Category: Work

Things I Wish I Knew Before I Started My Own Business

I graduated from college 10 years ago, and since that point, I have had a full-time, salaried job, until June of this year when I decided to go out on my own and start my own freelancing business.

Now that I’m about six months in, I have a list of things I wish I’d known when I started. Some of these things are practical, some are philosophical, but all are good advice for anyone thinking about going out on their own.

  1. It’s better to start with systems than to develop them as you go
  2. Pay for the accounting software
  3. Your business name doesn’t matter nearly as much as your business structure
  4. Working for friends can be a blessing, but it can also be the hardest client relationship to manage
  5. Insist on signed estimates and deposit checks before starting a project
  6. Hold on to your free time. Just because you work at home doesn’t mean that you’re always at work
  7. Be confident in your abilities, but know when to ask for help
  8. It’s OK to outsource things you’re not good at (more on that in my next post)
  9. The worst part of any job is going to be billing – dealing with money sucks
  10. Save everything – receipts, business cards, notes, emails, mockups, draft documents, checks, etc. – you never know when you’re going to need to refer back to something
  11. And above all – remember the reason you’re doing this – whether it’s for creative freedom, the ability to work from anywhere, the ability to spend more time with friends or family, remember that reason and hold on to it. There will be hard, horrible days where you’ll wish you could go back to a full time job, or where you’ll want to fire clients, resign accounts, and quit projects. On those days, it’s important to think about why.

    For me, there are multiple reasons why freelancing works for me, but one of the biggest is that life is short, and there is so much in this world that I want to see and do, and so when I have a hard day, I remember a raft trip down the Nolichucky river on a Wednesday morning, and how it was a perfect day, and how in my previous jobs, it was a day I would have had to miss, sitting instead in my office while the leaves went from green to yellow to red, and then fell off the trees. Those are the kind of days that make it all worth it.

Do you use checklists?

As I fly home to Denver today, I’m wondering what tools other developers use when setting up projects.

I have a questionnaire that I sent to clients before quoting a project that helps me get a sense of the type of website we’re going to build.

But I’m thinking of developing a series of checklists for new projects.

  1. Collecting Logins for Clients with Existing Websites
  2. Setting up a new WordPress installation
  3. Plugins
  4. Social Media Scheduling
  5. Analytics and Adwords

Any others you’d like to see?

American Advertising Federation Asheville

When I moved to Asheville, one of the things I worried about was finding a fantastic community of professionals, like the one I had in Washington, D.C.

I was a pretty regular attendee of events hosted by the Online News Association in D.C. and loved the inspiration and camaraderie I got from that group. Of course, our community was huge in D.C. (note the specialized nature of the group) and I knew that I wouldn’t have quite that size group here in Asheville.

But last year, I found the American Advertising Federation of Asheville, and felt some of the elements I was looking for. This year, I’m serving as the Education Chair for the group, which gets me involved in board meetings and other decisions. We’re a small group, but we host great programs and social events.

Being the education chair has allowed me to meet with students at the local colleges in the area and hear from them what they want in a professional group following college. We are hoping to attract some of these students to the group and need to provide networking events and interesting programming to do so.

Our challenge this year is membership and attendance, since our group is small and new, but I hope we continue to grow and provide great programming for the year to come. If you want more information on the group, check out the American Advertising Federation of Asheville and come to an event!

Keeping up with the cutting edge

One of the things I’m loving about self-employment is the opportunity to continuously learn new things. From changing technologies, to new projects, it seems like every week presents a challenge that I have never conquered before.

Last week, I worked my way through some social media best practices courses that served as a refresher course for me as I launch into a social media project for a client. This one in particular from Hootsuite has a series of videos and quizzes that help you work through the changing landscape of social media.

It was great for two reasons:

  1. I refreshed my knowledge, staying up-to-date on the latest best-practices for social media
  2. And, it reminded me of the items that I needed to describe to the client to get the best elements for their profiles and posts

Now that I’m working for myself, doing these kinds of things can be hard. While I’m running through these courses, those are not “billable hours” for me. But it improves my work across many clients and lets me reset my brain for new projects.

How about you? How do you balance the need to do continuing education and research with the need to create billable work?

Open Government Data

This is the eighth in a series of nine posts on the All Things Open 2015 conference I attended in Raleigh in mid-October. For more information on the conference, along with videos and slides from the presenters, check out the conference website.

In what was probably the most interesting session I attended in my two days at the conference, I listened to Mark Headd of Accela, Inc., talk about the issues with open government data, and how governments can really embrace the spirit of open data laws, vs. just adhering to the letter of the law.

This is the area in which I have the most experience, having worked and trained as a journalist and with the Code for Asheville brigade over the past year, and I found his perspective on the subject interesting and informative.

He advocates for eight principles of open government data:

  1. Complete
  2. Primary
  3. Timely
  4. Accessible
  5. Machine Readable
  6. Non-Discriminatory
  7. Non-Proprietary
  8. License Free

Citing data.gov and the 18F project of the federal government as models for open data, he noted that the culture change in the halls of government can be the biggest barrier to open data.

Most of all, though, he noted that the best way to encourage open data at any government level is to use it. That’s where local journalists and code communities come in. Build something useful and the government will see that their efforts to open their data and make it machine readable and timely are important to the people they serve, and the people who use the thing you build will understand why open government data is important as well.

Can Design be Hostile?

This is the sixth in a series of nine posts on the All Things Open 2015 conference I attended in Raleigh in mid-October. For more information on the conference, along with videos and slides from the presenters, check out the conference website.

Sometimes when you’re at a conference, you go to a session where you think you’re getting one thing, and what you get is totally different. This is that session.

Hostile Design, a talk given by Shopify Lead UX Designer Cynthia Savard Saucier, was one I was looking forward to. In her session preview, she used the phrase “bad design can kill” and I thought she was going to talk about how poorly designed sites and projects can be painful to use (metaphorical pain here).

Her actual presentation… more of a tirade really… was about how a company’s clever promotion or user experience can actually hurt people (not metaphorical pain here) and how the poor design of her building’s evacuation alarm would lead us all to burn in a fire (not metaphorical fire here). Having trouble following her line of thought? So was I.

But there were a couple of key takeaways that I can get behind.

She started off with “the best designs don’t require instructions.” That is something I’ve been preaching for many years when it comes to web design. I had a client once who wanted instructional overlays for new users. Instead, I advocated for using standard web icons with tooltips, along with a simplified user experience.

The other thing I loved was the explanation of Dark Patterns, which are essentially web practices designed to trick a user into doing something that is in the company’s best interest, but not necessarily the user (Savard Saucier would be so mad about my repeated use of ‘user’ but that is what I do…). An example of this is opt-out email signups on checkout forms, or opt-out subscription services on a free trial signup.

This is the kind of hostile design that I’d originally thought of, and one that we can actually effect change on.

Open Source is Ugly

This is the fifth in a series of nine posts on the All Things Open 2015 conference I attended in Raleigh in mid-October. For more information on the conference, along with videos and slides from the presenters, check out the conference website.

One of the themes of the design track at All Things Digital this year was how to add design to Open Source projects. Apparently, design has not been a priority for Open Source in the past, but is becoming an important part of a lot of projects.

The session called Open Source is Ugly on the UX/UI track gave a good overview of why design is important for projects. All projects have users. Sometimes these are the general public, but often in Open Source, these are internal, or specific users, like developers who work in a specific technology, or users who are already using another project that can be extended.

For this reason, developers often don’t think about design as a top priority, but user experience is very important, from Branding to User Interface.

This speaker, Garth Braithwaite from Adobe, talked about choosing a styling platform, integrating design to your project, and giving developers a crash course in design using free online tools, which I plan to check out soon.

You can check those tools out here: Speakerdeck

(Garth and I, incidentally, had a very funny twitter interaction the next day about why my four hour drive should take precedent over the after party. You can check that out and follow me onhere.)

Women in Code

This is the fourth in a series of nine posts on the All Things Open 2015 conference I attended in Raleigh in mid-October. For more information on the conference, along with videos and slides from the presenters, check out the conference website.

One of the unofficial themes of the conference this year was how to ensure that women, non-cis-gendered people, and people of color feel comfortable in the open source community or the code community at large. There was a fantastic documentary film shown the first day called Code: Debugging the Gender Gap followed by a panel discussion.

The film shows women of all ages, from small children to women who were pioneers in the industry. It talked a little bit about how to improve all parts of the pipeline, from encouraging girls to stay in STEM education paths to making the work environment more welcoming to non-male employees.

As a woman in tech myself, albeit on a more female-friendly side (marketing, advertising, and journalism all tend to skew female), I have felt like an outsider at some conferences and jobs, and am likely a product of the world that says that girls shouldn’t love math and science (I still love you Science!!).

I also feel like my public school system did not encourage computer science as a career path, possibly because when I graduated High School, it was just beginning to be a growth area for jobs.

I am encouraged, though, by the prevalence of this conversation among technology industry groups and conferences. I felt totally welcomed at the All Things Open conference, and felt like the speakers and keynotes represented a wealth of diversity in the industry. Hopefully that will continue to grown in the future.

GitHub for Beginners

This is the third in a series of nine posts on the All Things Open 2015 conference I attended in Raleigh in mid-October. For more information on the conference, along with videos and slides from the presenters, check out the conference website.

The second session I attended at the conference was called “How to Start an Open Source Project” and it dealt with the nuts and bolts of GitHub and open source licensing and all those other intimidating things that keep people from starting and contributing to projects. The presenter, Don Schenck from Rackspace, gave a great overview of the process, from getting an idea, naming it, creating the repository (repo) and starting with the first file.

One of the key things he said to us was “once you publish your code to GitHub, it’s not your code anymore,” which is a way of saying that open source projects belong to the community. When starting a project, you need to be starting it with that in mind. If you want to control every aspect of it, then open source may not be right for that project.

He also talked about the need for a development plan: what needs to be done, in what order, and how to get people to contribute.

I’m still not sure I’m ready to create my own project on GitHub, but I’m at least a little more confident that I might contribute to one.

Constraining Design

This is the second in a series of nine posts on the All Things Open 2015 conference I attended in Raleigh in mid-October. For more information on the conference, along with videos and slides from the presenters, check out the conference website.

The first session I attended at All Things Open was in the UX/UI/Design track. The speaker Shay Howe from Belly described how design constraints can actually free a designer to do what they’re best at. Good constraints include a grid, font/typography choices, color choices, and any existing branding for the site, if it’s available.

“Narrowing your options can clarify challenges,” Howe said, and allow a designer to use fewer resources while maintaining consistent styling across iterations.

As someone who is working on a system to create design as good as my development, this really hit home. It is the reason I always suggest to clients that they should start with a style guide, or even a mood board, to give me constraints to work with. Taking away the basic decisions of font, color, and button styling allows me to spend my limited design resources on interesting elements that really customize a site.

Getting clients to see the importance of these style constraints is also an important part of the process. Clients want to jump right in to seeing a website in progress, and sometimes feel like developing these standards is a waste of time. Done correctly, however, it makes the development process much smoother and faster than the code first method.

“Constraints do not equal sacrifices,” said Howe.

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