Freelance tips, two years in

[Edit: I was interviewed by The Freelance Web about these tips – hear me talk about this stuff over here]

So we’re just signing off our accounts for the second year of Thirty8 Digital (crazy business: two years? Where the hell did that go?). Things have been brilliant so far ~clutches hard at large piece of wood~ and I wouldn’t now do anything apart from work for myself.

I just got an email from my friend and ex-colleague Frankie Roberto, telling me he’s going freelance and asking for some tips. I have much to say about this stuff, and stopped myself writing him a thesis, but thought it might be interesting to throw the things I said into a quick blog post.

So here it is, the things I’ve taken away from the first two years of business:

> Get an accountant, it’s worth every single penny

> Don’t bother with stuff like FreeAgent, at least until things get much more complicated. Use Google Docs instead and save yourself the monthly fee.

> Find a blinding host if you’re going to be doing that stuff (ours is Vidahost, who are bloody brilliant: disclaimer, here’s an affiliate link… http://my.vidahost.com/aff.php?aff=1450).

> Try to avoid really low budget stuff, even though you’ll probably have to do that shit when you first get started just to get rolling – but in my experience the people who have £500 to spend on a website almost always want a £5000 website, whereas those who have £5000 to spend probably want a £5000 one…

> Genuinely under-promise and over-deliver. It’ll hurt a bit now, but later on people will come back because of it.

> Run your entire business life out of Google Docs. There really isn’t a viable alternative, which might hurt from a privacy perspective but you’re going to have to live with that right now.

> It’s hackneyed, but *everything* takes twice as long as you think. Make sure your estimates reflect this.

> Back every bastard thing up in at least three different places. This includes files, images, code, websites, everything. You probably knew that already, but worth making sure 🙂

> Introduce lots of people to lots of other people. I’m pretty sure there’s a karma thing going on here somewhere..

> Fix a single rate for everything you do, and then apply a discount if you want to do things cheaper for, say, a specific sector or client. It’ll make them feel good that you’re cutting prices for them and it won’t force you to do something over-complicated with your pricing.

That’s mine. What are yours?

Block

I’m 17,000 or so words into my first novel and I realise I’ve been suffering a bit of writers’ block. It’s probably been a couple of months if I think about it realistically. I now see I’ve been in avoidance mode, ostriching the fact that I couldn’t get past this particular issue, and it’s been bugging the shit out of me.

I’ve realised for a while from friends who write or from poking the web that cracking on and just bloody writing is a good strategy for doing fiction. But it is also the case that a bulk of text this size needs a good (sorry: office bingo alert) “helicopter view” to make it flow. I’ve got a plan, of course, and a plot (yay), but there was a crucial motivation thing missing for my main protagonist – Palmer – that I’ve been really stuck with. For the last two months this one question has been whirling around my head: Why the hell would he do what I need him to do? 

(What I need him to do, by the way, is to leave his hugely successful company and the love of his life and run away from it all so he can live in isolation in the arse end of nowhere…) (oh, and later in the book head back to the company to face his demons..)… so the motivation had to be big, overwhelming, unstoppable.

I’ve come up with pages and pages of notes riffing around the motivation that might make this rupture happen, and things got fanciful and weird and then frankly terribly unbelievable – and then I read the amazing, emotional and heart-lifting last interview with the brilliant Iain Banks:

“…only real life can get away with the really outrageous stuff. The trouble with writing fiction is that it has to make sense, whereas real life doesn’t. It’s incredibly annoying for us scribblers. A lot of the time you’re simply deciding how far down the path of unlikeliness you can go while still retaining the willing suspension of disbelief in the reader…you’re trying to decide how much you can get away with”

…and realised that this needed to be blindingly simple to make it believable.

And finally, I’ve got it. It came to me yesterday after about a hundred beers. I’m not going to tell you what the motivation is – just, you know, so you buy my BESTSELLER when I finally get it done (the butler did it)…but needless to say, it’s terribly simple, and I think (think) will work beautifully to tie up a whole bunch of stuff I needed to tie up.

So yay to breaking the block, and thank you to the gods of beer for helping out.

Meanwhile, as they say, here’s an excerpt. Just to give a bit of context, this is the first time the crack underlying the business (it’s a kind of virtual reality escapism holiday company, if you must know..) shows, and things start to go to shit:

>>>

We’d been back at the beach for the day, hanging out and enjoying exploring an environment which I’d designed out there but had no recollection of. The sun was setting and bright stars emerged in the clear sky as we walked back along the beach towards the boat. Suddenly, Lang stumbled, half falling, and ending up on his knees, his head in his hands. I thought he was just drunk, and sat down next to him. Then I turned to speak to him and saw with shock that his eyes were wet with tears, his jaw clenched and his upper body shaking.
Behind us in the darkness of the jungle, a long, loud moan rose up, ripping the quiet night air with its intensity. The yacht, the sea edge, the deck chairs – all suddenly faded and we were pitched into an impenetrable blackness. Lang cried out; the noise from the jungle stopped briefly, and then there was the sound of hard galloping hooves, heading inexorably in our direction, louder and more intense, pounding at what was once sand. My heart was thumping as I reached for Lang, pulling him upright and beginning to run. I could feel his breathing, and his terror, and it matched and built with my own until we were both screaming with the intensity and running as hard as we could, holding on to each other for fear of losing it – whatever the fuck “it” was – completely. Behind us, the noise increased in volume, the hooves dashing down against the ground, a rush of air as the noise gained on us.
The darkness was absolute. I knew and understood nothing apart from fear; a primal fear of the thing behind us but also a deeper, stronger fear of being left alone – alone in this place, with the darkness and the noise. Lang obviously felt the same: we ran holding on to each other, stumbling over each other, pulling each other up, willing ourselves to get the fuck away from whatever was making the noise.
Suddenly the darkness was split by a flash of white light and I saw the thing, reared up on its back legs, its horrific red mouth poised open above Lang’s head. I pushed him to one side and struck out forwards as hard as I could with my fist but I hit nothing but air. The light came on again, and then again, beginning to strobe. I turned with my back to Lang, and we twisted a circle together, back to back, staring outwards into the beyond. Whatever it was had evaporated and instead the space was filled with people, their faces twisted in pain and suffering. With horror, I realised I recognised some of them: Lang’s brother, his father, his mother, shuffling forwards as their broken, bloody arms flailed towards our centre. Lang just stood and screamed, frozen like a rabbit in headlights, the horror burnt on him. I fell to my knees, and covered my ears, needing the rasping sound of Lang’s terror out of my head, unable to offer him any more comfort or solace.
Suddenly, the light stopped flashing, and with one fluid movement, the figures receded and were gone. I suddenly found strength from somewhere and pulled mentally upwards with everything I had, feeling myself slipping back into the darkness for a moment, but just about managing to open my eyes and pull myself up and out. I ripped the headset off and opened my eyes again, and instead of the darkness or the beach, I was back in the kitchen, slumped forwards on the table, the computer still chattering away as the hard drive worked on the simulation…

Real men

I had an idea for a thing – but I don’t know if it’s an event thing or a blog thing or a gathering thing or just a thing thing, or maybe not even a thing at all.

Also, I’m in Devon in order to do less developing of things, so maybe it’s just a “put it in the list for later” thing.

But anyway.

Men, right, they’re all about BEER and WIMMIN and CARS and FOOTBALL and NOT TALKING ABOUT STUFF and DEFINITELY NOT CRYING and BEER and COMPUTERS and WIMMIN and GAMING and BEER?

No?

No. The very best men I know – the ones I keep in touch with and consider my real, proper, bestest friends – are sensitive and funny in a non-PHOAR way, and maybe cry every so often and read books and may like the odd car or two but still wonder about the meaning of it all and don’t always feel terribly secure and aren’t afraid to say so in front of other men and (frankly, maybe this is sexist or out-dated or something – sorry) have a bit more of a feminine side to their nature..

And I like that, because I might at times be a brash bastard (and social media doesn’t help with this, it has to be said – sorry) but inside I’m all of those things too. And there’s nothing I hate more than watching a room full of men trying to be all ALPHA and hiding their fears and pretending to be BRAVE when really they’re probably full of fear about where the next paycheque comes from or how to tell their wife that they love them or how to express that they’re depressed.

Then there’s the kids. Mrs E and I are bringing our two boys up with bows and arrows and tents and exploring and Lego – but we’re also helping them cook and read and paint and create and hug and cry and knit and tell us how they feel inside – and our biggest thing is to make them realise that this is all OK, in fact it’s better than OK, it’s really the only way to be. End of.

And I wondered if a kind of League Of Sensitive Men or a Gaggle of Sensitive Dads or something might be a good thing to help support men in realising that this stuff is a good thing and should be encouraged. But I don’t know what that thing might be.

Just thought I’d throw that out there.

Peace

x       <– man kiss

Teetering

Writing – whether a new song or a bit of fiction – is very often like walking along a thin wire over an abyss. The abyss isn’t death but the loss of the idea – if you look down too long, or think too hard about the almost intangible thing you are running through your brain then it’ll go, just like that, and it’ll never come back.

That crucial moment when an idea is just forming is the most precious, fragile thing – you’re a matter of seconds away from falling off the edge. All it takes is one of your kids to ask you a question, for the phone to go, a text to arrive.. and your idea has gone, tumbling down over the edge into nothing.

This is why I find rapid, easy to use tools are absolutely key to the creative process. For music, it’s either Audio Memos on my phone or a piece of paper on the piano (and a totally non-stavelike and slightly quirky musical notation system I seem to use in preference to writing down real notes..). For writing, it’s a paper notebook or Simple Note. When I’ve caught it with one of these, the fear of losing an idea subsides – and that’s when I can turn to more serious tools like Ableton Live or Scrivener to shape and hone.

What’s interesting though is how many times I tend to come back to the original rough-edged bits – a terrible, static-laden recording of a guitar or a half nonsense scribbled down in the middle of the night. These snippets start off as the most fragile thing but further down the line they quite often turn out to be the most important part of the whole idea…

Never enough time?

Lots of people have heard of Parkinson’s Law:

Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion

Anyone who has worked for any length of time knows this to be true. Looking at it from another angle, you’re never quite finished – yes, you finish projects, empty inboxes, get through to-do lists but there’s always, always something else.

When you work for someone else, this is ok – you reach your lunch break or 5.30 or whenever you’re due to stop and as long as you know you’ve done what you can and your boss isn’t going to fire you / shout at you / give the job to someone else, you find it easy(ish) to walk away.

The challenge is however made very different when you work for yourself. Then, those outside constraints – the “it-really-is-time-to-stop” alarm clock – don’t exist.

I reckon there are three main reasons why this is:

1. Your edges – your work-life balance – aren’t so clearly cut. This might be because physically they’re blurred – i.e. you work from home and your desk is also your dinner table; or it might be more about the intangible – you can (and do) access your email at any time of the night and day. Your business becomes your life and your life becomes your business.

2. It’s YOUR thing – your business, your company, your idea, your reputation – saying “fuck it, I need to stop” becomes infinitely much harder when you’re embedded in something you believe and have invested in.

3. There genuinely isn’t an end to the work that needs to be done when you’re working for yourself. Yes, you might have got to inbox-0, got all the client work out of the way and done your invoicing, but there’s always the improvements, the business development, the file shuffling, receipt printing, content writing….

I’ve worked for myself running a digital agency with my wife now for coming up to two years. I love it, and we both work extremely hard at it, but I’ve only recently come to see that a positive acceptance of Parkinson’s Law (rather than a resistance to it) is a hugely important thing for the self-employed. I know far too many people (you know who you are) who work for themselves and stress the hell out of their entire lives 24/7. They might be doing incredible stuff, but many of them spend their weekends and evenings working and their lives stressing.

By positively accepting that I’ll never, ever get everything done – and it’s ok for this to be the case – I have found it hugely much easier to find a sane, guilt-free, family-friendly work/life balance. As an example, we’re now working to a 9am-3pm daily schedule (which fits in with school hours) and try to use Thursdays and Fridays as “look ahead” days to develop new ideas and processes. The short day thing is highly effective – we get as much done in those intensive 6 hours than we would in a “normal” day of 8 hours AND I get the pleasure of hanging out with my kids after school too. The Thursday/Friday thing is challenging at times as client work almost always tries to invade time set aside for future-thinking, but we’re getting better at being disciplined with this. Evenings and weekends are – with very, very occasional exceptions – sacred, set aside for non-work stuff.

It seems to me that one of the huge luxuries of working for yourself – and one that surprisingly few self-employed people I know take advantage of – is the flexibility to choose when NOT to work.

Innocent: nothing to fear

So the whole NSA thing kicked off and the entire internet is full of commentary, as you’d expect.

As with any new piece of news, HUGE REVELATION is followed by some detailed picking apart. (Right now, the biggie seems to be the “what does ‘direct access’ to servers actually mean?” – next up, “Why did Edward Snowden identify himself as the whistleblower?”).

The interesting thing about this debating is that although it’s clearly a good thing to pick apart potentially sensationalist bits of broad-brush news “YOU ARE BEING SPIED ON” and focus on the detail “WHAT DOES ‘SPYING’ MEAN IN THIS CONTEXT?”, there is also – I think – a danger that if the focus becomes too specialised you not only lose audience interest and impetus as the detail is debated by experts in that particular niche field, but you also potentially lose sight of the big picture.

This picture seems to me to be the single most important thing, and it echoes Snowden’s stated reasons for coming forward:

I don’t want to live in a society that
does these sorts of things

This isn’t about the detailed debate as to whether this kind of surveillance helps or hinders terrorism, this isn’t about what “metadata” is in this context, it isn’t even about where particular allegiances lie. It’s about the flavour of the place we want to create as a civilised, intelligent and compassionate society.

In debating the importance of privacy with friends, the most common response is this: “I’m innocent. I have nothing to fear”, and it is almost exactly these words that the British government is using in pretty much every interview I’ve heard about NSAgate. “British citizens have nothing to fear” said Malcolm Rifkind on Radio 4 today: sub-text: “If you’re guilty, fear. If you’re not, fear not”.

Really? So you’re happy sitting in a pub chatting to your friends for a total stranger to pull up a chair and listen in to you talking about the fact you fancy the barman? You’re ok with someone borrowing your phone and looking at the last ten numbers you dialled? You have no problem at all with someone totally unknown friending you on Facebook, or reading your diary? You’re innocent, right, so all of this is ok to you? “It’s just metadata” you say – “the Government doesn’t know what we said, they just know we you said it to, and that’s ok”.

Well look, here’s what the EFF says about metadata:

> They know you rang a phone sex service at 2:24 am and spoke for 18 minutes. But they don’t know what you talked about.
> They know you called the suicide prevention hotline from the Golden Gate Bridge. But the topic of the call remains a secret.
> They know you spoke with an HIV testing service, then your doctor, then your health insurance company in the same hour. But they don’t know what was discussed.
> They know you received a call from the local NRA office while it was having a campaign against gun legislation, and then called your senators and congressional representatives immediately after. But the content of those calls remains safe from government intrusion.
> They know you called a gynecologist, spoke for a half hour, and then called the local Planned Parenthood’s number later that day. But nobody knows what you spoke about.

The thing is, the surveillance state that can be developed today is abusable in a way that is entirely unprecedented. Is there anyone out there who can genuinely claim that they have never tweeted or posted a comment, visited a website, sent a text, received an email which – if taken out of context – couldn’t be used in nefarious ways by the next Government or employer who wasn’t quite so happy that you went on that anti-war march ten years ago? I don’t think so. The “innocence” of your actions is in the eyes of the beholder; this innocence is contextual and changing with time and with circumstance. Blanket, panopticon-like surveillance of the kind described by Snowden sets a wholly dangerous precedent.

The bigger point is surely this: do we want to live in a society where someone is watching all the time?

However “innocent” you are, I don’t think you do.

New tune – Flight

After I discovered that the amazing Vector Lovers used a piece of iOS software called NanoStudio to write an entire (very awesome) album – iPhonica – I obviously had to download it and have a play.

My first public outing – as usual for me a non-finished work in progress – is below and GOT A POSITIVE COMMENT BY VECTOR LOVERS – deeply chuffed about that:

At £9.99, NanoStudio is a bit of a spend but I have to say it’s easily the best sequencing software I’ve ever used on a mobile device – a lovely combination of powerful and easy to use. I now use it all the time on my iPad mini to throw down ideas when I’m out and about. Interestingly, it turns out that Blip Interactive – the software studio that developed the app – are based in Bradford on Avon so I’ve been in touch with them about talking at a BathCamp in the future…

Anyway. This particular number was written by the poolside while on holiday and then honed on an Easyjet flight back to the UK 🙂