Beyond Freelancing: The failure of not building

19 March 2009 | 36 Comments

Freelancing really is all the buzz right now. Right?

If you wander around the interwebs, you’ll find scores of freelance designers, developers and pool boys; with a 5-minute visit to a site such as e-lance giving you a better idea of which skills you can simply freelance. If you were to look for a reason for the popularity of freelancing, I’m sure that most people would agree on the following benefits of this practice: no more working 9 - 5 for the main (i.e. freedom) and you get complete control over every aspect of your “job”, including the full reward of your salary / profits.

Considering all of those benefits, who wouldn’t want to be a freelancer? (And no, I’m not allowing the unambitious, lazy types to reply by saying they’d much prefer to stick to the boredom and security of their low-paying, under-valued full-time employment gigs.)

If you have been following my journey from the early days, you’d know that my roots too are freelance, but that I have gone on to evolve my freelance business into Radiiate and also co-founded a startup in the past year. Many of you would thus argue that I’m still allowed to call myself a rockstar, but that the freelance tag is not one that I can hang around my neck anymore.

But I promise I’m a freelancer…

Freelancing is a set of principles, ideas & choices that any individual can take in terms of how they want to apply their skills-set (i.e. work) and how that fits into their overall lifestyle. At the core of “freelancing” (for me), there’s a need for freedom and control over one’s own life; and in that regard my life & business views haven’t changed. I’m still working for myself, I’ve got full control over what I do everyday, I influence what I earn on a monthly basis and I get to take holidays whenever.

So the only thing that has supposedly changed, is the fact that I now have a team which back me up. The same readers that would say I’m not a freelancer, would also call my team members “employees”, as I’m responsible for their monthly salaries, right? For me however, we get too stuck in having to label everyone around us as an employee, freelancer, entrepreneur etc. with generic and stereotypical definitions.

For the purpose of this post (which has taken on a dual nature btw, since I only intended to write the next part when I first had the idea), let’s assume that I’m a freelancer with a team and with a brand name (which is not my own).

How (traditional) freelancing fails…

I’d now like to proceed and poke holes in your traditional and average theory with regards to what freelancing is.

Since we’re all online around here, I’ll use the example of a freelancer designer to relay my thoughts. So take your average freelance designer and have a look at what he / she is doing on average every day. Designing, right? Consider that only a handful of people can retire at the age of 55 / 60 / 65, it’s fair to assume that, that designer needs to design until the day they can retire (if they have saved accordingly when they were younger). That seems pretty standard across most jobs; whether it’s by being employed or freelancing. I would however ask the following question with regards what happens at that point in a freelancer’s life:

Up until that point, the freelancer had been building his / her own reputation (maybe even some kind of branding linked directly to their name) and that’s why they were successful. But what happens to that reputation / mini-brand when they retire?

I believe that at that point in time, the freelancer loses all of the value in building that reputation / brand, since it can’t continue its existence beyond the retirement of that individual. The reason for this is simply the dependency of that reputation on the individual and the value is only there, when that individual can extract that business value from it.

That then means that whilst that freelancer was applying their skills during their career, they were “earning” money on two fronts: income (cold-hard cash) from their activities and value (in terms of potential) from building their reputation. Consider that the reputation value is lost at retirement, it means that, that potential earnings / value is never realized and translated into a boost to the bank account.

And the end-result of that is that the freelancer was just working for a monthly salary just like all of their employed friends. Sure - the salary was “commission-based”, but you can get that by being a waiter at the local corner-shop. If we then agree on this, then I’m sure you’ll see that a big part of the attraction of freelancing is lost and that you still have all the “cons” that come with the decision to quit a secure, full-time gig.

Freelancing Evolved

This post wouldn’t be a proper post, if I didn’t try persuade you to subscribe to some of my supposed rockstar wisdom… :) So here’s my take on how a freelancing career should be approached. (I can obviously only talk from my own experiences in implementing this in my own life.)

In essence, I have created two businesses which can live on way beyond my own retirement (in theory obviously), as neither business is dependent on me being involved on a day-to-day basis. Both Radiiate & WooThemes can live on, because for both businesses there’s a brand name which is separated from my name and both have teams of people that can do the work when I’m gone. In both of these businesses, I still stick to the heart of what a freelancer is and I’m not a different now to the one I was before I had a business.

This means that the day I retire, I can still extract profit from these two businesses (as I’d be a shareholder) and if either were to be sold (something a freelancer can’t do), I’d pocket handsomely. A nice benefit to have, right? But at what cost?

Sure thing: I’m contradicting part of the traditional freelancer’s code by taking on overheads (in terms of the office and my team), but to an extent this responsibility actually provides much more freedom than I would’ve had as an individual freelancer. My future is also much more secure because of it and I actually get the opportunity to build something with a lasting effect (only celebrities’ reputations end up living on - in halls of fames - after their death).

Considering that both the decision of being employed or freelancing has its own set of pros & cons, both my proposal and the traditional concept of freelancing has as well. So we’d most probably have to agree that you’re going to follow the approach that best suits your personality and preference.

For me however, I just can’t live with the idea of not building something that can live on without me. The idea of doing that is just so contradicting to the reasons of me being a freelancer / entrepreneur. Plus, I’m definitely not in the game of not maximizing potential value, as that is just plainly put: wasteful and dumb!

Tagged in , , ,

36 Responses to “Beyond Freelancing: The failure of not building”

  1. JohnONolan says:

    Awsome post as usual Adii, but this one was particularly in depth. You make some really excellent thought-provoking points. To me I think the word “freelancer” = “self employed”. I work for myself, I’m a freelancer - but that doesn’t mean I’m going to be a one-man-band forever.

    Out of interest - how many “startups” were you involved with which failed, prior to striking gold with WooThemes?
    (”failed” being a relative term, I just mean not-as-successful-as-you’d-hoped-for)

    • Adii Rockstar says:

      4 different businesses, even though they were at a much smaller scale to anything I’ve done online. But all of them either failed or ran dead.

  2. Jo Duxbury says:

    Great post Adii :-) I do think though that there is a clear distinction between a freelancer and an entrepreneur - and you’re firmly in the latter category!

    I know many freelancers who are happy to keep things small, bill 50 hours a week and not expand (maybe their rates increase as they gain more expertise). This is fine - but then there are some freelancers for whom that is not enough.

    They want to build something, leave a legacy, grow into a business - and, importantly for some, create an enterprise that will continue without them. I don’t mean just when they die, but something that will continue to generate income for them when they go on holiday (something not many freelancers can afford!), take maternity leave, fall ill, or simply take a break.

    My opinion is that it takes a certain personality to take the latter route… you need to be much more willing to take risks and keen to transition from being a designer / writer / developer to a business owner. It also becomes a matter of working ‘on’ the business, not ‘in’ it - and many freelance creatives take great pleasure from doing the actual *work* and would be bored stiff if all they did was strategy and management.

    I guess it’s a matter of ‘each to their own’ - but I do agree that as the freelance market becomes increasingly competitive, that it’s more and more important to stand out from the crowd, and adding value by ‘building something’ is a great way to do it.

    • Adii Rockstar says:

      Well said Jo!

      I agree with your definition on a freelancer vs an entrepreneur, but I do also think that the entrepreneur-route is just a freelancer enhanced from the traditionally / currently widely accepted definition. Both set out to obtain the exact same thing, but building something tangible just seems more intelligent!?

      • Jo Duxbury says:

        I think what can often happen is that a freelancer starts seeing potential. They realise that there is a whole world out there and that they CAN achieve amazing things. The entrepreneurial bug bites and before they know it, they’ve created a monster! (Not that Radiiate is monster-like in any way… ;-) )

  3. idale says:

    I understand a freelancer to be someone who works for different companies at the same time as apposed to someone who works for a single company… Independent or uncommitted.

    Taking on overheads has nothing to do with being a freelancer in my mind. Anyone can “Freelance” and still delegate the work out to others, acting as a middle man.

    At the end of the day is it really a big fuss how one categorises themselves? Earning a living, no matter how it’s done, should always be applauded (unless you’re a crim’nal).

    For me, I don’t see why you can’t live both lives and extract the value, benefits and essence that suite you, creating a new self-defined role in the grey area..?

    • Adii Rockstar says:

      Well, if everyone at a clear choice, I’d suspect that most people would want to be their own boss (not that everyone *can* do that).

      For me, I’m at that stage, where I’m ambitious as hell, but I want freedom to truly revolutionize my personal life. So as @Jo mentioned above - I need to earn money whilst actually not billing hours to achieve my “lifestyle” goals.

      And I definitely agree with you on not categorizing everyone and filing them away into boxes. Personally though, I just do not see any attraction in being employed and working for someone else… But if I ever needed to go into employment again, I’d be very picky about the culture and environment in which I do work, as most corporate companies completely fail in this regard.

  4. Justin says:

    This is something im also trying do. Do some freelancing and set up a sideline business. I am a developer/stuff currently working for a salary with two year plan to quit my job and do focus on my business. The thing is, all successful freelancers, like you, make it seem so easy and simple. Just quit your job and do it. one seldomly hear about sruggling freelancers, not being able to save for retirement, or not coming by in a month.

    So yeah, i guess what i am trying to say here is: Yeah be a freelancer and build a company, with products they sell, like woothemes, with it as well. So eventualy you can retire and still get an income. To get to that point however, thats the real journey.

    • Adii Rockstar says:

      Fair point. Definitely not everyone that pursues their own business / freelance career ends up being successful and unfortunately only the success stories are published.

      On another note… I got lucky with WooThemes, in terms of our income being of a passive nature. But that’s not the only “business” you can build… Radiiate - for example - is just an extention of my freelance design / development work, but by just creating a brand around it, I have something tangible which lives one past my involvement.

  5. Pam Sykes says:

    Interesting post, Adii, but I don’t entirely agree with you that not building a business = failure. Success is always relative to objectives: in your case it’s important to you to extract financial value and build a legacy, and you are following the right strategy to achieve that goal (although I’d be VERY surprised if you don’t build a few other things in addition to Woothemes and Radiiate along the way before you retire).

    Other people may not have the same objectives. And their ideas about value may differ as well. If the extraction of financial value is not my primary driver, and/or I intend to sustain myself in other ways, your objections fall away.

    Also, I don’t think of “retirement” as a single moment when I suddenly stop working. Just as we can now all take advantage of great flexibility in our choices of employment/partial employment/entrepreneursip/freelancing, I suspect there’ll be similar fluidity around the concept of retirement in future. Already many of the retired people I know do high-value consulting gigs when they feel like it, or try out second careers or start making money out of their hobbies, etc.

    To clear up the terminology problem, I would suggest defining “freelancer” as “a person who works solo for multiple clients” and “entrepreneur” as “a person who builds a business with value apart from that embodied in the entrepreneur”. The attitude is irrelevant.

  6. Adii Rockstar says:

    Interesting post, Adii, but I don’t entirely agree with you that not building a business = failure.

    It’s not only about not building a business, but *not* realizing value is what this post is about.

    And I’m definitely not money-orientated at all. I believe that all of the decisions I’ve made during the last 3 / 4 months have been made to allow me to achieve personal objectives (which aren’t related to the cash in my bank account). I also wouldn’t agree that these decisions are not about money, because ultimately you can’t achieve “freedom” without being financially well-looked after.

  7. You lost me at:

    (And no, I’m not allowing the unambitious, lazy types to reply by saying they’d much prefer to stick to the boredom and security of their low-paying, under-valued full-time employment gigs.)

    Frankly, I am happy if you do not believe this is for you, but that doesn’t give you any right to judge me or my choices and undermine them.

    • Adii Rockstar says:

      I’m sorry if I have offended you. But seriously… How did I judge you or undermine your choices?

      All I was saying with that paragraph, was that unfortunately our societies are full of people who have a sense of entitlement and who will never go the extra mile to achieve something in life. I wasn’t knocking people in full-time employment either, even though I do believe that too many employed people allow their employers to rule the roost and abuse them in terms of being overly controlling and not paying *fair* salaries.

      • But that’s not what you said. You said you weren’t going to allow “unambitious, lazy types to reply”. Those types being those that choose full-time gigs.

        So following your statement, because I am one of those types that means I am unambitious, lazy, etc. That in my opinion would be a judgment on my choices and myself. But in my current position and company, I don’t feel any of the things you describe. But you are throwing around an assumption while sitting atop a—I’m sure very lovely and tall—horse is what I find offense with.

        You have employees. Isn’t that kind of a burn on them?

        Anyway, I have been following your blog for a long time and am happy you have found some success, but it seems to me you are unnecessarily drawing a line in the sand.

      • Adii Rockstar says:

        Nope… “Those types” being the lazy, unambitious people that choose full-time employment. I’m not saying everyone in full-time employment are lazy or unambitious. Small difference in words, but big difference in meaning.

        So no - I still don’t think I judged you in any way (since I do not know you at all). And I also don’t think that this influences my relationship with my team in any way, as they know where comments like these come from.

        As mentioned in a previous comment, if I had to go back to being employed, I’d make my decision on the culture and environment of the company. I believe that between our business’ culture, office environment, management style and financial incentive, that my team have made a great choice in terms of where they apply their skills. So this is most definitely not knocking them, as I have the utmost respect for all of them and they will most definitely achieve a helluva lot during their careers!

  8. Luiz Lopes says:

    Great stuff Adii. This goes along with what I am working on accomplishing with my new business. I want to have the freedom to work on the things that I enjoy doing and have others work on the stuff that I don’t really want to do. Utilizing my time so that I can produce great work. I really liked your idea of Freelance Evolved.

  9. Jazzspin says:

    Well said… I am struggling with this issue right now, whether to brand my name or my business… I agree with your take.

  10. Prashant says:

    Makes perfect sense, 4warding this post to my friends….. better still, will revive those old online projects which were languishing online. Thank you.

  11. Jeff Mackey says:

    Agreed 100%.

    I consider myself a freelancer. And like many others I’m sure, I wear multiple hats: the designer, the developer, the tech support, the PM, and the sales guy.

    It gets tiring. Especially when you’re married, have a family, etc.

    What’s so wrong with trying your best to morph it somehow into a business. One that you have 2 or 3 key individuals you trust/can partner with that allows you to conceivably walk away from your business for a month, and come back to find it running just as smooth as when you left it?

    If I left for a month right now, 3 active projects would be on hold, no invoicing would happen, some clients would be pissed that I wasn’t returning calls, etc.

    • Adii Rockstar says:

      Exactly… Even though freelancers “shouldn’t” have employees, I have two amazing designers / developers in FRESH01 and Foxinni who are able to back me up. Then, I also have two wonderful business partners in Magnus & Mark on WooThemes, whom without all our success would not be possible.

      And then in the past week, I might’ve made one of my best decisions ever in getting a PA - Dominique - to help me with the admin side of my business (she’s been an absolute blessing thus far).

      So between these 5 people, I have a dynamic and small team of dedicated individuals who not only match my work ethic and passion for what we do, but also my desire to establish a balance in one’s personal & business life.

  12. Noobpreneur says:


    I’m agreeing with everything you wrote - starting a biz is a MUST if you don’t want your freelancing career ended in vain.

    I agree that freelancers that don’t start a business will eventually end up just like their employees counterpart - If you didn’t work (sick, on holiday, etc..) you didn’t make any - that’s a major problem.

    Turning your freelancing expertise into a successful business is one, major, milestone in your life that could change your life dramatically.

    You right about money comments - my take on money: money can’t buy everything, but (almost) everything needs money. That’s life, and that’s the way it is (even bootstrappers still need money!)


    • Adii Rockstar says:

      I think that freelancers who sell their time are even more in danger of this, because as you rightly mention: when those freelancers go on holiday or get sick, then they simply can’t bill clients. At least I have a product and a team to back me up in this regard, which is a definite benefit that I suggest every freelancer should explore.

  13. Sulcalibur says:

    This is a superb post. I actually agree with everything you have said. I idea is to work as a freelancer to do thing how YOU want to do them. If you OWN the company, then that isn’t an issue and it give security for the future. Something for the family and the kids to benefit from. Also you say about retiring ok, but on a serious note, no one know when they will die. I have a wife and four children. Getting to the level you are at and more would make me a happy man and a much calmer one too.

    • Adii Rockstar says:

      I wouldn’t say that I’m at any kind of “level” yet… :) I’m lucky in that I do not have kids yet (I hope to have some little rockstars running around in the near future though) and my fiancee has a very good job (even though she works for a non-profit organization and a “charitable salary”) as well.

      But I hear what you’re saying and that’s exactly why I made the move (to working for myself) at the young age of 23: it allowed me to take the risk when the consequences of potential failure was very low indeed. I think when you’re older and have people depending on you, it makes taking risks so much harder!

  14. Kumail.H.T says:

    I cant agree with you enough, This the exact issue I had faced when starting out, freelancing can limit your freedom when you start to think about growing into a large business.

    There is a workaround, if you start out by branding your self as a business and outsource some of the extra work, you can simply expand from a small business to a larger one without loosing your brand.

  15. Iaan says:

    Great post!
    Working hard to build our business to be able to run without me. The value in the business I think goes beyond just the brand though. The value of the business should lie in the way the business does business.

    So I see my role as entrepreneur/evolved freelancer to set-up our company in such a way that the business will have value because of the way it works internally and externally. This allows me to replace myself as I am not the only value contributing factor behind the brand, but rather the business I built.

    This is the only way I see you can achieve the freedom I saught in deciding to do freelance work.

    Must read: E-myth Reveisited by Michael Gerber

  16. idale says:

    The Frevolution

  17. Nikole Gipps says:

    I think it depends on why you became a freelancer. I was never in it to have something that “survives my death” because I just wouldn’t ever assume a business built on the now of things is going to last another 40 years before it has to be disbanded and something else has to be created. I’m a web developer - what I do now will never be around in 10, 20, 30 years! I work for myself so I can put my family first … my daughter is 3 years old and my son is 5 months … and I can’t imagine a world in which I had to miss all the important milestones because I was at work. You talk about your freedom of holidays and such - I had the freedom to raise my children, to nurse them, to nurture them, to provide for them through my freelancing income, and to leave that as my legacy to survive my death.

    • Adii Rockstar says:

      Really well said! :)

      I truly believe that most people work too hard and make too many sacrifices when it comes to the people and things they love most in life. Good on you for getting your priorities straight without having to compromise on your career!


  1. Beyond Freelancing: The failure of not building:

  2. Beyond Freelancing: The failure of not building


  1. [...] Beyond Freelancing: The failure of not building | Adii Rockstar Great read to accept failure [...]

  2. [...] This post was inspired by Adii Rockstar, Beyond Freelancing: The failure of not building. [...]

Leave a Reply