Work archive

From the early days as an IT Technician to my first web developer role, going self-employed for the first time, managing a team of developers and going back and forth to office work. The entire history of my work roles and all the pros and cons of working for myself can be found in here.

I do freelancing wrong (and I’m still successful)

Search for how to be a successful freelancer in your favourite search engine, and there’s no end to the list of tips and tricks people have. Some of them are useful and actionable, but most are generic; regurgitated from someone else’s “how to be a great freelancer” list. Always willing to buck the trend, I thought I’d tell you all of the things I don’t do as a freelancer (and still consider myself successful):

I never wrote a business plan

Business plans are supposed to be a roadmap for your ideas. Used properly they can help you lay out all the variables to help you build a business: examine the purpose of the business, research and analyse both your target market and the competition, assess the feasibility and future of your ideas and so on. I didn’t write one. Why?

  • I wasn’t looking for funding
  • I didn’t have a big idea that needed fleshing out, I just knew I wanted to code
  • My target market was “anyone who wanted a website”, which seemed too broad to detail
  • I wasn’t worried about the competition – web developers have been in high demand for as long as I can remember

Nearly 6 years on I’m finally getting to the point where I’m considering writing a plan for the future, but when I first started it was far more important to me to spend what little time I had a) working and b) getting the word out that I was available.

Professional business person working on their business plan. Maybe. Definitely not me. (Photo by Olu Eletu)

I quit my day job before testing the waters

A lot of people wiser than I am recommend launching your new business, or project, while at your existing job. My circumstances were complicated slightly by maternity leave, but I handed in my notice before I did anything else. Why?

  • I didn’t want the potential conflict of interest between my old job and my new freelance business
  • I knew that if everything went tits up, I had enough experience (and there was enough demand) that I wouldn’t have a problem getting a new job
  • I wanted to be able to dedicate 100% of my mental energy to my business (and a newborn baby!)

I did, however, have a small amount of savings which I could rely on for a few months if it took a while for work to pick up traction (and an incredibly frugal household budget).

I didn’t network (in person)

Well, OK, I did: I went to a few “mum business” networking meetings. However, I felt like they were a waste of my time. The other attendees were not likely to be able to afford my services (most being in the process of launching their own small businesses) or were unlikely to last long enough in business to need a website (harsh but true). I did, however, do these things:

  • I emailed a few old colleagues to let them know I was freelancing — this led to several early leads
  • I mentioned on social media that I was now freelancing — I won my first job via twitter

From there, word of mouth did the rest.

People networking. Or just having coffee? It’s basically the same thing. (Photo by Daria Shevtsova)

I didn’t sign up to freelancing sites

And, to be honest, I don’t know why people recommend them.

Freelancing sites like PeoplePerHour encourage what I consider to be a race to the bottom – that is, they encourage people to pitch lower and lower in the hope of winning a job. My time, my experience, my talent… it all has a value. By undermining that in an attempt to cut under other freelancers, I might as will stick a sign on my head saying “will work for scraps”.

Position yourself as able to service the end of the market that is going to pay your bills, and you will find work that pays your bills. Compromising on my rates has never turned out well for me.

I never created an “elevator pitch”

And to this day, if someone asks me what I do, my stock response is “I build websites”.

Turn the question around and listen: it’s far easier to win a client by listening to what their needs are than by talking about yourself. If you know what a potential customer needs, you can best figure out where you fit in to solve it. If they don’t have a problem that you can solve? Well, there’s no point pitching to them anyway.

This empty elevator / stairwell represents my lack of a decent pitch. It’s metaphorical, innit. (Photo by Andrew Welch)

I don’t blog (professionally)

After nearly 6 years in business my portfolio contains 9 blog posts and only one of those is what I would consider vaguely relevant or demonstrates that I know what I’m talking about. In my experience, clients are far more interested in demonstrations of actual working websites than whether or not I can write 600 words about something tech related. Unless you’re freelancing as a blog content creator, a blog isn’t the be all and end all.

And on that note… I also don’t maintain a professional social media presence. I tried, it was exhausting. I gave it up as a bad idea. In fact, I went one better and pushed my brand as laid back and all “me”: crazy cat lady, swears on the Internet and gives no shits. I’ve not lost a job for it yet. I think.

Despite all of these things I’m doing “wrong”, I still have the ability to turn down work that doesn’t fit or suit me. I have clients that I’ve been working with the entire duration of my freelance career. I very rarely have work droughts and when I do they don’t last long. This isn’t a brag: I’m not saying my way is the right way. On the contrary, I share my “failings” only to offer you encouragement that there is no right way to be a freelancer. It doesn’t have to be suits and plans and networking meetings.

The beauty of being a freelancer is that you can make it work for you, your way, and only you know how to do that.

Personal Bests and Personal Worsts

I started this week on a fantastic high. After having cracked squatting my bodyweight earlier this year (roughly 72kg give or take) I had been struggling with improving my squats further. Marred by dodgy knees, skipped gym sessions thanks to a chaotic schedule and over-indulgence on food & drink, it’s my own fault. Still, this didn’t stop me on Monday when I smashed out squats at both 80kg and 85kg with a set of 2 for each. Strong strong legs.

A post shared by Jem (@jemjabellargh) on

Not content on just PBing there, I went on to pull 50kg doing close-grip front lat pulldowns having been stuck at 45kg forEVER. To say I was buzzing after that was an understatement.

(I am currently using Myprotein Impact Whey Protein to support my workouts but I’m looking to potentially improve on this in the new year. If you supplement protein, I’d be interested to know what you take. Drop me a comment/email.)

This strength-related high was short lived as I got home to yet another round of work related emails (boo) and the ever present threat of the taxman knocking at my door.

Every single year I forget about HMRC’s payments on account, leaving me ill-prepared to meet their demands for large sums of cash at a time of year where things are tight as it is. My kids want Christmas presents and I’m sat watching the balance of my overdraft grow hoping my clients pull their fingers out before December 25th; this doesn’t leave me much leeway to pay the taxman money for a tax year that isn’t even over yet (don’t even get me started).

Why is balancing the ebbs and flows of freelance, and planning sufficiently ahead, such a personal weakness? It’s been over 5 years since I started working for myself and barring a break in the middle where I briefly returned to my old agency, I have had to put money away all this time. And I fail, time and time again.

2018 has to be the year where I nail this shit.

First the plans, now the goals

Off the back of my post about plans for 2017, and following a conversation with my darling husband last night during which I got defensive more than once (even though he spoke the truth) I woke up with fire in my belly.

Taking advantage before noisy children and the realities of my todo list extinguish the flames I’ve set myself some goals for the year (and cracked a few things off that blasted list) to work on alongside the Big Plans:

Challenge more stereotypes, more often
I work hard to address stereotypes at home – personally, and with my children – but can and should do more publicly and for others.

Work harder in the time I do have so that I can better use the time I don’t
I have a limited work day. I often get round this by working through the evening and making up time over the weekends. Sometimes this is a necessary evil but a lot of time this could be fixed by planning ahead, working harder/better during the day and waffling less on twitter.

Write more – blog posts, letters, thank you notes
It’s been ages since I’ve written decent long form posts and pieces, and years since I wrote a proper letter. I need to do both more often: so as not to lose the ‘skill’, because it reminds me of my Grandpa, because it’s the only way to improve, to record more of myself for when I inevitably forget.

Writing more thank you notes is self-explanatory. Gratitude is never wasted.

Drink less
For my liver and my bank balance. Cutting it out completely doesn’t work; it only takes one social occasion to reset me back where I started. I’m taking a different approach: don’t buy alcohol to drink at home. Once my Christmas treats are gone, any drinking needs to be done socially because there’s an occasion to do so.

Stop accepting mediocrity as OK
Mediocrity in my work, in my approach to fitness, in friendships, in my interaction with others in general: it’s not good enough. If I’m not giving it 100% I might as well not bother. To give 100%, though, I need to cut out the deadwood that’s distracting me from the things that deserve that 100%.

I started this last year by culling ‘friends’ on Facebook that don’t directly contribute to my wellbeing or happiness, as well as unfollowing people elsewhere who upset/annoy me or make me question or doubt myself. As we go forwards into 2017 I need to take this to the next level: cutting out people who aren’t beneficial to my mental health, dropping clients who cause me more stress than pleasure, turning down work that isn’t a good fit for my schedule.

I don’t know how long this will last. I don’t know how much I will achieve. But… if I seize every moment when I feel like a badass warrior woman, I’m hoping it’ll carry me through the days I want to hide under my duvet. I got this.

Working in my pants and other tales from self employment

I’ve been working for myself (either fully, or alongside employment) for over four years now. I like to think that I’ve got to grips with what it entails to work for yourself, be your own boss, rock the entrepeneur lifestyle etc etc.

My "desk" yesterday. Note the remnants of the kid's breakfast to the right of my diary.
My “desk” yesterday. Note the remnants of the kid’s breakfast to the right of my diary.

Of course, I’m talking out of my bum.

It’s not all ‘pant suits and heels’, working 4 hour weeks and jetting off around the world to luxurious locations every month. It’s more like working in your underpants til noon to save time getting dressed and regularly clocking in at 11pm to meet a deadline the following day. (But I took the kids to Wales in August if that counts as luxurious.)

Don’t get me wrong, working in my pants is a pretty big advantage to self-employment, and I like being able to work on what I want with people I want to work with (within reason), but it’s not all unicorn farts and glitter.

One of the biggest cons to being my own boss is not having any back-up if something goes wrong. And that “something” is usually mental health related: because if I’m having a bad-PMDD month and can’t drag my butt out of bed to even put pants on, what do I do?

It sometimes means I let clients down, and I’ve lost projects AND even clients because of it. And I’m not sure how to say to a client “sorry, I couldn’t work on your thing because I was in bed” without sounding like a lazy arse.

I’m learning to juggle. It’s taken a long time but I’m getting there. If my anxiety keeps me bedridden one day, I let the client know I’m otherwise engaged and I get up at 5am the next day to catch up. If the thought of a phone call induces a panic attack I e-mail and rearrange. If the brain fog descends and I can’t think straight, I adjust timescales with clients and then power through some basic admin or schedule social media posts.

The important thing through all of this (and I’ve learned this the hard way) is always to keep the client up to date. I don’t have to tell them I’m basically insane, I just need to manage their expectations and communicate my intentions. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned — both working for myself and for others — is that a client who knows what’s going on is MUCH more flexible than a client left in the dark. Sometimes I just have to accept that I’m not working at my best and accept the bollocking that comes along with it.

At the end of the day though… you can’t beat working in your pants.

17th September

Creative blog post title, huh?

I’ve just come back from Gloucester, where I ran the Great Highnam Court 10km with Katy (again); slightly slower this year with 01:07:23 but I managed to not twist my ankle this time. It has made me realise that if I can run an injured 10km faster than I can right now, I probably need to get off my arse and log some more miles on my feet. I haven’t run more than a handful of times this year and it shows (both speed, and the fact that I’m a fatty fatso at the minute)

In non-running news, I have very recently overhauled both my mail form site and my professional portfolio (which I’m particularly pleased with):

Jem’sMailForm.com
jemsmailform-com

JemTurner.co.uk
jemturner.co.uk

I like the consistent branding/styling and the use of ‘my’ colours from my old logo/branding which I’m hoping to replicate over here in due course replacing this temporary grey theme which I had to throw up to get round some issues with Google. On the flip side, I now actually rank for my own name again which is nice (albeit making no difference to traffic levels, sigh).

Anyway, that’s all my exciting stuff out of the way. Best crack on with some work, my overdraft isn’t going to pay itself off.

New project: maths, emails, and an empty ISA

What do you do when you try and find a site that allows the re-sale of preloved cloth nappies but the only one that did exist has closed down operations?

You buy the site of course.

used nappies-02As briefly alluded to in the last post, I’ve bought into a new project which I’m hoping will give me an increase in passive income in the long term, but in the short term is a great way of shifting several hundred pounds worth of cloth nappies: UsedNappies.co.uk

The purchase/takeover has not been without issues. The software the site was running on was massively out of date with a ton of potential security issues. The upgrade to the latest version was both a) expensive and b) complicated by poor documentation. Seriously, PHPProBid is one of the worst documented things I’ve ever had the misfortune to use. That said, version 7 is worlds apart from version 6 and it’s growing on me, so there is hope.

I took the decision to restart the site from scratch after I bodged the upgrade and I didn’t want to waste too much time on a rebuild when the site data was a few years old anyway. In the world of nappies, a few years is enough time for someone to finish with and get rid of their stash, rendering the user data useless.

Once the new version of the site was up and running, I created an email to advise the 15,000+ existing users that they needed to re-register. I send my mass mails with Campaign Monitor (because they’re awesome) but the 15k emails went over my limit with them, so I had to get approval on this. I explained the bodged site upgrade situation but they said that the data was too old to be marketed to as-is and I needed to run my list through a 3rd party verification service (more expense). That done, and 12k approved emails back in the system, I actually sent the mail (++expense).

At this point I begin to wonder how email marketeers make any money, because out of over 12,000 emails I had a 43.94% open rate with 3.84% unsubscribing — despite me clearly stating in the mail it was strictly one off to notify them their account was gone — and only 1.61% clicked the bloody website link.

ONE POINT SIX ONE PERCENT.

A third of that 1.61% have since re-registered on the site, giving me a current cost per user (adding up purchase price, software, add-ons, branding, etc) at approximately £23.43.

My ISA is currently barely above empty and I’m shitting bricks in case any big expenses come my way, but I’m crossing my fingers that the risk will pay off in the long term. Of course, you can help a girl out and give me some like / follow / share love if you like:

And if you know someone who uses, or is thinking about using cloth nappies? Tell them about the site of course :)

I want to code

I’m sat at my laptop — nothing new there — with a work todo list as long as my arm because I did very little in the last week (feeling poop) and all I want to do is code.

“But Jem, you’re a web developer, work is code?!” I hear you cry.

I don’t want to code work. I want to code fun. I want sit down and knock up a throwaway site or a dodgy new layout or a half-arsed script for no reason other than to get it out there. I want to write a 3000 word tutorial on some pointless technique that only 3 people with actually need in the entire time it remains live on the web. I want to do something for me, that doesn’t involve earning money, building a portfolio, or pressure and scope and budgets.

But every time the cogs start turning, that work todo list rears its ugly head and that teeny tiny spark of passion is lost.

:S

100% Freelance

I’ve mentioned a couple of times this month that I’ve been working with a client for a dedicated 8 hours a week to give me a little bit of fixed income and gets me out of the house twice a week. Despite needing to get out of the house, I’ve decided to change the arrangement: as of the end of September I am back to 100% freelance.

Over the next few weeks I have two big projects to finish, I’ve got multiple ongoing fixes and amends for other clients, few new jobs lined up, I need to do some degree of new-client-chasing so that I don’t run out of work after Christmas, and I need to fit in training for my half marathon. Oh and the small matter of raising two children, multiple pets and keeping house too.

In an attempt to prevent a complete mental breakdown I have enquired about some local hot desking this week, which I’ll be doing on a casual basis from next week. If I find that’s working well for me after I’m 100% freelancing again, I might make it a bit more permanent.

Exciting times!

A few quick words on #BrightonSEO

I’m sat in the concert hall at the Brighton Dome waiting for the keynote before I leave to head for Gloucester.

It’s been a great day with some really motivating talks – considering I came for networking potential rather than specifically learning, I’ve taken away some great points and things to try out on topics from content marketing to local SEO. Highlights for me include the talks by Greg Gifford, Paul Madden and the 20yr old with the multiple social media accounts churning out shit tons of content (who’s name, embarrassingly escapes me at the second!)

Was also great to finally meet some familiar names and faces. Ryan Gibson, who has been invaluable in giving advice on everything from monetising content to weight lifting (maybe I should mix those two?) and Alex Moss who I know of through Rhys, a long time bloggy friend who I still haven’t met (but hopefully will when I travel to Manchester for WordCamp in October).

A fruitful day that’s left me buzzing with ideas. Hopefully that positive energy will carry me through tomorrow’s 10km in Gloucester…

Day in the life of a WAHM

It’s Tuesday morning, 6:50am. The kids have just asked me if it’s morning yet and can we get up, and I send them back to bed knowing full well the alarm is going to go off in 5 minutes, but every second I can spend tucked in bed wrapped in limbs and duvet improves the chances of me not being a grumpy arse when I do get up.

7:05am — oops, I realise I must have forgotten to turn the alarm on last night. Drag my weary butt out of bed and get the kids out of theirs.

The next hour is a confused, frantic mess of breakfast choices, getting the kids dressed and hair brushed (urghhhhhhhhh worst part of every morning), me showered / dressed / protein shake in my gob, feeding the cats and getting everyone out the door. We’re running 10 minutes behind schedule.

8:10am: chuck Izzy out at the school breakfast club. She loves going, because it means she can have a second breakfast and it’s usually poached eggs.

8:25am: drop Olly off at nursery: his favourite lady is there this morning, so we have a smooth and smiley handover. This allows me to recoup some of the earlier lost time.

8:30am: arrive with a client whom I have committed 8 hours a week to, split over 2 days. It guarantees regular income (so a bit of stability for me) which pays my childcare bill, allowing me to do all my other (more profitable) work.

Work work work.

12:30: home time

12:45: raid the fridge for anything vaguely edible

1pm: catch up on e-mails, social media

1:30pm: remember I’m supposed to be working, close down twitter

2pm: remember I’m supposed to be working, really close down twitter this time

2:05pm: realise that the spreadsheet I’m working from is out of date (probably because I haven’t updated it)

2:15pm: chuck some notes in spreadsheet, mark things completed, email to client in anticipation of call at 2:30 which is probably going to be a telling off because I expected to have other bits done by now (August was a disaster work-wise)

By 2:20pm I’m already sweating. Not because I’m hot (hello, Britain, September!) but because I hate phone calls. There’s something about not being able to read the body language and facial expressions of someone that reduces me to a jibbering wreck.

2:32pm: Desperate for a pee and the call is already late, what do I do, what do I do?

2:33pm: Risk it.. sit down, start to pee, phone rings. Pee faster, pee faster! Grab phone, accidentally cut him off.

2:34pm: Call back, telling off for slipping deadlines and unclear communication. Oops :(

2:58pm: Joke about pee on twitter, suddenly remember I need to pick the kids up. Forget sometimes there’s an “M” part to this WAH thingy.

7:53pm: Sit back down at computer somehow having lost 5 hours to feeding, bathing, bedtime stories and the like. Suppose I best get some work done. Ooh, what’s happening on twitter….

Taking it Personally

I had a couple of clients (rightly) tell me off this week because schedules had slipped and this wasn’t communicated as well as it could have been. I only have myself to blame, and I don’t mind being honest about it. I should have better anticipated the impact of the summer holidays and time off on my workload and adjusted my schedule (and as such, client expectations) to suit.

Still, knowing and accepting where I went wrong doesn’t stop me from taking the kick up the arse personally. When a client wants more or wants something faster, I assume I’m not doing a good enough job. If I can’t deliver above and beyond expectations then I’m failing.

It’s hard not to take it personally: after all, my work is a huge part of who I am. Lots of people work their 9-5 and go home, but not only have I built my identity on what I do over the past 15 years, but I work well into the evenings, organise life around work (rather than the other way around) and all from 2ft from my bed now, which makes it really hard to detach even when I want to without literally leaving the house.

Sometimes I wonder if I should be more rigid and stick to socially acceptable working hours, but I’m not sure that would stop me taking it personally when things go wrong. And after all, if I’m personally invested in a project I have a reason to put 110% into it, making it the best it could possibly be.

Or that’s what I tell myself, anyway.

First Week

So, it’s been just over a week since I returned working from home. A week of exercising self-control, willpower and planning. A week of trying out a new routine, of getting used to waking up in the morning thinking “I don’t want to go to work… oh”.

The ~Grand Plan~ for this time round was to break up my working days into chunks, taking time for me and juggling the kids / school runs / etc better. My weekly routine is supposed to look a bit like this:

Monday: long run first thing, work efficiently til 3pm, pick up the kids, bit more work after their bedtime
Tuesday: work on location with client, pick up the kids, workout, bit more work after bedtime
Wednesday: full day of super efficient working, evening off
Thursday: work on location with client, pick up kids, workout, bit more work after bedtime
Friday: full day of super efficient working, evening off

(With a bit of work over weekends as required)

My routine last week looked more like this:

Monday: half-arsed run first thing, on the phone til 3pm, pick up the kids, all the work after their bedtime
Tuesday: work on location with client, pick up the kids, failed to workout, work after bedtime
Wednesday: procrastinate all morning, do as much as possible in the afternoon, evening off
Thursday: work on location with client, pick up kids, workout / bit more work after bedtime (win!)
Friday: procrastinate all morning, do as much as possible in the afternoon, evening off

Which, while not ideal, has made me realise that I really struggle to get my head going in the mornings if I don’t have the impetus to do so. I also work best towards the end of the day / evenings. Fighting against that is going to cause me problems in the long run, but I don’t want to end up spending all my evenings working thus sacrificing time with Gaz.

Perhaps if I move my workouts to as soon as I get back on a Tues/Thurs, that frees up an hour after the kid’s bedtime which I can use for work. I could do the monotonous / mindless stuff like admin, invoicing etc on a Weds/Fri morning and then crack on with the more brain-intensive stuff in the afternoon, leaving me free to take those two evenings off. In theory.

I suppose that’s the biggest advantage to working for myself again: I get to actually try this stuff and fiddle with my routine. I don’t have to force myself into a 9-5 pattern with barely half of those hours at peak productivity and then wonder why nothing is getting done.