Brand first, business second - Storyteller/Illustrator Jae Kutin (The INKtrovert)

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Jae never imagined she’d pursue a freelance career - or even a creative one, for that matter.

After graduating and then missing out on a job she’d set her heart on, Jae began exploring her creative interests and started work on a couple of personal projects.

Before long, she’d developed an eye-catching and memorable brand - The INKtrovert, and was winning gigs on the back of putting her work out there online.

Despite this early success, Jae admits that she was reluctant to embrace the business side of being freelance, hanging on to a part-time job instead of going at it wholeheartedly.

She’s now all in, having gone freelance full-time and committed herself to building a business around her brand. So what has she learnt so far? And what is she doing to grow the business as well as the brand?


Steve Folland: So as ever, how about we get started hearing how you got started being freelance.

Jae Kutin: I would say it was out of rejection basically, and just wanting to do my own thing. I think in university, I was in a stage where I needed money. I was now going through this artistic path, but I was still a bit confused about it, but I was known as the artistic one, so people kind of asked me art-related questions, or wanted me to do their branding. So it kind of all started from university, really.

Steve Folland: So, what were you doing at uni?

Jae Kutin: I was actually studying visual communication, graphics and illustration. So it was a way to just explore the path I had decided to take, because just before I went to university, I was actually applying for, I think it was criminology and sociology.

Steve Folland: Wow.

Jae Kutin: Yeah, totally, totally different, because for some reason, it hadn't clicked in my head I could take the artistic, sort of, path. I'd always been doing sociology related stuff, and economics as well. I also applied for economics in Lancaster, I believe it was. So yeah, it was kind of a switch, but that was still not really knowledgeable of, so when I got to university, it was just like I'd thrown myself into the deep end without actually ever studying art.

Steve Folland: But, you suddenly found people calling you the artistic one, coming to you. And, were you being paid to create branding for them and stuff?

Jae Kutin: That first sort of client, no. It was just helping a friend out with a society. They wanted to explore doing T-shirts and logos and stuff. And, back then, I still wasn't sure what sort of artist I wanted to be, so I kind of just said yes, and they gave me shout-outs basically, and free stuff. But, it wasn't a paid job, no.

Steve Folland: But, did it give you the confidence that maybe that was something you could do?

Jae Kutin: Yeah. Because, I like challenges really, and it wasn't just to simply do a logo. It was to explore some branding. And ever since secondary school, I've liked doing projects where it requires concept and research, because like I said, I've never studied art, but I've done graphic products.

Jae Kutin: I'm not sure if that's in the subject now, but that includes research. It includes building stuff. It includes planning. And, I really liked that, instead of just, I don't know about anyone else, but in your seven hours I remember drawing fruit, and drawing just objects, really. And, I never really liked that, so this was more of a challenge really, just to try and figure out what I wanted to do.

Steve Folland: So, how did it evolve from there?

Jae Kutin: I think I realised I didn't really like doing logo designs. This is like a running joke with me and friends, that I just don't like doing logo design. No offence to any logo designers, but I feel like it limited my imagination, because when I take on a project I'm an extra person, as in I'm extra. I do research, I do this, I do that. But, with logos I think it kind of limits me personally what I can do with it.

Jae Kutin: So, from that, I decided I wanted a brand, basically, because even though I was studying visual communication, I still wasn't very bold with my art. So, I came up with a name to just explore my art that I didn't have to necessarily have to put my own middle name on, but I could still have some sort of cover, like identity, to promote my art.

Jae Kutin: And, yeah, I just thought I would go from there. I made sure ... I'm good with branding, personal branding as well, so when I came up with the name The INKtrovert, I made sure it was everywhere. I made sure that no one else had it. I made sure that I had my own personal logo, and that I was, like it was recognisable, basically.

Steve Folland: And that name was?

Jae Kutin: Yeah, it was The INKtrovert. So, I was brainstorming names, and I've always been introverted and, ink was like my first love. I love drawing with ink. And, I wanted something clever, but not too gimmicky, and it just kind of made sense. I asked a friend. Well, I had come up with two names, and she said the INKtrovert was much better, so I went with that. And, it's been about five, six years I've been going under that brand name now.

Steve Folland: I got to say, I love it. It does stand out. But, when you said, so you went to makes sure that you got it everywhere. So, what? You made sure you could get the URL or...?

Jae Kutin: Yeah. I made sure. Basically, I made sure on my Instagram page, my Twitter, my portfolio that it was there. That was even before my own real name, it was there. So, I wanted it to be a thing when people Google it, I'm the first one to come up. I'm the only one to come up.

Jae Kutin: Because, back then I didn't really know about registering names, and I didn't have much money, but I didn't want it to be stolen or taken. So, I thought the best way to do that, before I registered it, was just make sure it was everywhere. And, that was kind of helpful as well, because even when it came to Twitter, when people were asking me for artwork, they liked the name. And, even before I was a guy, because I didn't put my real name. I just put the INKtrovert everywhere, so it became quite a prominent brand for me from the early stages, even though I hadn't got many clients yet.

Steve Folland: So, you didn't have like your photo, or something like that? You were a bit like banks, just anonymous?

Jae Kutin: No. It was the key. Yeah, because I've always been kind of like, I don't really share my personal life that much. I've always been kind of mysterious, so it was either a logo, or the illustration of something I'd drawn, or even myself. But, not a lot of people knew who I was back then, because I just didn't really have much courage in my art then. It was still the early days. I was still figuring out my sort of brand, and what I wanted to do, so I liked having something to hide behind.

Steve Folland: And, you mentioned you didn't have much money or know what you're doing, so you didn't register it. Does that mean you have registered it since?

Jae Kutin: Oh yeah, definitely. Yeah, because it came to a point where I knew I needed to be wholehearted in what I was doing, and I wanted to be professional, so that meant registering it so I wouldn't get into any sort of conflict there. Because, I became attached to the name, and I really felt like ... Imagine if someone just came along, and wanted to take the name. I think that would've really, really upset me after all the work I'd put in under that brand, so as soon as I could I registered the name.

Steve Folland: And, how was that as a process? So, this is registering a trademark, right?

Jae Kutin: Yeah, yeah. I thought I quite enjoyed it, because it meant that I was taking on this role, this brand professionally. And, even though it's not that much money, but it's a lot of money at the same time just to register a name, for me anyway.

Jae Kutin: I just liked receiving a certificate, you know? It made me look professional. It means I can trademark it. If anyone approaches me, I just have the certificate there. And, it's kind of nice to know, and have that like, "Oh, I've invested money into trademarking this brand, because I care about it. It's something I plan to do for a very long time."

Steve Folland: And it's a process. So, in the UK, is it like a trademark within the UK, or was it like a ...

Jae Kutin: Yeah. It's just for the UK, I believe. I think the international one is a lot more money. And, I thought of that. Maybe in the future I would invest, but I feel like for now even if someone else wanted to use that name, I feel like I've used it so many times, I'm well known for it, that I don't think someone else would bother. I'm just hoping. I'm just hoping basically, yeah.

Steve Folland: Okay, so you are at university ... You know, going back in time in your story. So, you were at university, and you're figuring out, and you've decided to call yourself The INKtrovert, but that still isn't a business. It still isn't getting paid for this. So, what happened?

Jae Kutin: So, I think around my final year, that's when you start planning for jobs basically. And, I came to the realization that what I want to do is very niche, and I was trying to figure out, "Oh, should I just apply for graphic design jobs just to get my foot in the door, or just wait out for the unique sort of opportunity that would just appear in my lap?" And, I was just struggling to find a job. And, I did apply for one job that I thought I was going to get. I really thought I had it in the bag, and I didn't get it. And, I remember just being so devastated, because I felt like it was my only chance.

Jae Kutin: So, I graduated from university without a job, and I was just ... I didn't know what to do myself, but at the same time, I'd always been a proactive person. I've always had my own ideas and stories. And, so I thought if I just at least do that just to keep myself sane during the summer, because the summer after graduation, I think for a lot of people, can be a bit stressful because you've graduated, and you kind of don't know what to do.

Jae Kutin: But, I don't like being idle, so I was like, "Let me just work on my own projects and see what happens." And, because of that, I drew an illustration of a musician that I really like, and I put it on my SoundCloud profile picture. Like I was saying before, I hardly have pictures of myself anywhere. And a producer saw it, and she was looking for music, but she saw that and she was questions like, "Oh, what do I do?" And, from that she realised that I was an illustrator, and she commissioned me to do a film poster for a film she was producing. And, that was kind of like the first time someone had approached me, rather than me seeking out jobs.

Steve Folland: Wow! Off the back of seeing it on your SoundCloud page.

Jae Kutin: Yeah.

Steve Folland: That's amazing.

Jae Kutin: Right. It's really random.

Steve Folland: It just goes to show, doesn't it? Putting ourselves out there. And, so how did that feel? You were suddenly being paid to do what you wanted to do.

Jae Kutin: It was really cool, because I'm the type of person if I'm going to take something on I have to be really interested in it. And, the way she approached me, the way she explained what she was working on, I just loved the whole idea of it.

Jae Kutin: And, the meeting went very well, and, it was for a film that I really, really was invested in the story. It just wasn't a random film. Everything about it, from the production, from the cinematography, and it's just a short indie film, but I was really, really, really appreciative of just being approached, and I was all in.

Jae Kutin: I didn't really care how much she would pay me. I just wanted to do it basically. And, I had so much fun approaching a brief that was beyond me, but when I'm challenged I feel that's best for me in terms of enjoying the work, because it gives me something to do, something to work towards. So yeah, that was really, really fun.

Steve Folland: So, that's one under your belt. How did you grow it?

Jae Kutin: From there, I realised I like music and film related projects. Anyone that knows me, I'm a big music fan. A lot of my friends are musicians, and I go to the cinema every week. I love film. And, even though I don't work in those industries, I want to be connected to it, so I started seeking out those sort of freelance jobs. So, I would spend days just going through Twitter, loads and loads of tweets, going on every website you can think possible, just to look up for jobs relating to that.

Jae Kutin: And, I did find a few. I did a couple here and there, but they weren't really big in terms of getting paid. But, I didn't want to give up, because I realised that's what I really, really wanted to do. So, I've always pursued that really, and it helped me kind of distinguish from doing what just for the sake of the money, and doing what because I really understand projects, and I really, really love to be a part of the project so it can actually go in my portfolio.

Steve Folland: And, so how did people then discover you?

Jae Kutin: I think even though I don't really like it, I think I'm good at marketing. In terms of my Instagram page, for example, has no pictures of me. It's just my illustrations, projects I've worked on. And on Twitter, I was making sure I was tweeting my illustrations. I was making sure that my name, the INKtrovert, was popping up all the time. I felt that was really, really important.

Jae Kutin: And, just being referred to by friends and stuff, because I feel like in my circle, there's only a few sort of creative people. So, from what I gather, if more people are talking in conversations and they need an artist, my name will come up, and that's how people have found me.

Jae Kutin: So, I've got a few random emails from someone saying, "Oh, so-and-so mentioned your name," that sort of thing. So, a lot of it is by word of mouth to be honest, and just seeing my name pop up on social media sites.

Steve Folland: And, you decided to call yourself a visual storyteller rather than an illustrator.

Jae Kutin: Yeah. I thought this was important, because one, a lot of people don't know what an illustrator is, and I felt that I needed a title that explains what I did so it wasn't limited to drawing. So, storytelling, in terms of pre-production, visualizing, not just finished art pieces. Because I like to do work that requires some sort of research, there's some in-depth sort of thought to it, there's loads of concept. So, I thought that would a better title for what I do, basically.

Steve Folland: And, on your website ... What? You have scripts?

Jae Kutin: Yeah.

Steve Folland: So, are those scripts that you've written?

Jae Kutin: Those are scripts, yeah, that I wrote in university and a bit after, because I felt they were really good. I know it's my own work, but I felt that they were really good, and I should stop hiding my work. So, if was applying for a job that they needed writing examples, I really felt it was important to have that online, not just my illustration work. Because, it's kind of hard to sort of arrange your portfolio that caters for everyone. I've gone through many stages of taking projects down, putting them back up. And, when you apply for different jobs they sometimes want a catered portfolio, and that can be tedious in itself, but I told myself that if I do want to go more into storytelling as well, I need to have some examples.

Steve Folland: And, the thing is is that, yeah, doesn't matter that it might be university work. You know, that's no different to somebody maybe doing a side project now and putting it in that their own ... Great.

Jae Kutin: Yeah.

Steve Folland: Do you continue to do side projects now?

Jae Kutin: I do that all the time. I think, sometimes as freelancers, I don't know about everyone else, but I feel like sometimes we forget we have our own projects, and ideas, and things we want to do. And, those are the stuff that keep me going. It helps me sort of work on my craft. It's helps me explore different ideas, and it keeps me sane as well.

Jae Kutin: Say, if I don't have anything for a while, it's just good to have your own side projects, and those are the things have gotten me noticed, to be honest. I would say about 50%, maybe even more, of my clients come from people looking at my own personal projects, because I don't get to put all of my client work in my portfolio. So, yeah, I think it's very, very important to do that.

Steve Folland: How have you found like the business side of being freelance, the pricing, or the contacts, and the rights to the work, and all of that, that suddenly lands on you?

Jae Kutin: I think I'm still learning. I think the business side was something I tried to avoid for the longest time, because when I was younger, freelancing to me was just a dirty word. I just didn't want anything to do with it. To me, it just sounded so stressful. It sounded like a unsustainable path. It sounded like too much work, so I'd just tried to avoid all of that, because I wanted art to come first before anything else. Because, I do better when I focus and concentrate on one thing. But, I also realised, as I got older, if this is something I really want to do, if this is the path I'm going to take, I need to learn the business side of things. So, in terms of self-assessment, all of that sort of stuff, I made sure that I knew what to do, even if it's just the bare minimum. I at least know what I need to do in terms of forms, the deadlines, all of that sort of stuff.

Jae Kutin: And, in terms of pricing? That's been a process in terms of figuring out what is the right thing to charge, which is so hard, because I realise when you go online, it's just not obvious. Like, so many times I've been online just so see like how much I should charge for a book, for example, and then I always feel so exhausted after, because I'm trying to figure out. But, by the end of the day, no one is actually giving a price. It's just, from what I gather, it's just you need to figure it out for yourself, which is true, but it's so, so hard sometimes to kind of price your work, and how to do it.

Steve Folland: Yeah. How did you figure it out?

Jae Kutin: Well, with different projects, I realise I need a sort of a base, sort of price that I would not go below, which is I think that's so important. And, I also learnt to suggest ... Not suggest, but actually tell the client I require 50% deposit, because there's so many cases where I started a project, and it's just fallen through, or they're going to continue, but I've invested so much time into it, and it just go ridiculous at one point. So, I've always said 50% deposit to start, and it's kind of locking insurance so like you at least have some sort of pay even if they don't go through with it.

Jae Kutin: And, in terms of contracts, just a simple written contract I believed helps, just so there's evidence of what the client sort of expects, and what you're going to provide, because you can get to a point that they might just disappear. That's happened to me many times. They've just disappeared off the face of the earth, and that was basically my fault, because I didn't set a contract, or anything. So, I learnt that from the beginning that was an important thing to do.

Steve Folland: So, all of these are working remotely, are they?

Jae Kutin: Mainly, yeah, because I'm based in London. But, I have been to Bristol to work on something. Sometimes I take some work on holiday, but yeah, working remote. And, you're working from home, and working from my studio space that I had last year, which I don't have anymore. And, I think that's one of the best things about what I do right now at the moment, is that I can work from wherever I want.

Steve Folland: What led you to the studio space, and then what led you back out again?

Jae Kutin: With a studio space it was just an opportunity that I saw online, where they gave me a discount. And, I though it would be nice to work from a different environment, because I believe that is really helpful to change where you work sometimes, because you can be inspired by different things. And, I kind of felt like at home I don't have a proper studio, and it was kind of affecting my work, and I just needed somewhere new, really.

Jae Kutin: And, then I realised at the same time, I was in a position where I was more concentrating on my own work than doing a lot of freelance work, so in terms of spending money at studio, it worked out better for me to just go back to working from home at that moment in time.

Steve Folland: I see. So, if you don't have that overhead that you've got to pay off, it makes it easier to work on your own stuff.

Jae Kutin: Very much so, yeah.

Steve Folland: But, how did it feel when you were working there? Was a lot of other people there, or ...

Jae Kutin: Yeah. There was a lot of other people there, and I loved it. You meet different types of creators or artists, so to speak. I met people who were in marketing. I met fine artists. I met people who were just there to work on really random stuff. But, I've learned, especially for university, when I'm surrounded by people who do different things than me that can be equally as inspiring than if I'm with other illustrators, because you get to have these conversations. You get make connections, and I made a few connections whilst I was there.

Jae Kutin: So, I think it's really helpful sometimes to just move from where you are sometimes, and just experience different things, and you don't know how it will influence your work, or your client work, really.

Steve Folland: Yeah, so you think you'll try again?

Jae Kutin: Oh yeah, definitely. I like to move from place to place, so it's just a period I'm in right now, it just made sense for me to work from home again.

Steve Folland: What your work/life balance, right now? Because, it's obviously a lot of client work, followed by a lot of personal work. What about everything else?

Jae Kutin: I mean, when I'm freelancing in house, it just seems like a normal 9 to 5, so it would just be mainly working on client work whilst I'm there. But, if I'm working remotely, if I'm doing random commissions, my work/life balance is much better. And, I feel like in comparison to your other guests, I'm quite an armature, slash, immature in comparison with what they're doing.

Jae Kutin: So, at the moment, I have the opportunity to still kind of have a very good sort of social life. Because, I tend to go to a lot of gigs, go to the cinema a lot, and that influences my work, because I still have time to do that.

Jae Kutin: But, at the same time, it's really hard to explain. Because, sometimes I don't remember what I do in a day, but when it comes to like at nighttime, I'm suddenly aware of all the work I have to do, and I do it all then.

Jae Kutin: But, I can do that, because I don't have my own family right now, so I can work through the night. So, I don't even know if that's a healthy work/life balance, but I always make sure I get the work done. And, sometimes it can mean that I enjoy myself too much sometimes, but I feel like sometimes that's important because it can inspire your work. It can give you sort of rest, so when you do go back to work you're operating from a place of relaxation. It's not pressure. It's not stressful. The work will just flow.

Steve Folland: Yeah, no. I like that. So, you might just head out for a day and do something different, and then end up working over an evening?

Jae Kutin: Yeah, basically. I love to do that. I just tend to work better at night, I've realise. So, when I'm not working in-house, I do that. But, when I'm working in-house, obviously I need to go to work at normal hours.

Steve Folland: What sort of thing do you do when you work in-house, and what's that experience like?

Jae Kutin: So, when it comes to in-house, the jobs I've done have all been to do with children's edutainment, which I actually love. That required pre-production, writing, visualising, research. A lot of research as well, which I love doing. And, I think that's another part of my sort of artistic path that I really want to get into. Because, I think with my personal work, or private commissions, they're more music and film based, but in terms of freelance contracts, it will be children's edutainment.

Steve Folland: Children's edutainment. So, what sort of thing is that?

Jae Kutin: So, I'm really big on alternative learning, and it being fun. Because, I really struggled in school. I was known as that troubled student. There was always something wrong with me basically, and I learned things in a different way to others. I was a very visual learner, so all of my workbooks in school were covers with drawings. And, I used to get in trouble for that, but that's the way I used to learn.

Jae Kutin: So, when it comes to children's edutainment, there's a really big focus on it being inclusive, it being fun. And within that, obviously, you get to explore drawing, animation, and whilst learning as well. So, that's something I'm really, really interested in, and it's really fun as well.

Steve Folland: Cool. And, so what would you say ... Because, I mean, you said early on that you like challenges. But, what have you found the biggest challenges of being freelance?

Jae Kutin: Apart from everything? I would say, I think when you're pursuing a particular sort of vocation, or path that is against the norm, it requires a special sort of sacrifice, and a lot of people do not understand that. And, whether in terms of friends, or support, or people who want to do that themselves, they don't really realise it takes time. You've got try and enjoy the process, and that was a challenge for me in the beginning.

Jae Kutin: Not that I thought that it was going to be easy, but I think it took me a while to realise how much it's going to take out of me. And, in terms of just making money, and having sustainability ... Obviously, as you get older you want to be sustainable. You want to have income, and that can be a challenge whether to just accept jobs just for the money. And, I definitely weren't free of that, and a couple years ago I had a part-time job, but it was taking so much out of me, and for the whole year I barely did any freelance work. And, I told myself if I was going to be at that job, I need to quit after a year, because that cannot be my path. Because if I was going to be a freelancer, I wanted to take it on wholeheartedly rather than dipping in and out of it.

Jae Kutin: So, after a year of being there I just quit. I couldn't do it anymore. And, I felt so much relief. It meant, that meant to me I could concentrate on freelancing, and just stay on projects I enjoy. But, that was a big challenge, because it's a risk. It's a big risk. And, I think a lot of people are scared, which is understandable, but for me it was a challenge I needed to take on.

Jae Kutin: And, I know a lot of people say, "Oh, you should have saved up before you dive into freelancing," which is such a good idea. Personally, I did not do that. I was just like, "Yeah, I need to leave." And. it wasn't like an immature decision, it was something I needed to do. I wouldn't suggest it to everyone, but for me personally, it was the best thing to do at that time, because my health wasn't good. Mentally and physically, everything was just all over the place, and I needed to remind myself of what I was supposed to be doing. And, you can easily get lost and comfortable in a part-time job if you're not sure what you're doing, basically, and you just kind of settle. And, I didn't want to do that at all.

Steve Folland: If you could tell your younger self one thing about being freelance, what would that be?

Jae Kutin: I would say, "Pursue it wholeheartedly, and with consistency." Because, if you dip in and out of it, you kind of get out of practice, and then you won't really be known for what you want to do. And, then you kind of find yourself taking on jobs you're not really sure about, and that's not good. So, I think it's helpful to find a focus as well, so you take on the jobs, and you enjoy them, and you put your whole sort of energy into them.

Jae Kutin: And, it takes a leap of faith to be a freelancer as well. The fact that it could be difficult, and it could be a bit stressful should not deter you from taking on the path, because if that's what you want to do, if you feel that sort of routine will be better for you, just try it. Just try it, and try and find someone who maybe is in a similar sort of path, even if they're not really and actual mentor.

Jae Kutin: If you just look at what they're doing ... I have many people what I just look at what they're doing, I'm following what they're doing, and they might not realise it, but I am really just focusing on how they do things, because it's inspiring. It helps me, and it gives me that sort of encouragement to not give up.

Jae Kutin: And as well, I think it's important to have some sort to mission statement for yourself, so you don't get lost. So, when it comes to doing your personal projects, taking on projects, you have something to refer back to, and yeah, it will keep you grounded, really.

Steve Folland: I like that. A mission statement. So, you figured out what it is you're really after, so that you can align what comes your way to that.

Jae Kutin: Yeah.

Steve Folland: Is it an actual statement, or is it just sitting away in your head?

Jae Kutin: No. I've written it down. I have different sections for it. And, it's something I always advise my friends to as well, even when they're looking salary jobs. Like, I've talked enough of my friends like that, because they want to go into freelancing as well. Just have something written down, so you're not stuck. If somebody asks you to do something, and you have limited time to answer, you kind of know what you're going to say, because you're already establishing yourself what you're going to do and what you're not going to do.

Steve Folland: So, you're clearly still the INKtrovert, but have you started to step out from behind the name, and show yourself more?

Jae Kutin: Yeah, I have. I've definitely done that. I would say a couple years ago, I would probably not do something like this, because I was just not very bold. And, it's taken a while. I think that's another important thing, is to ... You need to be able to stand firm in what you do, so when you meet people, instead of just being shy about it, you just tell people, "Oh, I'm an illustrator. I'm a graphic designer." Whatever you are, it's good to just know who you are when you're introducing yourself to people as well.

Jae Kutin: And, I think coming out of my brand has also helped me a lot. And, it means that when I'm applying for other things as well, I don't have to hide behind the brand, and it helps me to expand what I'm doing as well.

Jae Kutin: So, say I want to move on from illustration and just concentrate on writing, that would not be under the INKtrovert brand. It might just be under my own name, because as I'm getting older, I want to do new things. So, yeah it's taken a while, but I've definitely gotten used to using my own name more.

Steve Folland: Jae, thank you so much, and all the best being freelance.

Jae Kutin: Thank you so much.