If you turn your hobby into your job, you might end up with a fulfilling and lucrative career — or you might go broke and ruin your hobby forever. Turning a hobby into a job doesn’t mean flipping a switch labelled “make money.” It takes years to ramp up, and you need to make and promote your work strategically. We talked to Justin Maller, Chief Creative Officer at DeviantArt and an accomplished art director and illustrator, about how to go from hobbyist to professional, and how to enjoy it.
Build your own dream portfolio
“The work that you share is the work you’re going to get,” says Maller. So when you’re building a portfolio of work, while you should show off what you’re good at, always include the work you love to do.
You can’t count on future clients or hiring managers to figure out what work you might like best. You have to make it obvious. Typecasting happens in all kinds of jobs, and if you only fill your portfolio with the work that’s been assigned to you, you’ll only end up getting that kind of work. So fill it with what you love to do, even if that doesn’t perfectly match up with your current skills.
Don’t wait for clients to come to you
Maller, who’s done work for Google, Gatorade, Nike, Under Armour, and the Grammy Awards, got his first paid gig writing and illustrating for the UK magazine Computer Arts.
“I went to Borders and got one of each of the [art] magazines, tried to figure out the art directors’ and editors’ email addresses, and I just emailed and asked if I could contribute to the magazine,” Maller says. Computer Arts commissioned him to make a piece of art, then write a tutorial on how to make it.
Find your real target audience
The people who eventually hire you aren’t necessarily the people you need to see your work. While a lot of Maller’s work is done for major brands, most brand and advertising work is handled through creative agencies. Maller thinks it was those agencies who first found him.
When an agency brings an artist onto a project, they often show the artist the “mood board” that the agency used to win the contract from the client. A lot of the time, Maller sees his own work in these mood boards. The agency used his work as the perfect example of how a potential ad campaign would look, and then when it came time to actually hire an artist, they went with the artist in the mood board. After all, that’s what had already appealed to the client.
Figure out how these decisions are made in your field. Who actually needs to see your work for you to get noticed? If you’re an actor, for example, it’s not the writers and directors who need to notice you, but the casting directors. Find the less obvious target audience, and see how you can make your work fit their needs.
Narrow your target audience as much as possible. For brand work, “you only need one creative director at one of the big agencies to see your work” and see your potential, says Maller. Chernobyl screenwriter Craig Mazin has given similar advice on the podcast Script Notes: When you’re looking for work, don’t aim for every script reader to kind of like your writing. Aim for one reader to love your writing.
There’s a kind of list that goes viral now and then: creative geniuses who were rebuffed over and over before their big break. Bands who got turned down by label after label; authors rejected by dozens of publishers before one bought their book and sold a million copies. That’s what happens when you choose exactly what you want to do, and look for the one kindred soul who’s positioned to take a chance on you. You’ll only find them if you’re promoting the work you actually love and stand behind.
Put out lots of work
“I’m a huge proponent of making a lot of stuff,” says Maller. He believes that the reason he got so much work is because he made himself very easy to find. Every time he put out some new piece of his own, he could draw a little more attention from the creative world. Each work you produce is a kind of lottery ticket that could win you a contract, so why not buy all the lottery tickets you can?
Again, you can’t count on potential clients to think about you and what you want. By constantly putting out new work of some kind, you’re constantly reminding the world that you exist and that you’re available to make things.
It’s practice, it raises your chance of exposure, but it also helps you avoid getting stuck in an outdated style. Every field of work goes through trends — not just seasonal fads, but overall shifts in taste and practice, often in response to other changes in the world. If you don’t keep updating your work (and your portfolio), it will start to look dated. This applies more in fields that rapidly change with fashion and technology. If everything in your web design portfolio is from 2015, you won’t get hired to do cutting-edge work in 2019.
This doesn’t mean selling out and trying to fit in. It means taking advantage of when trends swing your way, and finding ways to grow by learning from other people’s work. Think of a school of painters like the Impressionists or Cubists; they each brought their own vision to a shared philosophy of art. If there were only one Impressionist or one Cubist, neither movement would be so famous and influential, and neither would the individual artists.
First build a community, then build an audience
Early in your career, you don’t just need exposure, you need growth. You need to bounce your ideas off other people. You should be posting to relevant forums, says Maller, where other hobbyists and professionals can critique and share your work. At DeviantArt, Maller is now on the agency side of the table, looking for DeviantArt members to hire for brand activations and other partnerships. He finds a lot of them through the company’s Slack, which has a channel where employees trade their favourite art from the platform.
Maller also finds a lot of art through “re-sharing” accounts on social media, like Instagram accounts that curate a lot of other artists’ work (with credit). Find the clearinghouses and curated accounts in your field, and — politely and without spamming — aim to get their attention with your work. Every creative field has curators like this: influential playlists on Spotify, art accounts on Instagram, YouTube compilations of funny videos.
Don’t sell out your work just to get anyone’s attention. That is, don’t make work that you don’t want to, just because you think someone important will like it. Instead, look for the curators who like art similar to yours. Sometimes that means art within the same genre, but sometimes it’s a subtler thing, like the raw energy that your work shares with other work, or its influences and references.
And put more attention into less centralised communities, like forums, message boards, and subreddits. That’s where many curators find the best stuff anyway. (Unfortunately it’s also where some shitty accounts find work to strip your name from and publish as their own, but this is an inherent risk to putting your work online.) You can’t necessarily rely on these communities to tell you whether you’re any good. But you can usually get feedback that will be useful to you, even if you take it very differently than they intended. (Sometimes, you know you’re on the right track when a certain kind of person hates your work.)
Build a face-to-face community too. Get involved in workshops, meetups, group shows. Even if you don’t collaborate, regularly sit down with people to talk shop, and find the ones you can actually be friends with beyond your work. If you really love what you do, you’ll be able to go beyond “networking” and form lasting relationships with other people in your field, which don’t rely on what you can do for each other. This, Maller says, is especially important when you freelance or work for yourself. Solo work gets lonely, so it’s useful to talk to someone experiencing the same joys and struggles.
Once your career gets rolling, you can move from building a community, to building an audience. Maller, who started out as part of an artists’ collective, recommends building that audience along with other people. Again, look at schools of painters; they frequently built their first exposure through group exhibitions. Musicians form bands, writers put out anthologies, comedians put on showcases. Sometimes the communities you form early on become your permanent creative partners, but sometimes they’re a temporary arrangement that helps you figure out your solo career. Both results are valid and healthy.
Manage expectations with your clients
When you come from a hobbyist or amateur background, you’re going to run into a lot of assumptions and discover how many steps of your work you took for granted. A common one, says Maller, is project scope.
When you first agree to do anything for money, you need to talk about scope. In art and design, this often comes down to revisions. Unless you specify how many rounds of changes the client can ask for, they’ll never stop asking.
No one has to be a dick for a project to go south. Sometimes you’ll get a true problem client, who avoids paying you or demands extra work. But some clients are as inexperienced as you are, or go into a project with good intentions but bad habits. No matter how fun the work itself is, if you’re not getting the resources and compensation you expected, you will resent it. The work will suffer, and no one wins.
Setting up expectations helps good clients form good relationships, and it scares off a lot of bad clients. Before committing to a project, spell out everything you can in a contract or other written agreement. Build in as many checkpoints as possible, and push for a structure where you’re paid in installments, to lower your risk. (The client is responsible for lowering their risk.) If a project goes bad, you’ll need to get out as soon as possible, so this project doesn’t get in the way of other, better work.
In customer work, spell out what you’re selling and what you’re not. And plan for the extra expenses and legwork you might not have considered. Look at other workers’ portfolios, storefronts, Etsy pages, and so on to see what they spell out. You might notice a lot of talk about shipping and handling, or substitutions, or customisation. Ask people in your community about the extra work that isn’t as obvious to customers.
Expect your work to change
You can’t turn a hobby into a job without things changing. It’s not a flip you switch, from “do for free” to “do for pay.” “The very nature of the endeavour changes,” says Maller. Unavoidably, he says, “there’s always going to be a consideration of how your work will be received and perceived.”
This will affect your personal work as well as your paid work. (And you really need to keep making personal work, says Maller.) You’ll need to think strategically about what you make, how it’s shared, where it’s shared, and the contexts in which it’s seen.
“It can sound quite daunting,” he says, but it’s not necessarily negative. Having a strategy can be invigorating and inspiring; it can motivate you to take charge of your work and of the direction you grow in. If you know from the start that everything will change, you can be in charge of how it changes.