Remember why you started - Illustrator Martha Williams

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After studying Graphic Arts at uni and leaning towards the more experimental forms of art, Martha found herself working in an in-house graphic design role that left little room for creativity.

Now two years into her freelance career and living between England and Spain, Martha has built herself a flexible business where she has plenty of variety in her work.

And, more than that, Martha is now able to give herself time to work on her craft, scheduling in 5-day “holidays” where she’s free from client work and can focus entirely on her side projects.

“The idea was to become freelance so I could enjoy my life more and work on these areas that I wanted to work on,” Martha says.

Find out how she’s made that a possibility in this episode of Being Freelance.


Steve Folland: Freelancer illustrator, Martha Williams, from the UK. But where are you?

Martha Williams: I'm currently in Barcelona, but I fly back tomorrow.

Steve Folland: Not for good?

Martha Williams: Well I'm kind of based between the two at the moment. I'm trying to change over to the Spanish system before Brexit.

Steve Folland: Oh God, how depressing.

Steve Folland: How about we find out how you got started being freelancer, and for that matter how you've ended up where you are, literally today?

Martha Williams: Okay, so it's not surprising I ended up being a freelancer, because when I was at uni I studied graphic arts, but I specialised with illustration. I really love all these creatives projects and doing crazy murals, and really experimental stuff. And when I left, I had a really creative internship and then I had to go into real life. So, I reworked my portfolio towards graphic design, which is much easier to get an in-house job in. And then I worked in-house designing for two years.

Martha Williams: But I was kind of thinking during that time oh, maybe, I've got to find a way to getting back to doing this more creative experimental type of work.

Steve Folland: So you went in-house?

Martha Williams: Yeah. I was working for Aurum Holdings. So, I exactly worked in ecommerce for jewellery and watches, which was fine, the job was fine, the people were really lovely. But it wasn't creative, it was a lot of designing websites. But always the same type of website, and always the same type of client. I just wanted a change.

Steve Folland: What happened next?

Martha Williams: I also met my partner while I was working for Aurum Holdings, and he's from Barcelona, so that's the link there. So, we worked in Leicester and then saved enough money to support myself for a couple of months. So, we flew over here for a few months. I did an artist residency to literally just do whatever I wanted for a month. And then I tried to work out how to go freelance.

Steve Folland: How did the artist residency work? Was that at a uni or something?

Martha Williams: No. They have residencies all over the place. The one I did wasn't one that gets paid, I actually paid to do it, because I just wanted a month to do my own thing, have my own studio. And it was really good. But after having a long time with not having a lot of creative freedom, to be given so much was almost like oh God, what am I going to do? But definitely a rewarding experience.

Steve Folland: So you've got two months money in the bank, how did you go about setting up that freelance business? How did you get your first clients?

Martha Williams: Well, my first month, I really did a bit of a trial of trying everything. So, I was like maybe I'll get clients through Instagram. Maybe I can get them through Facebook. I also used Up Work, I used People Per Hour. I networked in England and in Spain, I networked. And slowly but surely, a few of those things started to pick up. Yeah, it was a real learning curve for me.

Steve Folland: Let's unpick some of those then. What was your experience of Up Work and People Per Hour, the freelancer marketplaces.

Martha Williams: For me, at the beginning, I got barely any work through them. But now I have a profile on them, and because I've done quite a few jobs, people just approach me. It's like a really useful thing to do, but yeah, it's not something that's easy to get into, because nobody wants to work with you until you've already got a couple of reviews and a couple of successful projects.

Martha Williams: It depends what situation you're coming from. If you're coming from a background where you already know that you can target this group of people, then you probably want to stay away from them.

Steve Folland: So, that catch 22 of getting the first project when you've got no portfolio on the site, or reviews. How about the pricing side of it?

Martha Williams: I found pricing probably one of the biggest challenges in terms of knowing how much you should charge per project. Especially with sites like that, they're very competitive, so the best thing that could happen is someone approaches you on the site. They've seen your portfolio, they know your style, and they clearly want to work with you if they've made the effort to reach out. And then normally you can price things in a normal way.

Steve Folland: So, I realise we should put this in perspective. How long ago was it that you were starting out freelancing after the artist?

Martha Williams: Two years ago.

Steve Folland: How long would you say it took to pick up speed on those sites?

Martha Williams: A few months, something like that. I got some really good projects through them in the end. I actually ended up working with L'Oreal through one of them, so that was a fantastic client for me. But I also had some really good clients, and end up getting repeat work, and maybe they recommend you to someone else. I think that's how it all grows. But yeah, it doesn't happen quickly.

Steve Folland: And then the other thing you were doing you said was networking. So, networking, in person networking?

Martha Williams: Yeah, going to events, searching out people who might want to work with me. So, for me at the beginning I was like, okay, let's approach a couple of jewellery and watch companies, because that's my specialty within design, because the work I did before. And then even I've got work from going to the pub and just chatting to people, and reaching out to everyone. You never know.

Steve Folland: Yeah, so actually not being shy of saying what it is you do.

Martha Williams: Yeah, definitely. And have business cards. Also, if you're quite excited about your work, which quite a lot of the time I am, I want to show people. And then people are interested, and it all builds up.

Steve Folland: And when you said you were approaching companies in the same style that you've worked with before, were you doing that cold email, or knocking on their door? What were you doing.

Martha Williams: Emailing them, yeah. So try and find someone in LinkedIn to do with the company and then email them. Also I worked with a couple of people before from when I'd been with Aurum Holdings that I could reach out to as well. But I didn't want to push the jewellery and watches too much, because then I've kind of left the job to try and create the same job.

Steve Folland: Oh yeah.

Martha Williams: But it was more a financial ... I want to support myself. And I don't mind doing a mixture of stuff, I just don't want it to be all the same.

Steve Folland: So, was that something you've become conscious of over time, like what you show in your portfolio?

Martha Williams: Yeah, definitely. I cut anything from my portfolio that I don't want to work on a similar project again.

Steve Folland: So, even if it was a good project, it's like, "No, I don't want to do that anymore?"

Martha Williams: I pretty much cut it.

Martha Williams: I saw Kate Merrill did a speech, and she said if you don't want to do it again, just get rid of it. I've just followed her advice.

Steve Folland: Obviously when I introduced you, we said freelance illustrator, and you are an illustrator. But, a lot of this so far is graphic design.

Martha Williams: Yeah, I do both. I'm a bit of a crossover between the two. So, I'll do poster designs, and obviously I have great a graphical feel with the typography. I don't do hand-drawn typography, anything like that. I really like a bold old school graphic style with that, and then with an illustration behind it. So, I'm kind of both.

Steve Folland: And do you get torn between what to call yourself? Because clearly having knowledge of both, being able to do both is actually a great skill. But also sometimes people say, "Oh, focus on this." I don't know whether that's something you wrestled with?

Martha Williams: I normally just put both. I think there's so much crossover anyway between illustration and graphic design that I don't worry about it too much. And most people are seeing my work visually, and it's a lot easier to explain something where they're actually seeing the physical thing, than me ... like I say, "It's colourful." Or, "It's ...," I don't want to say the word funky. But, yeah.

Steve Folland: Oh, I think you should, I think that should be in your LinkedIn profile.

Martha Williams: Oh, no.

Steve Folland: I'll endorse you.

Martha Williams: That's like what my mum would say.

Steve Folland: So, we spoke about how you got those first clients and evolved offers through networking and stuff. But how does most of your work come to you now?

Martha Williams: Mainly repeat clients, or recommendations. I don't often have to search for work at this point, except for now maybe I'll search for a little bit of illustration work to build up that part of my portfolio as well. Mainly it's repeat clients, so it's a lot easier, a lot less stressful, because they come to me and then I can say, "Yeah, I'll book you in in a week, or a few weeks, or whatever."

Steve Folland: How do you find juggling the workload? That sounds like you're very organised about it.

Martha Williams: I'm very organised. At the beginning of being freelancer occasionally I'd do an 80 hour week, but I just think for my physical and psychological health, that is not healthy. I'll now try and organise my life so that I have a fairly normal working week, so I can actually have a work life balance.

Steve Folland: And where do you work from?

Martha Williams: I work from my boyfriend's flat out here. When I'm in the UK, I work from my family's home. I also go to the library, I go to cafes, stuff like that. Sometimes I get sick of being stuck at home, so I try and get out.

Steve Folland: How do you deal with the social thing of it? There can be the isolation of working from home. Also, you're in another country.

Martha Williams: Well, trying to be like ... I'm not going to get my social fulfilment or whatever from work, so I need to go out and make sure that I'm being sociable. So making an effort to go for a drink with a friend after work, or working in a library as well because you'll chat to people working. Cafes are the same. Also I was doing Zumba twice a week, which seemed to be pretty good at making me feel a lot more ... well, less isolated I suppose.

Steve Folland: Yeah, because, an 80-hour week, especially in Spain, would be frowned upon. I always think they like to take it pretty easy.

Martha Williams: No, not at all. It's the opposite of the stereotype.

Steve Folland: So that whole sleeping in the middle of the day thing isn't true?

Martha Williams: Some people sleep in the middle of the day, but a lot of people, especially if you work in the service industry, so if you're a waiter or waitress, maybe you'll work seven days a week. And a lot of people work six days a week.

Martha Williams: So, actually the English lifestyle in that way is a lot more relaxed.

Steve Folland: Well, that makes me feel slightly better about the fact that you have better weather over there than ourselves.

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

Martha Williams: So, I think I came into this being quite naïve. And I would be like, "Oh, can you give me a 10% deposit" and, "Oh, don't worry about a contract." And then a few times people didn't pay me, so I've definitely learn that lesson. Always a 50% deposit, and if they don't want to sign a contract, there's something up with them, so don't work with them.

Steve Folland: Yes, you got done.

Steve Folland: Actually that always struck me as something quite good about the freelancer marketplaces in that asking for a deposit is commonplace, and the fact that the client has to put the money into what they call S-Square, into a separate holding account for you, and things like that, must add to that sense of security.

Martha Williams: Yeah, definitely, especially if you work direct, because it helps you financially, because you can stack your earnings that way. You'll have 50% upfront, so because payment is often delayed, you've still got something to live off until that happens, until you get the second payment.

Steve Folland: And what about the actually physical admin type side of it?

Martha Williams: Yeah, so I Excel sheet my entire life. You just have to be really organised I think. If you want to be freelance, you have to get the spreadsheet, make your plan, work out your expenses and all the rest of it.

Steve Folland: Was that something you figured out yourself, or do you have people that you've learnt from?

Martha Williams: My friend helped me. I was really afraid of doing my tax return, always heard that tax returns are so terrifying. And if you get one thing wrong ... you know, they're going to sting you for however much money. But I actually found it pretty straightforward, especially with the kind of work that I'm doing, you're going to get a couple of lump payments in your bank every month. It's really easy to keep up to date with. So I actually found it a lot easier than I expected.

Steve Folland: So, when you say everything is on a spreadsheet, you don't use other project management tools or financial software, or anything like that? You're the queen of Excel?

Martha Williams: I am just Excelling everything, yeah.

Steve Folland: A tab for what's going to be for dinner this week?

Martha Williams: Yeah. Well the government website as well has a way to calculate how much tax you'll have to pay, so you can use that to keep up to date on a rough idea of how much you have to save away.

Steve Folland: Are you somebody who sets goals?

Martha Williams: I've really changed my personality since becoming freelance. I used to be a lot less organised, but now I wake up and I do my to do list. I sound really sad. I have a colour coded calendar. Otherwise this is so much more stressful, like you can't do what you might do at uni where you cram everything in in the last two days, because you'll just have a horrible life.

Martha Williams: So, just to keep everything as low stress as possible, I keep everything as organised as possible.

Steve Folland: I don't think that sounds sad, I'm kind of geeking over the colour coded calendar.

Martha Williams: It's very geeky.

Steve Folland: What would the labels be? How do you know what to attack first?

Martha Williams: I do it like a little arrow of who's going up in priority. Which also, something quite bad, if I have a difficult client who's like, "I need this now," then they get prioritised over the nice client who's like, "Whenever you're ready."

Martha Williams: So, colour coding, depending on the client and depending on how nice they are.

Steve Folland: So there is a colour for nice people?

Martha Williams: No, not quite that extreme.

Steve Folland: Well, there should be, you should get emoji stickers.

Martha Williams: They're almost all nice now. I had a very weird client early on who said to me that he wanted to ... you know how on Skype you can film your screen?

Steve Folland: Yes.

Martha Williams: So, he wanted me to film my screen while I worked. And I was like no way.

Steve Folland: What, he wanted you to be online so that he could watch you work?

Martha Williams: Yes, he wanted to watch me work. He was a very strange man. I designed a calendar for him, and he Skyped me for about two hours just talking about the calendar. It was quite a straightforward design. I don't know, maybe he was lonely.

Steve Folland: I think you're very generous with that description. Although that's an interesting thing of how to then deal with those tricky clients.

Martha Williams: I finished the project, and I was supposed to do some further work for him. And I said that I would rather leave the project.

Steve Folland: Well, you didn't just say, "I'm busy on other projects," you were like, "No, no thanks. I'm out of here."

Martha Williams: Yeah, I was like, "No." Because I wouldn't allow him to film my screen either, I thought that was way above and beyond what I was expected to do.

Steve Folland: Either the work gets done, or it doesn't.

Martha Williams: Yeah, it's super controlling. And I think if I was to employ a freelancer, I'd want to give them quite a lot of creative freedom, because that's normally when people work best. Not when they're micro managed.

Steve Folland: That's slightly creeped me out. So in my head, living in Barcelona, it sounds like a pretty idyllic place to be. But are you working all the time, or are you taking holidays? How have you managed that side of things?

Martha Williams: Now I'm having more and more holidays because ... not all the time, but because at the beginning I couldn't financially really afford to take a holiday. Now I can take holidays. I also managed to take off five days this month just to work on my own personal work, because for me the idea was to become freelance so I could enjoy my life more, and to work on these areas that I wanted to work on. So, I try and keep that in mind and not allow it to become overly stressful, or becoming extremely overworked, and things like that. I don't think it's very healthy

Steve Folland: That's awesome. So, that five days, is that five days in a row, or one a week?

Martha Williams: Five days in a row, yeah. That was good fun.

Steve Folland: Nice, so basically a week off to do your side projects?

Martha Williams: Yeah, which I have been looking forward to for quite a while. And just trying to book it off with all my clients, and make sure I've got money to do it. That was really rewarding. And also I think it feeds so much into my commercial work, that it's always worthwhile doing it.

Steve Folland: So the other work that you're talking about, that's work you want to be known for, or what sort of thing are you working on?

Martha Williams: I've been doing two different little side projects. One is I'm doing ... do you know what isometric illustration is? It kind of looks like that old school game illustration. I don't know how to explain it. You do it in squares.

Steve Folland: Oh right, yeah.

Martha Williams: So there's this isometric illustration. I've been doing quite a lot of this in my commercial work, quite a lot of companies seem to want this at the moment. So, I got quite into doing this, and it's a bit of a skill as well. And you're learning how to do it while I'm doing this project. So then I thought I'd like to do something with this in my personal time, and I'm doing a dream house land patterny textured thing. I'm clearly a visual person, I've explained that horribly.

Steve Folland: And what are you doing with this? Are you showing them online?

Martha Williams: I do share some stuff on Instagram and Facebook. And some stuff will go on my website as well. And some stuff I will probably want to use to get more similar work in the future. Going back to the portfolio thing, if I'm happy with how this turns out, then I'll put it in my portfolio, and then hopefully I'll get a client wanting a similar project. So, off the back of that personal work, I get to do fun commercial project.

Steve Folland: So, that's one side project, what was the other one?

Martha Williams: The other one is I'm doing some floral prints. I find drawing floras really relaxing, because you can't really make them look wrong, because it's all natural forms and stuff like that. And I really just wanted to work on something for me which is quite difficult is composition. So, I wanted to just work on composition, and then using colours and textures.

Martha Williams: Because again, from a commercial project, I've been using these textures, and I obviously would see how they work. So, yeah, I have two, but I haven't finished either of them yet.

Steve Folland: That's great though. So, when it came to scheduling in that time, did you block it off like it was client work? Treat it that way?

Martha Williams: Yeah. I didn't tell my clients I'm having a week off to do my own stuff. I just say I'm fully booked for that week. And then a little bit of my commercial work did end up leading into it, because you just have to do emails, or maybe you have to do a change or two. But trying to be a strict and not be like, "Oh yeah, I can fit you in. But then I won't get to do my own thing."

Steve Folland: What would you say have been the biggest challenges of being freelance?

Martha Williams: I think when you're ill is particularly challenging, because you don't get paid. You're ill, which sucks anyway. You have to cancel projects. It's like you're the boss, so you can't just ring into work and say I can't come into today. I've had to work when I'm quite ill as well. I had pneumonia a month or so ago, and I had to cancel quite a lot of my work. It was a bit of a nightmare. You already feel crap, so you don't want to have to have that stress on top.

Steve Folland: How long does that take to recover from?

Martha Williams: It actually takes about a month to get over it, but in about a week you can work. You really can't work or a week or a bit more. And it's one of those things as well, you want to be careful that you don't make it worse. There's complications that can come of it, so you really want to make sure that you are fully rested and not doing anything. Just Netflix, and that's it.

Steve Folland: Is that a case of the fact that you're so sick that there's actually no temptation to work, and you just sent emails out saying sorry this has happened, and bear with me, sort of thing?

Martha Williams: Yeah. It sounds really bad, but the good thing about pneumonia, it's got a bit of a reputation. So people will be like, "Oh, she's actually ill." But if you've just got a bad cold, or something like that, then I think half the time you just have to battle through.

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

Martha Williams: Try and see things as an upward curve. So, when I first started, the first month I didn't make very much money. I made maybe £200 the first month, £400 the second month. Just think of it as 100% improvement on the month before, instead of feeling like I suck, I'm not making any money. It will come, it just takes patience and time. I just say stick at it. And it's all right to make errors, you learn from them in the end.

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

Martha Williams: Thank you, Steve.