My own year in review

Apparently it is a fad – at least on Hacker News – to write about the highs and lows of self-employment, so this is my attempt at a bit of navel gazing. My career isn’t as interesting (yet) as some HN regulars, but hopefully it will give some insight into what a bog standard consultant can achieve in a year.

Others (like Patrick, Brennan or Nathan) have published their earnings, I don’t plan to do that. Partly because they aren’t especially interesting (all I did was consulting, and laid some plans for next year) but mostly because it feels like bragging.

All of the excellent post mortem posts I have read suffered slightly from listing profits – distracting from the excellent advice behind the numbers.

What I Did This Year

I actually did a lot of stuff this year, the most prominent (from a business perspective) was finally letting go of secure employment and going entirely self-employed. This wasn’t exactly a choice, as I was made redundant, but it made me a lot more pro-active about building consultancy work and in the end has been a positive thing.

On the personal side my partner also moved in with me several months ago. People talk about marriage being an amazing, expensive and disruptive event – trust me, living together is too! Spending time with someone else is the single biggest time sink this year.

Of course, I don’t regret it, that time is worth more than anything.

There have been other costs too. I took over a month off to go travelling; in February to New Zealand and later in the year to Italy. That, along with other spending splurges, severely hit my savings. But on reflection I don’t regret it; I might struggle to make that money back next year, but it wasn’t doing anything except sitting in a savings account earning very little.

Basically what I am trying to point out is; value is in other things than money. That might be obvious, but I guess I only learned it in the last 18 months.

Consulting

This year was very successful for me as a consultant. Especially since leaving employment (several months ago). My daily rate has gone up to over four figures, and I am getting better at finding and pitching to clients. A lot of this was built with confidence earned from reading about people in similar positions to myself.

So another top tip is; read everything you can, and let it help you feel confident in your career path.

Raise Your Rates

Although there has been some bad advice, a lot of interesting and helpful content for freelancers has appeared this year. I want to just talk about one phrase, which has been given as both good and bad advice this year. “Raise your rates”. It has cropped up a lot as good advice from some (tptacek, Patrick, Brendan) and then relentlessly reused by others as much poorer (or at least less detailed) advice.

I’ve talked to a couple of would-be consultants who claim things like “but I raised my rates 50% and all my clients left”. A few employers have mentioned that “raise your rates” posts have made otherwise-excellent freelancers far too expensive to employ. I’ve done things like this, as I expect the other have, and learned the important lesson about value.

What is meant by “raise your rates” is to think carefully about how much value you have. If you are a code monkey you simply cannot command four figures a day. What you need to do is hard work, and tune up your value (it might be as simple as presenting your talents better to prospective clients) until you are worth those figures.

On top of that, most of us aren’t charging enough for our current value. So bump those rates a bit and then work on the rest.

Networking

Stuck out “in the sticks” (rural England) seemingly made it difficult to build a professional network – but some lucky connections in London and the discovery that Lincolnshire is stuffed full of design and marketing agencies proved useful. I’ve launched a new site (more on that later) about freelancing/consultancy and have collected some initial thoughts on how to build your client list.

One of the more exciting things I can actually mention publicly is being take on as a technology consultant for Wikimedia UK, where I also volunteer. The reason this is such a cool role is that the Wikimedia movement supports openness and transparency, so our work (there is another consultant as well) is mostly public.

This offers an interesting chance to scrutinise how a consultant works, and I plan to write about this later.

Other Projects

Being fully self-employed has let me branch out with personal projects. In no particular order I’ve started work on:

  • A book about writing good marketing copy – which I plan to launch early next year – a topic that often gets little love or attention.
  • A fiction book; or, rather, an experiment in sci-fi short stories, which is nearing readiness
  • A site called “Freelance Frontier” where I can talk a bit more openly about my consulting. This will be the first big project of 2013, building out some of the content to help other aspiring contractors.

Stuff That Didn’t Work

I mostly work from home; this is a massive mistake for me as I tend to procrastinate when I should be working. Freelancing is great because I can pick and choose when to work, but it isn’t viable if you choose to never work.

So, to remove temptation, next year I am moving into a small office. Finding such a place in a small town has been a trial (which is why I haven’t done it sooner), and shelling out over £130 per month seems illogical in part.

But based on the extra productivity it should give me that is easily earned back.

Working from home was useful when I also had other employment, because I got out of the house most days of the week. But once the job ended, cabin fever set in.

The other mistake I made was trying to juggle a social life, time with my girlfriend, work and consulting. I was determined that none of them would be sidelined but ultimately consultancy struggled for my attention for a good part of the year.

I didn’t figure how much time is required to have a long term girlfriend :)

From a financial perspective; the radical increase in income from consultancy caught me by surprise, and I wasn’t quick enough looking into taxation and accounting practices. I’ve always put a small portion to one side to pay tax with, but this is nowhere near enough.

Finding good, simple advice about tax and self-employment is surprisingly hard, and I put it off for far too long. As a result it is probably going to cost me more than it should.

Looking Forward

I’m at a point now where the next year should be interesting and exciting. Although I’ve been consulting for over 4 years this will be the first full year of it being my primary income.

On top of that I want to build up passive revenue streams; from books and applications. One day a week is set aside for my own ideas for this purpose.

Hopefully in 12 months I’ll be reporting back with some more interesting news, and perhaps some figures… ;)

Happy new year!

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