@madpilot rants

Freelancer mentoring

I’ve been a freelancer for 85% of my work career. I’ve traversed the giddy-heights and the earth-shaking lows of working for myself for a long time, and I think it’s time to give back. One thing that I have noticed during those 11 years is that it is all to easy to live in your little bubble and not talk to anyone other than clients for weeks on end. So, I’m going to start running freelancer mentoring.

I want to pull together a small group of freelancers, and then have a meet-up (probably 4-5 people to start with) on a Friday morning at my office or the coffee shop next door, and basically just chat about how things are going, give some advice, but generally act as a sounding board. Kind of like a water cooler for people that don’t own a water cooler (do people still own water coolers?). Having a small group means you can form a support group for each other too; as well as perhaps team up on bigger jobs.

Oh, and this isn’t just for web people – the basic tenants of freelancing is the same regardless of industry, and you’ll be amazed how helpful talking shop to freelancers from other industries can be.

To start with we’ll probably meet once a month.

Anyway, if you are a freelancer in Perth, Western Australia and are craving some human interaction, either hit me up in the comments, via twitter or email me directly.

220s: A marketing odyssey

For those of you that have been keeping abreast of the goings on of my work life will know that I helped start up a cooperative workspace in Leederville just over a year ago. The idea behind cooperative spaces is pretty simple: You get a bunch of freelancers together to share rent, ADSL and other running costs, which can be prohibitive if you are on your own. A lovely side-effect of throwing a bunch of like-minded people into a couple of rooms together is that you can share work, talk about problems you might have and avoid that oh-so-familiar cabin-fever that is common to people that work from home on their own for long periods of time.

When twotwenty started, we had dreams of doing big jobs together and sharing work, and generally acting like a company – except with the personality of freelancing. While there has been some sharing, lots of talking and there hasn’t really been a single cohesive push marketing or branding wise. So over the past few weeks we have been busy planning, writing, designing, photographing and coding up some marketing material to see if it is possible to do cooperative marketing. At this stage we are focusing on the local Leederville area (of course, we are more than happy to talk to people in other areas), so we came up with the “your local web guys” campaign, starting with the launch of our shiny new website: http://www.twotwenty.com.au. Designed by Pascal, the brief was to present something targeted to the local Leederville area, that spoke about the individuals at twotwenty. We wanted to be approachable and personal, hence the sometimes risky headshots. The only way we had even a chance of pulling them off was with professional photography (Seriously kids, don’t try them at home).

So, if you are in Leederville, drop in and say hi, and we can go for coffee. Oh, and you can follow us on twitter.

Does your business have a godparent?

I’m not sure how well this metaphor is going to extend outside of people from Christan or Jewish backgrounds, but I can’t think of a decent non-denominational analogue, so bear with me.

As has been the tradition for many, many years, when a child is baptised, the parents select Godparents. Now originally, it was the Godparents responsibility to ensure the childs religious well-being – however, I (perhaps under some childish misconception) always thought of them as the next in line for guardianship if my folks died or disowned me.

Why don’t we do this for businesses? I’m a freelancer and if I got hit by the #66 on it’s way to Morley would there be anyone to notify my clients? It’s a bit morbid to think about, but we write wills for such an event – but how many people think about this for their business?

Even if you had the best documentation in the world, and kept your Outlook contact list up-to-date, it is all pretty worthless if nobody can access it, so they can contact the people that need to get contacted. So I’m proposing a system of Business Godparents – someone that can go in if the unimaginable happens and sort things out, to make sure your clients aren’t left high and dry.

Things to look for in a potential candidate:

  • Be someone you trust. You are basically giving them sensitive business information – if you think they will take your client list and start cold calling them , they may not be the best person.
  • They don’t have to be in the industry, but make sure they have a list of people that they can contact in-case of emergency. Having someone in the industry does have the advantage that they can start taking care of your clients right off the bat.
  • Your accountant might  be a good choice – they already knows your business intimately, so what is a few other bits and pieces?
  • Family members are probably good candidates as well.

What they will need to know and have access to? Well, that depends on the industry you are in – but if you are in the web industry you might include:

  • Your client list. They will obviously need to be able to contact your clients to let them know, as well as be able to do things like release source code, or graphics or whatever.
  • Usernames and passwords. This one is a bit tricky – obviously good password security states that no-one else should know your password, and that you should change it regularly. Maybe you could have a “needs to know” policy, where you spread the knowledge amongst a number of people. A non-industry person might be an advantage, here. If your accountant or a sibling has a “master password” (or a USB key with a private key certificate) that they can give to a nominated “person  (or persons) in the know”, there may be a smaller risk.
  • Names of services that you use, such as domain registrars, hosting companies etc
  • A list of other organisations that could potentially take over certain jobs, as well as a list of other stakeholders in the project. If the job was inherited from another firm, or if the job was a joint venture, it may be really easy to hand it over.

This is a bit of a brain dump, so feel free to leave comments on how this could work. What would you include in the list? How could you get around the security issues associated with password lists? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Silicon Beach House: We need more housemates!!!

WANTED: Freelancers, startups, consultants or small businesses who need some office space.

If you are a small business, freelancer, consultant or a startup and you have out grown your back room but can’t quite afford a swish office of your own, the Silicon Beach house could be just what you need! Even though we seem to have attracted a number of developers and graphic designers, we are open to any body who is desk-bound by day.

One of the great things about having people with different skill sets is if you come across something that you can’t do, there is quite possibly someone there who can (Within reason – we don’t have any wood-workers, so asking questions about lathing may not get such a quick response). Personally, I would love to see an accountant and a lawyer join us, so I can pick their brains! We are all friendly, maybe a little talkative, but all in all it is a great place to work.

You can see the inside of the office below – but it is a second-floor open plan office with a small board-room table, kitchenette, a couple of couches and (obviously) some desks. It is fully furnished, so basically you just need to bring your computer. Whilst many of us just bring our laptops, a couple of us do leave desktopmachines there, and we all leave external monitors, so your stuff will be safe.

 

The beach house has a monitored alarm, ADSL connection, wireless, printer/copier/fax machine and water cooler all included in the rent (which is pretty darn reasonable), is REALLY close to the Perth train station (It’s across the road) and is basically slap-bang the middle of the city CBD. If you want more information regarding prices, please contact me, and I’ll put you on to the right person.

If you are interested in coming and having a look, we are at

Level 2, 90 King St

Perth WA 6000

[Google Map]

So what are you waiting for?

Freelancer Friday February

Oh how I love alliteration. Especially on a leap year. This Friday, the 29th is the next installment of everyone’s favourite open house co-working day, Freelancer Friday. At this point I would make some smart-alec remark about how Freelance Fridays would only fall on a leap every x-number of years, however, I can’t be bothered working it out (I’m sure someone out there who will) so instead I’ll point you at the wiki, where you can put your name down. Hurry, time is limited.

Freelancer Friday – 2008 Edition

I can’t believe we are almost 0.083333% of the way through the year. By now everyone should be back at work – those of us at the Silicon Beach House are. Well as a result, Freelancer Fridays are back! Keeping with the “Last friday of the month” timeline, the next Freelancer Friday is on 25 January at the Silicon Beach House – Level 2, 90 King St, Perth WA. Turn up anytime between 9am and 5pm.

If you are interested in turning up (as always) add your name to the Work@Jelly wiki.

Today, I was discussing with one of the housemates, Angela about the problems in finding other freelancers when you need to do something outside of your skill set. We discussed what I called Company-as-a-Service and came to the conclusion that Freelancer co-ops were definitely plausible. Well, to facilitate some better communication between us freelancers, I’ve created a Google Group: http://groups.google.com/group/australian-freelancers. If your are a freelancer, please sign up, that way we can all support each other, and find experts when we need them!

Hot or Not

Call it lazy blogging, but the beginning of a new year is a perfect opportunity to write a list post. I’m not going to call the list below predictions for 2008 as there is absolutely no scientific basis for any of this, so I’m calling it Hot or Not – stuff that I think/want to be hot in 2008 and stuff that I would love to see head to the big TCP/IP stack in the sky.

OAuth: Hot. Anything that brings some sort of order to the big bad world of web APIs is a good thing. If you haven’t seen it yet, it is a specification that describes a method for token-based access to third party applications. So now there is really no excuse for that confounding social network to ask for your usernames and passwords to all of your other confounding social networking sites, just so it can spam have access to all of your friends.

Confounding Social Network sites: Not. OK. That is enough. I am over been bamboozed at the sight of another social network that has no direction, meaning or business model. The concept behind a social network is cool – we used to call them forums, remember – but it is now officially out of control. To the “entrepreneurs” behind them – stop trying to kill Facebook, they have more money than you and careless less about their users than you ever could (Exception: Spock – You are still Satan’s spawn).

Software as a Service: Hot. It’s kinda like Web2.0 but this time with meaning. Bring back computing to what it was meant for – helping humans to do what they do. The web is the perfect delivery method for a lot of the desktop software we use everyday. Google has already shown us what can be done with apps like GMail and Google Docs and there is a myriad of web applications that have made the leap (If I can build one, anyone can). Pay for what you use, don’t worry about license fees any more, don’t worry about what happens when you hard drive crashes, or about deploying to all 500 machines in your organisation.

Advertising as a Business Mode: Not. The darling child of Web2.0/New Media/Social Networks. Unless your site is already doing the traffic of Google/YouTube/Facebook or your are a porn site, go and erase the “we will pay for our hosting via advertising” line from you business plan. Seconds thoughts, if you are Facebook, you should probably do the same (Nice work on beacon – at what point did that actually seem like a good idea?). Advertising only works if there is eyeballs a LOT of eyeballs on pages and if your target audience is the type that clicks on ads. And since every man and his dog has released a social network this week, you aren’t a unique snowflake. Get a real business plan first.

Mashups: Hot. Yeah, I know – these have been around since the first beta of Web 2.0 but it has never really extended much beyond adding a Google Map to your site. I think 2008 and will see some really cool productivity apps built leveraging the webservices of other web sites. I think that it may even spill over in to the corporate world – I’d love to see company intranets using webservices to customise workflows.

Getting VC funding then hoping to sell to <insert large company name here>: Not. Now, I have no problem with the concept of funding, or the hopes and dreams of having a large company with a bank balanace bigger than your phone number (including country and area code) throw you some bones, per se. Where I do draw the line, however is pitching with a business plan that can’t really pay back a return to the investor unless the business get bought out. Mind you, the investors really should know better – or maybe they are just much smarter than I am, who knows. Regardless, when this whole thing collapses in on it’s self, I’ll be dancing like it is on sale for $19.99…

Mobile: Hot. This is the next frontier for the web. Everyone has a mobile (some people two or three) and they are generally on their person at all times. Extend the SaaS idea to these small devices and you really will be able to get your stuff done when it suits. Again, this isn’t new, but there have been some advancements in technology and some new players who understand the web much better (that’s Google if you were wondering). I think 2008 is the year that see the mobile platform as a first-class netizen rather than something that the work experience kid gets to work on.

Using user data with out permission: Not: You would have by now seen my (MANY) rants about Spock and Facebook. Those playing in the dirty, back alleyways of social networking really need to take a long hard look at themselves. It’s my data, and I’d prefer it if you didn’t sell my browsing habits to the highest bigger. And don’t even think about scraping my data from other sites without my permission – they asked nicely, you didn’t.

Company-as-a-Service: Hot. Haven’t heard of this? That’s because I just made it up. We have seen Software-as-a-Service, Hardware-as-a-Service (eg Amazon EC2), so why not have have companies that can shrink, grow and churn as required? There are so many freelancers and consultants out there, as well as a huge number of micro businesses. If they all grouped together, they would be able to work on sites ranging from the very-very big to the very-very small. Many places kind of do this already (this is why contracting was invented) but I can see this working in a more peer-to-peer sort of way – you aren’t contracting for someone, you are contracting with someone (there is a remarkable difference).

New years lists: Not.

Leave a comment – Is this Hot or Not ;)

ByteMe!, PerthMassive and Freelancer Friday – take me where the web goes.

We are hurtling into the wacky end of the year – before you know it, we’ll all be drinking egg-nog and having seedy older men/women hitting on us at office Christmas parties (or vise-versa if you are said seedy man/woman). Well to celebrate, the Perth digital content community is throwing some awesome events over the next couple of weeks: Namely ByteMe! and PerthMassive,

ByteMe! is the brainchild of Kat “I must be taking something because it is impossible for one person to do the amount of stuff I do within a 28-hour day, let alone with in the bounds of current time” Black – it is a free week-long festival that will be show casing the best 1’s and 0’s of the Perth digital community. Not only that, there are some pretty god-damn kick-arse speakers (See for yourself). It it December 2-9 and did I mention free? Oh and AWIA will be running a BarCampNano on the Sunday from 1-4pm – so if you have anything you want to show the world in 20 minutes or less, rock up between those hours to the Perth Town Hall.

Speaking of AWIA, please note that there will be NO Port80 in December because of the biggest digital Christmas party this side of Omnicrone-4, Perth Massive is on! So free up your schedules for the 6th 4th of December 2007, and head over to the Library in Northbridge (The niteclub, not the repository of books) and meet-up with others that like to do what you do (Unless what you like to do is macrame – unless the macrame usergroup shows up). Also free. Free as in beer. And there is Free beer. Which is free as in – beer. Make sure you go and register though, so the organisers knowhow much free beer to get.

Oh, whilst I’m at it, We are having the next installment of our exciting Freelancer Friday initiative at the Silicon Beach house on Friday 30 November 2007. We had about half a dozen people last time which was awesome and since the last one have knocked down some walls and stuff (shh, don’t tell the landlord) so there is heaps more desk space now. If you are interested, drop me an email, or throw your name on the Work@Jelly wiki under Work@ Jelly Perth – Freelancer Friday.

So get your dancing frocks and red (Reebok) pumps and lets rock this Popsicle stand!

Freelancer Friday – come and hang out with us!

Anyone who has ever freelanced knows that being your own boss is great, but it can also be lonely. Being able to work in your pyjamas is convenient but not being able to bounce ideas off other people can be frustrating. As many of you know, I work in at the Silicon beach house which is a shared office space and we have a board room table and some couches that are less than utilised, which kinda made me think – we should have a freelancer day! And so you, kind people of the intarwebs, I present Freelancer Friday.

The idea is simple – bring your laptop and bring your work. We all sit around doing said work, but we can bounce ideas off each other, try different things out or just generally find was to distract each other :)

It is really similar (if not exactly the same) as the Work At Jelly initiative, so if you have heard of that, you will know what we are talking about.

So we will be running the first Freelancer Friday in two weeks on 26 October 2007 at the beach house – Level 2 Kings St, Perth. There will be someone there by 9, so any time after that is cool.

Grant and I are feverishly plugging away at building a web site around the idea, and it should be up soon, but we don’t have to wait for that. If you are interested, please email me on myles@madpilot.com.au

Edit: Oops, nearly forgot – if you aren’t in Perth and think the idea of a Freelancer Friday is cool, start your own one up! Invites some freelancing mates over to your house and get to work. It’s really easy to do. They don’t even have to web type people ;)

Freelancing 101 – Seven tips for managing your accounts

I’ve been freelancing under the moniker of MadPilot Productions on and off for nigh-on 7 years now and I’m the first to admit that making the books balance wasn’t always at the fore front of my mind. I’m a web developer – I need to develop! Unfortunately, running your own business means at some point you will have to deal with accounts and invoicing and the tax department. After all those years of battling my way through and making (expensive) mistakes, I have compiled a number of simple hints and tips that can help take the pain out of the financial side of things.

First my disclaimer: I’m not an accountant (ha!) and this might not be the most optimal way of doing things – but it does make it easier and is working for me. This is Australian specific, although I’m sure the general ideas will translate to other countries.

Register as a proper business

In Australia this is a really important step because you won’t be able to deal with Goods and Services Tax (GST) if your aren’t a registered business. You can register as a sole trader, which means you don’t need a company behind you. This is the easiest way, and usually isn’t going to cause to many headaches. I’m not going to cover the other types of business you can create (such as partnerships etc) as that can start getting complex, and you should really be taking advice from an accountant and/or a lawyer.

Once you have registered as a business you can apply for an Australian Business Number (ABN) and register for GST. Getting an ABN is optional, but I’d recommend doing it – it doesn’t cost you anything and if you don’t have one, other companies that you deal with are entitled to keep 46.5% of your invoices. So just get one.

Although you don’t need to register for GST if you are going to be making less than a threshold (it is currently $75,000) I would still do it. If you are small and you are good with you accounts it doesn’t take that much work, and it means you get to claim the GST back on any business related expenses!

All of this is explained in full at http://www.business.gov.au it also have links to the necessary forms to get you on your way.

Get a separate bank account

I personally find this the easiest way to manage expenses for your business. Having a separate statement at the end of the month is much easier than trying to sift through one HUGE single statement. It also means you can partition business money and personal money. If you ever get paid by cheque, you will need one as more often than not the cheque will be made out to you business name, not you personally – you can’t cash it if the names don’t match. Basic business accounts are usually pretty cheap and they are well worth it. Most banks will allow you to link your personal and business accounts via their online interface so transferring money between the two is easy.

When you are starting out, getting a business credit card can be nigh on impossible, but in this age of the web having one makes life MUCH easier. The solution is get a personal one (you are the only person using it if you a freelancer anyway) and pay any business expenses back from your business account. Many banks also have Visa or Mastercard debit accounts so if you don’t trust yourself with credit, this is another option. Unfortunately, these cards are generally only available to individuals not businesses, so you will still need another business account.

Get an accounting package

This is something that most new freelancers don’t think about, because they aren’t free and it seems like an expense that is hard to justify. Hopefully this will justify it: The accounting packages will help you see hidden expenses that you have forgotten about, such as TAX! When you work for someone else, they take care of the tax you need to pay. Unfortunately, since you are now your own employer, you are responsible for paying it. How much do you need to pay? No idea – that is what the accounting package is for.

There are many options – in Australia, MYOB and Quicken are the most popular choices, but have interfaces that suck. Thankfully there are some other options, such as the online system: NetAccounts which is what I use. These have a myriad of options so can take a little work to get used to but it is worth it, especially at Business Activity Statement (BAS) time – you click a button and it tells you how to fill it in – well worth the couple of hundred bucks you need to lay down to get it.

Get an accountant

You wouldn’t trust an accountant to do their own website, why should you do your own tax? They know the tax system better than you, so let them deal with it – if you follow my previous piece of advice and get an accounting package it should be a walk in the park for them. It’ll probably set you back a couple of hundred, but it could cost you a lot more if you did it wrong.

Get income insurance

If you get injured and can’t work, you are pretty well screwed. This is where income insurance can be really helpful. If you are in low-risk industry such as IT, it can be pretty cheap (mine is about $13 a week) and if you get injured they will pay out 75% of your income until you are fit enough to go back to work. Have a chat with an insurance broker – they can point you in the right direction.

Track your time

This is especially important if you change by the hour. It is all too easy to lose track of time and go over budget on a project. If you track your time well, you can warn a client if they are about to hit their budget limit BEFORE it happens and it also allows you to go back through your records when you are quoting in new jobs. If the job you did two months ago took 10 hours and is similar to the new job request you just got, you have a pretty accurate estimate.

Many people use spreadsheets for this, which I hated – so I wrote 88 Miles which is a simple time tracking system specifically for freelancers and small businesses. There I’ve plugged it!

Treat yourself as an employee

Ok, this sounds weird, but hear me out. A good general rule of thumb is that 2/3 of the money you bring in is going to go straight back out as expenses and tax (sucks huh?) so if you work that out as your wage you are less likely to find yourself short when all the bills come around. At the end of each week (or fortnight or month – what ever is easiest based on your cash flow), transfer 1/3 of what you brought in to your personal account. This is your money, and you can do with it what you like. Paying rent and buying food is always good and hopefully you have some left over to have a bit of fun.

DON’T TAKE ANY MORE OUT OF YOUR BUSINESS ACCOUNT! The business account if for the business – I can’t stress this enough.

If you have regular enough income, you can even setup the payroll facility of your accounting package to allocate you your pay each pay period. The benefit of this is it will take into account tax and superannuation. If this is the case, you can work on paying yourself 2/3 – the extra 1/3 will most probably end up going to the tax department, so you won’t see it anyway.

Example:

You are charging $50 an hour. Let’s say you can manage 5 hours of billable work a day and that you want to take holidays at some point (the standard is to treat one year as 260 days) you will be bringing in $65,000 a year. 1/3 of that is about $21,000 a year. The tax on $65,000 is roughly $15,000 so our estimate is close. So you will have $400 per week in your pocket for living and about $400 a week for running your business.

The great thing about this method is that you should have money left over, which means you should be able to go on a little spending spree at the end of the financial year, but more importantly if you get sick or want to take holidays, or god forbid the work dries up for a period, you still have some money in the bank to cover your expenses (for a while).

Hopefully this can help you freelancers out there run a successful business. The industry is pumping at the moment, so there isn’t a better time to go out on your own – just make sure you are smart about it.