Gemma Robinson – images from The Bumper Book of Marmite
For our new creative start-ups series, we’ll be doing Q&As with small businesses & freelancers to find out how they started out & offer advice for those hoping to tread a similar path. A warm welcome to Gemma Robinson, a freelance illustrator who has been kind enough to share some golden nuggets of Marmite-coated wisdom.
How long have you been a freelance illustrator & what sort of stuff do you do?
I’ve been freelancing as an illustrator since I graduated in 2005. During that time I have been commissioned to create illustrations for all sorts of projects. I have done a lot of work for magazines and newspapers, producing illustrations to go with articles and features. I have also created illustrations for book covers, corporate brochures, maps, branding, information graphics and advertising.
How did you fund setting up in the first place & what costs were involved?
I consider myself very lucky to have incredibly supportive parents who allowed me to live with them rent-free for a year when I first started out. That gave me enough time to write a business plan, follow through on that plan and to develop the cash flow of my business. It also enabled me to focus on starting my business full time without having to get a part time job, which would have inevitably have taken time away from getting the business up and running. Not everyone has that privilege and I’m extremely grateful to my parents for giving me that opportunity.
My start up costs were fairly low in comparison to some new businesses, as I had already acquired some of the equipment and software I needed to produce my artwork. However, I did need some additional equipment and marketing was a key start up cost for me. I took part in a scheme that was available to new businesses at the time called the New Entrepreneur Scholarship, which not only provided me with fantastic business guidance, but also awarded me a small grant to cover some of these start up costs.
How do you discover clients & do you have any tips on garnering repeat trade?
Marketing is utterly fundamental to the success of my business. I spend a great deal of time researching clients that I think my work might be appropriate to and I market myself to them accordingly. You can’t sit back and wait for clients to come to you; you have to be proactive. No matter who I’m working for, I always try to do the very best job I can for them and I try to make the experience of commissioning me as easy and pleasurable as possible for them. I also ALWAYS deliver work on deadline, usually well in advance in fact. These principals of creating the best work I can, being reliable and just generally being nice have helped me to develop good relationships with my clients, many of whom have commissioned me regularly over the years.
Have you ever used an agent? Would you recommend it?
Yes, I have used an agent in the past. I had an agent for about a year towards the start of my career, but chose not to continue the relationship in the long term. I have always been very proactive when it comes to self promotion and I decided I wanted to have control over investing my time and money in my own marketing campaigns rather than the agency’s. I also felt that we weren’t quite the right fit for each other; with hindsight I had jumped at the first offer that came along, when in fact there was far more value in learning the industry for myself at that stage in my career.
Don’t get me wrong, I think there’s a real value in having an agent. As I become busier and busier, I can see how an effective agent-illustrator relationship could be a real advantage. However, I think it’s important to find an agency that is just the right fit for your work and your aspirations for your career, so if I did go down the route of representation again in the future it would be a very carefully considered decision.
Do you feel you’ve made compromises between doing the sort of work you really enjoy & taking on work which pays better?
Some jobs are more exciting than others, but I love what I do and to be honest I consider it a privilege that people pay me to do it. I think it’s important to create personal work as well as commissioned work as this allows you to indulge yourself in creating the type of work you enjoy the most, but I’m just happy to be illustrating!
Can you recommend any websites which may be useful to illustrators starting out?
I strongly recommend the AOI – a fantastic resource and source of support for illustrators. I also recommend Zero2Illo – a great resource focussing on the ‘business’ side of the job. It’s important to remember that ultimately what you are doing is running a business. It’s easy for us artists to forget this and I think it’s pretty common to leave university rather unprepared for it. The Prince’s Trust Enterprise Programme is a great introduction to business if you are aged 18-30 and many local authorities also run their own business support schemes.