More Lessons in Freelancing

So, I’ve been freelancing now for 9 months. I did a post a while back about what was working and what wasn’t, and I still stand by those recommendations. But that was over 6 months ago. Since then a lot of things have happened. I’m happy to report that, so far, things are going great. My clients are happy, I’m happy, and I’m taking to the business end of things pretty well.

However, I’m learning more about the business, and myself, so I thought I’d share s’more thoughts on my freelancing experience to help those in the same boat, or who are thinking of making the leap:

You only *think* you’re organized

I thought I was pretty organized before I became a freelancer. I was always punctual, never missed appointments or meetings, didn’t miss deadlines — I was on top of things. I’m still doing all of that, but I’m finding that I have to organize things very differently from when I was a 9-to-5 employee.

This might not apply to you. You might already organize things in a way that would be easy to apply to a freelancing schedule. It wasn’t that way for me. I typically used to think of my life in terms of projects. I had projects I was working on, usually more than one at a time. Every week, I had a meeting with my boss to go over the status of the projects, if I had hit any roadblocks, etc. In retrospect, it was pretty nice.

Nowadays, I still have projects, but they all belong to different clients, and all of the clients need their own status, and they all have different personalities, different lingo, different businesses, and different priorities. Some client projects are heavily focused on a completion date. Others are heavily focused on a feature set. Still others are focused on a budget number. I have to interact with them all separately, and I have to think about how to present the status to each one to meet their expectations. So, I actually budget time to think about these things.

What’s more, since I do all of my work remotely on an hourly basis, if a client has to complete a task so that I can move forward, and it takes them three days, I may well have nothing I can work on and get paid for for that period of time. With some clients, this isn’t a very big deal: I offer them a discounted rate if they prepay for “bulk hours”, so they get a cheaper rate, and I’m not out of luck if there are delays. I also try to work in other smaller projects and do business development work for my company during these times.

So, the lesson is not to bother trying to come up with crazy Gantt charts and precise time lines. Your clients’ businesses don’t work that way, so yours will need to be flexible as well.

Nowadays I create more loosely defined, high-level project definitions with less detailed tasks and time lines. I still don’t lose sight of what needs to be done, and I’m still able to meet my clients’ needs.

I’m more paranoid than I thought

I’ve grown used to people asking me “How’s business?” I used to hate that question, because I didn’t really have a metric to go by that I thought was sufficient. Now I have several metrics, but I feel like I need to evaluate where I am with respect to those metrics almost daily. I guess it’s part of being a young business.

When you’re fully employed, “business”, to some degree, is always good, because you’re always employed, and always have a paycheck coming in. My stepfather worked for Exxon during the Valdez oil spill. Business for Exxon was horrible. But my stepfather’s job (i.e. “business”) was relatively unaffected.

My business has two services: consulting and training. I try to maintain training appointments for at least the next three months, and consulting projects for the next 4-5 months. If I look at my calendar and see lots of empty spots any time in the next three months, I have work to do. This methodology works for me, and makes me less stressed out than the method I used to use.

I used to just say “if at any time I have less than 6 months of expenses in the bank, I have work to do”, but looking at dollar figures every day is stressful, and I think in terms of the business it’s kinda like taking your eye off the ball. The ball isn’t money — the ball is your client list. Much like the ball brings with it the potential for a base hit or home run, your client list has the potential to pay your bills and grow your business.

More to Come

I can get a little long-winded, so I’ll stop here for now. I’m interested in your input, whether you’re a freelancer, or considering becoming one. Share your thoughts!

Totally Hooked: ‘Things’ for Mac

First, I want to point out the only thing I hate about this application: the name. It’s bad for me, it’s bad for the developers… it’s just bad. If I ever had a problem, how am I supposed to do a search for that? If the developers want to find blog posts like this one, how are they supposed to do that?

Aside from the name, Things for Mac really, truly shines. I’ve tried lots and lots and lots of task managers, project managers, life managers, blah, blah, blah. I’ve probably tried 15 of them, and really tried hard to like them, but I just couldn’t. Some are too rigid and structured, while others are completely lacking any structure whatsoever. Some have a learning curve that forces you to make time to sit down and learn them. Others take pains to pay special attention to every aspect of your life (a model doomed to failure). I don’t want to mention all of the ones I’ve tried, because they’re not bad products and don’t deserve bad press. Mostly, they all worked well — they just were not right for me.

Things, on the other hand, I like. It’s just the right balance of features, structure, and ease-of-use. After watching the screencast introduction, I was off and running, and haven’t looked back. I wrote a short poem (a la Dr. Seuss) about my experience:

I do not like them on my Dock,
I do not like them in Firefox.
I do not like them in my car,
I do not like them near or far!
I do not like most “task”ish apps,
but I find I like this “Things” for Mac!

Ok, it’s totally corny. On to what I like about it.

On the Desktop

I actually didn’t expect to like the idea of a desktop application. Of the 15 other tools I’ve tried, only one or two others had a desktop app, and those two apps were opposite ends of the spectrum: one required a PhD to use, and the other was more like a free-form note pad. Things is neither. If you’re in a rush and just want to make sure you don’t forget a task, you can click on ‘Inbox’, type in as many or as few task details as you want, and be done with it. Later, you can drag the task into a project, or add scheduling information, make it repeat, etc.

Even better, it has a keyboard shortcut that’s settable, so if the app is running somewhere, you can just use that to do a “Quick Entry” without leaving the app you’re currently using. Very handy.

Though Things is not project management software, you can create “Areas of Responsibility”, and then have projects inside of those areas. This is perfect for me. I have areas of responsibility like “Home”, “Work”, and “Blog”, and inside the “Home” area I have all of my home improvement projects. My “Work” area contains a list of projects, which themselves contain high-level tasks (I leave the detailed stuff to actual project management software), and also projects which are related to business development, which I don’t use project management software for. The “Blog” area is a perfect place to jot down ideas for blog posts that I can go back to later and check off when they’re completed.

You don’t have to worry too much about being reminded about upcoming due dates, assuming you set due dates (which you don’t have to do). When due dates are approaching, Things will move the tasks into the “Today” queue, so if you have some down time during the day and aren’t sure what to tackle next, click “Today”, and start on something! I find that there’s almost always something in that queue that I have time to do before I need to (or am able to) get back to what I was doing. That, alone, is worth the $50 I paid for Things.

On the Go!

I’m not sure I would be so into Things if it weren’t for the accompanying iPhone app, which pretty much rocks. I guess if that didn’t exist, they would’ve considered having a companion web interface or something, but really, given the choice, I’d rather have it be mobile than solely on the web (though I’d like to see Things work on non-Apple mobile devices too).

One of the really awesome things about the iPhone app is that it syncs over the air to the desktop app. Of course, both have to be running, and they need to be on the same network, but my desktop app is *always* open, and I have yet to be inconvenienced by anything related to the sync functionality. Some folks have requested mac-to-mac sync capability, which isn’t currently there, but I don’t need it, so it’s not an issue for me.

While the iPhone app is missing some features of the desktop application, 90% of what’s in the desktop app is doable from the iPhone. The only notable exception for me personally was an apparent inability to create new areas of responsibility. Indeed, this is the one place where the interface is a little inconsistent. While clicking “Inbox” or “Today” will bring you to a list of tasks and projects, they chose to list projects and areas of responsibility in the sidebar for easy perusal and drill-down capabilities. It works well in the desktop app, but it’d be nice to make “areas” a queue on the iPhone, just like “Projects” is.

A Compeling Duo

In the end, Things has two things going for it: First, it has the nicest, easiest to use interface. Second, it has the ability to sync over the air with my iPhone, which also has a nice interface. In the old days, you might leave your bulky planner at your desk and carry around a note pad, and this mimicks that kind of experience, but takes away the need to sync them up later by hand.

It’s simple, but not too simple. Structured, but not too structured. I’ve been using it for a little over 2 weeks now, and have no plans to change. I know this sounds like an ad, so I should also say that I’m not being paid for this and don’t work for the company that makes it. I do recommend you check it out, though, if you’re in the market for something to help manage your time.

‘Beginning Linux Administration’, Now With Open Enrollment

So, my training business is doing better than expected, which is good news in a tough economy.

I’ve gotten some feedback from readers about my mention of training services offered through my company. My company has historically only performed training at client sites, and some folks had hoped I would expand into offering “open enrollment” courses at some point. Of course, they’d like it if I did that all over the country, but I’m only one guy (for the moment).

What I *have* done is I’ve set up an open enrollment course not too far from where I live. If you’re anywhere near Edison, NJ and need a beginner’s course in Linux administration (not *using* Linux — *administering* Linux), then you can either contact me directly to see how to reserve your spot for either the August 3-7 or October 5-9 course, or you can wait for the online order link to appear on this page.

Why Open Enrollment?

There are two main reasons people wanted an open enrollment course, and I’m trying to respond to those people who gave me this feedback by offering this course. The two main reasons are:

  1. It’s cost prohibitive to do on-site training unless you have ~5 or more people.
  2. Some companies don’t have space or equipment to host on-site training.

If you only have three people to train, on-site training is probably going to cost more than sending your people off to a training center. However, I would still suggest on-site training for the following reasons:

First, if you only have three people to train, chances are it’s going to be painful to have them out of the office all at once for an entire 5-day training course.

Second, if your company is somewhere between Philadelphia and New York City (commuting distance from Princeton, NJ), local companies get a discount to bring the cost of on-site training down.

As for the problem of not having training space, that can be harder to overcome, no matter how many people need training. If your company needs training outside the NY/NJ/PA area, and doesn’t have space to do it on-site, let me know. I have a growing collection of companies in this situation. At some point, I can group the students into a training course and try to find lab space to hold the course in your town.