Archive for the ‘Starting Out’ Category
Today’s final post is a letter which I dearly wish I could send back in time to myself in the past; a younger me from ten years ago when I first made the leap from permanent employment status to Freelancer. I think it will be useful to other freelancers who are either just starting out, or are struggling.
Without any further delay or waffle…
Dear younger and more inexperienced me,
As you read this, you will be just starting out freelancing. It’s a scary experience. There is nobody to hold your hand, or guide you, or give you advice. At least, I know it seems this way. But I wanted to drop you a quick line to reassure you about a few things. Plus I wanted to include some really good advice, which will stop you making some silly and expensive mistakes.
It may seem that you are own your own, but there are a lot of great resources out there. The web is full of freelancers who have gone through what you are going through, and some people have been kind enough to write those experiences down in books or web blogs (such as this one) – all it takes is for you to take the effort to read them, understand them, and follow the advice. But remember, if you don’t bother looking, or take that advice, and you make the mistakes other are trying to help you avoid – then there is nobody to blame than yourself.
I am sorry to say that there will be hard times, and tough times, times full of worry when you wont be able to sleep at night, times of self doubt, and times where things seem very unfair. All freelancers and small business owners go through this, but at the end of the day, you will do OK. Anybody who makes the effort to rise above the average, who has put in the hard work, and uses the resources that are out there will do OK – better than OK in fact. In the end, choosing a freelance life will be one of the best decisions you will ever make.
But there are things that will help you on your way. Dear younger me, please listen to these, because these are nuggets of wisdom from years of experience. These tips will save you time, money, effort, and will make the whole thing so much more enjoyable. They will also allow you to rise above the troubling times.
My advice to you as you start out freelancing is:
- When times seem tough, don’t sweat the small stuff. If things seem unfair – that’s because they are – nobody ever said life was going to be a fair game. Either accept those things as unfair and move on, or change them. But don’t lose sleep about the small or unfair things
- Build up your list of supporters from the start. Have a good bank manager who you can contact whenever you want, an accountant who will explain things to you in detail, and make sure your partner (wife/husband) is included in everything you do
- Do not let the accountant run your finances. Keep everything close. Don’t let the accountant charge you too much or have your accounts vanish in to a black hole. Instead, use online accounting from day one (the accountant should be there to sign off the accounts and save your money). Having a clear picture of your accounts and cash flow every moment is key not only in making decisions, but allowing you to sleep at night.
- Know what you are doing it all for. Have a set of goals, and review them regularly. Get hold of a copy of the success principles, and read it – twice a year. It’s the best book on the planet! Trust me on that
- Do not waste effort trying to keep everybody up to date on project progress – you will end up stressing about projects and being overworked. Instead, invest in a cloud based project management system – the moment you do, your business world will change in leaps and bounds. You will never look back
- Don’t chase the money. Customers will try to take you in directions you are not prepared to go. It’s ok to say no if the work does not interest you, is not inline with what you want to do, or how you picture your small company. Be strong with customers.
- Don’t be scared to take on work involving skills you don’t have. Whilst you will be reluctant to do this initially, eventually you will come to realise that this will lead to you growing in skills and confidence, which will make your time more valuable.
- Invest in time management tools. Your time is money, so use tools like Evernote to keep track of everything you do and create, and re-use it over and over again. When you start doing this, you will see your worth grow.
- Get everything down on paper – simple terms, agreements and contracts – and get them signed. This will get you out of more problems than you could possibly imagine.
- And get a mentor. Approach your old bosses, or a local mentoring group, and become accountable. It’s also a great way to make new friends and stay in touch with what is happening ion the business world.
Younger me, its important to remember to enjoy the ride. Yes, times will be tough, customers nasty, and sometimes money will be tight – but nether the less, enjoy the ride. Getting where ever you are going is half the fun.
A more experienced Me
And that’s It!!
At the start of 2012, I said that this blog would finished at the end of 2012 – and as I type this, it’s December 2012. So that’s it – the blog is done. There is no more.
Dear reader, whoever you are, I really hope that you have found this blog useful. I have found it fun to create, and get my thoughts, systems, and processes down on (electronic) paper. I hope that you have gained something from reading my advice.
My advice does work. I am not perfect, I do not run the perfect company, I make as many mistakes as any other person out there, but my company has grown year in and year out using the tips I have written down. Most of my advice comes from people who are far more experienced and successful than me – so if any of my advice, or systems I describe feel right to you – give them a try – see if they will help you grow your own company.
As I sign off from my blog, I wish you dear reader well. I hope your company grows as you want it to, and I hope to meet you in the real world at some point.
As for me, I will continue on with growing my business, heading towards my goals, but now without the need to document it here. This blog will remain on the net until the end of 2013, at which time it will then be consigned to the great internet dustbin.
Goodbye and good luck.
Author of this Web site , Freelancer, Small Business Owner and passionate goal setter/achiever
December 20th, 2012.
In a previous post, I talked about how I occasionally like to mix up my freelance working practices by working as an IT contractor on a customer site. The reason for doing this (if you don’t want to read the original entry) is to keep up to date with what is happening in the real world in terms of customer expectations, technologies and environments.
Now whilst selling freelance and small business services means putting on a sales hat and talking benefits and features, landing a contract is all down to the interview.
Throughout my freelancing career, I have done four contracts, and attended around twenty two contract role interviews. In all of those interviews, there has only ever been one occurrence where I was not offered the role. In most cases, I have 3 or 4 offers on the table, and it comes down to selecting the role I prefer.
I believe the reason why I was offered so many roles comes down to one important interview tip:
Give a Killer Answer to the Trick Question
I am sure that the people who have hired me have other candidates with similar or better technical skills, similar or better experience, and similar office/interpersonal skills. If they are any thing like me when I am interviewing for candidates (which I am often asked to do when freelancing for companies) the stream of people I am interviewing soon becomes a blur.
So I make sure I stand out with my Killer Answer to their Trick Question.
All interviewers at some point will ask what they think is a trick question. It may be in the form of “Whats your biggest weakness” or “Whats the number one thing you would bring to this role” or even “Why should we give the contract to you?”. I have found generally, all interviews will consist of such a question in different forms.
And my killer answer to any such question is always “Oh, Its because I am lazy!!”.
Yep – I know. It sounds mad. Why would I say such a thing? Why would I say I am lazy?
Simple – its an answer they wont expect. It’s a surprise. It will shock them awake. They will take notice. I will be remembered.
But clearly, if that was my whole answer, then its unlikely I would land any contracts. So I continue after a brief pause to let the answer soak in and have an impact!
“Oh, its because I am lazy!!!!” Pause (count to three)….”Sorry – that’s not quite right. Lazy is the wrong word. What I mean is that I avoid doing more work than is required. If a task needs something put together, I will look at what I have done in the past, or what is already in place, to reuse it as much as possible, which of course will save time and effort and build on what already works. Yes, sorry, lazy is the wrong word. Efficient – that’s a better word.”
That is a great answer as it shocks them to take notice, gets them thinking, then reassures them that they are going to get the biggest bang for their buck by hiring you.
Again, I know it sounds mad, but I make a point of using this killer answer to their tricky questions, and only once has it ever let me down.
And I have been interviewing people myself for over 20 years – I know what interviewers are expecting and what they want to hear in an answer.
Give it a try yourself.
I thought it was about time I mentioned one of the key parts to my small business – my business Server. If my server was a person, it would be the hardest, most cost effective employee I could imagine. Without my business server, I would be lost.
Some freelancers and small businesses run very happily from a laptop or PC. But when I first setup my business, setting up the server was one of the first things I did – and I haven’t looked back.
Setup and re-setup and disk crashes
Just with any employee, the small business server has been a mixture of great moments, productivity, mixed with despair and desperation. When I first set up my server, I went for the cheapest option possible – no disk replication, no backup media, no thought to what I was going to really use it for. Which of course meant that when I had a disk fail on me, I had the joy of setting it up all over again.
And my server has been the target of bullies (in the form of hackers trying to break in and turn it into some kind of drone), suffered from memory crashes, and all kinds of other misfortunes. However, I have learnt from these mistakes, and now have nice redundant disks, virus protection, port blocking and a host of other nice features.
This may all seem like a lot of work (and it has been), but the experience gained of setting up the server (multiple times) and the benefits it brings outweigh the cost and time many times over.
What My Server does
So in case you think you don’t need a server, I thought it would be useful to list some of the things that my hard working server does for me and my business:
- Exchange – Most importantly, my server runs Windows Server and Exchange. Which means I can access my emails from anywhere in the world (using Exchange OWA on the web). It also syncs my emails, appointments and contacts with my phones, and the phones of my employees and contractors. All emails are stored on the server, so no email is lost, and all can be searched.
- Trend micro – anti spam and virus – The next important thing my server does is run anti spam and virus software. This may not seem much, but it means I never have to read emails about buying medications, enlarging myself, or working out which bank I want to deposit the $20million I have just inherited (from the royal relative I have never heard of)
- Printing and backups – The bread and butter of my company is the crafting of electronic solutions (software). Using the software features of Windows or Mac, any changes are automatically backed up to the server which means it’s almost impossible to lose work. Using the Windows or Mac features, the server also deals with all the printing I need.
- Sharepoint – I use sharepoint (2007) as my office document store. All scanned documents, office documents, specifications, agreements and customer files are stored on the server by customer and project. Using sharepoint as my electronic document management (EDM) solution means I, my staff and my customers can access the documents we need wherever we are or whenever we need them.
- Project Control – Using some software I developed, my server connects to my on-line project system, the email system and the sharepoint server, and ensures projects are on track. When its required, it sends out alerts, or notifications or documents which needs to be approved. It’s like a project manager in a small black box.
- Home and Office automation – My server also runs my home and office automation. It powers down devices when nobody is at home, switches lights on and off (when it starts to get dark, or when we are away to deter break-ins), monitors power use, and runs home/office security. Its all very neat. It also means I can change heating of my home or office from wherever I am in the world. My server connects to all my devices including heating, light and power using a system called “X10” (google it if you are interested).
- Monitors all hardware – the server next monitors all other hardware. It checks all drivers are up to date, installs updates on clients (including Windows updates), checks disks, checks patches, checks virus status, paper in printers, and a whole host more. Anything found to be a problem is reported or corrected as required.
- Streams videos and music – Next we come to entertainment. My server streams movies around my home and office, and streams music around my home/office using Squeezeboxes. No more CD, DVD or BluRay cases cluttering up the place. More information on this can be found here.
- Holds collections of E-books, music and movies – Connected to my server is an external QNAP T410 4-way external disk array (packing 4 x 2TB disks, giving me 4Tb of storage duplicated for redundancy using RAID). This means if a disk fails (which can happen), nothing is lost as it’s all duplicated. Everybody can find the tune or e-book they want from the central store on the server.
- Records podcasts and radio –As if that wasn’t enough, my server also records podcasts and radio shows for me (using software called replay av). Radio is recorded from a connected DAB Radio tuned into Radio4 (for money and business shows), and podcasts are recorded from their published internet sites. I can then listen to the podcasts on my phone when I am working, driving or travelling. Perfect.
I really do love my home/business server. Whilst I am busy working, sleeping, or away on holiday, it stays busy ensuring emails get through, viruses are blocked, and projects stay in control. It is worth its weight in gold.
One of the things I have found really useful over the past 18 months was to find business mentors. I have 2 sources of mentors; one is a small business group or 6 people which gets together once a month (or so) and we discuss problems, work out solutions and challenge each other to grow our businesses.
I have also been lucky to find a new Entrepreneur friend who has a lot of business experience. Over 25 years, he created a business which started as just him, and grew to employ 150 people with a turnover of over 80million a year. Now and again we meet up, and he gives me advice.
Both forms of resource have really helped my business over the last 12 to 18 months grow in size and turnover. But Alex has been the best – he has really guided me.
Words on the BIG CHANGE
Just after the new year, I met with Alex for a meal and we got talking about the BIG CHANGE that most business owners look for to quantum leap their business from a struggling start-up into the fully fledged profit generating machine we all yearn for.
Without doubt, the advice on the BIG CHANGE is the one thing that has allowed me to double the size of my company in a year, and as Alex allows me to record the conversations, I provide the key part of the conversation for you:
Alex : The problem is that most small businesses, most freelancers, even most independent high street shops are looking for the BIG CHANGE that will move them up a gear. Let me tell you a secret – there never is a BIG change that works!
Alex: No. The only thing that works is making small, constant and positive small changes. They all add up, and become bigger than the one BIG CHANGE that everybody is looking for. Even when a company appears to make a big change, it’s just an outside perception of lots of small changes made from the inside.
Me: So what types of changes, and how do I know if they are positive?
Alex: That’s the thing, the changes can and should cover everything. Marketing, accounting, money management, working, customers, support, products – cover them all with small changes, just make a small change in one area, then move onto something else. How do you know if they are positive – well most times you can just tell – in your gut. But if you have a doubt, measure the impact, and if it doesn’t move your company forward, just reverse the change and try something else.
Me: It all sounds great – but sometimes I am just so busy….
Alex: We all are. We all are. But, try this. At the end of every working day, just before you finish, think to yourself “what did I do that moved me forward today?” The answer has to be something other than normal work – completing some code, or making a sale or creating a quote – they are the day to day stuff, it has to be a process change, or a system change or a mind set change or a direction change – something positive. If you haven’t done anything on that day, stop, and do something positive. Most positive steps will only take 5 or 10 minutes.
Me: And how will I know what steps to do?
Alex: That’s the easy part – if I asked you to write down some ideas, I bet you could already think of 40 or 50 you could do. As you think of something you can do, write it down for future action. If you see a company do something which may work for you, write it down, an article which gives a tip, write it down, you experience bad service but can turn it on its head for your company, write it down. The hard part is finding the time. So just aim to do one single positive small change per day, and before you know it, your company will be flying.
You know what, Alex was right on the money. One small change, each day, and my business is really flying.
Business Partnerships can be great. If you can find another company that compliments you, the result can be business opportunities that are bigger than the sum of the individual parts. But, there can be one major problem with some partnerships – spec (free) work.
I have worked in partnership with many other companies in the past. In each instance without exception, we have agreed who is the lead in the partnership, and the leader pays the other for their services. This works for me – we can still run the process as a partnership, but money is not an issue. Everybody knows where they stand.
Recently, I was asked to work in a partnership, but where the work was done on spec. they asked that I (and my company) work for free, investing our time and resources for a share of the future possible sales of the resulting project.
Now don’t get me wrong – this sort of relationship may well work for some people. I can see in situations where work is thin and money is tight (such as when two start-ups meet) this can be very tempting. It may be very beneficial to all concerned, and the results in the future could be massive.
But the word to consider here is could. Could to me is a gamble, a chance, a risk. With such a relationship, you are of course assuming that the company/product you partner with is good enough to make a lot of sales – but what happens if it doesn’t? It could be a lot of wasted effort for no returns.
Call it boring, but I prefer to know that I am going to be paid, how much and by when. Anything else is just a gamble.
And the only time I gamble is when I order take away food.
As the recession (possibly with the dreaded double dip) continues to bite and permanent jobs look more and more unstable, many permies are considering dipping their toe into the contracting or freelancing world. One of the questions I get asked most often is how somebody gets started as a contractor/freelancer, so here are my tips to becoming a contractor or starting a freelancing company.
Before I begin, lets look at the two types of role – contracting and freelancing. Typically, contractors are employed for a fix term to do a job, and will be based around a clients office. Freelancers typically work from home or a rented office, and are project based. However, I have always felt the lines of division are very fuzzy – I have done freelance project work at a customers site, and I have done contracting from home.
One of the easiest steps to make into this world of IT contracting or freelancing is a step into freelancing. This is especially true if you already have a permanent job as you can do the freelance work during the evenings and weekends, and therefore can be used as a good stepping stone. However, the problem with this route is that you need to first find a paying customer – and this can be tricky whilst holding down a full time job. It also eats into your personal time (you will be working all weekends and evenings), which is why so many permies make the jump by starting as a contractor.
IT contractors are like permies, they will attend job interviews, and will be selected from all the interviewed candidates to work for a customer. Unlike freelancers, agencies will provide the middle ground between the customer and the contractor, so the hard work of finding a contract is done for you. You work a given number of days a week (normally 5, but can be 3, 4 or 6) and turn up, do what is asked for a set period of weeks or months, for a set and agreed day rate.
So some tips, about making the big leap into contracting:
- Agencies do not care so much for contractors as they do about the customers. Therefore, don’t use one agency, but register with several. Use Google for “contract agencies” to find a few and send in your CV (see tips about contractor CVs here).
- Also, take a look at the job boards for contract jobs. A few good UK based contract job boards are here and here.
- Contractors are normally expected to start within ‘the week’. Therefore if you are in a permanent position, you need to either leave before your notice period is up or pre-negotiate a weeks notice period.
- If you are in a permanent job which is in a key position, a snaky technique which can work is to quit, then offer to contract your existing role. Some companies will agree to this whilst they look for your replacement (clearly a lot wont, so it can be a risky move, but I have known lots of contractors who started this way).
- Again, if you are in a permanent job, there may be existing customers or suppliers of your permi company that you can contract with. Approach them, but be aware that you need to do it personally (e.g. don’t email them using your company email address) and be prepared for the feedback to get back to your current boss.
- Agencies will expect you to have already set up (or be in the processing of setting up) a Limited company, or found an Umbrella company (who will handle tax and payroll for a fee each month). Good sources of how to set up a Limited company or select an umbrella company are the websites by PCG and ContractorUK.
- At the end of the day, the best method is to just leap (it’s what I did). You should only do this if you have skills that are in demand, and you have some money behind you if it backfires. But for me, I quit my highly paid management job to start contracting with no contracts in place or even looked at, did my 3 (yes 3) months notice, and the week before I left, I started contacting agencies for work.