I’ve been freelance for all my working life and struggled with organising my time. I have a feeling that most people in regular work think the self employed barely do any work between watching day time TV, and meeting other freelancers in trendy coffee shops. I can’t remember when I last did either of those! My biggest problem is organising the mass of stuff I have to do as I have no boss to tell me, no assistants or diary keepers. I can’t help thinking that others do all this effortlessly. How do you manage it all, or is it more like constant crisis management like me? Over time I’ve developed list keeping on paper or computer and it kind of works ok, but I’ve just stumbled upon something that I thought would make it fun too and appeal to my game loving side too. It’s open source so it’s free and it’s called HabitRPG, and it’s on PC and Android. I don’t know how it’ll pan out, but I can’t wait to don my armour, grab my battle-axe and start slaying my evil foes such as the sinister necromancer, Tax Return, the suppurating life draining armies of DIY Job, and the vile pus-leaking slime monster, Regular Exercise. Let the battle commence!
Apparently you can play with others, I’m not sure how it works but if anyone out there wants to join me on the quest let me know!
I’m an artist. That means I’m at the exact opposite of an accountant. I know it’s not that black and white, but you get the gist. I’m not brilliant with my accounts, doing them gives me the jitters, because I find it hard to maintain an interest long enough to get my head around all those figures. I rather to draw, but the accounts have to be done.
For a long time I developed a simple spreadsheet system, which my accountant approved of, and actually worked fine while I had relatively simple accounts. Since starting Playrama alongside my illustration business things have got a whole lot more complex with having far more clients, products to track and send out, and VAT on top. I thought it was time to find an accounts package that could handle all this in the background, and start to give me actual figures I could understand, so I could see at a glance where my new venture was headed.
After looking at several accounts programs I finally settled on Kashflow. Basically there are two options these days, traditional bought in a box software you pay for once, and in the cloud subscription services you shell out for every month. Beyond this I was looking for various features, but top of my list were ease of use, support and value for money… oh, and something that could handle rudimentary stock control… and was mostly UK based. There are plenty to choose from, Xero, which gooks gorgeous, Sage, Quickbooks, etc. Looking at the features however Kashflow stood out because it didn’t fall into accountancy jargon, and in use this was a real plus for the accounts allergic arty type.
After using Kashflow for a few months, what did I think? The most important thing was getting started and moving with it which was really quite pain free, as every button, drop down list, and option has a simple, well written description of what it does. This, in combination with the start-up guide got me moving quickly. The great thing is that at no point does the help material assume you know accounting, instead it is all written in a way that gently teaches you how the software and accounts works. On a couple of occasions I resorted to their email help desk, and the response was very fast and got me immediately back on track.
It was reassuring that the product is UK-centric. Many of the other products work across multiple countries and currencies, which is fine, but often US tax based idioms can confuse. You know the sort of thing, Zip codes instead of Postcodes. IRS instead of HMRC. One of the delicious features of Kashflow is if you are VAT registered the software tracks your VAT liability and at the click of a couple of buttons submits your VAT return. Hallelujah!
My Playrama venture means managing a number of different products being sent out to multiple customers. It could have quickly become a nightmare in the hands of a disorganised klutz, such as myself. Kashflow allowed me to set up each product in a category, so when I get a mixed order I select items from a drop down list, and neatly get listed on the invoice. If I do an illustration as a service I just add it in the same way. I can print out or email the invoices, which look very professional, knowing that the software is tracking all this, adding it all up and putting figures in the right places.
Marketing, which I’m useless at, but trying to catch up desperately, is a great little side feature of Kashflow. You can use it to see where leads on new clients come from, track who are the most valuable, and send out data directly into Mailchimp. (Mailchimp, if you don’t know is an excellent email list marketing service). I also have the pair hooked up to a CRM, customer relationship manager, called Capsule. With all three running together I have a completely integrated business solution. (Apologies, that sounds so cheesy!)
Do you need it? I think yes, particularly if you have a lot of separate clients and single assignments to track, such as editorial work. And or you have a significant sideline in selling products direct, such as prints, postcards, etc. By the way, you can integrate it directly with Paypal so that sales on Ebay and suchlike are automatically recorded. Yum! You probably don’t need it if you illustrate large book projects for the same one or two clients and are not VAT registered because your accounts will be that much simpler.
What’s not so good about it? I think the visual design in a bit utilitarian compared to offerings like Xero. I also think there could be more fancy pie charts and graphs that just look cool, so instead of running a one man outfit drawing pictures I could pretend I was at the helm of some global mega-corporation. Cost. Well, the free option, spreadsheets, is fine, but more fiddly to work and prone to user errors creeping into the maths. The boxed one-off software options are not really one-off as they have you upgrading every year or so at extra cost. I did a quick calculation and Kashflow was pretty much even-Stephens in expense. One excellent point with cloud based software over boxed, is that you have access anywhere you can get to an internet connection.
On the whole I like it, and with the excellent help and manuals, I’m understanding more about my accounts and how they should be presented all the time.
If you think Kashflow could work for you here’s a coupon code that gives you a £1 off the cost of Kashflow subs per month. PLAYRAMA
Playrama has 9 sets now available.
I’ve been illustrating children’s books and various other projects for the best part of 30 years now and to some extent have grown used to the sporadic income of the freelancer. Actually I’ve never had a proper 9 to 5 salary plop into my starving bank account, ever. It can really be feast and famine, what’s worse is that the feast is often owed to previous famines. With this in mind I wanted to find a product that would generate some warming background income against the icy ravages of freelance famine. As I approach 50 other worries are starting to appear on the horizon, such as the very real thought that I may not want to work my ass off into old age.
The quick version:
So about a year ago my wife and I had the idea to design and produce an original range of children’s toys similar to plastic toy sets such as Playmobil™ and Sylvanian Families™, but made of card. Our idea was to design and manufacture our own series made up of cut out card characters and props presented in a simple A5 cellophane bag with a header. To control costs I designed all of the elements, including the header card, to fit in one SRA3 size (SRA sizes are standard A sizes with extra space to allow for bleed). We would then pack them to look as beautiful and enticing as possible on display in a shop. Head over to the Playrama website to view the results.
You may ask, why didn’t I take the idea to a publisher, and let them do all the manufacturing, marketing and distribution? Sometimes I wish I had, but I suspect that publishers just wouldn’t ‘get’ the idea as it straddles three different industries, publishing, greetings products and toys. If they did understand it they’d not market it, or they’d have it produced in the Far East, or they’d give us such poor return, or the more unscrupulous may even just steal it. I also figured that Jo, myself and our part-time helper, Sanna, had all the skills to do it ourselves, which it turned out we did, sort of.
For the past 30 odd years I have worked elusively as a freelance business with my illustration, and thought that going into business in what would be effectively manufacturing would not be easy, but with a few books on starting your own business, manageable. A year down the line if I’d known what was involved Playrama may have remained as a dream in my sketchbook. I would guess that doing the initial art equated to just 5% of the work involved. Little did I know that we would be effectively setting up an entire business with a small, but operating, distribution network into retail. Whereas I had always worked as a small cog in a much larger publishing process, we were now running the entire shooting match from idea to product on a shop shelf.
After spending a fair bit on print runs and picking up a handful of small single shop outlets at a local trade fair we were committed. Heck I’m making it sound rather negative when really it is far from that. We have learn’t a ton, no, a mega-ton about business, marketing, web design, distribution, customer psychology, etc, etc.. I could go on, but the big thing we have discovered is that we still have 10 times more to learn!
I’ll write more posts about the nitty gritty another time, but before I round off you’ll be wanting to know where we are now. We have 9 finished designs, all of them available, with a handful of others waiting in the wings. We did a small local trade fair in January and from that and a few afternoons phoning around have 30 small shop outlets with about 20 more strong possibilities. These are currently worth about £1K in orders. A definite coo is that we have a quite substantial order from Jojo Mamon Bebe, a small, but well regarded baby and toddler chain with 60 shops and a catalogue. Costs to date are somewhere around £8K. So we are some way off a profit, but the majority of time and money was put into building efficient systems (a topic for another post!) and the products themselves, all of which is a one-off cost. We have another trade fair in July where we expect to pick up another 20 outlets.
It doesn’t look great a start, but it is growing, and I can see that our initial goal, an all bills covered income of £20K or so, is within reach in a couple of years (that’s the extent of my business plan!). Why go through all this when I could put equal effort into gathering more freelance work? Freelance income stops as each job runs out, unless you get lucky with some amazingly successful royalty deal and best seller book. The Playrama should keep selling, and as word gets out slowly grow. Also the distribution network and relationships I am building with customers is valuable in itself, in that it will be easy to bring new products to them in the future. I can also see a time when the effort put in verses the profit out will improve, and we will continue selling from our back catalogue, so that the Playrama I designed last year will still be turning a penny when I’m a decrepit old man hardly able to hold a pencil. It’ll be my pension.
My conclusion is no conclusion. Playrama is an ongoing experiment, and looks like it will always be such. However, through constant trial and many errors we seem to have something working and just about on the road. It still remains to be seen if it will work as a viable supplementary income to my freelance work, or will the freelance stuff end up being the supplement? Watch this space.
This was essentially an intro as this is my new, refreshed blog, but over the coming weeks I will post on more detailed reports and experiences on the topic of self publishing as an illustrator. As you will have gathered from reading this post, I’m no expert at all, so they won’t be tutorials telling you what to do. Rather, I invite you to follow my adventures and laugh at me stumbling around in the world of business. A lot of this will also be very relevant to the business of illustration too, as now that Playrama is set up and running with less effort I’m turning my attention getting my freelance work back on track.
Some of the subjects I want to cover:
- Self publishing electronically.
- Self publishing to print on demand.
- Designing products.
- Product pricing, costs breakdown, profit margins, etc.
- The market.
- Trade and retail fairs.
- Why business when you are an artist.
- Marketing! That’s a big one!
- Agents, distributors and other middle men.
- Setting up automated business solutions.
- Books to read about business start-ups.
- Customer psychology.
- Tons of other stuff.