Going freelance as an Episerver developer – some advice and a year in review
It’s been a year since I started my company, Creating. It’s been a great ride so far. There’s been a bump or two. But hey, the interesting passages of a journey are those that go bump. Right?
This blog post is for anyone interested in going freelance, starting their own business or simply curious about what it’s like being your own boss.
Taking the plunge
I had great colleagues, good workplace and a very fair salary. You could say I was perfectly fine with my work situation before the plunge.
Stepping off that ledge was a decision made together with my wife on our honeymoon while travelling through the United States. We were four months pregnant after years of IVF treatments, barrelling through Death Valley in a blue Ford Mustang, when I told her I was quitting my job to go into business of my own.
With a baby on the way our financial situation was already about to take a sharp left to financially strained town. I had threatened with quitting several times before. She had gotten used to it – callous, you could say. But this time I did it. I quit my job. Fast forward five months and I – with impeccable timing – was without a steady income just as our son, Ben, came into this world. The most scary – and most happy – day of my life.
There was never going to be a perfect time for the plunge. At least that’s how I justified pulling that ejection lever and thrusting my job out of my family’s life equation. Would I do it differently today? Probably not. But I’ll admit it was hard pushing 60 hour work weeks while sleeping at most 3-4 hours per night.
Taking your current situation into consideration almost goes without saying. But there’s never going to be a perfect time. There’ll be better or worse times. My timing was arguably slightly off to the worse scale.
But the comfort zone is awesome!
Who leaves a steady income? Workplace and colleagues they’re quite happy with?
I believe it’s different for all of us. Some do it for freedom, some do it for money – hell, I think some do it for fame. Personally I’m scared to death to end up with a “what if?” when it’s much too late.
The place where the magic happens can also be a fiery pit where you scream and die. Just a word of caution.
As a consultant I felt strangely detached from the business. Detached from the business of the consultancy firm that employed me but also from the business of the client. Don’t get me wrong; I do my utmost as a developer and employee. The craftsmanship and the value I produce is something I love and take great pride in. But as a developer I also desired a deeper and more profound understanding of the business part of the equation. For example why margins matter without being reduced to a column in a manager’s spreadsheet. It might be possible to glean this from a stack of business books. Or acquire the know-how by getting a manager’s role at a large consultancy firm. I learn best by doing with the safety off. And that’s to step out of the comfort zone and jump into the deep end of the shark tank.
Every decision matters in the shark tank. Losing a client when working for a large consultancy firm is going to sting. There’ll be disappointment. Maybe a meeting. At the wrong company there could be yelling. Lose an important client as a freelancer and you might end up as fish food. But that’s also what makes it so much fun!
As a rule of thumb you should have enough on your savings account when you go into business of your own to last at least six months without salary. It’ll be your can of shark repellent.
The first client
It’s great fun to invest time and effort into your company website. Or obsess about the perfect logo that’s going to accompany your business card. Perhaps even spruce up your LinkedIn-profile. However; the number one factor for getting that first client will be your contacts. Previous clients you’ve had engagements with. People you’ve spoken to at a conference or meetup. Your friends and neighbors.
That brings us to your name. It’s everything in our line of business. Don’t be complacent with what you produce. Avoid putting your name on a product, service or solution that’s not up to par with your standards. Fight tooth and nail to sleep easy at night knowing you did your best. This is not an easy thing when a manager is breathing down your neck about those early estimates (but they’re estimates!) Shipping something that’s sub-standard will certainly come back to haunt you. People talk. And word travels fast – for both good and bad.
The point being is that you lay the groundwork today for the business you start tomorrow. You don’t get to start with a clean slate. The relationships you create and nurture today will be essential when going into business of your own.
My first client was my previous employer who was kind enough to allow me to stay on as a consultant for a period of transition. Out of the blue the CEO of a company I’ve had previous engagements with called me up. The third client was an app company that had heard that I was great at Windows Phone development and wanted some help. All of them were by word of mouth that I was going into business of my own.
Since then all my clients have been due to referrals.
I don’t want to come across as high and mighty. I’ve made my fair share of mistakes and relationship snafus. It’s first after I started my own business I’ve come to realize how much the You Brand matters. Everything is twenty-twenty hindsight.
What is that you do, exactly?
Try to be super-clear with what you do. I made the mistake of being much too general. I’m deeply passionate about app and web development, architecture, cloud computing (Azure!), design, Episerver, mobility and so forth. Which made me think I should do everything. There was also the fear that if I was too specific then there would be no business to be had. As it turns out it’s quite the opposite.
I thought long and hard how I would present my company – Creating – in a single sentence that encapsulates everything that I was passionate about. After countless hours of frustration, googling, balled-up notes in the bin I found the holy Graal. Spread proudly across the start page of the company website was the amazing one-liner, “Solutions for a mobile-first and cloud-first world.”
Which to me sounded great! Now I could do all those fantastic projects I’d dreamed about. Or at least so I thought. Pitching “Solutions for a mobile-first and cloud-first world” was – if I was lucky – followed by “Okay, cool. So… what is that you do, exactly?” Or by a set of glazed over eyes and a detour leading away from the topic of my business. Damn.
You should be very specific about what you do. Especially if you’re a freelancing consultant. You should have a core competence which you excel at and can build your business on top of. That way it’s much easier to explain for potential clients what you do. You’re not the Swiss Army knife of a multi-national consultancy firm and neither is it something you should aspire to be.
To be honest I still like the company name Creating. Not because it communicates expert Episerver, .NET and web development competence, but because it tells a story. As a developer I don’t believe I’m reduced to a human resource that bangs away at a keyboard until there’s working software at the other end. Instead at the very heart of what we do – as developers – is to create. It’s in the twilight between art and engineering. And I wanted to be an active name. Not Create or Creative. But Creating. A verb that – to me, at least – represents what fuels and drives us as developers at the very core.
But Daniel Berg Episerver Expert Services AB would probably generate more leads.
Get comfortable talking about money
Inevitably you’re going to get into the discussion about money with a potential or existing client. Get comfortable with it. I hated it. I’m deeply in love with what I do and occasionally I think I should do it for free. Which makes me very self-conscious when it comes to charging for my work. But you know who isn’t uncomfortable about talking about money? Your hairdresser. Your dentist. Your mechanic. Why should you be? What you do could literally be the difference between a company filing for bankruptcy or being the new all-star e-commerce business.
The client is probably going to talk you down from the initial rate you ask for since you don’t have the same overhead costs that a consultancy firm has (go team middle management!) But that doesn’t matter. Your hourly rates represent your worth. Never back down. Instead try to reduce the scope of the contract and thus the required number of hours. If you can’t reach an agreement you should ultimately – and respectfully – decline. Recovering from low rates will be difficult at best.
If you’re currently working as a consultant then check with your manager what your hourly rates are. That’s a good indicator what you’ll be able to charge should you decide to elope.
So, what’s next?
Glad you asked, large title with a mind of its own! I’m going on parental leave April 1st. Which will leave me lots of time to watch all those curated Pluralsight-playlists and do amazing code. Because that’s something benevolent Ben the Destructor of the Gozerians will surely let me do.
Aside trying optimize diaper change algorithms for a couple of months I will inevitably return to ordinary life and the work that follows. This leads me to what’s next: more often than I’d like I have to decline an assignment. The follow-up question is almost exclusively: “Do you know any other Episerver freelancer that might be interested?” And I have to tell them “no.” Simply because I don’t know anyone else in my neck of the woods that flies solo as an Episerver expert.
So once I’m back at 1.21 gigawatts in August I hope to create and be a part of a larger team or network of Episerver experts who rock the Episerver scene in the Helsingborg / Malmö area. If you fit that bill or have thoughts about going freelance drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org, add me on LinkedIn or Skype. Let’s do great things together.
Before you go I’ll leave you with some practical bits. These are the tools I’ve used (and use.) Some of these resources are specifically for Swedes and our endless love for bureaucracy.
Services and tools
If you’re going solo as an Episerver-developer you might want to look into becoming an associated partner. Without being a partner it’ll be difficult to generate licenses (sell licenses!) It’ll also be a great way to promote your business.
If you’re accepted into the BizSpark program then for the first three years all Microsoft’s software is free. That’s right. Free. You also get a pile of Azure resources which you get to play around with. Again, for free.
I use Google for Business for e-mail and calendar. Virtually all platforms support it: Windows, iOS, Android, etc. Moving between devices and platforms is a breeze. Highly recommend it. It’s about €4 / month.
By far the easiest service for cloud storage. Supports most platforms. 1TB of cloud storage will cost you €99 / year.
Stay on top of your game with Pluralsight. Online training with the best. Annual fee is $299. There’s also a monthly plan which will land you at $29 per month.
Register domains and host your company website (Azure is great, too!) For a company it’s 219 SEK / month.
Business (Swedes only)
Verksamt is a great online service which takes you through the process of registering your service.
We all love Skatteverket, right? To be honest their online services are quite excellent.
Driva-eget has a’lot of information and tools about running your business that will help you on your way.
You and your business both need insurance. I have both the business insurance and the healthcare insurance (which the company pays) with Trygg Hansa.
You’ll need a bank account (and bankgiro) for your company. I use Handelsbanken, but haven’t really compared the different banks. Works fair enough. Their företagspaket lands you at 1250 SEK / year. But sometimes there’s a campaign where you get the rest of the year for free.
I used this online online invoicing and accounting service for my first year. It’s super-simple, got a nice interface and works quite well. Swedes should take note that it only supports kontantmetoden which I didn’t realize until quite late and cost me a fair sum of money to rectify with by my accountant. If you can afford it – and unlike me isn’t interested in those bits – then get help with the accounting from the get-go.
For the first year I did my own accounting. Primarily because I wanted to learn the ticks and tocks. Sending your first invoice is also quite the special thing. But now after a year I’ve settled on using an accountant for help. It saves me both time and money. They know which deductions make sense and can help keep the Skatteverk off your back. I use Baker Tilly which so far have been great. They have local offices in most Swedish cities.
When you need that something to help you get pushed outside your comfort zone. Some may be a bit cheesy.
A great presentation by a world championship skateboarder – and genius – on the topic of innovation.
Whether you love Apple or not nobody can deny the Steve Jobs as one of the greatest minds and entrepreneurs of our time.
Fantastic short-read about how a creative field – the book is about design but can just as well be applied to programming – is a job just as well.
Great talks from and about some of the best entrepeneurial minds in Sweden.
Short and sweet summary of what really matters packaged in beautiful design.
- There’s never going to be a perfect time to fly solo. But there’ll be less good times.
- Save up enough to last at least six months without salary.
- Create, grow and nurture your network of contacts and potential clients today.
- Your name matters. You don’t get to start with a clean slate.
- Be clear with what you do to stand out in the IT-crowd.
- Use the valuable resources out there; Episerver, Microsoft, etc.
- Contact me if you’re an Episerver freelancer – or considering it – in the Helsingborg / Malmö area.
If you got any other tips or suggestions just leave a comment and I’ll try to add it to the post.
As always, thanks for reading. And best of luck should you decide to rock it on your own!