Bringing Side Projects to the Centre - Web Developer Mark Steadman
Mark Steadman has had a self-described checkerboard career. Freelancing on and off for years in between spells in companies, agencies and even running startups.
He's always had side projects. And whether or not they're a 'success', the experience still feeds back into his freelance skills. But now he's bringing his podcasting project in from the side to be centre stage, giving it more 'full time' attention to make it the focus of his business.
He can find himself intensely pulled into his work. Often staying up late, diving into podcast production or designing an app, only to take a break and realise that he’s neglected a number of household errands. He’s getting better at the work-life balance though, and does take more time for “human” needs - you know, things like eating and seeing family.
We had great fun talking about time management, the sometimes blurred lines between work and hobbies, and whether or not he really did appear on a TV show in the '90s.
• Don't be impatient
• Finding balance can be a challenge, and
• Make sure you’ve got the financial stability before you give freelancing a go
More from Mark
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.
TRANSCRIPTION OF THE FREELANCE PODCAST INTERVIEW BETWEEN MARK STEADMAN AND STEVE FOLLAND
Steve Folland: Freelance web developer, Mark Steadman. Hey Mark.
Mark Steadman: Hello.
Steve Folland: Hello. Well, I called you a web developer. There is much more to it than that and I'm looking forward to hearing all about it, but as ever, how about we get started hearing how you got started being freelance?
Mark Steadman: Yes. Well, I've had sort of a checkerboard career between freelancing and actual job jobs. I started in 2004. I had a job and I left that aged about 21, went part-time there, and then started my own thing from my bedroom at my parents' house building websites and doing things that I thought were marketing. I didn't know what marketing was really, building website for 300 pound and calling that work, and then got a job in '06 because my parents, basically they gave me very friendly and supportive nudge. They're like, "Look, things are sort of happening, but at some point, you're going to need to get out of our house, so maybe you want to think about what you're going to do."
Mark Steadman: I ended up getting a job and left that in 2008 to become a contractor. Picked up a job there at that firm I was contracting with and got made redundant three months later just before Christmas, so freelanced until September 2009, got a job at an agency, left them in 2011 to form a startup. That failed, but I formed another company with my old boss a few months later. Came back to work for him until 2016 and then headed out in my own, handed in my notice at the beginning of the year, and then finished up with them in June of 2016 and I've been freelancing properly since. This is sort of the time where it really feels like I'm properly doing it because I'm not constantly frightened of running out of money.
Steve Folland: Yes. You were constantly frightened of running out of money, but that goes back to 2004. That's quite a stretch.
Mark Steadman: Yes, it is.
Steve Folland: At what point did you start looking at your pricing? You mentioned 300 pounds for whole websites. At what point did you feel like maybe you started to get your pricing more literally on the money?
Mark Steadman: It wasn't until a few years later when I left the agency that I worked for in 2008. I had worked for them for a couple of years and then having got a bit more experience under my belt I felt I was able to command a little bit of a higher salary, and with contracting, you can earn more than you can obviously at a normal day job, but then you've got all the tax and things to work out, as well.
Mark Steadman: Yes, back then, it was kind of a combination of what I think my skills are worth, which back then wasn't much, and what I think I can get clients to pay. That was the sort of balance that I struck, and obviously if people are going to see a good deal going back in 2005 when not every website had a content management system behind it and it was common to have static websites, you're talking very, very small companies who didn't have a lot of budget.
Mark Steadman: I was sort of there. I think there's always people there that are young and sort of hungry and fill that niche, and that was me. I got more skilled and picked up a few things, picked up some more experience, and then felt like I could start changing more. That's got a little bit more over the years.
Steve Folland: Of then the skills in your actual web developing type, those actual technical skills, what do you think you learned from the various times that you were at an agency or a company?
Mark Steadman: One of the big things for me is communicating technical concepts to non-technical people. I'm lucky that I've been able to do that quite well. I think part of it, my first ever job was in retail, and it was a computer repair type shop. Lots of people would come in with fairly common problems, and I wasn't a hardware guy, but the software stuff, I could sort out and give them explanations of what to do.
Mark Steadman: I've always been a teach a man to fish type person. My mom handed me her phone a couple of days ago and said, "What's this? What's this message?" I was like, "Read the message." "I did. I don't understand." "Well, it's asking you if you want to do this. Do you want to do that?" "I don't." "Well, do you want to do that?" "No." "Okay, well, say no then."
Mark Steadman: Rather than just take the phone out of her hand and just make the message go away, I'm one of those irritating people that sort of walks people through the process. When you're dealing with clients who are not necessarily hugely tech savvy, they sort of know what they want but don't know all the ins and outs, then that's one of the skills that I've been able to cultivate over the last few years that I think has made me a little bit easier to work with than maybe some developers who are uber technical and only speak tech.
Steve Folland: Yes. When you found yourself freelance in these periods, how were you getting clients?
Mark Steadman: Well, the first one, back in the day, I actually had some success. There used to be a newsletter called Business Bricks. I think it was twice a week and it was really short and you could advertise for 30 pounds at the bottom of this newsletter. Because it wasn't massive, it's just a text email newsletter, and because it wasn't massively obstrusive and the content was quite nice, people did actually read those ads. I would as well, and they were very, very short. It would just be a very simple call to action.
Mark Steadman: I offered my services and said, "If you want a website," I think I put a page up somewhere and linked to that and said, "If you want a website, then email me with the subject line 'I want a website for 299 pound,'" or whatever it is. That's how I started getting work from my parents' house, from my bedroom, is using that and just getting lucky in that I was already subscribed to this thing and then thought, "Actually, that could be worth a go," and it ended up actually paying off.
Steve Folland: At some point in all of that history as well, you said you left and started a startup. What was your startup?
Mark Steadman: I was building sort of a social network for events. It was like a Twitter, but for specific events and I went through a sort of Birmingham's attempt at building an accelerator. They have these things like Y Combinator in San Francisco, which are you get a bunch of startupy people in a room together and they all hammer out some ideas and stuff. It was trying to do that but not very well. It wasn't very good, and it was kind of a disappointment, and so it never got off the ground because I think the idea was okay, but the investment climate wasn't there for it.
Mark Steadman: What came out of that was a business that's still going now and it sort of bubbles up and comes to the surface and we do some work and then it sort of goes back down again, and that's like a content management system for the physical world. It's for museums and art galleries and places like that. I built that and founded the company with the boss whose company I just left at the time, and that's now still going and there's four people that run it.
Mark Steadman: I do tech stuff and the boss of the old company, his company does design stuff, and then the other two guys do content management, like helping to write content and client services. That is actually another little way that I generate work is every now and again a new project will come up and that's a few days work that I can do, which is quite nice.
Steve Folland: That's not the only project that you've ended up doing on the side of freelance work.
Mark Steadman: No. One of the things I love about freelance is the ability to do side projects. Podcasting has always been one of those big loves that I've had since I first started listening to podcasts in, I don't know, 2005. I didn't start making them until a bit later, but that's always been something I've enjoyed.
Mark Steadman: At the end of 2016, I started working on a podcast hosting service just because I was getting a bit tired of where I was and wanted to build something to my own specifications, so just built a thing that was just like a nutshell of an idea, just a kernel I should say of an idea of, "These are just the basic services I want," and then built it out from there.
Mark Steadman: I'm now in a position where I'm going to be looking to transition away from freelance work into actually running that full-time. I already run it full-time. I have two day jobs, but that side project is now a semi-viable business. It made a tiny profit this month and that's something that's really exciting.
Steve Folland: Has there always been that itch to create your own business beyond selling your own time as a freelancer or whatever?
Mark Steadman: Always. It was always just finding the right idea. I played around with so many different things. I've made little free things. I made a little tool called, someone else called it IDOXINY which is quite nice way of describing it. It was basically I do X and Y. It was a really simple Twitter app where you would go on the web and you would login via your Twitter account and you could either say, "I do," for example, "Web development in Brighton," and then someone else could login with their Twitter account and say, "I need web development in Brighton," and it would just be a very, very simple matching system to say, "There are people around this area." It would use location data. "There are people around this area who do these things."
Mark Steadman: That existed for a little while, and there's always been those kinds of projects that I spin up and give it a go for a little bit and then they die away or they just burn out or whatever. There's always something. Since I started Podiant, which is the podcast hosting service, there's been nothing else. That's the only thing I've focused on apart from the three podcasts that I make.
Steve Folland: Apart from that. As well as the company side project in Podiant, you do three podcasts as well.
Mark Steadman: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Steve Folland: Crikey, and then freelance work. Has there been things that you've learnt from doing all those side projects, especially when you're creating the apps or the services or whatever, that feeds back into freelance work?
Mark Steadman: Yes, definitely. There's always technical things that you pick up that you can then apply. One of the things that if you're so minded, you want to just play around with a bit of technology just because you find it interesting or whatever, and that can be really, really useful. I messed around building mobile apps for a bit just because I thought it'd be fun and that ended up being something I did for a job for a bit.
Mark Steadman: The actual play aspect of that kind of stuff is really good and I do have one client who pays me to produce a podcast for them. That just came about through years and years and years of sitting with Adobe Audition and getting to know the software and making little bits of radio and stuff like that, so those aspects of play really can feed in. You don't always know where they're going to feed in, but they very often do.
Steve Folland: How do you manage your time amongst all of that?
Mark Steadman: Well, I'll tell you a story. Yesterday I got a bee in my bonnet about a certain, or what the Americans I think call the wild hair, that I wanted to start work on a new aspect of the podcast stuff. It's very technical, very esoteric, and very boring, but it's very fundamental. I started work on that at around nine yesterday and had some freelance in between and then looked at my watch when I finished a bit of stuff that I was doing and it was one in the morning. I'd worked for 16 hours and I think had probably half an hour break.
Mark Steadman: As I think a lot of people in the more technical space, you can get obsessive and you get a real case of tunnel vision. When you get those moments, I sort of just go with it because they can be really, really, really productive, but then you have to have a bit of a lie down afterwards.
Mark Steadman: Time management can sometimes be a bit of an issue, especially when you've got a problem that is left unsolved or you just want to finish this one thing and you know you've got a meeting to go to and you end up being late because you think, "Oh no, I can push it. Oh no, I'll get halfway across the city in five minutes. It'll be absolutely fine because I just need to get this thing done." There's no reason. It's just that your brain can't stop you from actually finishing the task, otherwise you're just frustrated for the rest of the day. That's me anyway.
Steve Folland: How about actually managing all of those projects? How do you stay on top of them?
Mark Steadman: At the moment, I have one major freelance client and then there's a couple of bits and pieces. When I started in 2016 doing the proper freelancing, I played with a few things. I would block out time in the calendar, which ended up being quite useful. There's a couple of different approaches that I quite like.
Mark Steadman: The calendar thing is quite nice, especially if you balance lots of other commitments. Just saying, "Okay, well, this is the shape of the week. I'm going to do this kind of thing in the morning, or a Tuesday morning is this kind of thing," and then putting in some contingency for stuff that might break or unpredictable things is really important. Keeping a semi-rigid, semi-flexible calendar is one approach that can work quite well.
Mark Steadman: The other approach that I kind of like is more like the getting things done, the GTD approach, of just having a bunch of tasks where you just put all of the things in that need to get done for various projects and you just sit down and you say, "Okay, well today I'm working, and these are the things that need to get done."
Mark Steadman: It's just then a matter of saying, "How many hours in the day am I going to do work?" And then just churning through the to do list in that time. I kind of quite like that, but it means that you've got to preplan some of the project work and you can't split it out into separate tasks.
Steve Folland: I'm about to ask the work life balance question, so forgive me for laughing then. You've already said you were up until one AM last night, but yes, how's that going?
Mark Steadman: Well, to be honest, actually it's not too bad now. For a long time, my hobbies were kind of my work and I put all of those things in together. The podcasts I do. They're free. There's no money behind them, but I consider them work, but they are my hobbies. I do have that obsessive mindset so I have to keep a lid on that. Also, it's sort of knowing, "Okay, well, this is one of those days where you're just going to go with it. Tomorrow you can go and do human things." That is often what will happen.
Mark Steadman: This is going to sound really bad, but forcing myself to go and see family, not because it's a chore, because it's not, because I love my family. I've got two nephews and I love seeing them and I miss them when I don't, but it's when you're in that mindset where you're like, "There's several things that need to be done," you sort of have to go, "Look, that stuff can wait. Your family haven't seen you for a few weeks. You don't want your nephews to forget who you are, so go and see them and take the day and just sit with them and go to the park and do whatever it is."
Mark Steadman: It's sort of listening to what your brain is telling you at certain times and saying, "Okay, today it needs to be human things. Today it means to go and go to the shops or just go for a walk, or today it means to go and see family and organize that."
Mark Steadman: The same is true of holidays and stuff, just waiting for the voice at the back of the brain that's like, "You're going to need to stop at some point," and making sure you actually try and listen to that voice and try and not be a hero, because no one's going to thank you for working 12 hours a day for a week. They will thank you if you go and say hello to them because that's a nice thing to do.
Steve Folland: It's interesting hearing you early on in that saying about you consider your podcasts that you do work even though they're also kind of a hobby. Do you think it's that mentality where if you didn't consider them work, maybe you wouldn't schedule them in and find time to do them, but clearly they're something you're passionate about, which therefore makes it, you enjoy doing it and it's kind of a hobby?
Mark Steadman: I think it's a way of justifying it to myself, if I'm honest. I think I've decided, I've told myself that this is legitimate. I think honestly, because I look at is a long game thing, and I think doing this stuff means that I get better at podcasting. Running a hosting service, if I can have a successful podcast, that just means I'm a little bit more credible when I'm talking about various things.
Mark Steadman: For a long game thing, I think it is legitimate work, but to your early point there about that sort of accountability and making sure you actually do the things, I used to do some solo podcasts and they're very easy to abandon. The three I do, I've often got people sort of nagging me going, "Where are the show notes? What's the script? What are we talking about this week?" That's really good because it means we're on a schedule. We record roughly the same times every week and it means I have to get that stuff out. I have to make sure I do the show notes and these various things.
Mark Steadman: When I've had projects before, it's been easy for them to just slip and go, "Oh, forget it. No one's really listening. I'm not going to bother." When you've got other people that you're being held accountable to because you're working with them and you're asking of their time as well, then it makes it a lot easier to actually say, "Okay, well this does need to be done."
Steve Folland: If you're thinking of doing a long running side project, actually collaborating with other people can help get you on track.
Mark Steadman: Yes, hugely. It's that aspect of being held accountable to a degree. I think it does make a big difference.
Steve Folland: Yes. That's why I disappeared all summer last year. See? I need somebody else to kick me. Actually, yes, to pick up on one of those podcasts, you mentioned platform I think it is. It is you kind of documenting the progress of the platform you're building in the podcast hosting platform, that is.
Mark Steadman: Yes.
Steve Folland: That's right, yes?
Mark Steadman: Yes, that's right.
Steve Folland: Do you find that that's, other than creating the podcast and being fun, does it help you analyzing what you're doing in creating that sort of thing? Even if nobody listened, does it help you improve what you're doing?
Mark Steadman: Yes, I think so, because again, it's actually accountability to a degree because I've always been fairly honest. The brand, this is going to sound a little bit douchey, but my sort of brand is a kind of level of honesty and I've always gone with that when I launched Podiant and when we've had issues and things. I talk about bugs that are in the system and I talk about outages and things that have gone wrong. We also talk about features that we want to add.
Mark Steadman: One of the ways that the show works, we changed this up a few weeks ago, is that my cohost is actually the host of the show and he effectively interviews me. That means that it works really well because you get to hear his voice more, because as you all are already experiencing, I tend to prattle on. Having him driving is really good, and so he gets to then ask me the questions.
Mark Steadman: I still put the show together. I put the show notes together and then I edit it, but he can ask me, "Oh, there's a bug in the system. What's going on with that?" And then it allows me to actually talk about that and then say, "I do plan to get this fixed by next week," and I've then set a thing where I need to be able to report back on the progress of that next week because I know partly he will ask me about it. That kind of stuff from a practical level, it actually does help.
Steve Folland: Have any of your clients ever commented on the various side projects and stuff that you do over the years?
Mark Steadman: Yes, now and again I do get people who will mention things. Sometimes I can be a little bit bashful. I think the three shows that I do now I'm very proud of and very pleased with. I think that wasn't always the case in the past. I would sort of laugh things off and go, "Yes, it's just a silly thing," whereas now I think if someone that I'm working with professionally listens to one of the podcasts or reads a blog post or whatever, then I feel a little bit more like, "Yes, no, okay, that's good." Because it's all work, again, it doesn't feel like a personal life bleeding into the work life kind of thing.
Steve Folland: Yes. By the way, we'll put links to all of Mark's podcasts and Podiant and everything he's up to, as we do for all of our guests, at BeingFreelance.com, so if you want to check these out. I love the artwork on Platform, by the way. It's very good.
Mark Steadman: Oh, cool. Thank you.
Steve Folland: Yes. Go take a look, BeingFreelance.com and link through and have a listen. What would you say have been the biggest challenge or challenges of being freelance?
Mark Steadman: I think back in the day it was like a preparation. It was going out too soon, thinking, "I can do this," and that was my thing for many years, this ever crossing pattern of my career where freelance and work. Every time I've left a job, it's been like, "Oh, I can do this. No, it's fine, I just nee the skills and I'll find work."
Mark Steadman: It's like, yes, you sort of will after a while, but unless you've either got loads of contacts or loads of savings in the bank to get you through those first few months, it's going to be really hard and it was up until the last time I did it where I had loads of lead in time and some contacts and I said, "I'm not going to leave this job until I know that I've got something lined up."
Mark Steadman: The biggest challenge for me over the years was always, always money. It wasn't that the clients didn't pay. The way I look at it is I think of it like a treadmill, and so at the front of the treadmill, that's really good because that means you've got a bit of slippage if there's a problem, but if you're always at the back of the treadmill, you're always at risk of falling off.
Mark Steadman: That thing's constantly moving and you've got to run to keep up, and then if the client is a little bit late or something happens, there's a big bill, that slips you further down the treadmill and then you're just going to fling off and I kind of did a couple of times. Having a bit of money behind you, having a bit of a runway means that you're further up the treadmill so that when things do happen, you don't slip as much. That was the way I've thought about it for the last few years, so yes, it was always money.
Steve Folland: If you could tell your younger self one thing about being freelance, what would that be?
Mark Steadman: It goes back to what I was just saying, to be honest. It's don't be impatient. Get some more skills under your belt. Get some more experience under your belt before you go out and do it. You will do it. You'll make it work, but you've got to put the time in and stick with the jobs that irritate you or the people that you don't necessarily like because you need to hone those skills and you need to do those with people. You can't do it all from your bedroom or your home office. You need to be around people so that you can learn these skills and do those on the company time. Let the company pay for you to learn, as it were, so yes, just don't be impatient.