I’ve talked to a lot of entrepreneurs and I’m always fascinated by the varied experiences that lead a person to start a company. In particular, the freelancers I know have taken ridiculously distinct paths to their current positions. Since I find these things so interesting, I thought it would be fun to share my story.
My mother and father did a great job fostering my love of math, science, and other technical topics. They recognized I had an innate understanding of these things and wanted me to take advantage of my talents. I got Erector sets, Lincoln Logs, and K’Nex for every holiday and would spend hours designing and building things. I distinctly remember creating a pseudo-bionic claw out of K’Nex that would fit over my hand and do different things based on how I moved my fingers.
My father worked (and still works) in the automotive industry as an engineer of various sorts. Hearing about the kind of things he got to do, I knew I wanted to be an engineer. At the age of ten, I narrowed it down to to wanting to be an architectural engineer. My mind was set upon this path all through high school and into college.
The Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology
I enrolled at the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology as a mechanical engineering major because I wanted to learn from the best. I loved it. The coursework was challenging, but I learned all about the way the world moves and works the way that it does. I acquired practical knowledge and got to do lots of fun things, including designing and building a small bridge truss to compete against my classmates’ designs.
The professors were great, everyone was bright, and I got to study things I was genuinely interested in.
In the middle of my sophomore year, I applied for and was accepted as a co-op at General Electric’s Appliance Division. I moved to Louisville for six months and worked as part of the refrigeration team. Some of the work was interesting, but I’d say only 3-4 hours of the week were spent on any meaningful discovery or improvement. The rest was spent writing reports that no one read, attending meetings that were irrelevant at best and hostile at worst, and generally sitting around trying to look busy. I continually asked for more work and never received any. I either wasn’t trusted or there just wasn’t that much to do. It drove me crazy.
I spoke to my co-op supervisor about it and he said that’s just how the corporate game works. The manager of the department I worked in was obsessed with “butts in seats,” going so far as to accuse me of not being at work when he couldn’t reach me at my desk phone (which was broken) and I answered on my alternate number. How dysfunctional is that?
I was depressed – I talked to some other engineers and they confirmed that much of corporate engineering is making PowerPoint presentations and listening to others give them. That was not what I envisioned or wanted.
I sat in my apartment in Louisville trying to figure out what to do. I knew that programming was important and that I could probably be good at it, so I taught myself how to tinker in PHP. After doing that for a couple of months, I decided to switch majors to Computer Science when I got back to Rose-Hulman. The course work was still challenging and I felt like I was crafting something new every single day. I was an artisan solving problems in context rather than a human calculator solving for
x forces in
y dimensions. I could tell after a couple of weeks that it would be a great fit. I was so excited!
Of course, I didn’t want to get caught in another corporate trap so I started investigating what the programming world was like. Much to my chagrin, I saw that a lot of the stories held the same kind of soul-crushing narrative that my experience at GE had elicited. There were other options, though. I found you could be a programming consultant, work over the internet, and make a great living. I was intrigued and decided to pursue this.
My First Gigs
During my junior year of college, I started investigating what it would take to go down the path that I wanted. It started by trolling job boards (as I outlined in my path to freelance success) and finding someone who would take a chance on me given my current knowledge and desire to learn. I found Mark Hammonds. He was my age and was looking for someone to do Drupal development for him as part of an effort to rebuild a website for a client of his. We both drove to Indianapolis to meet up for dinner and he was happy enough that I scored an hourly contract with him for the summer.
I moved in with Angela at her mom’s place, set up my computer, and got to work. It was my first real experience at providing professional development for money. There were highs and lows, but I wouldn’t trade those experiences for the world. Working from home was amazing – once I experienced it I knew I would never be able to go back to working in an office.
I also worked on small WordPress and Drupal development projects throughout the summer, but the work with Mark was always my main focus.
The summer ended and my contract ended with it. I had my taste, though, and I knew I could never step away from the kind of life that let me work from home on things I enjoyed and earn good money. My senior year at Rose-Hulman was a whirlwind as I balanced coursework, work-study, and figuring out how to start my freelancing business. I slept maybe five hours a night if I was lucky.
My last quarter at Rose-Hulman I decided to stop trying so hard in my classes and work on my business. My grades dropped down to Bs, but that was OK. I was too busy working on my website, gathering leads, wooing prospects, and starting to make real money. It was exhilarating.
One of the best things about Rose-Hulman is that they have a dedicated career center that will help you get a job (and a well-paying one at that) right out of school. They were surprised when I told them I didn’t have a job offer because I wasn’t looking as I was going to start my own business. I’ve always thought that was kind of funny.
College is Over
I did really well in college and graduated with honors, but that meant next to nothing as far as prospects were concerned. They wanted to know I could help their business, not how great my GPA was. I spent the summer learning how to nurture leads, building my technical knowledge, and generally working my butt off. I would get up in the morning and ride my bike to the gym, work out, shower, and then sit at Starbucks for 8-10 hours working. It was fantastic.
I was still perusing job boards throughout the summer and eventually stumbled on a job posting at FreelanceSwitch by a company in California called “Shane & Peter” (who are now Modern Tribe). While I thought it was a weird name, I decided to apply for a contract position. I remember sitting on the bed of the truck I was driving at the time in a Barnes & Noble parking lot and talking to them. That conversation would have a huge impact on my life for the next several years.
After the summer, Angela (my now wife and then fiancee) and I moved to Seattle, WA where Angela would be attending law school. We didn’t know anyone, but that was OK because we had each other. I worked on tons of projects as I tried to figure the whole freelance thing out. How could I make more money and advance my freelance career? How could I learn more about what I do while still serving clients?
Those first six months, I essentially worked non-stop. I’d get up in the morning and see Angela off and sit down in my office and work all day. Angela would come home and we’d go to the gym and have dinner and then I’d work until one in the morning while she fell asleep next to me.
Throughout this time I was working on my own gigs, but a majority of my energy was focused on serving Shane & Peter and, more specifically, their clients’ needs. I got to work on some stuff that wouldn’t have been available to me on my own. I talked to Peter almost every single weekday for almost two years. I got to attend retreats with other freelancers that they worked with. It was a lot of fun and I learned a ton along the way.
I’ll never forget the first big mistake I made as a freelancer when I forgot to add a condition to a
WHERE clause in a
SQL statement and caused intermittent performance issues on a client’s site. It was baffling because I didn’t have the data set to see it locally and didn’t have the server access required to debug it remotely. We eventually got it figured out, but I learned from that whole ordeal that the best thing to do when you’ve made a mistake is to calm down, communicate as much as possible, and do your damnedest to fix the problem. I think that is the most important lesson I learned from working with Peter.
Onward and Upward
During the time I was working with Shane & Peter, I was also working on expanding my business. I networked like crazy, revamped my website, and took on more and more expensive projects. I eventually wrote a book which I was able to use as a calling card. It became part a standard part of my pitch:
Oh, why should you hire me? Did I mention I wrote a published book on WordPress theme development?
I eventually priced myself out of working with Shane & Peter. I was spending 70% of my time on projects with them but making 70% of my money from projects that were with other clients. It just wasn’t sustainable in the long term. I peg that as one of the hardest things I ever had to do: I had to choose between working with my friend every day or making more money for me and my family. Making money won.
Solo + Agencies = Win
For a while I was on my own, but then something wonderful happened. I ran into an agency that could afford to pay me my normal project rate and would allow me to work on projects with companies that would otherwise be inaccessible. I don’t remember how I met Brian, but I’m so glad I did. We’ve worked on a ton of projects over the years that I’m really proud of and I’m happy to call myself a member of the TrendMedia team.
About six months ago, I stumbled upon another agency with whom I have a similar arrangement. He gets the projects, I serve the client, and everyone is happy.
So that’s where I’m at now – I work on projects with clients that I gather myself and fill the rest of the time with projects through these two agencies. I hardly ever want for more work (oftentimes having way too much to do!) and am making the money I need and want to for my family.
I Love Freelancing
What does all this mean in a broader context? I’m not sure, but writing this post has made me realize two things:
- I love what I do
- I’ve worked my butt off to get where I am right now
If I’ve worked with you and you’re reading this, thanks for making my lifestyle possible. I appreciate it more than you know. If you’d like to pick my brain about an aspect of my freelance story that I left out, leave your questions in the comments!