Since going freelance I started to view my time as an asset. When I’m working for a client I turn my time and skills into money and also a project that I’m proud of and can add to my CV. Between client projects I like to take some time out to work on a small project for myself. I see this time as an investment and it’s essential that I invest this time well if I want to continue doing well with my career.
The problem is there are so many possible time investment opportunities that it’s hard to know what the wisest investment is. Here are five possible ways you can invest your spare freelance time:
Training yourself is always a good solid way to invest your time. This might just be reading some tech manuals or doing some tutorials. I try to do this as I’m going along. You don’t need to have a full break from client work to read a lovely geeky book before you go to bed. I learn best by doing, so I like to make a project using a technology that I want to learn about. When I wanted to learn about the Orchard CMS I made a few simple modules that helped me learn what I needed to know. Since then I’ve done client work where I was able to put those new skills to use. This is a low risk investment. New skills are always useful and even if you spend time learning something that ends up not being useful, you have still learnt that it’s not useful.
Promoting yourself and meeting people is an essential part of freelancing if you don’t want to completely rely on recruitment agents. This is also something you must invest time in, and it’s easy to let slip when you’re busy. I’ve been trying to blog more this year, but it takes me a long time and it’s hard to measure the ROI (to borrow a financial term). I have had clients find me through twitter and my blog though, plus I enjoy doing it, so although it’s hard to measure it’s another worthwhile investment. There are also lots of networking events, some of are also fun and/or educational, which is a bonus. Promotion time is a slightly riskier investment. You don’t know which blog posts will be ignored or heralded and you don’t know which events will lead to great opportunities. I’ve heard that titling your blog post as a ‘top 5 something’ is an effective, but slightly cynical way to get attention. So let’s see if this works. Generally with promotion; little and often is a good strategy, but not one that I always manage to follow.
I like the term software craftsmanship. A craftsman has a box of tools. To become a better craftsman it’s a good idea to invest some time in evaluating new tools and building your own. When you’ve worked on a few projects you start to find things that need doing again and again. Sometimes you find that someone else has had to do the same thing and has created a code library or tool to do that job. Trying out those tools can save you a lot of time if you find a good existing solution. Creating your own if you have too is also a good investment. It will save you time in the future and if you choose to share them, it will save other people time. This sort of reciprocal investment, found particularly in open source software is really good; we all save more time if we share.
I have an ideas book that I carry with me and write my ideas in when I’m struck with inspiration. Some of the ideas are product ideas, and some of those are software based products. Thinking from an investment point of view a successful product is one that in its lifetime produces more revenue than you invested in it. As a freelancer with a daily or hourly rate money and time are interchangeable. If a product does really well, the money it brings can buy you more time to add new features to the product, or to invest in one of the other ways I’ve talked about.
This is probably the riskiest strategy. It is something I’ve really wanted to do, but not something I’ve successfully pulled of yet. The problem is that you actually need a lot of time to make most ideas a polished reality. You also need time to market and support the product. And you don’t know if you’ll be able to make enough revenue to pay back the time you put in.
The danger thinking too seriously about investing your time is that you forget that you need to use some of it for having fun. There are plenty of project ideas in my ideas book which are not potential money making products, but I know I’d enjoy making them. I also love cycling, swimming and catching up with my friends. Finding time for these and other activities is essential if you want to remain sane.
My latest investment
I’m coming to the end of a gap between client projects and this time I chose to invest my time in making a product. I’m generally quite risk adverse so I’ve followed the advice in The Lean Startup and made a minimal viable product. This version one product is a way to test the waters. There are lots of potential features for version 2, but I would need to invest more time that I don’t have at the moment. If the product is a success it will pay for itself and buy me more time to make version 2.
This product is Font Picker for Mac, which will be available in the Mac App Store soon. It’s currently waiting for approval. I’ve tracked the time I’ve spent on it so far and I will need to sell approximately 600 copies to recoup the time I have invested so far. I will also have to invest some more time in marketing it and answering any support emails I get. I don’t know if I’ll break even, but this has also been a fun and education project for me so either way it’s been a winner.
You can follow @FontPicker on twitter to find out more and know when it hits the store.
Photo credit: Stéfan.