Interview: Successful Freelancing (via The Freelance Podcast)

The host of The Freelance Podcast was gracious enough to invite me on the show, hoping to share my 12 years of successful freelancing experience with his listeners. We get into a bit of the armchair psychology of being self-employed and maintaining persistence. We also discuss the “maker” mentality, both the good and the bad. Additionally, we discuss the importance of fellowship and how my podcast helps to keep me sane.

It’s a great podcast, a great host, and I’m flattered to have had a chance to be involved and share the ins and outs of successful freelancing. Head on over and check out the interview!

2014 Year In Review – (Not) Moving From Consulting to Product

crying-baby-partySo, 2014 was a big year for me, but not in the ways one wants a year to be big.  I had planned on moving from consulting to product sales, but it didn’t happen.  In short, the year can be summarized (at a very high level) thus:

1) Made a bunch of money
2) Had a bunch of heartache
3) Was constantly unsure if #1 was worth #2

Let’s unpack that.

1) Made a bunch of money.

I know, I know, this sounds boastful, and it isn’t meant to be. But the truth is, my consulting business trucked right along in 2014, giving me a very comfortable salary in excess of anything I ever earned as a corporate dev working for other people. This is a good thing.

What’s good is that the great bulk of 2014s billables came from selling new projects to existing clients; this is much, much easier than landing new clients. What’s bad is that landing new clients usually does account for some percentage of revenue, and in 2014 that percentage was 0%. Why? Because moving from consulting to product intended to replace the revenue that usually comes from landing new clients, and I didn’t manage to actually launch a product in 2014. So, the year went by without landing a significant number of new clients AND without any product revenue. Still a good bottom line number, but not what it should have been.

So now the big question is, why didn’t I manage to actually launch a product? Well, that brings us to…

2) Had a Bunch of Heartache

The honest answer is, I spent a big chunk of 2014 licking my wounds from 2013, and dealing with family & health issues. It was all I could do to keep my consulting business trucking along. In the first half of the year, I managed to keep producing my podcast and started development on a new prototype of SmallSpec, the painless functional specification tool I had meant to launch in 2013 but had scuttled.. I spent a significant amount of time reading every piece of startup and marketing info I could get my hands on, and generally took on more than I could handle.

Once overwhelmed, I did a horrible job of managing my emotional and personal business in 2014 and just got overwhelmed. There were a lot of externalities going on, but all I can take responsibility for is how I reacted to the things going on around me, and my reactions sucked. I made a lot of dumb choices in some ways, and in other ways I just didn’t have the stamina to do everything I committed to. Live and learn.

3) Was Constantly Unsure if “Made a bunch of money” was worth “had a bunch of heartache”

This is where the rubber meets the road. I spent 2014 constantly second-guessing myself. “Should I take on less consulting work?”, “Should I even be trying to move from consulting to product?”, “Did I just waste my time reading that startup blog?”, “Why am I tired all the time?”, etc. There was literally not one thing I did in 2014 that I felt confident about; it was all one big slog to keep the revenue engine running and hopefully make some progress on product on top of that. At no point did I feel good about what I was doing, on either the consulting or product side of the house.

That’s pretty unusual. Most years, by the time New Years Eve comes around, all I’ve had to do is consulting work, and I feel like I’ve crushed it. But for some reason, introducing the move from consulting to product into my mix of activities unleashed an unprecedented amount of FUD into my life. I’m not sure why.  But it did make me wonder if the juice was worth the squeeze.

So, What Does It All Mean?

Well, it all means that I managed to make it though a tough year. The earth didn’t swallow me whole, nobody came and cut the cable when I tried to publish my podcast, and agents of the government didn’t show up at my office to inform me that I’m not allowed to launch a product. On top of that, I still managed to earn a great living solving interesting business problems for clients that I like.  That’s not so bad.

But it does mean I have some work to do in 2015 – namely, I need to figure out what’s important to me – specifically, whether moving from consulting to product is really what I want to do, or if I’m just following a societal script – and double-down on it, reducing my other activities to avoid becoming overwhelmed. Where I stand at the end of 2015 will tell me if I actually managed to learn anything from 2014.

Stay tuned for a 2015 “goals” post next week.

Three Big Questions New Consultants Need Answered

hands-raised-in-classVery often, I will receive an e-mail from a developer hoping to go out on his own, asking “What is needed to get started in consulting?

Let me begin by telling you what is *not* needed: Permission! I say this up front because a lot of people who are otherwise qualified to go into business for themselves are waiting around for some third party to bless them. Don’t wait for some third party to validate you – if this is the move you truly want to make, then make it.

That said, off the top of my head I would suggest that you have:

a) at least 5 years of experience in your specific technical domain,
b) at least 1 year of experience working in a small agency, consulting shop, or other client services firm that is small enough for you to have been exposed to the non-coding aspects of client work,
c) good health and plenty of energy,
d) a stable home environment, and
e) customers!

Notice that I did not list things like:

  • a website
  • business cards
  • a fancy office
  • a brand-new MacBook Air
  • a Google AdWords campaign
  • a Chamber of Commerce membership

All that stuff can come later – or not – and I suspect that folks who focus on these things first are more interested in “playing business” than actually “doing business”. Don’t be that person! Prioritize revenue first; the landscape of the consulting business is littered with the corpses of people who wasted their time putting “infrastructure” in place first.

Here’s a good example: when I started Cogeian Systems, I had the following:

  • A phone (my home phone, no less)
  • A folding table
  • A 5-year-old laptop
  • A phone book (remember those?)

That’s it. That’s *it*. It was enough to perform my work, contact my customers, and do research for new ones. Of course, I also got myself out of the house as often as possible, and even embarked upon a hand-written letter campaign to introduce myself to local business owners, in order to meet enough people to find projects. But as far as infrastructure goes, consulting requires very little. Please do not fool yourself into wasting time on this.

For now, work your network, shake loose some projects, and start earning money. All the rest can be handled in due time, but your #1 priority at first should be to earn actual money by finding clients and serving them well.

The next question I often hear form new or hopeful consultants is “How do I set my rates? I’m afraid my clients will push back and I don’t know how to explain myself“.

Here’s a tip: You don’t need to justify your rates if the work you’re doing is appropriate for those rates. You don’t need to explain yourself to anyone. Simply quote your rates, and frame them in terms of Return On Investment. Will your proposed project make them money? Tell them how much. Will it save them money? Tell them how much. Why do this? Because that’s the language your prospective clients speak.

Don’t be scared. Have confidence! You need to feel like you’re worth what you’re charging. In the case that a client does push back against your rate, remember that you don’t have to convince them that they must pay a higher rate than they want to – they can do what they want, up to and including declining to hire you, and you don’t have much control over that. But what you absolutely must do is make it clear that once the rate goes into effect, that’s the rate, period, and anyone who wants to keep working with you must pay that rate. If your work is truly good, and truly creates value for your clients, the rate is _already_ justified.

And if you walk a prospect, odds are you won’t be losing anyone you’ll miss.

The third question I often hear is “what kind of horrible mistakes do I need to watch out for with my consulting business?“.

I can only pick one? The first thing I would tell you is, don’t spend much emotional energy being concerned about making mistakes.  You will make mistakes; it is a certainty, so make peace with it.  We all make mistakes.  That said, you don’t have to make the same mistakes the rest of us make.  You don’t have to suffer the way some of us long-timers might have.

With that in mind, I already mentioned that “Playing business” instead of “doing business” is a big one. Charging too little is a HUGE one. But I would say that not getting help early enough is probably the worst mistake, because bringing in help allows you to avoid a lot of problems.

Being overbooked is a condition that has tentacles, reaching out and smothering other aspects of your business – your marketing, your cashflow, your support. If you bring on help – even part-part-time help – the instant you have sufficient revenue and deal-flow to do so, it will free you up to keep one hand on the steering wheel of your business at all times. Otherwise, you’ll end up with both hands being ocupied by desperately typing away at your keyboard trying to keep up with project work. At that point all you have a is a job. Trust me, I have been there, and it took hell to dig myself out of that particular hole.

Definitely get help early. It will buy you time to do big-picture things like lining up new jobs & keeping an eye on cash flow. Trust me, these things do not sound interesting but they will absolutely make or break you once you’re out on your own.

What I Saw in 9 Hours at The Hashtag, Fresno’s Co-Working Space

Yesterday I had the privilege of spending 9 hours working from The Hashtag (@Hashtag_Fresno), a co-working/collaborative workspace located in Fresno.  It was both enjoyable and stimulating, and I came away with the sense that I had just spent 9 hours looking at a blueprint for the eventual standard workplace of the 21st century gig economy.

A few off-the-cuff impressions:

  • The atmosphere of the space itself was exactly right – just the right amount of hippie, just the right amount of funky, just the right amount of geek, just the right amount of  “sssh-people-are-working” and just the right amount of  “feel-free-to-socialize.”
  • The founder, Irma Olguin Jr. (@irms, also founder of 59 Days of Code and web development firm Geekwise), is both a gracious host and a true believer in the power of the open, collaborative workspace.
  • The members that I got to meet were uniformly bright folks with sharp ideas and a friendly disposition.  Like Irma, they too are believers that they’re participating in something vital – and they’re absolutely correct.
  • The internet speed was fantastic.  There is absolutely no comparison to using the free wi-fi at a place like Starbucks or Panera; at the Hashtag, you get your internet brutally fast.  It’s like drinking from a firehose.  Loved it.
  • The movable furniture (all the desks are on casters) is a brilliant touch, as it allows the space to be easily re-configured for different purposes.  Last night, everything was moved around to suit a bunch of people watching a speech being delivered by Fresno local Rob Walling (@robwalling) and it took all of 5 minutes.

I have referred to the Hastag twice now as a “workspace” but that’s not exclusively true; people play there as well as work (I’m told you can find the occasional game of D&D being played there late at night).  They host art events and speeches along with productivity events.  If your dream is to write the Great American Novel, you could do a lot worse than to visit a place like the Hashtag if you need a quiet place to write.  If you feel like hacking away on a labor of love project, again, this would be a great place to do it.  This could be construed as “work” of course, but I want to make it clear that this is not merely a replacement for day-job office space; it’s a space for doing things.  More to the point, it’s a space for doing things in the presence of other people and having a chance to socialize, share ideas, and meet new people.

The Hashtag bills itself as “the best third space ever” and I’m inclined to agree.  Co-working has exploded all over the country in the past few years, and what I saw in Fresno is more than just a worthy addition to the ever-growing ranks of such facilities on a macro scale; it’s a vital addition on a micro-scale to a Central Valley landscape that desperately needs to escape the confines of last-century ways of thinking about and executing on business, creative and social endeavors.

Today, reflecting on my 9 hours at the Hashtag leaves me a) thankful for the new faces I had a chance to meet, and b) with a renewed conviction that the mobile professionals/gig economy workers/creatives of Visalia need to follow Fresno’s lead and get a co-working space opened ASAP.  It will be good for everyone, and will help to push the Central Valley (kicking and screaming, if need be) one step further into the 21st century in terms of how & where we work, create and socialize.

Co-Working in Fresno Is Here…Is Visalia Soon to Follow?

I’ve often pondered the idea of founding a co-working space in Visalia so as to be done with the grind of finding good office spaces for a small, mostly-virtual team.  Rather than being deskbound and isolated in less-than-ideal space, why not be in a more open and communal space?  Why not work amongst fellow geeks and creatives?

40 miles north, in Fresno, folks were apparently thinking the same thing, only they actually got up and did something about it!  That something is called Hashtag Fresno, a collaborative workspace that will be opening on May 15.

I encourage everyone who is local and not deskbound to go check it out.  This is a very, very cool move, and frankly I think it’s long-overdue.  This news is the first thing that has ever made me wish I lived in Fresno, that’s no joke.  Fresno has more of a creative & tech presence than one might suspect, and a fair number of individuals are trying to help that tech presence gain greater traction.  I wish them all the success in the world.

In the meantime, I’ll continue pondering the idea of one day seeing a co-working space open in Visalia, too.

Design Theft By Proxy

2009 has been a rough year at Cogeian Systems for a number of reasons.  Financially, it’s all rosy, and we’re growing.  But that growth has come in overwhelming waves and from time to time, I’ve felt as though I was losing control of certain details of our operation.

One of those details was marketing – I felt like the company’s marketing presence had gone stale (it has!), so I decided to do a new site design.  In a moment of monumental stupidity, I decided not to use my own design guys, because I wanted an outsider’s perspective, thinking it would result in something fresher than what would come about if the design were done by someone too close to the company.  I chose a young designer – a recent graduate with a good solid portfolio who seemed to see eye-to-eye with me on the importance of having the right design and what that design should be – to do the work on a freelance basis.  So, after providing a creative brief and taking a few meetings to hash ideas out, I set him to work.

The design he came up with was OK.  We did a few revisions and one revision in particular stood out as being different f didn’t think it was the right design for Cogeian Systems, and was prepared to start the project over, but more than that something just seemed off somehow.

Here’s the design (click for full-size):

I wasn’t feeling it, but at the same time I wasn’t sure how to articulate my concerns.  As I sometimes do, I took to browsing the CSS gallery sites (cssremix.com, cssbeauty.com, etc.), both because I enjoy beautiful design and because I like to be aware of the current trends in front-end design.  I was hoping that I could find something that would help me clarify the unease I was feeling about this design.  And oh brother, did I ever manage to clarify my unease – the reason something bothered me about the design was that I had seen it before on a css gallery site!

It turns out that the designer had straight-up lifted the design of a web development agency named Paramore-Redd.

Here’s Paramore-Redd’s design (click for full-size):

Just a little bit of similarity there, don’t you think?  And, just to break the irony meter, the blog post that was on the front page of Paramore-Redd’s site at the time was about design theft!

Just to make sure I wasn’t completely crazy, I decided to do an overlay of the two designs, to see exactly how much congruency there was between the two.  Here are the two designs overlaid and made semi-transparent (this was done using a screenshot of Paramore-Redd’s site at the time, in April or so):

There was a very high degree of congruency in the layouts.  The log and nav text are 100% in phase with one another, along with the headline and frames.  The main text area and the call to action were within pixels of being perfect overlaps.  He even borrowed some of the copy.  There is no way on God’s green Earth that I was going to be convinced that this was a case of independent inspiration.

Needless to say, I was not pleased.  If I had gone through with OK-ing this design, I’d have been guilty of design theft by proxy, and my designer knew it.  Web & software development is a small world and everybody knows everybody (in fact, I believe that I have at least 1 friend in common with the Paramore-Redd folks).  Imagine what it would have done to the professional credibility of my firm if I’d gone live with another’s firms’ design?  I’d have been shredded and laughed right out of business, and deservedly so.

So, I called the young designer on his transgression, and of course he protested that he had come up with this design 100% on his own, out of his own head, and that he had the developmental sketches to prove it.  I wasn’t buying it – there’s just no way that this was accidental – so I cut him loose and scuttled the project for a few months (we’re working on it again, this time with a designer who is in the family, right now).

Now, I realize that the wrongdoing was on the part of the designer, but at the same time I have to acknowledge a few mistakes.  First off, deciding NOT to use my own crew of regulars was a mistake; that business about wanting a ‘fresh perspective’ was silly.  I work with the same designers over and over, nobody has a better grasp of what Cogeian Systems is about than those guys.  Second, I hired a recent graduate.  His student portfolio was excellent, so much so that I boggled me that he’d feel the need to resort to design theft, but he was green, so so very green.  I’d never hire a developer that green and not expect a disaster, but for some reason I just felt like this kid had the goods, despite what 15 years in business tells me about hiring people so green.  And third, I broke my own rule by not issuing a firm no the instant he delivered a design I was lukewarm to.  I went along for a few revisions, thinking we’d hit on something magical along the way, but the reality is, as the old saying goes, you can’t polish a turd.

It’s amazing to me that even after 15 years in the business, I still make the occasional bad decision (or three!).  Maybe it’s the universe’s way of keeping me humble.  But in this case, I came very close to design theft by proxy, and all the negative consequences that would have had for my business.

All is not lost, though.  Soon I’ll be able to reveal some UI teases from our NEW new design for Cogeian.com.

A Year of Silence

One year.

365 days.

8,760 hours.

That’s how long it’s been since I wrote anything for my blog.

Wow.

Note to nit-pickers:  yes, I know my last post was published May 21 of last year, but I wrote it on May 18 and let it stew a couple of days.  So there!

2008 was a huge year for me and for Cogeian Systems, and I mean that in both a good and a bad way.  I intend to share the story of 2008 here, in the hopes that it will be useful to other small consulting shops, or even developers who are looking to make the leap into running their own firm full-time.  It’s been a wild ride.

Roughly speaking, each quarter of 2008 had one big event:

  • The Rush – there was a HUGE influx of projects at the start of 2008, both new and from existing clients.  There was so much work to do, it almost sunk the company, believe it or not.
  • The Move – I moved the company into new office space, which was a huge PITA, but very educational.
  • The Team – I took on a (very green) assistant to help me run the office, and it worked out in ways that I didn’t even foresee.
  • The Skills – I personally fell into a project that required me to learn C# on the fly, which had some unintended consequences for me.

Those are the broad strokes; I’m still writing up the detailed accounts and trying to articulate what I learned.  In a lot of ways it was a Year in Hell, but in other ways it was awesome; for example, my company is still in business and doing well.

More on all this later.  For now, let me just say, it’s good to be back!

P.S. I’m eager to start churning out more installments of Monday Consulting Questions, so if anyone has a question regarding me, my career, my company, or running a boutique consulting firm in general, Go ahead and send me an e-mail.

Productive Jealousy – Is There is Enough Sun for Everyone to Tan?

I just finished reading Productive Jealousy on Signal vs. Noise.  David Heinemeier Hansson insists that jealousy need not be an angry or destructive emotion.  I tend to agree with him – in fact, negative emotions are my primary motivation.  I suspect that there is a conception out there that in order to be productive and successful you have to be all sunshine & rainbows, hoping to make the world a better place.  In truth, just as much productivity is fueled by “I’ll show you!” as it is by “Gee, guys, isn’t this spiffy?”

David is right – for a lot of people jealousy, envy, etc. is a very powerful motivator to improve, to excel, to do more.  There is no reason why, upon seeing others achieve success by some metric, that you can’t do something similar yourself.  And if negative emotions will fuel you on the way, there’s nothing wrong with that.  In response to the question posed by the title of this post, I am reminded of an old saying – “there is enough sun for everyone to get a tan”  I know that many people don’t believe this, but I do.

I can honestly say that in my own professional career, negative emotion has been a tremendous driver of productivity and improvement.  I’m more of an “I’ll show you!” than I am a “Gee, isn’t this spiffy?, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.  Rather than letting anger, jealousy, etc. fester and eat you alive, or drive you to do negative things, use it for fuel.  Use it for growth.  Use it for improvement.  Use it for excellence.  Use it to make yourself strong.

Monday Consulting Questions: First-Timers, Humor and Crappy Design

Q. I am not a techie.  I work for a small business in a real-estate-related industry.  I have been put in charge of having a new website created for our company.  We will need it hooked up to a database of some kind.  I’ve never run a technology project before.  Where do I start, and how do I keep from being taken advantage of?

A. Welcome to the world of technical project sponsorship!  To answer your first question – where to start – I suggest you start by reading my article The 5 Laws of Choosing a Software Developer.  All the same issues apply to choosing a freelance web designer/developer as well.  Let me recap the article here, in case you don’t have time to read it.

  1. Demand Experience. Past performance is a great indicator of future results.  Make sure you get someone with at least a few years of experience doing the kind of work that you want to end up with.
  2. Demand References. Trust, but verify.  Make sure the person or firm you hire can really do (and has really done) everything claimed.
  3. Demand Value. Be as wary – if not more so – of the guy who charges too little as you are of people who seem to charge too much.  You really will get what you pay for, and both the too-low and too-high providers are telegraphing their flaws.
  4. Demand Communication Skills. Don’t hire anyone who is so wrapped up in their domain – whether that is the domain of the programmer or of the artist – that he is unable to speak to you like a normal human being.  There are a lot of broken individuals in this industry for one reason or another.  Don’t bet your project on someone who is incapable of returning your calls.
  5. Demand Availability. Try to find a freelancer or firm that is dedicated to their business full-time.  There are a lot of very talented folks out there who do work “on the side” in addition to their day job, but if you’re not accustomed to managing technology projects you will find them exasperating to work with because they will be out-of-sync with your schedule.

To answer your second question – how to avoid being taken advantage of – is a little tougher.

If you adhere to the guidelines outlined above, you will find a competent provider.  But will you find an ethical one?  That’s the real question.  Because the barriers to entry are very low in the freelance design/development business, there are a lot of what I call “transient professionals” milling about.  They generally have the technical skills to do the work but lack the intangibles (such as drive, ethics, or time-management & planning capabilities) that are the real mark of a useful provider.  It is not hard to find and hire one of these types and end up watching your project disappear into a black hole.

The best advice I can give you is to push hard on the references and verify both the portfolio and work habits of the provider.  This goes for firms as well as individual freelancers – you need to make sure that the provider has actually completed projects like yours, not simply worked on them.  It is an important distinction.

Q. I see that your LinkedIn profile photo is actually a South Park-style avatar of yourself.  That doesn’t seem very professional.  What do you think that says about you?

A. That despite my dry blog and (some would say) boring professional niche, I’m a guy who has a sense of humor?  That I want my LinkedIn profile to be a bit more memorable than just another real-estate-style headshot?  I don’t consider business to be a humor-free endeavor, and I hope you don’t either.  Note that even when I’m trying to be humorous, I can’t completely let go of professional rigidity – in the un-cropped version of the graphic, my avatar is wearing a tie.  :)

Q. I’m kind of new to consulting.  I have a new client who is asking me to do a small project for free, while promising that if I do well, they’ll have a lot of other projects for me to do at my full bill rate.  Am I being set up to get screwed?

A. First off, welcome to consulting.  It looks like we have a first-timers theme going today, perhaps I should put you together with the first-time project sponsor above.  :)

Second, I absolutely guarantee that you are being set up for a screwing.  What you are being asked for is called “spec work” (the spec stands for speculative, meaning you have to do the work first and then the client decides if they want to pay for it or not), and it is absolutely the bane of the industry.  I want everyone reading this who has ever been subject to the same kind of “work for free now and get real work later” proposition to stand up.  Go on, right now, stand up.  Now, I want everyone who has ever made this kind of a proposition work out favorably in the end to sit down.  Ah-HAH!  You’re all still standing, aren’t you?  Of course you are, because speculative work arrangements never work out favorably.  Not for the provider of the work, at least.

Now, I can see giving a new client a little bit of a price break as a “get to know you” rate on a limited part of your first project together.  I don’t necessarily like the practice, and my company doesn’t do it, but I can at least understand it when you’re starting out.  But never, ever, ever work for free based solely on someone’s promise that doing so will result in you being rewarded with paying work later.  Just.  Don’t.  Do.  It.  The odds are overwhelmingly in favor of “there is no paying work later.”  I – and every other freelance consultant out there – have seen it happen a million times.

Q. a) Is this really your new blog design?  b) Are you trying to be a designer now?  c) I thought you were a programmer.

A. a) It appears so. b) No, but I am trying to increase my design IQ. c) So did I, but then I went and turned into a businessman.