10 Things Freelancers Do Instead of Work

Oh yes I recognize (some) of these…

Freelance Sacks

Fess up. You’ve done it too. We’re all guilty of sacking off work in favour of some delightful procrastination from time to time. When we tell clients that ‘the project will take a little longer than we first anticipated’, these are the real reasons why:

10 Things Freelancers Do Instead of Work

1) Watch daytime TV. (Preferably ‘Catfish’ – not just entertaining but also made by fellow freelancers so less guilt ridden.)

2) Make another pot of coffee and combine it with a cigarette/ facebook browse.

3) A little afternoon delight😉

4) Surf the net for sports news/houses we know we can’t afford to buy *sigh*.

5) Do household chores. (Sometimes loading the dishwasher sadly is more enticing than sitting at the laptop.)

6) Writing to-do lists/schedules/goals. (This can trick you into feeling productive despite knowing that really you should be working on the last list you made…)


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The People-to-Work Ratio

I was watching an old talk by Marissa Mayer the other day. She talked about her career at Google (this was before she became the CEO of Yahoo).  She said a lot of interesting things, but a few days later I only remember a couple. It’s funny how the mind works; the little details that stick out tend not to be their author’s main message, but maybe a useful little insight or a revealing turn of phrase.

At one point Marissa Mayer mentioned that one aspect of working at Google that she enjoyed is the fact that there is more work than people. No matter how many employees Google hires, the challenges they take on are so numerous and so broad that everyone will always be overloaded with work.

I’m not sure how much this still applies to today’s Google, but for many years the company retained a structure akin to a conglomerate of start-ups, with small and autonomous engineering teams tackling big problems and  the ‘20% time’ policy to encourage employees to implement their own ideas. The general idea is not to throw more people at problems. To keep a lot of people productive and motivated  it’s best to divide them into small groups and give each one their own product to make and their own market to address. I’m sure that as it grows Google is starting to see more politics and bureaucracy but I’d wager that it is nowhere near as bad as other companies with a similarly large payroll.

Like Google during its infancy, start-ups are small and don’t have a lot of means. Each person is perpetually in the situation of having too much work and needing to choose where their efforts should be focused. Start-ups are unburdened by politics, long meetings and, for the most part, slow decision-making.  While this puts pressure on each individual, it also enables more freedom and less people-related stress. And a lot more gets done in the process.

I’ve worked at large government entities and a large bank. In those places, the people-to-work ratio is much higher. The bank alone has five times as many employees as Google, but its ambitions are markedly lower. That’s not to say that there is little work to do, but the projects that receive funding and recognition from top management are few in number, so everyone ends up fighting for a small piece of the same pie. Failure to be part of one of these key activities leads to fewer chances of advancement and greater risk of losing your job. Decisions are taken by committee, and failing to invite someone who sees himself as a key stakeholder to a review meeting will earn you a figurative slap in the face.  This in turn makes people more interested in covering their behinds and hiding behind bureaucracy than focusing on innovation, gradually turning bright and ambitious people into pointy-haired managers.

Even the (large) consulting company I was working for at the time, although much more nimble and efficient than these organizations, was afflicted by an unfavorable people-to-work ratio. To move up in the company, you needed to get credit for a large project. Since large projects were rare, every executive would try to get a foothold on a big one in some way. That’s not to say that the company was paralyzed by politics and infighting. Many teams were focused on doing great work, but much of what they did wasn’t valued by the company’s stack ranking assessment system.

Many freelancers work at large bureaucratic companies, and in some ways they are the saviors of this flawed operating model. Freelancers are outsiders who need to keep justifying their rate by doing quality work every day. They aren’t looking for a career at the company so they aren’t interested in politics. I’ve seen entire departments that were effectively run by contractors. But even their intrinsic motivation falters if they are forced to contend with politics and bureaucracy on a regular basis.

Many freelancers will still prefer working in an environment where they are the only ones who are getting anything done. This has to do with job security and higher rates, which are easier to find if you work for one large client instead of several smaller ones. But these jobs are in short supply. The others need to find clients the hard way. Elance/oDesk and similar sites feature quite a high freelancer-to-work ratio – real or perceived – as applying for a gig means going up against dozens of other freelancers around the world and competing on price. That’s why most freelancers prefer to find work by other means –via referrals or their own website.  Clients who seek out a specific freelancer are much more likely to have a lower people-to-work ratio.

I wonder whether the world of work will forever be divided in this way or whether the overall people-to-work ratio will decline in years to come. In any case I’ve made my mind up about which type of organization I’m interested in working for.

Ideas and execution

If you ask an entrepreneur with any kind of experience, he will tell you that start-up ideas are a dime a dozen. What is really difficult to achieve, and therefore valuable, is the implementation of one of these ideas into both a product and a business.

Not so long ago a friend of mine and I decided to sacrifice a week of holidays (this was during my recent ten-year stint as an employee) to spend time together booting a start-up. For much of the time we talked, researched our area of interest, despaired at the number of competitors in our space, scratched our assumptions every few hours and proceeded to strategize more.

In fact we did nothing but strategize for an entire week. Our start-up never got off the ground – although we figured we had some pretty novel ideas that might just enable us to make a mark. When you read start-up post mortems offered up in hindsight by recovering entrepreneurs, you find that they regret the endless hours of brainstorming. If given the chance to start over, they would simply get to work on prototyping and getting early feedback from real clients.

Because that’s what this start-up thing really boils down to. It’s not the most novel idea that wins – it’s who actually gets it done. Peering from outside the day-to-day grind of one-to-one marketing, bug fixing, communication, customer relationship, growth hacking, admin and devops, it’s easy to miss it. Famous start-up stories point to so-called overnight successes and heap praise on a visionary entrepreneur for the brilliance and simplicity of his business idea. But they gloss over the months and years of toil, repeated failures, rejections and just plain hard work.

If you want to measure a start-up’s chances of success, the perceived merits of its central idea is probably the least important thing to look at. It’s difficult to predict which ideas are the really good ones – and intuition is seldom a good guide in this. Most successful start-ups have tweaked their main ideas, or changed them outright, before reaching product-market fit. A company that perseveres on the wrong idea will fail – and what’s worse they might take a long time to fail and spend a lot of investors’ money along the way.

So what should you look for in a start-up to estimate their likelihood of success? I’m a budding entrepreneur myself, so who I am I to tell you, but consider the four questions below:

Will the team be able to execute?

Do they have the needed skills to get there?

How fast are they going to market?

When will they run out of money?

If you have other views as to what makes a start-up likely to succeed, please share – I’d be more than  happy to discuss them with you!

In my next blog post I’ll tell you more about what I’ve been up to lately with my own project.

Small, ugly, and indestructible

Now that my MVP has been out for a couple of weeks it’s time to take out my dematerialized pen and scribble down some of my thoughts. It’s fair to say I haven’t kept my promise to myself that I would blog about my entrepreneurial adventures in the past few months. I guess I was just too taken by my project although that’s a lame excuse. I’ll reiterate this promise now and this time I mean it.

The concept that I ended up implementing has little to do with my initial idea. I was planning on creating a revolutionary e-learning platform that would enable people to learn real-world skills such as driving a car or riding a horse. My vision included a 3D interface, advanced graphics, a physics engine and artificial intelligence. Of course I needed to find talented people with whom to collaborate on this ambitious project – and I figured that I could use the power of crowdsourcing to achieve this. I looked at existing platforms and quickly decided that the collaboration site that I was looking for did not yet exist. I needed a place where people could collaborate on real work freely, showcase their talents and establish their skills through an advanced and precise reputation engine.  This is how Seven Days was born.

They say you’re doing it wrong if you’re not ashamed of your MVP. But I do find myself feeling prideful of the work I’ve done so far even though in its current form it’s still a far cry from the ultimate vision that I set out to bring to life. I guess it has a lot to do with some of the initial feedback I’m getting from my mentor and my first clients, brave alpha testers (which is another word for guinea pig) who expressed interest mingled in with varied advice and, let’s be honest, more than a bit of confusion and frustration after some initial forays into actually using the application.

Beyond giving me a todo list, the fact that I’m no longer coding by myself and pitching in abstracto but starting a conversation with actual users confers added motivation to iterate and improve the application. I’m obsessively measuring everything my users are doing – from page clicks to conversion rates – and the little data scientist within me is delighted at the information coming his way.

My approach to startup success is to be small, ugly and indestructible (as per Paul Graham’s famous words). That means living in a minimalistic fashion, eschewing many of the perks I enjoyed in my past life as a consultant. I don’t currently own a car; I’ve cancelled my sports club subscription and severely cut back on social expenses and vacations.  I’d like to say that it’s been difficult to make these sacrifices but it really hasn’t. The feeling of freedom that came with jettisoning some of these material comforts has come as a bit of a surprise.

I’ll leave you for now with a quick shout out to my fellow entrepreneurs – if you’re living the dream and working hard to make something magical happen, give me a sign!

More news from planet startup in coming weeks…

A Method to the Madness

When you’re starting up a new company, a great deal of advice tends to come your way. People will tell you to contact some well-known local entrepreneurs and investors, to attend start-up events and gatherings, to join a co-working space and to get a coach.

Some people warn that you shouldn’t discuss your ideas too openly, lest someone should steal it. Others argue that you should gather as much feedback about your idea as possible, and hence pitch it to everyone you meet.

As to where you should start, some people (including government officials in charge of supporting local entrepreneurship) will press you to write up a detailed business plan, a financial plan and a marketing plan. Not only is it critical to have these documents properly written up, they say, but the process of thinking them through is at least as important.

You will hopefully also meet people who are genuinely interested in what you’re trying to do, and who will ask about the specifics and challenge your thinking in constructive ways. One question that will inevitably pop up is where do you start? And, once you’ve started, how do you know you’re going in the right direction?

I recently read The Lean Startup by Eric Ries, which attempts to define a general methodology for budding entrepreneurs. While I think the terms ‘methodology’ and ‘scientific’ are perhaps a bit overused in the book given the rather high-level nature of the prescribed framework, I think that Ries succeeds in detailing an approach and a thought process as a guide to decision making in the context of a smart-up. Since the term was coined in 2008, the Lean Startup movement has gathered an impressive following.

The Lean Startup finds its origins in lean manufacturing techniques and agile software development, which most software engineers are familiar with these days. The author lists many examples of how the approach was followed successfully – knowingly or otherwise – in diverse companies including his own, although one can always argue that he spins a compelling narrative around a theory that is yet to produce well documented success stories in large numbers.

One of the Lean Startup’s principles is that Entrepreneurs are everywhere, which means that you don’t need to look for two-person start-ups to find entrepreneurs. Ries speaks of intrapreneurs in large companies and government positions trying to innovate in highly unpredictable environments. This got me thinking that I have probably been something of an intrapreneur these last three years working as a junior executive at a large consulting firm. I might say a bit more on that in an upcoming post.

The Lean Startup states that the first thing a startup should work on is a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) – an initial iteration on its envisioned product. The MVP must be released and put before real customers as soon as possible so as to collect feedback related to the initial assumptions underlying the business proposition. The author mentions two main assumptions which must be validated (or invalidated) in the early stages of a start-up’s existence – the assumption that customers will be interested in the product, and the assumption that the company will be able to grow its user base to achieve the desired scale. This should protect the company from a common situation in which the team works on a polished first release for months or even years, only to find that the market is not interested in the product it offers and the start-up is doomed to fail.

After the MVP has been released, data is collected and decisions are taken as to how the product should evolve in the next iteration. The idea is to collect actionable metrics which can help determine whether the team’s innovation efforts are actually paying off and leading the start-up to systemic growth rather than the land of the living dead (where the start-up survives but is unable to achieve any significant growth). What he calls vanity metrics (e.g. total number of registered clients at any point in time) should not be taken into account for decision-making.

The resulting Validated Learning enables a start-up to decide whether it should persevere in a certain direction or pivot away no progress can be measured. The start-up will have kept the focus solely on learning to know its customers and finding its product, and not spent any of its limited time and resources working on features that do not contribute to this learning process (hence the term ‘lean’). Ries claims that information gathered in this way is much more valuable than any prior market research can hope to achieve.

The book was thought provoking and I definitely have a number of takeaways. Obviously the Lean Startup methodology is still in its infancy – it will surely be fine-tuned and further detailed in years to come. This year it seems that Eric Ries has been focusing on getting venture capitalists on board the Lean Startup bandwagon in addition to entrepreneurs.

One criticism I’ve heard levelled at the Lean Startup is that it’s better suited to web-based or at least software-based startups, whereas physical products and truly innovative technologies required much more up-front investment (maybe this just means longer MVP lead time?). What’s also been interesting to find out is that even though the theory is still not widely known on the old continent, some of its concepts are already considered clichés and some of the terms employed above are seen as hackneyed in Silicon Valley.

I guess makes Lean Startup attractive to entrepreneurs is that it purports to protect against one of the leading causes of start-up failure, which is lack of product-market fit, at least if applied correctly. Let’s face it, if you’re starting your own company the odds are stacked against you. As I mentioned in my previous post, you need to be ever so slightly unhinged to make such a career move. It will take up all of your time and your chances of succeeding are slim, so anything than can decrease the risk is welcome.

What is immediately striking with the Lean Startup is that it goes against the conventional wisdom of spending time upfront writing business plans and doing a lot of market research before starting product development. Rather, it encourages you to ‘get out of the building’ as quickly as possible with as basic a product as you can come up with that still represents your vision.

I’m interested to know whether any of you have experience with other approaches that could serve as credible alternatives to the Lean Startup, or whether you have real-world experience of running a lean start-up that you would like to share.

Anyway thanks for reading, I’ll try to keep the posts coming the next few weeks and tell you a bit more about what I’m working on at the moment…

Why I am going into entrepreneurship (and why I am blogging about it)

For those who know me I’ve been talking about this for a little while now. Actually, for the better part of two years.

The way I see it, there are two kinds of entrepreneurs. There are those who are practically born into it, either from having been raised by entrepreneurs or from having picked up this mild form of insanity early in life. Some highly independent people have always been secure in the knowledge that they would eventually make a mark. And in doing so, their upbringing and early successes have made them confident that they would achieve the kind of recognition required to keep doing things their way. So why should they conform to the dreary conventions of formal education and/or a full-time job working at a bank or a government institution when they have been doing fine on their own since the age of 14?

Then there are those who followed the herd through university, job applications, decently-paying jobs offering comfort and security, a company car with leather upholstery, in more than a few cases  a feeling of belonging and self-betterment, and maybe even a chance to climb up the ladder. These people are a little bit at odds with what this way of life is leading them to, and they feel deep down that something will eventually happen to make them change their course and go do something they really want to do. They know they have a rebellious streak that got buried somewhere in the process, and that they aren’t quite living out the life they aspire to.

Depending on motivation and circumstance the latters may never take the plunge, too risk averse or lethargic to do anything about it until it’s too late. But some of them will gradually be pulled in. It’s starts slowly – curiosity creeps up and you start listening to stories of local and celebrity entrepreneurs, you google a couple of buzzwords and end up on sites like Techcrunch and Hacker News, and before you know it, thoughts of entrepreneurship dominate your strategic thinking sessions. You know, strategic thinking – that thing we’re supposed to devote several hours to every week, or better yet every day. It’s during these quiet moments that you take a step back from the messy whirlwind of everyday life to reflect on what you’re doing with your career, what makes you happy and where you see yourself five years from now.

I’m definitely in that last category. It’s been dawning on me over the past 24 months or so that I am not fundamentally a consultant, even though that’s exactly what the opening line of my job description has stated for the past ten years. I’ve been lucky to work at a company that has offered me plenty of opportunities to grow as a professional. I’ve worked on custom developed solutions for various large clients, either programming myself or managing teams of programmers and getting to learn about sales and customer relationship management while travelling the world and meeting great people.

Once you’ve invested a lot of time and effort into your career at a major consultancy firm, it’s really difficult to call it quits. I’ve had several offers to join start-ups as an associate in the meantime but I’ve turned them all down, sometimes after extended deliberation. I guess it was partly because I wasn’t quite ready to shake off my career consultant pretense, but mostly because I had not co-founded any of these start-ups and didn’t feel engaged enough by their plans and prospects.

For the last ten years I’ve been implementing other people’s ideas. Never mind that I had to start on a new project from scratch every two years and with a new team (typically including a number of junior guys), I just found it increasingly unbearable to work on concepts of applications that were not even partly my own. After all the long hours, the effort and trepidation of delivering a large scale application, it’s jarring that the resulting product does not belong to you in any way.

I will concede that in a couple of instances the clients requested my input often when it came to defining the product roadmap, and made every effort to make me feel involved at every stage of the design process. In that respect I felt some small measure of shared product ownership, but nothing close to how an entrepreneur feels about his own creation.

But is that the main reason for leaving a company where I was well regarded and increasingly well rewarded for my efforts? There is something else, altogether deeper and more subtle. Every time I wrap up a project, or at least my involvement in one, and start on something fresh, I know it’s going to take several months if not years for the team to come up with a serviceable application, let alone a polished one. The question that was increasingly difficult for me to answer was what am I doing this for? Am I simply trying to further my career by taking part in another transactional web portal for another large financial services company?

In those aforementioned quiet times of strategic thinking, a little voice inside me whispers that I should be part of something important. What constitutes important work differs from one person to the next, but I no longer regard building another transactional web portal for another enterprise client as important as I used to. I would rather try to find a solution to one of humanity’s major problems or to develop a novel idea with the potential to improve our society. Such lofty goals may sound laughable but after years of working on projects that I feel don’t ultimately matter much, that little voice sounds less comical and more difficult to ignore.

In the end the main reason that has driven me to quit my job and take up a frugal entrepreneur’s life is that I want to spend all my working hours on something that I feel actually matters.  I want 2013 to count – not that 2012 didn’t count but in terms of my professional life, it was more of a transition year.

Since I’m also an aspiring writer, I’d like to use this blog as an outlet to express my thoughts going forward. I plan on writing about the trials and tribulations of an entrepreneur’s daily life and perhaps discuss product strategy, technology, management and whatnot. We’ll see – I give myself no rigid schedule or list of themes that I need to cover. I would rather go with the flow, so the blog may end up closer to a personal journal than a start-up’s status report, with a few quirky digressions sprinkled in for good measure.

I enjoy writing and I hope my blogging will ultimately prove useful, namely as a means to:

  • force myself to gather my thoughts and express my problems, concerns and decisions regularly and in as formal a way as possible
  • reach out to others and collect advice and opinions about what I am doing
  • maybe come across with some of my ideas and help make my company more visible in the great wide ocean that is the Internet these days

I suppose I’m also hoping for some feedback from readers, whoever they might be and assuming that somebody actually agrees to go through my ramblings from time to time. Maybe some of the information will come in handy to someone, who knows? Otherwise it will all just be for me, and regardless of the outcome of my adventure I’m sure I will look back fondly on my first entries, bringing me back to that naïve wantrepreneur that I was in early 2013…

So if you made it through this entire first post, congrats! You are one of my first readers, and I’d really appreciate it if you would leave a comment or reach out to me on twitter (@vassvdm) with your thoughts, counsel or just words of encouragement. I’ve purposefully left out a lot of details about myself, my background, my product idea, where I live, who I work with, etc. I leave that for upcoming posts, so if you’re interested you’ll have to read more!

Happy New Year to all, and let’s make 2013 matter.