Going Solo: Panel – Solo in a Networked World

This panel is about the community aspect of going solo, how to fight isolation, and as a soloist you are going to be in a situation where you have to collaborate with other people, work in teams, so how are you going to manage this collaboration aspect of your work.

Moderator: Stephanie Booth
Stephanie Troeth
Linda Broughton
Laura Fitton

Going to conferences is an important part of being a freelance, as is having some sort of social watercooler space, e.g. Twitter. Need a balance between being alone and being with others.

Laura: Key thing is layered interactions, online, offline. What drew me into Twitter was someone who was Twittering something interesting, four days after engaging with Twitter saw a ‘tweet-up’, i.e. ad hoc meeting in a bar, and that drew her into a social events in a new city. So met people in real life, and got to know them, and their contacts, and layering that is important. If you live rurally, make a point to go to conferences to meet people.

Linda: Run a co-working space, which is run like a gym so there’s membership, but it’s designed to be entry level, so it’s affordable. Feedback from members about co-working when told that she was coming here, and the themes were that they loved co-working, because the life hey had before was a bit unhealthy, not getting out enough, and co-working was the best of both worlds People might come in one or two days, some people come in every day, so they use it how they need and want to use it. Asked them what they didn’t like, and mainly it was that the space wasn’t open 24-7, but that’s a good thing. We can’t open 24/7, but you can come in at 7am, and get thrown out at 9.30pm, so that’s not too bad.

For those who don’t know what co-working is, it is a physical space, so it has desks, water, coffee, quiet areas, meeting areas and meeting rooms, printing facilities, and 30″ plasma screens, Macs and software. You can come and go as you please. Also have a couple of start-ups there, there’s some blurring between freelance and entrepreneurs, as people start off as freelance, meet others, and maybe start up a new business. Tends towards being technology people, and people like it because they get to meet others. Also liked the very prestigious business address, for some clients it’s reassuring that you have a famous old building in Leeds on your business card.

StephT: Very difficult because I live it. But to add a bit of context to what’s been said before, the story of how I stumbled upon Twitter. Way back before Twitter was big, a friend from Melbourne pinged me to say “Use Twitter”, these were five guys I knew that I was following and it was just like the old days, being in one space. For other contexts, creating that atmosphere that you would have if you were in a physical space together.

Q: Linda, what were the steps that you went through to start it? How did you find the space? Did you get funding?
Linda: We had some European capital funding to set up the space. There’s a problem with not having enough start-up businesses, so we put in a bid for the refurbishment of the building. Have no revenue funding. Community was people working on the web, so when we started the project, went to the places where these people were, e.g. the Geek Up meetings, so met people, talked to them, and it mushroomed from there. Had a BarCamp in Leeds, and it was at the time launched, so it was networking and of course people now blogging about it, 700 photos on Flickr, and just using all those social media but a lot of physically going and talking to people.

Q: How do I get the best out of a co-working space?
Linda: People arrange to meet people there, go at least once a week, and it’s interesting. People worry that they won’t get as much done because they are chatting, but people generally do get as much done. Use the meeting space, but if you don’t need to use it, maybe you won’t benefit for co-working, because it’s not for everyone. Maybe our community’s more about sharing, but the architects couldn’t wait to leave.

StephT: Montreal opened a co-working space, which I joined. I found I would go there more if I organised my meetings there. This is something that I haven’t decided on, because I’m always on conference calls so wanted to test if it’s possible to do that whilst at a co-working space.

Stowe: One trick is that I put my 30″ monitor, and that makes work a lot easier, so if I’m going to do anything, I have to get up and go to the office. You have to do whatever you need to do to go to the office, because going to the office and leaving the office is very good for a working mindset. So I keep the chocolate at the office.

StephB: Does the social aspect help?
Stowe: The guys I work with in the building are architects, so when they are talking it just doesn’t register. When I worked in a space where people were talking about tech, I couldn’t help but listen.

Q: Where is Twitter going for business purposes.
Laura: That’s a huge intellectual and business research project for me at the moment. But almost Twitter alone took me from being a house-bound Mum to speaking at conferences. I have amazing mentors on Twitter, people who’ve shared with me. I’ve almost completely abandoned RSS because I see stuff on Twitter instead. I see a ton of apps that businesses are wasting money on, that I think tools like Twitter could break a lot of logjams in the enterprise. And there’s a marketing aspect too. There are a billion applications, but one of them is the ‘watercooler with a brain’.

StephT: There are lots of technologies, e.g IRC. You can create a space where several people can talk. With Twitter, I feel like I’m walking through a space when everyone is talking and if I hear something interesting I can have a conversation. But when you need to create a contained communications space you need a different tool, so if you want to be alone together, then chat is useful. A lot of chat tools are not secure, though, so things like IRC, which works very well on an unstable networks. That’s the tool I prefer and use most when I run teams. Teams of freelances, spread out in Canada and the US, and there are time-zone issue, and if you’re working on the project right now, hop into IRC so we know who’s working on it and we can deal with issues. Creates a nice atmosphere, and you get to know one another.

StephB: How do mailing lists compare?
StephT: I think we’re kind of immune to email these days. I find people behave differently in chat compared to email. Email can take a long time to reply, and IRC or any other chat room, can even do it on Skype but there tends to be a delay, you have a more instantaneous response, have a proper conversation and a richer contribution. Skype calls are useful too, have a daily call, so that the team gets to know each other. Sometimes it’s really simple of what they’re planning for the day, or it could be a brainstorm, and people help each other out. Campfire is a chatroom that ties into Basecamp.

Q: What specific things concerning freelances, what problems do you have in managing freelance teams.
StephT: First problem is that freelances work on more than one project. Do you tell project managers when you’re going to get stuff done, or do you tell them? Difficulty is the milestones, how to make them realistic, how much time should it take – there’s no quick solution. My team, which seams to work, is a development team, so it’s all managing tasks. When we decide to build the site, we decide functionalities, break it down to what each function should do. If a task takes longer than four hours we break it down. Every week we assign the task, and we update every day how people are doing. Easy to say ‘Is this going to take longer?” and then we know, every day, what is going to take longer. Know how much time basic functionality takes to do, then can work backwards and can put milestones in place, check with everyone that they’re on track. If someone’s ill and there’s a problem the client can decide what they want to do, whether to hire in extra people or wait.

Q: From perspective of developers, what are the main problems they have?
StephT: The most difficult thing is how much time they want to commit to a project and communicating that up front. It’s always approximate, because you can never be sure.

StephB: Interesting question, in what way are we challenging the people that we work with?
Laura: I often work with huge corporations, and the difficulty is not having the ebb and flow, and when are they in the middle of a crunch, or when would be a good time to brainstorm. When your’e not in the middle of their culture, there’s a lot you need to pull out of them to understand how their work lives go and how to work with that.

StephT: We run everything through Basecamp because it keeps track of everything that’s said. Do you think that having regular contact helps?

StephB: The clients I have are remote, so face to face is not an option.

Stowe: Larger the corporation, the more likely it is that they are using email from their Blackberry. They are unlikely to be using on Web 2.0 tools.

StephB: Linda, you work with start-ups?
Linda: The community is quite diverse, some start-ups, some freelances, some who aren’t sure what they are.

StephB: Freelances and start-ups have a lot in common, they are usually their own boss. Do you have anything to say about the challenges freelances face when they meet corporate clients?
Linda: Yes, one guy gives a presentation on ‘Top ten mistakes I made in my first week’, and it was all about how he felt that he’d been screwed over by his first five clients. Now we have more experienced freelancers, so there’s a lot of learning that goes on between people in the community. New people have new ideas, and I think you need to be a certain type of person to get something out of it, I think if you think you know everything it probably isn’t for you, but you’re committing to give something back to the community. We ask people to sign up to the principles of that community, and not just be a place to work.

Load of people have panic attacks about where the next client is coming from, where’s the work coming from, and so new freelances panic and take on too much work. Lots of painful lessons that people are learning. Added bonus of co-working space, though, is that people who need freelancers are ringing the space and asking for recommendations.

Linda: So a good source of referrals.

StephB: So a lot of what they are getting out of it is similar to Going Solo, in that people are learning stuff from their peers, and facilitating access.

Linda: Yes, people do pass work on to others, because they know them and trust them.

StephB: Comment about pricing plan and the way people pay. Most of my work happens at home, and I’m quite happy there and until recently I haven’t felt the need for a second space, but lately, especially in preparing Going Solo, I really needed a space that was work, and one that was not work. I wouldn’t mind having an office, but not five days a week. I have a use for one maybe three half-days a week. Not going to rent an office or desk in Lausanne for three half days, so a co-working community could provide the flexibility I need.

Linda: We’ve priced it so that if you have that need, it’s a fair price. Still get people, such as students, who want to use it for free and it’s important that it’s not a free space. We do need more members, and the community is only as good as the people who are in it, and the pricing policy is set to not be a barrier. Given that it’s aim is helping people who are starting out, we do have some great mentors and some successful entrepreneurs, and they give their time free. They will give one to one advice on ideas and plans, and one of the things they do is give advice on who might back a business, which helps us achieve our bigger goal to help more businesses start.

Laura: There are so many tactics and tools and things to throw at the wall, you need to figure out what works for you. Once met someone on a similar trajectory, and would swap a To Do list, and then check in each day – just a trick for accountability. Dying for a co-working space in Boston. When I’m working with someone who’s focused, I work better. Become embarrassed to procrastinate in front of other people.

StephT: Like in team work, have to work out how the team is going ot work, and it always stumbles to start with so have to be patient.

StephB: Have done similar thing on Skype, leaving it open, not really talking but just letting each other know what I was up to.

Dennis: Wondered whether you feel that the rise of social media tools has changed the environment in which you work? Does it make co-working more possible?
Linda: Yes, it goes together, it’s part of the open source community and it’s a cultural thing. That’s why some people hate it, because they’re not part of that culture.

Laura: Used to use Twitter to hold myself accountable when I wanted to do a yoga move each day. Didn’t want to overload to people, so invited people to ask her if she had done her meditation and gone for a walk.

StephB: Seesmic,com thread called ‘Fun with Goals’, which is about taking a task that you’ve been putting off for ages, and work on it for 15 minutes. Found a task and did it, and then posted a Seemic video, and it felt less lonely. Having an audience helps getting some stuff done. Also very bad with admin stuff, so set a date for Worldwide Administrivia day, so we all in our own places on the same day dealing with paperwork, filing, accounting, and shared it on Twitter and Seesmic. Just seven people, each in their corner alone, but connected in some way.

StephB: Flipside to the coin of online connection is offline connection.

Q: Work with people in the US so miss out on the face-to-face stuff, and miss out on offline discussions which are important for work. People talk about stuff without me when it’s part of the job. How do you make sure that no one gets left out?

StephT: That’s where the daily call really works. That time zone sensitivity is very hard, but daily check-ins, as a team, really work. Need to see that these are valuable, need a good chair to ensure meeting is efficient. Need to get people to understand that if they have an offline conversation they need to bring it back online to include those who are remote. Psychology of teams is that they either thing that you’re dispensable or shouldn’t have a responsibility, and that’s a separate problem. Weekly meetings, or every two days, but a regular difference.

Q: The 9 hour problem is a killer. So if I have a problem in the morning, they come into the office in the evening, and my day is over. I know I won’t get an answer before the next day, so if they don’t reply I have to wait another day.
StephT: Hard to train people to work internationally.

StephB: Many of you still have questions and probably for other topics that we saw at Going Solo so that we can keep the conversation going.