Learning when to say no and valuing your skills and your time is paramount when you’re self-employed. It can mean the difference between being satisfied and making progress in your career or remaining stagnant and unhappy. When illustrator Jing Wei first moved to New York after college, she spent a year executing someone else’s vision as an intern at a production company. It wasn’t until her contract ended that she realized it was time to focus on her own practice, and foster her own vision.
In chatting with Jing, I felt a sense of déjà vu creep in. Like her, I took a full-time job out of art school that left me wanting more creative control, but luckily for myself and for Jing, the thought of taking the leap in freelancing ended up being scarier than the reality. The moment Jing took her career into her own hands and embraced the ever-evolving world of freelance illustration, and all of the challenges and charter-building aspects that come with it, she was met with success — and equally as important, satisfaction!
Over the last few years, Jing has worked for clients from Adobe, Aritzia, Bloomberg, Buzzfeed, Fast Company, Intel, The New York Times, The New Yorker, Target and more. She is also the brand illustrator for Etsy, and an instructor at Pratt University, and today, we’re tickled to invite Jing to share some real-life insight into the world of freelance illustration — including dozens of valuable nuggets of wisdom. –Sabrina
Portrait Photography by William Covintree
Why did you decide to start your own business, versus work for someone else?
When I first moved to New York, I was a bit overwhelmed by the vastness of unstructured, post-college life. I approached every new opportunity with the thought, “Well, maybe this could be a thing,” even if it was completely unrelated to my discipline. My first and only internship was at a small production company where I made really weird artwork for an Adult Swim pilot. I spent my days executing someone else’s vision, and came home to work on my own stuff at night. After the internship was over, I realized that all this time had passed and I didn’t really feel like I had made any progress in the areas that mattered to me. I then decided to make illustration a true priority, and tried to figure out how to support myself financially, without compromising that necessary time and energy. As soon as I started focusing and taking my freelance career more seriously, the workflow became more consistent. The difficult part was making that commitment and deciding that this was a risk I wanted to take.
Can you remember when you first learned about your field of work? How did you discover what it was and how you knew it was what you wanted to do?
I had an extremely helpful teacher in college who introduced me (and a classroom full of others) to the world of freelance illustration. I couldn’t believe that there was a scenario in life where I could organize my own schedule and create artwork in an environment of my choosing. He also brought in working illustrators who shared their personal and professional experiences. I was inspired by their portfolios, but also by the work ethic that they all had in common. Everyone had the same desire to tirelessly push themselves to improve and look at their work with a critical eye. The idea of a career that was constantly changing and presenting new challenges was very appealing to me.
What was the best piece of business advice you were given when you were starting off?
Someone told me to start a ROTH IRA when I was in my early 20s. I had to go home and look up what that was. Suddenly I realized that there was a whole other side to maintaining a business than just making the work. Researching ROTHs and SEPs then lead to other business- and finance-related questions such as: how much do I need to put away every year to retire? What does an invoice need to include? Or a quote or a contract or an SOW? Should I pay quarterly taxes? What counts as a business expense? Should I get an accountant? How much does it cost to get an accountant? And so forth.
What was the most difficult part of starting your business?
Promotion. Making the work was fun — actually getting it in front of people was not. I had to learn to get over my shyness and feel confident about what I was creating. There was always the looming fear of the work not being good enough to show, and therefore, not being “ready.” But the truth is, it still doesn’t feel ready and it will probably never feel ready. It’s more important to be proactive, rather than trying to achieve this self-imposed and ultimately unattainable ideal. Freelancing has definitely challenged certain parts of my personality. I often have to force myself out of my comfort zone when it comes to my business. It’s been difficult for sure, but also a very positive thing.
Image Above: Photography by Dana Gallagher.
Can you name the biggest lesson you’ve learned in running a business?
LEARNING TO SAY NO. Which translates to respecting your practice, and your time. It seems like a simple one, but I feel like it’s so easy to fall into the habit of overworking and under-pricing. It’s okay to ask for what you feel like you deserve, and it’s okay to say no to a commission because it doesn’t fit into your schedule. No one will blacklist you, and it’s ultimately better that you don’t put yourself in a situation that will make you hate your job.
Can you name a moment of failure in your business experiences that you learned from or that helped you improve your business, or the way you work?
Oh my god, I feel like I encounter a minor failure of some sort on a daily basis. I try not to sweat the small stuff, but occasionally something will resonate and make me think about how I could prevent such a misstep in the future. For example, I gave a class talk several years ago that went terribly, due to complete lack of preparation. Since then, I’ve developed a habit of being overly prepared for everything: presentations, meetings, class, etc. If it’s important to you, then it’s worth putting in that extra bit of time.
If you were magically given 3 more hours per day, what would you do with them?
Make unnecessarily complicated meals with my boyfriend, something we normally wouldn’t have time to do on weeknights.
What has been the biggest sacrifice you’ve made in starting your business?
As much as I try to regulate my schedule, I can never predict what’s going to come up. It is inevitable that I will fall in love with a project and make it a priority over going to the gym or going out for drinks. So I guess the answer is, my body and my social life.
Can you name your greatest success (or something you’re most proud of) in your business experiences?
I can’t name one single success story (perhaps it has yet to happen?), but I can say that I am proud of the client relationships I’ve been able to cultivate since I started doing this. It is an incredible perk to be able to work with people who you know and respect. I’m grateful for the art directors who continue to call me year after year, even through tough assignments. That growing history and mutual trust is something I definitely don’t take for granted.
Image Above: Photography by Sara Forrest
What business books/resources (if any) would you recommend to someone starting a
creative business of their own?
I am ashamed to say that I have never read a single book about business! I bought a copy of Graphic Artists’ Guild Handbook of Pricing and Ethical Guidelines when I graduated, but I think I only used it twice, and probably incorrectly. Every piece of business advice I’ve ever gotten has always come directly from peers, friends and mentors. I find business-related information to be much more digestible when coming from the mouth of a human versus a page in a book. I love going to talks and listening to other people’s experiences. And I still bug my studio-mates daily with questions about pricing, contracts, what to eat for lunch, etc. If you are able to find a supportive and helpful community, then that, in my opinion, is the ultimate resource.
Has failing at something or quitting ever led to success for you? Walk us through that.
When I first started freelancing, I was only using printmaking techniques to create illustrations. I was mostly getting editorial jobs, since magazines and newspapers hire more frequently, and are more likely to try out someone new than say, an advertising agency. Unfortunately, editorial gigs also have the fastest turnarounds, sometimes within 1 to 3 days. So for a while, I was creating original woodcuts and trying to meet these insane deadlines, simply because I didn’t know how to let go of this process and try something new. In my mind, I had worked so hard to get to a point where people were responding positively to my work, and the thought of having to start all over again with another technique seemed like a major setback. But in reality, I was just limiting myself and trying to create an identity that was unsustainable. Once I realized that, my whole approach to illustration changed and it has only been for the better.
Image Above: Photography by William Covintree for the Wythe Hotel
In your opinion, what are the top three things someone should consider before starting
their own business?
1. Do you have a clear voice? Every industry is flooded with people who are trying accomplish something new. What makes you different?
2. Can you do this job even when you don’t want to? I don’t believe in the myth of “if you love it, it’s not work.” It’s still work. If anything, it’s more complicated because you do love it, and that feeling will constantly be challenged by unforeseen obstacles. The importance of endurance cannot be overstated.
3. Consider the bigger picture. What does your business look like 20 years from now?
What’s the first app, website or thing you open/do in the morning?
I wish I could say it was the Times or an obscure meditation app, but it’s almost always Gmail. I am an obsessive email-checker, so it puts me at ease to know that there are no emergencies in my inbox waiting for me. After that, I like to have a nice long breakfast.
What’s the hardest thing about being your own boss that isn’t obvious?
Managing your time. That’s probably obvious, but it’s true! There is no one to tell you that you’re done for the day, no office that’s closed on holidays and summer Fridays. There is also no one who will judge you for rolling in at 2 pm in the afternoon or staying in the studio until 2 am. Time can be a nebulous thing for a freelancer. A lot of my studio-mates and studio neighbors keep 95 or 106 schedules. I try my best to not work nights and weekends. Although, I am currently writing this interview at 11:30 pm. It’s a process.