Between Hype Machine & Impostor Syndrome — How I became self-employed, Part II

The one reason why I keep failing, and many reasons why I don’t

In part 1, I looked back at my first steps in self-employment. In this part, I compare today with my initial plans and summarize why things went well — and the one thing that is at the root of all my failures. Also, some thoughts on why it is hard to find out “the truth” on the Googles and Adobes out there.

After “reality had happened” in 2018, I postponed my naive formula of “70% work + 15% learning + 15% other construction sites”. It is still on ice. Every time I thought I could maybe reduce because some larger assignment ended, a mix of fear that “this is the beginning of the end of success” and some interesting offer made sure that stayed a half-hearted attempt only.

Why the “laptop” does not deserve its name

My style of work changed as well. As mentioned, I did a lot of travelling in my first months because working from anywhere felt like a dream come true (see some pictures of such trips in this article). I do these trips rarely nowadays, and that has nothing to do with Corona. Part of it was that I had to be at clients’ offices more often. Most importantly however, I have not found a place that is nearly as comfortable for work and sleep as my “home office”.

Sitting in a café, in private accommodation or a hotel room for work is a welcome change of scenery once in a while, but at home I am way more efficient, with two screens, an ergonomic chair and a good keyboard and mouse plus some space on the desk for a client’s laptop that I also work with. And my back does not hurt after two days. It is strange that there are such few hotels that offer ergonomic working conditions. Usually you get a small table right next to the wall so you cannot stretch out your legs, the chair is stylish but uncomfortable, and the table is either too high or too low. Many hotels even have glass tables where mouses do not work etc. And then there is still the occasional place with bad or no internet.

Moreover, travelling to these places means sitting in the train in this awkward position with my shoulders squeezed together and the “lap”-top literally on my lap — which is probably one of the worst things you can do to your back. I never had more severe shoulder pains, and they lasted half a year. What a scam to call it “lap”-top!

Why it is hard not to work whenever you can

When I am at home anyway, and there is so much work to do, and the work is as interesting and rewarding as it is, and most of the hours I put in earn me money, it gets really hard not to work. The social hiatus “thanks” to COVID-19 does not help.

And even when I am not working, I know I should be learning new things. The knowledge required for my kind of job is challenging, and the speed at which this knowledge evolves even more. And although I have never had a problem with my boss at my own company (great guy, this Lukas!), he is reluctant to just send me off to an expensive three-day training somewhere, because who is going to do the work in the meantime?

Impostor or “somebody’s going to find out I‘m cheating eventually”

I also do empathize with the impostor syndrome which Jan Exner describes so well: Digital Analysts of my generation are usually self-taught improvisers who have never really learned to do it “the right (academic) way”, so we feel like somebody may eventually uncover our scam. I write a lot of code, but I have never learned to work like a professional developer, so I am e.g. a loser when something does not go as planned when I merge a branch in a Git repository (what nerd vocab! “Branches” were simply delicious Swiss chocolate bars until last year). I did not learn to work with a professional IDE until 2019. I still have no clue how to configure a virtual server. A good developer will eat my Python (the snake) for breakfast, a good Data Scientist will laugh at my formulas, and a Data Engineer will study my Google Cloud setup with a wrinkle on his his forehead.

Some people think I work with statistical methods, write algorithms, do “data mining” etc… Not at all, and this is also a field that I have decided to leave completely to the millions of well-prepared Data Scientists graduating from universities these days (and to Maciek Stanasiuk). There is just no chance for me to catch up here anymore. Same for Business Intelligence (BI). Just can’t be good everywhere.

The list: why being my own boss has been good

The constant fear is that this will happen to most of the areas I barely keep abreast of these days. And it is normal, too. You get older, you are full of work, your brain deteriorates, so you cannot educate yourself the way a university student can (time-wise and mentally). But it is self-damaging to get caught up in these thoughts. Thus, I sometimes have to remind myself why my journey into self-employment has so far been a good decision. Some skills in my field of expertise (Digital Analytics) helped, of course, but I think there are better Analytics specialists out there when it comes to “skills”. So in my case, other things were more important. Here is my list:

1. Detailed know-how in a couple of state-of-the-art tools

Knowing how a tool works is not an academic discipline, but merely a case of many experiences with hidden bugs, strange workarounds and other pitfalls. Because once you want to do something that is not absolutely basic, it never is as straightforward as it looks from the outside. I also am one of the few people on the market that has plenty of experience with complex setups of more than just one common Digital Analytics solution (Adobe and Google Analytics plus Tealium as a means of data collection). Most specialists out there have a Google- or Adobe-only tunnel vision. That tunnel not only prevents them from understanding that there can be other, better ways to achieve certain things. Mostly however, it makes them partial, because why would you advocate a tool you don’t know to a client?

2. Being impartial, or why it is not easy to find a critical opinion on the Googles and Adobes out there

That brings me to the next point. If you work with most agencies (especially the ones that brand themselves as “Google/Adobe Certified Partners”), you are bound to be routed one way: If you are currently not on the Google/Adobe stack, they make sure to convince you that switching the stack will solve all your problems... They get preferential trainings and support in exchange for ambitious sales goals. And they are under pressure from the vendors to reach those. While the vendors themselves are under pressure to reach their goals. That’s just normal.

The dilemma got clearer than ever to me on a past Black Friday, when a big-ad-spender company had reached their sales goals early in the morning and stopped all Google Ads. The margins on Black Friday tend to be thin, thus you don’t want to pay for all those clicks on top. A high-ranking Google Account Manager then called angrily, urging to put those ads back on because they had “agreed on a certain spend” (what a “great”, customer-oriented goal) — probably his budget goal was on the line... So Google & Co. are interested in the success of the customer only as long as their success is ensured as well.

Moreover, the Googles and Adobes out there seem to be in a constant competition of:

“How can I hype my solution even more, while at the same time delivering more unfinished software (which my clients will QA for free, because I just don’t have the time to do that properly)?”

Yes, this is a bit too pointed, but not too much. Their hype machine spans the mentioned partner agencies and several fangirl/boy bloggers and even purposefully partial peer-marketing programs like the “Adobe Analytics Champion” which obliges participants to e.g. write a public review on Adobe Analytics. Nobody in that hype machine is interested in sharing all the unfinished business they find under the hood. Or they word them in such a way that they do not sound like a major deficit.

Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing evil in new products being buggy or unfinished. Software of this type is very complex. And I understand that few vendor will write something like: “It is new, it is still pretty buggy because we had such a tight deadline and could not test it thoroughly, but we want the market to give it a go already anyway.” It is the ‘third parties’ out there — us bloggers and reviewers — who need to learn to not only reproduce the self-adulation of the vendors. However, since they are all in the same comfortable bed, nobody wants to play the muckraker. That is why it is hard to find an honest, critical expert opinion out there. The businesses of most experts are simply incentivized to be biased.

I am biased, too, but I feel a bit less inhibited than most, as I have no sales goals with any vendor, and I can work with several solutions (if someone wants something I don’t know well, I don’t take on the task). I don’t have the best relationship with some vendors because I openly say what I think, and because I am too often not diplomatic enough, which is something I need to work on (see “failures”). But all in all, I think it is something my clients value.

3. Allrounder with decent tech know-how

The demand on the market is definitely higher for implementation specialists than for people handling the business side of Analytics, as companies are more likely to be able to handle that part in-house. Some tech experts in my field either are too techie-nerdy, so they tend to partake in “engineering exercises”, or they struggle to translate their setup into something actually useful for the client without requiring a lot of time until they understand what is important for the business.

Some techies are a bit lost in a business meeting. I used to work in business functions, IT project management, email marketing, SEO, an editorial team and others and became a data technology nerd only later, so I still think I understand both sides better than most. I often feel like a translator.

4. Language

I know other really skilled guys out there in Switzerland who come from other places, but they only work on their tech skills, when seriously learning German would do so much more for their career here. Yes, everyone also speaks English, but the English-only market is crowded with all those are people too lazy to learn German, and for the locals it is just so much more convenient if they have someone who speaks their language, especially in trainings. You are just on a more intimate level with people. And you can take a part of the market that is not that crowded yet.

5. Experience

Just having seen and built many Analytics setups of many organizations.

6. Work style (accountability and communication)

I see how other freelancers or agencies work at my clients, and I saw it in my previous experiences at an agency or on the client-side. Most act very professionally to the point that I admire their work ethic, but many are just not reliable. Another technically excellent freelance developer recently e.g. got his second child, which is of course a reason to not be responsive, but not a reason to stop answering anything for almost a month. At least tell the client that you got a child and you will be unavailable for a while.

Some people just don’t have their to-do list under control. They cannot give you reliable dates on when you can expect something to get done. And when the deadlines pass, they don’t come to you to tell you that they have a delay, but will try to finish until date x. Instead, the client or me has to run after them like a babysitter. For some, the reason is that they underestimate their workload, then overstack themselves with work and then completely drown in it. For some, I don’t really understand what the reason is. They understand the problem when you talk to them, and usually they are truly sorry, but then the next day it happens again...

So if you need somebody to manage your to-do list, you should probably not become a freelancer. If you think that an email with a question means the answer is optional (which seems to become the new norm), you are also likely to lose your clients sooner or later, no matter how good you are technically.

Others have the popular allergy against frequent timesheet updates, so when they finally do it after weeks, you discover that the budget is already half-spent — now tell your client that.

In short, some people just have not learned how to work properly. This is forgivable for an employee, as part of being employed should also be getting coached to work on these issues, but these people are not in the best position for self-employment. I am far from finishing everything on time and I also tend to drown in work, but I feel like I am keeping it on an acceptable level. As a service-providing freelancer, you never want your client to be chasing you. You need to be the one chasing the client.

7. Connections and the demise of siroop

siroop (my last employer) getting dismantled (see part 1) meant 150 potential leads, because siroop’s 150 employees suddenly were in new jobs. There, they usually had to deal with an Analytics setup that was in a poor state compared to siroop. This turned out to be my main source of leads and an ideal springboard into self-employment. The second-best source was my previous employer Unic (agency), whose former clients and employees still knew me from back then and started reconnecting.

8. Proof of decent work in the past

Connections alone won’t help if they remember you as mediocre or a pain to work with. In that case, connections become poisonous for your reputation. In a small country like Switzerland in the tiny field of Digital Analytics, you quickly get an opinion on anybody.

In my case, I felt like all that unpaid overtime I had put in in previous jobs finally paid off: The experiences my clients and co-workers had with me were the best recommendation. I never had to do acquisition pitches. Simply because many people had had good experiences with me and did not know too many others in my field. Actual skills were secondary.

Where I fail(ed)

So much for self-praise. Of course, not everything has been a success. Here comes the one-entry list of failures:

1. Saying no

My friend and business partner Tanja Lau (did I mention her ProductAcademy where I also work as a trainer?) recently said she gets done all these amazing things “mostly due to all the things [she] do[es]n’t do”. I struggle with saying no. Having to say no is a luxury problem when you are self-employed, but the feeling of having too much load on yourself and not finding the time for those other important things in life does get me down sometimes. Reading literature or smart podcasts has not changed much here.

That being said, I do say no quite often. I even said goodbye to a client entirely earlier this year. Mostly however, I try to get my clients or leads to (also) work with my partner agency Feld M, because
a) that feels better than just to say no entirely
b) it will not only decrease my workload, but it will also put all that client-specific know-how on more shoulders (and I am so much more powerful with Feld M together)
c) it leaves the door open to returning in case my workload decreases again.

What else? Well, not much. I have recently started to work with a personal assistant so maybe I can outsource some of that admin work.

So why this one-entry list? Because everything else I fail at is connected to not saying no more often, such as:

  • Being stressed, I lose my diplomatic nature and lash out when I feel somebody is not doing her job. That especially happens with vendors after discovering that their praised new features don’t work as advertised, which is important for them to hear, but not in that tone. I do apologize usually, but it feels embarassing almost every time I look back on it some days later.
  • Not having more time for social life, and social life in general feeling like additional stress
  • Not enough time for learning new things that will eventually keep me employable long-term
  • The aforementioned back pains and lack of workout
  • Not enough time to do something a bit more meaningful on the side than implementing Digital Analytics solutions and CDPs
  • Not enough time to write more blog posts (there are so many topics I would love to share my opinion on — and by writing, I learn)

Bottom Line

Now again, these are all luxury problems. Overall, I do feel less stressed than in the regular jobs I was before, because I at least have the choice to change the structures that drive my work life. I have no boss that I have to please. I work just as much as in my previous jobs, but most of that overtime is paid, so I earn more which helps paying off my mother’s house that I bought from her last year. I don’t have fixed working hours and can sleep a bit longer after a rough night. I can go grocery shopping any time of the day. I can still do the occasional trip to a lake or a grey industrial area in the middle of the week. And I can mostly say what I think, not worrying about muzzles put on by employers.

So all in all, I am glad I took the decision to become self-employed two-and-a-half years ago. Maybe my reflections help you finding out if that could be something for you, too. Thanks for reading!

Digital Analytics Expert. Owner of dim28.ch. Creator of the Adobe Analytics Component Manager for Google Sheets: https://bit.ly/component-manager