There is a trend in the technical industry for experienced programmers to leave the security of the nest of employment and move into independence. This trend is healthy and promising, and an indication of the strength of the tech sector and related economies. This strength allows for unparalleled freedom in how coders can work on projects, engage with clients, and live their lives.

Unfortunately, most programmers have an old-fashioned idea of what it means to be independent. The general perception is one of a simple contractor, where projects come and go and income fluctuates. It is the quintessential model of “feast or famine.” When engaged in a project, the bill rate is high, and there is a stream of income (the feast). When the project ends, there is a gap where no income is generated, and the search for a new project begins (the famine).

There is a popular perception that it is higher risk to work for yourself than it is to work for an employer. This is true only if the outdated feast-or-famine model is followed. When engaged in single projects, there is high risk. There is risk that the current project will end unexpectedly, and there is risk that a new project won’t be found in a reasonable timeframe once the current project ends. This risk leads to stress, lost income, and very few of the benefits that being in business for yourself should eliminate.

The business model of an independent coder does not have to be this way. Instead, it can be filled with opportunities, continual revenue, great financial rewards, and true professional and personal freedom. If you are serious about going independent, and want to reap the associated benefits, there are several key actions that you must take in order to separate yourself from the trap of the feast-or-famine model.

First, you must have the mindset of an entrepreneur and a creator. You are not in business to pick up scrap projects that land in your lap. You are in business to engage on projects where you can bring value and benefit to those you work with. You are in business to maximize your time and engage with as many people and companies as possible. You are in a position where your thought patterns and outlook on the world will have immediate and direct consequences on the health of your business. Shedding your thought patterns that you had during employment is the most important thing you can do to create a thriving independent practice.

Second, you must start a business, not simply become an independent contractor. Your business needs to be structured, insured, and invested in. It can be a business made up of one person, but it must be legitimate; you cannot operate in a successful model in a “doing business as” (DBA) or similar model. Without this basic structure, you will repel many professional organizations from doing business with you, and will not have the foundation necessary for true success.

Third, you must embrace the traditional forms of attaining client work, which include activities around selling, advertising, marketing, and networking. These are all loaded terms, and often stir deep anxieties in programmers. You must realize that there are ways to approach these activities in ways that match your personality and your talents. You do not have to put on the hat of a used car salesman or cold call companies in order to get business. Instead, you have to leverage what you already know and have access to in new ways in order to develop relationships and opportunities. Executing on these activities is necessary throughout your independent career.

Fourth, you have to rethink your approach to how you will engage on projects and how you will bill for your services. The simplistic hourly model, where you engage at $100 per hour, will restrict your ability to grow your revenue and engage with clients. The hourly model is of questionable ethical value (especially for highly skilled developers) and in most cases is detrimental to your success. Implementing a flexible fee model that will allow companies to engage with you without hesitation is not only possible, it is critical to your prosperity. Your ability to separate yourself from old ways of thinking around engagement strategies will determine your ability to succeed as an independent businessperson.

About Mark Beckner

Mark Beckner is a technical consultant specializing in business strategy and enterprise application integration. In addition to running his own firm, Inotek Consulting Group, he advises developers on how to launch their own independent practices.