“Free” lance

It’s generally thought that the earliest written usage of the word “Freelance” was in Walter Scott’s historical novel Ivanhoe, written in 1820:

I offered Richard the service of my Free Lances, and he refused them—I will lead them to Hull, seize on shipping, and embark for Flanders; thanks to the bustling times, a man of action will always find employment.

So this was a two-word construction – a free lancer, a medieval fighter who would battle for whichever side offered to pay them the best wage. (Already, this sounds kind of familiar…)

Battles aside, what’s interesting about the phrase is the word “free”. This is someone who has freedom: an ability to choose their own path – to follow the work, follow the money, determine their own way through a working life.

Freedom is what motivates many freelancers, myself included. It’s been 7 years since I last worked for someone else in a traditional sense: 7 years that I’ve been deciding my own direction, waking up and deciding whether to go to work or sit on my arse for the day, 7 years of trying and failing to work out whether there is such a thing as a “balanced cashflow”. 7 years where I’ve been able to decide to dip out for a day, a week or a month ..and so on..

“Free” is all well and good, but at it’s heart, the basic freelance equation for most of us* goes something like this:

do more work -> get more money

..which quickly becomes this:

Take a holiday -> get less money.
Take time off sick -> get less money.
Spend time with the kids -> get less money.
Look at the sea -> get less money.
Take time out to meditate -> get less money.
Go for a run -> get less money.

..which ultimately boils down to..

DO ANYTHING OTHER THAN WORK -> get less money

[* this is of course if you work (like most freelancers do)
with clients, and not (as many freelancers aspire to)
with some kind of product ]

Store than in your mind for a moment, and now pop the person who is dealing with this already hard equation into an environment in which they’re working on their own – possibly with a partner, but ostensibly without a supportive organisational structure to hold them up. Now throw in some “I don’t know if there will be any work at all next month, I’d better say yes to this bit” and it becomes clear why freelancing can quickly become anything but “free”. Stress is high amongst us, and it’s easy to see why.

On the other hand… this is the most liberating, exciting, wonderfully deterministic way of living that there is. For me, this has been, and continues to be, bloody brilliant. I love it, and have absolutely no idea how I’d ever work for someone else. It’d almost definitely be a disaster [note to self to not include this on my CV] if I ever found myself in a more “traditional” business with a boss and a fixed week.

But: there is no doubt that I have to fight to retain balance – which means I have to actively watch the way I live. Watching in this way reminds me very much of mindfulness practice – it’s about observing the self, being aware at all time as to what is meshing, and what is crashing. Sometimes I get it wrong (for me, my indicator of things being out of kilter is that I begin to suffer nasty bouts of insomnia) but it is only after a bunch of years doing this that I am getting to know myself and my ways. I don’t get it right all the time: I’m still very much a novice, and I learn new things all the time.

The finding of this balance is what I find interesting, and what I intend to write more about in future posts. I see freelance as something which has to be viewed holistically. Living a freelance life has (almost by its “free” definition) to involve fitness, good eating, balance of work and life, family – as well as all those things we’ve already been fairly exhaustive as a community in writing about: to-do software, deep work, attention deficit, limiting mobile use, and so on.

So: coming up – some thoughts on exercise, software, in-box strategies, quick recipes for freelancers (vegetarian, obviously), that sort of thing. Now: I’m stepping away from the screen to go do something more interesting instead 😉

We stayed on holiday by mistake

Sometime in 2012, my wife and I and our two boys (aged 5 and 8) moved from Bath — our home of more than a decade — to a tiny shack in the woods in North Devon.

We’d been happy in Bath: we’d started two new lives with the births of our kids, founded a business and a digital festival, met many lifelong friends, and we lived in one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

Our move was an itch, and we were lucky enough to be in the position to scratch it. It started with my wife looking at houses in Orkney and Shetland and that usual fantasy of living a different kind of life, just for a little while: a remote, more self-sufficient, more simple way of being. Our itch morphed from fantasy to reality with the realisation that we could do up our holiday home (the shack) and spend a year living in the country. A friend separating from his wife and needing a new home quickly gave us an easy option to rent out our house, and the planets aligned still further when we got the kids into a fantastic school just down the road in Devon.

Fast forward 5 years and we’re still here — no longer in the same house (we still own it and eventually managed to do it up, too — the proof is on airbnb — and yes, you should book up and stay, it’s the loveliest place you can possibly imagine…) but still in the area, 10 miles away over the border in Cornwall.

We never meant to stay. It was going to be a year-long project, and then back home to Bath. As it is, we found some things that we didn’t even know we were looking for — among them balance, simplicity, freedom and perspective.

Our move to the middle of nowhere happened at a time that is typically called a mid life crisis: I was hitting 40, when previous assumptions about longevity and health are no longer as easy to rely on. Suddenly you’re half way through a typical average life span, and the big questions — why am I here, what is it all for, what is the shape of the life I want to lead, how can I make a difference to the people I care about — loom large. The smaller questions take on new shapes, too: should I be saving, am I eating ok, is my work eating my life and, fuck, how many times have I looked at my mobile today…

When you don’t have a belief system mapped out — and I’m one of those people who was never religious (more C of E by default just because it was there and I quite liked a hymn) but has become more and more convinced about a secular life as I’ve got older — questions like this feel as if they need a different kind of framing, one which is a bit more deliberate and thoughtful. The move and our now-life has led me to think hard about the way that people can choose to live — particularly about how a freelance working life can be moulded to fit a deeper and more satisfying balance in a wider spectrum of reflection, reading, friendships and family.
I’ve written a lot before: a book, numerous articles, blog posts for myself and others, courses, essays, short stories, workshops, and (my ten-year project, still going..) a novel — but now feels like a good time to focus some thoughts on this particular set of questions.

So: that’s my intention with Coast. If you work for yourself, maybe if you’re middle-aged, if you’re someone who is trying (not always successfully) to find balance and flow while juggling (not literally) kids and life, if you’re someone who has the black dog at their heels sometimes…maybe what I write might resonate with you.

Peace out x

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?

Going freelance

I’m delighted and terrified (in pretty much equal measures) to announce that at the end of June 2011 I’ll be leaving my current employer Eduserv, and heading out into the wilderness of the freelancer.

As with any move, I’ll be very sad to leave the fine people I’ve been working so closely with but I’m also totally over-excited about starting something up. I fooled around with my own company when I left university in 1995 but it all went horribly wrong and it’s always felt like an itch I wanted to scratch properly.

This time, I won’t be alone in my endeavours. My excellent and massively talented wife – ex Science Museum, ex-Natural History Museum, ex-Colston Hall, mum – will be joining me as co-director of our new company thirty8 *. We’ll be focusing on web consulting, web and mobile strategy, training, content development and also some WordPress-based site builds. Naturally with our backgrounds we’ll be looking for museumy work, but we aren’t going to be limited by sector in any way.

So that’s it. Obviously if you’re looking for people to work with or just want to say hello, please do get in touch by dropping a comment on this post or via Twitter.

See you in July 🙂

{ * And why “thirty8”? Well, that’d be telling.. }