Top Ten Tips for Starting Your Own Illustration-Based Business

Top Ten Tips for Starting Your Illustration-Based Business by Paper Raven Co. |

     Hey friends, I am writing this guide to answer some of the questions I get asked most frequently on my email/Instagram. I started my own business, Paper Raven Co., full-time in 2015. An illustration-based endeavor, my business is broken down into a) my own line of paper and gift products, b) selling those products to retail stores/boutiques, c) licensing designs to clients/partners, d) writing books about art, and e) teaching workshops and classes. In the last few years have had a wonderful roster of clients that include Minted, Target, Nordstrom, Chasing Paper, Greenvelope, Tombow and International Greetings.
     I put together this list because I am often asked about how to get started running your own business as an illustrator or graphic designer, and I wanted a central place to point people in the right direction for my advice. I hope this is helpful for you!

To receive a PDF worksheet of this post,
plus my “Best Financial Practices for Setting Up a Business”, click the button below.

1. Start with a Good Foundation

     I knew I wanted to start my own business while I was already working a day job. Even though a day job can feel like a total drag (it did for me), I encourage you to start building your foundation and following while you have that steady income coming in. While it may be overwhelming, use your lunch breaks, nights and weekends to create illustrations and products. Trust me, your hustle will be worth it. Save your money. Many businesses were built on a foundation of little-to-no savings - mine was! I was planning to leave my toxic job after 6 more months, but was laid off 5 months before I had planned to go, with not as much savings as I had planned. But I’ll tell you what - because I had been laying a foundation WHILE I was working, I made my yearly day-job salary back within 9 months. Remember that, if you’re working a day-job or part-time job while starting your business, you are no less of a creator than someone who is at this full-time. There is room for everyone.

2. Educate Yourself about Running a Business
     A lot of people are really great at art, but get stuck when it comes to the business side of living as a working artist. Running your own business can be incredibly freeing and rewarding, but unless you have the basic biz 101 skills, it’s going to be very hard to be profitable and pay your bills. Entrepreneurship is NOT rewarding when you’re constantly stressing about money. Here is a list of online classes that I took when starting my business (a lot of them are super affordable!) On CreativeLive, you can even sign up for an account and get emails about when certain classes are broadcasting for free (yep!) 

3. Get Right About Money

     If you’re seriously considering owning your own business, you need to get right about your money from the start. This is always an intimidating topic, but I encourage you to reframe the way you think about money. Money is freeing, it enables you to continue to add something of value to this world, and inspire others; and in turn, support other’s dreams, feed your family (or yourself), and invest in your goals. Listening to Marie Forleo’s business coaching, she said one thing that I always say to myself now: “Whenever you spend money, thank it and mentally say, ‘There’s more where that came from’.” I love this mentality so much because it combines gratitude with confidence about money. And I have found, after running a growing business for 4 years, that when you have good energy and confidence about money, it keeps coming back to you. Here some additional things you need to do, in addition to clarifying your money-mindset, to start your biz on the right foot.

  • Separate Your Money. It seems intimidating, but the longer you put it off, the bigger pain it will be later. Go to the bank (or your bank’s website), and apply for a Business Banking Account. Most major banks have an option to do this completely online. For this, many banks will require an EIN number (Employer Identification Number), so be sure you have this info. Here’s how to easily apply (don’t let this stop you - it takes 10 minutes!).
  • Invest in Quickbooks Self-Employed. There are many accounting softwares out there, but this is my personal recommendation, and one I have been using for years. It links to my business card, so when I make business purchases or receive income, it all gets categorized for my taxes automatically!
  • Automate Your Savings. This is a life-saver and a game-changer! I personally have been using Digit for the last 4 years and love it. Digit is really easy to use, lives as an app on your smartphone, and links to your bank account to interpret your spending habits, and saves you spare change without you noticing. It automatically moves small amounts of money from your account to an FDIC-insured account that is outside your bank. With it, I’ve saved thousands of dollars (yes, thousands) for unexpected expenses, a vacation I want to take, and a house. The best part is that I never even notice it’s happening. If you’re curious about Digit, here is my referral link - it gives you a $5 bonus after your first autosave!

    Top Ten Tips for Starting Your Illustration-Based Business by Paper Raven Co. |
    4. Build Your Social Media Following
         One of the most valuable things I did before taking the leap into full-time business was building my social media following, giving me the ability to have a foundation of potential customers who were already interested in my work.
    My platform of choice is Instagram, so I wanted to share just a few tips for growing your audience there. Posting consistently is a great habit to start. People love snapshots of artwork behind the scenes, and some of my most engaging posts have been of photos that feature my hands, or me working. Utilize hashtags to get more eyeballs on your work. For example, if you’re posting a watercolor illustration, before you share it, go to the Search tab and type in “watercolor artist” under hashtags. Click on the hashtag (usually one like this will have 100K+ posts), then observe what related hashtags come up. Make sure to tag your post with all of the relevant hashtags! Use LinkTree to link to several spots in your bio so your profile can do more.
         Because of the 2018 algorithm change, I’ve found that whenever I post, it helps boost my visibility by being active in the app for at least 15 minutes after posting my content. I like, comment with 4 word phrases (yes, it must be 4 or more!), and watch stories (or better, post my own). Also, getting back to comments you receive right away is helpful for visibility as well. A word of caution: popular does not equal profitable, so while building a social media following is great, just remember not to equate your self-worth or success with a follower count. Equate it instead with your financial freedom and potential.

    5. Set Up an Online Shop to Sell Your Products
         Setting up an online shop is one of the easiest things you can do to start making money for your business. My recommendation, if you’re just starting, is to open an Etsy Shop. Why? Because Etsy has a built-in community of people who are already going there to search for something to buy. I have a Shopify, and it’s solely on my shoulders to advertise, market and promote that storefront. If you have a small following, you may feel frustrated that your views (and sales) are low at the beginning. That’s not to discourage you from starting your own Shopify/SquareSpace/etc if you don’t want to be part of Etsy. It’s totally doable, you just have to go into it knowing that you’re responsible for the traffic. With Etsy, all of that is built in, and I have found that it leads to more consistent sales and visibility. The cost is also incredibly low. Etsy uses listing fees (20 cents per item), and a fee at sale to pay for itself. While Shopify also requires a monthly fee (plus a sales fee) to use the service. However, one of the up-sides to Shopify is that the customization of your storefront is entirely within your control.

    6. Diversify Your Income
         This is the single greatest piece of advice I can give for running a creative business. Diversifying your income means having as many streams of revenue as possible, to keep money flowing in to you at different times of the month. For example, I have licensing partners that pay my royalty between the 1st and 5th of every month. I also have other licensing partners who pay on the 15th of the month. I have retail products selling on my Online Shop and my Etsy that process payments every week. And I have freelance clients that send me checks within 30 days of completing a project. It’s important to remember that setting up revenue flow takes some time. You start by adding one client at a time, and then another, and then another. The goal is to have revenue coming in automatically over the course of a month, and to develop and enrich it over time.

    7. Create Passive Income
         Also one of the top tips for growing your business! Passive income is awesome. Passive Income is something that you do the work for once upfront, and then it automatically keeps selling with no additional work from you. It makes you money while you’re sleeping, while you’re eating tacos, while you’re on vacation, etc. Some of the most popular methods of passive income are print-on-demand websites like Society6, Redbubble, etc. These sites allow you to upload your artwork onto a variety of items (pillows, mugs, prints, tshirts, etc), and then will handle all of the manufacturing, shipping, and customer service for you; and will automatically pay you a percentage of each sale on a monthly basis. You can also create passive income through selling digital products on your Etsy/Shopify/SquareSpace/etc, teaching online classes, etc. Combining passive income in a diversified setting is one of the best things you can do to keep revenue flowing in to your business.

    Top Ten Tips for Starting Your Illustration-Based Business by Paper Raven Co. |
    8. Create Active Income
         Especially at first, you may need to spend time creating income by taking on projects and commissions, selling at shows, etc. This is considered active income, and while you need to be present for it, it has many benefits; like getting your business out in front of customers in-person (which often leads to valuable feedback), revealing avenues of income you enjoy working in (or don’t), and giving you a sense of variety in your day. Some ideas for making extra active income are:

    • Partnering with local shops for a workshop, charge for students/materials, and split the cost and profit.
    • Contacting local stores about Pop-Ups. They’re usually most effective on Saturday/Sunday for 2-4 hours. Contact your local West Elm, Madewell, Pottery Barn, etc. They love partnering with local artists!
    • Offering (easy and quick) commissions that can be advertised on Instagram / Facebook. This works well around the Holidays if you can create an artwork/product that can be easily personalized!
    • Selling your products at local craft fairs/artist markets. Most cities will have a variety of summer markets and holiday markets!

    9. Assess What Is and Isn't Working

         As you start your business, pay attention to the things you really like to do, and the things that start to feel like chores. In the same vein, pay attention to the tasks/projects/revenue streams that make the most money (and the least money) for your efforts. Start to shift focus and prioritize those tasks that bring you joy AND fill your bank account. Don’t get hung up on leaving other things by the wayside if they’re really not working.

    10. Keep Going
         Business is rewarding, but it’s hard. It’s all about learning the ebbs and flows of your biz. For example, plan for November and December to be filled with sales because of the holidays, but know that July and August might be slower because many people are taking time off. Strategically save your money for those times. If a post doesn’t get as many likes on social media as you want, don’t take it personally, but instead use it as a way to test for success. Post a similar image at a different time, or with different hashtags. If someone gives you negative feedback, thank them for it and use it as a way to solve a problem and make your product/service/communication better. It takes a year or two to learn the flows of your business, and a year or two after that to strategize and streamline. Try all the things you think are fun and profitable, see what works and what doesn’t, engage with your community, and keep going!

    If you’d like a handy PDF worksheet of this post,
    plus my “Best Financial Practices for Setting Up a Business”, click the button below.

    Thanks so much for reading this guide - I hope you found it valuable. I would love if you’d share it with your friends!




    Top Ten Tips for Starting Your Illustration-Based Business by Paper Raven Co. |



    Vicky said:

    Such great information without the runaround! Thank you!

    Sarah Jayne

    Sarah Jayne said:

    Thank you so much for such an approachable words of wisdom. You make it seem achievable for me. I love your hints and recommendations. Thank you!


    Khushboo said:

    Thank you for a detailed blog ❤️


    Anna said:

    Thank you for this beautifully written article. I launched my own business 8 months ago, and your wisdom was very insightful!

    Christy Bergerson

    Christy Bergerson said:

    Great tips Erin!

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