Raison d'être - Developer Elliot Taylor
Elliot doesn't shy away from making a change in his life. After a string of non-coding jobs, he self-taught himself WordPress and became a freelance developer. From that he built up a successful agency - Raison. But when fatherhood beckoned he stripped back the pressure of being a boss to freelance once more. More flexibility, more time for his family. And plenty more to hear about too...
We chat about the benefits of co-working, meet ups (Elliot organises them including WordCamp Brighton), becoming a specialist, charging day rates, being picky with your clients and experimenting with side projects. Crikey.
- Your old skills can lead to new opportunities
- Make your billing make sense, and
- Give speaking a try!
More from Elliot Taylor
Who the hell is Steve Folland?
Steve's a freelancer helping businesses use and make video & audio content in much better ways. Find out more at stevefolland.com, track him down on Twitter @sfolland or lay a trail of cake and he'll eventually catch you up.
Check out Steve's Being Freelance Vlog that documents his weekly wanderings and wonderings as a freelancer.
Transcript of Being Freelance podcast with Elliot Taylor and Steve Folland
Steve Folland: Web developer, Elliot Taylor... Hey Elliot.
Elliot Taylor: Hi Steve. Nice to be on the podcast.
Steve Folland: Yeah. Thanks for doing this. Let's find out first of all how you got started as being freelance.
Elliot Taylor: Being freelance, I went in a gradual journey. I started with a three day a week job and slowly, slowly edged out of that and went full-time freelance. I was trying to be as sensible as possible when doing something like that.
Steve Folland: What were you doing? Were you in an agency role or where were you first?
Elliot Taylor: I did lots and lots of different jobs prior to getting into tech and prior to getting into freelance, but my tech life started working for a company called I Want One of Those. It was sort of a dotcom ...
Steve Folland: Oh yeah?
Elliot Taylor: Yeah. It was a gifty kind of place. And then from there I went on to a music retailer and worked both jobs there, while working on the eCommerce management, so looking after everything from the marketing all the way through to the tech. And I got the itch to go freelance and start my own company and move as well back down to Brighton, where I am now.
Elliot Taylor: That's a move. When I went freelance I got a part-time job doing marketing things, and starting working on the side.
Steve Folland: Okay. Let's just put that in perspective. When did you start to think I'm gonna start to do something on the side? About what year was that?
Elliot Taylor: Tricky. Tricky. This is recalling some distant dusty memories, but I think I've always had an itch and I've always been looking and playing with tech since I was young. I wanted the freedom that freelancing gave you. I knew that the old expression it's not the hours in the day, it's the days in the hour, and sometimes I could be extraordinarily productive in a short amount of time, but being stuck to the 9:00-5:00 or 9:00-6:00 routine was a bit stifling, so I suppose I've always had itchy feet doing jobs prior to that, you know, the classic 9:00-5:00 jobs.
Steve Folland: Tell us a story. What happens then? You're saving up enough money to get the ...
Elliot Taylor: Yeah. I had a fantastic job. It wasn't a smart decision to do. I had a really ... I was really fortunate. I was quite young. I had a very good job, but wasn't going totally in the direction I wanted, and I was hungry for a bit more, so decided to pack it in and move down and get this three day a week job, which was okay. It was particularly inspiring, but what it did do is allow me to focus on developing a brand, developing a business, and developing my skills as well.
Elliot Taylor: I wouldn't say it was the smartest move. The first two or three years of anyone's freelance life are the hardest, and I was no exception in that case.
Steve Folland: Were you working freelance in house for someone for three days a week?
Elliot Taylor: It was a part-time gig, working, doing the same role, but it was nice to have that consistency so I could transition to taking on clients on a full-time basis.
Steve Folland: And what did you do with rest of your time at that point?
Elliot Taylor: I taught myself. Prior to that actually, I started out as a marketer and a generalist, my previous job being management of eCommerce companies. I taught myself how to program it. It might sound a bit like a step backwards, but it's always been something that interested me, so I took on WordPress work, and I developed my skills, and I've not stopped really.
Steve Folland: No, that's cool. And then when did you begin to bring on your actual own freelance clients outside of that part-time job?
Elliot Taylor: Well, at the beginning, as soon as possible. And it was anyone I could find. Scout around the country in my car, going to meetings, and making all the mistakes I would avoid now, but spoke to people, and found job opportunities, and went and met people, and tried to help them out with their projects.
Steve Folland: And what was your ambition at that point, where you just started teaching yourself this new skill essentially?
Elliot Taylor: My initial ambition, I saw an opportunity with the move of eCommerce to WordPress, and that was one of the main triggers so spurred me on to becoming a freelancer. Previously, I've been working with clients where they'd be spending 20-50k standard, to build an eCommerce site. And I knew that as soon as To Go Shop and eCommerce were mature enough with it, they'd come a point that there would be a massive disruption in that industry and there was an opportunity for an agency or a freelancer or for somebody to get into that space to sell, build good sites for a fraction of the price.
Steve Folland: Excellent. You had your nice and your audience figured out?
Elliot Taylor: Yes. Having come from that eCommerce world, I knew the terrain, and I knew that there was a market that was ripe to tap into.
Steve Folland: And presumably, there must have been quite a lot of skills then that you took from your past experience into this new world?
Elliot Taylor: Yeah. Totally. I think we always reuse our skills, whatever they might me in the past, into what we do now. All the skills that you build up in your previous work do come back to help you eventually.
Steve Folland: How did you evolve your business from there?
Elliot Taylor: I grew in as much I got bigger and better clients. And the step after that was to try and build an agency. Eventually, we got up to about four to five people, and we did that for a while. I worked with my wife as in business. That went alright for a while, but it was very high pressure and yet quite a lot of hard work, as I'm sure anyone who's tried to grow their company from one person to multiple people knows.
Steve Folland: Can you explain it though for those of us who don't know it? What it that pressure?
Elliot Taylor: I think, at least I can talk about my own naivety going through it. The process was I thought bringing on an additional person meant that I would bring on 100% more resource or 100% more time that can be worked on the project, but there's a lot of administration and training and hand holding so that you both work together doing the project correctly.
Elliot Taylor: You don't bring on 100% more resource. You bring on 60-80% more resource, and that happens each time you bring somebody else on.
Elliot Taylor: So scaling up with multiple people can be hard and it can be slow, especially if you're bringing in the ... gotta pay for everyone every month and you got all those mouths to feed. The pressure there is very high.
Elliot Taylor: So you could get you a nice whale of a project that might last you six months, but once that's expired, have you been focused so much on that project that you've neglected your sales and getting that balance right is the hard part. At least that's what I found very hard.
Steve Folland: And I guess does cash flow become trickier as well?
Elliot Taylor: Yes. Cash flow is very tricky. Majority of clients, we worked on a 40% upfront and a 60% on completion, but projects dragged. Anyone who's freelance out in the world knows that projects can drag and then you get into cash flow issues and all the strain that goes with that.
Steve Folland: When you said you were doing it for quite a while as an agency, how long is quite a while? Was it a few months or was it a few years?
Elliot Taylor: Yeah. It was about four years.
Steve Folland: Alright. Okay. So it must have been going pretty well?
Elliot Taylor: Yeah. It was very good. At every turn we learned a lot, and we improved. They're not insurmountable problems. They're engineering problems you have to work out. You start your company and you gotta learn from others.
Elliot Taylor: There's lot of successful agencies out there to learn from, and indeed it could have been a direction that I continued to go in, and I do consider it again, whether to build up a little agency specializing. So it's still an option.
Steve Folland: At what point did it change then? Did something happen where you then decided to scale back?
Elliot Taylor: One of things was working with my wife and we decided that for both our sanity's we should probably separate how we work together. And also, some of the projects I was getting on to were a bit more specialized and I needed to give my full attention.
Elliot Taylor: At that point, I've become a more proficient programmer so I could focus and get bigger jobs working as a specialist.
Steve Folland: And so was it like a gradual thing, or did you eventually think okay, well this is the last project and then guys, you're out of a job?
Elliot Taylor: No. We did it gradually and amicability with everyone else on the team. It wasn't a problem in that respect. It was all fine and we could have scaled back up if we wanted, but everyone was happy with the way that the company went.
Elliot Taylor: And now I actually work in a very similar manner, but I work with other freelancers, so a lot of those skills from developing the agency are still in use every day. But rather than being the point man, going in to build a project, I now partner up with other specialists and I will put together a dream team of other specialist in Brighton, and we'll go and work on the project together, and that's actually worked out really well.
Steve Folland: Cool. And is it working remotely, because you're in the same city or town? You're able to come together?
Elliot Taylor: Yes. Exactly. Right now I'm talking from the skiff in Brighton, which is a coworking space, and within the space there are other freelancers, and we'll come together. We'll to meetings in skiff. We'll sometimes work together in the skiff. But we also got the flexibility to work on our own time, and our own schedules.
Steve Folland: When you were the agency, did you actually have an office?
Elliot Taylor: We worked from coworking as well. It wasn't a huge transition. It's very similar.
Steve Folland: Yeah. Have you ever totally just worked from home?
Elliot Taylor: Yes. At the very beginning. Kitchen table. All the cliques. That's what I did.
Steve Folland: And what you got you out then into the coworking spaces?
Elliot Taylor: Having the budget I think started it. It's not very expensive to get a coworking space, but when you're starting out it is expensive. It's an outgoing that you want to minimize. Having the budget to get into the coworking space.
Elliot Taylor: And then after a while, I realized it pays for itself with the connections you make here and the referrals that you get. Just as I refer designers and other developers for work I get, I get referred as well. So the coworking space does pay for itself.
Steve Folland: That's cool. And is there a sense of community there?
Elliot Taylor: There is. I'm half an hour late for this phone call, because there was a tapas Tuesday downstairs. I had to pull out the emergency card and postpone this a little bit, because yeah, there's a sense of community in the skiff. We all sat down together and had a nice bit of Spanish food and some nibbles, and that sort of thing happens regularly.
Elliot Taylor: In Brighton there are four, five different coworking spaces all slightly different, but the skiff, it's a lovely place and great opportunity to meet other people, especially compared to working at home and being uninspired on the kitchen table.
Steve Folland: You've got into organizing meet ups and stuff, haven't you?
Elliot Taylor: Yes. Meet ups are a fantastic way to meet other people, and a fantastic way to grow your business. And it's been a god send for me. I started going to a networking pub event called The Farm in Brighton, and that was great fun to learn from other freelancers about how to freelance, how to find accountant, how to deal with tricky clients, things I'm doing right, things I'm doing wrong, and such and forth.
Elliot Taylor: And from that I got involved with running the eCommerce London meet up, the WordPress Brighton meet up, and now the WordCamp Brighton. These are our own sort of little jingoist terms, but for the WordPress communities and meet ups for WordPress.
Steve Folland: Crikey. That's quite a lot. How do you manage to organize all of that, alongside work and life?
Elliot Taylor: Yeah. It takes up time, but I put it down as marketing time. Time I should be spending building up my business, building up the brand of the company, so as long as you just see it as business expense, you just factor it in with all your other work.
Steve Folland: And do you ever get up and speak at these things, or it is it not that sort of thing?
Elliot Taylor: I do speak. Often try to not speak at the events I've been on. Give other people an opportunity. So I speak at other events. For example, I spoke at WordCamp London the other weekend. And I get involved, and I think you were there Steve as well.
Steve Folland: I was there. Yes.
Elliot Taylor: We were in different rooms I think.
Steve Folland: Which day were you on?
Elliot Taylor: I on the first day.
Steve Folland: It was a really nice event though. I was struck by how lovely all the WordPress type people are actually, as a community and of people at so different levels within it, if you see what I mean?
Elliot Taylor: Very much so. It prides itself on its inclusivity, and I think that's a part of the open source community feel for it. It's not exclusionary. It's not saying oh this is just for people who know this.
Elliot Taylor: We try to include everyone, so really nice.
Steve Folland: What do you find that you get from doing speaking engagements?
Elliot Taylor: First and foremost, you get better at speaking. The more you speak, the better you speak. Which is always good and it helps with sales and marketing when you're trying to get jobs.
Elliot Taylor: Second of all, it gives you exposure. And third of all, I suppose it helps clarify your own thinking, so I you wanna speak about something that you've been focused on a lot.
Elliot Taylor: As a coder, I spend a lot of time staring at screens trying to build things. When you have to explain it to other people, you actually clarify your own thoughts, and that's a really powerful and useful things to do.
Steve Folland: Yeah. It's like writing a blog post, kind of does that, but then almost taking up it again where you think not only am I writing this blog post but I'm reading it aloud in front of people effectively. I have to be confident in it.
Elliot Taylor: Totally. Yeah. There is the fear factor that you don't always get with the blog post.
Steve Folland: Yeah. Can you remember when you first did speaking engagements how that felt?
Elliot Taylor: Yeah. The best advice that I give everyone when they start doing speaking engagements is speak about what you know. It's a lot easier to muffle through a subject if you know it inside out, so that's what I did. I spoke about stuff I knew and stuff I was passionate about.
Elliot Taylor: So I started up the London eCommerce meet up and I talk about how eCommerce can help you and things you can do with eCommerce, and likewise, I've taken that some approach to talking about what I do with WordPress and building products and building WordPress sites as a coder.
Steve Folland: That's cool. If somebody listening has never spoken at an event, you think it's worth giving it a shot?
Elliot Taylor: I think start small. Give it a go. There's lot of places that encourage you and can help you speak. For example, just a little plug. In Brighton, next week, we're organizing a workshop for public speaking. I can't speak for any other community, but the WordPress community, we go out of our way to encourage people to speak and help people to speak, because it can really help their business.
Elliot Taylor: And a lot of people have some viable stuff to say. It's always good for everyone to improve their knowledge by learning from each other.
Steve Folland: Now, you trade as a brand name, don't you?
Elliot Taylor: I do. Yes. Raison.
Steve Folland: When you first went freelance, did you begin as that or did that come about when you started to grow as an agency?
Elliot Taylor: I started that very early on. I'm not sure how important it is. I remember somebody telling me at the time, well, if boots can sell medicine with a name like boots, you can sell anything with any brand name. You don't actually need to over think it too much.
Steve Folland: That's great point. But I do like because if you so to your website now, and they'll be a link of BeingFreelance.com, even though it has the brand name of Raison, the very first line is "Hi. I'm Elliot," and I found it still has a very personal feel to it.
Elliot Taylor: Totally. I sometimes get requests, as I'm sure everyone does in their email inbox, "Hi. We're an agency. Click here." And if you go on our website, and it doesn't say anything about the team, then I don't know who I'm dealing with.
Elliot Taylor: We're people dealing with people. That's what business is. It's people dealing with people. I think it's very important to say who you are, who your team are, and just be frank about the situation. Don't try and be bigger than you are. Just be honest.
Steve Folland: And let's chat about what life balance did, because do you have kids by the way? I don't know.
Elliot Taylor: I have a three month old baby boy.
Steve Folland: How have you managed that transition into that monumental shift in life?
Elliot Taylor: I think it goes in part. One of my decisions to wind down the agency and focus more as a freelancer is all the preparation to our plan to have children, and make it a better work life balance. We should have approached it in advance.
Steve Folland: I see. That was a deliberate plan of thinking. Having a family is gonna be stressful enough. We don't need the stress of an agency. And I guess it gives you more freedom?
Elliot Taylor: It does give me more freedom. Mom and baby both need help, and thinking working 9:00-6:00 is really hard. Hats off to anyone who works a full-time job and be a dad or a mom. That's a hard job. I'm pretty fortunate to be a freelancer and try and get a better balance.
Elliot Taylor: One of the most simple things I need, and I wish I'd done it earlier, but double your rates, and half the amount of time your work is a great strategy, and it's something that has helped me and it helps a lot other freelancers.
Steve Folland: Interesting. But I guess it could be tempting to double your rates and still take on exactly the same amount of work?
Elliot Taylor: Yes. And there are some months that you do that. But there are other months when the work isn't so much, and you don't have to worry so much. Make hay when the sun's out. But you don't have to panic if work dries up for a few weeks.
Steve Folland: Is that something that you've built up over time, that confidence?
Elliot Taylor: Yes. It totally is. There's many factors. Building up a financial buffer. Also, the way I work now is completely different how I worked at the start. I used to work in chunks, a project. I'd sell you a website for a certain price, and then I'd get it done, whether I punched it five days or 20 days. It didn't matter how long it took, I'd get it done.
Elliot Taylor: And that could be a quite dangerous approach, I've found, because it's very hard to estimate for many projects, and you can go over, and you're the one who's absorbing all that risk.
Steve Folland: Yeah. How do you get on dealing with clients?
Elliot Taylor: I like to tell clients I've got a fool-proof process, because it's so simple it can't really fail. And that's I bill by the day. Contrary to much of the advice out there, which is all about selling value, I sell days, and if a project looks like it's gonna be eight days, I'll say, "This looks like eight days. You can put me out for eight days. And I'll keep you updated with how it's going. If it turns to be 10 days, you'll need to book another two days to get the job done."
Elliot Taylor: Or if they add new functionality, as clients sometimes like to do, that's fine, but it'll take more time to do and I'll bill you accordingly.
Elliot Taylor: I found billing per day to be a really helpful approach to freelancing.
Steve Folland: How do clients take to that though? Do they fear it's gonna be some sort of open ended figure though?
Elliot Taylor: They do, and it all comes down to trust, and that's the biggest thing I can say, is that actually some of clients I've had, some of the smaller clients who don't normally work like that, have been burned by saying I'll get a website done for a certain price, and then it never got done. It never got complete.
Elliot Taylor: So they come to me in full knowledge that that's what happens. And I say, "I could promise you that I could do this is eight days, but it's better for you and better for me if I'm upfront about how long it's taking, and if I'm getting it done on time, and if it needs more time, better that you spend two extra days of development rather than a project that gets deprioritized by the developer."
Elliot Taylor: I think that trust is the key, and if they can see you're working and you like what you're doing, they'll trust you more. And not to abuse that trust either.
Steve Folland: Yeah. I was gonna say. I suppose the fact is if you said to somebody it would take eight days, and then it took 16, then pretty soon word would spread that your time frames are always out sort of thing. You couldn't be grossly out could you?
Elliot Taylor: I guess. And I also think that that's another classic mistake. Is your one day to go til you said it's finished, and then you drop them an email saying, "Oh. Actually this is gonna be another week or so."
Elliot Taylor: No. You would never do that, because that's just poor form. You say pretty quickly. As soon as you realize it's gonna take longer. Look. We'll have a conversation. Let's have regular updates. On day two, I estimated eight days, but I'm looking at the code. I've got my head in the code straight away and I can see this is gonna be a much bigger project.
Elliot Taylor: I've had jobs that the client said, "This is 80% complete. Can you work on the project?" I look into the project, and I say, "Look. This needs a complete rewrite. It's not the 15 days I've quoted. This needs a complete rewrite. We're talking about six months of work here."
Elliot Taylor: Again, honestly. It'd be better to tell them now than to struggle on and try and hit some other pre estimate that you've created.
Steve Folland: And within that way of working, do you ever find yourself having to justify what that day rate is?
Elliot Taylor: Yeah. On some clients. I think the best thing to day with day rates is just say, "There's a range of day rates. Everything from $100 to $1,000 a day. And I sit at this point and as a consequence, this is the quality of code I produce and this is how I work. If you want to go for someone cheaper, then you can."
Elliot Taylor: And I explain. I even refer lots of people in Brighton who have similar skill sets to me, but maybe less depth in code but can build fantastic sites. If that's the budget of the client, then I suggest they go there.
Elliot Taylor: So being picky with your clients is really important, and not saying "Yes" to every client.
Steve Folland: Yeah. Interesting. And I guess that also, as you said, protects you against when they decide to add other features as it goes along. It's like, well, fair enough, but it's gonna have this implication.
Elliot Taylor: Yes. That was the danger of eCommerce sites, is that they're so huge. You can't specify absolutely every element of it in an easily understood document. So when the client says, "Oh. We need this and this," and they've made the assumption that it would be included, you're the one who picks up the slack.
Elliot Taylor: So yes. Working on a day rate is much better for everyone involved, I believe.
Steve Folland: Yeah. And is there then an ongoing relationship in maintaining those sort of sites?
Elliot Taylor: Yes. I have ongoing relationships, and I work it the same way. I say, "Would you like to book one day a month or one day or four days every three months or ..." depending on the clients. I have an ongoing relationship, but I still quantify in units of days.
Steve Folland: Yeah. That's nice. It's almost like a retainer servicing thing going on, where you have an idea of what sort of income is coming your way, as well as work load.
Elliot Taylor: Basically. I did a product that helps me manage my time. I think I'm one of a handful of people that actually use it, but it really helps me. And as I was doing the marketing for it, I did a questionnaire to 100 people in Brighton how they track their time, because I was fascinated.
Elliot Taylor: Am I the only person who charges per day? Or do other people charge in other ways? It was really interesting.
Elliot Taylor: Out of the 100, 20% charged by 15 minute blocks. 26% by hourly blocks. 9% by half day blocks. 13% by 30 minutes. And only 9% by day. And everyone else did it some random bits.
Elliot Taylor: I have people who did it per minute or per six minutes and all sorts of odd stuff. 5% did just fixed price projects.
Elliot Taylor: I think working in a unit of time that's per day or per half day is the smartest way, and that makes about 18% of what everyone else did in Brighton, of the people I asked.
Steve Folland: You say you created a project for your own time tracking?
Elliot Taylor: It is. It's the classic thing a freelancer does. They have a great idea, because they like the way they work, and they build a product around it. I used to use Google calendar, and it was a bit lacking, because I wanted it to sum up what days I'd worked for different clients and tell me how much it worked.
Elliot Taylor: I basically built that. It's a calendar. I say, "Today I'm working for Asda, and I've worked eight hours for them, which is a day, and it works out how much I've worked for that client per month.
Elliot Taylor: Every time I get a job I add it into my calendar. I set the day rate. I set how many hours or days I'm working for them, and then I get a list at the end of the month of how much each client has produced in income.
Steve Folland: Cool. Is that availiable to other people or did you just create it for yourself?
Elliot Taylor: Yeah. It is availiable. It's called Simple Hours. And the website is simplehours.com.
Steve Folland: Have you gone on to create other things or was it just that one need that you had?
Elliot Taylor: I've created many products, and building, as a developer ... I can speak as a developer. Building my own products has been a fantastic way to learn about building products and improving my code.
Elliot Taylor: And a fantastic way to learn about marketing and the whole process of bringing a product to traction, and trying to create other sources of revenue.
Elliot Taylor: I built Simple Hours. I've built email tools. I've built analytics tools, and yes, Simple Hours is my most recent, and I've also released a product framework called Prop Press, which works alongside WordPress, and it's a smart way of building products, which gives you a bit more depth, a bit more flexibility than just building a bread and butter PHP which WordPress does.
Steve Folland: Awesome. So all of those extra things that you're doing on the side feed back in ultimately to your work?
Elliot Taylor: Totally. I consider them as R&D. When I'm working on my own projects and improving my skill set, and I'm giving back to the community hopefully. Yeah. Simplehours.com at the moment. It's totally free. I use it all the time. Maybe someone else will find it useful, and if they do that'd be fantastic.
Steve Folland: Cool. Now, if you could tell your younger self one thing about being freelance, what would that be?
Elliot Taylor: Would have started learning earlier, really. Start learning. Never too old to start coding, and get into new habits and new practices.
Steve Folland: Yeah. Because I mean, that's something that we didn't really dwell on is the fact that we really did change tack. I mean, you took the experience from your other job, but coding was a totally new skill to you right?
Elliot Taylor: Well, I coded back in the day on the BBC Micro, but I neglected it between the ages of 13 and 30 and 20. Yeah. I coded late in life. And I wasn't an actual coder. I wouldn't say I was an actual coder, but I really get into in now.
Steve Folland: But the fact is that you soon felt like you had enough skill to make money from it?
Elliot Taylor: Yes. Totally. Practice. I think building my own stuff in my own time was a big help in getting the skills good.
Steve Folland: Elliot. Thank you so much for talking to use. And all the best being freelance.
Elliot Taylor: Thanks Steve.