A Digital Ronin - My year freelancing

21-08-2011

the names of the people and organisations have been anonymised to protect the guilty

I've had an interesting ride over the last few months. Since October last year, I left a well paid job at University of the South to pursue my love of computer graphics. Two things made me jump; the fact that the work I was doing quickly became dull and pointless and I'd been offered a job by Mr Jenkins.

I never meant to go freelance. I'd looked into working at other companies, leaving academia being something of a big move. Many of my colleagues and former students had a lot of experience in the industry whereas I had not. It felt like a chance that would never come again, so I never paid much attention to the realities. I just jumped, although I was slightly pushed by my own morals; realising I didn't care about the work I was doing at the time.

Working with Mr Jenkins was a real eye-opener. Here is a man who is committed to his work more than anyone else I've ever met. His game is way above mine and I was constantly worried that I wasn't actually helping or being as productive as I felt I needed to be. I made schoolboy errors and found it hard to keep up with Mr Jenkins's endless professionalism and drive.

Most of the time I worked out of Mr Jenkins's studio, until a second job came around from some old friends at University of the North. Initially, I was skeptical but I took the job for both negative and positive reasons; I needed the money and the job would genuinely help people who were in physical pain. It's not often you get a contract like that. It meant I needed a place to work and happily, London Hackspace filled that need.

The problem here was the feeling of isolation that grew and grew each day. Working with Mr Jenkins, I felt that I was being challenged; I learnt a lot about the scene, about programming practices, about commitment and getting things done, but there was always that safety net there - A little voice that said 'Mr Jenkins will catch you if you fall'. Working remotely for University of North put me in a position where I felt quite alone. Working in a programming team of one with no-one to bounce ideas off or ask for help can be a tricky situation. This was compounded by the fact that living in London is a costly affair and I was earning much less than I had been.

Networking for me has always been a problem. I don't have the business swagger or an air of confidence that other, more successful freelancers do. I suspect I'm also a little more moral and while thats great in some circumstances, it can be a problem if you want to make money. There were certain times where I'd ducked out of meeting people because I felt I wasn't at that stage of my career or that the social aspect was too daunting. For example, I'm not a huge fan of meeting people I've never met before in bar situations which, sadly, when you are around Shoreditch, is where many deals and professional friendships are forged.

A second wave of bad luck hit when I needed to return to the North to work on a property I own up there. This was quite a burden, both in time and money. Over the next few months, the networking side of things began to dry up entirely and I became ever more isolated from the people in my field. I decided it was time to reconnect with people I'd not seen for a while. Miss Friendly introduced me to Mr Cats up in Manchester and a wonderful collaboration has since blossomed. It wasn't easy and required many motorcycling trips to and from my remote village but I made it happen. It felt good to be making in-roads back in the North.

The North will never be quite like the South. In London, you can't throw a brick without hitting a hipster who works for a local social media company or creative agency (throwing bricks at hipsters is encouraged!). In Manchester, this mass is building but it's not yet critical. Yes, there is a Hackspace but it's nothing like London Hackspace. Yes, you can work as a software engineer but it won't be for a trendy startup or a small, agile company. They do exist but there is a certain verve, a passion, an energy that you get swept up in when you are here in London.

The internet can bridge the gaps in geography quite well. A client, Mr Britney, came to me and offered me a small job. He was working for The Bad Company who are quite well known and rather prestigious. Again, I needed the money and it seemed like a great job that was challenging but within my reach. However, the signs were there at the beginning that this would not work out.

I'd met Mr Britney in London whilst training with another company in London. I didn't dislike Mr Britney but something gave me the fear. The job involved a technology I wasn't familiar with. The Bad Company wanted a set of shaders to create shadows, depth of field and screen-space ambient occlusion effects. Two of these I had already written and they simply needed porting. The first caused issues however. I never managed to get the shadows to be pretty or soft enough or react in the right way. In the end I realised I couldn't deliver. I told Mr Britney this and handed over all the work I had done. I never asked for payment and even suggested a few other people who might be able to help.

He was not pleased.

This was so depressing. I'd worked really hard but due to the circumstances I was in, I couldn't deliver. Deep down I knew it was something I should have been able to finish but two things stood in the way: lack of communication and the fact that I just didn't get on with Mr Britney. He was, in my opinion, not a technical man despite his impressive portfolio. He didn't inspire confidence. As Mitch Altman has said many many times: 'Only work with people you love'. Makes perfect sense to me now. I'd gotten wound up in the details and had not spoken to the people who actually counted.

always speak to the people who are going to use your stuff directly

Knowing what to charge for your services is quite tricky. I decided to take my last salary, break that up into a price per hour and use that as a basis. The problem here is that it's quite difficult to know in advance how long a job will take. In the creative world, things don't really have timetables. Pricing yourself is a fine art and, as I have now realised, it's not really about the money. It's about appearances.

If you price yourself low, you end up working hard for little pay. This is demoralising; your work suffers and your problems multiply. It requires a certain level of confidence, verging on being cocky. You need to believe you can deliver even if you can't and you need to know the market you are in. No-one wants to hire someone who considers themselves cheap.

After spending my summer working on the house, finishing a few projects and hunting for cool jobs, I have returned to London in order to pursue the graphics dream. This time, I've taken a part-time technical job on the side to keep things going. My first tax return has been filed and things are looking up. I have two exhibitions of my own under my belt, one permanent exhibit, the beginnings of a javascript framework for WebGL and quite a few more contacts.

Speaking with Dr Doom, one of my clients from Manchester, I realised that what I was doing was hard. It's not easy to make that jump and it's not easy to work long hours, on your own for little cash. Given the financial crisis at the moment, I realise that I've done well and that things are not as bad as they seem when you take the bigger picture into account. Most people I know who get into this game usually do it in pairs or more; Mr Jenkins is clearly, an exception. Companies like Kimchi and Chips, Field.io, my friends at Shuttlethread and the Ubiquitous Manufacturing Company are all pairs or more and that would be my first piece of advice for anyone who is thinking of getting into this game. Find someone you love and who you can work with.

It's also important to remember you need to take time out. Keeping your creative juices flowing is important: it's your one true asset. There is no limit or imposed scarcity on creative and original ideas, by their very definition. You need to stay on top of developments and keep learning all the time. This usually means going for a walk, climbing a mountain or blasting down the beach road on a motorbike (thats my personal favorite!). For these into their Karma, you get out what you put in. If you are generating new ideas and creating new things, you are bound to do well. It doesn't have to be revolutionary, it just has to be you.

It's worth remembering this if you are the kind of person who gets jealous when other people succeed in your field and you are struggling. Merlin Man spoke about this in his excellent show Back to Work. If someone has more twitter followers than you do, or has more experience than you, or more money than you, often that has no real effect on your situation other than what you create out of your own anxieties. Ok sure, if you are competing for the same client, maybe this doesn't hold true but for the most case, it does. Seeing this for what it is helped me stay productive. If you find yourself in this situation, chances are you are not doing work that reflects your own nature.

Do I regret my decision? Absolutely not.

In fact it's one of the first major decisions I don't regret. I ran into something unknown but I knew I just had to make something and this decision would put me in the place to do that. It caused a lot of pain, a lot of tears and in one odd case, a motorcycle crash, but when all's said and done, it was a very interesting 9 months.

It's not over yet though. It's only just beginning!

It was never about the freelance for me. It was just a way of getting into the graphics space. It's important to keep looking forward. Though I have not yet succeeded in joining a prestigious outfit like Berg or Bloom I have not given up. I am lucky to have been offered a part-time technical post which provides enough money to survive in London and enough time to continue with the interesting stuff. I'd recommend this approach to people operating on their own like Digininja, my friend Charles at Electric Lab and my pal Tom who makes things. Having another commitment is not such a bad thing so long as it's related. It keeps you balanced and gives you a release from the pressure which is no bad thing.

In a few key points, here is what I would suggest to students, people wanting to freelance or setup their own creative businesses or just get more out of their coding practice.