A successful freelance career

When I transferred from a steady day job to my freelance life, I thought I had enough cash in the bank and kept my costs of living low. So, I just foolishly gave in to my entrepreneurial urges. It was the classic Now or Never snap decision. I had the faith that I would succeed.

The challenge

A seasoned entrepreneur advised me, that the work I had done so far was always in the context of a bigger team or in combination with software that my employer sold. He said that I was on my own now, and my value had dropped significantly. He predicted that I would struggle.

I soon learned he was right. As a freelancer you rely on yourself. No-one comes to you. You have to go out there, and find work. On your own. Many freelancers experience that finding well-paying work is next to impossible. And the lack of stable income is so stressful that many freelancers want to get back into a day job.

In my case, a friend helped out. He needed help with a big software project, and asked if I was available. It was the perfect storm. I had an immediately employable skill that the right person knew about.

Although I was doing fine, I knew my project had an end date. In hindsight, I didn’t have enough cash, and I certainly did not keep my costs down. Soon I too, would be screwed. Why? Because, I simply didn’t have a plan. I didn’t jump into the deep end of the pool, but out of an airplane with a broken parachute and a sewing kit. I had to figure out this entrepreneurial game, before I hit rock bottom.

Going freelance is not the same as getting a new job. It is a lonely lifestyle, without a safety net. Yet, with the right mindset, it is possible to have a successful freelance career. You have to invest in productizing your skills and marketing yourself. That investment needs two things. I call them: the cork and the hedgehog.

The cork

Cork keeps you afloat. In real life you stay afloat if you can cover your operational expenses (costs of living, car, sports, children, vacation, etc.) Life is expensive so you need to have enough money. Digging into your savings is possible, but by definition limited. Work is paramount.

Step 1 is thus: find work. And I mean: any work that you can find easily, do without much effort, and don’t actively dislike. This work does not have to be freelance! A real job is also fine. If you can work part-time under an employment contract, and that work covers your costs: brilliant. As long as you don’t do it full-time.

The idea behind the cork is that you cover your expenses by working as little hours as necessary. By deduction, lowering your costs is a great help. The less costs, the less hours you spend on your cork and the more time you have for the hedgehog. That’s where the interesting stuff happens.

The hedgehog

The hedgehog is a concept coined by author Jim Collins. He explains that a hedgehog thrives by doing one thing really well. It searches for food, and when attacked, it simply curls itself up, like a ball. This philosophy of doing one thing really well also applies to business.

As a freelancer you should find one thing that you love to do, are truly great at, and get paid for. In my case it was developing software. I have the skills, I love development, and programmers are in high demand.

Finding your hedgehog is easier said than done. Merely being passionate about something is hard for the average human being. Let alone perfecting the necessary skills. And if you are passionate about something, and you are great at it, how are you going to make your economic engine run? Who is willing to pay your bills? The concept is simple, but finding your hedgehog may take years.

That’s why it’s important to start living you hedgehog, today. You have to experiment! Guess your hedgehog, if needed. Find work within that hedgehog, at any rate, free is fine. Remember that you don’t need the money! Costs are covered by your cork. As long as you keep refining your hedgehog.

And once you found your hedgehog, then build momentum. Establish yourself within your hedgehog. Make it more specific. Keep working within it and experience how clients will come to you, instead of you begging for work. Start earning decent money within your hedgehog. And then, finally, you can start cutting cork.

5 tips for winter running

My girlfriend and I have a deal when it comes to running. She gets us out of the house, and I make sure we go far and fast. This works great during the summer. In winter not so… It’s freezing! How can you run? She has a hard time convincing me that running is fun. But she is right: no-one ever regretted a good run. Even though it’s winter.

Here are five tips for winter running.

Run in the afternoon

Winter is cold, so plan your runs carefully. Run on the warmest moment of the day: the afternoon. Temperature typically peaks around 2pm. If the sun has done a good job, and there is little wind, then it can feel like spring! Running in the middle of a workday is not possible for everyone. My work typically stops at 5pm. So that’s when I run.

Wear enough, but not too much

Make sure you wear enough clothes, but don’t sweat. You know that you are wearing enough clothes, when the first ten minutes will feel cold, and it is fine after that. On mountaineering trips, the ten-minute-mark is the classic moment for taking a break and taking off your coat. I like to take a hot shower before I go running. Then my body is warm, and I don’t have the ten-minute-problem. Once you are warmed up, temperature will not be a problem at all.

Run on paved roads

I love running in the snow. Especially when the sun is shining. It’s great how the whiteness of the snow reflects the sun rays. Fresh snow is absolutely not as slippery as many people think. Ice on the other hand is a real problem. Better avoid that stuff. Also avoid muddy trails. Although you can rinse your shoes and wash your clothes, you don’t want to run with wet feet.

Be visible, and stay close to civilization

Running in winter is a bit more dangerous. It gets dark early. And the falling of the night can surprise you. So wear a high visibility shirt. You can wear lights and prolong the Christmas spirit as well. Be aware that if something happens to you, there will be less people to help you. So don’t go all the way out there, and don’t run during a storm. If something goes wrong: you will cool off quickly. Bring a mobile phone, and some money. Just in case.

Motivate yourself by setting a goal

If you don’t have enthusiastic friends who are runners, then you need to motivate yourself. New Year’s resolutions don’t work for me, but maybe they work for you. My most important motivator is entering a spring race. This year I am running a half marathon on the 8th of March. Apart from that, I love to be in shape for skiing tours and just in general when spring starts.

Artisan Startups walk the thin line between innovation and incompetence

Entrepreneurship is all about flawless execution. An entrepreneur has to be competent and aware of his own limitations. Doing the wrong things, or the right things wrong, does not propel the business. It hurts. It is nothing more than a waste of time, money and talent.

Flawless execution is an impossible task for Startup entrepreneurs. They are exploring, innovating and trying to make sense of the fast changing worlds they are creating. Uncertainty is the status quo. The whole point of the Startup is to learn through experiments. This can lead to great successes. But it is also accepted, that failures are part of the game.

This innovative character is a pitfall. It is all too easy to innovate in all areas of the business, also where execution should be done in the most straightforward manner. In a world where curiosity and innovation are at the core of an organization, it is surprisingly difficult to separate the research practice from the down to earth practice of running a company.

For Startups it is especially challenging to not reinvent the wheel. In an exciting young business, everything is new. And in a Startup it is hard to acknowledge that some of the business activities are actually ancient. The general practice of business is understood, documented and taught in schools around the world. Selling, bookkeeping and working well with others are universal skills for any entrepreneur. Although the company may be high tech, the underlying principle of business management are the same.

Failing to separate what is new to the world, from what is new to the entrepreneur is an indication of incompetence and arrogance. As harsh as this judgment seems, I genuinely empathize. Only after the wheel is reinvented, the realization dawns how easy things could have been with a little hindsight. So we struggle, and carry over our experiences to the next adventure. We learn and improve not just the company, but also ourselves.

Starting, establishing and growing a Startup is challenging, but it is by no means a black art or wizardry. Competent Startup entrepreneurs can walk the thin line between innovation and incompetence. They have the skills and experience, and brings in outside expertise when needed. They craft beautiful Startups effectively and efficiently. These Startups are works of art.

I call them the Artisan Startups.

My fourth year without pants

Working without pants is an expression, coined by Scott Berkun, who wrote a book about remote working at WordPress.com. A super successful company where everyone can work from home, or wherever he or she wants. In this blog post I will chronicle my remote working experiences.

Over a decade ago, I was hired by a company that did not have an office. We were with four people, spread out over the Netherlands and Belgium. An office was not practical, so we all worked from home. This was a bad idea. We were disorganized and we didn’t communicate well. Working from home was one of the reasons why the company only lasted a year.

Years later, I set up a company in Australia. We arrived at Sydney Airport with two suitcases and two backpacks. Since we didn’t have anything but ourselves, a separate office space was a ridiculous thought. We worked from home. And so did the first employees we hired. This worked reasonably well. We were all the time confronted with our work, making us work 24×7. And going on vacation was a bit weird, knowing that other people work from our house during our absence. After a year the timing was right to rent a proper office.

Coming back from Australia, I started my freelance career. Again without an office. I worked from home, in a room specifically setup to be my office area. That worked well, although I mostly worked from my clients’ offices. Being with my clients gave me the opportunity to scout new projects. And working from home was lonely. It did not take long, for me to join a company that had a proper office, so I moved my desk once again.

A year ago, I joined the ranks of the remote workers for the fourth time. Inspired by my girlfriend and brutally aware of office costs, I decided that my new company would be a remote company. That means that everyone can work wherever he or she wants.

Working remote has many practical advantages. There is less travel time, more flexible hours, less costs and it is possible to tailor work conditions to the individual needs. There are practical hurdles to overcome. For example, since the office is virtual, it has to be paperless. Luckily that’s not a big challenge with today’s technology.

The real challenge of a distributed team, lies in the remoteness itself: being distanced from your colleagues and not being able to see each other makes it easy to get out of touch. We have found that we regularly need to meet, and work together. These meetings create a bond, which allows us to be a real team.

Being together is not that hard to do. We literally live 15 kilometers away from each other. In the current market, we could easily rent a cheap office in a dull industrial zone. But the truth is, we don’t want that. We like to work when we want, how we want, and where we want.

Working remote is a great idea, as long as you are aware of the challenges and committed to each other as a team.

p.s. For those who are curious… I do wear pants when working remote.😉

Airbnb is not a hotel, it’s an experience

My girlfriend and I travel a lot and love adventure and experiments. So, when we heard about Airbnb, we ditched hotels and now sleep at random people’s houses instead. Our Airbnb experiences are varied. Some sleep overs and hosts are perfect. Others could do better, with a little effort and guidance. For the latter category I wrote the following 10 tips. They are inspired by our stay in Paris this weekend, but are the result of our consolidated experiences of the last years.

It all boils down to two things: you have to manage expectations up front by being honest, and you have to realize that other people will view and use your house differently than you do. Let’s dive in.

  1. What works for the host does not necessary work for guests. As a host you know that that one cupboard drawer next to the fridge is a bit fragile. As a guest, you don’t know this, and it will break. We have stayed in a house once where a lot of fragile items were placed in precarious positions. You couldn’t look around without breaking something. This is no fun for the host (who has their delicate china broken), nor for the guest who feels they are walking on egg shells.
  2. Not all houses are the same. You need to explain how your house works. For example: the water in the shower is only lukewarm – unless you turn the magic dial on the heater, then you get hot water. Or this one: the bedroom features a skylight, so the sunshine wakes you up at 5 in the morning. The ceiling is too tall to reach, so the next morning your day starts again at 5am. Then you find a remote control which allows you to cover the skylight. Brilliant, if you know about it. Write these workings down, but also mundane things like how the heating works, how to turn the lights on, and where to put the trash.
  3. Using the same logic, explain where the nearest public transportation and supermarket are. Do you have a favorite restaurant or bar? Point them out on a map. Realize that guests are new to your neighborhood.
  4. We spent last weekend with another couple (friends of ours). We love them, but we also wanted to wander the streets of Paris on our own. Here is the dilemma: we only had one house key. We overcame this problem, by hiding the key under the doormat. As a host (and as guests) this bypass may not always be what you want. It is good to provide two sets of house keys.
  5. My girlfriend and I are internet junkies (as internet entrepreneurs we actually need it for our work). We would never book an Airbnb that doesn’t have Wi-Fi internet. Yet, we are often disappointed. Sometimes there’s no internet at all, sometimes the Wi-Fi password is nowhere to be found, and sometimes the only place with decent reception is the bathroom. If you don’t have Wi-Fi, then don’t advertise it. It may not be important to you, but it may be for your guests. Never use false advertisement, always set realistic expectations.
  6. To us it is a no brainer that the house must be clean. Reality is different. Dirty cupboards, yoghurt with mold in the fridge, personal items that I don’t want to know about in the bathroom. We have seen it all. Admittedly, we can be slobs a little less tidy at times, but not when we have guests over.
  7. Twenty years ago I bought a king size bed, and have never regretted its awesome size. I realize, that only your own bed sleeps as nice as, well, your own bed. But a 120cm mattress on the floor is not a double bed. Make sure that all advertised beds are real and decent beds. And if they are not, be clear about it in descriptions and pictures.
  8. When travelling, you live out of your suitcase. Still it is nice to have some shelf space in the bedroom and the kitchen. It doesn’t have to be much, but it prevents guests from making shelf space themselves.
  9. You don’t have to be at your house when guests arrive. Especially when guests don’t know at what time that will be. However, it is crucial that you are available for guests by phone. Be it for last minute directions to your house, or to promptly solve problems during the stay. It is fine to have a friend on pager duty, as long as he or she knows the house as well as you do.
  10. Be clear about additional costs. Typically towels and bed linen are included in the stay. If you want to charge extra for these additional items or services, that is fine. As long as you communicate in advance. Nothing is more frustrating than finding a bed, where the bed linen comes at a ransom.

This being said, one reason to choose for Airbnb, is to experience how other people live. Airbnb provides that genuine experience, including all the up and down sides. If you are looking for a professionally managed room or apartment, then Airbnb may not be for you. Airbnb is not great, but for us, it’s good enough. We like it, and hope these tips will make the experiences for both guests and hosts even better.

PS: One tip for guests: Understand that your host is (just like you) not a hospitality professional. You have to be easy going, communicate openly about problems and be cooperative in finding solutions.

 

From prototype to profitability

Last night I was bored, and my girlfriend didn’t like me bugging her. I needed something to do, so I decided to create a clone of the classic video game Minesweeper.

Minesweeper’s Wikipedia page reads the following: “Minesweeper is a single-player puzzle video game. The objective of the game is to clear a rectangular board containing hidden “mines” without detonating any of them, with help from clues about the number of neighboring mines in each field.”

Windows-MineSweeperOne hour and one hundred lines of code later, I finished a crude but functional version. Then it got hard, and I lost interest. Later, I thought about the work that needs to be done, to turn this project into a business. Creating software always seems easy, but it is good to realize how much difference there is between a prototype and profitability. Here we go…

DEVELOPMENT

Hard core engineering – I assumed that when a game starts, the mines are placed at random. This assumption was too simplistic. When mines are placed at random, they can be clustered together. This gives a lousy gaming experience. Mines should be spread out evenly. Here we strike an engineering problem.

Missing functionality – If you step on a mine, it blows up. Which is one way to lose the game. You should also lose the game when you mark more mines than there are actually hidden. My version of the game does not support this. It would also be fun to play against a clock, or have high scores. More development is needed.

Refactoring – In the source code, I refer to mines as bombs. To prevent confusion in future development, we need to refactor this. There is a bigger problem. I developed the game as a Windows application. Which is obviously wrong. We need to port the software to a mobile platform for iPhone and Android.

Quality assurance – The game works, I think. I played a few rounds, and have not found any bugs. To be sure we don’t ship buggy software, we need beta users to test extensively. We also need to write unit tests to prevent bugs creeping in during further development.

User experience – In the Windows version of Minesweeper, you navigate the mine field by using your mouse. In my version, you need to manually enter coordinates, and push a button to mark or expose a cell. This is too crude to be fun. The user experience needs to be sheer joy. Currently it’s not. Even I don’t like it

MARKETING & SALES

Branding – Our game should not be named Minesweeper. We need a new name that stands out from the competition. The game needs its own back story, like Angry Birds for example. This story needs to be perpetuated throughout the software, by the consistent use of logos, graphics and sound effects.

Distribution – Now that our game is finished, we need to make it available via the various App Stores, Play Stores, gaming websites and wherever else we can distribute. Without a doubt, we need to make a few round trips to the development phase, in order for the game to be accepted on these platforms.

Promotion – Once the game is ready for distribution, we can promote it on a website, Twitter, Facebook and via other social media. Ideally we want the software to go viral. That idea of keeping high scores, and comparing high scores with friends was not a bad thought. Back to development, once again.

MANAGEMENT, FINANCE & LEGAL

Team work – I cannot do the above on my own. I don’t have the skill, nor the time. Graphic design is a profession, so is distributing the game through the various channels. We need to find freelancers who can help out. And set up a virtual task board (like Trello) so we can coordinate the various tasks.

Liabilities – With money going in and out, we created two new ‘problems’: responsibility and liability. With any luck, the Terms & Conditions and privacy statements are provided by the distribution channels. We do need a bookkeeper, a bank account and possibly a registration at the Chamber of Commerce.

 

This mental exercise made me think about all the different aspects that go into creating a successful business. And how difficult it is to get all the pieces right.

Kom Drytoolen bij Monte Cervino

Iedere winter wordt de klimberg Monte Cervino in Bergschenhoek omgetoverd tot een Drytool winter wonderland. Aan de binnenkant van de berg kun je sportklimmen, terwijl aan de buitenkant tientallen Drytool-routes gebouwd zijn.

Drytoolen is een kruising tussen sportklimmen en ijsklimmen. Een Drytool-route is eigenlijk gewoon een sportklim-route. Je klimt ook gewoon op je klimschoentjes (*), en je mag gewoon je handen gebruiken om omhoog te komen. Echter, al snel kom je grepen tegen die heel klein zijn, of heel ver uit elkaar zitten. Dan wordt het echt Drytoolen, tijd om de ijsbijlen te gebruiken.

Een Drytool route is gebouwd uit normale klimgrepen, die je kunt vasthouden, heel kleine aluminium grepen waar je ijsbijlen in klemt en blokken hout, waar je lekker in kunt meppen. Maar let op! Drytoolen is een subtiele aangelegenheid. De plaatsing van de bijlen komt heel precies. Voor je het weet gaat je bijl zwieberen, en val je naar beneden. En dat maakt Drytoolen juist zo bijzonder en waanzinnig leuk.

In de winter, buiten, met ijsbijlen zwaaien is niet alleen voor stoere jongens. De dames waren op de recente Drytool-wedstrijd goed vertegenwoordigd. Drytoolen is leuk voor iedere sportklimmer die wel eens iets anders wil proberen.

Drytooling-NederlandDrytoolen-Monte-Cervino-Bergschenhoek

De Drytool-routes bij Monte Cervino blijven tot maart 2015 hangen. Je hoeft geen eigen bijlen te hebben, deze kun je lenen bij de bar (**). Ook hangen er al t0uwen om te top-ropen. Neem wel een warme jas, handschoenen en je helm mee. Kom je ’s avonds, vergeet dan je hoofdlampje niet.

Lijkt het je leuk om een keer te Drytoolen, maar ken je niemand die met je mee wil? Laat het mij dan zeker weten. Wij klimmen iedere vrijdagavond, en vinden het altijd leuk om nieuwe vrienden te maken. Mail mij gerust op florian.hoornaar@gmail.com.

(*) Marianne van der Steen, 1 van de routebouwers, schreef mij na het publiceren van dit artikel dat het klimmen op klimschoentjes een uitzondering is. Normaal gesproken klim je op stijgijzers. Ze stuurde mij ook twee filmpjes die het bekijken waard zijn.

(**) Er zijn momenteel tijdelijk even geen ijsbijlen aanwezig. Dus neem deze toch zelf mee, leen ze van iemand, of bel van te voren op en informeer of de ijsbijlen al weer terug zijn.