in Life

What I’ve done/what have I done 2016: freelancing full time

It’s always a pleasure to present the annual year in review “what I’ve done/what have I done” blog post, now in its fourth year (read 2013, 2014 and 2015). I think we can all agree the moderately amusing title has stood the test of time well.

This has been a big year. A lot has happened and I’m in a very different place compared to twelve months ago (you can also read this literally). At the end of 2015 I was a full time student in my final year at the University of Warwick and I’m now a full time self-employed freelancer, living in my own legit flat and not falling down student housing.

Self employment and the freedoms associated with it are something I’ve been coveting for a long time, so feels good to be starting on that journey.

We’re going to tackle this in terms of “things that went well”, “things that didn’t go well” and “things that went fine”. We’ll jump around a lot and miss other things out to keep it interesting — and make sure there’s a nice mix between learning points for you and self-indulgent nostalgia for me.

Things that went well: I work for myself now

I’ve been freelancing for a number of years now but 2016 was when I took this full time. I’ve had an idea this is what I wanted to do more or less since I found out it was a possible job I could have. I like being able to choose what I work on, when I work, the entrepreneurial freedom and getting to keep 100% of the fruits of my labours.

I started full time in September and it’s been pretty good. Revenue is good. Having an existing network and some clients already was a huge help and I was able to leverage that network to get me started and get to a point where I now have nearly all of me work time allocated.

I am, however, running into some of the challenges of growing a freelance business: when you sell your time for money, what do you do when you run out of time? How do you grow the business in a way that doesn’t just involve working more?

Furthermore, on serious reflection I think it’s generous to say this “went well”. Freelancing is hard. The most difficult thing to deal with has been the need to do the best possible work all the time. If I had a graduate job and I was working at the same level as an average employee I’d be a great success, but when doing client work my work needs to be the best the whole time. That’s tough, and it’s still something I’m working on.

On balance, I think we’ll call it fine.

Things that went well: travel! Japan!

Between graduating and my first day at the home office I spent a month exploring Japan with my girlfriend. This is the third year in a row I’ve taken a month in the Summer to go travelling and I’ve got huge gratitude for the privileged position I’m in that lets me do that.

As always, this was an ultralight backpacking affair. One month, one small backpack (23l), no other luggage.

Japan was beautiful. It took me a week or so to get settled, but once I started understanding the culture better we had a wonderful time. Highlights included climbing Mount Fuji (we climbed overnight to get the sunrise, which was horrible but the view was literally incredible), being the only foreigners in a small town at a rural festival and Myajima, a beautiful tiny island we went to cause I saw a photo on Reddit and liked it.

Here are a couple of photos from the trip:

The downside of travelling light is I only took the camera’s kit lens, which is versatile and very light but not a great piece of gear. The next big trip we have planned in #newzealand2018 where I’ll be taking more camera gear.

Things that didn’t go well: personal projects

A year ago I was taking writing BlogBettr seriously and writing a decent article every week. Unfortunately, it wasn’t really gaining any traction and I was running out of things to say when blogging about blogging.

In March I put the blog on hiatus and eventually called time on my third attempt at launching the site. I do still think blogs about blogging don’t tend to be very good and there’s space for someone to come in and do it a lot better, but the content needs to be really really good and, to be perfectly honest, there’s only so much you can say about it.

The good thing to come out of this was I pivoted BlogBettr onto this blog, bringing the email list and most of the same WordPress theme over. Since I started writing every week and publishing Digital Essentials in September, growth here has been very good. Still lots to work on, but all the metrics are headed in the right direction.

Another personal project I worked on this year was MasterWP. I’ve co-authored this with Ben Gillbanks and it’s gone okay but not great. We launched a free WordPress user → WordPress power user course in September and got a great amount of interest, but failed to follow that up with a decent sales pitch for a fully-featured premium version. We’ve now pivoted towards a monthly subscription model, which has been going okay but needs a lot of work. This is a work in progress that needs improvement next year.

Things that went well: productivity

My thinking on productivity has also changed markedly in the last year, and as it’s been a recurring theme in previous years, I’d like to touch on it again. I don’t like “habits” or “hacks” for productivity any more: instead I’ve become a convert to Deep Work and time blocking. I’ll now schedule on my calendar x hours of work on a single task and get to work. I also schedule ample breaks to try and ensure all the time scheduled can be used productively.

The shift away from something like the Pomodoro Technique, which I previously swore by, I think is indicative of the nature of the work I’m now doing: when there were dozens of book chapters and journal articles to read and analyse for weekly seminars the Pomodoro Technique works a charm.

I’ve enjoyed Nat Eliason’s writing on this recently.

Things that didn’t go well: what is work/life balance?

My work/life balance is a work in progress and was something I wanted to fix but haven’t.

One of the great freedoms of working for yourself is you get to choose when you work and what you work on. At least, allegedly. This was something I was warned about: the freedom to work whenever you like often leads to pressure to work the whole time.

The struggle here is there’s great precarity about work. You are not guaranteed any given paycheque (and indeed, don’t really have a paycheque). Here’s the key bit: the precarity around freelance work incentivises taking on more work. After all, when you don’t know how much you’re going to make next month, it makes a lot of sense to try and make as much as possible this month just in case.

I think (and hope) this is a problem exacerbated by having only just started out: I’m working with new clients and don’t know which projects will become repeat work. As I establish better client relationships the precarity should fade and I’ll be able to have a much better idea of what work I’ll have for months at a time.

As a student I worked incredibly long hours, in my first month of freelancing I rediscovered The Joy of Weekends, but two months later I’m working evenings and weekends again. This is something to fix for 2017.

Assorted and miscellaneous things that went well

There are a couple of things that happened this year that are worth a mention but not worth dwelling on:

  • Graduated 🎓
  • Moved out of student accommodation (boo) and into my first Proper Flat (hooray!).
  • Got one of my friends elected to Warwick SU.
  • Spoke at WordCamp London 2016.
  • Met some incredible new people.
  • Run more than ever.
  • Read the most books I’ve ever read in a year (more on this soon).
  • Grown up a lot.

I also want to briefly say hi to 2016 as the year in which literally all my political predictions were wrong and the unspeakably unfathomable happened.

Out getting out the vote in Leamington Spa on polling day.

I’m pleased I at least tried to do my bit for the EU referendum, but like many young people (including a lot of my friends), I’m concerned about what the future holds both in terms of Brexit and the rightward shift in political feeling across the Western world. The situation in Syria currently is also deeply distressing The only prediction I’m prepared to make these days is 2016 was bad but things could plausibly get a lot worse in 2017.

What’s in store for next year?

Alright, so what’s in store for next year? There are couple of things I want to specifically target:

  • Grow my freelance business, including product revenue. Not wholly sure what this looks like, but keen to work it out.
  • Switch off from work more and reinstate the weekend.
  • Attend more conferences.
  • Spend more time with family and friends.
  • Learn more! Get back in the reading habit.
  • Generally improve quality of life and happiness.

I always love reading other people’s year-in-review posts, so if this inspires you to do the same let me know on Twitter

2016 was fine if not good. Here’s to a better 2017.