Be Original, Like Everybody Else

You come to be because you want to have something everybody else has, but to “exist” you need to differentiate yourself from your competitors. Said like this, it seems oxymoronic.

There used to be a few reasons why someone would write an application:

  • It did something no other application could do
  • It took an existing concept/application and added some functionality that was lacking
  • It tied a specific interface to a specific service that couldn’t be accessed any other way

Quite frankly, any development that meant more than a few man-hours couldn’t sail if at least one of these criteria wasn’t met. And that was mainly due to one thing: exposure. Finding software for your computer was hard. Of course, services like versiontracker or macupdate was there to help, but a piece of software had to be made, buzzed about and sold by its editor. It had to be “worth it”.

The popularity of the App Store has changed that, for good or for ill. No “respectable” company out there would want to miss on the huge market and public that is composed of iPhone and iPad (and to a lesser extent Mac) users. You just have to have a least a presence there. And the competition of the store is fierce.

So, the companies do what they have to do: at least exist on the app store. With that objective in mind, it’s more a matter of building an image than an app. Therefore, the two axes of communication weight way more than any kind of usefulness. You have to be there (do like everybody else), and you have to be seen there (make yourself known). Essentially, an app can be useful, but an app can exist solely as part of a communication strategy.

For public relation purposes, that more or less precludes any kind of singularity. You want to have at least like all your competitors. Then you have to do better or different in a way that’s not too unnerving, or expensive. And yes, being outrageously shocking is a different way of doing the same thing. Anyone can run naked in the street to grab attention. Changing the way people deal with their daily life is a whole different pie.

I was chatting with a colleague earlier, and he was lamenting that R&D is dead. But R&D serves a different purpose: it’s about long term investment. You pour money and time and effort into building something new without any kind of guarantee that you’ll get a return on your investment. That takes a leap of faith (harder to achieve when you have a responsibility towards shareholders and/or employees) and means (harder to have when you are a freelancer). Therefore it’s really not what most of the paying gigs we get talked into is about.

But I disagree that innovation is dead. Yes, it may seem like that for us freelancers sometimes after the tenth “news pushing” project. But even with projects labelled “do the same as app X, but with, you know, a more ‘our company’ feel”, there are ways to have some leeway and some fun. It could be through the way you make the user interact with your app, the details you want to get back from it to the server, etc… And sometimes, it’s the developer that offers suggestions as to how to make his day less miserable.

Face it, developers: we are responsible for that state of affairs too. Freelancers maybe a bit less than software farms, but the policy of churning out made and re-made apps on the cheap versus being hugely expensive doesn’t promote innovation either. Yes, we have to eat and pay our rent and whatever. But given the ridiculous quotes/conditions some people with innovative ideas get when they talk about them, it’s no wonder these projects are boxed and forgotten.

Personally, I try to “give” at least 15% of my time to projects that seem whacky. Maybe they won’t find their mark, maybe I’ll loose money over them, maybe we won’t even go past the planning phase. And sometimes, I get ripped off. But most of the time, at the very least, I have fun, and I learn something. And the partner/client/prospect/person in front of me can explore fully their idea.

Yes, your idea will be lost among thousands of apps that are there only to exist. Yes, the chances are great that it won’t make you a millionaire any time soon. Yes, finding a willing developer is hard. Yes, it costs a lot of time and money and effort to get anything done. But you know what? If it’s not out there, the chances of it proving to be a good idea or indeed make you a ton of money are precisely zilch.

  

The Middleman

Listening to the whole Readability vs Instapaper vs AdBlockers vs The Rest Of The World, from what I can gather, the whole thing is about the role of a middleman. In that particular instance, the people angry at Readability insist on the fact that they ask you to pay for a service that most of the actors are unhappy with or aren’t rightfully informed about. “It’s a scam”, I’ve heard a bunch of times: they insert themselves in-between two actors that have been playing along fine for a while now, propose to make it even better, which is a good grounds for collecting money, by the way, but then mislead people about what they pay for. And that’s where the rubber meets the road…

As a freelancer, there are two models you can follow: you can be in direct interaction with the end-customer, or you can deal through someone (person or company), who will manage the relationship and take a cut.

Managing a client/customer is a skill that is learned. There’s the whole psychological management (mostly revolving around priorities and problems that arise during the development), the administrative stuff (authorizations, papers, negotiations for third party includes), and of course the payment process.

I found out that the quality of my relationship with the middleman has a tremendous impact on my serenity on a project. Basically, both the customer and myself are paying this person to do a job. So, as in every business relationship, the job done and the price paid have to feel adequate.

Here’s a few examples of things I don’t like to see in middleman:

  • finder-only: “hey man, I’m just giving you some work! Don’t look at me like I’m going to reorganize that document… Oh and by the way, I’m getting paid 30% of the project total. You know, as a finder’s fee.”
  • overbearing: “hey, why are you using CoreData instead of a plain text file? The data’s not that huge… That seems like more work than necessary, right?”. Look, if you want to do the development, go ahead. If you want me to handle it, let me do my job.
  • forgetful (usually with payment, obviously): “Sorry, what? Oh yeah that’s right I completely forgot about it! Wait wait hmmmm did we say 6k or 7k? 6k, right? Sure I’ll send an email as soon as I check if the customer paid or not”. This is just the worst. Either it’s stupid, or unprofessional, or a scam.

Now, that being said, over the years, I found some great middle persons to work with. They understand their job as “being in the middle” with every pros and cons any job entails.

Yes some of their chores are problematic, frustrating and aggravating. And if I can (and the relationship is not conflictual), I’ll go the extra mile to help them, because I trust them to do the same for me.

When some friends who want to go freelance ask me about needing middlemen or not, I tend to stay vague. It just all depends… Talking one-on-one with a big company is just too damn time consuming. There are meetings, committees, impossible delays, etc etc etc. If I have only one project to manage at the time, and I don’t feel like giving whatever percentage of the money to a middleman, I’ll do it. But it gets tiresome and frustrating pretty soon. As soon as you juggle with several projects, having someone (or a bunch of someones) to deal with the daily life of consumer relations becomes more and more of a comfort.

So basically, if you are a lot better at talking to machines than to humans, and lack the time to hone the skill of business management, don’t bother. Find a decent, honest, and nice, middle man, treat him/her well and decide on a fair cut, and go for it. Focus on your strength, until you find the time to learn how to do it properly.

Obviously the same applies to designers/graphists/developers/etc… No one is good at everything. And it’s fair to pay for a skill you don’t have, and use to make money.

PPSN: the same applies to software used to make money, obviously. Pay the damn license.

  

Switching to Freelancing

Lately, I’ve seen a lot of people switching careers: some freelancers (or free-spirited people in the head anyway) accepted jobs as file-and-rank for big companies, some have switched between big companies, and some so desperately wanted to go their merry way that they did everything and anything that was in their power to get fired.

Most of the people in the latter category are considering “going freelance”. So they turn to me with their questions about it, and I try to the best of my abilities to highlight the highs and the lows of this choice. I picked the questions that I had to answer at least ten times, tried to polish the language a little bit, and here they are, for future references. (That way I can point the next batch here and be lazy!)

I – Do you think I can do it?

No false modesty or illusions: freelancing is not for everybody. There will be days when you’ll regret that decision.

Usually the first thing that comes to mind is “I can organize my time freely”. Well… yes and no. Yes, in the morning, when you are not alone and want to take your sweet lazy time, no one will object. But even if you are not working in a 9-5 job, your clients are, as well as your friends and family. Which means that you will probably work on a 9-8 schedule too. If you don’t, more often than not you will have to choose between working during the week-end to pay your rent and your gas, and going to parties.
What’s true, though, is that your customers/suppliers will send you what you are waiting for after they are done with their tasks. So, you’ll get a flurry of emails at lunch time, and after hours. Your real day’s work can sometimes start around 11am in terms of heavy lifting.

But remember: you are freelancing. That means that you have a lot of administrative things to do, that you didn’t have to take care of before. There are the taxes, registrations, receipts handling of government-affiliated offices, paying your bills, wages, suppliers, asking for the tenth time to your customers where the hell that check they promised you is because of said bills, wages, and suppliers, doing some business networking, etc…

So if you don’t need anyone to prod your butt in the morning to get up that’s good. If you really love your job, even better. But be ready to sacrifice some social life at the beginning. Yes you’re free to organize your time as you wish but there is a lot more to organize.

And you’ll sometimes eat rice with nothing on it. You’ve worked your ass off, there’s plenty of happy customers, but they are a bit tardy in the payment department. And you can’t (and are not allowed to) be tardy paying for your stuff. There will be weeks when the flow hits a block. It’s nobody’s fault. But if you expect to earn your first million after a couple of months, think again. Your lifestyle has to be as flexible as your job. But be brave! It will pass!

II – What do you need to kickstart the thing?

Well, just one thing: customers. You are obviously the best (or one of) the best at what you do. But all these people who would so desperately need your services don’t know about it. Ain’t that sad?

Depending on the reason why you go freelance, there are a couple of scenarios:

  • You are taking one (or more) of the customers of the company you’re leaving with you.
    You’d better be really sure about this. Like in love, you can’t really trust someone who left a pretty good relationship for you. Either the previous company didn’t want, or know how to handle, them, in which case you may be doing them a favor, but you’d better make sure they follow; or you are offering them to do on the cheap what your company charged millions for, in which case… sorry, but there a very good chance you’ll get screwed.
  • You may also be switching the kind of work you are doing, and you see an opportunity where no one else has seen one. Good for you! Just make sure there are no hungry competitors in the domain who have been doing it longer and better. Because in our trade, the main advertising tool is word of mouth.

III – How do you advertise your services and get new customers?

That’s right. If you do your job well, you don’t need to. When you are freelancing, you are lean, mean, and fast. You don’t compete with the big boys directly, therefore you don’t need to advertise as they do: you’ll loose.

Your customers, when they are happy, are your best advocates. People will ask them “hey, who did that wonderful thing?” and they will answer truthfully, because you were honest with them. The middle man who introduced you to a potential customer, if he hears that it went well will bring you others. Your friends might too. Even your freelance competitors might subcontract to you if you take care of how you do your job.

It’s a balancing act, but it’s worth it: One the one hand you’re free to choose your customers, your projects, and your schedule. On the other hand, the more appreciative people around, the more contracts you’ll get.

That’s why I usually recommend to keep around 30% of your time for “whacko projects”. These are the projects that no serious company would consider taking, because it doesn’t pay well enough, or the deadline is too tight, or this-is-just-not-how-it’s-done. But you depend on nobody, and you can afford the risk. The customer for this kind of job has been turned down 27 times. You take his project and make it a success, for him anyway. He will be your best ally forever. And maybe next time, when he does have the money, the time, and the rest, he will call you instead of the big companies, because you were the only one who would say yes to a “whacko project”, and you turned it into something concrete. Who knows what you could do with a serious project? Infinity and beyond, that’s the spirit!

IV – I haven’t seen you in a month, man! I though you were dead!

Yep, there will be Crunch Times. Because of various unforeseen delays and minor catastrophes, you will have to work every day, including week ends, and 14h per day to catch up with the backlog on certain months. Your girlfriend/boyfriend/wife/husband/kid(s) will look at you hunched at your desk (or look at their phone because you are on the roads of Kirghistan) and will hate or despise you for a split second. There Will Be Heavy And Meaningful Sighs.

And then, because you’re the best at what you do, and you’re not afraid of some honest sweating, you’ll pull through. And party like crazy, because, after all, you can organize your time any bloody way you want, right?

  

The Joys of Payment

One of the hard things to do when you freelance is the whole management/accounting stuff.

Since you love your job and are your own boss, there’s no one to yell at you if you let things slip, and no one to take over the boring tasks you don’t really have time to take care of.

In my case, something I find dreadfully time-consuming is keeping track of bills and payments. I work mostly out of interest for the task, or, as one of my friends once aid, “for the intellectual masturbation”.

Therefore, money, while important, is kind of secondary in my business model. Coupled with the tendency of “big” companies to have a somewhat tiresome and long paying process, it’s a fault of mine to let things related to payment rest till it’s too late to be anything but angry at the lack of progress.

What I mean is this: I worked on a project, therefore I must have payment. I send the bill and wait. Then I send it again, with a sharper reminder a while later (depending on my financial situation and my busy schedule). Lucky me, most of my customers are people I know pretty well, and there’s rarely any need for more than that, but sometimes, the process takes a turn for the worst.

In July, I participated in a project for a somewhat big public institution. It was and extremely rushed job which required me to gnaw on my vacation time, but promised to pay rather well.

By October, the beta was in production, and finalized, at which point I requested payment. After multiple emails, mid-november, I get an agreement, and a promise to be paid “very shortly”.

Mid-december, and several pleas and stern reminders, a few back and forth on the true sense of “finished”, a partial payment was made, the reminder being promised for very shortly.

All of january and a piece of february was used to ask and ask away to something resembling a black hole. That usually means “legal action”, but it’s so tiresome and emotionally difficult to go through, that it takes a while further.

March resulted in a stand off and some rather ugly business, but also a promise to be paid. I even got a bank wire receipt.

April, and still nothing (a “bank error”, obviously). I finally got my money on May 1st.

Now, for a company with a lot of people and a lot of projects, it’s easier to manage that kind of hole, and the process of going back and forth between customer, lawyer and bank, but for a freelancer, it takes time away from more important things, like working to earn a living. Which, if I were cynical, would be the whole point of trying to “drown the fish” as we say here: at what point does it stop being a major issue compared to making some real money otherwise?

For me, there could only be one answer: Never. It’s a question of principles. I work in a job that I love. Therefore if you don’t pay for it, or try to wriggle with paying it, you’re not only bad business, you are also insulting my livelihood (and my intelligence).

Yes I’m cheap. Yes I’m nice, extending delays and open to discussing stuff. And yes, I’m highly stubborn.

  

I’m not from Eastern Europe

This remark applies to two different questions I get a lot.

1/ Yes I do have a Russian name. No I’m not Russian. My great-grandfather was. Sorry folks, but family names don’t mean anything anymore… Just for the sake of information, my family roots extend across almost the whole of Europe (Ukraine and Western Russia included). My dad is jokingly referred to as a “Molotov Cocktail” (part Russian, part Basque). Alright, I used to speak Russian more or less fluently. But don’t assert anything from my last name.

2/ Yes, as a professional developer I’m cheap. OK, a lot cheaper than most. Bordering on the standard rates for outsourcing to the Eastern Europe.

There are two main reasons for that. The first one is that I actually get paid to do stuff I would do anyway for free, if I didn’t need money to pay for my rent. What can I say? I love my job. Geeky? Well, if you want to put it that way, then OK, I’m a geek. The second reason is I have a very special legal status that costs me almost nothing tax-wise. It’s legally sound (as opposed to receiving shareware money without a proper billing system… tsk tsk) and allows me to effectively have the same amount of money in my pocket than my competitors while costing a lot less to the customer. Why should I artificially raise the price to meet the (way too expensive) pricing of others?

That whole pricing thing got me the scorn, or even the outright anger, of a lot of people. I just don’t get it…
I don’t take projects I know I won’t be able to implement. That rules out most of the juicy contracts. Therefore, the ones who want big money have one less competitor. On the other hand, I do take projects that are interesting but have very little money to back up. It’s a niche market, granted, but a fun one.

And if worse comes to worst, I can always raise my prices, whereas lowering them is kind of hard.