Ben Tallon on freelancing: “the bottom line is – you are operating a business”

In this extract from his new book, freelance illustrator and art director Ben Tallon talks about the realities of setting up his own business straight out of college and reveals the lessons he learned.

Portrait by Andy Cotterill
Portrait by Andy Cotterill

Ben Tallon is a freelance illustrator and art director who set up in 2006 and has worked for clients including the Guardian, Unicef, Design Week and WWE. His new book – Champagne and Wax Crayons – is a first-person account of the trials, tribulations and triumphs of the freelance creative world. In this extract, Tallon talks about his first steps setting up a freelance business out of college and reveals the lessons he learned.

That old expression, “it’s who you know, not what you know” is kind of true. But what you have to ask is – how do you get to know these people? You’re not just handed a network – you have to work for that and people have to like you and what you do. Time, patience, money, effort, personality and what you know is also important, so don’t be fooled. I graduated with an empty database.

Rich Taylor had graduated in the same year as me, from the furniture design degree course [at the University of Central Lancashire]. He was a friend of a friend and I finally met him in person after seeing him ghosting around the art department building a lot without ever getting the chance to say hello. Rich is the kind of person who is happier for you than you are for yourself when something good happens. You feel like you can tell him your filthiest secrets within an hour of meeting him.

He had won an award for his chair design at university and he told me about a creative grant that was available through an initiative called “Fresh Creative”. I was so impressed by his furniture design award and his beard that I took notice. I was just about covering my living costs with my full-time wage and my outlandishly ambitious football bets were not bearing any fruit, so I had no way of affording the £1,000 worth of Apple Mac that I needed simply to start creating my illustrations. I went to chat to the guys at Fresh Creative and told them Rich Taylor had sent me to see them.

Only one week earlier, I had threatened to quit art for good after the Apple Store had denied me a three-year credit plan on a Macbook laptop computer, due to my lack of debt, and therefore lack of credit rating. It felt crushing at the time but was quickly revealed as a blessing in disguise.

I was assigned Rich’s friend, who steered me through the programme. She agreed with his opinion that my graduation portfolio was half decent. I instantly took a shine to her and we got along well. She walked me through six weeks of one–to-one consultation sessions in which they assisted me in writing a business plan – something I had not even heard of.

The process made me answer all the questions that forced me to think about things I had not considered, such as who my market was, how I would reach these people and what professional attributes set me apart from my competition. I looked forward to my mentoring sessions each week and the guys running the scheme believed I would be a strong candidate to be awarded some start-up money. They were right and I walked away with a bit of business direction, industry understanding and just shy of £1,500 – a game-changing sum of money which I spent on a Macbook laptop, the programmes I needed to design things and some art materials.

To a creative person, that word, “business”, can be like garlic to a vampire. I’ve witnessed some individuals quit at the very mention of the word. It was used a lot over the six weeks I spent on the Fresh Creative scheme.

It doesn’t matter how bohemian you are, how many abstract ideas are rippling through your works or how far you distance yourself from conventional ideas, the bottom line is: when you are paid to perform your skills, you are a operating a business, so you quickly have to start behaving like one in order to be taken seriously. The “creative director of wherever” does not know that the rip in the left knee of your skinny jeans signifies your indomitable flair. She probably thinks you’re a scruffy bastard who should not be trusted with a budget.

I took a trip down to my local tax office and registered as “Ben and Ink Illustration”, a title a friend had coined at university. I hated it from the off, it sounded like a pun, but it was memorable and nobody knew or cared who Ben Tallon was, so I stuck with it.

What I learned

  • Life after graduating is not easy. It’s a culture shock, but don’t despair; it’s the beginning of exciting times if you’re prepared to work for them.
  • A degree is not a magnet for riches and fame,
it is a foundation on which to build and that takes dedication and hard work.
  • It is no longer socially acceptable to start drinking in the afternoon when you’re not a student.
  • Getting a full- or part-time job to support your passion, contrary to common artist folklore, is a good thing provided it serves your long-term goals.
  • It takes time and costs money to start a business. Be patient and realistic, with a sprinkling of sacrifice.
  • A garden table in a bedroom is not an ideal office, but can be made to work if you’re disciplined enough.
  • The cut off from years of tutorial input is difficult, surround yourself with people off whom you can bounce ideas. Ideally, hire an affordable external space to work from.
  • If people pay you money to carry out a skill, you are
a business, no matter how creative or arty that service is. Act like one.
  • Business plans are not as evil as they seem. They force you to learn about your market. Write one.
  • Be sociable and network yourself to death. People who know people are good people to know, but you have to meet them first.

Champagne and Wax Crayons – Riding the Madness of the Creative Industries, by Ben Tallon is published by LID Publishing priced at £12.99. The book is available here.

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  • andy bainbridge April 17, 2015 at 8:16 am

    Good luck with this Ben hope it all goes well for you.

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