I had a good run of it. When I told people I had been freelancing for four years, generally people said one of two things. Either a) yeah I freelanced for a month and I couldn’t hack it, or b) wow I wish I could do that one day/you’re living the dream.
I certainly felt like I was living the dream, at least in the sense that I was my own boss. It seems like people think that only magical people with some special in-born entrepreneurial, risk-taking gene can quit their jobs and make it happen. I will admit it does require a few basic things, mainly lots of connections and good self discipline, which can certainly seem magical. I certainly wasn’t always perfectly disciplined, but overall, I am self-motivated, organized, a good communicator, and can force myself to work for a week straight on coffee and bananas alone.
But, as with all things, there is give and take. Sure, I can work in my pajamas, but that means that I don’t get speak to another person all day (now I know how stay-at-home moms must feel in that I-have-only-conversed-with-dogs/children-all day hunger for adult/human interaction). In some ways, I set my own schedule–but generally I got time off when I didn’t want it, ie, when work wasn’t coming in. But my partner couldn’t exactly jump ship from his business at that exact moment, so I just sat around waiting for the email to ring and finally finishing my portfolio website. And when we did have a vacation planned, work would start pouring in a week ahead of time, and with no coworkers to pawn it off on, I would work like crazy before and after and spend the entire vacation worried about it (or in many cases, cancel the trip).
I worked on a ton of different types of projects with different types of clients, which gave me the chance to find my strengths and gain a wide scope of knowledge in my field, and it also taught me about working with people and about the industry in general. However, again you have that problem–I was never super focused on any one thing. By the last year I had stopped taking on projects that weren’t my core focus, but even then, I spent a ton of time doing accounting, project management, emailing, etc. I didn’t really realize how little time I actually spend coding until I got a full time position doing that–and only that. I have learned a ridiculous amount in the last 2 months, and I’m sure that will only continue (as long as I continue to grow with my position, of course).
By the end of it, I was mostly working as a subcontractor with agencies, and not working directly with clients. I found that as I attempted to specialize, I ended up feeling like I was taking on the same project over and over again. I wanted something new, but I was hesitant to take on something outside of my comfort zone without a knowledgable partner to boost me through what would likely be an un-profitable project. I also wasn’t actively selling my services, so I was just getting the work that was coming my way.
Perhaps if I had held out a bit longer something cool would have dropped in my lap, or I would have taken the business in a new direction. But instead, I decided to take my career in a semi-new direction. I got a job at a small agency. I suppose I could think of that as giving up The Dream. But that’s not really how I think of it at all. I definitely feel like I come to this role with an entirely changed perspective on jobs in general. I have the confidence in knowing that I can support myself without being an employee. I can walk away (at least right now, as a single, non-child having person). I don’t think of my boss as The Man (although is last name is Mann, strangely enough…), I think of everyone as an equal partner in something we’re all building together. I know we all have dreams of doing products as well as services, and I imagine that would be a joint venture of all of our talents. What I am really trying to say is that I now realize how much I was missing by being a solo act. I need a team of (really awesome) people. The sum of us is greater then the parts of the whole or whatever the hell that saying is.
The other major thing I’ve realized over the last month is how much stress I carried around with me all the time. People often asked me if it was stressful, never knowing if I would have work in a month or two. I said “sometimes”. There would be nights when I hardly slept, thinking about how I had not a single hour of work to do the next day. Or the day after that, or after that. And then I would wake up and have 5 emails with work inquires, and then I would hardly sleep because I had 70 hours of work to do in the next 5 days. Feast or famine, that’s how it goes. I didn’t think I was stressed out. But I was–I worked all the time. I worked even when I wasn’t at my computer–ie, I thought about work when I wasn’t “working”. And when I wasn’t “working” I was feeling guilty about it. I worked most evenings and most weekends. Even if it was just for an hour on a Saturday, that hour was more like 5 hours because I spent 4 hours avoiding it.
So essentially, I never felt “off”. And it’s not like I could go to my partner for a sanity check–he owns his own business as well and was working 7 full days a week (we’ve got it down to 6 now, most of the time). I realized around year three that I needed my business to grow, somehow. Either I needed to hire employees and start taking on bigger projects, or I needed to transition to building products instead of doing client work. I hemmed and hawed for a year, really feeling unsettled and indecisive. Another (unrelated) business I attempted to launch never went anywhere, and I think that contributed to my inability to move. I felt apprehensive and scared of taking a big risk, especially since I didn’t have a clear vision of what I even wanted to do. After a year of this, I realized that I needed to just throw a bomb at career. So I did.
Well when I put it like that, it does sound like I gave up. But I like to think of it as getting smart. I operate best as part of a team. So I joined one that I think will set me right and help me grow both as a programmer and… as a person. Aw! Who knew I was so sentimental?