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How to become an illustrator: 5 tips to turn your hobby into a dream job

Five years ago (on 1 October 2015 to be precise) I became an entrepreneur. I registered at the Chamber of Commerce, but also still worked part-time in the meantime. Two years later, I took the next step and became a full-time illustrator! Indeed, I earn my money with drawing. A dream job, right? Absolutely, but spoiler alert: there is more to it than just drawing.

As an illustrator, I often get asked: 'I want to make a living drawing, just like you. Do you have any tips on how I can make my dream come true?’ . I certainly do! To be honest: I did not start my hobby-that-became-a-business with a business plan. But looking back on the past 5 years, there are a number of steps that have helped me tremendously. Although the examples are about my work as an illustrator, I think these 5 tips are applicable for every entrepreneur!

Nienke Vletter in hangmat in Italie
Getting my hands dirty: a dream job! (picture @Magdalena_Heijting)

Tip 1 - Start with both instead of choosing one

It may feel like it has to be one or the other: quitting your job and chase your dream or being sensible and stay with the paycheck. But especially in the first years, it’s great to do both! For me, the adventure started as a hobby. I posted my very first Instagram post and slowly it became a business.

My first home-office

I worked (first 36, then 32 hours) at a marketing agency as a project manager, and soon I was working on my own business every spare moment. In the evenings, at the weekends and on my part-time Friday. After 2.5 years, I reached a turning point: if I wanted to make a living out of my own business, I had to devote more time to it and therefore quit my job.

The advantages of part-time entrepreneurship

This path had a number of advantages. First of all I had already built up my (customer) network for a number of years. Therefore I knew that my business really had enough potential when I left my regular job. Secondly: everything I earned with my own business was extra income for those first 2.5 years, on top of my regular salary. That enabled me to build up some savings. Once I made the step to full-time freelancing, I had a good financial reserve.

Step by step

In short: you don't have to throw out all your securities make your dream a reality. Start in your spare time and build it up slowly. Do you get paid assignments? Do they start to increase over time? Discuss with your manager whether you can work less hours or find another job within that field where this is a possibility. I know enough freelancers who have a regular job part-time and work part-time for themselves.

Tip 2 – Save up for a rainy day

I already mentioned it in the previous tip: start with some savings in your bank account. A financial buffer is great to have for months when you have a lower income.

Nienke Vletter_quote handlettering

Of course, there are plenty of entrepreneurs who put all their savings into their new business. Especially if, for example, you have to buy premises or large equipment to start with. But if you can, make sure you have savings when you take the step to becoming a full-time entrepreneur. In case, for example, there is a worldwide pandemic...

It is very reassuring to know that you have enough for at least a few months ahead, without stressing about how to pay your rent / mortgage / life. It also gives you the opportunity to invest when you need to. In good material, a workplace, courses to further develop yourself or, for example, hiring an accountant, VA or marketing expert.

Tip 3 - People need to know what they can ask you for

This tip was given to me by a coach years ago. Actually it is a very obvious one. But I noticed that especially freelancers who are just starting out, tend to forget this. If people around you don't know that you are an illustrator / furniture maker / sustainable energy expert in your spare time, they won't ask you when they are looking for someone for an illustration / custom-made cupboard / advice on solar panels.

My first mural: at O-bureau

I get it: it can be a bit daunting to share your business when you’re just taking your first baby steps. Especially with people who are close to you. But those people are also your greatest ambassadors! Most assignments come through word of mouth, especially in the beginning. My very first assignments were for the agency where I worked, a client of mine there, sorority friends and of course my mother (in law) and aunts.

So share your work on Facebook and Instagram. Create a separate account for this or use your own account mainly for business purposes. If clients are looking for an illustrator / furniture maker / consultant, they want to see as much work as possible. Not having to search between party pics and cat videos ;-) Maybe create a website or at least an e-mail with your company name. Put it on LinkedIn, tell your family and (especially!) your colleagues about it.

Tip 4 – “Start an affair with your creativity”

Sketching everywhere :-)

I think this is a brilliant tip from the book Big Magic by Elisabeth Gilbert. As an illustrator, I often hear people say that they would really like to learn to draw, but don't have the time. You don't have time, you make time!

Gilbert describes this very vividly: when people start having an affair, they suddenly find time (in addition to a full-time job, partner and children). Time for a secret rendez-vous with their lover. Even if it's just 5 minutes of kissing in the stairwell: they'll find a slot in their busy schedule.

You should do the same with your dream. Make it your lover! For example, I always have a sketchbook with me. Am I waiting at the dentist? A perfect moment to sketch. Am I traveling by train? I try to work in my sketchbook instead of looking at my phone. Do you regularly have to wait for your child at swimming lessons / piano lessons / sports lessons? Per-fect! The more stolen moments you find to work on your dream, the faster you will grow.

Tip 5 - Disclaimer: as an illustrator you're not only drawing

It may sound silly, but there’s this romantic image of me covered in paint behind a canvas in my studio all day long. If only this were true! A large part of my time is spent on e-mails, social media, client quotations, administration, business strategy, writing blogs and newsletters, and so on. Colleague Marloes de Vries made a brilliant Reels about this by the way.

Where the magic happens: my studio

Of course this is true for most entrepreneur, but creatives seem to forget this just a bit more often. If you want to make a living out of your creative work, you not only have to become a great artist, but also a great entrepreneur. I already had 10 years of experience as a project manager, which made this part a lot easier for me. I know how to make a good client offer, how to value my work, how to negotiate, how to deal with clients, how to meet deadlines, what my limits are and when to call in help, etc. etc.

Are these things still completely new to you? See if you can already learn this in your current job (remember the first tip). Maybe you can learn from colleagues who are more experienced in this? Or use your savings to invest in this. Take a course, get a business coach or hire someone to help you with these tasks. That way you create space. Space to spend time on the activities that make you the most happy!

People often say: it must be amazing to be able to determine your own work and hours. Absolutely! That freedom is one of the best things about being a freelancer. But remember: if I choose to enjoy a sunny morning off, it also means that I will not earn money that day. Just like when I'm sick or on holiday.

So, do you mean business? (pun intended)

Are you someone who is very attached to financial security and stability? Then full-time entrepreneurship might not be your thing. Are you still confident that you can turn your hobby into your dream job after reading this blog? Go for it! Because it’s still one of the best decisions I have ever made.

I am curious: do you have a job you’re dreaming off? What do you want to be? Or are you already an entrepreneur and do you have any additional tips? Let me know in the comments!

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