Self-employment – the first anniversary

It’s strange to think that it’s exactly a year since I became self-employed, considering that it’s almost hard to remember what it was like working for a full-time employer. Luckily the fact that it coincided with my father’s birthday is a handy reminder that 365 days ago I started working on my dining room table with an old laptop running Ubuntu, a notepad, and the idea that if I could survive for a year on my own I’d consider it a massive success.

And yet here I am at the same table, albeit on a much newer laptop.

Lessons from self-employment:

One of the best things about working for myself has been the massive learning curve which shows no sign of slowing down. Suddenly I became responsible for invoicing, accounts, new business, and everything else, rather than ‘just’ marketing or writing articles, and that definitely took a while to get to grips with. I’ve still got a way to go, but I’ve managed to get comfortable with invoices and tax forms, with a combination of asking advice and finding some decent tools to help manage things.

It’s also been a massive confidence boost to not only be able to get a business going by myself, but to actually survive and reach the stage where my earnings are slightly more than I was able to get in full-time employment. My financial situation, a young family and the start of the recession were all reasons not to go it alone, and I don’t have much disposable income even now, but I’ve actually been able to start reducing some debts which has been great, despite the need to buy a new car midway through the year. And it’s been amazing to not only attract some clients from contacts I’ve known over the years, but also gain new business through new referrals and sources – the fact that it’s all purely coming from my own efforts and from people who respect my abilities enough to recommend me is incredibly empowering, and it makes me more determined than ever to do the very best job I can for every single client.

And it’s been a strange experience working in a variety of industry verticals, from food and catering to mobile applications and software, with all sorts in between. My work combines all areas of content strategy and digital marketing, and my clients not only span a variety of industries, but also a range of knowledge and existing ability, so there hasn’t been a day that hasn’t had something different to offer. And having recently started doing more formal training and tutoring both under my own banner and for a respected training organisation has been a great experience and has helped me evaluate my own knowledge and particularly my communication skills in person.

But probably the biggest lesson has been in thinking about the future. I recently admitted to a couple of people that if everything stayed exactly the same for the next 40 years, I’d be pretty happy with my life – I’m getting to spend time with my son, work with cool clients, and spend some time on my own projects. But I’ve also been thinking about expansion and agency models, and wondering what would make the most sense. What I’ve realised is that I know a number of people who are intelligent and talented, and claim to be fed-up in their current roles – so maybe there’s a way I can work with them and help them to break free and pursue their dreams in a virtual agency capacity? It’s something I’ve definitely going to be investigating in the near future.

The massive list of people to thank:

I can’t even begin to list all the people who have helped and supported me, whether it’s been my family, including those who stood to risk the most if I couldn’t pay the mortgage or put food on the table, or friends and colleagues who have offered referrals and client leads. Then there is a list of great clients, including those I’ve worked with directly, and those who I’ve helped whilst sub-contracting for other organisations.

There’s a huge number of people who have shared tips and advice, including creative coaches, business people, accountants, marketing experts, advertising people, writers, etc. And an equally huge number who have inspired me in some way, whether it’s by following their own adventures, or by their approach to life.

It’s pretty much guaranteed that a list of names would leave so many people unaccounted for, so basically if we’ve spoken, emailed, tweeted, exchanged messages via Facebook, or you’ve linked to me or shared one of my articles, and you think you might be on the list – you are!

The future:

One of the most interesting things about becoming self-employed is that I’ve experienced the frustration of having ideas buried within large organisations, or letting them gather dust because I didn’t have the confidence to go off and do them myself.

That’s changed forever, in a process which started 5 or 6 years ago when I first registered on Blogger and began writing under a pseudonym. That eventually became this site after a couple of false starts, and the transition to WordPress (which I again timed to be memorable – timing it with my son’s birthday).

At the same time, alongside my client work, I’ve had time to start a small group of sites (OnlineRaceDriver, FPSPrestige, ResCogs) which are growing steadily and gaining a reasonable audience thanks to help from a great group of contributors – Cheers to Kalps, Tom, Thomas, Don, etc. And also thanks to the PR and Marketing people from various game developers and associated companies who have started to support us with kit to review, competitions to run etc.

And I’ve been able to start a small experiment in website design and development which is still taking shape in many ways, but has already delivered some clients and is starting to deliver more, thanks to the input of Jonathan and two Matt’s.

I think I’ve now finally started to find the balance between feeling unable to pursue ideas, and trying to launch all of them at once, and the next year should see a more focused expansion of what works, and some changes to what doesn’t. And hopefully the ideas I don’t feel able to pursue can be shared with the right people and help them find more success.

So thanks, cheers, and I can’t imagine what will happen over the next 12 months, but I do know I’m looking forward to every single day…

 

Dan

From Hollywood to Aylesbury (and UK freelancers)

When I dreamed about entering the movie business, I always assumed it would involve luxurious offices in Los Angeles or London, rather than a suburban semi-detached in Aylesbury. As it happens, I’m helping out the immensely talented Dalang Films, who are now releasing their own projects after working on many of the biggest films of the last decade.

Hollywood Sign

Chatting about their plans and introducing them to a few ideas around licensing, digital distribution and marketing, I couldn’t help thinking about the way business is changing every day in the UK, with more and more freelances, entrepreneurs and small businesses appearing every day.

A recent story on the Atlantic shared some relevant stats from the U.S.

  • In 2005 1/3 of the US workforce participated in the ‘freelance economy’, with data showing that number has increased ever since.
  • 2009 saw the highest level of entrepreneurial activity in the U.S in 14 years.
  • Online freelance job postings rockets in 2010, and companies are increasingly outsourcing various functions, along with increasing support for telecommuting.

I don’t have the equivalent UK figures, but I’d suspect we’re probably a bit behind due to cultural differences, but the same change is definitely happening. And despite the media fascination with ‘Silicon Roundabout’ in London, or even the ‘Silicon Fens’, there’s a huge amount of small business and individual endeavour that’s being missed.

For instance, the 40-50 people in Digital People in Peterborough are almost entirely comprised of small businesses and individial freelancers, with just a handful of exceptions. And I’d bet a similar picture is true of a huge number of geek meet-ups, or business networking events outside of London.

It’s not an easy life, and I wouldn’t romanticise the challenges of choosing between buying food or paying the bills when client invoices get missed and paid late. Or of working late into the night on something because there’s simply no-one else to help. But I do believe that there’s a cultural and business change happening which not only makes freelancing and telecommuting more acceptable, but will also enable it to become easier, with more support from the various necessary institutions.

And if you’ll excuse me, I have some client work to finish before I sit back with a beer and practice my Oscar acceptance speech. I know there’s not one for marketing, so I’ve offered to help out on various odd film jobs to make sure I get included in the nominations!

A brilliant and inspirational talk about passion

 

Ken Robinson on Passion from The School of Life on Vimeo.

H/T to Neil Perkin.

Yes, the video is 50 minutes, but it’s definitely well worth watching to be inspired by Sir Ken Robinson as he discusses the disconnect between the tremendous capacities we’re born with, and how so many of us lose them by ‘aiming low and succeeding’ in spending our lives in doing things we don’t enjoy – whether or not we’re actually good at them.

It reminded me that early on in school I was as good at Maths as I was in English or History, but as time progressed, I found myself enjoying it less, whether it was a conscious or subconscious decision, and my marks dropped a bit. It got to the point where my teacher predicted fairly average grades based on what I’d done in class, and was amazed when I actually got really good results because I’d re-applied myself for the exams.

Or the fact I actually studied Biology at A-Level, and then ended up doing a degree in American Studies, which isn’t necessarily a logical career route to becoming a journalist. Which again, isn’t necessarily the route to a job in marketing. Or to starting my own businesses combining writing, marketing and tech devlopment/knowledge.

Feeling attacked on all sides?

Since leaving employement to start my own businesses, I’ve had to come to terms with a constant worry which I wanted to share in case the way I’ve changed my outlook can help someone else.

 

The worry:

Basically, I’m working on busineses in three areas. There’s freelance marketing, web design and development, and lastly a small media network as a side project/spare time project. Although it might seem like I’m juggling too many disparate ideas, there’s actually a lot of overlap between all three, so it seems to be working pretty well.

But keeping on top of industry trends and changes in technology means monitoring various sources, and along with the useful information came a source of constant worry. Every day comes with proclamations that social media as a specialism is dead (It’s one of my main strengths in marketing), or the news a large firm has launched a specialist division purely for social media. Or claims that freelancers and small digital agencies are destined to die out soon. Or that a firm in the same market has received lots of funding. Or that there’s yet another media company starting a site in the same area as one of mine.

I could keep piling up the worries, but essentially it felt like as a one, two, or three man operation that the forces of the world were aligning against everything I was working towards.

 

The Solution:

But eventually I came to a startingly realisation that has stopped my worries in their tracks and allowed me to focus on what’s important.

I don’t actually give a f**k.

(Pardon the language, but few other words can convey the appropriate force needed for the strength of my conviction here).

 

The logic:

There are a few reasons this makes sense for me, and allows me to still read the same information, but focus on whether there’s anything actually useful I can learn or utilise, rather than focusing on the threats.

1. I need to concentrate on what I’m doing above all else. Most of my business comes from referrals and that will continue as long as I do a good job. I’d guess that very few existing or prospective clients will be reading everything that appears in the social network echo chamber, or value that more than a solid example and explanation from their contacts of why they may wish to hire me. If I’m paralysed with worry and screwing up anything regarding their account – that’s the absolute biggest threat and mistake I’ll ever make.

2. I’m not competing with the largest agencies on a global scale – yet. And I may never get there, but that’s OK. Starting a business comes with the mythic expectation that success resembles a Branson or Zuckerberg level of achievement. But actually, success can look a lot different, and in my case, my first 9 months has been a huge success for a couple of reasons:

  • I’m earning at least as much as I was when employed, which means bills are covered, the family is provided for, and this is sustainable for the foreseeable future.
  • I’m working as hard as ever, but I’m able to be more flexible with my time, which means I have more opportunities to be with my family, or grab time for personal projects. No unnecessary commuting, meetings, browsing places for lunch etc. Counting up my output, I’ve produced more measurable stuff in the last few weeks than I probably ever achieved, yet I’ve had more time to relax, recharge and invest in myself and my family.
  • There’s a huge untapped market out there: Sure, there are a lot of companies already doing a good job of digital marketing, and a lot of competitors looking for new business. But that still leaves a hell of a lot more people to speak to, and it’s a market big enough to last a fair while.
  • And finally, if it does turn out that digital marketing is completely doomed in 3 months, or noone is bothering to read my websites, then that’s OK, because as a tiny company, I/We can change in an instant. There are plenty of new and interesting opportunities out there which I’ve thought about but decided not to pursue at the moment. And there will be more coming. Regardless of how flexible larger companies will try and be, it’s always going to be easier for a small group to change practically overnight. And that’s fun!

 

There’s probably a load of stuff I’ve missed, but the essential lesson that I’m constantly relearning at the moment is not to worry about the things we cannot change, and focus on the ones we can. There’s more than enough to worry about in running any freelance or small business, and when I get big enough for them to be a legitimate problem, I’ll have more than enough resource to be able to tackle them head on.

The final thing that has also helped has been revisiting my immediate, 3 and 5 year plans. I don’t believe in having a 3 or 5 year strategy, as that always becomes too rigid, so I’ve taken a leaf from 37 Signals and created a 3 or 5 year idea, which is always subject to evolution. And when planning goes into years, one or two lines in more than enough to convey the gist of what I’m aiming for. It’s the weekly, monthly, and 3-6 month plan that has the detail and the importance attached – anything beyond that is approaching fortune telling.

 

So did anyone else feel the same about their freelancing or small businesses? How did/do you cope? And have I helped you at all?

 

Essential viewing for freelancers and agencies

Not sure why I didn’t post this earlier, but it’s such a good video I thought it was worth belatedly sharing. Mike Monteiro from Mule Design covers some of the issues for a new creative services business around the most important, and most often ignored area of actually getting paid.

It really is essential viewing if you want to avoid making some potentially expensive mistakes, and it’s also pretty entertaining as long as you don’t mind a bit of swearing, as you might have guessed from the title…

 

2011/03 Mike Monteiro | F*ck You. Pay Me. from SanFrancisco/CreativeMornings on Vimeo.

One of those videos it’s worth saving and rewatching every so often to remind you that you need to be taking care of business when you’re running one!

It’s 1am and all is well…

I’m writing this at 1am. I’ve still got a couple of emails I have to send before the day is over, but aside from that, I’ve finished everything that’s been needed today. And I’m put in mind of an excerpt from a Seth Godin book (I think it’s from Tribes, but my copy is with someone else at the moment).

He writes about being unable to sleep whilst on holiday, and going into the hotel lobby to check his email at some odd hour of the night/early morning. As he’s online he overhears someone commenting how sad it is that someone on holiday feels the need to be doing work on a computer, and his response in the book is to say how sad it is that someone does a job they need to escape from with holidays.

And that’s how I feel at the moment. I’m naturally predisposed to a more nocturnal existence anyway, but I’m also appreciating the fact that I’m able to structure my day differently to a lot of people.

For instance, today has included:

  • Looking after my son for a few hours this morning as my partner had to go into work for a meeting.
  • Wrote and published two articles for clients
  • Set-up the official Jodanma hosting and reseller account for all clients going forwards. Incidentally, if you’d like reasonably priced WordPress installation, and hosting, let me know!
  • Purchases two domain names for my personal sites (More on that later).
  • Finished two proposals for clients which I’m really hoping I can get – more because both projects are incredibly cool and interesting more than any prospect of financial security.
  • Finalised and got sign-off for one of Jodanma’s first official clients.
  • Managed to grab some shopping and cook lunch and tea for the family.

Plus I also had a quick chat with my father, and did other little bits like a load of washing, some extra keyword research for an existing client, and sending and answering a myriad of emails for various topics and projects, plus scheduling some meetings, and checking various invoices.

Not a bad haul for a day which was more disrupted than normal – but that’s why I’m writing this – to remind myself that I’m lucky to be able to spend 9am on a Monday morning setting up farm animals on the living room floor with my son, and to be able to spend 9pm in a call with an American client, or 1am writing a blog post.

I actually revisited by longterm aims and ambitions recently, and I realised something rather cool. I’m obviously hoping that my businesses continue to grow – I’ve already spoken to some very qualified and trusted associates who will be able to augment what I do here, and what we’re doing at Jodanma.com, plus I’m really keen to be able to invest more resource in my digital media publishing experiments.

But if everything stayed the same for the next 30 years, I wouldn’t be particularly upset. If I’m lucky enough to be able to pay the bills and support my family on an ongoing basis, and keep the flexibility and opportunity to hang out with them in the mornings, at lunch, and in the early evenings, then that’s a success in itself.

Now can someone just remind me of that when I get woken up by a small person shouting ‘wake up daddy’ at me in about 5 hours?

The freelancer prayer…

I’d forgotten about this prayer until I happened to pick up Slaughterhouse 5 in a spare five minutes. Regardless of your views on religion, the sentiments seem pretty suitable for anyone freelancing. Apparently the ‘Serenity Prayer’ is the common name for an originally untitled work by theologian Rheinhold Niebuhr, and it was later adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous, which probably makes it even more relevant for journalists and freelancers.

God, grant me the serenity

To accept the things I cannot change;

Courage to change the things I can;

And wisdom to know the difference.

Pretty appropriate whether you’re mid-proposal, mid-negotiation, or mid-contract. It’s a reminder to me that I’m hired to offer the best possible value for my clients, even if it means that sometimes I have to find different ways to accomplish the best possible results.

It’s also useful at the point when a client might decide that they might not need you any longer, or might be looking to cut costs etc. Sometimes it’s worth putting up a passionate defence of why they should continue your contract, or offering them a different solution to lower the cost. But sometimes it’s also worth accepting that the decision is a logical one from the client’s perspective ad it’s better to part graciously on good terms without fighting it.

And I don’t think there’s ever a time when you don’t wish for a little more courage, serenity and wisdom…