I’ve been a freelancer for 14 years and am currently starting a Software as a Service (SaaS) to supplement, and perhaps replace, my freelancing income.
I’m quite successful as a freelancer. By that I mean I earn enough to pay all the bills and save some extra, supporting my child and wife while our son is young and it’s easier if she does not return to work, all in an expensive area to live in. We’re not rolling in cash, but we’re not in the “just getting by” category so many of our friends are in.
So, why start something extra? Starting something new is going to be a distraction, I’ll have to turn away client work that could have filled that time.
Running a product business is a different set of challenges from what I’m used to, and that’s very interesting and has interested me for a long time. This is the second time I’ve tried to get a SaaS going. The first time was just before my son was born, which was very bad timing as I was then too tired to do useful work on it for a very long time. Also, I think I’d made a product that was useful, but not essential, which made it much harder to convince people to use it.
But there are other factors too, which lead me to want to start my own product then and now, seven years later…
“Make money while you sleep”
It’s bit of a trite phrase, but I’d really like to make money while I sleep. Or at least, while I’m on holiday, or fixing my car, or the numerous other things I’d like to do which aren’t directly paid.
Financially, life as a freelancer is straightforward: if you’re working, your earning.
In my case, not at the computer fixing people’s problems? No money coming in for that time. On holiday? No money for then. Before holiday? Lots of stress trying to fit in work that would usually be done over my holiday period.
Yes, I can up my rates to give us more money which means we’re fine to take breaks, and I have. But, upping rates can also mean up-skilling, or taking jobs for companies that want you on-site, or various other factors that mean it’s not quite as easy as just telling people you’re charging more.
Also, even charging more you’re still on the hamster wheel. Not working? Not earning, and now for bigger amounts of money.
So having a product which can be working and earning while I’m not directly in front of the computer sounds great. Getting to that point, that’s hard. I don’t expect to be working a few hours a week and spending the rest of my time counting my money. I know in some ways I’m swapping one hamster wheel for another, I’m just hoping the new wheel has some gearing on it to make it a better business to be in over the longer term.
Currently on the amount I’m earning, I should be set to retire just about the time I’ll be the standard age to retire. Yay. I like my work, but I’m not sure I’ll be wanting to do it when I’m in my early sixties. I’d like a financial buffer that means if I want to retire early, or change what I do, we’ll be able to survive.
Getting enough money for retiring early or even just more safety means earning a chunk more than I am now. Doing that is possible in various ways, the one I’m most interested in is having a product that can be scaled up – I work on adding more customers to something, it produces more money. Once I’m past a certain point (roughly £3,200 a month) I can spend all my time adding customers and improving the product, and every extra customer in is adding to my family’s safety. Get three times the minimum amount of money in? That’s a retirement fund that’s building rather quickly, or a set of money I can use to hire other people to help build my business.
Owning the product
Freelancing can be very frustrating. Some of my clients, not all, but a number over the years, seem to have difficulty taking responsibility for running their own business. They are unwilling to take decisions which will take their business in one direction or another (not always to a ‘right’ answer, just in any direction at all.) Being on the pointy end of indecision in their projects is very frustrating, and I’m often in a position where I can only help and encourage to a certain degree. I’m there as a techie, not a business advisor, and it’s difficult to be seen as a bit of the latter role while fulfilling the former.
Owning my own product will let me see the other side of this coin. Maybe it’ll all be plain sailing as I make lots of good decisions, but I doubt it. I will have a project where the decisions are mine, and I get to live with the consequences. That means no frustration about a lack of direction, but also no hiding from causing that lack of direction.
Having seen friends try to build product businesses and fail, the phrase “Well at least I learnt a lot about x” where x is a technology really, really frustrates me. I don’t want to do this to learn about a programming language or tech stack. I do intend to learn a lot more about business, a business that is different from freelancing. If all fails, that will at least help me understand my clients better.
Running a product business may involve discovering I’m terrible at running a business that isn’t service based. Hopefully I’ll have enough motivation to get through the early learning and through to making money, and can go on from there.
I was helped out in freelancing by a lot of other freelancers, so I’ve been joining product business groups online and am now running a small meet up for early stage product businesses in Brighton, which I’m hoping will have the same benefits for me as a product business owner. My friend Jon has done the same, but with a much further advanced group of people. Personally, I need to be around the people just starting out or making their first thousands a month. Being around people who are full time on their products and have built up teams and are scaling is great, but just feels daunting to me. I need to level up to that, and hopefully others in the group I’m running will at the same time too.
The near future
For now, work will remain broadly the same. I am currently juggling multiple projects for clients, some involving organising sub-contractors. Within lots of other work, I’m jamming in trying to find time to build up an audience for my own product, Brisk.
As part of starting up, I’m going to try to blog more often about this process. It’s too easy to look back on what you were doing with rose tinted spectacles, whether the business goes well or badly. Documenting things as I go along should help me stay grounded in what I was actually doing, not what I thought I was doing.
If you’re also building a product, please get in touch. I’m aways happy to meet more people on the same journey as I am.