[Warning: This is a rather personal and pretty self-indulgent post I’m afraid; check back another day for pearls of digital wisdom]

I blame Paul Graham. A few years ago, his essays started a lingering train of thought that I didn’t necessarily need a job, I needed an income. Just over a year ago, I put that theory to the test. So what has an unusual year in an unusual kind of business taught me?

I have to say, it’s been a blast. Seeing Press Officers and investigative journalists alike think anew about Twitter in training courses. Stress-testing a blue chip’s customer service team on Twitter, so they’re better prepared if the worst should happen. Watching the flourishing Involve bloggers with a new lease of life. Giving University Alliance the freedom to tell stories. Creating new platforms for my old BIS colleagues to DIY their websites. Helping the FCO engage online about human rights, and enabling LGID to draft the technical standards for local authority transparency data in the open. Watching as DH rethink their digital publishing with a humble WordPress theme. Sparking curiousity about sparklines and data visualisation amongst social researchers. Helping the NAO understand who its online audiences are, and how to serve them better. Being present at the birth of a new movement of community organisers. Helping a passing Twitter conversation become a magical new blog. And perhaps most of all, bringing together hundreds of smart, committed webbies at UKGovcamp, MailCamp and Meet The Communities, and watching the conversations that flowed from the events we’ve been able to support through MoreOpen.

I’ve enjoyed

…the dangerous business of mixing life and work, friends and clients, for-fun and for-money. I’ve tried not to exploit friendships too much, or take liberties.

I commute much less, and see my toddler much more. He comes and batters on my door — DA-DDY LUNCH IS REA-DY!!! — and I get to hear about his morning. I do errands in ‘work’ time. And if I’m crunching some WordPress, I can crunch ’til 2am if I need to. There are cons, but a lot of pros.

I like the flexibility, and even the uncertainty, of not knowing what I’ll be doing in 3 months’ time, or who with, or in which sector. All my career, I’ve enjoyed the thrill of seeking new business. It’s really enlightening to work with organisations from all three sectors in parallel. And there’s nothing like the sense of craftsman-like satisfaction of delivering something digital yourself, whether it’s a website, a training course, or a strategy report (even if it doesn’t feel like that at 2am).

I’ve learned…

Faith is rewarded: I invested more time than I’d admit setting up Meet the Communities, which led to some paid-for training as well as some great connections; a breakfast seminar on social media led to an exciting partnership with a crisis communications agency and the kind of stuff I’ve never worked on before.

When I left government, I was vague about the future. I might get a job, or build an agency, or something in between. That fog never really cleared. Now, I’m more relaxed about accepting that I do lots of different things and that business can be a individual lifestyle, for now, not necessarily something modelled on The Apprentice or likely to feature in TechCrunch. I came within a sleepless night of selling Helpful Technology to another entrepreneur I like and respect, but woke up unable to justify the idea.  It’s interesting to read Mary and Paul‘s stories of building Learning Pool, but I’m comfortable now that that’s not the right kind of business for my stage in life: I want to be told lunch is REA-DY. I’m thinking about how to run a business sustainably and usefully, without being a social enterprise, and trying to define what that would mean in practice (and suggestions gratefully received).

But I kick myself that I’ve so often fallen into the freelancers’ trap of thinking a full pipeline of work is good, when in fact, it’s not. Being super-busy isn’t great, for your clients or those around you. To those who have had to be be patient at times: thank you.

So what’s next?

The same kind of things, I hope, in a better balance. Having thought (listening to Paul Graham and 37Signals) I should develop products, I’m learning that my market is better served by platforms: things that accelerate delivery and keep costs down, not finished products I sell by the thousand. So I want to invest more time making things like Read+Comment, Social Simulator, Digital Dashboard and my visitor survey tools really effective for their niches.

I’ve worked with some phenomenal people this year as associates, from Tiffany St James to Simon Booth-Lucking, Dave & Catherine Briggs to Harry Metcalfe and Douglas Lang (who’s helped me learn to love the command line). I want to keep building those kinds of partnerships.

Like everyone, I want to plan better. I’ve had some admin jobs on the to-do list for nearly a year. I definitely need to be more realistic, and hopefully consequently, more punctual.

I owe a lot to former colleagues and brave clients who helped me get started despite the deep freeze of last summer: Ross Ferguson, Nick Halliday, Mark O’Neill, Ingrid Koehler, Dave Briggs, Jenny Poole and Neil Williams in particular.

Maybe the key lesson from Year 1 is to relax a bit. Times are tough in the public sector, and I have huge sympathy for the horrors that friends and colleagues have and continue to face day in, day out – though there are some really promising signs. But whatever happens, the economy needs intelligent, cost-effective digital tools and thinking like never before.

I’m conscious that all this can come across as smug, especially to people in tough spots who have helped me get started this year – I really don’t want to give that impression, and I hugely value their help and my own dumb luck. There have been some tough moments, and I suspect I don’t earn what I used to. But even without building a commercial empire, I’m enjoying this new life. And lunch.

Photo credit: Neil Williams

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Steph, what a fabulous annual report. A refreshing change from most of the ones I’ve read/written in that old public-sector life! I’ve enjoyed your blog (especially the advent-calendar) and love your approach to doing business. Good luck for year two – here’s hoping it’s as successful as year one!

Good for you, Steph. You made a good choice and it’s great to hear that it is working out for you! I definitely think you are right to be confident that there will be a strong ongoing need for your talents 🙂

Great to read that you have enjoyed your first year in business. I always find stories like this inspiring.
It strikes me that your ‘niche’ is that you actually make things, as well as delivering strategy and thinking. One of my favourite reads is the E-myth Revisited, which likens all businesses to a bakery: you need to bake bread, sell it and manage the store. Three distinct roles. Sounds like you are doing all three right now, so I guess the next big step will be if/when you choose to divide up the work with others.

You seem to have the ‘work a bit’ ‘live a bit’ mode down to a T albeit maybe with a bit more live a bit needed 😉

Congratulations on getting year 1 under your belt, I’m sure year 2 will be even more exciting.