Six months of habits

So, I started a company to do freelance copywriting and strategy development six months ago. It’s been good. But long enough has passed that I’m starting to think critically about my habits so I can make the next six months better.

I’m going to write them here to help me learn.

Tools

FreeAgent has been essential. It’s nearly good enough I could use it without an accountant, but I don’t quite have the confidence to do that just yet. Maybe in a couple of years.

I’ve been lucky with clients so far that Google Drive has been a suitable way of getting copy and documents to people. That won’t last forever, but it’s worked this far. I’m still bouncing between Google Slides and Keynote week-to-week. Slides just isn’t reliable enough to do what I need it to. It’s very close though.

I’ve been doing Ben’s One Notebook per project for the first time and that’s been extremely useful for separating chunks of thinking and drafting. I’m also running an occasional notebook because it’s too valuable not to. I still do my best thinking by writing stuff down; it’s the fastest way to find out whether I’m wrong.

Trello, Slack, Clear all useful. Daily utilities, but… not irreplaceable. Slack in particular has introduced different problems (more on that below).

Scheduling and estimates

This is interesting. I think my estimates are pretty good. A lot of that comes down to the practise I got into at GDS, and creating the rhythms I need to get stuff done in time.

But that means I’m not building in a buffer. I haven’t yet worked out if it’s better to estimate high and bill low (‘I thought it would take four days, but actually it took three and a half’). Right now I’m keeping them in line, but I should probably keep that in mind for a few future gigs.

What I’m not taking into account though is Slack. I’m not in the habit of fine tuning my availability there, which means I’ll check in on conversations and feedback outside of agreed hours.

A few options: be firmer about the hours, agree a ‘Slack tax’ with a client, or just accept that’s how this stuff goes for freelancers. After all, this is just Slack doing to me what email/mobile phones/afternoon post did for people in the recent past. I think I need to work out ‘What’s right for this job?’ a bit more clearly than I do now.

Motivation

I was going to write something about goals, but that’s not quite right. Not when it comes to work. I have things I want to do, but very few of them are directly tied to my professional life. That’s been a common theme for years. Often those things have led to work, through routes weird and delightful, but that’s not often the point of doing them.

So something I’d like to do in the next six months is work out what motivates me to keep working outside of paying rent.

I know people who’d stop working in a heartbeat, if the opportunity came up, but I don’t think I’m there. I like making things. I’d like to get to a place in life where rent is cheaper, for whatever reason, and I want to feel like I’ll have the thrust to do the next thing even when I don’t have to.

Meanwhile, I’m trying to cut down on things that don’t motivate me. Restarting Small Observation was an attempt to kickstart a new daily rhythm. It didn’t manage that, and in some ways worked against new routines. So I’m stopping. Similarly, dropping in and out of sessions of Battlefront elevated my tension in downtime instead of letting me zone out, which is counterproductive. Cooking, jogging, painting… those are great and my mind wanders. I need to make time for more of that.

Get away

I’ve been away a lot in the last six months, but almost every trip has been tied to a job, a mission, or Marioke. I’m going to take a last-minute break in August to shake that up. Actual holidays, Matt: take them.

Studio*

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*flat. So, Ann went freelance last month too. For the last week we’ve been working side by side. New routines, a bit of adjustment, a list of things around the flat that need buying/changing to make life easier on us. It’s been pretty good!

Small Observation

I knew ahead of Ann joining me in the flat that I’d need to get better at a few routines, and restarting The Bureau of Small Observation seemed a good way of doing that. I also like writing in a different style to my freelance work.

Woods Bagot

I’ve started a longer-form bit of work for architecture firm Woods Bagot. Again, I’m basing the copywriting fairly directly off of a transcription. I found at the NHS that was an awesome way of delivering voice, tone and ideas back to a client, while still giving myself room for the restructuring, moving of thoughts and rewriting needed to make complex ideas much much simpler.

I’ve found something interesting with this one. Because it’s a much longer body of work than I usually do, I’ve been able to see patterns in thinking and content emerge from it much more clearly than is often the case. It’s an absolute gift for drafting.

IF

Their new site is live! Lovely to be at their shindig the other week. I’ve also been helping them with blogging and pitch decks.

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What else

Stayed at a barn on a nature reserve and watched an owl hunting, that was pretty cool. Painted some ghostly things. I’ll be spending a chunk of the next month going in and out of London helping look after some family, which means good train time/thinking time.

A month of lining things up

Obviously the big news of the month was getting engaged, but work-wise it’s been interesting too…

New clients

I made a conscious choice not to pursue too many leads before proposing: I had exactly enough stuff in my head already.

The other side of that trip I’ve started chatting to more people again. Most were just good chats, but I’ve had a couple of really interesting projects spill out of them. One was a short-deadline speech that went down extremely well, the other a longer-form bit of a work I should be able to talk about next month.

IF

Still a lovely team. Along with some more work for their site launch I helped Sarah out with her Blue Yard talk, an appeal to a bunch of decentralisation/encryption developers to think more about design. Sounds like it struck the right balance of provocation and encouragement.

Holiday

I went away again. Oslo, Copenhagen, Malmo, Home. A lovely trip. I handled the anxiety of leaving work behind much better than when I went to Snowden. Also, it was my birthday. Good stuff!

Engaged

I’ll be writing about how the last month has been work-wise in a couple of days. This isn’t that. This is me writing overexcitedly “I got engaged! Holy shit! Ann and I are getting married! WTF!!!” but with a tiny bit more detail.

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I’d been thinking about doing this for a while. Ann’s the best person I’ve ever met, she feels pretty similarly about me, and we’ve talked about “getting the government involved” a few times over the last year. In fact, she basically proposed during David and Becky’s wedding, but insisted something more romantic happen just for us at some point down the line. This was to be my responsibility.

The trigger, the ‘OMG I’m gonna propose soon ARRRGGG’ moment came watching her do the BAFTA game awards livestream. Something about seeing her look fabulous and professional and smart and totally owning her screentime just sort of clicked.

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If you look closely, Ann’s wearing a necklace by Meshu I’d gotten her a couple of Christmases ago. Meshu’s ace, and personal, and… does rings.

So I popped our trips into the service and saw that basically our trips around the world make this lovely loop with a kinda/sorta diamond around the Nordic countries.

ring

The where/when aspect sort of depending on delivery time. I imagined I either had to have the ring and blurt it out, or make it a bit more of ‘a thing’. It wound up being a bit of both, which is how I now understand these things go.

I remember it in adrenaline-tinged fragments. We were on a boat in the Skagerrak, somewhere between Oslo and Copenhagen (“‘Somewhere between Oslo and Copenhagen’ would be your dating profile” – Ann). It was after midnight. We were astoundingly drunk. Neither of us believed it was quite happening. Ann told me to ask again in the morning (and said ‘yes’, but I remember the other bit more vividly). Sunrise rolls around a few hours later, so I have another go. Engaged!

I feel like I should have some sort of conclusion, but there isn’t one yet. I’m just super-excited, and it’s not often I take time to type about things like this. It feels good.

A month of god kaffe

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AHO

Oslo was excellent. I spent two weeks with first-year MA students, on a brief called ‘Talking with People’. Their task was to do some speculative public service redesign thinking/prototyping (I didn’t much mind what they looked into or what form it took) and present their final projects with reference to how research with people shaped their process. The “work” was a McGuffin. I wanted to see people in presentations, hear some stories from outside the classroom, and hear about students talking to people outside of their cohort.

The brief came out of discussions Mosse and I had after my second time being an external censor there. Project after project were presented as if they’d sprouted from the minds of isolated geniuses tucked in a corner. In most cases that wasn’t true – they’d improved precisely because there had been testing and research to improve a project – but the student weren’t very good at showing that. I wanted that front and centre in this project, and the students did some really excellent stuff in response.

As part of the couple of weeks I also did some speaking for the local IxDA chapter. Nice bunch of people with some fascinating questions, and a really nice opportunity to put the last few years at GDS in a new context.

IF

Their interim site is up, which starts road-testing some of the messaging I’ve been working on with them. The last month was about refining a few of the core phrases and sentences them before a concentrated burst on that this month. They’re a really excellent team, and I’m really enjoying working with them.

Snowdon

I also went on my first holiday. I have to say, the anxiety of leaving jobs open/unfinished got under my skin a bit – I can only hope I’ll get better at that – but walking up a mountain through clouds was about as far from typing at home as can be. More of that sort of thing.

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A month of new things

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That’s the new setup. Freelancing’s treating me well so far – two clients, and a bunch of interesting things going on that made the transition out of GDS last month really easy.

The only setback was damaging my mac last week (coffee spill, like an idiot). GDS got me into good habits though, so no work was lost – just a few hours of configuring a new (and pricey) machine. C’est la vie!

AHO

My first big project is two weeks of teaching at AHO in April. Planning for that is going really well: I’ve got a solid brief for the students and it’s making me draw out very explicit lessons about product communications from my time at GDS (and Last.fm actually) that have started coming in use elsewhere too.

I’ve also got a couple of talks lined up out there for organisations sponsoring the trip. Again, that’s been a really nice prompt for thinking about the last few years and pinning particular stories and approaches down.

IF

Started some work for IF too, helping them pin down how they talk about their work. It’s been extremely interesting to hear about the world adjacent to – and sometimes of – the civic tech/tech policy/worthy projects world GDS inhabits…

GDC

…which was something I didn’t think about at all during GDC.*

Hanging out with the One Life Left team was reminder of how much work goes into getting that show out. During GDC they recorded a show every day (one hour of prep, one and a half hours of recording, two hours of editing) and ran two epic Marioke parties. If I join them next year though I am absolutely tacking a holiday to the end of it – the event was brilliant and exhausting.

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It’s also nice to be with my partner while she’s in a professional headspace, a reminder that she’s an excellent producer and showrunner.

Other stuff

I dropped into Labour Digital a couple of times, finished up my first hobby project, and continued my run of excellent coffees. I also said goodbye to GDS – I miss the team’s slackbot already – and to Phonogram.

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* Except to the extent that the wealth gap is so screamingly visible there. Projects like Code For America feel like extremely natural responses to that context. I am stunned it isn’t larger… until I remember than the city’s actually relatively small.

A month of coffees

(Or, How chatting to people made it easier to set up a company)

I’m going freelance. Writing and strategy development. From the end of March I’ll be helping people work out what they want to do next and how they’re going to tell people about it.

I’ve spent a bit of time over the last month talking to people about how that works (the generalities of being a freelancer, how accounting processes work, how to talk about myself… the works). Putting in the work now so I’m better prepared when I bill my first client.

I’m gonna scribble some of the most important bits here, partly so I remember them and partly so I can come back to this later…

Be clear about what I do

In the past I’ve defaulted to saying ‘Eh, I do a bunch of things’. That’s not going to help new people hire me. Interestingly, Richard Pope went through a similar thing on Twitter last night.

The advice I had from people got me this: a lack of specificity might help when you know people or you’re already part of an organisation, but it doesn’t help a new client justify hiring you. Giving them specific lines to share with someone in, say, accounts means the go can be given that little bit quicker.

Crucially, this doesn’t mean that description can’t change over time (more below).

Be a company

Andrew and Emily in particular were unequivocal about this: having a limited company will make it easier for some organisations to hire you, especially in the public sector.

Right now, I don’t think it’ll be anything other than a vehicle to invoice through. But Rachel suggested some interesting questions to ask myself over the next few months. That’s got me thinking about what kind of scale I might like to work at, if I’ll need a parter down the line, what other kinds of work will be valuable to do. Again, not to address now… but something to tick away as I start to find my footing. I’d like to try to do this for a few years, so it’s worth thinking about a bit.

Do different things

I’m not going freelance to do the same things I’ve been doing at GDS. In my first month I have teaching lined up in Oslo, which is a ways away from writing speeches for an event like Sprint 16. That’s a good thing.

Rachel talked a bit about steering between levels of comfort. Using different gigs to test my competencies, rather than being defined by roles. A hard line to walk, but one worth playing with.

Understand my rates

Two pieces of great advice.

One; have a sliding scale. Three tiers, probably, with an understanding of what the compromises of those tiers mean (trading financial reward for flexibility, etc).

Two; plan for 100 days of work a year. It’s a good way of benchmarking where I’m at each month and what needs to come in, as well as building in flexibility in case there are dry patches (for instance, the consistent anecdote about how quiet August and January are).

Juggling those with what I need to bring through and what I hope to bring through has given me a good start on a rate card. Again, that’s going to evolve a lot as I find my footing.

Talk to more people

Obviously I’ve been talking to potential clients too – the next few months is going to be super-interesting. As well as doing more of that I’d like to keep chatting to people who have done/are doing this sort of thing. The last time I was “freelance” I had few clients outside of GDS, so there’s a new bunch of habits I need to train myself into. For the next little bit, a broad range of advice can only be a good thing.

Huge thanks to Nat, Beeker, Jonty, Rachel, Andrew, Emily and Deb for talking to me. Hearts and emoji to all of you.