Creative Mandate - Illustrator Michelle Kondrich
Through podcasts Michelle gained the knowledge and confidence to quit the 9-to-5 and start being freelance... and now years later her own podcast Creative Playdate is helping herself and others navigate being freelance, whilst also being a parent.
From starting out, reaching out and figuring it out as a freelance mum.
Since recording this conversation Michelle is on the move again... keep listening right to the end to find out more.
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Or keep scrolling for links to Michelle's work and the transcription of this episode.
More from Michelle
Who the hell is Steve Folland?
Steve's a freelancer helping businesses use and make video & audio content in much better ways. Find out more at stevefolland.com, track him down on Twitter @sfolland or lay a trail of cake and he'll eventually catch you up.
Check out Steve's Being Freelance Vlog that documents his weekly wanderings and wonderings as a freelancer.
Transcription - Being Freelance podcast interview with Michelle Kondrich
Steve Folland: How about we get started hearing how you got started being freelance?
Michelle K.: Sure. It's kind of a convoluted journey, honestly. I grew up in the Midwest, in Nebraska, and went to a little liberal arts school there. I studied studio art, but at the time, I had no idea that illustration was a thing you could do as a career, and I certainly didn't have access to schools that taught it. So went to school, didn't really know what I was going to do afterwards, but I knew I wanted to get out of Nebraska, out of the Midwest, so I just started looking for jobs in any city that I could find, and I was really fortunate that a former professor was working at the Getty museum in Los Angeles. She was able to put in a good word for me there, and so I moved to L.A. for a few years.
Michelle K.: After that, I got a little tired of L.A. and just decided to move to New York City. I had friends there. I was just still just working regular jobs. I just had a 9:00 to 5:00 office job, so I was there for almost five years, and in that time I got tired of working the 9:00 to 5:00 job, and I felt like I couldn't move up there, I couldn't seem to get anywhere from the position that I was in, and I was starting to feel like I don't even know if 9:00 to 5:00 is for me, is my thing. I think I just, I like variety.
Michelle K.: So I don't know exactly how this happened, but I started listening to podcasts. The first one that I was listening to was Escape from Illustration Island, and have you heard that one?
Steve Folland: No, but it's a brilliant title.
Michelle K.: Yeah, and it's a great show, especially for people who are interested in illustration but aren't going to school or are afraid to jump in or whatever. It's just interviews with art directors and illustrators about how they got started and how to go about promoting somebody and everything. That started to make it seem doable for me. I was so far from ready to be an illustrator. I had no portfolio of any kind. I was just doing art on the side for fun, but after listening to that show for a while, I started to think, "Maybe this is something that I would be happier doing."
Michelle K.: I feel like I got kind of lucky because about the same time my husband got into a PhD program at the University of Denver in Colorado, so we were leaving New York anyway. I was going to quit my job anyway, so I just jumped in headfirst, not really knowing what I was doing or if it was going to work, but I didn't have a job anyway. So that's how I got started started, although I feel like it was a good three years before I really was getting work and making it sustainable in any way.
Steve Folland: Cool. So when you made that move, literally, and decided to go freelance, did you go and get a job and then start to build up freelance clients on the side, or was it literally, "Right. Who's going to pay me to do some artwork?"
Michelle K.: It was actually more of the latter, although I was working some temp jobs here and there part-time. My husband's program was paying him and we didn't have a child or anything at the time, so our expenses were much lower then. So yeah, it was kind of that.
Steve Folland: That's awesome. Then how did you do it? Because that basically means other than the temp jobs you've got this whole day to fill, potentially no client work to do it, and so yeah, what did you do, and how did you turn that into a viable freelance career, if you see what I mean?
Michelle K.: Sometimes I don't know how I got through that. To be honest, it was a really hard time because we were living somewhere were we didn't really know people, and since I didn't have a job and I wasn't going to school, I was just home a lot all of the time, and I got a couple of little jobs. It was a lot of local stuff or self-publishing kind of stuff that looking back, I wouldn't take now, but it was a lot of trying to build up my portfolio on my own and get it to where I could actually promote it.
Michelle K.: I did actually sent a postcard at one point, and my first client, my first real editorial client was actually HOW magazine, and it came from that postcard, which was great, although I've never worked for them again. I haven't worked for them again yet. This is six years ago or something.
Steve Folland: So it's almost like you'd set yourself some projects so that you could build up a body of work for you, "This is the sort of stuff I want to be known for," and then start to send out postcards to potential places that might want your work?
Michelle K.: Yeah. Exactly, and I was finding classes, or I guess classes, in quotes, online, places where I could basically get somebody to give me an assignment and do it. I work a lot better ... or at the time, I worked a lot better that way if I could have somebody else, an objective person, say, "This is your assignment, and do it that way."
Steve Folland: So what happened? Did it just gradually pick up? Did a bit of work come in, you permanently sending out stuff or how did it evolve?
Michelle K.: I think it just evolved as my work evolved, as I got more confident in my work and my work got more publishable. Honestly, when I look back at what the work was then and what it is now, it's hard to believe that I managed to get where I am. I suppose people who are in art school, they see that same leap, but at the time it felt impossible to get where I am now. So yeah, just constantly promoting myself, but also constantly trying to evolve the work to a place where I felt good about it.
Steve Folland: Yeah. Just to put some context in, what year did you move out to Colorado?
Michelle K.: 2010.
Steve Folland: So eight years ago, you find yourself there. I think you said a few years later that you really felt you had enough work and stuff coming in. Was there a point in that time where you felt like giving up?
Michelle K.: Definitely. I mean maybe not giving up entirely, but feeling like, "I have to get a full-time job. I have to find something else, because this is not sustainable." Honestly, I go through that now sometimes too. I mean anytime I go a month or two without new work, I think, "It's over. Something has to change. I can't do this anymore." So I think that's just normal along the way.
Steve Folland: Did your work change as well? Because I love your illustrations, but I noticed that some of them are like animated GIFs as well. They sort of come to life. It's sometimes without you even ... You think you're just looking at a picture, and then suddenly it springs up on you, and you notice it. I love it. Then also you do some actual animations, like whiteboard animations and things like that. How did that change? Was it just something you thought about, or did somebody say, "Hey, can you do this?"
Michelle K.: I think a lot of the big jumps in my work were times when I was in over my head with a new client, or I felt that way anyway. I actually started the whiteboard work. There was an agency in Boulder, Colorado, that just contacted me out of the blue and said, "Do you want to come in and see if you want to do this sort of work?" So I came in and did a little whiteboard test, and that sort of kick-started that as my bread-and-butter really for a long time. A lot of that work was business-to-business sort of stuff that I didn't really show or couldn't really show, but yeah, that's how that work came to be. The animated ... I still say GIFs. I know you're not supposed to say GIFs, but-
Steve Folland: Oh, what are we meant to say?
Michelle K.: It's supposed to be GIFs, apparently, but I can't do it. I just can't do it.
Steve Folland: If a Britain and an American can agree on both saying it one way, then let's stick with it, because that's quite rare.
Michelle K.: That's just that then.
Steve Folland: Yeah. It's a GIF. Go.
Michelle K.: So those, obviously animation and illustration has been gaining in popularity, and it's getting to a point where it almost feels necessary to have. So I've been doing those just the last couple of years, but they're really fun to do. It's really challenging, especially because I've never taken real animation classes. I took an after-effects, a workshop at the School of Visual Arts in New York, like a weekend class, but other than that I'm self-taught as far as that goes. The rest of my work was just ... I can't say that I directed it necessarily in one direction or another other than I knew that I wanted to focus on editorial early on, and it's just sort of evolved as my technique has evolved naturally I guess.
Steve Folland: So that takes us through to, I don't know, 2013 or something like that. So what happened next?
Michelle K.: That's a good question. Around 2013 is when I started to do a lot of the whiteboard work, and so that was sustaining me. I wasn't doing a lot of editorial. I would get a couple things here and there, and really I would say the last two or three years has been where my editorial work has really picked up a lot. Again, I don't think I was ready at the time. My work wasn't really ready, and it just took that time for me to improve the work and improve my ideas.
Steve Folland: Yeah, sticking with it. It must be tough when ... I mean I don't know how it works, whether you just don't hear anything back, whether it's just you send stuff out and it's like a wall of silence or whether they take the time to reject you. I don't know that. It must be tough.
Michelle K.: It's mostly the wall of silence, especially with postcards because there's no direct way, unless they hire you or something, but with emails, that was something that I could tell when the work was getting better because I was consistently getting more people responding, even if it's just to say, "Thanks. We'll keep you on file." I feel like that response means something over nothing, and so I was starting to get more of those sorts of responses or, "I love your work. Hopefully we can work together soon," and to be able to at least start a dialogue with some art directors.
Steve Folland: What were things that really changed along the way then over the past five years?
Michelle K.: Yeah. So we were in Colorado, my husband had finished school or was about to finish school. We'd been talking for a while about wanting to have kids, but wanting to be more stable because when he was done with school, he wasn't going to have a job right away. We just honestly got tired of waiting for our lives to start. So we just jumped into that thinking, "Once we start trying, then we'll probably have a year or so to get everything together and haver our feet on the ground a little bit." That didn't exactly happen.
Michelle K.: I mean we had the kid. In 2014, we had our daughter, and then we were in Colorado for another nine months or so. I was still working as much as I could, and after a while ... A lot of our good friends were also leaving Denver because they were in the same program that my husband was in, and my husband grew up in New York, on Long Island, and even though I was only there for five years, I still like to think of myself as an East Coaster or a New Yorker I guess. We were just ready to go back to the East Coast.
Michelle K.: So we moved to Providence, Rhode Island, because we had friends here. It was close to my husband's family, and we couldn't afford to move back to New York City, and we just moved to Attleboro six months ago. I actually started a full-time job over the summer, so we moved just a little bit further north to help with my commute.
Steve Folland: Wow. How did you find, well, being a freelancer and being a mum?
Michelle K.: That was hard. It was especially hard because our daughter, from the age of about three months or three-and-a-half months, would not let anyone else hold her besides her parents. Even her grandparents, even if they'd been there for days, she still would give them the side eye and not interested. So it was really difficult to have babysitters even unless they were just going to watch her while she slept, which nobody wants to pay for somebody to watch your child while they're sleeping. So it was really hard. I mean early on I was lucky because my husband, while he was working on his dissertation and everything but he wasn't working full-time or anything, so he was around to help a lot if I had a lot of work to do. Looking back, it almost seems like getting work done at that time with her at home was easier than it is now when she's home.
Steve Folland: So that means that, because obviously if I go to your website, and before I invited you on, I can see your shop, and I can see your writing, and I can listen to your podcast, which is excellent. So that means that in this time of moving and being a mom and work taking off and taking on a full-time job as well, you've also taken on all these side projects, right?
Michelle K.: Yes. I seem to keep creating them for myself. I suppose the podcast is the main side project.
Steve Folland: What made you want to do it in the first place, the podcast?
Michelle K.: Came up listening to podcasts all the time, and then on social media and Twitter, you hear all these conversations with people talking about being a freelance illustrator and how to get work and how to get better overall, whatever, and I started to get a little irritated that all of the advice I was hearing was for people who were 30 years old or under and didn't have kids and didn't have all that extra stuff in life that gets in the way of pulling all-nighters or having time to sit and think about your work and what you want to do with it, and I just felt like there ... I know there are a lot of us out there who have kids, but nobody was really talking about it.
Steve Folland: It's that thing where on blogs and everything you see the same advice but it seems to play to people in their 20s who don't have kids.
Michelle K.: Also, I feel like there's an issue around just the creative mental space in your head that's really hard to find the time and space for. There are times when, if I'm home on the weekends, even if she's watching a movie or something or she's outside with her dad and I'm trying to brainstorm for a project, it's really hard to separate myself from whatever they're doing. If I'm in the same location, it's just really hard to not be keeping one eye on what's going on with them, and I think ... How to say this without it sounding ... ? I feel like mothers have that a little bit more than fathers. Of course, not all the time. With the people that I've spoken to, with a lot of women that I've spoken to, I feel like women have that mental thing where they just can't let go of what's going on with their child, and I wanted to talk to people who were experiencing that too because it's really frustrating to want to have your head 100% in what you're doing and almost biologically not being able to, if that makes sense.
Steve Folland: How have you found ways around that?
Michelle K.: For me, getting out of the house has been the most important thing, at least when it's at a point in the project where I really need the brain power, the idea power. Yeah, I think getting out of the house has been the most important. Otherwise, I guess I don't know if I have entirely.
Steve Folland: This is kind of like reflecting my own experience, is the fact that, like this morning, I really needed to do some work. Just like you just said, I had to leave the house. Yeah, so, I went out, but because it's a Sunday, part of you is then feeling guilty because you're like, "Well, it's the weekend. It's meant to be family time where we're all together," even though I spend loads of time with them during the week. Yeah, there's almost that guilt thing even though actually once you're out you do get the work done much quicker.
Michelle K.: Yeah, yeah, and now that I have a full-time job too, the whole thing is just so complicated because I still get so much satisfied from the freelance illustration, and I don't want to let that go at all, but then it's the issue of the evenings and weekends, and weekends, it's supposed to be family time, but there's still things I want to do or I need to do, and it's just this constant push and pull between all of the things that I want to do all at once, and there's still things I don't get to that I want to get to.
Steve Folland: How have you managed actually managing client expectation within timeframes and stuff?
Michelle K.: Fortunately, so far, I mean I've only been at the full-time job for six months, so I've been trying to manage deadlines accordingly. Mostly what I've been doing the last six months has been editorial, which usually the deadlines are pretty clear. If it's too tight a deadline, then I just won't take the job, or I'll ask for more money to make it worth it for me to stay up into the night working, but I haven't really run into that problem too much yet.
Steve Folland: Is your full-time job within this field or ... ?
Michelle K.: I'm a multimedia designer for a local university, so I'm working with faculty to create online classes that look better than just 20-year-old PowerPoint presentations and working with the school to get full programs up and online.
Steve Folland: What was it that enticed you back into a full-time job?
Michelle K.: Honestly, last year was a really slow year for me. My husband doesn't work full-time right now. He's on the academic job market and adjuncting, and we've been cobbling together an income for a few years. So it was mostly the financial aspect and the stability aspect, especially with the new tax laws here and the healthcare situation here. I feel like it actually couldn't have come at a better time because I don't know what's going to happen with those things in the coming years, and so now at least we have the stability of health insurance and the cash flow problem is taken care of.
Steve Folland: Are there other advantages that you've found actually going back into, I don't know, a team ... I don't know, but you might be stuck at the end of a corridor on your own. I'm imagining you, however, working with other people and stuff like that.
Michelle K.: Yes, yes, and that has been nice to be out of the house. You get a little bit more energy when you can get out of the house every day, and talking to other people, and it's work that's making me learn new skills, new animation skills, new coding, anything I can think of that's related to the job itself I've been trying to learn more about. I think that's going to be valuable, no matter how long I'm at the job, those are going to be skills that are going to be valuable for me going forward. It's working at a university. Academic environments are nice. They're not terribly stressful, so I really, as much as I wish that I were still full-time freelance a lot of the time, it's really a good situation to be in. It's a very good job and with very, very good people.
Steve Folland: Yeah, and then you've not let the freelance side of it go, so actually, I guess that must take that pressure off.
Michelle K.: Yeah. I mean I can turn down a job if it's not interesting to me because we're not desperate for the money, or I can price a job much higher in order to make it worth my time if it's something that, oh, I could do, but I don't necessarily want to do. That sort of thing. I have that flexibility.
Steve Folland: Yeah, and this whole time of then doing that, you're still marketing yourself, right?
Michelle K.: Yes. Yeah. Mostly just email. I send out postcards probably only once a year. A lot of people will tell you to do it three or four tiems a year, but I've found that I just ... I don't know how people can afford postage that many tiems a year. Maybe my list is just too big. I don't know, but the postcards are cheap. It's the postage that's the killer, but in my experience, my emails have been more successful anyway, or so it seems. Sometimes I get people who I've been emailing for years, and then they hire me, and they say, "oh, I came across your work." It's like, "Did you come across it on one of the six emails I've sent you over the last three years?" So who knows? I think I get more direct response from the emails anyway.
Steve Folland: Yeah, and as well as marketing yourself in that way, really it feels like the podcast and your articles ... So you write as well, don't you?
Michelle K.: I just started doing ... I'm doing a business column with IllustrationAge.com, working with Thomas James on that, who is actually the creator of the Escape from Illustration podcast that I mentioned before.
Steve Folland: Nice.
Michelle K.: He invited me and a couple of other people to start doing some business columns, or just column in general, I guess, for the site, so that's relatively new. I'm finding my feet as a writer.
Steve Folland: That must bring you a greater audience, like people aware of your work.
Michelle K.: Yeah. I think so, for sure. It's still new. It's been interesting to see where I'm at in my career based on how other people see me because I still sometimes feel like I'm still trying to catch up to the art school kids, so things like that can be kind of validating like, "Yes, I'm doing well at this. I know what I'm talking about sometimes."
Steve Folland: That's nice. So yeah, so there's still that thing of self-belief.
Michelle K.: Yeah.
Steve Folland: How about balancing that all or dealing with the business side of being freelance?
Michelle K.: In a lot of ways it's almost as important as the work itself, if you want to be successful and sustainable, and that's something that I just had to teach myself through podcasts and listening to other artists and trial and error. I mean there were plenty of times where I didn't have a contract when I should have or I definitely underquoted for things along the way. That sort of thing that, even if you went to art school, I feel like people still have to learn some of this stuff the hard way a lot of the time because it's easy to not do those things or it's easy to be too afraid to quote high and then realize later that you should be getting double what you're getting or something. So just learning from other artists really.
Steve Folland: What would you say has been the biggest challenge of being freelance?
Michelle K.: I mean the cash flow is always an issue, but that's for everybody. I think, honestly, the biggest challenge for me has been more of an emotional one in that I've got all of these things going on, and I can't give of myself to certain projects that I want to get to or because I have these other things, because I have a family, because I have a full-time job, that I'm somehow slowing down the career that I'm really passionate about. So in that way, I think, yeah, it's the emotional frustration of not being able to do all of the things that I want to do, and then the guilt that comes from thinking that when I have this beautiful daughter who I love very much and feel like sometimes ... I don't know how to say it. It's like of course I want to be around my daughter on the weekends, but then at the same time, pursue these other things, and the guilt and frustration mixed together I think is currently my biggest challenge.
Steve Folland: Yeah. How do you deal with that?
Michelle K.: I don't know if I do. That's a good question. I'm the sort of person who I push things down really easily. I just sort of trudge ahead, and maybe that's going to come back to bite me later, but I just keep powering through and doing my best and keeping my head down and smiling. That's basically my only coping mechanism at this point besides a glass of wine every other night.
Steve Folland: Man, it's so easy to beat ourselves up, and yet you're ... The funny thing is that actually, you might not think it, but you're probably achieving more than all of those people who have so much time, as you said earlier, who are under 30 without a kid. Clearly, we're generalizing, but it's almost like you've got less time, but actually you're achieving loads.
Michelle K.: Yeah, I mean that's true, and it's felt so frustrating to look back on pre-child days or people who don't have kids and think, "You have no idea how much time you have, and what you should be doing with that time," but I've also heard it said that if you want to know how to get things done, ask the busiest person in the room. I think everybody probably thinks that they should be getting more done all the time. We live in this society that's obsessed with productivity and how prolific you are, and I should probably look at it more that way, instead of thinking about the progress that I haven't made that I still want to make. Every once in a while I need to look back and say, "Okay, but you've done this and this and this and that's worth being proud of being nice to yourself about."
Steve Folland: Yeah, too right. Yeah. Do you have other people to talk to about these things? Is there a community or even just one person that you have?
Michelle K.: I mean I guess I'm very social online, on Twitter and stuff, and unfortunately I don't really have a community of artists in-person. I've been a part of this illustration collective for many years called The Mighty Pencil. It was just a collection of illustrators who could take privately in forums about pricing and, "What do you think of this piece," and business issues and all that kind of stuff, which was really nice. It was a really great group of illustrators. Other than that, it's mostly online. I mean that's one thing about having moved around so much that's really hard is not having the people in-person to talk about these things with, and maybe if we would stop moving for a little while we could build that up, but yeah.
Steve Folland: Yeah. Okay, now if you could tell your younger self one thing about being freelance, what would that be?
Michelle K.: I would tell her that she has the drive and the determination to do the work and make the career successful, and that she should capitalize on that motivation as much as she can before things get much less flexible in her life.
Steve Folland: Before you have kids.
Michelle K.: Yeah. That's a thinly veiled, "Before you have kids."
Steve Folland: Do you know though ... It's an interesting thing. When you had kids, did that add a layer, like an extra motivation or anything?
Michelle K.: Maybe it did. Maybe I just didn't recognize it at the time, a more subconscious sort of motivation. I think, in addition to making me better with my time probably, I feel like it focused my energy in that area more. I didn't have the time to be wishy-washy about what I was doing or what I was pursuing. I just have to make decisions, and even if they don't always turn out to be the right decisions, I just have to do what seems right at the time and keep moving. I don't have time to think everything to death.
Steve Folland: Love it. Michelle, it's been an absolute pleasure. All the best with everything, and all the best being freelance.
Michelle K.: Thank you so much. This was really fun, Steve. Thank you.
Extra PS from Steve: Since recording this episode, even though that was only a couple of weeks ago, things have changed again for Michelle. Her husband's got a job which is kickstarting a move to another state and Michelle is going back into full time freelance whilst looking after their daughter. Good luck Michelle! It's great that being freelance gives her that option to be flexible and you know she's developed the skills and mindset to make a success of it. Make sure you follow her on Twitter and check out podcast Creative Playdate, it's really great.