Blog logoMatthew Lang

Longform

A 4 post collection


Do I Need LinkedIn as a Freelancer?

 •  Filed under Freelance, Longform

LinkedIn. The social network for the workplace.

I have something of a lax attitude towards it. I don't share much on it and I rarely search for connections on it. I've even closed my account there, and then a couple of years later I setup my account again. Since then its use for me has gradually tapered off to the point where I'm once again considering deleting my account again.

As a freelancer though I wonder if I'm committing career suicide. I've looked at a number of other web development freelancers in the UK market and they don't always have a LinkedIn profile. They certainly have their own website under their own name or a company name and usually a Twitter account too, but they don't always have a LinkedIn profile. I can only speculate on the reasons for this, but I'd like to think they're great in their field and don't need to use LinkedIn. There could be other reasons though.

So I have a LinkedIn account at the moment but is it essential to have?

Before I decide on whether I should remove it or not I want to talk about why I'm not convinced that LinkedIn is right for me.

No Content Value

I'm not getting any content value from it. Based on the people I follow, few of them post to LinkedIn on a frequent basis. Only a small number of people in my network share content on a frequent basis at LinkedIn but it's the same content I can find elsewhere.

Part of this problem is that I see LinkedIn as a secondary social network. I see Twitter, Facebook and Google Plus and a few others as being primary social networks. They are the first sources I would go to find content. I don't see LinkedIn as being in the same league as these.

This also puts it in the stack of networks that I would question sharing content too. As a secondary social network, I don't share anything there. I already have outlets where people can read my content and conversely where I can read the content of others through Twitter, email and RSS.

So if there's no content on LinkedIn, then I see little need for me to share anything myself.

False Leads

I'm not getting the right leads from it. I often get offers of work for the wrong jobs.

For a number of years I worked as a Dynamics NAV developer. They're a rare breed and are hard to find but even harder to find as being available for hire.

In the last five years I have done about six months of work with Dynamics NAV. So it's fair to say that I'm fairly rusty on the platform and probably out of touch with it. Yet I still get messages in LinkedIn to connect with recruitment consultants to see if I have any interest in Dynamics NAV jobs.

This isn't LinkedIn's fault directly, but the platform they have built has now become a marketplace for recruitment consultants to find people that almost match their client's needs. Often a keyword match will suffice, but based on my recent experience and job title on LinkedIn, I wouldn't imagine that a freelance web developer would be interested in Dynamics NAV work again.

Too Complicated

I'm not a fan of the LinkedIn user interface. It is a busy and complicated website. There's calls to action everywhere you look. Completing your profile, sharing content, connecting with others. It sounds a lot like any other social network, except for LinkedIn their aim is for you to connect with others and build your network. This doesn't translate too well in terms of their user interface and rather than putting the focus on expanding your network they now have calls to action for other features such as sharing content and replying to or actioning content others have posted.

I usually log into LinkedIn on a fortnightly basis. I do a five minute check on messages and invitations and then I'm done. I'm everything that LinkedIn doesn't want in a user. And for that reason I limit my time in using it.

There Are Benefits

So we've looked at concerns I have with LinkedIn but it does have it's benefits.

Seeing recommendations from others is a great way for clients to see your value. It could be easily done on your own branded site by asking clients for recommendations though.

Then there's the skills and endorsements. Now I admit that this is only a mouse click that others do for you. It shouldn't be any kind of benchmark to measure a freelancer's skill set against, but at a quick glance it can be useful to see who has recommended you for what. However the real value in a freelancer is seeing that knowledge first hand and that's why I think it's more important to see a freelancer writing about their experience in their field rather than just relying on this skills and endorsements feature from LinkedIn.

Finally, it is useful to have a network of people that you have worked with and more importantly to have that network separate from other social media accounts you might have. Mixing business and pleasure rarely pays off so it's nice to have a separate network in the form of LinkedIn.

So why not use LinkedIn then?

I don't use LinkedIn for searching for initial contacts for two reasons.

  1. I find the invitations process to be too impersonal. Yes I have connections with others I have worked with but this is always with people that I have met in person or exchanged more than my fair share of phone calls or emails with. I don't like the idea of blindly getting invitations to connect on LinkedIn so I don't use them myself unless the person in question is someone I've met or someone I've chatted with on a frequent basis.

  2. LinkedIn isn't where I post content so I wouldn't refer potential customers to there to begin with. Instead I would refer potential customers to websites I have worked on and to my own website.

For these two reasons I skip using LinkedIn to find clients. I favour direct contact with people using details from their website. Sure it might be a more manual process than searching for clients on LinkedIn and then inviting each one to connect, but tailoring each phone call and email to each potential clients shows a bit more effort to get to know that potential client.

What's the replacement to LinkedIn then?

So I've filled you in about my opinions on LinkedIn, but if I'm not using LinkedIn, then how do I network? How do I market myself? How do I reach people?

Glad you asked.

When it comes to my freelance business I don't measure it in terms of the number of connections I have, I measure it by how much work I have planned in the next six months. If the schedule is full, the business is doing well, if not then I need to find more business. It's simple. There are a number of other reasons as well, but for the overall view of the business it's easy for me to assess my position by how much work I have planned in the near future.

If I was going to close my LinkedIn account then I would need to find suitable replacements for each of the features that LinkedIn has. I already have a number of these setup .

Profile and Content

Right, let's get the obvious one out of the way. You need a website for your profile and marketable content.

That's easy. Get yourself a domain and a blog.

For a long time I has a single blog under my own name, but it was difficult to separate personal and work posts. So at the end of last year I decided to start trading under the name of DigitalBothy. I have a site for it now and a number of posts there that features the type of work I do. It's early days for it and I wish I did this from the start but better late than never.

I have plans to make an about and contact page there so that I can easily separate leads from other messages to this site. I do get the odd question about programming and other topics on my personal website and I'm glad to help out and reply when I can but for freelance work I like to have a separate website for this.

Last year I got more referrals and work through the contact form on my own personal website than I did through LinkedIn. My LinkedIn profile might have helped but the fact that most leads came through my own website is hard to ignore.

Contacts

I need to manage my contacts. I don't use the term network here as networking is the action of contacting people. As a freelancer I need to do more than just contact people.

I use phone, email, RSS and social networks to keep abreast of potential clients and industry news. I use phone calls and emails to find out about the position of clients and potential clients and whether they would be in need of my services. I also use email, RSS and social networks to monitor potential clients to see if there are opportunities potentially available or if their situation changes e.g. any recent investments or changes in company direction.

I use Highrise to manage contact with my clients and leads. It's a relatively new addition to my list of freelancing tools, but I have had a CRM in one form or another but the decision to move to Highrise is because it has a number of features that I benefit from.

I keep all client notes, emails and documents in a feature that Highrise calls a "case". I have one for each client. Keeping everything together makes it easier to search for client details, deliverables in an email or a deadline that a client has mentioned.

Highrise also has great integration with email which means that I can redirect client emails to Highrise by just including the dropbox email for each client. I also use Mail to redirect incoming email from clients to Highrise as well.

This is where LinkedIn falls short for me as a tool for my freelance business. LinkedIn has the tools to create and grow your network but that's where it ends. I could use LinkedIn's own tools to message clients, but LinkedIn isn't a true CRM or an easily accessible platform to find my content.

With my own tools I can start building my profile, marketing myself with content and make connections with clients and leads to help keep my freelance business ticking over. And it's working well for me.

So do I need LinkedIn as a freelancer?

Probably not. It offers little to me in terms of value other than being a network tool, but networking involves more than just clicking buttons. True networking is face to face meetings, phone calls, emails and going to events. Sure it's nice to sit behind a desk and search for potential clients on LinkedIn but the true value comes from searching for those potential clients out in the field and tailoring your introduction to each of them. It comes from marketing your valuable skills in the best way possible and with case studies to back it up.

Still I can't help but think that closing my LinkedIn account is wrong to do, but only because it has become commonplace to have one. For many it is necessary to have one, but LinkedIn's value to me is questionable.

I'm still on the fence about closing my LinkedIn account, but in the meantime I will be tailoring it towards what I do now as a freelancer and relying on it less in the future.

My Development Tools - 2013 Edition

 •  Filed under Tools, Technology, Longform

Here is this years list of tools that help me on a day to day basis in my role as a web developer. There are other tools I use throughout the day for social networking and other things, but I've purposefully left these off the list, as I don't deem them necessary in helping me do my job.

Hardware

My hardware selection is very minimalistic, at least I think it is. I've read about various setups from other developers that include multiple machines and usually more than two monitors. I stick with the view that I need only one machine and that I need it to powerful enough to build web applications but also portable enough that I can carry it with me.

  • MacBook Pro - I previously owned a black MacBook that I have used as my main development machine for over 4 years, but owing to it's lack of expandable memory and that it won't upgrade OS X to anything beyond Lion, I decided that I needed something new. At the start of the year I plumped for a new MacBook Pro and I've been amazed at the capabilities of it as my main development machine. Also the Retina display is rather purdy.
  • Mighty Mouse - Still trying to get my head round the gestures for this, but needless to say, it's a very comfortable mouse to use.
  • Apple Keyboard - I've had this keyboard for a number of years now but I'm starting to find it a tad small to use. It's the actual size of the keys I find too small.
  • Asus Monitor - Just a 24" external monitor. Nothing fancy.
  • External Hard Drive - At the moment I have a Seagate 250MB external hard drive. It's sole use is for my Time Machine backups.
Hardware nice to haves

These have been on the nice to haves list for a while but I think I'll consider at least one of these as a purchase before the end of the year.

  • A NAS - To help with the day to day grind I have a massive iTunes library that I code to, however it is taking a lot of space on MacBook. I would love to have extra storage at home that I connect to easily and just pick my music and photos from it.
  • A better keyboard - Not sure what I am looking for in terms of a keyboard, but one definite criteria I have is that it is slightly bigger than the standard wireless Apple keyboard.

Software

This is the software that I use every day. These are the essential applications I need to work. If I had nothing else in terms of software, then these applications would be all I would need.

  • Mail - Newsflash, well at least for me it is. Mail, the default email client with OS X, is actually a great email client. I previously used the Gmail web client for email but since going Google free, I've been surprised by how much I enjoy using Mail.
  • Firefox - An open source browser that is gradually making improvements in performance, but it's mostly because it's open source software that I like using Firefox.
  • iTerm2 - This is my preferred terminal emulator as it provides more functionality over the terminal emulator provided with OS X. One particular nice feature is the splitting of terminal windows into panes.
  • Sublime Text 3 - I've used Sublime Text 2 for a couple of years and I immediately jumped to the next release when it was available.
  • Dropbox - I keep everything in Dropbox. I probably don't need to. Over the last few weeks though it's fallen into my "Do I need this service?" category of thoughts. I'll be assessing Dropbox closely over the next few weeks.
  • Skype - Everyone has Skype so it makes sense to use it for calls with clients. Very handy as well for group calls.
  • 1Password - Who wants to remember all their passwords or write them down or make them the same for all your logins and sites? Not me, but I still can't believe it took me to this year to start using 1Password.

While I do use the following software every day, these are more like nice to haves rather than essential. Still, they make me more productive every day, so I'm glad I have them.

  • Alfred - A very nice replacement for the default Spotlight application launcher. Also I've started to see the power behind extending Alfred to do custom searches on things like my Pinboard bookmarks.
  • Fantastical - A little application that sits in my menu bar and allows me to update my calendar easily. The great thing about Fantastical is that I can quickly add meetings and deadlines to my work calendar.
  • RSS Notifier - I use Feedbin for following blogs, but for service updates from Amazon and Heroku, I use this application.
  • Divvy - Great little application for managing your windows. I have a few shortcut keys setup to resize my windows accordingly.
  • MultiMon - Divvy doesn't let me move windows from my MacBook to my external monitor which is where MultiMon comes in. Great little application.
  • Broom - Diskspace is a premium at the moment, so while I am reviewing different external storage options I have Broom to let me know when folders get too big.

The Web

A web developer's playground. Just a small selection of the many services and products that I use online.

  • DuckDuckGo - I'm still sticking with this as my preferred search engine. Yes it does lack the comprehensive results that Google has, but I'm finding that if I don't find anything on the first page of results with DuckDuckGo, then I do have ready to roll searches for StackOverflow.
  • Github - My preferred source code management tool. Nothing to fault here. Easy to manage repositories and plenty of collaboration tools for both private and public projects.
  • Heroku - I've worked with the Heroku platform for over three years now and I love its simplicity. Might be more pricier than other options but that's the trade off when you don't want the hassle of being a sys admin.
  • LinkedIn - I closed my LinkedIn account a couple of years ago only to find that I actually needed it at the start of the year to get myself marketed as a freelancer. Jury is still out on it's usefulness but I am trying to make more use of it on a daily basis.
  • FreeAgent (Referral link) - I've only been using FreeAgent for six months now but it's already paying for itself in terms of usefulness. Having your accounts in order as an independent contractor is a necessary evil, but the FreeAgent application does such a great of job making mananging my income simple.
  • Instapaper - Reading development articles is part of development life if you want to stay up to date on the ever changing Internet.
  • Pinboard - You never know when you are going to need that article on nested resources on Rails or that article on implementing 'Remember Me' functionality in Sinatra. Good job I keep a nice archive of the articles I read and find useful with Pinboard.
  • Feedbin - My new RSS reader of choice. Check out a more complete review by myself here.
  • Gauges - Another service that I picked in the move away from Google. Okay it doesn't have the number of different metrics that Google Analytics has, but it provides all the information I need in a simple and easy to read interface.

Backups

One backup is good, two is better. I've been lucky so far, but I think I need to beef up my backup strategy.

  • Time Machine - It would be sort of crazy not to use Time Machine if you own a Mac. Background backups without the fuss. Still, it shouldn't be your only form of backup.
  • Dropbox - Which brings me to Dropbox again. I keep backups of a few folders in Dropbox so that if the worse was to happen with my MacBook Pro, I could be at least up and running on another machine regardless of which operating system it is.

There was more to this list but I had to limit it to just my essential tools. If I included all the extensions, addons, plugins and other tools I used, this post would just be too long to read. I wanted to just give an overview of a typical set of tools that web developers use.

Six Steps I Should Have Taken With Journalong

 •  Filed under Longform, Journalong

It's been a year since I started Journalong. It's been a real learning experience. While it might not be the success that I envisioned it to be, the experience of building a product has taught me a few things that I would like to share.

1. If there's no market for it, don't build it

When I first hit on the idea I immediately created a small Google Docs form that asked two questions.

  • Would you be interested in using Journalong?
  • How much would you be prepared to pay to use Journalong?

Feedback was quite low. Well, really low. Looking back now it was clear that there wasn't demand for Journalong. I should have abandoned the idea and moved onto something else. I didn't though. I wanted Journalong to use for myself so I built it anyway, and added the ability for others to pay for an annual subscription to Journalong if they wanted to use it. Was I building Journalong for myself or others?

What I should have done was simply build Journalong for anyone to use for free. Interest in the product was so low anyway that it wouldn't have made much of a difference anyway. With the focus taken away from trying to market the product to customers, I could have focused on delivering a better experience in using Journalong for myself and others.

If there's no market for your product, then don't build it and put a price on it. Of course you can build it for yourself, just don't expect to profit from a personal project with low feedback.

2. Measure user interaction

The only way to know if your product is being used is to measure key activities in the product. I didn't do this, so it was difficult to see how often Journalong was being used on a daily basis other than looking at page views provided by Google Analytics.

Decide on key activities and interactions you want to measure and build the monitoring of these straight into the product.

For Journalong I should have measured one thing:

  • How often were people writing to their journal?

As Journalong writes journal entries straight to Dropbox, I didn't have any record of how often journal entries were being written for each user.

Building metrics like this into your product is just as important as the features your product has. Metrics like this can provide you with data on in-frequent users of your product. You can then survey these users to determine what's stopping them from using your product more frequently and possibly taking a higher tiered plan if you have them.

3. Gather product feedback frequently

Getting feedback using surveys on your product is critical. It let's you find out what's not working, what's attracting users and what's missing.

When I say survey I don't necessarily mean a 10 point questionnaire on the users experience with your product. Bogging users down with surveys like this can turn them away.

A couple of questions would do or you could do something as simple as a 'like' button beside a new feature. A simple button next to a feature could prompt the user when they use the new feature for the first time and ask them if they like it. Once they click it, the response is logged and the button disappears. If they don't click it for a few days then simply remove the button to stop the user getting annoyed.

Using the metrics that I mentioned earlier, you should also survey users that don't use the product very often. The feedback may turn out to reveal a missing feature or an obstacle in your product. You want to convert as many users as possible to using your product

The last place to survey your users is when they delete or cancel their account. This is your last chance to find out why your product isn't to their liking. Is it too expensive? Does it lack something?

Getting the feedback from the customer here, allows you to refine your product for the better to stop users cancelling their accounts for similar reasons.

4. Iterate often

This is important in the early days of your product. After I built Journalong I sat back for a couple of months and watched the activity on Google Analytics. Looking back it wasn't a wise move.

Metrics and surveys will point towards missing features or changes you could be implementing. Getting these in as quickly as possible will mean that less users stop using your product and will attract others. Be selective of the features you implement though. You don't want to burden your users with changes to the product every day. Common sense prevails here. If 90% of your surveyed users are asking for a specific feature that falls inline with your product, then implement it and ship it.

5. Adjust your price based on facts

I've made three pricing changes to Journalong over the last year and making it free next week (that's another blog post) will be a fourth. Pricing products is difficult. I arrived at my initial price based on the value that I thought Journalong would be offering to users and on how much people were offering to pay for the product from my initial survey.

Three pricing changes later and there's still no bite for Journalong. These pricing changes didn't come from any information I had though. I simply thought that reducing my price might spark more interest in Journalong. A stupid assumption to make and one I advise you don't do.

Adjusting your price isn't a big issue. In the early days of your product you should be continually refining the product based on the feedback from your customers. The pricing of your product is no different. Adjust your price based on feedback from customers. They use your product, they'll tell you if they are getting value for money from it.

6. Set a product trial period

Don't flog a dead horse. I've spent far too much time on thinking how to get customers for Journalong when I could have been using the time to build other products. After six months I should have called it a day for Journalong and moved onto something else but I didn't.

Setting a trial period for your product gives you the chance to review if the product is heading in the right direction. Are you getting sign ups on a daily basis? Are you converting enough users to paid accounts in order to be sustainable?

They say Rome wasn't built in a day but that doesn't mean you should continually hold out for a stampede of new users after you deploy that new fancy feature for your product.

After six months ask yourself:

Is it worth investing another six months of my time into this product?

If you have a number of paying customers using your product then it might be worth pursuing the product for another six months. If not, then I say stop working on that product and move onto something else. Six months working on a product is a lot of your free time taken up. If you're like me and have a backlog of other ideas, then it might be better to leave your product and pick something else up.

There's no secret formula

I started this product with the full realization that it could end up like this. A handful of customers and sign ups that bottomed out three months ago. Not all products end up being successful, but there's no rule to say that your product will definitely be a success. Coming to terms with this fact will make the day you give up on your idea a lot easier.

It's not the end of the road though. There's always that next product idea!

My first NaNoWriMo

 •  Filed under Writing, Longform

During November I took part in the annual National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo as it's more commonly known. The aim is simple, write a complete work of fiction in 30 days and your work should be at least fifty thousand words in length. Sounds easy doesn't it? Well I found out the hard way that writing isn't just about putting pen to paper, or finger to keyboard in my case.This is just a few observations I made during my month of novel writing.

Plan ahead

Sounds simple advice doesn't it? Well I didn't plan ahead at all. In fact I didn't know what I was going to be writing about until a week before I started. A few things kind of got in the way and I just finished those up a few days before NaNoWriMo started.Planning ahead for something like this is important though, so make sure you give yourself a couple of weeks to mould an idea for a story. Whether it's an outline of your novel or just a list of events that will take place in your story, it helps to have something you can refer to during your writing.

It's a marathon, not a sprint

Fifty thousand words in a month is a big ask, especially when there are other aspects of your life that need your attention. Family and work are two of the biggest things that you will need to balance during your time writing your novel.If the only time you can get to write is during the evening, then pick a time when you'll be least distracted. Writing with a five year old running about isn't going to benefit your focus at all. I usually waited until our son was in bed so that I could get a good couple of hours writing at night.I aimed for seventeen hundred words a day, but that isn't always possible. During the week I gave myself one night where I didn't have to meet my target number of words, but I always made up for it during the rest of the week. This was good as it gave me a little break from the routine of the week's writing.

As for the weekend, I always found that writing first thing in the morning was the best time. I set my alarm for 6am, got a coffee and started writing. Before anyone in the house had woken up and the rest of my crazy day began, I usually completed at least two thousand words. Doing this on the both days of the weekend meant I could keep the weekend nights free.Finally there's work. If you can get to your work half an hour early or an hour early, then do so. A quiet office is the perfect place to get just a few hundred words down, and even a couple of lunch hours a week can also be a good time to do some writing. I managed a few lunch breaks where I completed a few hundred words. It's didn't seem a lot at the time, but it did help.

Keep writing

The last bit of advice I would give is to just keep writing. Currently my novel has plot holes in it, both big and small. Okay, it's not perfect but that's why I am doing a rewrite of my novel later on. You'll get to your rewrite in good time, but during your first pass at your novel, just keep writing.Plot holes, character inconsistencies and sudden changes of themes are things you might come across and you'll be tempted to chuck the whole thing in at some point just because something in your novel doesn't make sense. Don't throw it away, just keep going. Keep writing and let your novel take care of itself.Once the month is complete, you'll have plenty of time in the next year to pace yourself and do a couple of rewrites and fix these problems in your novel. For this month though, it was all about setting the foundations of the story. It was all about just getting a story down on paper and taking part in NaNoWriMo was a great way to do it.

Keep on being motivated

As for motivation, I continually turned to a couple of places that prompted me to write a novel in the first place and kept me on the right path.The first is Nicholas Bate's blog. It's not a specific blog on writing, but Nicholas has plenty of great tips on writing. It's not what you would call a how-to blog in the typical sense of the word, it's more about taking the first small steps in writing. I highly recommend you check out his writing category as it has some of the best advice and tips for getting started.

My second source of motivation was a present from my wife. After toying about writing for a few months, my wife bought me Stephen King's book, On Writing. It's a book of two parts.The first part is Stephen King's autobiography. I thought a career in writing would be a fairly straight forward and easy career, but after reading Stephen's account, I will never think that again. This month has shown me that there's a lot more to writing than I first thought.The second part is practical advice on writing from Stephen. I found this part to contain some really good writing tips. I've been able to already apply some of these to my writing, but I think I'll probably have to re-visit this book before I attempt any rewrites of my novel.

Achievement unlocked

I'm used to writing blog posts, but that's the extent of my writing ever since I left school. Until I started blogging I didn't write anything, so taking part in NaNoWriMo was going to be a bit of a challenge. In the end though, I managed to succeed and on the last day of writing, I wrote my last two thousand words to finish my novel.A minor win in the grand scheme of things some might say, but for me it was a big win. I love a good story, and every week I have an idea for something different. Despite all these ideas though, I never set aside the time to turn them into something.Taking part in NaNoWriMo was daunting at first but it has shown me that I am capable of writing something. It might be good, it might be bad, but it's my first novel that I have written. NaNoWriMo was a great experience and one I hope to repeat in a couple of years.