Rarely is there a developer I come across in my travels who isn’t interested in starting their own company and creating the next big app. Actually, it’s more accurate to say that most developers have a view of creating an app as a way to win the lottery. It’s the shared dream of retiring early, driving sports cars, and leaving the cubicle police far behind.
The good news is that the dream has become a reality for some. They’re already where we want to go—so they can help us get there too. The bad news is that the road isn’t straight and it’s not without work. Sometimes, more work than people expected. Along the way, I’ve met folks who’ve tried and failed, who’ve soared and crashed, but there is wisdom in their stories, too. In this series of articles, we’re going to look at building apps and how they can lead you to freedom or just another prison. The first stop is the road through independence.
The vision we have is that those who’ve created their apps and are living the good live starts in one of two ways. They start as a lone wolf coding through the night living on Mountain Dew and Cheetos, or they start as part of a posh startup located in a city we don’t live in who received their funding from an angel investor—who you have no hope of meeting.
There’s a mystique in the idea that a lone developer is able to create an app that the world loves. It’s a story we can get behind unlike a story that Electronic Arts—the powerhouse in the electronic entertainment industry—developing another application that is flying off the shelves. We like the idea that if we just sacrifice a few nights, and perhaps a weekend or two, we can develop our own app and escape the rat race.
We’ve heard the stories passed on by other developers of someone who was able to do just that. They launched an App into the store and it took off. Sometimes the story goes that it was an instant success and other times the story is that there was the lucky break—perhaps being featured in an article—that drove the application to meteoric heights.
Unfortunately, there’s some hyperbole in these stories. It’s not quite as simple as we’ve been led to believe. The story often begins with independence—the scary, gut-wrenching, eat-what-you-kill sole proprietorship kind of independence. You see, it’s the independence itself that creates the space to develop the skills that ultimately make the great app that will land you on easy street.
Taking the Plunge
When I first became a consultant—or really more of an independent contractor—it was because I was offered something I couldn’t refuse. I was working at a startup that did engineering, rapid prototyping, tooling, and plastic injection molding. There were several locations across the Eastern and Midwestern United States. My manager was a technician promoted to management who loved the technology and didn’t care about back office operations. As a result, I got assigned the work no one else wanted to do—including working with the corporate office and the accounting department.
When the conditions became unbearable for me between his desire to focus on the fun and my assignments to focus on the essential, I told the accounting controller that I was going to quit. He persuaded me to accept an offer as a consultant. Between that and my work with publishers writing and editing books and the new consulting contract, I could make more than my salary in two days a week.
This pattern launched me into consulting in a real full-time way. It gave me the slack in my schedule to work on building cash reserves, developing marketing, and becoming a real company. It was certainly scary because there were no guarantees to the consulting opportunity, but it created a gap that I could get into.
Independence Is Hard
I’ve spoken to many consultants, and the consensus from those who’ve done it for any length of time is that it’s hard work. You’re much more expendable when the organization is having tough times and finding your next job isn’t as easy as phoning up a few buddies and waiting for the opportunities to pour in—even in markets where it seems like that should be the case.
Some consultants find they miss the human interaction they had working for a company. Others find that tasks like tracking time and accounting are more than they can handle. Still others freeze when they think of having to sell themselves. Although there are solutions to each of these problems, many people end their consulting careers because they’re not able to persevere through the hardships and learn how to shore up their weaknesses enough to continue to make independent consulting work.
I’ve seen many friends who have gone back to work for organizations because they simply didn’t want to struggle as hard to make their independent consulting work. They took jobs in a corporate cubicle farm just to be able to not have to push so hard every day.
The Benefits of Independence
With all the downside, why would anyone ever want to be an independent consultant? Well, there are two answers. First, the trivial, is for the money. Independent consultants can—when they are working—make very good money. However, that’s a very surface answer. Money isn’t the powerful motivator that some like to believe it is.
The second reason, and the one that I find most compelling to the folks I speak with, is the opportunity to create margin for doing other things. Most independent contractors don’t go from one assignment to the next without a gap. Generally, there are periods of time when they’re not working. If they saved up resources when they were working—and making good money—they have an opportunity to take some time to improve their skills, learn new technologies, and take some small risks with their time.
It’s these breaks and the learnings that independent contractors get that lead them to having the ability to try their hand at building an app. For others, they build the app, but they are more interested in the next thing they can learn. They’ll never return to try to perfect the art of making apps.
For those who get hooked on the idea of writing the perfect app, they convert their extra margin into activities that, while not always retire-today-type successful, often generate revenue for a long time to come. Writing apps doesn’t mean a single revenue stream for these developers; instead, they get little bits of money from a lot of little things. And so is the story of apps developers who retire. Most find that they didn’t get one big hit. Instead, they pieced together a few little things and eventually they had enough to not worry about the day to day and to start to live life without the fear of tomorrow’s paycheck.
Tools of the Independent Trade
Being an independent consultant isn’t for everyone. but for those who are willing to make the leap, here are a few suggestions:
- Build a Web Site: Although it seems obvious, many consultants start out without a central web presence to share what they know.
- Pay Attention to Search Engine Optimization: Over the long term, you’re going to need to be recognized for whatever it is that you want to consult in. Make sure those words appear prominently on your Web site and, more importantly, make a point of visiting other sites and linking back to yours where appropriate.
- Get Business Cards: Even though business cards may be passé, they’re still expected today. Get at least some you can throw in fishbowls to win new technology—oh, and be prepared to hand them out, too.
- Join LinkedIn: Make sure your profile on LinkedIn is set up correctly. Many unlisted opportunities show up via LinkedIn.
- Brokerage Sites: There are many “clearing house” sites that you can use to get business. You should be present on these sites, but remember that the users are trying to get the lowest price—so you’ll have to know when to get out of the bidding wars.
- Differentiate Yourself: Make sure you are doing things to differentiate yourself. (See “Standing Out From the Crowd” for more information on this topic.)
Where To Next….
Becoming an independent consultant can help you control your time to be able to build the apps for freedom. You don’t, however, have to be an independent consultant to gain the freedom. It simply requires better management of time. At the most basic level, that means learning how to be the lone wolf, which is the subject of the next article in the series.
About the Author
Robert Bogue is a thought leader and an engaging presenter who speaks at events around the world. Rob has been awarded the Microsoft MVP designation a dozen times. He is also the author of over 25 books, including The SharePoint Shepherd’s Guide for End Users: 2013. Rob is a developer, an IT Pro, Architect, organizational change agent, pilot, comedian, and friend. Follow Rob’s blog at http://www.ThorProjects.com/blog/. You can also email Rob at [email protected].