Last Saturday the fourth edition of daycamp 4 developers took place. This time’s topic was all about freelancing, entrepreneurship and taking care of your career-life-balance. Next to some familiar speakers there were also experts from other fields completing the line-up. This blogposts is a summary of the things I’ve learned during this conference, I’ve mixed them up with my own experiences and opinion, of which this blogpost is a result.
Time and Money
Lorna Jane Mitchell kicked off the event with her talk on time tracking, planning, estimating and invoicing.
Time tracking is essential for you and your customers. As a freelancer you’re often paid per hour. Therefor you should have a good time tracking system to be able to invoice all the time you’ve spent on the project. (Of course you can also negotiate to be paid per day, or even get a fixed price for a project. Especially the latter one pushes the risk to your side, so most developers like to be paid per hour). Lorna Jane uses Harvest for time tracking. Personally I also have good experiences with Kimai.
One of the first important statements was that not everything is billable (e.g. training, conferences, work that goes into your own venture, corresponding, marketing, blogging etc.)! If 5 to 6 hours per day (based on an 8-hour day) are billable, that’s a lot! Therefor you should carefully decide your rates, write them down, and really stick to them. There’s no use working underpaid. This also affects your image and might influence next project offers. There will probably allways be someone willing to work for less per hour, accept that and focus on your own business.
When you have your rates and your sight is o none or more projects, you should do some proposals / pitches (selling yourself, your solutions and/or ideas). Be sure to outline what you will provide, the details of the project and the benefits and the costs and benefits of it. Your story is very important for acquiring a project even though you might not be the cheapest developer. Real companies prefer quality over money.
If all goes well a contract is set up. Be sure to check the conditions (more on that later in Tara Aaron’s talk) and be sure to agree on: a payment method (how are you going to be paid?), the invoice date, frequency (weekly basis? monthly basis? Other frequencies..), payment terms and a last important one: the valuta. Is your invoice in euro? Pounds? Dollars? (Also note the exchange rate if you’re invoicing in a foreign valuta!)
Once you got the project and the contract is signed, the planning starts. This is one of the things I could learn a lot from. First: add deadlines to your calendar. Then block out time for appointments. Now you’re calendar skeleton is set up, you can book your work into the gaps in your calendar, but don’t overschedule! Once the schedule is filled, you can ask yourself: when can I deliver X? Can I also take on Y. Again: don’t overschedule. If you don’t have spare time as a freelancer, you’re doing something wrong.
Regarding invoicing and taxes, it’s important to track information ongoingly. Not only your time, but also all tax-related stuff. As we are developers, Financial and tax-related stuff is often not one of our strongest points, so you might want to consider asking an accountant to handle this for you. He or she also often knows about particular regulations of which your company can benefit.
So you want to be self-employed?
The second talk about being self-employed was given by Jacques Woodcock. His keys to making it great:
- Go through shit
- Working for a company provides you great experience. The better the company, the better it will be for you
- Build skills
- Build a network
- Know your services
I’ve also learned a term that wasn’t explained to me before: moonlighter. A moonlighter is someone who works for x hours after work.
When you’re starting your own company / freelancing career, you should consider your service offerings. Some questions that you should answer include:
- What do you offer?
- What do your competitors offer? Can you do all of it?
- Will you be hunting for everything or for a niche?
- Will you need contractors?
Basically there is a decision to be made regarding your service model and based on that you identify your competitors. If you want to do it all, your competitors will be agencies. Most often these companies will be larger than you. This, however does not mean that you don’t stand a chance. As a startup / freelancer you should fully utilize your agility and flexibility to your advantage. You can switch between markets / projects / resources quicker when you’re on your own.
Of course you can also supply a niche market. This allows you to work for companies as well as agency, hence increasing your potential customers and network.
Next to the service model, you need to decide what exactly you want to offer. Offering a service means direct revenu, but you got to keep working. However, there’s no need for money in the bank to start, but you need work.
If you choose to provide Software as a Service, you first have to invest and revenue comes later (if revenue will come..). But when you’re done your (basically) done and caching. Without further work (theoretically..). However, as you need to develop the software first, there’s a need for 6 or more months of money in the bank to ensure your life upkeep.
The consensus about entrepreneurship: As an entrepreneur, you need to be able to identify opportunities and to take chances. You are tied to your company and you need to work harder than when working for an employer. The satisfaction, however, should compensate this.
Planning your business for the long term
Thursday Bram’s talk on business plans and the execution of them starts where the story of Jacques Woodcock ends: so you’ve decided you want to be self-employed. Now what?
Now you’ve got a lot to think about. Therefor you need a business plan. Your busines plan is the roadmap to succes. Typically this plan has a span of only 3 to 5 years. It outlines the route to take to reach, maintain and grow revenues. Many people are scared of the idea of writing a business plan, but Thursday emphasised that the outline can be very simple (bullet points, a checklist etc.)
A business is an investment. You have to pay your bills, you have to pay yourself, you have to pay other stuff like hardware, software, conferences etc. The most important point of this presentation, at least to my opinion, is to always start with the numbers. You have the need for a full-time income, while the bills and other stuff must also be paid. All these numbers should be taken into account when deciding on your rates. The freelancing attendees’ rates were ranging between 55 and 85 euro per hour.
Please note: The numbers you calculate based on the information above are for now. They don’t allow for growth. You have to assume that you will need more in the future!
Put it in writing
Tara Aaron, a total non-technical speaker. On a developers conference. Awesome!
Something which a lot of developers are concerned about is Intellectual Property, how to protect it and when it is transferred. This is something you have to pay attention to when composing the contract. Details of the contract should contain:
- The payment
- The duration and termination of the project
- A project plan and/or statement of work
- Intellectual Property language
When selling your software, you are selling your source code, as well as your Intellectual Property unless stated otherwise (and agreed upon by both parties of course). To retain your code and Intellectual Property, licensing might be a better option.
As the American legal system is different from the European (in my case: Dutch) legal system, not all information was useful for me. Especially for Dutch developers, there is the blog of Arnoud Engelfried who has also written a book on legal terms and software. Be sure to check that out!
Is it good for the company?
With the focus on being self-employed, this talk by John Mertic might seem to be given at the wrong conference. However, the practical aspects are also applicable to freelancers accepting a project at a company. For example: an internal project.
For making the project a success, you have to:
- Know the people: Who are the people that make things happen and who are just the ‘talkers’.
- Know the issues: What are the actual problems, rather than annoying artifacts
- Know the history: How did it get this far? Was it developed in-house? Was it consulted?
- Know the process: How do you get things done? Do you need 1 or 20 signatures?
So, how to set up a proposal for improving things (and convincing the people who make the actual ‘yes’ or ‘no’ decision): Look at the metrics. What are the costs now (in terms of both time and money) ? What will the costs be in the future? How does the proposed project improve the organization?
Business people don’t want you to tell a story for an hour. Use PowerPoint, Keynote or any other presentation software to create a presentation for them. They don’t read documents. Presentations force you to summarize and present the main story you want to tell. After all: you have to tell a story to sell your story.
For telling and selling this story, you can use the Narrative Framework:
- What do you do now, what are the pain points in it, and what needs to be done to improve them?
- What you’d like to see happen
- What it takes to get there
Career & Life Management
The last talk was given by the excellent Paul M. Jones and was all about the thin line between work and life (the so-called work-life-balance). Life is not all about work. ‘You need to take care of your shit’. That means: pay off your debts, have 3 to 6, or even better: 9 months of expenses in cash. Think about your insurances (what happens to your wife, kids etc. when you die unexpectedly?). Think about your retirement and possibly about the college of your kids. Take the time out to think about it, settle it, review it from time to time.
The summary of the career management is in an iteration form:
- Always be looking for work
- Choose between jobs. Aim for a job which provides you with more resources (which doesn’t only mean more money..) than you currently have
- Go to 1.
Simple. Short. Clear.
Of course this does not completely map 1:1 to your life and your life style, but the message is clear: progress in your professional career and reflect this in your life. If you’re standing still, you and your close relatives are standing still while others around you progress. Think of L’Oreal: “Because you’re worth it.”.
So, this was Daycamp 4 Developers #4 summarized. It was awesome. A big thank you to Cal Evans for organizing the conference. Looking forward to #5!