How the artist behind Chibird built a full-time career making upbeat drawings

By Francesca Margherita

Photo by Jeremy Cohen, featuring Jacqueline Chen of Chibird

To trade an engineering job for an independent career in illustration, Jacqueline Chen made a plan and took it slow.

In our Making the Leap series, creators who’ve turned a creative side project into a full-time business share a behind-the-scenes look at how they did it.

Bolstered by support from her fans and armed with a detailed transition plan, Jacqueline Chen made the leap from an engineering job to running her own illustration company full-time in late 2021. Chibird, Jacqueline’s signature series of encouraging webcomics and animations, features cute creatures and words of encouragement for getting through the ups and downs of life. She started Chibird in 2010 as a creative outlet and a means of motivating herself through high school and college. Since then, Jacqueline has made her own merch, published a book, launched a Patreon, and created art that’s resonated with hundreds of thousands of fans.

Read on to find out how Jacqueline has built a creative career and support system, while honing her focus and taking care of her well-being.

Was there a particular moment when you knew it was time to make the leap to creating full-time?

I was working a full-time job as a software engineer, and I realized that while I cared about both art and engineering, my art felt more like my calling and an opportunity to have the most positive impact on the world. It was also becoming more apparent that I couldn't keep doing both jobs and take care of my mental and physical health.

But I didn't have my aha moment until I realized that artists could, well, actually make a living! Going to my first convention and having people get excited about my art and spend money on it made me realize that it wasn't an impossible dream.

Once you had decided to journey toward working on Chibird full-time, how did you prepare yourself — and take care of yourself — along the way?

I actually wrote a letter to my future self for when I finally took the leap. In it, I congratulated myself on finally doing it, and reminded myself that I should take it slow. I knew I would have a tendency to take on too many projects and over-work myself — and I needed time to recover from years of doing just that! Now, I try to keep very regular 9-to-5 hours in order to preserve time for my health and my life outside of work.

How did you feel when you first started out as a full-time creator?

The biggest thing I felt was relief. I had been working two jobs for so long that just being able to focus on one thing and have time freed up in the nights and weekends was so wonderful.

How have you built a support system?

One of the most lovely things has been having other creator friends. Not only do we have serious business talks, but we also play games and hang out while working. It's so heartwarming and energizing not being alone.

Why did you decide to turn Chibird into a membership-based business?

I realized that people wanted to support Chibird more. And seeing other artists succeed on Patreon’s platform really encouraged me. I also personally appreciate the delight of getting monthly mail, which inspired me to start my pin and postcard clubs.

What has surprised you about the experience of being a full-time creator?

People warned me that working on my passion full-time would make it less enjoyable. And while there are some less-fun aspects, like any job, I still really enjoy waking up every day and doing what I love. I actually think I’ve been able to be more creative and put more care into my work since going full-time.

What’s been the most challenging aspect of the transition, and what’s been the most satisfying?

The most challenging aspect has been setting reasonable expectations of myself. I think all creators can relate with the feeling that we could always be doing more. So just focusing on one or two projects and being like, "This is enough," has been the toughest. And undoubtedly, the most satisfying is waking up each day excited to work on things that make me happy.

Your work is known for encouraging and motivating viewers. How have your fans encouraged and motivated your work?

When I was working on a game called Teabird, my patrons helped me figure out things like what kind of birds to include and they’ve helped me test things like my online store and my stickers for Android. They’re really great people, and they always give good feedback. It’s been really helpful. In the end, I have the biggest creative say, but just knowing that people really like something or like a certain aspect helps me stay centered to what my audience will like in the end.

What advice would you give to other creators in your field who are considering making the leap?

Make a plan, prove your plan, and then take the leap when you can. I'm a big planner, and I like to have a lot of confidence in things, but at some point you know you're ready and you just have to jump. One sign is when you keep having to turn down potential ideas you have because you don't have the bandwidth, and you know you'll be able to do more with more time.

Photo by Jeremy Cohen, featuring Jacqueline Chen of Chibird

Thinking about making the leap yourself? Explore the Official Patreon Creator Community Discord server to connect with other independent creators.

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