A new year is traditionally a time for retrospection and new resolutions to change things (usually for the better) in the upcoming year. This is not only true for our personal lives but also very much so for our professional lives as well.
As much as I tend to forgo traditional holidays or conventions in general, the truth is that it’s just as good a time as any to reflect on past performance and make any changes necessary to push myself or my business back in the right direction.
However, it’s not the last calendar year that I would like to look back and reflect on. Instead, I would like to focus on another anniversary I was lucky enough to celebrate not long ago: the fifth anniversary of the founding of my company Ixudra, on the 7th of September 2018. So here goes.
Let’s be honest: I had no business starting a web development company when I did: it all happened way to quickly for my taste. But in my defense: I truly didn’t have a lot of choice in the matter and it honestly was the best thing I could have done given the situation.
Let me set the scene for you: in May of 2013, I was still happily working for Cegeka for about a year and a half and I had no intention of leaving that job just yet. I was however eager to expand and learn new things on my own. For this reason, I started to perform freelance web development as a secondary occupation ("bijberoep" for Belgian readers), without actually starting a company to do so. Originally, I had given this quite some thought and I intended to do this for several years before (probably) making the switch to a full-time freelance web development position.
However, at that time, I was also heavily looking into purchasing a house with my girlfriend. At first glance, there was no correlation between the two but that changed rather quickly when we found the house of our dreams in July of that year.
As soon as our bid was accepted, we started looking closely at how we could best fund our new property. We soon found out that there was a lot of merit in a usufruct construction ("vruchtgebruik" for Belgian readers). This is a very common legal construction in Belgium where an existing company co-funds a property upon purchase, usually by securing a secondary loan of it’s own. In exchange, the company is allowed to “lease” a predefined section of the property while the loan paid off instead of paying rent to the actual owners of the property.
However, there was one catch that the attentive reader might have noticed already: this was only applicable for an existing company, not for a person with a secondary occupation. As indicated earlier, I had no intention taking the leap at this moment in time, but the advantages of this construction can not be overstated:
- Our personal loan would be significantly less because of the secondary company loan
- Lots of tax benefits for the company
- Some of the renovations would (at least to some extent) be payable by the company
And so Ixudra came to be, after little more than 3 months and two meager invoices. Luckily, I had a good support system that guided me throughout this transition. However, the sudden change did result in several beginner’s mistakes that could (and should) have been avoided:
- I started a Limited Partnership (GCV) instead of a Ltd company (BVBA) due to financial and time limitations at the time. This means that I am personally fully liable for any mistakes I make, which is obviously not a good idea if you have a house and a family to provide for.
- The NACE numbers, which indicate the business activities my company is involved in, are very limited and not at all complete for my personal needs.
- My business year was set incorrectly and runs from July to June instead of January to December.
Aside from these administrative issues, I was nowhere near experienced enough and I had no idea what I was getting myself into. That said, despite all problems that occurred, I suffered absolutely no major deficits from this sudden decision. I could continue my main occupation activities at Cegeka without interruption and in the end, I had a lot of support and plenty of time to learn what it meant to own and run a company.
I continued my activities for Ixudra after business hours and in weekends for almost two years before taking it to the next level. By that time, I had been working for more than a year for an existing customer of mine, when they asked me to consider leaving Cegeka and instead to join them in as a full-time freelance web developer.
Once again, this opportunity came a lot sooner than I had intended but once again, it wasn’t much of a choice to make. For several months now, it was clear to me that there was no longer a future for me at Cegeka. Time and time again, I was given minor and insignificant tasks that were used as promotional stunts to drum up business for other divisions whereas other, bigger projects were consistently outsourced to Romania and Poland. With no room left to grow and a new opportunity on a silver platter, there was only one thing I felt I could do.
And so I did. In July of 2015, I made my web development activities my main professional focus and became a full-time freelance web developer at econtract BVBA in Hasselt, Belgium. Though my day-to-day activities remained mostly the same, I suddenly had a lot more control over everything I did. And that doesn’t even cover the fact that I was now more than ever in a position make a difference in the world, at least in a small portion of it. I felt extremely good about everything I was doing and I can never thank Evert and Charles enough for the confidence they showed by giving me this opportunity.
Though in hindsight, once again I feel like I jumped one bridge too far. While it is true that I always wanted to become a full-time freelance web developer, the sad fact is that I was in no way ready to take on the responsibilities that were placed on my shoulders.
In my defense, this had nothing to do with my attitude of sense of responsibility with regards to the tasks I was asked to perform. I always tried my best and tried to complete every task as quickly and with as little bugs as possible but as it turned out, the knowledge I had was far to narrow to get a full picture.
I learned this the hard way after I left econtact and started collaborating with larger and more experienced web developers and web development agencies such as Internet Architects and Yappa. All of a sudden, I was exposed to a wide range of tools, techniques, technologies, frameworks and means of collaboration I had never heard of before, which changed the way I viewed myself as a web developer significantly.
Of course, this means in no way my time at econtact was wasted. In nearly every aspect, I knew more about PHP, Laravel web development and general software development methodologies than other people involved and it can’t be denied that I did a lot of good in my position. However, for my personal growth and development, I think it would have been a lot better if I had been the dumbest person in the room for a couple of years before striking out on my own.
My experience so far
Overall, 5 years in, I have to admit that my overall experiences with running and managing my own company have been very positive. I have learned an incredible amount and met some amazing new people because of the jobs I have done and I have encountered little or no significant problems from a professional point of view.
However, it would be an understatement to say that things didn’t always go the way I wanted them to. Most significant among them are some major disruptions in my personal life which in turn had negative repercussions in my professional activities as well. Additionally, due to familial and geographical restrictions, I found that it isn’t always as easy to find suitable employment opportunities that are worth my consideration.
That said, progress has definitely been made. 2018 was by far the most successful year for me, both in terms of revenue made as well as opportunities taken and knowledge acquired. This was mainly due to increased stability in terms of projects but also due increased monitoring and performance tracking in my part. For 2019, my objective is to match and if possible exceed my 2018 performance and continue to grow as a person and as a company.
Expert is a relative term
The problem is that all of these concepts (and many, many more) require several days if not weeks of detailed analysis to fully understand, but sadly I never seem to find the time to get past general usage and basic tutorials. In short, I know enough about all of these subjects to hold my own but there has been more than one occasion where I felt I was merely there for the ride instead of being at the wheel myself, which is never a good feeling to have.
However, I don’t aspire to become an expert in all of these subdomains. As mentioned earlier in this piece, “expert” is a very relative term and nobody expects you know the answer to every question all by yourself. That said, you do need to be able to recognize if and when your knowledge is insufficient and take the steps required to address the issue as soon as it presents itself.
For myself, I can honestly say that I have gained a lot of expertise over the course of the last five years but I am painfully aware that a broader knowledge base would be incredibly beneficial for my career. This can easily be achieved by spending some more time on experimentation and exploration of new technologies, and I fully intend to corporate some of these in my learning goals for 2019.
Freelance is not the end goal
During the year 2018, it became painfully obvious that there are significant limitations to freelance web development. Arguably, it could be said that Belgium is still a bit backwards when it comes to IT, but finding a new project has always been a more of hassle than it should be. To be clear: there is plenty of work out there. Like, really a lot. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy for a freelancer like me to find a project that matches both my personal and professional requirements.
Firstly, Belgian companies still prefer to use employees instead of freelancers (understandably so, since they are significantly cheaper). Additionally, for some bizarre reason, most of Belgian’s IT companies that do work with freelancers, are located around Brussels, Antwerp and Leuven. For me, that would mean more than 1 hour of traffic just to get to work, which can easily increase to to 2 or even 3 hours or more due to traffic jams (which would basically happen every single day on that route). As a single father, I just can’t afford to lose that kind of time.
An obvious solution would be to work remotely from home. Sadly, most companies in Belgium seem to have very little trust in there employees (especially freelancers) and do not allow for remote working, despite all of the technological advances that we have at our disposal.
Lastly, I have become painfully aware that trading hours for currency is not a sustainable business model. As it is right now, I only have two ways to generate more revenue: increase my hourly rate or work more hours. The first one is risky since it quickly becomes a turn-off point for a lot of customers and the second one I would really rather avoid since I would much rather spend some more time with my daughter instead of my computer.
This leaves me with only one viable alternative: to look for alternative sources of income by transitioning from a freelancer to an entrepreneur. At the moment of this writing, I don’t have a specific project in mind that I want to focus on, but it’s definitely something I want to explore more in the next 5 years.
Would I do it again/do I recommend it?
Yes. Unequivocally yes on both counts. Naturally, there are a myriad of things I would do differently I had to do it all over again (and we can argue ad nauseam if that would have made any difference whatsoever), but I’ve learned and discovered so many things in the past 5 years about myself, about running a business and about the world that I wouldn't have known if it wasn't for my company and my freelance web development activities. It's definitely not the final stage in my professional life and it in no way provides an answer to all my problems, but I am very happy with all everything I have accomplished so far and I wouldn’t give up on any of my experiences for the world.