My first year of freelancing

Gosh, has it really been a year?

Crazy, isn't it? But November 29 was indeed my last day of full-time employment. I suppose technically it's only been nine months since my first freelancing update, when we last had a fake conversation in this rather stilted pastiche of Guardian Pass Notes.

And is freelancing still going OK?

Yes, broadly speaking. It's a cliche of freelancing that one only ever experiences "feast or famine", and it's certainly been the case for my workload. After six months of working flat out, I've had six months of working anywhere between zero and two thirds of my time: but then, the latter was on projects I've selected to a certain extent. And in the entire twelve months, I've been able to work with over a dozen new groups and individuals on around 15 projects, which was exactly what I wanted.

Are you tackling any personal projects in this newly found spare time?

Yes, but probably not what you'd be expecting. My biggest unpaid project has been gardening, as I've blogged about here. Sadly, Witney council's parsimony has meant I've not been able to get an allotment yet, but I've nonetheless learned a great deal more, and actually been to some amazing gardens. It's felt like something's unlocked inside me, and I'm really enjoying it.

Other than that, I've tried to steer clear of programming projects. Unless one tackles it with a business model in mind, it can be a real time sink. Nonetheless, I've been implementing occasional new features and bugfixes on Drush Instance, my makefile-oriented Drupal site (re-)builder, And I've also treated this blog as a programming project, and tried to feed as many new learnings and discoveries into blogposts here.

Finally, I think freelancing has really given me the freedom to do "unusual semi-work projects": being able to take plenty of time out to participate in Tour de Drupal was a fantastic "semi-work" experience for me, as was being able to spend the whole week at Drupalcon without having to justify it to anyone: similarly, pre-OxDUG co-working in Oxford with several other developers has added a completely new dimension to my "semi-working" life.

These "semi-work" life events have been simultaneously social, productive, career-building interesting and/or exciting, and most of all fun. This, right here, is the community I left employment in order to join.

It can't be all good, right? There must be some stuff you hate, like office admin.

Weirdly, I've enjoyed "boring admin" far more than you'd expect: I wouldn't say doing my taxes was a holiday, but it was an instructive experience—and a constructive one, as I felt like by the end it was, weirdly, a job well done. I also don't mind doing various tallying of amounts in and out, expenses, timesheeting etc.

For me, a real annoyance has been unnecessary contracts: by which I mean, most of the contracts I've signed. I appreciate contracts can stand in the place of trust, until that trust is created... but there feels like a better way of doing that than a—usually quite dreadful and unfit—"standard" contract of the sort that I get sent. I'm much happier working in timeboxed days here and there, limiting the client risk to a few hundred pounds at first.... Then, when the work delivered is good, and the working relationship also, my clients and I have really started to cement the relationship. This has always, always, always worked better than a formal contract.

However, if you want to know what I really dislike, then while I don't want to dwell on the negatives, I can tell you that payment uncertainty and all the rest is the absolute pits. Payment and contractual issues have happened very rarely, but when they do then they risk poisoning the relationship. 

What you're saying is that you're learning—slowly—what it's like to do business with others!

I guess so. All clients are different, and most of mine have been marvellous. That reflects the fact that all people are different of course: so it's been rather nice to find out that most of them are pretty decent when all's said and done.

Most weeks I feel I've learned something new about the way the world (of business, but also beyond that) works. And that feels great for me personally, and certainly initially I've wanted to share a few of those observations here on my blog, as I think I've been coming to them with very fresh eyes.

But, that aside, this is likely to be my last "life as a freelancer" update: After all, it's difficult to make useful observations on experiences which have basically become my everyday, occasional novelties aside.

Do say:

"Well done on resisting—and indeed ruling out above—a geometric sequence of three, six, twelve and 24-month updates here on your blog."

Don't say:

"Oy, you never write! You never call! You never blog! Maybe don't be such a stranger in future!"


Sorry JP, but this does not meet the mark in terms of Guardian Pass Notes, in that it didn't make me grind my teeth and moan about journalists treating their audience like 5 year-olds. Really enjoyed this insight - thanks for sharing. I now feel guilty about our contracts, but I may share a story about client/customer trust when I see you on wednesday that may explain the need for them.

However, as a 'lifer' in local government I feel an obligation to step in and defend Witney Town Council and its lack of allotments a little. These small councils - although independent from central government grants - have a lot to contend with that goes unseen (cemeteries anyone?), and Witney has faced a number of issues in recent years (a stack of community halls that lose money hand over fist, a crumbling listed building and a major sports venue change) that have all competed for priority. Also when the duty that governs allotment allocation is so vague (to "consider" requests only) its easy for this to slip down the priority list. 


Ah, well, regarding the allotments, I can only go off what local association members have told me, which sounds like an appropriately festive story of getting Ebenezer to part with a sixpence. I don't think this reflects on council staff so much as the elected council members, though, who have clearly set the tone for what is and isn't a priority.