Finally I get around to posting my final ’10 questions’ for web designers and developers who are self employed (Sorry for the delay, new arrivals do throw a spanner in the works). This time I ‘metaphorically’ sat down for a chat with John Oxton. John is a web developer based in the Cotswolds. Well known for his use of the ‘F’ word, he’s really a jolly nice chap. On with the questions!
Nathan: So what was it that made you decide to ‘go it alone’?
John: Because the studio I worked for went bust when the dot com bubble burst and I couldnâ€™t get a job as a â€œweb designerï¿½? for love nor money. Also, I was sick of working for people whose only motivation is money.
Read that back as: I had to, I am technically unemployable.
Ch ch ch ch changes
Nathan: How did you prepare for the change in employment, did you ‘do it proper like’ and write a formal business plan before you started?
John: Ha! Errr… yeah, pass, next question.
Nathan: On your first day did you do a shed load of work or just play PlayStation?
John: I looked after my son on my first day and for the next 729 days after that. I really wasnâ€™t too busy for the first year and a half and then I simply struggled with time for the last 6 months before my partner gave up work.
Nathan: If you charge by the hour, how did you decide on your hourly rate? Did you pluck a figure from the air or work out a rate based on the salary you required?
John: My hourly rate has been rising slowly but steadily over the last two years and confidence in myself and an improved portfolio have certainly been a factor. I also did a survey a little while back to see how I compared across the board. I am pleased to say I am still quite inexpensive, though donâ€™t ever call me cheap!
Nathan: What about marketing then… do you advertise your services in local rags, wear a short skirt and tout yourself on street corners or just rely on word of mouth?
John: Word of mouth really and my CSS zen garden entry has helped. I always keep meaning to go on a marketing spree but donâ€™t seem able to summon enough BS for a flyer and/or advert.
Yeah, I know, me and BS are synonymous but not when it comes to PR(Public Relations) it would seem.
Note: Lotâ€™s of acronyms and abbreviations in your marketing is a bad thing, FYI.
Nathan: How does your average work day pan out? For example do you have specific times during which you respond to prospects and clients, read blogs and eat biscuits, or do you just go with the flow?
John: I have quite an erratic routine which usually depends on whether I am feeling creative, or not or, in all honesty, if I am enthusiastic about a client/project, or not. I tend to get a second wind at around 1am and start with a â€œgreatï¿½? idea and then end up staying up all night, only to be whacked out by 10am, the great idea abandoned.
It used to stress me out, that I couldnâ€™t get my routine nailed down, but I remembered that a rigid routine was one of the things I hated most about working as an employee so now I just go with the flow — itâ€™s just me — and get the Missus to take messages from clients; they are very rarely urgent as I donâ€™t do hosting, at all.
One advantage to this, eyes like a panda, approach has been working with clients in the US. They usually think itâ€™s great if I am willing to work overnight with them, it makes me look really keen; rather than just the truth, which is that I am an insomniac. Actually, I hope none of my US clients read your blog.
I do, though, tend to find my routine is more stable when I am at the planning or coding stage of a project, rather than when at the graphic design/creative stage; this could be a left brain/right brain thing I guess.
I did, for a while, have a problem with the surfing, biscuits and coffee routine taking up too much of my day but I removed all notifiers from my machine, started using bloglines for my subscriptions, gave up smoking and shut down my own blog; itâ€™s helped enormously, I am now 3.25%* more productive than the other leading
*incorrect at time of writing.
Work and play
Nathan: Does working freelance ‘actually’ give you more free time for yourself and/or your family? Or in reality and do you actually spend every waking hour sat at the computer trying to make sure that you can pay the bills each month?
John: I hardly ever spend any quality time with my kids these days, it is usually a quick ten minutes here and there. Itâ€™s hard to take a day off when work is in the same house and there are deadlines looming. Itâ€™s something I very much want to change next year with my third child patent pending. Even so, on the plus side, I bet I see more of my kids than most dads with a career and serious ambitions and, I would wager, even fewer have had the real pleasure of looking after their children on a full time basis as I did in the early days.
When disaster strikes
Nathan: What’s the one single biggest disaster that you’ve had to face, and how did you deal with it?
John: I am dealing with it now and itâ€™s tough, I canâ€™t really talk about it right now without rendering this post unpublishable and probably getting sued in the process, so I wonâ€™t.
All I will say is that I remind myself, daily, that I am only doing this because I want to do it, not because I have to. All my life I have taken the attitude that you have to bounce back no matter how hard you get hit, thereâ€™s no other choice.
Read that back as: Fuck it, shit does and will happen.
The future (is bright hopefully)
Nathan: Being self employed you must have some ambition… where do you want your business to be in ten years time?
John: I am undecided as to where I should go with this. I have certainly got a better profile and know more people than I did when I started out but the business, my business, isnâ€™t a great deal different from when I started but thatâ€™s mostly due to question 8. I still feel like I am at the beginning.
I recently turned down a really good job in order to stay freelance, so I guess that tells me something — other than I must have been fucking mad on that day!
I do have a couple of people interested in investing money in me, so maybe a studio will happen but I wouldnâ€™t be ready to commit to that until at least 2007.
My dream? I am interested in making a million (or three), who isnâ€™t, but I am not interested in being a completely ruthless f**k to get it. I have had run ins with these sorts (see ‘when disaster strikes’) before and all the money in the world isnâ€™t worth becoming that sort of person for.
Nathan: And finally, what single tip would you give to someone who is considering going freelance to help make the leap into the unknown that little less daunting?
John: Have some savings set aside for a rainy day because there will be rainy days; clear all your credit cards and other debts first; get your mortgage before you go freelance; have a Mac and a PC and an external hard drive to hand but most of all, talk to your family and friends and make sure you have their moral (and maybe financial) support.
There is no way I could have survived the last four/five years without the love, support and understanding of my partner and my family. As an example, my Mum lent me Â£800 for a new beige box when mine quite literally blew up (smoke and a big bang and everything there was) two years ago. Without that kind of support, I would have had to get a job and my business would have died at a crucial moment.
Sorry, you said single tip didnâ€™t you, in that case it would be: Be prepared, itâ€™s probably gonna be tougher than you expect but go with it, better to look back and say you tried than wonder what if.
Also, avoid cliches when giving advice, cliches suck and can cause validation problems when spelt correctly.
O yeah, one more if I may, donâ€™t do favours for friends (they wonâ€™t thank you for it), do discounts.
O sorry, the other thing is if you donâ€™t have a strong portfolio, set up a blog instead and write about what you do. I have had more enquires for work since I took my portfolio site down and replaced it with a blog… odd that! Okay, I am going now.