How to earn £50,000 a year as a self-employed creative: Alice Mollon on recognising your own value

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Alice Mollon is a French-born, London-based illustrator, whose impressive client roster includes The New York Times, Vogue, The Economist, Elle, Cosmopolitan and Shopify. This year Alice’s work has been selected for the World Illustration Awards longlist.

But how did Alice get started, and how has she been so successful? We spoke to her about the business challenges she’s faced since becoming a self-employed illustrator, and the mindset she’s developed which last year helped her to earn more than £50,000.

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SG: How long have you been running your own business, and what made you want to do it?

Since 2016. The company I’d been working for was closing down, and I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do next. Luckily, I’d already been working on a couple of freelance projects on the side, so I wasn’t under immediate pressure to find another full-time role. Those couple of freelance projects turned into more freelance projects, and then more, and I soon abandoned the thought of a full-time role at all.

Being a freelance illustrator offers so much variation, not just in clients but in projects too – you can work on anything from book covers and magazines, to fabric designs and food packaging. If I worked in-house (unless it was for a company that did all these things!) I’d feel that I was closing myself off from a ton of opportunities.

SG: Are you a sole trader or limited company, and why did you choose that business setup?

I’m a sole trader. There are pros and cons to both, so it’s worth doing a bit of research and talking to people in a similar industry and position as you. For me, the positives of being a sole trader (simpler both to get started and in the long term) outweighed the negatives (fewer tax breaks).

I’ve heard that there are some companies that will only work with you if you’re set up as a limited company, but I’d be surprised if that ever applied to illustrators – it’s certainly never been an issue for me.

SG: What have been the high points and the low points of self employment for you?

I find that the best things about self employment can also be the most difficult. I love the flexibility. Working on what I want, where I want, when I want. But I also have to be flexible in return, and accept that there’ll always be peaks in troughs in my workflow (and cash flow!)

I also really like being accountable for every aspect of my business. When things are going well, it’s really rewarding.

SG: What’s your strategy for managing cashflow, and organising your finances?

My main approach is ‘little and often.’ I try to take care of any admin (recording expenses, invoices, tax etc) either immediately, or at the very latest, within the month. That way I always have a good overview of where my business is currently at, and I never have to spend entire days drowning in a backlog of paperwork.

SG: Aside from the creative software you use for creating your work, what software do you use for managing the business side?

Nothing fancy, just good old spreadsheets, a calendar app for reminders, and a well-organised Google drive.

In my first year of freelancing I used the Taxo’d app. You input your earnings and outgoings (or sync it with your bank account), and it gives you a really simple breakdown of your profits, losses, and the tax you’ll owe at the end of the year – and even how that itself breaks down. Without it, I think I would have been completely unprepared for my first tax bill.

SG: Do you have advice for others on how to approach the money side?

Just be organised, and never, ever bury your head in the sand. Though not specifically just for the money side of things, I’d really recommend joining your relevant trade association (for illustrators, the AOI) or online groups of other people in your profession.

When you find yourself in situations that are really specific to your industry, being able to talk it over with people who have been through it is so much more helpful than trawling through Google results. It’s good for moral support too, which can be lacking when you’re working on your own.

As an example, I was recently approached by a new client for a really nice project, but the fee they were offering was far too low. Having tried (and failed) to negotiate a better rate, I decided against taking it on.

Afterwards, I was worried that I might have needlessly burnt a bridge, or that perhaps the fee wasn’t so bad after all. But, speaking to another illustrator who’d had exactly the same experience and had also refused the job reassured me that I’d done the right thing. It’s harder to have that sort of perspective on your own.

SG: Are you willing to share how much money you make, and how this has changed over time as you’ve grown your business?

Though it really fluctuates month to month, I’ve definitely seen an overall increase in what I’m earning year on year. It’s worth noting that a large part of that is simply down to me better understanding my worth, and knowing when I can and should ask for more. It’s not necessarily because I’m being offered more from the outset.

Last year I made £54,000, which was about double what I’d earned in the previous year. I had a few really high paying jobs though, so it’s a bit of an outlier. I expect this year to be closer to £30,000.

SG: Do you have a marketing plan? Or a less formal approach to marketing? What kind of marketing do you do?

Again, it’s the ‘little and often’ method. I’m not exactly a shout-it-from-the-rooftops kind of person by nature, but there’s no denying the power of social media for self-promotion. (Putting aside the slightly hostile algorithms.) I aim to post on Instagram a couple of times a week – though I don’t stress if I don’t have anything I want to share. I see my feed as the slightly more casual cousin to my formal portfolio website, using it to show bits of work in progress as well as finished pieces.

I also keep a spreadsheet of art directors and clients that I’d like to work with, and semi-regularly I’ll go through it and contact a few at a time. Either via email or post, sending a couple of relevant samples of my work and a brief introduction to me and what I do. Cold-contacting can have a really low, slow return rate, so I try not to spend too long on it at once. It’s a bit disheartening otherwise.

And finally, for the past 2 years I’ve been working with Ikon Images, who licence my existing illustrations to all sorts of clients. As well as providing me with a little extra passive income, it gets my work and name out there to markets I might not reach on my own.

Image credit: illustration by Alice Mollon.