Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Freelance Rules #4 - Establish a routine

When you move from corporate life to an independent operation, it's often very hard to establish an effective routine. It helps to know if you're really out of the corporate world for the long term or whether you're just passing through an independent phase for a short time while looking for that next great corporate opportunity. But if you've established that a microbusiness life is the working life for you, it's important to set a routine that distinguishes your work from the rest of your life.

That's what we set out to do when Jac and I set up Leapfrog, though 10 years down the line, I look back at some of the early thoughts (and early expense) and cringe. Having freelanced from a back bedroom for three years in the 90s, I was determined that Leapfrog would be different, so set about finding an office we could work from to give us a presence. And to a degree, Leapfrog was different - it wasn't just me making money from the venture, and I wanted  to be competing a little further up the business chain - getting the projects, not just the in-house overflow. So we sub let an office in Henley and then moved to a lovely office in Oxford - marble pillars and even a shared swimming pool! With the desks, the tech and even a sofa in it looked a treat. The problem was, we were hardly ever there.

My two main associates lived in Kent and Bedfordshire respectively - so while we occasionally met up at the office (and they even more occasionally worked from it), we were more likely to meeting in London where most of our clients were. And the fact our client base was in London largely negated the need for an office in Oxford. We'd selected it, cleaned it up and made it look welcoming because I naively thought we'd have plenty of clients coming to see us - but of course, that didn't happen. Since they were buying our brains and the ability to make their communication work, what they needed was us: sometimes in person, sometimes on the end of a phone - more often across a flurry of emails. In the first year of the Oxford office, I spent 40+ days working on Diageo's premises and more than 60 in London, Paris, Bristol, Brussels and Zurich on a project for Orange. For many of those days, the office was empty. It was something of a vanity expense and not in the best interest of the business long-term.

When Jac and I moved house, we decided to buy somewhere with an office built-in. The room I'm writing from now is an extension to the original extension on the house. It has space for two desks and is just about big enough for Leapfrog's needs. But it fits a changing microbusiness world. The business is portable and goes where the work is. Sometimes it's just me working on a project and at other times the network swings into action again - though now we're all connected over the internet from our respective home offices.

The difficulty working from home though is establishing a working routine. It demands discipline and balance - but can be far more productive than working in a office.

If I'm not at a client's premises, I'll be in here from 8.30 in the morning. I close the door and am 'at work'. The difference to being in a big corporate office is that I'm not called into a million meetings that are less than directly relevant to my work and I'm not also copied into all those interesting but not overly productive emails that circulate in any organisation. It tends to mean that when I have a task to focus on, it gets done quicker and with far less distraction.

Much as the office brigade may buy into the myth that we homeworkers just sit with feet up and the telly on when work is slack, I can probably count on one hand the number of days I've actually done that. Sure, I'll put the washing on and get the dishwasher going. I might even put out the bins, but from 8.30am - 6pm I'm in 'at work' mode. I will, however, break off for a natter with the kids when they come in from school and wander up to Costa to meet up with my fellow homeworkers - the very worst thing to do is to stay in the bubble all day with no external contact. I'm also very reward-driven: editing a document by such a time might earn me the time to read a chapter of a book; arranging my week's meetings might get a chocolate biscuit - that kind of thing.

I wish that all those hours in the 'office' during the week were billable, but of course they're not. But the trick is to make them productive nonetheless. For the last few years for me that has been fairly easy. I do some training and coaching, and there's always a deck to tweak or material to update. I'm also in mid-PhD and that, frankly, counts as my learning and development. So, as well as the part of the week I devote to university stuff (scheduled in, of course,) I'll grab a couple of hours here and there to take notes on a text or do a bit of online research. Then there's the necessity to 'stay connected' (see previous post) and the aligned need to keep up with clients and former clients and even potential clients to see where future work may come from. So, even if I'm not immediately busy on a piece of work, I have to keep myself occupied on ensuring there's work in the pipeline. And of course, business red tape ensures there's plenty of admin to fill the remaining time - as a microbusiness, there's no-one else around to do it for you (that was quite a shock after so long in-house).

When I started off running my own business, a more experienced colleague said: "Make the most of your downtime." A decade on, I know what she means.

Of course, routines are there to be broken, and one of the great advantages of being my own boss is that I've been able to walk my youngest daughter to school for much of the time we've lived here and can slip away more easily to school events than I ever could when I worked at Forte or Barclays. I even have the chance to take a day off on a whim.....though in practice, rarely do.

Rules get broken the other way too. While I endeavour to finish up my working day by 6pm (earlier if I feel I've put the right effort in), the dynamics of working to other people's agendas do still mean I work some late nights to hit rush deadlines. But it never feels so hard to switch off the PC at midnight and just walk up the stairs knowing I'm home rather than contemplate a late-night tube and train ride.

My routine works for me: others will find a very different way to make microbusinessing work. The trick is to find the balance that's right for you.

Monday, May 23, 2011

The Freelance Rules #3 - Stay Connected

One of the biggest shocks of moving from corporate life to a microbusiness was the status change that comes from no longer being a budget holder and instead being a service provider. Overnight, my position on the chain of influence slipped hugely and suddenly the people who'd been generous with their time, their interest and their lunch accounts when I'd been on the inside and putting work their way were far less willing to return my calls or even answer my emails.

Instead of being an opportunity for their business I was, to some, a threat, and to others simply not worth wasting their time. No longer a corporate decision maker, I was no longer worth any effort. What hit hardest was the change in relationship with former colleagues. Some stayed in touch, were supportive and, indeed, put some great work Leapfrog's way. For others, I was obviously tainted with redundancy, and I rapidly moved off a few people's Christmas Card lists.

Frankly that's an attitude that has baffled me over the past decade as I've watched myriad former colleagues move in and out of corporate roles, interiming and freelancing. I work in a small, incestuous and interconnected industry - and you tend to bump into people time and again, so surely it pays to keep up cordial working relationships when you can?

In truth, when I formed Leapfrog it didn't take me long to realise that I had to move on - and if I couldn't move my business connections with me, I had to find new ones. Too many fledgling microsbusinesses fail when they rely only on the people they've worked with before to provide their future success. It sounds like an absolute no-brainer - but you'd be surprised how many independents just end up picking up the slack from their old job as a 'consultant' - and never really make the break (I should know, it's what I did for nearly a year with Nationwide back in the early 90s).

You'll recognise your real friends from the corporate world by considering who you're still in contact with six months down the line after your last leaving 'do'.

Today, it has never been easier to build connections thanks to the plethora of social media abounding in the tekkywebisphere. But being 'linked'; being a facebook friend or following someone on Twitter doesn't establish a real connection. You have to work on those: to get your voice out there; to become a recognised voice in the right fora; to be seen in the right professional social media environments. Create the right net rep and it will help add credibility to your emerging business reputation. While it won't bring you work directly it might help open the odd door.

But the best connections remain real face to face ones. That's where the real work comes in. It's terribly easy when you're working on your own or perhaps as part of a two-some to get really isolated. It's good to let people know you're still out there. Steel yourself for the polite refusals, but ask the person you'd like to meet professionally out for a coffee, or just give them a call. Emails are very easy to ignore - and going that step further shows people you're willing to make an effort.

Think beyond business development too - work at building a network of people in associated services - or even people who could cover for you (or you for them) at some point down the line. You're not working in isolation, and the sooner you can build and contribute to a network of professional interest, the better you'll be placed to move onwards and, who knows, back up that influence chain again.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Appreciating the quiet aura of success

I spent yesterday morning in the company of the great and the good who link technology education and the workforce environment as part of one of Adecco's 'Unlocking Britain's Potential' round table events. One guy stood out: not for his loud voice or strident opinions; not for the force of his rhetoric or, indeed, any startling originality of contribution. 

That guy was Mark Richardson, a British Olympian who won Silver on the track in Atlanta in 1996. He's a slight guy; not very tall but with a fierce intensity and sense of focus that I've only ever seen in people who have been at the top in their sport. I used to work with a guy called Jon Potter, another Olympian who won a hockey Gold medal. Yesterday I recognised that same sense of calm authority and absolute belief. Each is someone who has benefited from superb coaching in their sporting career and has turned that same approach back into their business life. It's an approach we still use too rarely in the time-pressured atmosphere of the workplace today.

Listening to Mark made me recall the absolute high I felt at age 16 when I broke 54 seconds for the 400m in an early summer school athletics meeting. My time, in benign conditions when I'd been towed round the track by a faster runner (and probably benefited from hand-timing) was almost two seconds under my personal best. I didn't even win the race but it was one of the best feelings I've ever experienced, and briefly, for a few seconds, I felt I could really achieve something in sport. Athletics had been my main focus, but rapidly gave way to O Levels. By the next summer, I had a Saturday job and a girlfriend and the track didn't have anything like the same allure.

Guys like Mark Richardson followed their passion, pushing all other distractions to the side to be the very best. I've no doubt I could and would have shaved a few more seconds off my PB (which would have put me 100m behind the winner at Atlanta!) but I never had the natural talent nor the strength of focus to be more than a decent club athlete. Nor did I have that coaching environment around me to help me to excel.

In business, the best organisations I work with have that ability to bring on excellence; to encourage, to motivate and to celebrate when we get things right. We need a few more Jon Potters and Mark Richardsons in business - more personality, empathy and understanding of that un-bottleable feeling that success delivers.

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Freelance Rules: Numbers 1 and 2: If you can, do - but don't over-promise

Over the last couple of weeks, I've been working with a number of newbie independent communicators - a couple have chosen to move out of full-time in-house roles, while a couple more have had the decision thrust upon them.

As an 11-year veteran of running a microbusiness that has never involved more than four people - and most of the time has involved half of that or me alone, they've been picking my brains as to what it takes to keep in business year in and year out. In the coming weeks, I'll be happy to share any insights I've garnered.

First, I'd say, never turn down work unless you really, really have to. Today, for instance, I had planned to write part of a large report - something I thought would take all day. Mid-morning, I was actually going great guns, so when a request for a news story for a client's portal came in before lunch, I thought I might as well knock it off straight away. I did so - to the client's surprise and got the response "My god man, you're quick." She's a relatively new client, so it's nice to go beyond her expectations. Meanwhile, I've raced on with the main project and probably covered twice the ground I expected today.  

But that's just a small example. Over the past few years I've very rarely turned down any work - and nearly always regretted it when I've had to. There's a weird freelance maxim at work: work will only come in when you're busy. There'll be times you look at your calendar and think: 'I haven't possibly got time to do that extra piece'. The problem is, someone out there will find time. If you say no, you don't only run the risk of damaging a client relationship, but are handing an opportunity to someone else who may get the client's call first in the future. And, as has happened once or twice in the last couple of years, the big piece of work that's set to block out the week or month can sometimes arrive late, or not quite as big as expected....or even not arrive at all.

As freelancers, we're not bound by the 9-5 or the Monday to Friday. So, wherever I possibly can, I'll try and say yes to any work that comes in unexpectedly. And if I really, really can't take on the job, I'll at least try and hand it on to a someone I know (and know will do the work well). We're a fairly small bunch in this profession, and I certainly believe if you help fellow freelancers, the good karma will come right back at you.

My second, connected, rule is don't over-promise. The worst possible thing you can do is take on a challenge you're really not up to. While I've choked through my teeth on it sometimes, I've always tried to be honest about what I can and can't do. If something's out of my skillset, I won't pretend I can do it (though that skillset is distinctly elastic around the edges) - but again try and turn a negative into something positive. I've built a lot of good connections in associated professions over the years, so if someone's looking for design consultancy, I know a man who can, and the same goes for quant research, photography, illustration, conference organisation etc.

This job is all about personal relationships - and any independent is only as good as the last impression we've made.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The CFO - Strategic Expert and Commercial Co-Pilot

The CFO workplace study I wrote for Badenoch & Clark is now out. You can get hold of the key findings at: http://tinyurl.com/5two85j.

The next phase of the research sees B&C host a series of meetings up and down the country (which I'm facilitating) to dig into the findings with groups of senior and  up-and-coming finance people. The plan is to produce a follow-up report later in the year.