biz ladiesLife & Business

Biz Ladies Profile: Julia Rothman

by Stephanie

Julia Rothman Photo by Meredith Jenks

Today’s Biz Ladies Profile comes to us from D*S  friend and contributor Julia Rothman.  With a degree in hand and job applications sent out, Julia was ready to enter into the full-time world of illustration from the start.  But after a quick reality check and six months of dedicated freelance work, she finally found her stride and continues to make her living as an independent illustrator.  Today she shares a bit about her creative path into the full-time illustration world.  Thank you, Julia, for sharing your story with us! —Stephanie

Read the full interview after the jump…

Wallpaper via Boston Home Magazine

Why did you decide to start your own business?

After graduating Rhode Island School of Design with a BFA in Illustration, I was ready to be an illustrator! But it wasn’t as easy as I thought. I had done some illustrations on my own but it wasn’t enough to pay rent. I lived at my parents house and applied for all kinds of jobs: design jobs at magazines, map-making jobs, corporate graphics jobs. I didn’t get any of them, mostly because I wasn’t qualified. So I kept working freelance, making illustrations for whatever I could. I looked on Craigslist for illustration jobs. I designed t-shirts for friends and logos for friends of friends. After about six months, I hustled so much that I had enough clients to move out of my parents house and make it on my own. I have been a freelance illustrator ever since.

When you first decided to start your own business, how did you define what your business would be?

The first thing I did was make a website for myself. I think that having a portfolio to show what I could do let people know how they could use me. I wanted as many jobs as I could get so I showed logos, poster designs, and layouts along with my illustration work. Over the years, I’ve narrowed that range down to my biggest strengths, illustration and pattern designing and only show advertise types of projects that I would want to get again.

What was the best piece of business advice you were given when you were starting off?

I don’t know if this was advice someone gave me, or advice I learned along the way, but I still tell myself this: make friends with everyone. I guess some people call it “networking” but that word feels so business-y and artificial. I love talking to people (I once took a Myers-Briggs personality test online and scored 100% extrovert ) and I think that’s helped my business greatly. You never know where a conversation might lead you, how you might connect with someone, or how they can inspire you.

Even with clients now, ones I never meet in person, but only talk to over the internet, I try to relate personally. It could be something simple, like at the end of an email adding one sentence asking about their weekend. Making a personal connection establishes a relationship that the client and I feel comfortable in, and then we want to work together again.

Farm Anatomy

What was the most difficult part of starting your business?

The money, hands down. It’s been really difficult knowing what my work is worth. I have a hard time when someone asks for an estimate. I always want to be safe and ask for less than I should. For larger projects, like a big advertising campaign, it’s very scary. For example, if a world-wide company comes to me and says they want to do a buyout on a drawing, meaning they can use it on whatever they want on as many things as they want, it’s really challenging come up with a price. Maybe the drawing took five minutes, so it’s not the time at all, but what it’s worth. I’ve had problems feeling confident enough to ask for bigger budgets, but I’m getting better. Fortunately in illustration, most clients have a budget that they tell you upfront, which makes it a lot easier. Many illustrators get agents to deal with this type of stuff but I always wanted to learn to do it on my own. I read my own contracts. I made mistakes. But then the second time around, I don’t make that same mistake again. It’s a learning experience.

Can you name the biggest lesson you’ve learned in running a business?

For me, the best biggest lesson is that anyone can do anything they want. If you have an idea for a book, you can find a way to do it. If you want to make wallpaper, find someone who will help. You have to be confident and take risks. And you have to be willing to invest in yourself. You will lose money to make money.

Can you name a moment of failure in your business experiences?

There’s been so many. The one I always use as an example is back when I did Surtex. I sold all my patterns and the rights to them for $500 each. I didn’t know enough about licensing so I just thought, I’ll make more designs and sell these for $500. I wound up selling many of my favorite designs to companies who used them on multiple products. Instead of getting paid for each usage, I just got that flat fee and missed out on thousands of dollars. Now I try to license my designs or charge a lot more for a flat fee.

Tea Towels via Anthropologie

Can you name your greatest success in your business experiences?

It’s hard to say. Every time I get a new exciting job I think this is it, I’ve done it, I reached the top, I can now die happy. Then another even better job comes along that I feel so excited about. I have been slowly checking off my list of life projects- books, wallpaper, fabric, illustrations for The New York Times, advertising campaigns. I guess looking back on the variety of things I’ve been able to do is my biggest success.

What business books/resources (if any) would you recommend to someone starting a creative business of their own?

I don’t read too many books so this is a hard question for me. I sometimes use Graphic Artist’s Guild Handbook of Pricing and Ethical Guidelines. I love Mastering the Art of Fabric Printing and Design for artists who want to be pattern designers. I remember Paula Scher’s Make it Bigger being really inspirational to me when it first came out. I think reading about other women achieving such great things, in their own words, has been the best inspiration.

Teapot from Crate and Barrel

In your opinion, what are the top three things someone should consider before starting their own business?

I’m not sure if I have a top three. This sounds depressing, but I think a lot about how short life is. So many people get stuck in jobs they hate or don’t follow their true passion. So I’m a believer in doing what you want to do now. Risk it and if you fail, so what? You’ll pick yourself back up. You don’t want to look back at your life with regret. I am proud to say that I love what I do and enjoy every minute of it.

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  • Hooray! I was so excited to see this post : ) I love your work, Julia, so it is wonderful to know more about you. As someone entering the murky waters of freelance, it is always encouraging to hear about other people’s experiences. And I absolutely agree with taking risks to do what you love. It is hard for me to do sometimes, but even the failures have been worth it. Thank you for sharing!

  • I was so excited to see todays Biz Ladies was featuring Julia Rothman. I have followed her for some time now.
    I especially fancy that tea pot from Crate and Barrel. It is so exciting when huge brands such as Crate and Barrel, Target and Anthropologie pick up on independent designers. For me this is incredibly important as working as part of a in-house design team can be challenging as there are so many possibilities for surface designers. Books, wallpaper, tea towels, t-shirts and list goes on. Thanks for your wisdom Julia.

  • thanks for this post! Agreed, what better thing to consider than life is too short! Love your work, especially loving that teapot.

  • I love this! I just purchased and put up some of Julia’s wallpaper tiles in our guest bathroom, and every time I’ve gone to the bathroom since, they put a HUGE smile on my face. Thanks for this series, D*S! Besides the business/life advice, it’s so wonderful to get to know the artists behind the beautiful work.

  • I love Julia’s spirit of generosity combined with her zest for making it in the field of illustration. Thank you D*S for featuring such a lovely and talented illustrator. She is very inspiring!

  • I loved this interview. Julia, you are so real and I that is why people are drawn to you. You are so talented. That’s why they couldn’t stay away. I’m so impressed you pushed so hard. You are an inspiration. Thank you DS for sharing!

  • Your daydream wallpaper is to die for!! I have a spot in mind as soon as I redo my living room. Your advice is also smart and spot on, especially the part about chatting up everyone you meet. You never know where it will lead and, more importantly, it just makes life more interesting!!

  • Been a fan of this lady for years now and this is the first interview that I had read with her and she sounds ace and very likeable.

  • Incredible interview and illustrations! I absolutely love the daydream wallpaper and need it! As bad as it might sound, it’s so real toto hear that she didn’t land every job she applied for. I am struggling with this and just like she did, I am looking for other means. Thanks!

  • This is great. I am a HUGE Julia Rothman fan. She is incredibly talented. I am constantly looking for projects she has done.

  • As an aspiring illustrator, it’s great to hear a story that’s so down to earth. Sometimes people appear to rocket to success and you forget that everyone has bumps along the way.

  • So great to read Julia’s story and advice! And I completely agree that reading other women’s successes from their own words is the best inspiration…which is why I love the Biz Ladies series so much : )

  • Absolutely loved reading this! Great advice Julia…”Risk it and if you fail, so what?”…I love that and agree completely. Amazing…

  • i am a FIRM BELIEVER in the fact that life is too short not to do what you love to do. now that i have had my fill of the 9-5 life i want to do more creative things that i really enjoy doing. thanks for that great article and inspiration !

  • Dear Julia, I started doing patterns because of you and your work and the work of other talented designers I found on the internet. I even learned how to do repeats with one of your tutorials! Today I am a happy working as a textile designer and my designs are always in repeat. :) The kindness of designers like you in sharing their knowledge always inspires me to reach out to new designers and share my knowledge too. So what I really want to say is THANK YOU, you are an inspiration!

  • I feel terribly lost when it comes to protecting my artwork for licensing especially for digital transactions. Graphic Artist’s Guild Handbook of Pricing and Ethical Guidelines was mentioned, is that a good resource for all licensing information, even for a shop owner? Anyone have other resources?

  • Aww thank you all for such incredible comments and kind words!!!! It makes me so grateful for this site and community where we can all support each other!

    Jessica- I haven’t seen Lila Rogers book yet but I bet it has some great advice-tips on licensing. Good luck!

  • Loved reading this interview…inspiring as always! I am a big fan of Julia’s work and also a firm believer that life is too short to not follow your dreams…

  • I love Julia’s work! I have been a big fan for a long time. It is great to hear about the mistakes as well as her obvious successes. Brilliant lady!

  • I love Julia’s work so much, she’s definitely one of my illustration heroes! I could not have read this interview at a better time, as I’m about to give notice at a safe but boring design job and start freelancing. Thank you Julia and DesignSponge for this inspiring interview! It feels awesome to hear someone you admire say the things that you’ve been saying to yourself in your head. Thanks again!