Going Independent – Part 1

Hindsight is 20/20 so I thought it time to reflect on going independent two years ago. I consider myself fairly successful and thought I’d share in case it helped someone else live their wish. Here is that story, what I did to prepare, the after math of that decision and the years that followed.

My First and Only “Real” Job

In the spring of 2007, I graduated with my shiny new degree in Computer Science from Virginia Tech. Even then, I was very picky about who I wanted to work for. I had sold some of my own software in college and loved that experience. When going to job fairs, I would only consider companies that appreciated good User Experience (UX), and didn’t program in anything .NET. Why? Mostly, because I knew I wanted to be involved with anything UX, and I was an Apple developer since 2003, and loved working in that environment.

Eventually, I found a company right in Blacksburg that did online product demos in Flash. I had dabbled in Flash a bit but knew nothing about it. On top of that, this company had clients like Hasbro, T-Mobile, Verizon Wireless, Graco, Canon, Reebok, and the list goes on. As a freshly minted Computer Scientist, I was a bit intimidated.

What the job actually taught me was, those companies are run by people, and you can talk to and reason with people. They have wants and needs and are not some super force of power. The people are generally approachable, but very professional. You can’t play games, you can’t be immature and no one likes drama. You are a vendor who provides a service and you can be switched out at any given moment.

I ended up becoming very good at Flash and talking to clients. I created a ton of new technologies for the company that had never been created for that platform (although most likely existed in other places). But we got switched out.

What I learned from that is, nothing is a sure thing and things can change overnight.


Learn to Swim – Or How to Start Your Indie Journey Before You Jump Ship

We were down to our last client and before the ship sank into the sea of failed companies, I jumped on a little life raft and paddled my way to fame and glory. That life raft was iOS development, which I started about two years before I left. I asked my boss at the time, when iOS 2.0 came out, if he wanted to offer iOS apps to our clients. He kind of laughed and said he didn’t think anyone would buy apps for a phone. We could have been one of the first mobile development capable companies. Instead, I started my own, which became one of the first.

What I learned was, when you see a clear and present opportunity, take it.

So I worked nights and weekends on our first mobile applications: BarNinja, Unprinted, a game on wake boarding, an app that helps municipalities clean up streets of debris and potholes, an Inbox Zero email helper app, a comic book app and a few other smaller projects. It was hard. My girlfriend at the time complained about how much I was working and we got into some fights about it.

What I learned was, how to write iOS apps of various types, including games, and apps that use native hardware features.

I didn’t just write one app and call myself a mobile developer, I took on challenges that I didn’t know how to do and did them. I didn’t make much money. I made enough to buy a new 13″ MacBook Pro and pay my utility bills each month (less than $100/month). What helped, was, I didn’t have cable and I really loved what I was doing.

When the time finally to put in my 2 weeks notice, I had half a dozen completed apps under my belt and I had lined up about $10,000 of client work in the next 2 months. Everyone says, have 6 months to a year of savings. I probably had a month or two and a load of student debt. When you have a salary, your expenses seem to fit your income. If you plan on going indie, you need to become a lean and productive worker. Cut out all luxury expenses, like cable TV, prepared meals, turn lights off when you leave rooms; whatever it takes because you’re going to live off of nothing for the foreseeable future.

Plan for a Very Sparse First Year

That $10,000 in two months turned into about 12 months. That is basically how much money I made in 2011. Let me repeat that, I made about $10,000 in my first year as an independent.

Here’s what went wrong:

  • The $10,000 jobs were with people I had never worked with before. The projects dragged on, requirements changed and of that projected $10k, I got about $1,500. That’s about a months living expenses for me.
  • I moved from Blacksburg, VA to Boise, ID. I knew not a single sole in Boise, ID, let alone any potential clients.
  • Besides spending a lot of time in the move, and various other chores and errands, I wasted a lot of time chasing ideas that never came to fruition. I felt like I was thrashing in a giant sea and all around me, passing me by, were big cruise liners filled with cash, waiting for me to climb aboard.

Here’s what I did:

  • I married the girlfriend way before jumping ship. She was the best thing in my life and when you have something that special, you chain her down with a fancy ring and you keep her happy no matter what. She was my anchor, my support, my goal, my dream and she kept me going. We had our fights about money, about time, about everything. But she supported me and sacrificed to let me have what I wanted. For that, I will be eternally grateful to her.
  • Twitter is an amazing tool to meet people in another city, say, one you’re planning on moving to. Once I knew I was moving to Boise (since my wife got a great job there), I followed everyone I could that listed their location in the City of Trees. A month after we moved to Boise, I saw a tweet from someone looking to work with a mobile developer. Hey! I was a mobile developer. A sit down and coffee later, I had my first Boise gig.
  • I dropped the idea of doing web development and concentrated on what my passion was: mobile apps. I also concentrated heavily on networking. I went to any meeting of professionals and industry people that I thought was interesting and a good opportunity to meet people. I went with the attitude of just meeting people, not trying to sell anything. I talked about what I did, but I mostly listened. Finally, I started to recognize some faces on the cruise liners. A lot were even willing to throw me a line. Some became live savers.

Financially, the first year pretty much sucked. Socially, I met some really great people, so at times I felt rich. That’s what good friends and good people can do for you. But you still need to pay the bills. Next time, I’ll talk about starting over and how to actually start a business that makes money as I did in 2012. Subscribe to the mailing list below to get the latest on what I’m up to. I keep them short, sweet and infrequent. And, follow me on Twitter.

Read Going Independent – Part 2

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