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From Call Centre to Full Time Self-employed

First published on 6/6/2017

 
Before I write any more blog posts I really should contextualise everything.
 
After I graduated from Liverpool John Moores in 2002 I was a bit disillusioned by the whole creative world.  The internet wasn’t really a thing, and career options seemed to be either working in a flashy graphics agency (not my scene) or freelance illustration, which seemed scarier and more precarious than I wanted to contemplate.
 
I decided that money was the most important thing.  I embarked on a graduate training scheme for a national pub company, and was a pub manager for a number of years.  There were some fun times, some less fun times, and some really crappy times.  My mental and physical health really suffered.  Smoking and drinking at that time was very much part of the job description.  I worked a hell of a lot of hours - and it was extremely hard work. I can never understand anyone who says they want to retire to go and run a pub!

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Some of the pubs I worked in and managed
Anyway, in 2009 everything changed quite suddenly.  I ended up working in Housing Association Call Centre – initially as a temporary three month contract.  Turns out I quite liked it.  I made friends, the hours suited me – I was doing 35 hours a week instead of 70+ hours a week – and I was actually quite interested in housing.  I ended up doing a bit of voluntary work with a few homeless shelters, and even did a secondment as a Homeless Prevention Support Worker.  These were good times.
 
However, soon after my big life change I realised I had a whole heap of extra time on my hands.  Effectively, when I’d been running the pub, I’d been working the same as if I had two full time jobs.
 
I’d not drawn anything for years, and hadn’t really given it a second though.  But with my new found free time I went up to visit my mum and young sister in Cumbria for the weekend.  My sister was doing some art homework and I sat down next to her and picked up a pencil…
 
A few months later I’d dusted off my watercolour paints and had drawn a few things at home; the most noteable being a black and white ink drawing of the front of my house.  I loved working on the brickwork detail – it was so calming, almost meditative, to draw.  I did a few more houses, a friend who lived on the same street, his parents… and then it became a bit of an obsession.  I’d take photos of all my friends’ houses when visiting, and a few weeks later they’d get a little painting through the post.  Before long it became apparent that people liked my little paintings, and what’s more, they were willing to pay me to draw them!

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My house
Still working in the call centre, I’d happily offer to do overtime shifts at weekends, and I’d smuggle my paints in.  I’d be happily painting little dinosaurs while discussing rent arrears or arranging boiler repairs.  My colleagues saw what I was up to and were so supportive – they started asking me to draw things for them too, and before long it was becoming a good little sideline.  I should mention at this point that I did get into a bit of trouble by the time I got caught painting away in work.  Ah well.  By that point the seed had already been sown.
 
I started doing a few little craft fairs here and there, selling greetings cards and prints, and was having some success.  In May 2011 I went a step further and set up an Etsy shop.  It was great, I got a few orders a week, and I was really happy balancing my job with my part time business.
 
In January 2012 I opened my notonthehighstreet.com shopfront.  It was a big step up from only selling on Etsy, and by this time I was getting a few orders a day.  My Cheese Alphabet was proving really popular, and I started to expand on my range of “off the shelf” artwork, as I realised this was more time-effective than working on bespoke artwork.

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Cheese Alphabet Print
28th April 2012 was the first really big milestone in my business journey.  I’d drawn a family friend’s parents’ house as a wedding anniversary gift.  The recipients were so delighted by it that they wrote to the Guardian and I was featured in the Guardian Weekend supplement.  Things went a bit crazy and I was deluged by emails about House Portrait commissions.  It was so unexpected.  I’d just started a secondment as a support worker in my day job, and was really struggling to juggle both – my evenings and weekends were taken up replying to emails, packing orders and frantically painting!  It was a stressful but really exciting period.
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In the Guardian Weekend, 28th April 2012
As I completed my secondment I went back to the call centre on reduced hours (at my request).  It was such a relief to have an extra day a week to spend on the business.
 
Things bobbed along for a while.  I was getting more and more orders online, and during 2013 – triggered by a really upsetting encounter with a particularly demanding client – and also struggling with a painful trapped nerve in my shoulder, decided to stop drawing House Portraits, for the time being at least.
Christmas 2013 was mayhem.  At the time I was working Sunday evenings in the call centre until 10.30pm, and then back in at 10am the next day.  I didn’t get a lot of sleep on Sunday nights, rushing home to pack orders and then making sure I was first in the Post Office queue the next morning.  Sunday evenings are always a busy time for online orders; this shift pattern was a bit of a disaster for me.
 
In between Christmas and New Year I started thinking about the forthcoming Valentine’s Day.  I came up with what I thought was a fairly funny greetings card idea.  I posted a photo of in on Facebook and it got a great reaction.  Good stuff, I thought, I might sell a few of them…

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Cheesy Valentine's Card
Fast forward to late January and I was getting 50-60 orders a day for Cheesy Valentine’s Cards.  It was incredible.  I was managing, but only just.  On 31st January I woke up to a full inbox – bulging with new notonthehighstreet.com orders.  I was working from the spare room in my house at this time, and I padded through to my computer in my pyjamas and started work.  The orders kept coming.  And coming.  I’d never seen anything like it.  By teatime I’d had 400-odd orders, and I’d run out of envelopes, card and delivery note sheets.  I did an SOS call to my friend Michael who managed to pick up some new delivery note sheets for me, and I just kept packing.  My spare room was so full I had to store the full mail sacks in my bedroom.  I distinctly remember at one point becoming so overwhelmed by it all I was sobbing actual tears – while still packing of course!
 
By the end of that day I’d had a record 565 orders through notonthehighstreet.com.  It turned out they’d shared a link to the Cheesy Card on their Facebook page and it had gone viral.  The following weeks the sales continued – looking back now it’s a blur of sheer exhaustion, with not enough food or sleep, being held together by the unwavering support of my amazing friends.  They were coming to help me in shifts – two in the morning and two in the afternoon.  We sat and folded and packed in my little spare room, and there are small parts of that time that I remember being really lovely.  But mostly – if I’m honest – I just remember the sheer exhaustion.
 
On 9th February 2014 I became an auntie for the first time.  I was such an exhausted mess, I got the phone call, cried A LOT, but then got on with packing Valentine’s cards.
 
I handed in my notice to the call centre the next day, and on 10th March 2014 I became a full-time illustrator.