After obtaining her BFA in Graphic Design from Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City, illustrator and graphic designer Cecilia Ruiz decided to challenge herself and furthered her expertise by receiving an MFA in Illustration at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. After falling in love with the city, she now calls New York home and welcomes the challenge and fire-in-the-belly it provides. She has worked for Life & Style Magazine, Accent Magazine and, just a week ago, announced the launch of her new book, The Book of Memory Gaps, a collection of darkly humorous mini-stories published by Blue Rider Press, a member of Penguin Random House. Today, Cecilia is sharing her ideas on self-promotion, discipline, the conundrum of creative kindness, and why feeling guilty for getting paid is wrong. —Sabrina
Why did you decide to start your own business?
Becoming a three-in-one freelance illustrator, designer and author was more the result of an experiment than it was of a conscious decision. After I graduated from the MFA Illustration as Visual Essay program at the School of Visual Arts, I decided I would give it a try. There were so many things I wanted to be doing (editorial illustration, books, logos, packaging, etc.) that I didn’t want to settle down with any one particular job.
I have always been good at working for other people (I can handle my own disappointments, but when it comes to others’ expectations I hate to let people down). I knew that if I took a full-time job, I would easily get too comfortable and gradually forget about all those other things that I wanted to be doing.
I needed some stability so I wouldn’t starve, but I also wanted to feel uncomfortable enough so that I wouldn’t stop pushing myself. I took a part-time job and started freelancing on the side. Before long, the freelance work took over and that’s how everything began.
When you first decided to start your own business, how did you define what your business would be?
I think I made that decision without knowing it when I decided to move to New York to go to grad school. I did my undergrad in Graphic Design in Mexico City, where I am originally from. Before coming to NYC I had been working in the graphic design field for five years with a full-time, steady job and the occasional illustration gig. I was getting way too comfortable so I knew that it was the right time to change gears and pursue my career as an illustrator (which had always been my dream).
I didn’t really know what life after graduating would be. I thought that there was a big chance that I would eventually go back to my old job in Mexico City and keep doing what I had been doing before. As soon as I started the program at SVA, I knew that it was the beginning of something new and exciting. I didn’t know exactly what it was, but I knew that going to my old job was not an option anymore.
I don’t think I ever defined what my business would be and I don’t think I ever want to do just one thing. I started calling myself a graphic designer a long time ago and then I just kept adding titles as I did new things. I became an illustrator but never stopped being a graphic designer, and now I am also an author but I still do all the above.
What was the best piece of business advice you were given when you were starting off?
The best business advice I got was from my teachers at SVA about self-promotion. I have never felt entirely comfortable showing my work and/or talking about myself. Back in Mexico I had a much more passive approach to putting my work out there — I would show my work only to those who thought to ask and I would wait for the jobs to come. Since they kept coming and I was always busy, I never felt like I wasn’t doing enough. This idea of self-promotion was totally new to me.
While still in grad school, one of our teachers encouraged us to build a list of all of the art directors and editors at the magazines, publishing houses and companies that we would like to work for. After graduating, I printed a set of postcards with my thesis project and sent it to the contacts from that list. I only got one job from that mailing batch, but that job is the one that led to me publishing my first book.
What was the most difficult part of starting your business?
The part that was and is the most difficult for me is self-discipline. Working from home and not having a boss is fantastic but also very dangerous. I am a person who learned to work under pressure and associate discipline with an external force or authority figure. The best of my working habits are deeply bound to the existence of an external pressure, so when I don’t clearly have it or see it, my productivity goes down. Changing those habits is my daily struggle. Setting my own deadlines and meeting them; being productive when no one is watching; having a schedule and respecting it is the eternal learning curve for me.
Can you name the biggest lesson you’ve learned in running a business?
The biggest lesson I have learned is that in every project (or almost every one) there is a moment of darkness…internal darkness. There is always a moment when doubts, insecurities, anxiety and procrastination arise and it is only with work and through work that one can see the light on the other side. I keep re-learning this with every project I take. Sometimes the dark cloud passes fast and sometimes it lingers for a couple of days. I have learned to be patient and I try to embrace it since it is just one more stage of the creative process.
Can you name a moment of failure in your business experiences?
Yes. I have had more than one and a lot of them have been the result of me not being able to say no or not fighting for what is fair because I don’t want to appear rude or unkind.
I would often find myself in situations where I would get a job and (especially if it was a really cool project) I would feel immensely honored and thankful to the point that I felt guilty for getting paid. I would often accept whatever the client was willing to pay, even though I knew from the start that it wasn’t a fair amount. In the end, I would finish the job feeling completely drained out, underpaid and stupid for charging so little.
Even though it is still painful for me to talk about money with clients, I have learned that saying no, negotiating when it is needed and asking for what is fair keeps the good work flowing.
What has been the biggest sacrifice you’ve made in starting your business?
Giving up the weekends. In part for not being the most self-disciplined person and in part for always overloading myself with all sorts of projects, it is extremely rare to have a weekend day without having to work at least half of the day.
Can you name your greatest success in your business experiences?
I am lucky enough to have more than one project that I am very proud of, but the one that I consider my greatest success (so far) is publishing my first book as an author. I honestly never thought that I would write a book — much less, in a different language. The Book of Memory Gaps it is a series of darkly humorous illustrated mini-stories that examine the fragile and capricious nature of memory. It is an odd little book and I hope is the first of many.
What business books/resources (if any) would you recommend to someone starting a creative business of their own?
I don’t think I have ever read a business book — maybe I should start doing it. There is one book I would absolutely recommend to anyone pursuing a creative career, though. In fact I would recommend this book to anyone, really. It is Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. It is the correspondence between Rilke and a 19-year-old boy who is seeking Rilke’s advice — he is trying to decide whether he should peruse his career as a poet or as an officer in the army.
There are two parts of the book that have stayed with me ever since I first read it. One is in the very first letter, when Rilke refuses to criticize the young poet’s writing. He says: “Nobody can advise you and help you, nobody. There is only one way. Go into yourself.” The second one is Rilke’s advice to always seek for the difficult. Every time I am presented with a new challenge I remember this: when something is difficult, that is the sign that we should do it. The book is written beautifully and filled with honest, humble and thoughtful advice.
In your opinion, what are the top three things someone should consider before starting their own business?
1. Work for someone else first and learn from them.
2. Embrace the dark moments and be patient. They will pass.
3. Never stop. Never get too comfortable.