Another year for S9
I started section9 a while ago now. There were are few periods where the business was on hold, where I took a full-time or part time job, but around October 2012, I made the jump to being a limited company and going all the way. As Vinnie Jones once said - "Its been emotional".
There are lots of parts to this, and figuring out where to begin is quite hard. The mundane things might be the place? Working out the tax and accounting rules was one hurdle and I got it wrong a few times. Going from a freelancer to a limited company has its issues. You are no longer one person. The company is a separate entity and it's wise to keep that in mind. I was given bad advice by the London Small Business people who suggested I invoice my own company. Almost no-one does this. A director is an employee and as such, needs to be setup with PAYE. You can have loans as a director and such, but I found it easiest to have a minimum PAYE and dividends setup. That way, you pay the tax you owe (hello Google! Starbucks!). I am a big fan of Freeagent; in fact I could not do all this without it. I paid for the services of an accountant to start me off and that was a smart move. If I grow the company more, an accountant is definitely someone I'd work with.
Space is an issue. Having a place to work is actually hard to find. Im not a hot-desking person - I have too much gear! In the space of a year I've had 3 different offices! Yup! Three. The first was great but too cold in winter and the chap renting it out pretty much lived there. That made certain things not fun. I remember a MzTek event looking very surprised when I walked in. I'd come in for weekend work and they seemed quite surprised. I moved again to MakieLab over in the Silicon Roundabout. A lovely office and one I'd considered way back but the problem here is it's definitely their office. I felt very much like an outsider. That's not to criticise these chaps - they do very good work - but they are really involved so we didn't talk much. In addition, they are immersed in the glamorous world of Silicon Roundabout which I am definitely not. Basically, I never felt cool enough. I moved again to my present office, much closer to home. It's cheap, bright and the landlady is nice. It's near London Hackspace which is a plus and its quiet. It does however, have one major problem - it's lonely.
Sounds odd that. People who know me know Im shy and a person-person as oppose to a people-person. So you'd think an office by myself would be fine. EDIT - This is not quite true. The office was once busy but the landlady has had a baby and the one other freelancer in the office is not always in and we are both heads-down quite often. Turns out its not ideal all of the time (ok nothing is but hey!). Quite often, it's good to riff off people, ask questions or just have another face around the place I think. I under-estimated the need for that. Freelancers typically face this. A lot of smaller companies, especially these in the arts/tech sector are couples and I can see that working - Field & Kimchi and Chips are good examples. Despite being a computer science graduate, I've never really written software properly until recently. By properly, I mean crafting it, caring about it and being proud of what you've made. It's a process of loving what you make and do. Now I've begun to really get to grips with the subject, I realise how little I know and that's scary.Of course, recognising all that is just the start. Recently I've begun to work on that, by getting in touch with more people outside of the office. I have that freedom; thats what freelancing means so its best to use it.
That brings me to London. Yes, that big grey, weird bastard that it is. It's a place that I love and hate at the same time, but it has the energy, the pace and the variety. Unlike anywhere else in the UK, it's not a question of "what to do tonight?" - it's more like "what can we not do?". There is always something going on. This leads to a problem of information overload and brain melting. Its happened to me a few times. It's hard to spot the things worth going to, listening to or trying out sometimes. In the context of the business, there are a few meetups or events that I've been to that were just plain useless. In addition, there is so much hype in London. Hype about the next big thing, about the latest fad, the latest tech, the latest whatever. One can't get swept away by that. Meetups are strange affairs at best - they seem so artificial. A thing I hate is going to some meetup and having someone come up to me and say "So what do you do?".
Yoda was right. Fear leads to anger and anger leads to hate. Being a one man band, you open yourself up to a lot of fear and the unknown. Answering the above question is hard. I program a bit (well I hope?), teach a bit, design a bit.... etc etc. I don't want to lie, but I don't want to pigeon-hole or look direction-less. In the last year, I've become so much more aware of appearance and how you look to other people. In a company, you are shielded a lot from this, but as a freelancer, I feel it can be the difference between being able to eat or starve. Exaggeration? A little perhaps. It's not a thought I like to have. It relates to networking, which I have to do more of. That's typically something a Ben, or in fact, most geeks I know, don't really like. There are many fears: where will the next pay cheque come from? Am I still learning and keeping current (thats a big one of late), what about a pension, insurance, burn-out? Much depends on personality. However, you don't get anywhere in life without facing these fears.
I've had a few different clients this year. In fact, each one has been quite different. It's been a mix of academics, museums and agencies. Some have been great fun to work with. Some have not. They have all been eye-opening however. I've no yardstick to measure whether this is normal or not? Over the course of a year, I suspect it's abnormal compared to a corporate job. Compared to other freelancers I've spoken to though, it's definitely par for the course. No one sector is great in all respects though and it's a great advantage to be between the corporate and academic worlds.
Being freelance is great though. No really, it is. Lets start with the mundane again. I don't commute. Not really. I either walk or cycle to the office and there is the option of a park or a canal to walk down, which is brilliant! I get to set my own hours, choose my own tools (a bigger problem for some people than I had thought) and my own learning regime. These are really big wins. They come with responsibility too, granted, but these are important things to me so it's good to have control over them.
One thing I didn't expect is that I'm somehow younger, or, to put it another way, I'm more in love with my subject than I was when I was at university or my mid twenties. I've heard this from another friend who works for a small Ruby outfit. I don't quite understand why, but I read more, talk more and get into it more now than at any other time, except for when I was quite young and playing around with a Commodore 64.
To quote Tim Minchin, "I try to remind myself, even when I'm struggling, how incredibly lucky I am." Sometimes I think I've done all this myself but that blatantly isn't true, and I don't think its true for anyone going down this road. My partner is very supportive and wonderful. My friends and family have backed me up and some of the people I've worked with have been really fun. Yes, there are times when it's hard - REALLY hard - but it's worth it. Trust me! :)