Hello world! and Why I Should Have Never Stopped Freelancing

Hello World! It’s been a while since I’ve written. Actually, it’s been a while since I’ve stepped back to think about the direction of my life at all.

The Ripple Effect

I started developing for the web in 2004. I was a secondary Biology instructor at the time. It was mostly for fun at first but I quickly became obsessed. Over the next 2 years I found myself becoming more in touch with latest development trends and less in touch with the newest 9th grade standardized testing schemes. Then it happened. I became a freelancer.

The first website I built took me something like 35 hours and I made 75 bucks on the exchange. Looking back, it definitely wasn’t worth my time, but that experience was significant for me. I created something of value. By myself. I put it out into the world and people liked it. I also made money.

It was like somebody tossed a pebble into a still pond. A small splash, followed by a ripple.

This ripple lit a small flame inside of me. I would never be the same. Once I figured out the power of self-learning and I saw how I could leverage skills to provide and receive value, I was hooked. This ripple also led to more clients and fairly soon I found myself partnering with another young man on a project that would become my first agency.

Too Cool for School

I was developing websites part-time and my partner (roughly 10 years younger than me) chose to leave his job and begin designing and marketing the business on a full-time basis. We had trouble getting going but after a few months brought in our first set of “real” clients and we were off to the races. We had 3 main problems:

1. The money wasn’t consistent enough.
2. My time was split between my full-time job and this struggling startup.
3. We didn’t know what we were doing.

We were operating out of a smallish town in Northwest Missouri but we branded ourselves as “n3wcreation”. Talk about a hard name to explain. Why the 3? We wanted to be perceived as innovative hipsters. Why one word instead of two? It looks better on a business card?! The logo was actually awesome, but I think the vibe we put off was a little “too cool for school”, which, in a town like St. Joseph, doesn’t get you hired.

This startup went strong for about a year and completely fizzled. We tried, but in the end I took on a project that killed us. I also became a complete jerk in the process. It’s easy to do when you are putting in too much time. You lose sight of why you started and the relationships that got you to where you are. Unfortunately, we burned a bridge with each other.

Through this process I was privileged enough to maintain a few of the client relationships that had formed at n3wcreation and they are still friends of mine to this day.

Back to Riding Solo

I launched into the next year as a freelancer again. By this point in time I had built up somewhat of a name for myself in town and was able to quickly pick up steady work. I was working for my own clients and began contracting with other entities in town that had web clients but had no one to service them.

Looking back, this was a great time for me. I worked at my own pace, still part-time, but I had the benefits of owning my own business and muse. I was making money for myself and, at the end of the day, I only had myself to blame if the books were bad. I was also able to take pride in my own work when the books were good and the projects launched successfully.

Ripples. They are almost unnoticeable at first. If you are the pebble all you feel is the pressure of the water closing in around you. However, if you can step back on the shore, you see a different picture entirely.

It wasn’t long before I had more work than I knew what to do with and some decisions had to be made. I ended up siding with the safest bet and a couple new friends I had made in the business world. I think, from their perspective, I couldn’t maintain a healthy freelance business for long without the incentive of ownership of the clients (as opposed to being outsourced). From my perspective, I didn’t believe at this point that freelancing was a valid business model. So we formed an LLC.

3 Years of Lessons

I didn’t bother with cutesy names. I had spent enough time operating in the St. Joseph market to know that hipster wouldn’t pay the bills. I flipped to the other side of the spectrum and went with the brand “St. Joe Web” (it’s off the charts creative, I know). There was already a St.Joe Plastics and a St.Joe Signs and a… you get the idea. It couldn’t fail, and it didn’t.

With the aide of several talented friends, this web development agency grew quickly. I wasn’t ready for the growth. Scaling meant I would have to bring on help. Bringing on help meant I would be liable for their work and for their families. Being liable for their families meant I would have to work harder. It was a whirlwind. I ran this business for 1 year part-time, transitioned to full-time, brought on help and had to transition back to part-time. I just couldn’t find the right mix of work, time and help. Not to mention, finding good help was hard.

In the third year St.Joe Web was at cruising altitude. I had a consistent budget, solid sub-contractors and I knew, for the most part, how much work we could handle. I would have never dreamed that I could build a sustainable business, but here I was, and yet, something was unsettling to me.

Objects look shinier under water. You are sinking but all you notice are the shiny reflections of light off of the surfaces around you. You forget the shore.

St.Joe Web had gotten too big for me. The business was scaling beyond what I could handle and it was coming to a crossroads, but I didn’t know what to do with it. That is, until I had an opportune conversation with a young entrepreneur.

Taking Over the World

The conversation went something like this. “You are good at marketing.” “And you are good with web.” “Let’s join forces and be the best thing since sliced bread.” “Let’s.”

I sold St.Joe Web to a marketing company in town and we set out to create a full-service agency stacked with heavy hitters and ready to challenge the elite. It seemed like a great plan. All signs pointed to “yes”. We went at it hard for a year and a half. I’m sure the company did well in that time, but I wouldn’t know. I found myself in the position of being a part-time cog in a developing machine.

It wasn’t anyone’s intention, it just happened. I had less time than was needed to pull off the number of projects coming in. I couldn’t replicate myself, though I tried. I didn’t even have enough time to manage an outsourced team. I was slowly sinking and was starting to question myself. In this phase of life, why in the hell was I trying to help scale an agency as a part-time job?? I wasn’t even sure I wanted to be in management for an ad agency. In fact, I was sure I didn’t want that.

I wish them the best and hope they see their dreams fulfilled, but it just wasn’t my dream.

Back to Roots

I will never try to build or scale an ad agency again. Why? Mainly because there are too many other things I want to do instead. I would like to make products. I enjoy building niche businesses. I want to help others create alternate income streams. I want to write and consult. I want to be a present dad and husband and ride my bike all day if I feel like it.

Also, agencies confine you. As they scale, they lose their way. Before long the overhead is too great and they take on projects because of the bottom line, not because they are particularly passionate or even interested in them. Friends become cogs and numbers. Clients soon become people that you need to save face with because you want them to accept your newest pitch. It’s all perpetuating the one thing I can’t stand in this industry. Lack of transparency and true relationship. This happened in the agencies I started and I’ve seen forms of this in every agency I’ve worked for.

Eventually the pebble returns to the surface as a grain of sand and can once again see the ripples.

I am back to freelancing. It’s great. I am rebuilding my personal brand. I can take on projects because I am passionate about them (or not). At the end of the day, it was never about a brand. People work with me because they like and trust me.

The ripples are still spreading out. All of this is building towards something. Maybe some day I will know what I want to be when I grow up. Until then, I’ll be a freelancer.

Aside: Agencies still have value. Though I will never try to build another agency, they do tend to have more resources and minds to throw at projects. This means that a focused agency can make great work at a larger scale than a freelancer typically can. Does this mean that agencies are best for larger projects? Not necessarily. I think we will soon see a day when freelancers learn to band together to accomplish agency-scaled work without all the baggage that agencies typically carry. Just my thoughts. I have no data to back that statement up.

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