Finding Balance - Illustrator Holly Exley

Holly chats about first finding enough freelance work to hang up her waitress apron... and now finding balance from all of that work.

We hear about the mental challenges, relocating, making YouTube videos and... dogs.


More from Holly

Holly on Twitter

Holly on YouTube

Holly's site

Holly's shop

Holly on Behance

Holly on Instagram



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, 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.



Transcript - Being Freelance podcast interview - Steve Folland and Holly Exley

Steve Folland:    Hey, I'm Steve Folland. Thanks for listening. This time let's find out what it's like being freelance for illustrator Holly Exley.

Holly Exley:    Being freelance is quite daunting, especially in illustration. There's not really a need for a team of people, so you often are working alone. One of my favorite things about freelance is that I can decide how every day looks, fit my work around my life rather than the other way around.

Steve Folland:    So yeah, there's Holly, who I've been looking forward to speaking to for a while. I came across her originally on YouTube. Like one of those YouTube suggested in the sidebar type things based on watching other freelancers, and I really enjoyed her videos.

Steve Folland:    She does this weekly vlog, which is fun. It's calming. It's really honest.

Steve Folland:    It's a mixture of work and life. I love to see. Anyway, I'll put links to everything Holly is up to at as I do for all of the guests, so you can check out her videos and while you're on YouTube, it'd be great if you think about giving my vlog there a whirl as well there where I film what I'm up to as a freelancer.

Steve Folland:    By the way, thanks so much for all of your comments on the vlog, I really appreciate it. If you love clicking subscribe buttons, if that's how you get your thrills, you've got the chance to do it on the podcast, the vlog, and a newsletter. So knock yourself out. Right now, though, let's crack on and chat to freelance illustrator Holly Exley. Hey, Holly.

Holly Exley:    Hi, Steve.

Steve Folland:    Whereabouts are you based by the way?

Holly Exley:    I'm in Derbyshire. I've lived here for about a year now.

Steve Folland:    Nice, because I read somewhere that you're in London and yet whenever I've seen your videos and stuff, I think that doesn't look like London.

Holly Exley:    Yeah, I'm awful. I really need to update all of you. Because I've moved around quite a lot, so different social media platforms say different things. I need to update it all.

Steve Folland:    That's all right. You're like Jason Bourne. You're just keeping them on their toes.

Holly Exley:    That's true.

Steve Folland:    That's what it is. How about we get started? As I love finding out how you got started being freelance.

Holly Exley:    Okay, so I graduated in 2010. I did a course in illustration, and then for the next two years I was just working full-time as a waitress and just trying to save a bit of money and pay off student debt and that sort of thing. Then early 2013 it was, I started to notice that I was getting more illustration jobs, and by April I was able to quit my job as a waitress and became full-time freelance.

Steve Folland:    Awesome, so while that whole time ... The couple of years that you were waitressing. You were doing illustration on the side?

Holly Exley:    Yeah, I was mostly just doing self-initiated stuff, just trying to build up my portfolio, and I was working with a few small clients, like a few small independent businesses. Just doing portraits, and working with small galleries and that sort of thing. So it was nothing major for a long time.

Steve Folland:    So how did you build up to it? How did you get yourself known enough that the work was there.

Holly Exley:    It was a bit mysterious really. I'm not really sure how it happened. It happened quite suddenly. I think it was a combination of putting my work out there a lot on the internet, like blogging a lot and uploading a lot of my work online. And reaching out to publications like magazines I really wanted to work with, and eventually it started paying off, and once you get your first couple of jobs it kind of snowballs from there.

Steve Folland:    So when you were reaching out to magazines, would you send them work relating to them? I guess how specific were you relating it to them?

Holly Exley:    I think pretty specific. I really wanted to get into food illustration. So I was mostly contacting magazines that I really enjoyed reading anyway that had a lot of food and recipes in them. Yeah, so I was mostly just trying to focus on work that I'd really enjoy doing.
Steve Folland:    Did you get feedback from them or was it like a wall of silence until somebody went, "Oh, actually, I could do with a watercolor asparagus, or whatever it might have been."

Holly Exley:    It was definitely a wall of silence. It was very unusual to get an email back, so I guess they were just putting my work on file and then contacted me when something came up, but yeah, it wasn't. I didn't really get much of a response.

Steve Folland:    And how did that feel like? Did you feel like should I bother?

Holly Exley:    It felt awful actually. I think my first couple of years after uni were a big shock, and it was quite stressful kind of working full-time as a waitress, which I hated. Then also facing quite a lot of rejection and a bit of worry, but looking back, I'm glad that I went through all that. Because I really appreciate the job I have now.

Steve Folland:    And at what point then would you say that you had that confidence to hang up the apron? I'm presuming you had an apron.

Holly Exley:    Yeah, I'm really glad I don't have to wear that anymore. I think it was just when I got to the point where I couldn't really cope anymore. I was working quite long shifts as a waitress, and then I had to get home about one in the morning, and have to do some work for the next day. Illustration work. It was all just becoming really hectic. So I just saved up a couple of months worth of rent just in case and then quit and hoped for the best.

Steve Folland:    Wow. So when you did quit. That's, it's a huge thing. Did you already have work lined up or were you like, "I just ... I've got the faith now that it's going to come."

Holly Exley:    I can't quite remember. I know I had a couple of monthly re-occuring editorial jobs, and that was a real safety net for me. I felt like at least I have that every month coming in. But I can't really remember what I was working on at the time. It's quite a while ago.

Steve Folland:    So as you when ... started to grow it, how did that happen? Was it just the same I'm putting work out on one of the sites. It might have been blogging or were you still pitching? Or getting out there and meeting people? I don't know.

Holly Exley:    I think it's mostly social media that's really helped my career grow and carry on. I'm not the best at reaching out and contacting people. I need to get better at that in the future, but yeah, I think it was just putting my work out there online that really helped and I think most of my clients I've asked have said they found my work through a Google search, so I must be doing something right in terms of SEO on my blog and website, so yeah.

Steve Folland:    Would you say that? Because you mentioned food illustration.

Holly Exley:    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Steve Folland:    Is that mainly what the work was at the time? Is that what you were putting up and certifying with to Google at the time, illustrator, food. Was that the sort of thing you were putting out there?

Holly Exley:    I think yeah. I think it was. I had a series of food illustrations that seemed to get a bit of a traction online. A lot of people were re-posting it on different blogs, which was really helpful. I used Behance as well. I don't know if you've heard of it. It's like a portfolio site. It's really good for artists and illustrators, so using that I think helped get the word out. About my work.

Steve Folland:    I guess was that ... I don't know. I can't remember when Instagram kicked in for example. When? Yeah, would that affect anything for you or that have come later? I guess.

Holly Exley:    Yeah, I can't remember it. I can't remember time before Instagram now. So it must have helped, yeah. I got on the Instagram about pretty soon after it became a popular app. So yeah. That must have helped as well.

Steve Folland:    When you're posting stuff out to these blogs or these sites. Is it a case of like, I don't know, posting once a week, posting once a day? Do you then have to interact with people? What's the ...

Holly Exley:    Yeah, I think they always say consistency is key. I'm not the best at that, but I am online every day, so whenever I have new work, I'm quite quick to upload it.

Steve Folland:    Do you show a lot of work in progress?

Holly Exley:    Yeah. Instagram's really good for that, because they have the stories part of the app where you can record little bits of videos and stuff, so I'm always showing work in progress.

Steve Folland:    When did you get into YouTube?

Holly Exley:    I think I've had my channel now for about a little over two years now. But I've not been very consistent with it until this year, where I try and upload a weekly video now. So I still consider myself quite new to it.

Steve Folland:    You seem to be doing very well of ...

Holly Exley:    Oh, thank you.

Steve Folland:    I love your videos. For people who haven't seen them, what sort of thing do you put out on there?

Holly Exley:    Well, my main aim with it is just to show behind the scenes of being an illustrator, what, a kind of day in the life of an illustrator would be like. So usually I post a weekly vlog, which will usually be a Friday in my studio, and I'll just talk about what I'm working on that day and show any paintings in progress.

Holly Exley:    So it's quite casual I'd say, and then I do the odd video where I try and give some advice for new artists and illustrators.

Steve Folland:    Yeah. It feels like ... I was looking at your channel and it feels like those tip videos. A really ... that's the sort of thing that people might search for, for example.

Holly Exley:    Yeah.

Steve Folland:    Then they find you and then they start watching your other things.

Holly Exley:    Yeah, I think that's really important part of YouTube is you do kind of have to tick certain boxes and make a certain type of video and then you can make the fun videos of the site.

Steve Folland:    Yeah, I've got one. I've gotten straight into the fan ones. That's where I ...

Holly Exley:    Yeah. It's hard, because it ... Yeah, I think making advice videos is something that I'm not 100 percent comfortable with, because I still feel like I'm learning. My favorite video is to make a definitely just really casual vlog-style videos.

Steve Folland:    But even those, to be consistent, to do one a week, how have you found getting in that rhythm? Because putting together a video can be quite a lot of work.

Holly Exley:    Yeah, it is. I'm a really slow video editor as well. So it definitely takes a long time. I don't know. I just really enjoy it. I think it's a really good outlet for me and is a really good way of building an audience that you can really properly interact with, because they know about your life and they see all your work in progress.

Steve Folland:    Can you directly see a change that that has made to your business, for example?

Holly Exley:    Yeah, I think going forward, it will probably become more important because I've kind of ... I'm starting to change my business a little bit. I would like to not be so reliant on client work, and maybe have some of my own illustrated goods and things in my online shop that I can also get, generate an income from. I think my YouTube really helps with that, because they get to see the products being made and they get to understand why I'm making them.

Holly Exley:    They're kind of more ... My audience is a little bit more invested in the art work that I'm doing. So I think yeah, I think sharing on YouTube is really going to help my business going forward. I hope anyway.

Steve Folland:    Yeah. No, that's cool. But also, you mentioned now the community kind of element as well, so beyond business. There's more to it.

Holly Exley:    Yeah, definitely. I think a lot of people talk about illustration being quite lonely and isolating. So to have people that I can talk to online is really important and I think a lot of people that I've met through YouTube are very similar to me, and that's really encouraging and nice and I ... Yeah, I really like the community of YouTube in general.

Steve Folland:    You're very ... On there you're very open, I guess. You kind of lay all out there. But I'm wondering how that felt like when you started doing that. Or did it just feel like, "No, this ..." The most natural thing in the world, like to show the good and the bad. Not the bad. That's the wrong word, but you know what I mean. The rough and the smooth.

Holly Exley:    Yeah, I know what you mean. But I think that's just ... That's the type of content I like watching the most myself. I really appreciate when someone's really honest online about maybe things aren't going so great in their life. So I wanted to be that kind of person as well. It's definitely really scary, because I have had obviously not all of the interactions I have 100 percent positive. I do get a bit of criticism every now and again, but I think it's worth it just to be honest and real.

Steve Folland:    Yeah. Why do I have to pick? People have to be negative. Geez.

Holly Exley:    I know. I think YouTube is a little bit like that, because you are exposing your life to people and they can sit back and judge what you're doing, but I'm very lucky. I mostly have lovely comments.

Steve Folland:    Yeah. What would you say have been the more challenging aspects? You mentioned loneliness, but the challenging aspects of being freelance for you.

Holly Exley:    Yeah, I would say it's mostly mental health related for me. I think being freelance is quite daunting. Especially in illustration. There's not really a need for a team of people, so you often are working alone and long hours as well. So I'm hung to be quite strict with myself to make sure I get out of the house and even if it's just to go for a coffee in town or something that really helps.

Holly Exley:    Yeah, I'd say that's the biggest challenge I face.

Steve Folland:    How about managing your day? I guess. Because okay, you might vlog the Friday, what's the rest of it look like? How? Yeah, how do you manage your time?

Holly Exley:    I think that's one of my favorite things about freelance, is that I can decide how every day looks. I'm not really someone who loves routine that much, so I kind of just wake up every day and I might have a list of things that I need to get done, but I can order them the way I want to if I want to have a slow morning. If I'm feeling a bit sleepy, then I will, and if I need to get out of the house the afternoon I can. I really enjoy being able to fit my work around my life rather than the other way around.

Steve Folland:    Nice, yeah. You're good at listening to your, I don't know, your inner self to figure out what to do.

Holly Exley:    Yeah, I think that's something that I've got a lot better at this year is not just being a work horse and really appreciating having an evening off or something like that, because I think when I was just starting out in freelance, I really believed that I needed to be working all the time constantly. And that was the only way I deserve to be in the industry.

Holly Exley:    But now I really appreciate having time off, and just being nicer to myself I think.

Steve Folland:    So would you say three ... What was it? 2013? For three years that you've been, two or three years maybe you've been working solidly then.

Holly Exley:    Yeah, and working weekends and evenings and I don't regret doing that, because it really did help boost my career, and I gained a lot of experience and new clients, but it's really not sustainable to do that long term I don't think. So I'm glad I did it whilst I was young. But now I'm nearly 30, so I'm looking to change my business so that I can enjoy life as well.

Steve Folland:    That there is the whole work-life balance thing, isn't it? Yeah, so you're edging more towards the life. Because I think I was ... I watched one of your videos, where you had your holiday, but you were kind of like, "Man, I haven't had a holiday for years."

Holly Exley:    Yeah, for a couple of years yeah. It was a odd experience to have some time off and not having a to-do list. So yeah.

Steve Folland:    Did you properly manage to strip yourself away from it? Because I'm on the murky packs up design I can takes it with in.

Holly Exley:    That's naughty.

Steve Folland:    I need to ... I know I'm going to get a laptop, so at least it's smaller.

Holly Exley:    Yeah, I was strict with myself, and I didn't go on social media for about the first five days in my holiday, which was really hard. But yeah, I just associate social media too much with work. So it was nice to just take a break, not pick up my phone.

Steve Folland:    Yeah, properly get out of the ... How do you cope with going back to managing your day and your week and ... It's great having the flexibility of being freelance, but equally you're going to have those deadlines. So yeah, so just wondering how you managed the end clients and your time that way.

Holly Exley:    It can be really hard to predict. That's something that I really stress about is taking on work and then other work will come along that I also want to take on. But maybe there's not quite enough time. So that's definitely hard to juggle. But yeah, if I'm working on something really intensely, and I'm not able to take evenings off or weekends off, I will make sure after the project is handed in that I'll take maybe half a week off or something just to regroup.

Steve Folland:    Just to linger on work-life balance as well.

Holly Exley:    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Steve Folland:    So your boyfriend features in your videos. And your dog. Dogs? Why not?

Sometimes I see two, but I ...

Holly Exley:    Yeah, I do have two. I think they keep me sane definitely. Definitely really good company if I'm working really long hours, just to have them. The dogs I mean with me is really nice. They get me off the house. Yeah, I don't know what I'd do without them really.

Steve Folland:    How long have you had them?

Holly Exley:    We've got a greyhound that we've had for a year. I've got a pug as well, and I've had him for three and a bit years. So yeah, they're a big part of our lives I'd say.

Steve Folland:    So you did start off being freelance without them?

Holly Exley:    Yeah, it's quite sad, isn't it? I think pets and freelance go hand in hand really.

Steve Folland:    Was there a point where you thought, "You know what? I need some company."

Holly Exley:    If you have live girls, don't they? They want to get married, or own a house, but for me, I just always wanted to have a dog. When I finally realized I had enough security to get one, it was a great day.

Steve Folland:    Yeah. I quite fancy one, but don't tell the cat. That's the only trouble. Brilliant, now I always do this thing where I ask for three facts about yourself. Make two true, and one a lie.

Holly Exley:    Okay.

Steve Folland:    Let me figure out the lies. What have you got for me?

Holly Exley:    Okay. So I thought ... because it's Halloween today, on the day we're recording, that I would do some Halloween themed facts.

Steve Folland:    Good.

Holly Exley:    The first one is one Halloween I dressed up as cotton wool, because my sister has a phobia of it. I really wanted to scare her. The second one is that my home town has a building in it that is said to be one of the most wanted in the country, and even the world.

Steve Folland:    Okay, and number three?

Holly Exley:    I've never been trick or treating.

Steve Folland:    Now here's the thing though. Trick or treating. You said you're nearly 30.

Holly Exley:    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Steve Folland:    Because I was saying this to my kids the other day that I never went trick or treating until I went trick or treating with them. I never went when I was a kid. Because I'm 38 when the trick or treating really kick in this country. Haunted building. Have you ever been to that haunted building?

Holly Exley:    I've just walked beside it. I've never been in. It's an old pub. But when I lived in the village, I don't think it was open to the public and it's owned by quite a strange man, so ...

Steve Folland:    What do people say about this most haunted building?

Holly Exley:    It's right by a road, and they say you can see figures running across the road, but then there's no one there. They've also had a couple of film crews for different ghost TV shows filming inside the building as well.

Steve Folland:    God, that was good detail. That makes me think it's true. Yet I really want to believe the fact that you dressed up as cotton wool just to freak your un-scared of cotton wool sister. That's such a great ... Is it younger sister?

Holly Exley:    Yeah, younger.

Steve Folland:    Such a thing that a sister would do. How old were you when you did that? 25.

Holly Exley:    I think I was mid teens, maybe 13 or 14.

Steve Folland:    Mid teens, okay. So you were dressing as Halloween, the thing is did you then also go trick or treating because I think the haunted building is probably true. I'm going to say you've never been trick or treating.

Holly Exley:    No, that's true. I've never been trick or treating. The lie is that I dressed up as cotton wool.

Steve Folland:    You're kidding? That was such a good idea. Oh.

Holly Exley:    I know.

Steve Folland:    That's such a sister thing to do, well done. If you could tell your younger self one thing about being freelance, what would that be?

Holly Exley:    I think it would be not to be so hard on myself. Because I've gotten to a bit of a pattern of negative thinking, and it's really hard to break. I'm only recently kind of learning not to be so negative. So I'd probably tell myself not to be so hard on myself and that it's all going to work out.

Steve Folland:    When you say that about negative thinking, and you talked, mentioned being anxious and stuff earlier.

Holly Exley:    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Steve Folland:    What is it like? As in you don't think it's going to work? How or what kind of thing is it? So ...  

Holly Exley:    I think it's just the classic artist self doubt. I think a lot of people suffer from it. Being online a lot you're able to compare your work to other artists a lot. Before you know it, you're thinking that you're never going to be as good as them, that you should just quit and it's just a very quick downward spiral.

Steve Folland:    How have you picked yourself back up and that's by a little ... stopped yourself tumbling into that?

Holly Exley:    Yeah, it's basically just stopping myself from having those thoughts, and that's the only I've found of coping really. I think just time and age, you realize that it's just a waste of time to be comparing yourself and worrying so much.

Steve Folland:    Yeah, very true. Do you have ... You mentioned the online community. Do you have? I'm sure you have many friends, but friends, there's a difference. Friends who may be are freelance or self-employed or are illustrators. There's a difference.

Holly Exley:    I think I'm a little bit lacking in that department. Certainly something I want to work on. I've been trying to get more involved in going to illustration fairs and that sort of thing because that's a really good way of meeting other illustrators. Because we often just looked away and are, "How is this working?" So that's my plan for next year as well. To be more involved in illustration fairs and sell my work that way, and hopefully meet some more freelance people that way.

Steve Folland:    Yeah, because you mentioned building up your online shop earlier. Are you someone who sets goals, thinks about this year you've been a lot more into YouTube. Was that a concerted effort or was it just you see how things pan out?

Holly Exley:    Yeah, I'm trying to make sure that I carry on enjoying my job, because I do think it's ... Or I hope it's going to be something that I do for the rest of my life. So if I'm enjoying something like making videos and I try and do that often, and lately I've really been enjoying designing new illustrated products and things, so I'm just focusing on that and seeing where that takes me really.

Steve Folland:    How have you coped with the business side of being freelance?

Holly Exley:    That's something that I'm not that confident in. So in terms of finances, I have an accountant. So I'm really happy to just pass off all that responsibility to him. Yeah, I'm quite good with money, which really helps. I don't really spend very much. So that's a really good thing that I do for my business. It's quite scrimpy.

Steve Folland:    When you've moved around, when you've moved from London for people and where Derbyshire is. Oh, god, a good 300, 400, it's long way north.

Holly Exley:    If it was a long way from London, yeah.

Steve Folland:    Must be four or five hours in a car anyway.

Holly Exley:    Yeah.

Steve Folland:    Known the way British roads are. Beautiful setting, but how? What impact did that have if anything on be it work or life?

Holly Exley:    I don't think it's had too much of an impact on work. I think I'm happier here, definitely. I've got my own studio for the first time in my life. Before moving here I always worked out with my bedroom, which got quite claustrophobic in the end, so now I have the top floor in the house, which is dedicated to work, which is really good because at the end of a work day I can just come downstairs and kind of ... It really helps me to switch off more. Yeah, having the country side on my doorstep is really nice as well.

Steve Folland:    Yeah, that's interesting. Yeah, so the studio is still within the same place, but it feels like it's separating out.

Holly Exley:    Yeah. I really love I can just come downstairs and know that my work day is over. I might go back upstairs later on, just to check emails or something, but yeah. It helps me be stricter with my work day.

Steve Folland:    Nice, I say as I sit here at the dining table.

Holly Exley:    Yeah.

Steve Folland:    Holly, it's been so lovely to speak to you. Check out where we put links of course at three to Holly's Instagram and her YouTube videos which I hugely recommend. Check out the shop as well, which is going to get more stuff in it by the sounds of it over the next few weeks, which is all linked at While you're there, check out over 100 of the guests which ... On there.

Steve Folland:    Remember it doesn't matter what they do for a living. It's all about being freelance, and check out my humble vlog as well. I need to ... I've made a mental note: go make tip videos, get a cute dog. Because the cat just glares at the camera. Your dog's much better. So I don't care if it hears me say it. Yeah, so check it all out, Holly, thank you so much and all the best being freelance.

Holly Exley:    Thank you, Steve. It's really nice to speak to you.