Going Full Time – A Six Month Review

Six Months of Freelance

It’s been just over six months since I quit my job and took WHD full time and it’s absolutely flown by! While it’s been mostly positive, there have also been a couple of issues that needed addressing. Today I’m going to write about my experiences of taking the business full-time over the last six months.

I’d been running WHD in the background for over eight years when I decided to quit my day job. But even so, choosing to rely on it for my main income was a big step. You never really know how well something will go until you’re in the middle of it – drowning or prospering. So it was a risk that had to be calculated.

My goal for the first six months was desperately simple: survive.

Calculating Risks

There’s a lot to think about when you ditch your day job to concentrate on a passion you want to turn into a profitable business. Mainly, how will I pay my bills without a guaranteed income? Closely followed by: how will I generate new business? How will I manage my money? How will I keep track of projects? How will I manage contracts? TAX RETURNS?!

Fortunately, often serving as the unlikely enemy of productivity, being obsessed with refining processes does occasionally bear something resembling fruit.

Over the years I’ve jumped from application to application, forever seeking reliable tools that can bear the weight of all these questions. Whilst I’ll never say I’m completely happy with my setup, currently I’m satisfied. I’m able to manage all of the above without losing track or too much time. For me, having these processes and applications mapped out and knowing them well has been absolutely key to my survival so far. I didn’t want to waste time learning new processes and having to experiment on live clients. Instead, I have go-to systems that cover 90% of the situations I find myself in. Calculated.

Next, the work itself. When I left my old job, I had just enough clients to generate a reasonable amount of repeat business and new opportunities. But since leaving, with the pressure to survive behind me, I’ve discovered new opportunities and pushed myself to reach out a little more than usual. Every freelancer’s nightmare is to quit their day job only to find they’ve run out of clients at just the wrong time. Timing is everything. I specifically chose May to leave my old job so I could give myself just over six months to see how things go, knowing full well that when January hits, there is likely to be an influx of new projects (it happens just about every year). This allowed me a true test of the business and myself. Six months to generate enough income to survive. Six months to position the business to attack the new year. Six months to line up all the ducks. Calculated.

Filling Gaps

I wrote recently about how I joined forces with my first business partner (meet Joe) to help offer a more rounded service to our clients and to enable cross-selling opportunities. But I can’t over-emphasise how important it was to me that we’re able to offer everything a client might need for their online presence. Not only has it filled a couple of crucial gaps, but it’s added an air of excitement and enthusiasm to the whole process.

Negotiating Speedbumps

Of course, not everything can go to plan 100% of the time. And in all honesty, it’s probably a good thing it hasn’t for me. You learn nothing from a smooth ride.

Scope Creep

Scope creep is a killer. Especially when working with clients that aren’t entirely sure what they want or need, as is often the case with startups and new businesses. Too often I’ve found myself working on things that weren’t in the original contract or were beyond the client’s budget. These accrue rapidly as unpaid hours, resulting in direct losses for the business. I recognise that it’s well within my rights to refrain from doing the work until the contract has been reworked and that naivety can play a part, but this also takes time and negotiation and can have negative impacts on a project’s deadline. Tricky.

It takes time and practice to properly assess a client’s needs at the start of a project, and really, is near impossible to do in some instances. Sometimes the field of play simply shifts during the lifeline of the project. It’s up to you at that point how you deal with it. In my case, each project teaches me something new and I feel I’m getting a better handle on what to expect from certain types of projects. I don’t think there’s a definitive answer to solving it, but more a continual refinement and learning process.

Payment Issues

Well this was obviously going to crop up. I haven’t yet failed to receive payment for work completed, but I’ve had multiple instances of late payment, in regards to website work specifically. Print projects and single instance work is easier to manage, but websites require an ongoing relationship with the client and are often delivered in stages that make it trickier to manage. To combat this I’ve introduced more stages to my invoicing cycle and now work off a milestone basis. It adds more structure to each project and ensures both parties know what to expect at each stage of the project.

I’ve never really enjoyed the invoicing side of the business. But I’ve learnt the hard way (like many others) that you have to be ruthless with payment. Where before I was relatively relaxed about when I was paid (when it wasn’t my full-time income) I’ve had to develop a more rigorous approach to it. Being paid for your expertise is not a perk of the job. It is the job.

An Ever-changing Environment

The temptation in the web design industry is to jump on every trend. To overhaul your working processes every time there’s a newer, more efficient one released. I don’t know any designer or developer that doesn’t get excited by the mass of options and opportunities to fine-tune their setup. And it is of course advantageous to be aware of the developments. But trying to adopt each and every one is an impossible and counter-productive task. Over-engineering your working processes can be as bad as not having any. The key is to thoroughly assess your business needs realistically, weigh up the pros and cons of each system that might fit, and integrate only what’s absolutely necessary. The deeper you entrench yourself in a system, the harder it is to stay flexible. This is why so many companies end up stuck in IT infrastructure nightmares.

We’re light and nimble and we have options.

Looking Ahead

I’m in the process of redesigning the White Heat Design website. This will be the fourth iteration, but is much needed as the scope of what we can offer has grown so much. I’m also keen to allow us to be more expressive with certain areas of the website such as this Thoughts section and the case studies in the portfolio. Hopefully version 4 will be ready to go from January, if not before.

As well as that, given Joe’s expertise in the areas the business was lacking, it makes sense to focus on growing the SEO and content marketing services for Bromley businesses.

The most immediate challenge, however, will be negotiating the first few months of the new year, which tend to be the busiest. Fortunately, we’ll be in a better position to balance projects this year than I was last year.

Stage One: Complete

So, in regards to my primary goal: I’ve survived the first six months. The business is still in the black. New opportunities are arising and I’m still happy with my decision to try and make it work. We have a pretty full client roster already, with more and more enquiries stacking up and January hasn’t hit yet. Ducks are aligning. Stage one is most definitely complete.

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