So You Think You Can Freelance?

The life of the technical worker has never been better; they have strong salaries, low unemployment, challenging work, and modern black t-shirt benefits like ping pong, stocked kitchens, and flexible working hours. That doesn’t mean it’s perfect though and the media continues to detail the upward freelancing trend in the marketplace predicting 40% of the workforce will be freelancers by 2020. Will we be 100% freelance someday? Of course not and I suspect these stories are overplayed as I would have expected TaskRabbit to be in Minneapolis in 2014, or 2015, 2016, please give me TaskRabbitMPLS in 2017!

I think freelancers are wonderful for tech needs and I use them often for systems, DBA, and IT support work; any area where the level of expertise I need is greater than the skill set of my team or more commonly where resource constraints exist. It gets work done fast, done right if properly managed, and allows us to learn and scale simultaneously.  My past position in corporate IT even drew me to this model with hiring for full-time positions by starting as a contractor for 3-6 months as a test drive for both parties. Hiring is hard and if the super-tech HR systems for talent identification aren’t in place I would much rather do a contract-to-hire then do a straight hire; I think it is fairer to both parties as it allows time to feel each other out.

Okay, Okay. So you think you can freelance in the tech scene? I bet you can! If you are considering a move then here are some considerations for you to bring into your brain-space when you are making the choice.

  1. Why do you want to do this?
  2. What do you do well?
  3. Who do you know?
  4. How do you plan to charge?
  5. Are you a business?

Why do you want to do this?

Tech life has never been better. The marketplace is strong, tech is central to most of the domains out there and the offshore focus from the aughts has withered on the vine for most of us. Techie life for the full-time worker is solid, so how could it get better? For some its roles and responsibilities and career growth at your current employer but perhaps the grind of your workplace has reached a tipping point and you want to go independent, either for the chance of higher earning power or just to do something new and interesting. Whatever the circumstance know your why.

For me it was the opportunity. I had come back from my experiment in the wine-making world and joined my buddies startup to run the tech but our funding was so low I had to compliment my income with some side work. That’s what led to me starting my consulting company and 8 year run as a consultant. My why was opportunity and taking a leap.

What do you do well?

Its so important to know what you do well and what you don’t do well and then how you can market that story in your new venture. Are you an expert in a legacy stack like ColdFusion? Are you a user experience ninja? Product management, MySQL DBA, architect, AWS, training, etc. There is something you do well. I was raised in a project shop that worked on large accounts in e-commerce, CRM, CMS, and custom dev so I was able to consistently touch diverse areas and was always involved in the client meetings because one of my core skills is the ability to speak to the business and tech. When I started consulting I looked for projects where I could help be that bridge and lead the product/project to launch.

Related to this is what you don’t do well or what you don’t want to do. While I’m good at diagnosing the root cause of an issue I don’t support. I prefer spending most of time with the big picture view rather than being heads down all day coding. Most in our field are the opposite, figure out which you are and look for clients, roles, or contracts that fit your style. There is always more demand and flexibility for the heads down roles then there is for leadership roles and it’s a different sales strategy as well.

Who do you know?

So, really, who do you know? Also known as how are you going to find work? I was fortunate that my friend suggested I walk the path I did, he is much more of risk taker than I and saw that the risk was actually low and the need was high out there given my skill set and network. And he was right because a majority of my clients were either past colleagues or former clients! If you don’t think you have the network for that then you should consider focusing on contracting. In my terms, contracting is when you work with a recruiter or placement agency to find you contracts of variable length and compensation. That is how the majority of independents work. It’s a trade-off, outsourcing the client acquisition for a fee to the recruiter. My experience was as a consultant, again in my terms, that was where I found the client and made the sale either on a bid or time and materials basis, no middle person. The client acquisition process for a consultant is long and expensive but the hope is that your investment pays off for both sides via a long-term relationship measured in years and the financial upside is far greater.

A talented freelance coder easily can earn $100 to $200 an hour. –

How do you plan to charge?

If you’re a contractor you will be talking in terms of rate. There are two points of negotiation there, the rate you are paid from the recruiter and the rate they charge the client. Your challenge is to understand the difference and work to know all the data. That delta between the rates is what the house takes and the recruiter may be incentivized to maximize that gap (often the case). Recruiters are well versed is discussing rates and odds are you are not; expect to feel some level of discomfort the first time you explore this area, it’s okay, work through it. One of my first experiences was where a recruiter was trying to pay me $35/hour and at that time I didn’t know rates but I knew it felt really low for my level of self-perceived talents! I ended up passing because it just didn’t feel right, eventually you’ll learn rates. Also, there are shops that are transparent with their practices and will just tack on a flat fee to your expected rate…if I were contracting that is who I’d work with. In Minneapolis that would be a shop like DevJam.

If you are a consultant you have more options. Rate or time and materials is common and I would bill monthly. Over time my rates got quite high and some clients wanted a price break and for them I offered blocks of hours that they could purchase at a reduced rate, this worked because I was prepaid and was willing to take in a bit less for a happier customer and reducing the rate of payment default. Earlier in my career I worked more on a project basis where I would bid on work with written proposals. That is normal for most consulting shops of any size but given my solo focus and lack of interest in growing into a consulting shop I moved away from those. Either way you will have times where you are uncertain if you can charge a certain dollar amount or if you should discount in order to ‘secure’ the work. To that I say good luck, it takes reps and resolve and there isn’t a crystal ball; just know what you are worth.

Are you a business?

You better be! My dad owned a bar and restaurant when I was growing up and Minnesota had Dram Shop rules that made it a bit too easy to bring lawsuits against providers of alcohol.  My father let me know the importance and necessity to separate business assets from personal ones. You won’t be subject to the level of risks as a bar owner but you should still protect yourself and besides its easy. Go to your state’s department of commerce website and register yourself as a LLC. Yes, you can overcomplicate it and go to Delaware like the startup sites will advise but why make it hard. I advocate to keep it all easy; spend the $50 and come up with a basic name that won’t cause embarrassment. I used JD Laboratories because my first two initials where “JD” and I had a chemistry degree in addition to computer science so I thought that made me sound smarter, perhaps, who knows it was way back in 2004!

Next, use a credit card specifically for business expenses, it’s so much easier when you do bookwork. You can also set up a business banking account if you want or use Quicken, Quickbooks, Freshbooks, etc for invoicing and tracking your P&L (Profit and Loss). This can easily be used to fill out our schedule C on a tax return. You could go with a S corp and do a corporate tax return but IMHO its much more a pain then it’s worth unless you have employees and real growth potential…but this is just to be independent!

Good luck with your endeavor. I had 8 years of consulting that were professionally enriching. In the end I went back to the workforce as I was more intrigued with the roles and responsibilities part of the equation that larger orgs offered. But consulting bought me a house and my masters in software engineering, brought 3 startups, offshoring experience, travel and a ton of pride at being self-employed.

The Best Apps to Run a Startup From Your Phone – WSJ

The recent story in the WSJ about the best apps to run a startup from your phone with is certainly a smile-inducing title. If only there was an app for smart hiring that didn’t screen scrap until they get it working (I mean really), business model canvassing, and accurately predicting market trends.

All of these applications and sites are wonderful and they do allow us to be far more efficient which then allows more time to what really matters whether it be a startup or a legacy company. This brought me to consider the apps/sites I most relied on in my past three workplaces: my consulting days at JD Laboratories, my enterprise IT days, and my current small company product days.

JD Laboratories – Time and Materials / Projects

The key here was project tracking, time tracking, and invoicing. I used Quickbooks for my P&L, financial reporting, and invoicing. I used Paymo to track my time and then generate the monthly statements that feed into quickbooks as my T&M clients were billed monthly.

When I worked on a project basis I initially used basecamp from 37Signals as I was a junkie of their blog, into Ruby on Rails, and they had the best offering. However, my clients didn’t like logging into their system which led me to adopt Trello which I have brought with me everywhere since. I trust their are better systems than Trello when doing feature assessments but at the end of the day I always go with simplicity and actual use before graduating to something more specific and complex.

And my long-term client Mix & Burn used FogBugz for issue tracking which was nice because of tie-ins with our IDE although the UX was sluggish at the time.

Enterprise IT

Enterprise IT certainly brought challenges when coming from my own shop and that was actually part of the allure. Small hurdles were not having the credit card initially and firewall rules for external systems. I was able to bring in Trello for my personal project tracking and then used Jira and Confluence with a new technical team I built focused on enterprise integration. Confluence was wonderful for publishing the standards and practices of our restful API’s as our product support teams could easily see them and we could export them for vendors that were integrating our APIs with their vendor systems.

We also used an agile-ish project management tool that was a $1 a seat; it was a short experiment.

SetSight – SaaS

For SetSight the focus has to be on easy as the history has been a bit of a gunslinger mythos with inconsistent processes so we can use something very rigid. So I brought in Trello to do the product backlog and sprint management. Trello has numerous external plugins that offer sprint scoring, estimating, charting, and reports. My favorite is Plus for Trello. For issue management we use TeamSupport and their is some clamoring for Jira. I think Jira is great but from a process perspective we are at the point we were need to get better at what we do and sometimes there is the perception that the tool will fix bad behavior; I say fix bad behavior first.

From a dev perspective we moved to Git from Svn to improve future tie-ins with external build and testing systems. We have yet to do automated testing and continuous deployments since we’ve moved to AWS but are well on our way.

Source: The Best Apps to Run a Startup From Your Phone – WSJ

Startup Weekend Minneapolis / minnedemo

It’s a great week for the Minneapolis tech scene with Startup Weekend Minneapolis and minnedemo both in full swing. Many of the sessions are full but if you can make it out to something you should do so. For Startup Weekend I’ll be attending the open house at Vidku and I’m excited to learn about what they’re working on and seeing their space. I’ll also be at minnedemo like I usually am and excited that my attempts to sell my tech friends on the event is working; I’ll be meeting a big data Target techie as well as my IoT-focused buddy there.

Let’s go Minneapolis!

3D Printing

One of my hobbies is too assess markets and businesses for opportunity and growth. A market that has been hot is 3-D printing. It’s not a new technology and I’m sure there were 60 minute segments on it 20 years ago. But in the past few years it’s made that leap as something available for only for manufacturers to being available for early-adopters in the consumer market.

The printers are now consumer friendly in size, price, and use. I admit, I have not researched or worked with these printers but assessing markets as a hobby doesn’t require me to. The WSJ had an article  about this very thing. So what is the market for 3-D printers? For industry it’s a no brainer, the opportunity for prototyping alone is enough to invest in this technology.

Where else is there potential? When exploring 3-D printer manufacturers there may be something there but we’ve already started to see consolidation of firms in that maturing market. And ask yourself if you like where the consumer inkjet printing market has gone? I for one do not find it compelling and am uninterested in manufacturers.

Where the real opportunity may be is in providing the designs, the directions, the code, to producing whatever widgets people want to have at the moment. One example is folks on my development team who have used their printers to make devices that allow their iPhone to rest on their monitor for stand-ups  when working remotely. The potential to provide designs, or for a design marketplace that’s modeled like Etsy may be a potential area.

They’re are downsides worth mentioning here as well and that’s waste. When these printers reach the consumer market and potential consumer scale what will be done with all these frankenstein experiements? Where will they go? Plastics are already a problem, especially in our oceans. We do have this wonderful young man making a difference there. In the meantime, if you like to tinker and design I think 3-D printing has potential. As far as for me, I’m out.

Has it changed? Business Advice from Best Buy Founder Richard Schulze

A while back my MBA program’s quarterly published an interview with Richard Schulze,  the founder of Best Buy, about general business advice he could share to the alumni and current students. The University of St. Thomas’s Business School is certainly fortunate to have Mr. Schultze generating content for their publication (oh, not to mention the large gifts to the school).

That was in February and obviously a lot has changed in the business community regarding Best Buy with the CEO scandal of Brian Dunn and later resignation of Mr. Schultze as the Chairman. It would be interesting to learn if he would modify his original list of business advice from what he’s learned since the scandal. One potential tip that may benefit from some specific tweaking after the Dunn scandal was the fourth.

#4 – Have a Mentor

This one could also include be sure that key people have good mentors themselves. Not that a mentor would have stopped Brian Dunn’s behavior as one would hope he knew it was inappropriate but perhaps they would have seen the warning signs.

The buzz continues around Mr. Schultze making a play to take Best Buy private and for him to be successful it looks that he’ll be pulling this list out again. I think Best Buy still can have a retail play outside of the growth of Geek Squad and private equity may be the right play for it.

The Future of Mobile Apps for Practicality

My mind has been on the mobile market lately for several reasons. First and foremost, I believe that the web and mobile markets offer the most exciting area of technical growth out there for consumers as well as shapers of the technical marketplace; I realize I’m far from alone in thinking this. Web commerce, web traffic, smart phone market share, mobile app sales keep rising and are trending up for the foreseeable future (I’m grouping tablets like the iPad with mobile). Second, the mobile need is now touching me personally with my latest project that has a mobile phase planned after the initial web release, this excites me to no end. If and when this project gathers steam in the market I see the traditional website ending up as a marketing hub for generating new users and existing users doing views and the mobile market centered on growth of the content that will make or break this project. Lastly, it just keeps slapping me in the face. Yesterday I read this: Reporter’s Notebook: Entrepreneurs Debate Death of Apps – Last week I attended a jamSession on HTML5 with other devjammers which opened up some excellent conversations. And the week before that I took in the two day iPhone and Objective-C training session at The Nerdery to help gather my mobile strategy (thanks for the sessions, they were excellent).

I’ve been a smartphone owner since the Handspring Treo days of 2002 (when my phone was referred to as a gameboy and I was asked if it sent faxes) and I’ve done the normal progression to Windows Mobile, then to a Blackberry before settling in on being an Apple fanboy. Although the design and feel of the Treo isn’t compelling today at the time it was truly breathtaking. Remember these were the days when folks carried their Palm and phones and each were the size of your shoe and guys walked around with the holsters for each device looking like geeky Urkel cowboys. I was immediately captured by the potential for the mobile market and all that a monochrome screen with slow web browsing speeds could offer. Back then I was the lead developer at a local high flying (at least I thought so) web consulting shop and my job description included assessment and exploration of new technologies and soon I’d added WML capabilities to the CMS server. The first site I integrated it with was a client who sells printing systems that swell greater than a room or two and go for $600K and up…because nothing closes a sale on a massive printer like reading marketing content with your mobile phone!

As would say “It’s a new day” and has been for a while when compared to the days of WML. So you have a new application to release to the world, you need the mobile functionality, what do you do?

Here are some options:

  1. You build your website, build out the components into services and then build a mobile app for your target demographic. In 2008 that was the iPhone through the iPhone app store and hiring or learning objective-c. Today though you need to cover the iPad, android phones and tablets, and perhaps a Blackberry app (ack!). But then there is still folks like my buddy who has the Palm Pre and the recent Windows Mobile7 rollout which is coming late to the game but has some major $$backing.

    Pros: Native apps for each device will offer the best performance and experience and you can leverage the full power of the device.

    Cons: Hold on…I’m counting…for sure you have 2 new apps to build and SUPPORT and it could be 6. So the growth of your business is focused on how well your team can ramp and learn wide varying technologies like Java, Obj-C, .Net, and whatever blackberry is written in. I hope you have funding! In addition, you are tracking the release cycles for iPhones, iPads, androids and the support of those features by the manufacturers. I need to ask you a question. Isn’t this why you went to web development in the first place? Remember the days of supporting desktop apps and the customer support issues? I ask, doesn’t this model look familiar?

  2. You use a toolkit. So you build your app in a tool and it will essentially compile what you want into applications for the various platforms. Sounds awesome and you can control the costs.

    Pros: You can budget, you don’t have to track the tech that isn’t core to your business.

    Cons: What if an appstore decides to ban the toolkit (like Apple did last year). Oh, and do you really think this works well for anything other than a marketing app? I truly don’t know but it seems too magical to me and I wouldn’t want to leverage my business to “Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn, and caldron bubble”.

  3. You write HTML5 ports of your site for mobile browsers.

    Pros: You keep your codebase together. Changes are easier to control and release and you have better platform independence (although viewing options will change on the varying devices).

    Cons: Is HTML5 real? Do you code to today or the potential standard or follow the leaders like Apple and Google? Are you HTML5 capable with your dev team? Will you get the deep functionality? How do you take a picture and upload it (seriously, how)?

  4. You use a toolkit that kicks out HTML5. Like a merge of option 2 & 3.

    Pros: Could be the cheapest option and easiest out of the box

    Cons: You are still tied to a toolkit that is now kicking out widgets or something similar.

The choice obviously depends on your product and current situation. Take option 1 (writing your own apps), this strategy has been taken by Evernote to great success. Their model, in my estimation, is to make Evernote ubiquitous by bringing a compelling experience to every platform you use. The more you use the more you drive ad revenue or potentially pay for the product. But then you have to counter with FaceBook and their commitment to HTML5 and preparation to focus less on custom app development. Much like following the lead of Amazon in the early days of commerce, if it works for FaceBook it should work for you. (By the way FaceBook, I’ve been considering a west coast move. Wanna grab coffee? Reach me at @jacobhackl)

My take is heavy on option 3 with a slight brushing on option 4 but much of that is staked at where and WHEN you think HTML5 can support your mobile business. For now, I’m done focusing on Obective-C, I’m not going to write that custom WPF app for Windows7 mobile, android development will have to wait too. Less noise is needed. Let’s focus on the business, the core technology, and a transition to HTML5. One would hope that with more voices speaking on breaking away from apps that the movement can happen that much sooner.

My thoughts on “Just Manic Enough: Seeking the Perfect Entrepreneur”

Startups are certainly fun to read about but do you really want to work at or start one like this? When stories like these come out the answer to me is NO. It’s that common startup story of working to the bone, being driven, being incessant towards a goal.

I’m all for people following their passion and I believe that folks in these stories may be truly happy and I do have plans of starting another company myself someday (just not services) but to me success requires more than an over the top drive to be number one.

Success is following my passion in all areas of life: family, hobbies, & continual learning and self-improvement. This ride will be over soon enough and 12 hour days won’t help it slow down. Not for me anyway.