Category Archives: Random Musings

Something Every Freelancer Needs to Learn (as Soon as Possible).

There’s a great scene in Netflix’s new “House of Cards” series that illustrates an important lesson for freelancers. Kevin Spacey’s character, a US congressman named Frank Underwood, is meeting with a Warren Buffet-like billionaire. Frank is asking this business tycoon for a large favor and, after a bit of back-and-forth, the billionaire insists that he be owed a favor in return. However, he is not willing to reveal the nature of this reciprocal favor, preferring that Frank simply remain indebted to him:

Frank: And what exactly would you want me to do?

Raymond: Well, that part I don’t know yet. We’ll have to wait and see how things play out.

Frank: I’ve already told you I will not do a blank check.

Raymond: I must say I’m surprised, Frank. You have a reputation for pragmatism.

Frank: And I also have avoided a reputation for indentured servitude.

Raymond: I never make an offer more than twice, Frank. Tell me now if I can count on your cooperation.

Frank: You’re not offering cooperation; you’re demanding tutelage. So let me make you a proposal: I am absolutely willing to work together as equals. I will take your opinions seriously, just as the President does, but I will not bind myself to them in advance. If that doesn’t interest you, fair enough. Good luck finding someone as pragmatic as me [to help you]. You can’t purchase loyalty, Raymond; not the sort I have in mind. If you want to earn my loyalty then you have to offer yours in return.

This is an interesting exchange. Despite how badly Frank wants this favor, from a very powerful man, he is unwilling to kowtow to him. He understands the importance of mutual respect and establishing a balance of power in a business relationship, even if that means risking the relationship itself.

I recall my days as a freelance developer and I see this axiom in action. I think back to how often I pulled all-nighters because the client screwed up or allowed myself to be intimidated when negotiating payment. I was miserable and resentful and yet still always broke. This wasn’t the freedom that I was expecting since I found myself working for multiple unreasonable people, rather than just one unreasonable boss.

I no longer even negotiate on our hourly or weekly rates and I don’t get squeamish asking about budget early in the conversation. I engage each client and prospective client from the perspective of a business-to-business relationship–I’m not their employee. I don’t really know how or why this changed. It could be because I finally settled into my position as a business owner with employees of my own that need to get a paycheck twice a month. Or it might be because I’ve just gotten older and I now have a family to support. But I really wish I had figured this out 10 years ago. I still deal with challenges every day, but disrespectful and deadbeat clients aren’t among them. I choose who I work with now; it feels good and actually allows me to do better work because I care about these people more.

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Matt “Kroc” Kroczaleski

Entrepreneurship and Pain Tolerance

A couple of years ago, as part of a health kick, I took up weight training. I quickly realized that this was something I had a genetic gift for doing well. As my desire to lift heavy things increased, it drove me to begin seriously training for competitive powerlifting. It felt more purposeful and interesting to work towards a goal, rather than simply “lifting weights.”

A few months into my training, I learned that one of the most respected powerlifters in the world, Matt Kroc, lived a short distance from me. In 2009 Kroc became the all-time world record holder in the 220lb class posting a 2551lb total via 1003lb squat, 738lb bench press and an 810lb deadlift. While inhumanly strong, he’s actually better known for being one of the most intense professional athletes on the planet, in any sport. He’s torn nearly every major muscle group in his body at least once (occasionally on video), invented the infamous “Kroc Row“, and beaten cancer while simultaneously training to beat the world record.

With a bit of Internet sleuthing, I tracked down his contact information and arranged a personal training session. Given his reputation, I showed up to the session completely unaware of what to expect–and I’ll admit, rather intimidated. But I discovered Kroc to be a very thoughtful and sincere person with a willingness to share an incredible amount insight into what it takes to be the best in the world at something.

At the top of the game, strength itself no longer becomes the deciding factor. Everyone on that platform has gotten strong through the same methods of years of consistent training and dedication. It’s also not about who wants it more; each person has the same reason for being there and is driven by the same dream. When that 1,000 pound bar is laid across their shoulders, it comes down to who can endure the most pain and still stand back up. And then doing it twice more again. It’s also about the pain it’s taken to get there: sticking to the proper diet, training through the inevitable injuries, and balancing the mundane demands of family life and career.

While I don’t have any illusions of becoming a top powerlifter, understanding this mindset has helped me as an entrepreneur. I can’t count the number of times I’ve wanted to give up. Some days, the allure of being able to leave “work at work’ tempts me to consider updating my resume, especially now that I have a young daughter waiting for me at home. But like lifting, I work through the pain because I know, somewhere, someone else is giving up. If I can survive today and wake up tomorrow just a little bit smarter, eventually I’ll find myself at the top of my game too.

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Use Asterisk to give your cell phone a break while travelling.

If you travel frequently, you’ll often find yourself in an airport, hotel, or eatery that offers wi-fi access. Combined a few other technologies, you’ll be able to use that wi-fi to make and receive phone calls using your company’s phone system rather than your cell. You’ll save cell minutes and your battery, plus have access to the power and flexibility of the company PBX. Here’s what you’ll need:

  1. Asterisk-based VoIP business phone system (PBX)
  2. softphone, such as CounterPath’s eyeBeam installed on your notebook.
  3. Bluetooth headset (the same type used with most cell phones)
  4. and optionally, VPN software, such as the open-source OpenVPN.

Asterisk

If you’re reading this post, you’re probably already familiar with Asterisk. But if not: Asterisk is an extremely popular, open source PBX application that runs atop of a Linux-based server. It can be configured to use your business’s existing phone lines and phone numbers, and replaces the phone system that is likely hanging on the wall in your telcom closet. RightBrain Networks is a Michigan-based an Asterisk integrator and can assist you any additional questions you have about about the system.

Softphone

The softphone is a computer application that simply mimics a physical office phone. CounterPath’s basic eyeBeam product is less than $34 per copy and is well worth the money. However, if you’d like to test this setup or would just like to save a few bucks, you can also use their free softphone, X-Lite. Once you’ve downloaded and installed the softphone, it will have to be configured to talk to your Asterisk server. You will need to know your SIP username and password, as well as the hostname of your Asterisk server. The person or organization that maintains your Asterisk server will be able to assist you with these steps.

Headset

In order to use your softphone, you’ll obviously need a microphone and speakers. You can use almost any type of mic that plugs into your computer. However, I’ve found that the most convenient choice is to use the Bluetooth headset that I’ve already purchased for use with my cell phone. This allows me to use the softphone exactly as I would my cell and doesn’t require that I be tethered to my computer. If your laptop didn’t come with an internal Bluetooth radio, you will need to purchase a USB Bluetooth dongle, such as IOGear’s GBU421 (under $20). Once your computer is configured to search for Bluetooth devices, associate the headset to the laptop and then check to ensure that it works with your softphone.

The VPN

The VPN portion of this solution is optional, but highly recommended. It will solve two problems: 1) There will be a firewall or similar gateway between the wifi connection you’re using and the Internet. Back at your office, your company likely has another firewall/gateway between Asterisk and the Internet. This double NAT configuration will cause issues between your softphone and Asterisk, with the most common problem being one-way audio. A VPN transparently zips through both firewalls, eliminating this NAT problem all together. 2) The packets of voice data transferred between your softphone and Asterisk (the RTP stream) are almost always unencrypted. Unfortunately, there are programs that can be found online that allow ill-intentioned people to snoop around and listen in on these unsecured conversations. However, everything piped through a VPN connection is automatically encrypted which greatly reduces the privacy concerns.

Enjoy!

In addition to saving cell minutes, I find that the most useful feature is that I’m able to make outgoing calls using the company’s CallerID information rather than my cell. It’s also nice to be able to easily transfer calls to between extensions or join conferences without having to dial in and enter a PIN. The one caveat though is that the connection quality is highly-dependent on how good the Internet connection is at the hotel/airport/restaurant. I would recommend that when you initially hook-up to a new wi-fi network that you place a couple of test calls to coworkers before taking calls from customers/vendors.

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