I got an email from a community member from CodeIgniter. I won’t use his name here (feel free to comment below in case anyone thinks I’m lying ;) ), but with his permission I’m reposting this. He asked about how I got started, and the realities of running a business. This is the second time in a week I was asked, and thought I’d post a bit here. What you see below is a mostly unedited response that I wanted to share.
And don’t believe the fortune cookie...
I’ve been pondering the idea of “starting off on my own” so that I can start working for myself. From what I can tell, you’ve done rather well for yourself and continue to be successful. I was wondering; how did you get started ?
A bit of background. I split my time between 2 main activities: teaching and programming. About 50/50. I find that the split works for my personality, I get sick of just sitting in a room building by myself, and crave community, but then when I’m teaching I get sick of always explaining myself ;) My advice is to ensure that you have enough diversity in what you do that you’ll never stop enjoying it.
I got started through a fluke. It was 1999 and I was 24 or 25 and had just graduated from University (Environmental Studies if you can believe it). After I graduated, I started the process of looking for a job, then one of the professors I used to work for (when I had a student job) contacted me. He had committed to teaching a 4 hour class on HTML (back in the HTML 3.0 days), but said to me (I’ll paraphrase) “I’m double booked, and you’re kind of a nerd, want to teach this for me?”. The money he offered was great at the time, so I did what all good entrepreneurs do… I said “pfft, no problem” and then went back and taught myself enough HTML to do a 4 hour class. It went well, and he offered me another class. Then the school offered me a course. Then another school did, then I found my way into doing some corporate training.
I had no existing job, and my partner (now my wife) had a decent job. We had no kids, I had worked enough to stay out of debt through school, so I thought, what the hell, I’ll start a business and see if I can’t make a run of this. I was fortunate that if I fell flat on my face the only person who’d really get flattened was me. I was also fortunate that didn’t happen. She was very supportive (always has been), but its not like I was leaving a good career and risking anything either.
I have a family, a steady income, health insurance, and a 401k. But my real passion is spent in my spare time - working on my laptop doing “side work” for local businesses at all hours of the night. I’m tired of being tired - know what I mean?
I know exactly what you mean.
Learning how to run my own business was a “bit by bit” thing. In hindsight, one of those “how to run a small business” courses would have been useful. I learned through trial and error, and getting burned. The biggest thing for me was the paperwork. Invoicing, following up on invoices, scheduling, etc. Put me in front of a crowd or a computer and instinct takes over. Put me in front of a mound of overdue invoices and I panic. So my sincere advice is to devote lots of time to the “details”.
Actually, this brings up a very good point. Be aware that running your own business will not be 95% programming and 5% tedious monotony. I’ll be more like 70/30 or 60/40. Getting new clients at first can be extremely daunting, and most people seem to be either really good, or really bad at that. It might take time to build up a base. This also is where splitting your time with something else might be helpful. For me in the early years, teaching was probably 75% of my income. So there are definately moments of panic, but that said, it can be highly, highly rewarding.
Did you build an online portfolio before striking off? Do you pay for a lot of advertising? What rates do you typically charge your clients? Any nuggets of wisdom? :)
I think online portfolio’s are vital when you’re getting started. I often hear people say that they don’t have anything to show. Bull! Build your own site, build a site for a community group. Put your first client up there. Basically, prove that you know what you’re up to. After you’ve got a few notches in the post, they’re probably less important then word of mouth.
To answer your question, I don’t pay any money for advertising, but I’ve been fortunate enough to build up good industry contacts. I would advise you to tell everyone you know that you’re a web developer or programmer or whatever it is you want to call yourself. Ask your customers if they know anyone. Tell your friends. Tell everyone.
I rarely if ever charge by the unit. In other words, its rare that I charge per hour, or per day. I try to charge per project. This means a lot of upfront time sitting down and meeting with them to hammer out exact specs - which can suck if you don’t win the job, as you’ve invested a lot of time into it. I know some developers are happy charging per hour/day - but it doesn’t work for me. I’m not comfortable talking specific $ amounts, but a formula I’ve heard in the past was
how much you want per year / 2000 * 1.5 = hourly rate
Hope this is helpful. With your permission part of this email might turn into a blog post in the future. That cool?