Do you keep your resume up to date?

February 15, 2013 in Freelancing

I’ve not seemed to have a need for a ‘traditional’ resume in a number of years, but every year or so I go and update it some.  I’ve only updated the ‘plain text’ version on my site over the last couple years – I’ve not updated the ‘MS Word’ version in probably 3 or 4 years.

A traditional resume just doesn’t seem to be of much assistance in the freelancing/consulting world – my website, blog and word of mouth referrals seem to serve the purpose of providing credentials and trust, and is easier for people to see find what they’re looking for.  That said, I do think having traditionally formatted resumes on my site doesn’t hurt from a search-engine standpoint – I get a lot of referral traffic from Google for certain phrases.  At one point, I was on the front page of google for the phrase “senior php developer resume”.  That translated in to a lot of email from tech recruiters, but precious little in the way of actual paying work (I’m not sure I’ve ever taken a contract from a recruiter contacted via my website).

I used to advocate keeping a resume up to date on a regular basis, and probably still would recommend that if part of your ‘independent’ game plan involved using tech recruiters in your contract search.  If so, keep it up to date.  If not, it may possibly hurt your image as a freelancer.  I suspect having a traditional resume may give some people the impression that I’m just freelancing until I can find a ‘real’ job, and may remove it because of that (or at least not link to it so prominently on my site).

Do you keep your resume up to date?  Do you keep it on your “company” or personal website?  Do you think it’s helped or hurt?

Should you discount your services?

February 13, 2013 in Business, Freelancing

Do you offer discounts for your services?  Should you discount your services?

I have offered discounts on my hourly and daily rates for clients that were prepared to commit to a minimum amount of time for a project at the outset.  I’m rethinking that, but haven’t made a firm commitment yet.  Do you have a particular policy that works for you?

My thinking on the commitment part is that some of the reduction in income is offset because it’s less time I have to spend getting future work lined up.  However, I’m not convinced the savings time is commensurate with the discounts I’ve given in the past.

Also, I’ve recently been in a situation where, for goodwill purposes, I’m going to write off some of my billable time.  In some sense, this is a ‘discount’, but I’m doing this because the problems that I was spending time addressing were caused largely by me.  In a broader sense, we hadn’t tested enough at the scale we were operating at in production, but it was not a simple thing to do so ahead of time.  Have you ever needed to do that?

Are we moving to a broader freelance economy?

December 23, 2012 in Business, Freelancing

It’s a question I’ve asked myself a lot in the last few years, and I don’t think I’m any closer to knowing a definitive answer.

It’s been pretty obvious to me that the way we sell our labor has changed much since my parents’ time – the days of 30 years at company X, company funded pension plans, gold watch at retirement and company loyalty are mostly gone for all but a handful of workers in most walks of life.  But what is replacing this?

Legions of temp workers and part time giggers have ostensibly served the changing needs of companies who want to be able to scale up interchangeable workers on demand, but it hasn’t served the needs of the workers all that well.  I think it’s given ‘freelancing’ a bad name as well, so much so that I’d named my freelancer conference “indieconf”, to avoid the term freelance altogether (although in hindsight, perhaps I should have embraced it all the more?)  Freelancing has often been seen as the stop-gap for people in-between full-time jobs – indeed, many people treat it as such, as opposed to embracing the ability to control your own life and destiny with gusto.

So, we have less job stability and security in the corporate world, but this doesn’t seem to have been replaced with true “freelancing” so much as “part timers” and “temp workers”; I don’t think this is just a semantic distinction though.  The part timers and temps have, at their definition, people who likely would prefer a full-time position somewhere, and are taking the scraps because it’s all they can get.

Will freelancing become to be accepted as the ‘new normal’?  Does it need a name change?  Do we need more regulatory laws recognizing this type of work relationship as just as valid as others?  Union organizer struggles back 100 years ago did a lot for that movement, but freelancing, almost by definition, doesn’t have that sense of collective organization.

Working your network – part 2

December 2, 2012 in Business, Freelancing

In my previous post, I explored the idea of “working your network“.  I’m going to explore the idea a bit more here, with some info based on recent conversations with a friend in town here.

Have a network

The busiest people I know *tend* to be the most connected, either in their industry at large, or in their local community, or both.  They tend to know (and remember) far more people than I think I ever could.  But that’s just my perspective – I often get comments from people who say “oh, you must know everyone!”, usually after being in a meeting place and saying hello to more than a few people.  I don’t necessarily *feel* like I know a lot of people, but as I’ve reviewed my own network (via linkedin, etc), I realize I do have many many contacts, but many of the relationships are going stale.

What can I do about it?

Be a matchmaker

I’ve done this a couple times in the past, and I’ve seen other people do it successfully, so there must be something to it, right?  Invite people from your network, who don’t know each other, to get together.  It might be for coffee, or lunch, or dinner, or something.  Just three of you, or perhaps a third party for a total of four people.  Introduce the people to each other, and let them know why you think they should get to know each other.  Small business deal reasons might usually be the best .

Recent example: a friend is involved in real estate, interested in learning more about coworking, and I happen to know someone who runs a coworking space.  Bam!  Ed, meet Robert, etc.  In this case, I just put them in touch via email, but arranged for a casual face to face for a week or so later.  Will anything come of this specifically for them?  I hope so, but if not, they still both know that I’m actively looking out for things to help make their businesses better.  Took me about 5 minutes of phone calls and a couple emails, and I’ve actively created a connection.

Committing to doing this once per week – whether only via email or via face to face lunches/coffees/etc – and you will see results.  What sort of results?  Will it always be direct work for you?  Probably not, but you will be top of mind in many more peoples’ brains when something comes up on their end.  It might be just a question for you (and a chance to make another connection!) or project work, or something else.

The key to this is to be genuine about it.  Being truly interested in the business of others will require you to learn more about them and their business.  Once you know more about their current situation, you shouldn’t have to fake it.  But… do be aware of your social capital with people.  As much as there are valid connections to be made, you will develop a sixth sense for time wasters.  I have been guilty of connecting person X, who is a  real expert, with person Y, who turned out to be a time waster.  It’s not intentional, but I do lose a bit of capital with person X.  Do that enough and your reputation *will* suffer, so be careful.  Start small, but do start.  The benefits of playing matchmaker in your extended network will pay dividends years in to the future.

Working your network part 1

November 24, 2012 in Business

This is an expanded look at my original blog post from earlier this summer, based on some feedback as well as new thoughts I’ve had since then.

When we talk about “networking”, what exactly do we mean?  Meeting people?  Exchanging business cards?  Having a coffee with someone?  It can mean all of those things, and more, but whatever your definition of ‘networking’ is, you need to have some goals in mind when doing it.  Are you looking for a new project?  Looking to simply expand the people that you know?  Looking to serve others first?

There’s no doubt serendipity plays a role in your life, and that applies to networking as well.  Some of the coolest projects I’ve had have come from random meetings and introductions.  But many more haven’t – they’ve come from a set of networking (and I guess I’d probably say ‘branding’) efforts I’ve put in over the years.

Mastermind group

A few years ago I was reading “Think and Grow Rich”, and the topic of “mastermind groups” came up.  I’d never been part of one, and didn’t quite know what one was, but I tweeted out that I was starting one, and invited people to join.  Within a couple days I had a group of roughly 8 people, and we met by phone (almost) weekly for more than a year.  A couple of the people I’d known beforehand, but the rest were complete strangers to me (other than that they followed me on twitter for some reason).

What went right

We were all at varying levels in our businesses, but nearly everyone was an independent web pro to some degree – at least one had a couple employees that I remember, and another one eventually grew in to that direction.  We were all roughly on the same page experience-wise, and could mostly learn from each other.  It was a ‘safe’ place to vent about client troubles, bounce ideas off each other, and there were almost always good, helpful suggestions from someone on the call.

For me, one of the participants contributed articles to jsmag.com. Another became someone I feed overflow work to (and he’s graciously sent me back 4 figure finder fees), many were very supportive of the first indieconf conference in 2010.  I like to think I was able to be of valuable service to many of them as well.

Having regular phone calls was a vastly different experience than “read a forum or mail list when you have time”.  This was important enough for people to *make* time to be a part of.

Interestingly, throughout the more than a year we did this, almost everyone ended up meeting the rest of the group face to face during our travels.  It was fun for me just to hear that X & Y had met up in New York, or LA, or wherever.

What could have been better

Structure.  Sometimes we’d devolve in to all-out bitching sessions (sometimes led by me), which, while sometimes necessary, could have been done at a different time.  Having more structure – updates, weekly plans, calls for assistance, etc – would have benefitted everyone more on a regular basis.

Hand in hand with structure would be a leader/organizer and meeting runner.  Should that have been me?  Probably, but at the time I’d felt the looseness better served us, and it might have for a time, but more structure would have helped us see continual value over time.

Lastly, dealing with people leaving the group – some people had grown out of the need for the value we all got from each other, and ‘left’, but it was rarely official – they’d just quit showing up on the calls.  No major harm in that, but without official ‘goodbyes’, we weren’t always sure of the reasons (was it us, was it them?).  A more structure ‘on ramp’ and ‘off ramp’ process would reduce or eliminate that confusion.

Have you been in a group like this?

What was your experience like?

I’m going to talk more about some other network-building steps I’ve taken over the years, but would love to hear yours.

Insurance considerations

November 16, 2012 in Business

If you’re freelancing, chances are thoughts of insurance has come up at one point or another.  Actually, “insurance” is a broad topic, and I’ll discuss a bit here on multiple types

Life Insurance

Life insurance is an insurance most young people don’t think about much – and generally with good reason – you’re not considering death yet.  :)  And less morbidly, you likely don’t have any dependents yet.  If you did die, no one is counting on your money/income for anything, so life insurance doesn’t get though of much.

At some point many people start a family and gain dependents, and life insurance is suddenly important.  The standard “rule of thumb” is to have 8-10x your annual income in a life insurance policy – the idea being that your dependents could live off small portions of the life insurance proceeds for X years ebfore being able to earn for themselves.  Your own situation may dictate a higher or lower multiple of annual income.  I don’t follow the 8-10x rule directly, but do have an $800k policy on myself, payable to my wife in case I die – it was a 20 year term policy purchased a few years ago.

Disability insurance

Something I *don’t* have, but have considered on more than one occasion.  Essentially this would serve as short term income replacement in the event of an accident or event that leaves you unable to work.  You can get significant discounts on these policies if you choose to delay a claim.  For instance, if you’ve got, say, 6 months of living expenses in the bank, choosing a policy that wouldn’t let you collect insurance payments until 90 days after the incident, you’ll get a substantial discount over a policy that pays out immediately.

Health Insurance

This is the one that really irritates me the most, and I think is the biggest impediment to more entrepreneurial activity in the US (one of the few industrialized countries to not offer access to basic health care to all citizens free of charge).  Employer-provided health-care in general is a big impediment to people going and working for themselves.

I migrated my family to a self-purchased high-deducitlble policy a few years ago, and my monthly cost is now less than the portion that was being deducted from my check when I worked as a W2 employee several years ago.  Everyone’s situation is different, but I would encourage you to look at high-deductible policy options.

The good news is that in the US, high-deductible insurance policies are still affordable.  The bad news is that due to upcoming changes (Obamacare) some high-deductible policies may be going away or modified, ultimately being more expensive.

What does a ‘high-deductible’ policy mean in practice?  In my case, we pay the first $5000 in health care costs directly out of our own pocket.  The next $15000 or so in expenses is split with my insurance company, so we pay just a portion.  Above that, the insurance company covers everything else.  Since most people spend < $5k per year, we’re essentially a low risk, and get a good deal on the insurance product for the remaining needs.  This may also be considered a “catastrophic” policy.

“But, I don’t have $5000 laying around in case I get sick!”  Good point, but ultimately not much of an issue.  We had an emergency room visit about 22 months ago – January 2011.  We did not even get a bill until early April, and the bill had info on how to set up a payment plan.  All the bills together were something on the order of $3k, and the health care provider is offering to finance the balance over time.  The “I don’t have $5000!” argument against high-deductible policies rings somewhat hollow to me when some of the people I’ve heard this from still happily finance a $25k car without batting an eye.

Business Insurance

Having general business insurance – something that will cover loss/damage to some of your equipment – is probably a good thing to have.  I travel around with my laptop enough that having it insured (along with my monitors, mics, etc) gives me a bit of piece of mind.  If you have premises, you may be required to have business insurance as well.  When hosting my conference, I’m required to have a $1million policy covering the convention center against any accidents/deaths/etc.

Liability (Errors and Omissions) Insurance

I’ve also recently made the jump to have E&O insurance.  I don’t have a massive policy, but given the size and scope of the data I’m dealing with, making a mistake and causing real economic damage to a client is a distinct possibility.  As much as I don’t like to think about it, it might happen, and having insurance to help cover myself against problems I might cause accidentally gives me a lot of piece of mind.  A $250k liability policy was ~$450/year, IIRC.

Are there other types of insurance that I’m missing?  What does your insurance situation look like?

Benefits of specialization

November 14, 2012 in Business, Freelancing

I recently gave a talk about freelancing, and touched on this idea about presenting yourself as a generalist or a specialist.  I’m going to try to explore the benefits of having a market position as a specialist in a few areas.

Disclosure here – I’m not even sure where I classify myself on the spectrum between “generalist” and “specialist”.  In some cases, I’m a specialist, whether in Grails, or PHP, or web security, or performance tuning, or what have you.  But in other cases I’m just “the web guy”.  Much of this is likely in the eye of the beholder, and various clients have different levels both of technical savvy and needs for technical savvy.

Specialist – are you a specialist in something?  Even in something as seemingly general (to some people) as “web development”, the truth is that we’re all specialists in a few skills – PHP, WordPress, Rails, C#, Java, CSS, JavaScript, SQL, Photoshop, etc.  There’s myriad skills we need to have to get projects done, and we’re not experts at all of them, but we probably all know people who are experts in some of them.

Specialists can command a higher price, and (in my experience) have an easier time of being found for work (although not necessarily *finding* work on their own – I’ll try to touch on this later).  My own experiences are that people find *me* when they’re looking for a ‘senior PHP developer’ or “Grails developer with PHP experience”, or something similar.  People never find me when googling for “web developer”, even though that’s how many of my clients have viewed me.

When people identify a specific problem, they’re going to look for specific terms, and that’s when positioning yourself as a specialist can help.  If someone determined they needed a full-text search system for their project, they might look for “search developer” or something like that.  They won’t find me, but if they’ve done more work and decided they want Solr, in my area, searching for ‘solr developer raleigh’ will usually bring me up on the first page.  I’ve had multiple types of project offers find me because of extreme specificity I have in my resume and more importantly on other parts of my website.

Specialization isn’t useful just for helping people find you in search results, although that’s certainly a benefit.  Once people find you, they will often associate a higher-level of expertise with your specialization (which, while usually warranted, isn’t always the case).  That association in their mind makes landing a project that much easier to do for you, the specialist – you’re the expert!  You can solve their problem!  And along the way, you can charge more money!  Why?

They’ve identified a problem.  You need to get them to explain the problem (project) to you. Along the way, you will be let in to more details about the project than you would otherwise get if you were being brought in as a generalist ‘pair of hands’ worker.  You will be able to determine the value of the project to them, and price accordingly.  While you may not feel comfortable with ‘value based pricing’, or flat-rate or project-based pricing, you will undoubtedly have a stronger idea of the value of the project to them.  Even if you fall to standard hourly “time for money” pricing, you should not be afraid to price according to the value you’re going to provide.

Somewhat extreme example – if my “standard” rate was $40/hour, but I knew that a 200 hour project ($8000 by my watch) would be saving the company $90k in labor over the next year (faster turnaround time, fewer returns/mistakes, reduced support labor), would you still only be charging you “standard” rate of $40/hour?

Some of you undoubtedly would, and I would submit to you this is probably not good business.  ’But that’s extortion’ or ‘that’s unethical’ are common reactions I get to this tactic; hint, I don’t think it is.  We may have to agree to disagree on this point, but it’s a fairly common tactic.  You may think of this another way – just have higher rates all the time, and agree to ‘drop’ them on projects as a favor to people for interesting projects that might help you expand your expertise in other areas.  But the net effect is the same – companies that can extract large amounts of value from your work can afford to be paying more to you, and you should price accordingly.

I may be  oversimplifying the process here (well, I am, I know), but the principal is pretty basic.  Charge for the value that you provide to clients/projects; positioning yourself as a specialist in particular areas will help solidify that position in a client’s mind that you are the primary (only?) solution provider for their problem.

Version control and the single developer

November 14, 2012 in Technology

I routinely chat with solo developers, and eventually we talk shop, and the subject of version control comes up (OK… sometimes I bring it up!).  I’ve noticed a trend in the past couple years of solo developers more and more not using any sort of version control, and something about that bothers me, although I can’t quite put my finger on it.  It may be because the majority of people I know not using it have never tried it in the first place, and are missing out on a lot of benefits based on myths or misconceptions.

Common justifications I’ve heard include “Well… I’m just a single developer, I don’t need it” and “I already have backups running”.  This demonstrates a real lack of what benefits version control offers, so I thought I’d share a few of my own reasons why I use version control.

Branching

Branching allows me to develop different sets of code on the same computer without fear of losing or overwriting code that I’m not sure I may need to keep or change.

Specifically with git, this is extremely fast and easy to do.  The idea of branching is to create a parallel code tree forked/branched from a specific point in your main codebase, and work on it without disturbing any of the code in the main codebase (or.. the main ‘branch’ if you will).

Subversion offers a type of branching, but if I remember correctly, it essentially involves making copies of all existing files.  When branching in subversion on large projects, this can sometimes take several seconds or even minutes (2006/2007 I recall some large projects taking > 3 minutes to branch on the hardware I had).  This can severely interrupt your flow when working, and once you experience branching in git (or similar functionality in other distributed version control tools like mercurial) you’ll wonder how you ever survived with subversion.

Visual progress / transparency

Most of my clients aren’t technically savvy enough to read code, but they can still watch progress in my version control repository – they can read commits and see what problems I’m working on, even when what I’m working on isn’t visual or front-end related.  I don’t use this in place of issue tracking or written and verbal status updates, but it’s another data point they can look at to validate I am in fact working, even when it’s not apparent.  Additionally, they can have someone else look at the code and changes to verify I’m actually doing what I say I’m doing and doing it properly.  Have I ever had anyone do this?  I don’t think so – my clients tend to trust me (and vice-versa) but the option is there – there’s no secrets as to what/how I’m doing on the project.

Collaboration

Even though 95% of the dev work I do is on my own, by having everything already in a version control system, getting assistance from others is that much easier because they can grab the repo code and dive in.  ”yes, but you can just send your code to them”.  I can, but they can’t see my progress or history to know what I’ve tried and not tried.  When they want to send back a fix for me, they can branch and push a separate branch for me to review and test before merging in with my other code.  It’s far cleaner and faster than emailng around source files and diff patches.

If you’re using version control as a solo developer, what do you use and why?  If not, why aren’t you using version control?  Does it seem too cumbersome?  A waste of time?

What is freelancepath?

November 8, 2012 in General

freelancepath is an effort to combine useful content  with a community of freelancers, self-employed and creative workers interested in learning, growing and doing more with their business.

I’ve run the indieconf conference for independent web professionals for a number of years now, and the biggest problem we face is losing a sense of community that we share at the conference and immediately afterwards.  With the right input, freelancepath can be that bridge that takes us from one indieconf to the next, but also so much more as we grow together.

So, please, join in the fledgling community, and let me know when and where we can improve things for you!  I can be reached at michael@freelancepath.com or +1.919.827.4274 just about any time.