Steve Hoefer is an inventor, writer, and design engineer. For nearly twenty years he’s worked as a freelance problem solver, doing 3D animation and visualization, designing video games, and prototyping new products. His inventions – which include a secret knock detecting door lock and a force-feedback distance-sensing glove – have been featured internationally on TV and in technology and design magazines.
More recently he’s been active in the burgeoning Maker Movement, writing for Make magazine, running workshops at various Hacker/Makerspaces, and regularly sharing how-tos on his blog.
When did you start working for yourself?
My senior year of high school I really wanted to be a fiction writer. I started sending out sending out manuscripts and did have some encouraging success, including a radioplay. It quickly became clear that even a very successful fiction writer has trouble paying the bills. Fortunately I also had a passion for technology and even though I would still try to sell fiction from time to time, my programming and design skills were much more in demand.
Somewhat ironically, 20 years later I’m now getting paid more than ever to write, non-fiction this time, so you never know what skills will be useful.
What did you do for work when you were an employee?
At the beginning of 1996 a friend called from San Francisco. He’d moved there about 6-months earlier and was building some of the first corporate web sites. He convinced me to move out there and give it a shot. At the time there were no courses in web design, but at the same time it wasn’t a terribly deep subject, so I spent my spare time learning the basics of web programming, Photoshop, and design. I threw together a portfolio of web sites for fictional products and companies, and before long got a job offer from a tiny start-up with big dreams. As one of only four employees I was the senior programmer, junior designer, secretary, janitor, security, etc, etc. The company folded within a year, and that was my first and last professional job.
Why did you stop working for other people?
I don’t think I ever wanted to work for others. I was raised on a family farm, which is a pretty high-stakes small business. There is huge capital investment and even everything goes well you only get paid once or twice a year. You can’t control the weather, but you’re responsible for everything else. When things needed to be done you did them. If you didn’t know how, you figured it out. That’s the kind of environment that formed my idea of what “work” was: Lots of effort paired with lots of personal responsibility.
When I got into the professional world I found there was a lot of labor but it wasn’t correlated with responsibility or reward, at least not for a college drop-out who was working in the exciting new field of the World Wide Web. Despite being one of 4 employees at the company I had no say in how it was run. Taking the initiative was discouraged and while blame was readily passed down to me, credit rarely was. When I worked as a freelancer, most of these things disappeared. My opinions were immediately much more valuable. If I did more work I got more pay. When I did good work I got the credit, and I was rarely blamed for things that weren’t my fault. If a client was deeply unpleasant to work with, I had the option of getting rid of them.
And I like to sleep in. That’s not a joke, it’s a pretty significant motivator. If I don’t sleep well my work and social life suffers. Arranging my life so I don’t have to wake up with an alarm more than a few times a year has made a huge improvement in my quality of life. If I get less than a solid 8 hours sleep it’s because I’m so excited about something that I can’t sleep.
What does your company do?
It’s a pretty diverse stew at the moment. Right now I do device design, hardware prototyping, software design. I also produce how-to articles and videos for various people.
A growing focus is moving from DBA to a full-fledged company that will directly produce and sell some of my inventions and creative projects. I hope to launch sometime in 2013.
Secret Knock Gumball Machine featured in Make magazine
Project: Haptic Glove
How much money did you have saved up before you went on your own?
Steve: The company I was working for essentially closed, leaving me without a job. The owner of the company held on to one paying client, so I was brought back as a freelancer (at a much higher rate) to take care of them. And I had seen the writing on the wall much earlier and had been soliciting freelance work before then. At that time web design companies were pretty dynamic, lots of people moving between jobs. Knowing several people at a few companies turned into knowing people at lots of different companies, which fed me a lot of work for a number of years. Even now, 16 years later, I can trace the lineage of a few clients back to people I met at that time.
Do you make more or less money than when you were an employee? And…do you care either way?
It depends. When things are good I live pretty well. A good, long-term project let me live, for the most part in Tokyo and Taipei for a couple of years. When things are not as good, it’s amazing how little you can live on. If I’m doing work that I’m excited about then I care less about the money.
In my experience, if you’re getting paid what you’re worth as a freelancer and you have steady work, you get paid much more than a comparable salaried employee, even accounting for the extra taxes and expenses.
When you stopped working for other people describe how you felt.
Although I didn’t work for others very long, it was still a huge relief. The company I was working for was a stress nightmare full of blame and desperation as it slid to insolvency.
It’s hard to compare that office experience to the first morning that I could sleep as long as I wanted then commute a few steps from my bed to my computer.
That’s not to say there aren’t scary times. There are certainly the “Oh shit, I’ll never work again!” thoughts. There are brief moments where I wish for the stability of a reliable paycheck and having someone else make the decisions for a change. But I look at what I’d have to give up for that to happen and the feelings fade pretty quickly.
Do you love what you do or do you just love working for yourself?
Both. Since I sent those first manuscripts out when I was 16, my freelance career has evolved to chase the things I love doing and the people I love working with. Not all my work is naturally inspiring, but taking pride in a craft and doing a good job for an appreciative client is a satisfying reward.
Do you consider yourself financially stable or not?
Not right now, but it comes and goes. My income can be incredibly variable. A month can bring in 5-figures of income or none at all.
Good clients can make all the difference, and retainer agreements are well worth seeking out. For a few years I had a regular client who couldn’t afford to pay more but wanted to do what she could to keep me happy. She ended up essentially putting me on payroll, which meant both a stable paycheck and taking care of a large part of my taxes. I was happy to exchange that for a small cut in pay.
Do you have health insurance and if so, who pays for it?
I have high deductible but comprehensive coverage that I pay out of my own pocket. It’s essentially emergency coverage and costs $110 a month. I have a savings account that I use for regular doctor and dental, though the amount in it fluctuates, usually less than it should be.
Years ago I was without insurance and had to have a kidney stone removed. All told it cost around $20K, and that’s just for diagnosis and an out-patient procedure. Even though I was making good money at the time it was still a real burden. I’m a healthy guy, but having some kind of safety net, even a high-deductible plan, is important. Through no fault of your own one accident can pretty much destroy you financially regardless of how much money you’re making.
How do you look for new business? If you are lucky enough to subsist on word of mouth, please give some advice to those who have not yet reached that!
I don’t actively look for work from new clients much at the moment. It’s good to occasionally ping existing clients to keep on their radar. Don’t just hit them up for work, try to personalize it as much as possible. Swing by their office in person if it’s reasonable. People rarely complain if you bring food or drink for the office. If I have to do it electronically I try to make it interesting, an invitation to an industry event, a notice of some research that’s in their line of work, etc. And make sure they know it’s coming to them personally, not a mailing list.
Don’t be afraid to share and talk about your work. I share the best of my independent projects on my blog. It’s not only a constantly updated portfolio but shows people how you communicate and what your strengths are.
Having a circle of references and regular clients is the sweet-spot for a freelancer. But you don’t get there easily or overnight. Having a good reputation is the most important thing for a freelancer. That means you meet your deadlines and are pleasant to work with. Those two simple things can often up for a lack of talent, and people will be happy to refer you to others. You don’t need to have the best technical skills in your field but you need to be reliable. Apply the Scotty Principle heavily with clients. (Under promise, Over deliver) Don’t be afraid to take blame.
Most everyone hates networking but go out and find your boundaries and the things you’re more comfortable doing. Forcing yourself to do the kinds of networking you hate is usually a waste of time. Find out how your industry networks because different industries network differently. For me Twitter, Google Plus, and Maker Faires have been the best ways to connect with people (I think that’s now we first met, Sophi!). Get to know as many people as possible at your client companies, at all levels. Most businesses look for internal recommendations before they submit jobs externally, so even the guy who answers the phone can get you work. And when people change jobs they’ll often bring your reference with them to the new company.
Don’t be afraid to cold-call (or email) that dream company you’d like to work for. Realistically you won’t get many hits, but sometimes your stars will align and you’ll be the right person at the right place.
Do you get emotional support for what you’re doing, or are people dismissive, asking when you’ll get a “real job”?
Fortunately, after so many years, people have generally stopped asking when I’m going to get a “real” job. One comment I still have a hard time dealing with is along the lines of “You’re so lucky!” It really sets my teeth on edge, as if I didn’t get here through hard work and conscious decisions.
Do people around you tell you that they wish they could do it too?
The other comment I still have trouble with is “I wish I could do that.” I’ve decided that’s because often it comes from a place of jealousy, not honest ambition. I reply “You can do it! It does take courage and work, but if you want it, you can have it. Let me help you!”. The response to that is often a long list of excuses, most of which are merely that – excuses. Of course sometimes the interest is genuine, as is my offer of help, so I try not to be jaded about it, but it takes some effort to separate the two.
It’s incredibly valuable to have someone to talk to who understands what it’s like working for yourself. Fortunately I have a good friend who started out on his own about the same time as I did. Talking with someone who understands what your life is like and who you can confide in and celebrate with is a life saver. Especially on a Tuesday afternoon when everyone else is at work. It can be difficult to hang out with the 9 to 5 crowd because the stuff they talk about about (office politics, etc) rarely resonates with someone who works for themselves.
Are you happy in your work life or do you wish you could change things?
Even on the worst day I’m happier than I would be if I was working at a salaried, 9 to 5 job.