Been There, Done That: Work Strategically and Scale Up

photo credit: Nattanan


Been There, Done That is our advice series for people working in creative industries. We share the lessons we’ve learned because your success is our success. 

Not too long ago, I came across a young grad student living in a country without universal healthcare. She is working part time at a coffee shop, which means she doesn’t get health insurance or many benefits, if at all. Young Person has a unique skill–to protect her identity, I’ll say it’s in illustration–and in order to make extra cash because her job doesn’t cover half of her expenses, she regularly offers to do sketches, designs, portraits, and even chores like helping with homework to people who donate money to her.

Lately, I found out that she’s been unable to keep up with the sketches that she’s promised donors and that she’s still broke and having difficulty paying rent despite the donations (which I assume aren’t much in the first place).

Doretta, the co-founder of The Unpublishables, and I understand what it feels like to be in a precarious financial position like this, and we understand that it’s doubly hard for millennials, who are in a very difficult period in history in terms of employment.

We thought it might help some people for us to share our experience and knowledge on how to best utilize your talents and skills in order to lessen your financial burden. None of this information is new, but we will try to show how it applies to people who rely on freelancing or non-steady work. This will hopefully be the first of a series of posts on financial survival for people who are in some kind of creative work, and if you have specific questions for us, feel free to hit us up at

For this post, I’m going to address how Young Person can work and create strategically to avoid burning out and being overwhelmed by unnecessary demands.

The first thing she should consider whether the jobs she’s doing for a small amount of money are worth it. If she’s spending three days on an illustration for someone who’s only going to pay HKD500, she has wasted a lot of time and energy.

The only way it’s worth doing an illustration is if it’s for someone who will genuinely help you get more work. I’m not talking about companies who try to take advantage of your work with a vague “free publicity”. They must have actual numbers to back them up or at least a great reputation that you can use to impress clients and get yourself more lucrative work.

For example, when I started out writing, I sent an essay to a small publication that I knew had a very small readership and couldn’t afford to pay me at all. However, I knew that that readership included editors at bigger publications, and that the editors of the small publication were very active on social media and were very good at pushing their writers forward.

They accepted the essay, which got me nominated me for an award, which I then used as leverage to get a contributing writer position at a much bigger publication.

This bigger publication pays decent rates, but more importantly, because my main source of income comes from freelance writing and editing, having the name of the bigger publication (and even the small one) on my resume means that I can now attract a better class of corporate client willing to pay me an appropriate amount of money for the work I do.

As someone who’s been in the same position and made the same mistake, I’d advise Young Person to set a decent rate for commissioned illustrations. She is being asked to spend a lot of time to create something personal, and that labour should be compensated adequately. If Young Person wants to give people something in exchange for their donations, she should just create a set of cards that she can print out any time. There is no need to do so much extra work.

It’s also possible to choose to do cheaper work for small, reputable businesses who can either provide regular work or whose recommendations can help you get bigger projects, but again, you have to work and think strategically. I know another young illustrator who saw an untapped niche painting murals for children’s rooms and nurseries, and her wealthy clients have ended up recommending her to do corporate projects at the companies they work for.

If no one is willing to pay the full value of the work, then the time spent on those types of commissions would be better directed to creating stuff for print on demand shops or stock illustrations sites where her work will at least make a little bit of money. It’s better to have a bunch of small income streams that add up without you needing to do labour constantly.

Also, to help with her finances, Young Person should consider making the most of her illustration talent by creating PDF (or whatever format) guides for people interested in learning how to draw that she can sell. Or even locked video tutorials that can be accessed after paying a small fee. The important thing is that you have work that sits there generating an income, no matter how small, while you continue trying other avenues that are close to your skill set.

There are a lot of ways to make a living beyond working a minimum wage job using the skills and talent you have, and if you’re anything like Young Person, you should be exploring that.

So, to recap:

  1. Know what your work is worth.
  2. Don’t accept clients for the sake of accepting clients. Are they paying you well? If not, will working for them help you land a bigger project down the line? Work strategically (I can’t repeat this enough)!
  3. Consider alternative sources of income that will generate money even if you’re not actively doing labour.


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