Life & Business

Life & Business: Cristina Martinez

by Sabrina Smelko


I often feel as though we’re made to believe that freelancing is risky, and that job security exists only in full-time roles, but I personally believe the opposite rings truer. I think, for some, many full-time roles can just be invisible, imaginary and terrifying security blankets. The great thing about being your own boss is that you’re in charge; of your hours, your day-to-day tasks, and, arguably, even your income. As an independent contractor, you have the advantage of flexibility, and the transferable skills and smarts you gain along the way are valuable in any market — but the best part of all is the happiness and fulfillment you’ll receive in the long run.

Designer, illustrator and multidisciplinary creative, Cristina Martinez happened upon her career as a freelancer almost by accident. During her studies, she took on odd freelance jobs to build her portfolio, but when she graduated, she spent night after night applying to job after job. Luckily, it didn’t take long for her to realize that she already had her dream job. In between filling out applications, Cristina continued illustrating, designing and photographing for various clients, but as it was often enjoyable, she didn’t recognize it as such at first. As the old adage goes, “If you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.”

On one hand, it may take a lot of discipline to run your own business — and you may have to sacrifice some of your social life and weekends from time to time — but Cristina’s passion for creative work and the pleasure she gains from connecting and collaborating with other creative individuals far outweighs the few cons. Today, Cristina is joining us to chat about some of the business and life lessons she’s learned along her path as a creative freelancer, and she shares my most favorite nugget of wisdom about how to find success (in any line of work): “Work hard, be kind.” –Sabrina

Why did you decide to start your own business, versus work for someone else?

I started taking on unpaid freelance projects while I was still an undergraduate student at The University of Mary Washington, simply to gain experience in the field and to build a portfolio. Once I graduated, it felt completely natural to transition into freelancing full-time. With that said, I initially did feel the pressure to get a “real” job and thought I would freelance until that happened. At the time, I truthfully didn’t think it was possible to start your own business right out of school, which is why I began meticulously applying for job after job once I graduated. It didn’t take long for me to realize that I already had the job I wanted — and as scary as it was to not initially have the financial stability of a traditional career, I realized that working and connecting with other creative individuals was what I was truly passionate about.

Can you remember when you first learned about your field of work?

One of my professors was actually the one that brought the field to my attention. I remember he briefly discussed the field during a class and mentioned that taking on freelance jobs was a great way to build a portfolio. So I decided to take his advice in hopes that I would create a strong body of work by the time I graduated. When I finally graduated, I had already worked on several unpaid freelance projects for a couple of months and discovered that I really enjoyed the process and the freedom of working for myself.

©Cristina Martinez - Design Sponge #2

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

Work hard, be kind. I’ve always been a firm believer that being kind is just as important as your work ethic in any job or career. Though I tend to describe myself as a relatively shy person, I love meeting and talking to new people, which I think has helped my career immensely.

What was the most difficult part of starting your business?

The lack of stability, and the inconsistent nature of freelancing. As someone who really tries to plan out almost every aspect of my life, it was extremely difficult to come to terms with just how inconsistent a career in freelancing could be. When I first started out, I would get overwhelmed with the ever-changing schedule of my job. I had to work hard to try and find a somewhat realistic balance between my work life and and my personal life.

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

Learning how to say “no” was honestly the biggest lesson I’ve learned. When I first started out, I said “yes” to almost any project and I did just about anything to make people happy, simply because I wanted to be successful in this field. Initially, I also made the mistake of making myself overly available to people, but over time I learned that it’s completely okay to turn down opportunities that don’t feel right.

©Cristina Martinez - Design Sponge #4

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?

I used to work for free more times than I would like to admit even after I graduated; I had convinced myself that it was a great way to make connections while still building my portfolio. It’s important to value the work that you do, if people are interested in working with you, they should be willing to pay you fairly. It’s also important not to beat yourself up over the mistakes you’ve made and are going to make in the future, failures happen and that’s okay. Remember that more often than not, you learn greatly from your mistakes, regardless of just how tough they are. You simply have to keep going and push forward.

If you were magically given 3 more hours per day, what would you do with them?

I wish I could say I would take the time to do something profound, but honestly I would try and catch up on some sleep or binge-watch some shows on Netflix.

What has been the biggest sacrifice you’ve made in starting your business?

I think the biggest sacrifice has been my social life, many people do not understand just how ever-changing and unpredictable my schedule can be. They tend to come to the conclusion that just because I work for myself, I have the luxury of doing whatever I want, whenever I want. The reality of working for yourself is (at least in my case) very different, I rarely have a day off and when I do, I prefer to spend my time with my husband and my family.

Can you name your greatest success (or something you’re most proud of) in your business experiences?

To be honest, every project I work on feels like a great success because it provides me with the opportunity to connect and work with creative individuals on a more personal level.

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

In my opinion, there is no one book that can truly prepare you for the reality of starting a creative business, you simply have to do it and do your best to quickly learn from the inevitable mistakes you will make. I would suggest to simply put yourself out there and and begin working towards what you want. I also believe it’s important and essential to try and reach out to people in your field and develop relationships with your fellow creatives.

©Cristina Martinez - Design Sponge #5

Has failing at something or quitting ever led to success for you? Walk us through that.

Of course! Originally I was accepted to The University of Mary Washington as an English Major — at the time I had this grand plan of becoming a journalist or a writer. But, after attending the program’s orientation I realized I had made a huge mistake, so I decided to quit the program and I changed my major to Studio Art, which was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

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

1. Consider the cons. Are you honestly content with the financial inconsistency that comes along with starting your own business?

2. Be honest with yourself. Is this something you are truly passionate about? If your answer is no, then take some time to really evaluate what your interests are.

3. Consider the reality. Starting your own business can seem appealing, but many people are unaware of just how difficult it can be. Are you ready to work extremely long and inconsistent hours? Having your own business can sometimes feel like an emotional roller coaster, it can be stressful, unpredictable, tiring while rewarding, fun and exciting.

What’s the first app, website or thing you open/do in the morning?

I always check my email in the morning before anything else, then I make a cup of coffee and I usually check Instagram before I begin working.

What’s the hardest thing about being your own boss that isn’t obvious?

Time management and constant self-motivation. When you are your own boss, you are solely responsible for your work schedule, meaning that you have to be incredibly organized with your time. You also have to constantly motivate yourself to continue working, regardless of any professional or personal issues that may arise.

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  • Awesome article, thank you for sharing your experiences and advice. As an Interior Designer building my business and brand, I can use all the advice I can get. You are an inspiration!

  • Christina has such a healthy outlook on life and business that I find super inspiring. I get so much out of the Life and Business featured makers/entrepreneurs. I think it’s so important to openly talk about failures. Without this it can be difficult to appreciate success. I love Christina’s work and her Pinterest Page is also a must see!! Thanks D*S and Sabrina :)

  • I always enjoy reading these articles and I find the advice and experience these women share incredibly valuable. One thing that frustrates me a little is the number of women who have a partner who supports them or has supported them in their business or freelancing ventures. I understand that having that support is very key to these women as they bring it up as part of their success. However, as a single woman I have a hard time taking in all the inspiration without a tinge of envy/frustration/hopelessness for myself. I would love to see more profiles of female business owners who have built their businesses up from scratch without a partner to support them. This is by NO means a criticism of any of the posts or featured business owners, I have no insight into how any of these women built their businesses (with or without a life partner) just a request to see more entrepreneurs like myself, and their struggles represented.

    • Devon

      I absolutely agree and understand your desire to hear from business owners without additional support. We actually have shown quite a lot of people in this column without partner support. If you’re looking for anyone or any type of business in particular just let me know and I can send you direct links to posts that might be more of what you’re looking for from our archives.


  • I love her testimony. Formerly trained as a sculptor I am now slowly going somewhere totally new to me with illustration and surface design, so this kind of interviews is immensely motivating!

  • I too have a business and you’re right it can mean quite the opposite of being able to do what you want and work when you want. There are definitely pros to working for yourself but socially it is difficult. I actually gave up planning to go out as something always came up and I would have to change plans and that felt like extra pressure that I just didn’t need. Like yourself, any spare time is precious and spent with my family, so therefore I did pay the price with my social life, which has now led to anxiety in these situations as well!!