How to build your illustration business when you work full-time (and are also shy…)

If you’re trying to set up your illustration business while you have a full time job, and are (like many creative people) perhaps a bit on the introverted side, not only are you innately reticent about your work and your aims, you also have little time in which to push forward with them. I’ve been grappling with this problem over the past year and a half, so I thought I’d share what I found helpful here.

1. Make work

This may seem obvious, but use the time you do have to pursue what you actually want to be doing. Even an hour an evening will help you get there. If that’s too much, find a level that fits with your schedule. It’s easy to think that you’ll make work when you have the perfect situation, or the best kit, but you can’t progress if you continually keep waiting for the ‘right moment’. Make work now in order to create the kind of future you want. For example, if your 9-5 job takes most of your time and energy and going part-time isn’t an option, remember how much you want to leave it and use that drive to make work around your job. Some is always better than nothing. Hopefully you will eventually get commissions on the side, until you have enough savings and ongoing work that you can finally quit your job and go into illustration full-time.

2. Put yourself out there

This can seem very difficult if you are a shy or introverted person, but it’s the only way to get people to notice what you’re doing, so you have to take the leap. Putting yourself out there means talk about what you do to friends, family and acquaintances. I promise, this gets easier the more you do it. Perhaps get some business cards printed with your illustrations and contact details on them to keep on you and hand out when you get the chance. Here are the first ones I made, while I was still working my 9-5 with no prospect of quitting.

It also means putting what you do on social media. If you’re an illustrator, you should get Behance and/or Dribble, Instagram, Twitter, make a website and possibly a Facebook page. If you think video editing could be fun, get a YouTube account and make videos where you illustrate or talk about your work. Get your work out there and, without putting too much pressure on yourself, try to post fairly regularly to build up your online presence as an illustrator.

3. Use any time you can get

I am writing this post on my lunch-break from my phone using the WordPress IOS mobile app. This allows me to be productive for my own goals even in the little snippets of time you get around the working day. I can write with one hand if I need to, so I can even write posts or plan what I will illustrate later on the crowded Tokyo trains during my commute to and from work.

Think about your commute. Can you take a laptop or notebook? Would listening to podcasts help boost your motivation? Is there any other time you might be able to use better?

Using any time you can get does not mean you have to use all your time, however. Having a 9-5 job is tiring; trying to build your creative dreams around that makes it practically exhausting. If you have a series you want to watch or enjoy cooking in the evenings, do that too. The trick is finding balance between the free time you use to relax or socialise, and the free time you use in the pursuit of your creative goals.

It can help to keep lists, or plan things you want to do towards your goal, and come back to them regularly. I have a week-to-view diary from Muji, which has the opposite page blank. I use it to write my goals for the week and check them off as I go. It’s also a catch-all for any ideas or thoughts I have regarding my illustration or freelancing, notes of things I’ve been listening to and general to-do lists.

4. Treat it as a business (i.e. have a bit of confidence…)

In the age of social media we’re so lucky to be able to see the work of other illustrators at the touch of a button. We can find helpful articles, follow the careers of freelancers that inspire us and find endless help for all the hurdles we have to overcome. Conversely, this can sometimes result in feeling, ‘all these people are so successful; ‘I’ll never get there’. However, this simply isn’t true. Everyone had to start somewhere, and taking your work seriously can help. View what you do not as a passion project, but as a business.

This change of perspective can help keep you on track. This means that you can prioritise your illustration, and makes it more than a hobby. See what you do as valid and meaningful, and other people will too, as you push forward and create more work.

5. Keep going

‘Persistance pays off’ may sound clichée, but I really think that it’s true. Even if everything looks insurmountable from ‘this side’, i.e. being in a 9-5 job with no base of creative work as of yet, things will become clearer as you move towards your goals. Don’t know where to start? That’s fine, just draw something, show it to someone, and repeat. Don’t have the money for Photoshop? That’s fine, use GIMP until you feel it’s time to get it. Don’t know how to make a website? That’s fine too. Just have a look at some free providers and give it a go. Ask friends, maybe hire someone to help or change to an easier platform if you get constantly stuck. I personally experimented with 4 different platforms and abandoned WordPress once before coming back to it.

The point is that any progress is better than none. You can create the future you want. With a bit of planning and perseverance nothing is impossible. Have confidence in what you do, your right to do it, and faith that your abilities will grow the more you work. Done is better than perfect and moving forward step by step means you’ll get where you want to go eventually.