SitePoint Podcast #186: Freelancing with Michael Kimsal
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Kevin and Michael talk about freelancing and how his experience in visiting conferences as a freelancer was instrumental in the inspiration of IndieConf.
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Kevin: Well, welcome to the Sitepoint podcast. I’m Kevin Dees and I’m joined by Michael Kimsal . Welcome to the show.
Michael: Hello, thank you very much.
Kevin: I have to say, I love your voice. You sound so much more professional than I do.
Michael: I’ve become attached to it over the years, thank you.
Kevin: That’s good to hear, that you’re not sharing that with anyone else. It’s a very podcast-y kind of voice. You can tell my talking isn’t quite as eloquent, maybe, as it could be.
Michael: I think it’s fine. I’m enjoying it so far.
Kevin: Thank you. You do do a podcast, right?
Michael: I do. I’ve been doing Web Dev Radio, which obviously it’s not radio, it’s just a podcast. Actually for a little over seven years now, started in 2005. Fourth of July weekend, just started doing it. I interview people sometimes, sometimes it’s just me rambling.
I had a review on iTunes once and somebody said, ‘I don’t get it. This just seems like some old guy.’ He said something like, ‘this is just like some old guy who just likes to complain about stuff.’ He happened to hit an issue where I really was complaining about rails, some issues that I had with it. I don’t normally complain that much, but sometimes I vent.
Kevin: That’s pretty funny. I feel like I’m doing the listeners discourtesy by not letting them know who exactly you are before getting too far into the conversation. I feel like maybe it would be good to introduce yourself. Now Michael, you do a conference for the last few years, you’re also a PHP programmer. Maybe you could tell us a little bit about those two things and then we can go from there?
Michael: Wow, yes. How do I start? There’s a lot of background.
I have been working with PHP, fortunately in many respects, I’ve been working with software for a long time, but I got into the web in very early 96. I was telnetting and gophering around before that, but got into web development and found this thing called PHP FI. That was I think February 96, January 96.
I feel very fortunate because I got into web development very early on in my career. I didn’t have to unlearn a lot of concepts. I’ve been working largely with PHP. I’ve done Perl, ASP, some Java. I like Grails and Groovy a lot these days, but PHP has been probably 70% of my career. It’s been very good to me. It’s been very interesting to watch that grow and evolve over time.
You mentioned this conference. I have organized a conference, this is year three for IndieConf, which is for largely initially people like myself, web freelancers. If you do freelance Druple, WordPress, PHP, .NET, Java, whatever it may be. If you work on the web and you’re freelance, you’ve got the same kind of questions that I was looking to have answered. I put it together.
Kevin: You know, I went to that conference last year and I have to say it was really good. I’m particular about my conferences, and I like two kinds. The kinds that are really small, or not super-small, you know what I mean. It’s small enough to where you can actually meet people and talk and have these conversations, because we’re all in one group. Then you have these super-big ones like South by Southwest.
I really like the dynamic that you have there. Everybody gets to have their conversations. You have opportunities to meet and speak with the speakers, which plays a big part into the size of the conference. There’s this range that just hits it, and I think the size that you had last year was just great. I know you want to grow that.
Michael: Some. We had about 130 people last year. I’d like to have about the same number this year in terms of scheduling and whatnot. If there were 200 people knocking on the door that’d be great, we could accommodate them.
Organizationally we’re not set up to be a 500 person conference or a 400 person conference right now, 400 attendee. If the demand grows to that I’d love to support it, but I appreciate your view on the size.
For me, I’ll just go into a little bit about where this got started if you want to ramble in that direction.
Kevin: Yeah, absolutely.
Michael: 2007, I started freelancing again. 2007, 2008, this little global economic meltdown happened around the world. It was not really a great time to necessarily have done that, but I managed to stick through it. Through a lot of networking and whatnot certainly kept my head above water and put down some roots in this geographic area. I feel like I’ve got a decent network here now.
By 2009, 2010, I started getting people fairly regularly saying, ‘How do you do this? How do you get clients? How do you get paid? How do you this, how do you do that? What do your contracts look like?’ All those sorts of things.
I have answers. I can give answers. Some of the questions, my answers certainly helped somebody, but it’s not necessarily the right answer for everybody. Everybody’s background is somewhat different, their financial needs are different, their psychological security needs are different.
I started asking around to some of the people that I knew that had more experience and had different perspectives, and realized there isn’t a place that people can go. There’s online resources, there’s a lot of good forums out there, but in terms of a face to face thing there’s a different dynamic there. That was really the impetus for IndieConf two years ago, 2010.
Putting together people that can answer that, but trying to keep the focus largely on software. Certainly plumbers can come to this and woodworkers can come to this and they’d get something out of it, but the focus on the attendees is largely people who work on the web. Developers, designers, maybe content writers.
Even if you’re not a developer, maybe you’re just doing Druple sites for people but you’re not coding, you’re still working on the web. You still have probably a lot of the same issues that many of us had if you’re working for yourself. That’s the nutshell story behind that.
Kevin: That’s one of the things that I really liked about it last year, which was I’ve gone to a lot of conferences that are about CSS code, design. It always had that subject point, which is the new technology, what’s the next big thing.
With IndieConf, it’s much more pragmatic. You can apply what you learn, and you can use it then.
Michael: We have someone like yourself. You would probably be one of the more technical presentations. Kevin Dees is coming to present pragmatic WordPress workflow. That’s going to be one of those skills that you can take home and run with right there. I’m not expecting you to get into PHP benchmarks and CSS debugging, things like that.
I tell you, even before IndieConf, 2007, randomly I submitted something to Oz Con. Mega conference out in California I think. I was selected to speak, and I went out and talked about Solr. It was great. I love Solr as a search engine, it was awesome, had a good time, and I met some pretty cool people out there. Did a couple podcasts.
By and large, I got overloaded mentally. I went out and it was just tech after tech after tech. I remember coming back, I cried a little bit. Not that I bawled for weeks, but I cried a bit on the way back when I was sitting there and on the way back, because realizing, I’m coming back to a job and precisely zero of the technology I’ve been exposed to am I going to be able to implement.
I’m doing maintenance. By the time any of this, I’m allowed to implement it or allowed to integrate it in my work, it’ll be old hat. Whatever. There was this realization.
I go to tech conferences. Code Stop is a fantastic conference I love to go to. Used to go to Code Mash, may still get in, but they’re very hard to get into now. They’re very heavy on the code, and it’s great to geek out to. For people that’re working for themselves, that doesn’t put a contract on my table.
Most of the clients when you’re dealing with them, they don’t really care what version of CSS you’re using. There’s a different set of problems. I love to geek out to tech, but those conferences were not speaking to the immediate needs that I had.
Kevin: Right. There’s two pieces to things like Oz Con and South by Southwest. It’s about the technology, and I think those conferences are more tiered toward the start-up culture, which is the new fangled, the people who are building their brand new web apps in Node. I know that was two years ago that that was a big deal, and it’s still a thing, but now it’s Python or whatever.
There’s always this new, old technology is now a new technology, right? It recycles its way through, and it’s the start-up kind of culture. The other piece of that is also the networking and the connections you get out of a conference.
This is I think why, and I didn’t mean for this to turn into a conference talk . . .
Michael: We’ll move away in a moment.
Kevin: The thing that I like about the larger conferences is you get those connections and you get that, ‘Hey, what’s the start-up world doing?’ You can really get that piece of the puzzle and really build that, and then you can go to these smaller ones and actually find out something useful.
All the new technology’s great for somebody who’s going to write a blog post about it and talk about how they’re going to implement it. Some of these things you can. I know one year at South by Southwest, Type was the big thing. Typekit was just coming out and Font Deck was just coming out. You could use these fonts online, and font embedding was finally there, the legal issues were finally being wrapped up and we could do this thing and it was great.
It was a great momentum, and it carried on and actually meant something. Not every talk is like that at those big ones. Whereas smaller ones, like I said, you still make those same connections but it’s a deeper level of connection I think.
It just goes to show, like this conversation now, we met last year and now we’re having a conversation again. Just before the conference.
Michael: Yeah. I’ve met some great people at conferences large and small. I would say without hyperbole that some of those people that I’ve met at conferences have ended up changing my life for the better.
I started my podcast in 2005. 2008, the beginning, I went up to Code Mash in Ohio in January, yes, that’s a whole other story. I knew a few people there but it’s very large, it was several hundred people at that point.
I went to the dinner table and I explicitly sat down at a table where I knew nobody. It was about eight or ten people at the table, and I’m talking to somebody. This dude across the table is looking at me. A couple of them, they’d look at me and then they’d look away, and then they’d look at me again.
About ten minutes, they said, ‘We know your voice but we don’t know who you are.’ I introduced myself, ‘Oh, you do that podcast.’ Not that I was huge and famous, but some people knew me, they knew my voice anyway from that.
We start talking, and it’s a guy named Cal Evans. Who, people in the PHP community, if you don’t know his name you should by now. Go to calevans.com. He’s a fantastic resource for the PHP community, tremendous advocate. He worked at the Zend dev zone for a few years, got that off the ground.
He was at Zend at the time. That was January 2008. August, I get a telephone call and he said, ‘Hey, we’re looking for somebody that might want to do some training. Are you interested in that?’ Sure.
Through meeting him, I became a trainer at Zend, been doing that for four years. I’ve met a lot of cool people, had a lot of cool students, just have access to some cool technology through Zend. It’s been fantastic, and all that came from going to that conference and sitting at that table and somebody recognizing my voice.
I’ve got dozens of examples like that, but it’s this idea of you have to get out and network. Specifically as a freelancer, but I think even if you’re not a freelancer, the idea of getting out and having a social aspect to your career is something that often gets overlooked when people are going to school or choosing a career, getting career advice from people. Very rarely do people talk about the social or the human connection side of whatever your career is.
Maybe more specifically technology, because you’re a code geek, you like to do this stuff. It’s very easy to just sit behind a computer, just work on something for another day, another week, another month instead of getting out.
Kevin: Yeah. I like what we’re talking about here, because it really does speak to what I would consider maybe the successful programmers out there. They do tend to be the ones that make the connections.
I know in my own career, and just the people that I have been around, I work at a place called Co-Work in Greenfield. There’s this collaboration of just people. Just by being in that building with other people, because I’m freelancing, even just by being in that building with other freelancers, even that is a level of networking. Basically being there pays for itself.
It does more than that. I get a lot of work from just being in the building. I remember one time, and I talked about this on a previous podcast, where I was sick one week and I decided to learn how to make HTML5 Canvas video games. I go to Co-Work and lo and behold I’m prototyping video games.
It’s one of these things where you have to be doing both. You have to be building things, trying new things, so you can talk about them to the people that you’re meeting. You can’t just show up on the scene and be like, ‘Oh, I’m this person and what do you do?’ ‘Well, I just meet people.’
There is a balance. I will say there is something to be said for that connection, and I’m glad you brought that up, because it has been such value to me I know. Just looking back, all the things that have been the breadwinners for me have really been shadowed and foreshadowed by the networking.
Michael: Sure. There’s a few things, I’ve been saying them for a few years. I haven’t said them on your podcast, so I can repeat these here. In my mind I’ve been able to crystallize this a little bit more. Not that I’m certainly any sort of oracle or elder statesman of web development, I’ve just been doing it for a long time with software in general.
I’ve been doing it long enough that I’ve seen enough changes in technology and what was hot ten years ago, what was hot even five years ago, isn’t quite the same. The problems that we’re solving with technology, some of the problems are different. Sometimes we have new technology, the idea of mobile. That’s a whole new consumer space and business space that didn’t exist ten or 15 years ago, certainly not at the level that it does now.
By and large the types of problems that we’re solving are not solved by the new hotness, the new hot technology, as much as they are by understanding how to communicate. Colleagues, clients, consumers, customers, whatever they may be. One of the things I’m fond of saying, and I think I got this from Hal Helms or a variation from this, very widely known cold fusion guru, who used to do a great podcast. I don’t think he does anymore.
I remember this, I think it was him that said this, how did he put this?
He’s not had projects fail because somebody didn’t know how to write out to a file, or because they didn’t know how to connect to a database. Projects fail overwhelmingly because of lack of communication, lack of understanding, lack of empathy, lack of knowledge about what the problem is.
Michael: Somebody says something but they mean something else. I have been on a couple projects where they’ve been severely delayed because in fact we couldn’t reliably connect to the database, because we had driver issues, but those are temporary. You can work around those. You can find somebody to solve those.
It’s much harder to find somebody who can divine from a customer what they actually mean, or how to get information out of them when they don’t answer the phone or answer email. How do you deal with that?
Those are human issues. You can learn that through experience, and you can learn how to deal with those by networking with other people. If you’re a freelancer, you can do that at IndieConf, that’s my little plug there. Even if not, go to Toastmasters, learn how to talk with people. Take classes in acting so you can understand not so much how to fake people out, but empathize. Learn how other people react to the same situation. Put yourself in their shoes.
There’s so many non-tech things you can do to make yourself more valuable in the technology field, and they don’t have to do with learning Node or Async programming or whatever. I’m not knocking Node or Async or whatever, they’re great, but they’re different strokes for different folks.
Kevin: Yeah, I totally agree with that. When I look back on past projects that I’ve failed on, it’s not even things that I’ve failed on. It was just a lack of communication or a lack of understanding of what the goal is trying to be achieved.
As the developer, as the designer or the person in charge of the project, a lot of times it’s easy to throw that blame on the client. You didn’t tell me what you wanted, or you told me this and you wanted that, you changed it and you changed it and you changed it.
I find a lot of times that it’s due to this, I talked to Paul Boag a while back about this, this client-centric web design. It comes down to the lack of perspective that both maybe the client have, but also, he was the developer-designer. At least I know I like to look at a problem from the user’s perspective, and what’s going to be best for the user.
A lot of times, in all cases really, it’s about the business and what’s going to grow that person’s business. The user is a big part of that, but at the end of the day it’s still a business. Being able to see and understand not only what your user needs to do, because I think as developers and designers we do that very well, but as understanding the business and what that business is about, I think that’s where a lot of that lack of communication happens, where it breaks down.
Because the customer’s trying to achieve something. They’re trying to make more money or they’re trying to help more people if they’re a non-profit. They’re trying to achieve a certain goal, and so I think a lot of times we can caught up in this interface, technical, picking the right pattern or what it is.
We get so caught up in that space that we forget to express why we’re doing this, and why it’s important for the client to think about it. Then also take in this perspective of the client, like you said the empathy, right?
How do I empathize with you?
You’re saying it has been this similar experience you’ve had.
Michael: Well, I find it’s a tough balancing act. Sometimes it’s easier depending on the client. From my point of view, especially as a freelancer coming into somebody’s business and working with them, there’s a balance to be had between learning what they’re doing but also bringing your experience and saying, ‘This is how this problem should be solved.’
Having to, fight is too strong a word, but wrestle with, ‘Well, no, our person does it this way.’ It might, and there may be good reasons why they do that. Sometimes, often times, the reason that they’re doing something in their business is because they’ve never had the opportunity to do anything else. They’ve never had the support from competent IT, or maybe they’ve never had dedicated IT people at all that understand what resources are available.
Kevin: That’s true.
Michael: You need to do this. Well, your real problem is getting real time communication out of people. You want to do this, but were you aware of this other technology? If we do this, and this may be faster, this may be cheaper, it may be more expensive. But if we do this, this is what you can enable your business to do. It won’t solve your problems, but it will help you solve your problems.
The other thing I wrestle with is going in and having people say, ‘Our business is unique.’ I’ve done this long enough that I don’t believe that very often. I believe some of their terminology is unique, they may have legal issues, requirements, reporting things that they have to do things.
At the end of the day your business is you’re finding people that have a problem, you’re serving the problem, and you’re collecting money from them. You’re fulfilling a need in the marketplace, that’s what your business is doing. You’re not that unique. Every business does that at that level.
I realize I’m oversimplifying a bit, but there aren’t too many . . .
Kevin: We all have basic needs.
Michael: Yes, but there aren’t too many businesses I’ve come across that are extremely unique and the same software that works for other people just does not work for them at all. It just doesn’t happen very often.
You may get things in medicine and economic, financial reporting things, that there are legal issues that take them out of the realm of off the shelf software or standard OSS packages, things like that, but it’s pretty rare.
Kevin: Right. I like what you’re saying there.
Michael: So do I. Oh, go ahead.
Kevin: No, because it really speaks to the realm that we live in. Which is this idea that everything I do is going to be special or unique, or I’m going to put this twist or edge on it. I think this is more true for developers than designers, because there are certain elements you can add in design that can . . . I like the word you said, which was crystallize, the brand or the company or the message that they’re trying to speak.
Picking a technology, like you said, sometimes you can’t use open source. Sometimes you’ve got to use this other system. You can’t really force your hand on somebody and say, ‘This is what I’m going to use and I’m going to do this.’ When you do that, you can do that, but then you limit the client that you can have.
Michael: Sure. I’ll give you another example of this. Maybe a related example. I’m working on a project with somebody, and they’ve had a number of years of, it started out with a Droople system, and they’ve made multiple copies of the Droople system, and they’ve been serving probably 15 or 20 clients with various variations of a few core Droople themes.
It’s gotten very ugly and very hairy. They’ve gotten used to, ‘I’m going to do this,’ and people go in and add a bunch of stuff. It’s crazy.
We’re starting with another version of things, and I’ve revamped it. I did a very, very basic, almost off the shelf, Twitter Bootstrap theme. I can hear people right now going, ‘Don’t, designers don’t just use that.’ They loved it.
Most people in the design community, ‘Well, you can’t use that.’ They loved, it’s primarily black and white with a couple of accent colors out of the box, it’s responsive, and it’s mobile, tablet, desktop, all the same. Very clean. I’m intentionally saying, I got the buy-off with the PM, this is all you have. We’re going to make everything fit into this, and if it won’t fit into this it’s going into a separate page. It’s not going to be on the front page, this is all we get.
They’ve taken that to a couple of their broader clients and shown that, and they’ve gotten rave reviews. This is fantastic, this is great. But if I was to show that to another design person, ‘Oh, everybody’s using Bootstrap.’
No, everybody’s not using Bootstrap.
I showed them what was possible, and maybe this wasn’t related to what we were talking about before, but I wanted to share it anyway because I like Twitter Bootstrap. OK, end of story, sorry. I went off topic there.
Kevin: No, no, it was good, because like you were saying, and I think it really speaks to what we were talking about. Which was, you walk into a project and you say, ‘OK, I’m going to use what I’ve always used.’ You have this pre-built set of tools. They did in that case, but you were able to take that and say, ‘OK, let’s step back away from a pre-determined solution and say hey, is there something better that we can use?’
Because when you walk into a room and you sit down and there are all these constraints, there’s timeline, budget, you also have the technology constraints, right? The people in the room are also constraints. How much they’re willing to tolerate your suggestions and their own input, which is a whole other story like somebody trying to put their thumbprint on something that they really shouldn’t be. Like a CEO.
Michael: You have your stories, I have mine. Let’s not name names, OK?
Kevin: Right, I just say CEOs, that kind of thing. Anybody who’s not in a technology field, put it that way. You can be anybody, you can be a salesperson, a marketer, I don’t care. The marketer probably could fall into that category. At least in a more enterprise standing point.
You set up all these constraints versus talking about what the problem is. I think that comes back to what we were talking about before, which was the lack of communication, right? I think this is really the biggest issue, is when you come to a room, I think sometimes people already have their solution already figured out. They’re going to say, ‘This is what we want you to build,’ or ‘this is what we want you to make.’ You become a task person.
This is more coming from my side of things. I do the freelance programming side of things, so I think this may apply to me and you maybe more than somebody who’s sitting in an agency behind a desk, and they’re like, ‘I do this day to day, how does this apply to me?’
Michael: I think what you’re getting at is it I think it applies across the board a lot more. I didn’t mean to cut you off there.
Kevin: No, go ahead.
Michael: My term for that is ‘pair of hands.’ You want me to just come in and be your pair of hands. My hands know how to do this, you tell me what you want, I can make it, or we can have a more consultative discussion. I can consult with you.
I may do the work, but you can get the benefit of my experience, bring my experience into your world and I can help you solve your problem. Probably in ways you weren’t aware of. If you don’t want that and you really just want a pair of hands, ‘We know what we want, we just want somebody to do this,’ I do that work occasionally. I’m really trying to get myself out of it.
Sometimes you don’t know ahead of times. Sometimes it just turns into ‘pair of hands’ work. Sometimes that’s appropriate, but for the type of work I want to be doing for the type of rates I want to be charging, it’s not cost effective for people. I can get you somebody at a third of my price or a fifth of my price to just be your pair of hands. That may be all you need.
Kevin: I would agree with that. Now that I think about this more, the situations that I’ve walked into where you can tell it’s going to be a good relationship is when they’ve already tried to solve a problem and they couldn’t. They no longer, they thought they had the solution but they don’t anymore. They’re just like, ‘OK, we need somebody to come and tell us how to fix this. Because we tried and it didn’t work with X, and we need you now.’
Now they’re more open to actually listen to what you have to say. The dynamic changes when you control the drama and your client doesn’t control the drama, if that makes any sense.
Michael: It does. I refer to that sometimes as sometimes the type of project is I’m being a digital garbage man. I’m cleaning up your mess. If they understand it’s a mess, the dynamic is great. They understand that whatever they did, whatever decisions they made, and it could’ve been maybe the decisions were right and it was implemented wrong, or they didn’t have enough information and they made the wrong decision because of that, but they understand that it’s a mess and they’re paying me to come clean it up and make it better.
The times when they don’t even acknowledge there’s something wrong, ‘Just make this do this,’ well, I can’t because this is all broken, those are much harder to deal with.
Kevin: So many situations come to my mind that I cannot talk about that I wish I could, Mike. Here’s an example, here’s an example, here’s an example.
Michael: We’ve all got the dead bodies. Interesting though, one other thing, maybe touching on the freelance thing about. This is another observation that I’ve had about work in general in the IT world. I’ve worked for myself or in a small, self-directed capacity for probably seven or eight of the past 15 years.
I’m a programmer. I’m going to go get a job someplace. I’ve gone into a few of those situations, and the dynamic is really, really different. I’ve had friends of mine that say, ‘Well, I’m going for this job interview.’ I know they’re talented, they could do it.
They could do the work, and sometimes they get shot down. Because they go into the job interview, and they’re getting quizzed by three or four other people on the other side of the table. ‘Explain the difference between throw and throws,’ or ‘tell me how Java synchronizes threads. Tell me how Final works.’
I’m throwing these out as trivia examples. Maybe some of them are complex, some of them are not, but they’re getting drilled on sometimes minutiae.
Kevin: Right. I’ve been in that interview before. I know exactly what you’re talking about.
Michael: Exactly. Sometimes it’s adversarial, because the other people, maybe that’s the only time they get to show off or talk geek to somebody else. They get caught up and they’re not really interviewing, or they don’t have very good criteria for that.
I contrast that with . . .
Kevin: ‘This is what I looked up on Google yesterday and found out my solution to. Now I want to ask you to see if you already knew the thing I found out just a week ago.’
Michael: Yes. ‘Why are manhole covers round,’ or the weird questions. Yet I’ve found, and I’ve lost out some job interviews because of that. My frustration at the idiocy, as I get older my frustration comes out much faster in those sorts of interviews. I haven’t done something like that in many years.
Kevin: A little cranky then.
Michael: Yes. I’m getting old, I don’t have time for this. When I go in, I get introduced through a colleague and I go in and talk to a small business owner, or maybe I’m talking to a project manager.
You’re not always talking to the owner of a company, but you’re talking to somebody who has a problem, and you’re saying, ‘Here’s how I can solve it.’
They say, ‘That’s great.’ OK, it’s going to be two months, going to be three months, going to be two weeks, going to be a year, whatever it is. I’m going to come in, solve your problem, you’re going to work with me and then I’m going to be gone.
In some cases I’ve been fortunate enough where I’ve worked with some people for three or four years now. In other cases you’re in there for a few weeks or you’re in there for a couple of months and you’re gone.
The dynamic of, I’m interviewing them, they’re interviewing me, ‘Can you solve my problem?’ ‘Yes, let’s make that happen,’ is totally different than the dynamic of, ‘I might have to work with this guy for the next ten years, and I need to prove that he’s not an idiot, and I need to let him know that I’m more awesome than he is,’ very alpha male in some cases. Very male driven.
That’s a whole other discussion, women in the workplace, women in IT. There needs to be more of them, if only to balance out those interviews, the testosterone in those interviews sometimes is overwhelming.
That’s something that, I have friends who are extremely talented, and I wish that they for whatever reason could get past the, ‘I want to have a job.’ I understand why. There’s a lot of reasons why they want to stay in that W-2, fulltime world.
I think they could get a bigger, better sense of fulfillment out of the skills and the knowledge that they have by working directly for clients, instead of in that employee model. Yes, there’s benefits to the employee model. There’s benefits to the employee model as well too, but I find that a very difficult life to go through in terms of interviewing and that sort of thing.
I may be overdramatizing this a bit, but I may be under-dramatizing it for some people, too.
Kevin: Yeah, I’ve worked in the agency world as well, and it’s definitely two different cultures that exist. Because when you’re in the agency world, it’s you live not necessarily project by project, but you show up and you have a task for the day and you do it, and you’re good to go.
Some people, you may take a little bit more pride in your job than I did when I worked in the agency world. But that’s where it was. It was, ‘Hey, I’m going to do this, and I’m going to read up on this new thing and I’m going to try and insert it in this project I’m doing.’
When LESS was becoming a big hot topic, the pre-processor for CSS, I was like OK, I’ll try LESS on this one project. I tried it on the project and it was fun. It gave me opportunities to try new technologies. You don’t really tell anybody you do those things, you just do it.
Michael: Yeah. I hate you, but. Those are the garbage projects I have to clean up sometimes. This guy wanted to learn Rails. OK, but that’s another topic too.
Kevin: [laughs] I’m glad we’re friends.
Then you transition into the freelance side of things, where it’s because you want to get paid and you have to follow the deadline, you make certain sacrifices along the way. You say OK, I know this set of tools and I’m going to use this this time, and I’m going to deliver. Because you’re actually having to interact with your client. Your PM isn’t running the show and trying to put out fires and that kind of thing.
It’s a different dynamic. I can see where, in the agency world I was able to play with a lot of newer things. I’m not saying I don’t play with new things anymore, but you have that afterhours freedom to do things as well in the agency world, running the W-2 as you said.
With freelance it’s like, and I find myself running into this, this is where growth is due on my part. Which is you get home and you want to learn something new, but you’re like, ‘Oh, but I could be working on this client.’ So you don’t, and you go work on that client.
It is a different thing, because you’re carrying the weight of the client. You’ve got to take the backpack of bricks off at some point and say, ‘OK, me time.’
Michael: Yeah. The whole freelancing and ‘it’s a lifestyle,’ somewhat, selling your time for money is a whole discussion. We may be having a talk at IndieConf by somebody who’s broken out of that. A couple people have. One guy has proposed a talk, and we’re going to see if he can come or not.
His title is ‘Consulting is Crack.’ It can be very comforting to just say,
‘bill another hour, bill another hour, bill another hour,’ instead of taking that time to say, ‘That can wait until tomorrow. I’m going to invest in some of these other skills,’ what you’re saying, afterhours things.
When you are so tied to time for money, you may forgo some of that. There’s just a balance that needs to be found. It’s different for everybody. Sometimes forgetting that there’s even a balance to be looking for in the first place is that first problem you need to get past.
Kevin: I remember, there was this conversation at Co-Work that was taking place at one point. It was around the subject of something that Seth Godin was writing at the time. It was basically, and I probably have the words wrong here but you’ll get the point, which was, ‘Entrepreneur versus freelancer.’
Basically as a freelancer or contractor, let’s say the maximum you could ever charge is $200 an hour. For some people it’s higher based on where you live. Let’s say it’s $200 in my case. You can only work so many hours at
$200, so you have a cap that you can hit with your hours, and there are a limited number of hours in the day.
If you think about the entrepreneurial side of things, like let’s use Space Camp for example, or let’s use Facebook for example. Either one of those are entrepreneurial applications, two different cultural set-ups. Where it’s, I can sell a certain number of product and renew that.
Now I work two hours and I make $3,000 per hour, and then I can stop working those two hours and still make $3,000, and while I sleep I make money. Right? I think it’s the difference between just that, which is can I sleep and make money, or can I work and make money?
I think it takes a little bit of both to be honest, because it’s like investments. I think as developers, I think this speaks a lot to us, and designers as well. Which is can you develop an application which can become your retirement? You don’t necessarily have to buy into the 401(k) or whatever it is.
That’s hard to do, because what’s the percentage of failed projects? the numbers, like 99.9% of all projects fail or something like that.
Michael: Yeah, huge number, yeah. Two other names spring to mind, books that I’ve read many, many years ago. Harry Beckwith, ‘Selling the Invisible,’ and Allan Weiss, I think, ‘Million Dollar Consulting.’
Both really opened my eyes to the idea of value-based consulting, value-
based work. I sadly do not implement those currently. I have talked to a couple of clients and proposed, ‘Tell you what, I will do this for you and let’s just do a revenue split. I believe in your business enough so that I don’t need cash up front. I’m writing the software. I’m going to know the usage, but we can do some sort of revenue split.’
A couple people have been interested in it. The smaller the organization the more interested they are in it, obviously from a cash flow standpoint. There’s usually less of an up side. The larger ones that I’ve talked to have expressed some interest because they see some benefit to that, but I think they’re savvy enough that they really don’t want to have essentially an unlimited up side to me. They’d rather cap me.
Even if I’m charging them a lot of money. I could charge them $150, $200 an hour, they’d still rather pay that and have there be an end point rather than, ‘Gosh, he’s got profit sharing for the next five years in this.’
I think like that, and I’d like to do that with people, but I find it hard to find clients that want to engage in that. Outside of that, the one other option is write your own apps, write your own software.
Kevin: That’s what most do, right? You have the Googles and the Facebooks of the world.
Michael: Right. I’m not quite there myself. Even people doing smaller apps. Dodd Caldwell, down in Greenville. Do you know Dodd, by any chance?
Michael: Bellstrike for example, and his resume service and that sort of thing. That’s an example of somebody who’s using his skills both in tech and personality and sales to think outside that traditional time for money sort of thing. When I meet people like that, it’s inspiring to know hey, I can do this too.
Personally, I can share more of my story at some point, maybe when we meet up in November, I’ll give you some of the reasons why I haven’t done that yet. I’m getting to the point where it’s easier for me to say, ‘I want to spend my time on this app or this service and monetize that,’ as opposed to just time for money.
Kevin: Right. Well, I feel like we’ve had a really good conversation, but we really are out of time. Michael, thank you so much for coming on the show. Where can people find you?
I’m going to throw this out here. Anybody listening that would like to come to IndieConf, if you can get yourself to Raleigh, reach out to me. We will sort out some sort of a special Sitepoint discount just for you. For you and only you. Yes, you. Not you over there, you in the back.
I know that was really corny, but yes, you. I was moving side to side. I don’t know if you’re in stereo or not. Just reach out to me, firstname.lastname@example.org. Love to hear from you on your freelancing efforts and what you’re doing with tech.
Kevin: Excellent. Well, thank you again so much, and thank you everybody for listening.
Kevin: And thanks for listening to the SitePoint Podcast. If you have any questions or thoughts about today’s show please feel free to get in touch. You can find SitePoint on Twitter @sitepointdotcom, that’s sitepoint d-o-t-c-o-m. You can find me on Twitter @kevindees, and if you’d like to leave comments about today’s show check out the podcast at sitepoint.com/podcast, you can subscribe to the show there as well. This episode of the SitePoint Podcast was produced by Karn Broad, and I’m Kevin Dees, bye for now.
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