how I started my business and career

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.

I’ve blogged a little bit about this before.  Especially when I wrote hear me now and believe me later

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?



José Carlos wrote on

Thank you for sharing your experience Derek.
Seems it’ll be very usefull. :)

marc wrote on

I think im on the right path now… :) tnx for sharing!

Matthew Bowman wrote on

I can’t agree more with the “bit by bit”. I’m currently in the same boat and it’s something you have to take day-by-day. Everything changes 100x before you finally decided on something. All-in-all you just have to keep it up and DON’T BE AFRAID TO FAIL!

Derek wrote on

Oh! ::slaps head:: how could I forget to add, get yourself a website!  Killer robots not needed ;)

Sami Ahmed wrote on

Thanks for sharing Derek. I am on step one at the moment, just hope to get past it soon.

Guido wrote on

This is great for someone like me who is just starting out. I have a deadline of about 1.5 years until i leave my current job (Intelligence for the U.S. G) and I am so panicked right now. I know some SQL, HTML and the MAMP.
I guess I know what I need to do and thanks for adding the stuff about the family as I am married with 4 kids 2 of which are twins…and i am only 26!!!