can be hard if you're not proactive.
Talking more with your friends and favorite clients will remind you how healthy relationships feel: mutually supportive, balanced, intellectually stimulating, and caring. The people you already have a great relationship with will want you to succeed. And often, they can help you in ways you don’t even realize! Help them help you by proactively staying in touch and being vocal about what you need.
As you get over the fear of seeming “pushy,” you might be amazed at the doors that open to you.
Why it’s awesome
You may be surprised by how helpful some of your friends actually are once you start talking to them about your work. But, even if they don’t result in more clients, conversations with them can lead to closer friendships and more happiness for you!
Clients you enjoy working with will want to know what else you’re up to and what kind of work you’re doing. If you can help one of their friends, they can connect you. And when a client refers your services to someone else, it's like skipping ahead to the front of the line. In business, trust is gold. If your client thinks you're easy to work with and talented, their friends will automatically assume the same.
After you start getting referrals, the world starts to look a little bigger. You get put in touch with people you would have never met otherwise—and you might even get asked to do exciting, extremely rewarding work you would have otherwise never unsurfaced.
A few projects under your belt
A website or portfolio (recommended)
Make a list of friends you’ve never talked to about your work and clients you’ve enjoyed working with.
For each friend or client, depending on your relationship with them, choose at least one of the following:
Ask them out to have coffee and catch up. During the catch-up, ask them what they’re working on and share some of your own work.
Tell them you’re starting a newsletter to keep your friends updated on current projects and ask if they would like to receive it.
Ask them if they know of anyone who needs illustration work. Be as clear as possible about what kind of work you do, how they can see your work, and contact you.
Sign up for Mailchimp or another email service. Gather some images from your recent projects and prepare an email telling the story behind the project.
Send your email to the friends and clients who opted to receive your newsletter.
It’s more than worth it to seek out good friends and reconnect even if you haven’t talked in a while.
Consider where your friends are coming from and what their interests are. If they’re in business, for example, frame your conversation in terms of a business problem. If they’re also creatives, connect on common struggles and interests.
Never underestimate your acquaintances! You never know what weird fourth-degree connection could lead to your next gig.
Sign your clients up for your newsletter (with permission, of course) and email them every few months with new projects you’re working on.
Choosing a niche can be really helpful in getting referrals. For example, people will be much more likely to recommend you to a children's book author if you market yourself as a children's book illustrator.
The secret to getting referrals is to be polite. This doesn't mean you need to sacrifice your health and happiness—quite the opposite, in fact. Think ahead about what matters to the clients you want to attract.
Don't give in to unhealthy demands—it's not a good long-term strategy for referrals. The reason some clients might want you to do unhealthy things like work all night or charge less than you're worth is because they want to limit their exposure to risk. However, if you do gain referrals from these clients, consider what is it about you that they're telling their friends? How skilled you are? Or how affordable you are?
Power Up: Talk to people you don’t know
●●●●● impact on getting clients
●●●○○ difficulty
●●●○○ positive emotional impact
Once you’re comfortable with talking to supportive people and tapping into their warmth and encouragement, it’s time to make new friends!
This strategy involves talking to people you’d like to learn from or work with, like other creatives you admire or potential clients.
If you’re hesitant to reach out to people you admire, consider their perspective for a moment using this metaphor:
Being a creative can sometimes feel like hiking up a hill in the fog: you're rarely aware of how far you've come, which direction is best to go, or where the next place you'll find shelter will be. Now, imagine the fog clears for a moment and someone lower down on the hill yells up to you: "Hey you! That place looks like a pretty great up there! Can you help me get where you’re at when the fog comes back again?"
Illustration by pixeltrue
Would the creative further up the hill want to help? Of course, they would! For the guide, it feels affirming to know someone else wants to get where they are. For the apprentice, it's invaluable to have someone who can share shortcuts through fog and uncertainty. And, who knows, maybe the guide will someday need help climbing a different hill and you’ll be able to return the favor.
Why it’s awesome
When combined with finding your niche, making new connections is the most powerful strategy there is. Nothing is as effective or efficient as figuring out exactly who you want to work with and then doing whatever it takes to work with them (starting with saying “hello”, of course!). When you've reached this point, “networking” just becomes connecting.
Website or a portfolio
At least 1 social media account or email newsletter, to stay in touch
An icebreaker or feedback to share with a creative about their work.
Make a list of people in your industry that you admire. Then email them! First, offer them a compliment or insight that shows you genuinely know and appreciate them. Then, give a brief introduction (1-2 sentences) and ask them a specific question that they can answer quickly and easily, such as “I’d love to know, how did you get your first client?” Their response (or lack thereof) should help you sense if they’re open to connecting more.
Figure out the places your potential clients are likely to be at (conventions? virtual meetups? classes?) and show up. Be ready to introduce yourself confidently and learn something new.
Join online communities your potential clients are likely to be members of. The same practices apply: introduce yourself confidently, engage, learn, and offer value as often as possible.
Practice curiosity. Most people know when you’re genuinely interested in them and when your agenda is driving everything. Try to relax and ask lots of questions — really get to know them. Think about yourself as on the hunt for insights and opportunities to help others, not as only on the hunt for clients.
Assume people are well-intentioned but busy. Make it as easy as possible to see your value and respond. Don’t pressure anyone to respond to you, but do make it clear what you’re looking for and exactly how they can help you. Keep your requests simple and light, especially in introductory emails.
Always think about how you can offer value to the other person! Do you know a resource or another freelancer who could solve one of their problems? Do you have a genuine compliment you can offer them?
Extroverts often cast a wider net and attend more synchronous events than introverts might be up for, but introverts often have the advantage of being great listeners and deep thinkers.
Be careful not to tire yourself out with events, but don’t hide behind your screen either. When you attend an event, try to be fully present and make a connection.
For small or one-on-one connections, embrace video chat platforms like Google Hangouts or Zoom. You can connect in a more personable way than by email. You can even share your screen to see what each person is working on.
Strategy 2: Be helpful
●●●●○ impact on getting clients
●●●○○ difficulty
●●●●○ positive emotional impact
Learning how to be truly helpful is the single best tactic you can learn to support your freelance business—this skill will make you invaluable to your clients.
One of the hardest parts of being truly helpful is that it rarely depends on how skilled you are as an artist. If your client can't comprehend how valuable your work is and how it affects their business and solves their problems, you won't see eye to eye.
Your first task is to understand the mindset of your clients. Get to know them. Try asking them about their goals, the problems their business is struggling with, the audiences they’re craving to connect with, and all the approaches they’ve tried so far. Often, a few key ideas will stick out to you, even though your client might not think twice about them. These insights will greatly inform how the project progresses and how you communicate the final result.
If you’re used to working a lot on your own, this client-focused mindset can be hard to master. It will require changing the story you tell yourself. Your value isn't always about all the effort you put into the work, it's about what you can do for your clients who are the heroes that you’re simply helping on their journey.
If you end up learning this key skill, you'll have mastered the single hardest part of running a successful business. This strategy will give you the practice you need to better serve your clients and you might even attract a few new ones while you're at it!
Why it’s awesome
Your goal here is solving problems. It’s a powerful thing to bring someone struggling with a business problem out of their fog and give them a step-by-step path back to clarity. Not only will they be grateful, but they (or someone just like them) will most likely want to hire you to solve these types of problems again in the future!
Social profiles or web presence
A summary of why you work in the niche you do
Good listening skills
Find forums that represent communities you want to be a part of. Reddit and Quora are great places to start practicing!
Become familiar with the customs and communication styles of these groups, so you can answer appropriately.
Offer genuine feedback/advice/help about questions you can answer.
Be responsive, friendly, and polite, so people will want to keep the conversation going!
Being helpful is difficult work, even without an ulterior motive like finding clients. A couple of times a week, try to seek out problems you know how to solve. Not only will it be incredibly rewarding to immerse yourself in the creative ecosystem, but it's also a master class in learning how to communicate effectively.
Seek out problems actively. A lot of the most pernicious problems that your potential clients are dealing with aren't talked about in the open, so finding them can be hard, but once you do you’ll be able to address them like no one else.
Remember that your clients don't have an illustration problem; they have a business problem. Illustration may be an answer, but it’s your job to figure out why and how it will best help your client. Then show your potential clients how much value you can provide. As an illustrator, here are some common problems you might be able to solve for a business:
Visual communication is targeted at the wrong audience
An ineffective medium is being used to communicate a message
There is no emotional resonance in a marketing campaign
Presentations and learning materials are ineffective
The brand has lost sight of its audience or become outdated.
Power Up: Be very helpful
●●●○○ impact on getting clients
●●○○○ difficulty
●●●○○ positive emotional impact
As you get really good at thinking of yourself as a problem-solver for your clients, you’ll naturally get better at solving problems and teaching other people how to do the same. That, in a nutshell, is “thought leadership”!
It can be discouraging to find yourself or your clients struggling with the same problems over and over again. But hidden inside these annoyances are opportunities.
Contrary to how it might feel in the moment, hard-to-solve problems are hard for a good reason. If you reread an email to a client 10 times, it's probably because you can't decide between two (or more) ways of conducting your business. For example, if a client sets a short deadline, do you accommodate them because you want an excellent testimonial after the project is done? Or do you push back so you can maintain a healthy work/life balance?
Illustration by pixeltrue
Believe it or not, these types of questions won't get any easier as you progress through your career. If anything, answering them will become even more high stakes and high pressure.
Instead of beating yourself up or shrugging it off, try to identify the source of difficult daily problems that you face. Brainstorm what might help. Search far and wide for effective compromises and solutions. The more you consider these ideas—and the more you share your thoughts and struggles with them—the more everyone around you will benefit from your experience too. They're likely dealing with a lot of the same challenges and are hungry for new conversations around them.
Why it’s awesome
This strategy allows you to take an existing network and position yourself as a thoughtful contributor (and, eventually, a thought leader). Your goal is to share your ideas with people who might care about them. You’ll meet potential collaborators as well as potential clients who will see you as a passionate advocate of your field. You may even stumble across a client who likes manticores, giant squid monsters, and fluffy bugs as much as you do!
A few years of experience as an illustrator
Some knowledge about the problems and issues your potential clients are struggling with
Well-developed opinions about illustration and/or your niche
(Ideally) Some social media following or friend network
List a set of 3-6 topics you'd want people to come to you for advice.
Name the tone and point of view you want to take on. This will help you stand out, express your personality, and maintain a consistent voice.
(Optional) Create a blog and decide how often you will post on it.
Begin to share more opinions, images and ideas that connect in some way to your work.
(Optional) Write blog posts that deeply explore your ideas, opinions, and insights about other things you’re interested in.
Share your blog posts, opinions, and insights on your social media accounts, in your newsletter, and in relevant online communities.
In your blog posts, explore problems you’re genuinely struggling with as well as ideas that may defy trends or cause pushback.
The more unique and insightful the things you post are, the more likely this strategy will work. The world is filled with people following trends. Buck trends and uncover new ways of thinking about things that aren’t often addressed. You’ll make it more likely people will see the real you.
Being yourself can be scary sometimes, especially when there's criticism. And online, there's always criticism. Make sure you have a good emotional support network before venturing into the wild west. Feel free to ignore unhelpful people.
Strategy 3: Work on your dream project
●●●○○ impact on getting clients
●●●●○ difficulty
●●●●● positive emotional impact
One of the most rewarding activities you can participate in as a human is achieving a goal beyond your current capabilities. This requires perseverance, self-confidence, self-compassion, and a willingness to grow beyond where you are.
The things you take away from such a journey are often not what you'd expect because it can be more about what you learn to leave behind: pride, perfectionism, self-doubt, self-blame, fear of the unknown, fear of judgment, and fear of success.
One mistake is making the dream too small or not meaningful enough so that when tough times come, you allow it to slip away. Find a path that motivates you and stick with it, you'll start to see the world in a new light. You may begin to connect with other people who also have a deep connection to their work. Perhaps even your own clients have their own impossible dreams.
Plus, when you’re regularly reaching out beyond your comfort zone, you start to be able to tell the difference between problems that are your fault and challenges that are just a natural part of the creative process. Ultimately, this type of discernment is exactly what it takes to be a professional artist. Soon you'll find it easier to put the goals of a project above the storyline that paints you as a hardworking, underappreciated underdog. When a client can sense that you’re more motivated by a job well done than by the praise you get for doing it, they’ll start to line up to work with you.
Why it’s awesome
Working on your dream project forces you to explore your passions and manage an entire project on your own.
It also sets you up to understand all the unavoidable problems a project runs into even when there's no external pressure.
A substantial amount of practice under your belt
The ability to push aside distractions and make time for yourself
A portfolio
Social media accounts
Decide what your dream project is. Maybe it’s getting hired by Pixar to storyboard a scene or develop a character for an animated TV series. Maybe it’s designing a new board game or a custom set of tarot cards.
Set a deadline and milestones to keep yourself on track. Carve out time in your schedule for working on it every week. (And don’t let anyone double book you!)
Share your progress at each phase! There will be more interest in your work than you may realize at first.
When you’re done, add it to your portfolio, then share it with all of your communities and networks! Depending on how it goes, you could even consider selling it as a standalone product!
This is a huge undertaking. Make sure you plan a week or two for recovery for every month you work on it. Consistently assess your progress and try not to take on too much.
To maximize the effect of your dream project on your career, plan to spend time every week to promote it. That could mean sharing your progress on social media, telling friends about it, or sharing it with communities you're part of.
Power Up: Pick your “thing”
●●●●○ impact on getting clients
●●●●○ difficulty
●●○○○ positive emotional impact
What dream project did you pick? Your dreams can tell you a lot about who you are and what you're capable of.
As you develop as an artist and professional, you will face more and more opportunities. This is incredibly exciting, but there's a flip side. Inside every yes is a dozen nos. Taking any opportunity means missing out on others. You have to decide with more and more precision what’s important to you.
Some people resist honing their vision. They don’t want to be “pigeonholed” or artificially limited. They associate keeping their options open with having lots of options. But it doesn’t quite work that way. While it’s good to learn new skills and try new things, being okay at a lot of things is not a good foundation for your reputation or your business. It may seem counterintuitive, but you’ll feel freer and more powerful if you can become known for something that you love. And you’ll be able to command a much higher price!
Getting to this point takes discipline, but it’s well worth it. You’ll ultimately be happier as a respected specialist with a few high-paying clients than as a jack-of-all-trades who’s aimlessly busy.
Illustration by pixeltrue
Why it’s awesome
Finding a niche is one of the most powerful and most difficult things you can do as a freelance illustrator. Landing on a niche will lead to better quality projects and potentially higher pay. Plus you get to refine your preferred skills to your heart’s content!
In order to do this, you need to reflect on what you want, think about how you can align with what your potential customers want, look at how other successful freelance illustrators are marketing themselves, and plan how you can present yourself as a unique and valuable specialist.
While some illustrators may feel constricted by a single niche, it’s an excellent business strategy for anyone with limited resources. It frees you from having to compete with the whole world and makes the freelance game more winnable!
A few years of experience as an illustrator
A relatively developed portfolio
Social media profiles
Rough plan for 3-5 years of professional growth
Take stock of your own experiences. What kinds of projects do you excel at? Which ones have you most enjoyed? Which clients are the most fun to work with?
Understand your market. Get to know your industry, competitors, and target clients. Refer to the “Quickstart Guide to Business Research” at the end of this book for more help with this step.
Find a meeting point between what you enjoy and where you add the most value. Which niches could you work in long-term? Refer to the “25 Niches for Artists, Illustrators, and Graphic Designers” resource at the back of this book if you feel stuck.
Pick one niche to focus on. You can always change your mind later!
Adjust your portfolio, bio, and profiles according to your niche. Make yourself as interesting to people in your new target audience as you can.
Send samples! Once you know the kinds of companies you’d like to work for, start sending physical or digital samples of your work to individuals at those companies who might want to hire you. Be friendly and concise. Don’t worry if they don’t respond! Sending an email or postcard to a few potential clients can help you get on their radar. Keep a list of who you contact and try to reach out to a few new potential clients at least once a month. Although, multiple times a week is even better!
Some people can spend their whole lives figuring out where they want to focus, but it's far better to make a decision and go for it for a while. You’ll be able to more quickly figure out the value you provide, then you can continue to refine and learn how to provide more.
Finding your niche is an iterative process. It may take years to settle on one as you move in and out of a few different ones. Don’t be afraid to let go and put all your focus on one thing for a few months. If it's not working, look at what else you can try.
Don’t pick a niche that you have no experience in. You have to have credibility and skill in your niche before you can start getting clients in that area. Start small. Try a few projects and discern whether you even like a niche before tailoring everything you do to match it. After you gather some experience, you can branch into new markets by experimenting with existing clients.
Use your intuition to identify where there’s a real need. Where have you seen past clients struggle the most? Are you good at it? Can you package it up as a service? The more specific you get in defining your niche, the better chances you’ll have at standing out.
Try to think of picking a niche as an opportunity to develop exactly the skills you want to have for your future goals. For example, you might pick a niche with a heavy client-interaction focus, like painting murals in corporate spaces. Maybe you want to open up a crafting studio someday and you also want all the walls to be beautifully painted! This type of strategic thinking will land you in situations and relationships that will make it much more likely that you’ll land exactly the type of jobs and opportunities you want.
Bonus Strategy: Build a community
●●●○○ impact on getting clients
●●●●● difficulty
●●●●○ positive emotional impact
In your journey as a freelance illustrator, you'll encounter people who struggle with things that seem simple to you—and you'll struggle with things that seem simple to them.
Eventually, you might see how those struggles are connected by a single thread and fit into a greater ecosystem. Don't shy away from these struggles. Move into them headfirst. Get to know the people they affect. Figure out what solutions already exist.
The moment you figure out where the need is the greatest, you'll be able to help spark a new community to address it. Being part of a community is a nurturing experience and the people who are a part of it will bring their own experience and opportunities to it.
Why it’s awesome
Motivation, motivation, motivation. Do you want to do all of the steps in this guide and more? Then set your sights beyond providing monetary value or getting your next client. Build a lasting entity that’s intrinsically valuable in itself: a community. The rest will follow. If you wake up feeling motivated to show off your latest work to people who empathize with your struggles and validate you, you're much more likely to be in this for the long haul—and small bumps along the way won't be so disruptive.
As humans, we're social creatures and we require social validation, love, and appreciation in order to reach our full potential. If and when you discover your tribe, you'll realize that you have so much more power to achieve your greatest dreams—because other people just like you are working towards theirs! You’ll see that your problems, ideas, and dreams don’t just belong to you—they’re part of a larger tapestry that is always working, evolving, and learning together.
Every business is a community. Every business’s culture affects the quality of its work. Realizing this will help you work with clients who might seem difficult at first. Often they're not just a single person—they’re trying to represent the interests of their larger community.
A website or portfolio
A mission statement
A niche
A completed or in-progress dream project
Every day, follow the 3 strategies listed above, including their power up strategies.
One day, you’ll suddenly find yourself in the midst of forming (or already a part of) a vibrant and close-knit community!
Building a community doesn't have to involve managing it all on your own. If you find an existing community that “gets you”, you can help build it through active participation. Over time, you may even start to develop a leadership role in that community.
If you want to start your own community, spend at least a few months to a few years contributing to existing communities first.
A community doesn't have to be a well-defined entity, like a group on Facebook or a Slack workspace. It can also be a mailing list, your followers on Twitter, or just a group of friends you hang out with in real life. Choose the path that makes the most sense to you and fills you with energy.
Bonus: Quickstart Guide to Business Research
The point of business research is to understand the market you work in so you can sell your services more effectively in your niche. Here’s a quick start guide when you're approaching research for the first time.
Step 1: Get to know your community and industry.
What’s your community into? Find 3 trade publications or blogs that your competitors and potential customers are reading. Sign up for them and start reading them regularly!
What ideas are shaping the wider community? Find 3 influencers in your industry. Sign up for their email lists and follow them on social media.
What trends are affecting your customers? Read 3 relevant industry reports. (You can find a great one for creative freelancers (free to download) here: https://www.creativeindustriesfederation.com/publications/creative-freelancers)
Step 2: Get to know your competitors—these are often people who inspire you and maybe even potential collaborators!
If you were a potential client, where would you go to find the services you offer? Find 5 direct competitors through Google, Behance, Reddit, Dribbble, or other relevant sites.
What alternatives are out there? Think about how else your target client could get their needs met. (A blogger looking for infographics or editorial images might seek out a graphic designer rather than an illustrator, for example.) List 5 indirect competitors.
What makes your competitors attractive or not attractive to your target clients? For each of your ten competitors, write down which services they offer, who their target market seems to be, and at least one strength and weakness. Reviews are a great source of intel.
Step 3: Get to know your target customers.
Note: Try to stay in research mode while interacting with every client. If you’re attentive, you’ll develop more empathy and understanding, which will make getting new clients and managing current clients easier.
Who are your target customers? Make a list of the categories your potential customers span. If you’re an illustrator interested in editorial illustration, for example, you might list online magazine editors, independent book publishers, and self-published authors.
Where do your target customers hang out online? Find 3 forums or Facebook groups where you can see what people are talking about.
Once we return to some form of normalcy, where would your target customers hang out in person? Find 3 local communities or conferences where you might find them.
What do you need to know about your target customers? Create a list of 10 questions that would help you understand them better.
Find out what your target customers struggle with. Invite people from each of your categories for a lunch or coffee chat. Ask friends and family for referrals to people in your target audience who would be open to an informational interview. Keep it casual. Usually, people are glad to explain what they’ve accomplished, how they have gotten to where they are, and the challenges they face.
Bonus: 25 Niches for Artists, Illustrators, and Graphic Designers
What do you already have experience and connections in? How easy is it to access people in the niche? These are the most important questions to ask yourself, according to Marketing Mentor Ilise Benun.
Custom illustrations for industry professionals creating instructional and educational content
Book cover designs for self-published authors (tip: look on authorstash.com, reedsy.com, and the publishing categories on Kickstarter and Indiegogo)
Children’s book illustrations for aspiring authors without artistic skills (tip: join groups like Children’s Book Authors and Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators on Facebook to get feedback and find work)
Art for board game creators raising money on Indiegogo or Kickstarter
Infographic designs for bloggers
Branding assets for podcasters, independent musicians, and small media publishers (e.g. Radiolab, Gimlet, Radiotopia, First Look Media, Cadence13)
Character artwork for gaming, fantasy, and role-playing enthusiasts
Illustrations to help founders bring attention to their crowdfunded businesses (tip: check Indiegogo, Kickstarter, and Design Nest)
Comic book art for publishers and independent authors (tip: partner with editors and paid writers to help find people who are serious about their work and are willing to pay)
Cover and in-article illustrations for online magazines publishing longform articles (e.g. Matter, Atavist, Longreads, Slate, the Guardian, Wired, Computer Arts) (tip: look for artists who are at a similar place as you and try to figure out who they’ve worked for)
Product diagrams for new hardware startups or old firms looking to design something new
Asset designs for web, phone, and console gaming companies (tip: it helps if you’ve worked on smaller, independent games first)
Illustrations for t-shirt or clothing designers
Custom artwork and short animations for instructional video producers
Character designs for art directors at animation studios
Illustrations for corporations and startups looking for custom artwork for their new office space
Invitation, place card, and sticker designs for wedding planners
Graphics, portraits, logo, and web graphics for sports teams, esports teams, or pretty much any funded & organized group
Illustrations and icons for web developers and digital startup founders
Anatomical/technical illustrations for medical journals and textbooks
Tattoo designs for tattoo parlors and their clients
Product designs for fashion designers
Custom illustrations for marketing agencies, especially around the launch of a new marketing campaign
Creative concepts and ideation for advertising agencies
Craft visual experiences for bold and exceptional creative/ad agencies
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