“I didn’t do it my way (yet)” — how I became self-employed in Analytics, Part I

Becoming self-employed was quite a change, especially for someone as risk-averse as myself. More than two years later, I look back — and forward. And maybe help you whether self-employment is something you should consider.

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Get ready for the attack by the dangerous and risky free market!

The humble Julien Piccini, author of several Python wrappers that e.g. make working with the Adobe Analytics API 2.0 a lot easier, (e.g. to build tools like my “Adobe Analytics Component Editor for Google Sheets”), recently wrote a post about “Mental Health in Analytics”. This post brought up some important issues I think about a lot as well. For a while now, I also wanted to write about my journey into self-employment aka independence aka self-built hamster wheel, since my one-man company dim28 is now over two years old.

I mostly wanted to reflect on this journey for myself, because the daily frenzy leaves little room for that. Maybe this reflection can also help others who are thinking about becoming a “freelancer” (don’t like that word) in the Digital Analytics sphere. I remember Jennifer Kunz’s post on her (purposefully) short-lived experience as a freelancer as very inspiring in 2018 (when I just got started). So maybe there is someone out there who will feel that way about this post here!

In February 2018, I was working as the “Head of Analytics and BI” at siroop, an ambitious e-commerce marketplace startup that had grown from 0 to 200 people within two-and-a-half years.

But suddenly, the end of that sweet siroop seemed near. The following is my interpretation, as there are many (conspiracy) theories out there on what really happened: One of the two investors, a state-held company, got under political pressure for spending a lot on an e-commerce startup that had nothing to do with their public mandate. That investor thus left the joint venture. The other investor then took over the other 50% so that siroop’s already considerable market share and brand would not be claimed by some competitor — just to then shut down the startup immediately. The investor wasn’t too happy with the development and got scared of the costs — a startup that was created to reach market dominance in the highly competitive e-commerce just can’t do that without swallowing a lot of dough in its early years.

Ultimately, the now 100% investor preferred “integrating” siroop into an existing older large platform of theirs and re-branded that platform as the new one-stop shop/marketplace. This turned out to be just like a restart, as only a handful of siroop employees were actually retained. People mostly did not want to relocate to a place that was two hours away door-to-door from Zurich when they could find something else nearby.

Even though I honestly never really believed in siroop’s business model (but I hoped we could learn and shape it to make it work), siroop was a place full of enthusiasm, do-it mentality, fast learning (in most areas), open communication (sometimes too open), and naive exuberance. siroop was also sometimes lacking a sense of reality (which is both bad and good because people did not just discard ideas right away if they seemed a bit too moonshotty), it had some big recruiting fails, but many more successful hires. In short, I got to work with really skilled and fun people and had a great time.

For somebody in Digital Analytics, it was an amazing place to work even just looking at the “materials”. Thanks to licenses already owned by the investors, I got to play with Adobe Analytics, Target Premium AND Google Analytics 360 and several other tools you have to fight to get in other companies. I also got my hands on TV-to-Web Tracking because of all the TV ads siroop ran. All that alongside a well-staffed Online Marketing team in a complex high-traffic E-Commerce setup where people were truly dependent on the data my tools puked out.

In April 2018, it was publicly announced (media and employees got the news at the same time) that siroop’s story was to end soon. The day after, I received an offer from the company that wanted to “integrate” siroop. I needed to take a decision. I had pondered becoming independent three years before already, but then siroop had crossed my way…

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Oil, vinegar, ink

siroop’s unfortunate fate turned out to be a rather smooth catalyst into self-employment for me: I declined the offer, asking for a collaboration on an independent basis as an alternative. I accepted the lowest hourly rate I would ever accept again, but it was a fair deal, as I got a 6-month, 2-days per week contract in return. The contract was non-guaranteed, but I had a good feeling about them not dropping me, because I could clearly help their cause.

That was important. Because I am highly risk-averse when it comes to job and money things, having grown up in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, when the country I grew up in (known for its germs) had record-high unemployment rates, and you just seemed to hear about factories closing every day, or relatives or friends’ parents losing their jobs. I still remember listening to the worried grown-ups talking about how difficult it will be for my generation to find employment etc… It did not help that I studied something (Cultural Sciences) that was very inspiring, but the exact opposite of a career booster.

Even if reality has taught me otherwise by now, I thus unfortunately lack the nonchalance that I see in a lot of folks, especially in Switzerland, who can just go travelling or commit to a pet project for a year, not fearing the potentially difficult re-integration into work life after that. On the other hand, I never really had a strong urge to leave everything aside for longer, because I really liked all my jobs. Rarely ever did I have the feeling I get so often from compatriots who find no sense or excitement in their profession, who blame inept bosses for their failures, and who constantly seem to be looking for a way out. I do have other parts of my life that are “under construction”, so at least job-wise it has always been good so far.

Anyway, in addition to this first contract, I soon added an agreement with partner agency Feld M who offered to place me on their projects in case I would run low on work. Similar interest by other agencies gave me a feeling that I should probably not worry too much. I still did send one or two applications for regular jobs in May, but soon felt that no regular job would come even close to being as interesting as what I had done at siroop.

That was the second reason to become independent: I wanted to keep doing interesting things in Analytics, but I could not see this happen in Zurich at a single company, so self-employment seemed like a way to get a look at challenges from different organizations and thus keep things interesting.

Another fear was falling through the nets of the social security systems or taking risks that are too devastating to take (GDPR penalties anyone?). So in June 2018, I founded dim28 GmbH, a “limited liability company”, with me as the only employee, I also signed several insurances, e.g. legal, liability, some insurance that pays some minor sum if I get sick for longer (did I mention I am risk-averse?). Being a “Limited” (GmbH) meant a bit more overhead and a more complex annual financial statement, but being an employee allows you not having to bear the full risk on your private fortune, you can keep paying into pension funds and the like almost like before (and as the owner of a company at the same time, you like that those payments are tax-free for the employer as well). Paying your private taxes for the years when you actually receive your private salary makes it possible to stretch good years into the future etc… And so on and so on, boring admin stuff, and rather specific to Switzerland.

Another reason to become self-employed was to have more free time. Yes, you read that correctly. Especially in German-speaking territories, you keep hearing the used-up joke that “selbstständig” (self-employed) consists of the two words “selbst” ((by your)self) and “ständig” (“steadily, constantly”). So the joke is that “selbstständig” must by definition be someone who is working by herself, all the time. [“ständig” in this case comes from “Stand” which means the same as in English, so “self-standing” would be a literal translation for you etymology freaks out there.]

So the maybe naive calculation was that if I manage to work 20–25 billable hours per week, add to that 5–10 hours for admin work, learning, a bit of sales and networking, I would still have enough money not to worry plus some time left every week to do other things. I had this idea that I could work from anywhere, apart from those two days I needed to be at a client’s office every week. And I even did that a lot in the beginning, travelling here and there for a couple of days to work from elsewhere.

Then, reality happened. And even though I did decline several attractive engagements, I just was incapable of saying no all the time. In July, I reached a long-term deal with another large E-Commerce player which was the last time I said yes without feeling a bit of remorse. That yes was fully on purpose and awesome because that client also used Adobe Analytics, and that tool is just amazing for large E-Commerce. Even before that, I had started helping a company of a former siroop colleague with his startup, and I also did some work for my former employer in Munich (career network e-fellows.net). In August, another former colleague lured me to help his exciting new firm, and my friend Tanja asked me to become a trainer at her newly founded Product Academy. By November 2018, my worrying about not having enough work had turned into the ever since constant feeling of being slightly overtaxed...

Part II is ready! Thanks for reading!

Digital Analytics Expert in Zurich. Owner of dim28.ch. Older posts are at https://www.webanalyticsworld.net/author/loldenburg

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