Looking back on the past couple of years as a freelancer

It's coming up to the 2 year mark since I resigned from my full time job and went into freelancing / owning my own businesses. After many years of working as an employee, a contractor and doing small bits of freelancing on the side I probably thought that switching to freelancing would be a bit easier than it ended up being, which is part of why I wanted to write a little about my experiences. There's plenty of material out there offering freelancers helpful tips or things to avoid - this post is similar to many of those, but it's more of a personal reflection on what's worked well over the past couple of years, and what hasn't.

This is partly to help me going into 2010 as writing about experiences like this forces me to think about it a little more, but also in case other readers find something of relevance to their own business within.

Quick history

First, some very quick history just to set the scene a little.

The last job I left before starting freelancing was working as Development Manager for a small software development shop which specialised in bespoke development using ASP.NET / SQL Server and other Microsoft technologies. During that time I'd also been doing a bit of freelancing (with my employer's permission) for a couple of previous employers, which was mostly IBM Lotus Notes/Domino related work - mostly maintenance, with the odd larger piece of development here and there. I didn't resign from that job for any one major reason. It was more that I wasn't enjoying my work as much as I thought I should have been - which sounds a bit selfish, but the enjoyment side of work has always been important to me. So anyway, I resigned without really any idea of what I wanted to move on to next.

So while I was trying to decide what to do next with my career the freelancing work I was doing for previous employers turned into a couple more, add on a couple of short term contracts, and next thing I knew about it I was basically running a business as a freelancer - without really even thinking about it. Somewhere along the way I split the work into 2 brands. One for the consulting/developer for hire/Notes/Domino side of things (Hawkins Consulting Services - where services are provided by myself and myself only), and the other for the bespoke web development work I was offering (Ignition Development - where I have a few people working with me on a part time/casual basis). There was something about that split that felt important, and I think it was well worth doing. It's also why I'll use the word "we" in the rest of this post, because even though this started off as being myself freelancing it has turned into something slightly more than that, to the point where I'm currently looking to grow the business to take one or more of those people on full time.

Overall the past 2 years have been successful, and the whole thing has been a very positive experience - but that's even more reason why I can look back and know that the business could be even more successful with a bit of refinement and improvements.

Things we did well

Lets start here, as it sets a positive tone which is important given the statement I made in the previous paragraph! 2009 was a tough year globally, and so given the economic conditions any business which has survived and made money has done pretty well. I think it's important for me to realise that - especially as I know the 'things needing improvement' section is going to make for a longer read than this section.

So that's good thing number one - both businesses survived, made money, and expanded their respective client bases. In the case of Ignition, we've also built up our Site Foundation Framework technology and used it on about 7 live customer sites. That combined with a few other bits of collateral means we have a good base to build the businesses on.

We offered our client base extremely agile and versatile services. All of my customers were free to simply stop using my services at any time they wished, and yet they didn't - I think that's a good thing. Both businesses offered flexible rates and pretty much allowed the customers to decide how much or little of our time they needed - often at short notice. That meant setting a very high level of responsiveness, being incredibly flexible, and being able to adapt quickly to fluctuations in workload.

This agility and versatility also meant that we offered a very cost effective solution to our customers. You only need 2 hours of our time a week? That's fine, that's all you'll pay for. In this economic climate that leads to an incredibly cost effective option for customers who need high levels of skills and experience on hand and available, but not in a full time capacity.

We succeeded in being involved in range of interesting and varied work, as well as work which was a bit more routine. For both myself, and the people who work with HCS and Ignition, the workload continued to keep us passionate about what we do which I believe is very important.

While that list is a pretty short one, I feel that most of those items are fairly a) generalized and b) important, such as making money and retaining clients.

Things needing improvement

Right up the top of the list is the good old work/life balance. I love not commuting, and working at home saves so much time and hassle, however travelling to/from a place of work really did make it easier to switch out of work mode. Especially for someone like me who uses computers recreationally it became a little weird sitting in the same chair/office to work as it did to relax. I found myself working odd hours, and not really switching off. I'd check email at night and if there was a customer query I'd respond to it then and there thinking that would mean one less thing to do tomorrow. That's fine, but it leads to some serious erosion of boundaries, and you can find yourself never really stopping work if you're not careful.

I often found myself powering on a laptop when in front of the TV after dinner - and invariably wandering back into some work or work related activity. I've never watched a lot of TV, but it is one of the few things I do which is truly passive, unlike something like gaming where input from myself is required. By using my laptop in front of the TV I removed that ability to switch off my brain for a bit, which wasn't a good thing at all. I also found my sleeping patterns changing - evenings (outside of standard business hours) became very productive times work wise, because there were no interruptions. So I'd often work late into the night, and then sleep for large portions of the morning - not really a problem, but it can become an issue when your phone rings early in the morning and you're still sleeping. It also became a factor in blurred boundaries - having a definite starting and stopping point for work hours (even if it changed on a day to day or week to week basis) to represent "home time" is very important and is something I'm going to be implementing in 2010 (even though to be honest I haven't got the exact details worked out yet, as I've always been more productive in the evenings).

For some reason it took me a while to get around to investing in some simple tools, like a phone. Yes, a phone! I think initially I had a thought in my head that "Hey, I work with computers - I don't need old school tools like the telephone", and so it took me a while to get around to registering a VoIP phone number and getting a phone to go with it. As soon as I did I realised the benefits of having one. Having an actual phone number is important for some customers, but more importantly it allowed me to keep work calls off our home phone (we get slightly sketchy cellphone reception out where I live) and therefore improved the work/life separation just a little. My VoIP provider also has some neat "follow me" / "one number" type of services which are incredibly handy for both myself and my customers. Also in the category of simple tools is a printer. I don't print much, so I've put off getting a decent printer - it's not been a major problem, but definitely having one would have been useful in a few occasions, and saved me a bit of time and effort. I've just ordered a printer/copier/scanner combo unit to address this in the new year.

As well as obvious tools like a phone I had an interesting situation with some client facing software tools, such as a bug tracking application. I spent a bit too much time trying to find the perfect solution - trialling various software tools and configuring them in different ways in a quest to find one which met all my requirements. Of course during all that time I didn't have anything setup for our customers. Eventually I gave up in my quest for the perfect setup and settled for a quick and adequate solution - as soon as I did this I realised that any toolset is better than no toolset (and possibly that there's no such thing as the perfect bug tracking system). I'm still revising my toolset slightly, as there's a few other things I'm currently using which I'm not 100% happy with, but the main lesson I learned is to start with something even if it's not perfect, and go from there. Using a tool for while is going to help you refine your requirements, whereas simply thinking you know what's going to work on a theoretical level can be an excuse to waste a lot of time and reject a lot of candidates for pretty poor reasons. In some ways this is a little like the software development approach of "version 1 sucks, but ship it anyway".

Marketing/advertising needs to appear on this list, even though I didn't have a great need to do much of it in either 2009 or 2008 as I was simply too busy. However, in order to take the businesses forward, and to grow I know I need to get involved in more activities of this kind. As a technical person marketing is simply something I'm not overly comfortable with. Large businesses in this situation would probably hire an agency or consultant and go from there, but I've not really seen anything similar for the small business owner. That's not to say those services aren't out there, as I'm sure they are - just that I haven't come across them as yet.

There's also been a bit of a catch 22 thought popping around in my head here - it feels like a bad idea to do a marketing push when we're really busy, but if we had more work then we'd be able to expand. One of these things has to come first, and while that sounds simple to write it's a little trickier to put into practice in reality, especially when it means you're running risks with other people's careers and/or client's opinions of you and your business.

[EDIT] While I've been writing this I came across some interesting reading which has given me some ideas for marketing. If you’re interested, go and read my post and the one I link to here.

My personal time management has always been good, but I found it to be very hard to plan your week when there's any amount of reactive workload involved. All it would take is a couple of calls with some unplanned urgent work (it's all urgent, right?) and all of a sudden I'd find myself reorganizing my week, sometimes missing deadlines through no fault of my own. There are many different ways to deal with this - most of them involve either trying to minimize the amount of reactive work you do, or having clearly defined penalty rates for urgent/last minute pieces of work. As the saying goes "Your lack of planning does not constitute my emergency". However the trade off there is that both of those things would greatly reduce the flexibility and versatility of my services in the eyes of the client. There's a few things I have planned to help mitigate this sort of problem in future, but for now simply recognizing that my schedule is no longer completely in my own control is the important and useful lesson to learn.

There were a few times when we started projects or engagements without the proper documentation up front, and paid the price later on. Not in a monetary way, but more in a time and effort way (which you could argue is the same thing). I found this especially interesting, as I'd been in this situation previously as an employee and wondered how management let things get to the state they were in. Well, now I know. It's not always laziness or stupidity as I assumed in my naive youthfulness, instead it can sometimes be a calculated risk. To try and mitigate that sort of thing in future I've spent a bit of time creating some basic documentation which we'll be using going forward. These documents will be used as basic templates/starting points, and will hopefully mean we can spend more time focusing on the customer's unique requirements when we start a project, rather than going over the basic standard stuff. Documentation is really so easy to put off - it's boring, and no one likes doing it. But "good" documents can really save time when you're under pressure. Not everything is a suitable candidate for a template or pre-prepared document, but there are some obvious contenders such as Consultant/Company profiles, basic proposal templates and so forth which can all save time and stress if you've got something prepared that you're really happy with and feel confident about rather than having to write it up at the last minute.

Not accepting that Notes/Domino is a part of the business was probably something I did unconsciously, at least a little bit. After having a few years (before starting freelancing) where I did very little Domino work, it felt a little bit weird to start doing a lot more of it again. I probably should have taken some time out to do a lot of reading to catch up on the changes which had occurred in the technology while I wasn't paying a huge amount of attention to things (dare I say "the scene"). Those changes weren't major - but there were a lot of things that got a hell of a lot easier between 7.x and 8.x, and of course completely new technologies such as XPages came about in that timeframe also. Investing a bit more time in that technology is a good thing to do longer term, but not much as I don't want to make it my primary focus ever again - the New Zealand market simply isn't the place to do that. International customers might force me to modify that thinking a little, however for now I'm back to simply reading a few more Notes/Domino blogs, posting a bit more about it, and embracing that it's a positive thing to get a return on the 14 years of personal investment I've made in being involved in the technology.

So there you have it

Hopefully fellow freelancers and small business owners found something of interest there, as it was an interesting and revealing process to sit down and write it like this.

There's a few smaller items which I omitted from the post, and a few which were included which could be expanded upon indefinitely (such as the discussions around freelancer toolsets - I see plenty of posts on DZone and other such sites with plenty of suggestions and recommendations). These might be good candidates for future postings, or discussion in the comments section - drop me a line or a comment if there's something you'd like to discuss or recommend, as there's plenty of room for more conversation!

All in all I'm looking forward to 2010. The changes I've written about above have put me in a positive frame of mind for the year to come. On top of that I've been working over the past few weeks reorganising my office and server room, which is always a nice cleansing thing to do at the start of a new year!

One final recommendation - don't forget to have fun. Stop and enjoy the reasons why you're working as a freelancer. As simple and stupid as something like that can sound, sometimes all it can take is a day in the middle of the week at the beach to remind you why you're freelancing.

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Posted on Friday, January 08, 2010 12:27 PM | ASP.NET Notes/Domino Web Development Miscellaneous Me

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  • # re: Looking back on the past couple of years as a freelancer
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    Commented on 1/12/2010 1:49 AM

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  • # re: Looking back on the past couple of years as a freelancer
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    Commented on 1/12/2010 9:34 PM

    Hey Ross,

    Great to hear your thoughts on what worked and what hasn't over the past two years - of course I've got a lot of that from our conversations but good to hear it summarised like this.

    BTW we did used to do marketing consulting for small and medium business owners - we're not doing any right now but there is potential for us to do it in the future so maybe we should talk about this next time we catch up.

  • # re: Looking back on the past couple of years as a freelancer
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    Commented on 1/26/2010 4:27 AM

    Hey, that was interesting,
    Being a freelancer is what i would love to be but i just get scared about the lack of routine,
    Anyway, thanks for the post

  • # re: Looking back on the past couple of years as a freelancer
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    Commented on 7/20/2016 7:29 PM

    I was just reading your blog after that I am thinking about my past work so want to share one thing I already spend too much time to work as a freelancer but not getting too much money as I expected but hope in the future I will make too much money for my smart work...!!!

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