Going Nowhere, Fast

Sure, the tagline is a paradox. But it describes my life as a telecommuter/entrepreneur. I’ve been working from home for a long time, 40 miles from the nearest traffic light. Deep in the Montana mountains since November, 1998.

Here’s some of what I’ve discovered about telecommuting, making a living over the wire, and building a business around standing one’s ground.

Working from home is both challenge and blessing. Isolation, even if you live in a city, can be a factor, especially if you really like being around other people who are also working. Isolation can also be a benefit if you like solitude.

The discipline of working alone involves constant learning to produce results, demanding patience and mental focus over long periods of time. And it should go without saying you need to be proficient with everything tech or you’re toast. If this sounds like you, read on!

It also helps to be self-employed or have a very trusting employer. You’ll have to work extra hard to close the face time gap between yourself and your clients. Well, there is no gap actually, but until you’ve lived and breathed all things Internet for long enough to know how to address the burning question in your boss or client’s mind: “I wonder what he’s doing?” there sure is.

Since 1996 I’ve worked for a major Salt Lake writing agency, two major software companies, and provided contract services for dozens of small businesses and individuals. In 2008 I formed Bioroot Energy, which changed my career from “IT geek” to “biofuel boy.”

Mostly, I’ve helped other people solve problems or leverage opportunities, and it’s served me well over the years.

So what have I learned about making a living “delivering” via the Internet?

I learned that producing results for clients is the best advertising.
I learned that any computer-related process is only as long as I make it.
I learned to take time for myself, drink enough water and get enough exercise.
I learned how to multitask and read documentation.
I learned to live with the massively irritating quirks of a satellite internet connection.
I learned to do what lots of people can’t or don’t want to know how to do.
I learned how to focus on unique business and technology problems and their resolutions.
I learned not to depend too heavily on anyone for anything electronic, including clients (bless their overworked souls), my friends, or even members of my own family.
I learned that web sites (like dogs, guns and cars) are only as good as the people who own or control them.
I learned that I am prone to under-billing my clients and not charging for each and every hour I spend on their projects.
I learned the value of command line facility in a visual development environment.
I learned that hackers are teaching me how to be a smarter developer.
I learned how to teach someone else what I know without making them feel stupid.
I learned how to learn whatever is needed quickly.
If a potential client can barely send a lucid email, I’ve learned not to expect much from the relationship. That is unless the person is receptive to learning new skills and willing to pay the freight.
I’ve learned to watch for scope creep from clients who aren’t paying for the extra services.

Downsides of Telecommuting

Many people managers are uncomfortable with managing remote workers, mainly because they aren’t using the tools of the telecommuter trade, in my experience. VNC, VPN, IM, VOIP, Apache, MySQL/PHP, and let’s not forget localhost. Garden variety tech.

After two multi-year engagements as a remote worker with Novell and Portlock from 1998 – 2005 as both a contractor and an employee, I’ve seen that many people in corporate offices staring into computers don’t really understand the Internet beyond doing their jobs, and some email and shopping.

Managers, like most people in corporations, are more practiced at face time than having employees work from home and learning how to measure their performance and stay in touch with them electronically. Managers know how to look good in meetings. I’ve learned how to look good online, anytime, anywhere. In other words, managers need to learn how to manage remote workers, because the telecommuter often sets the pace of technology adoption.

It was a rewarding, illuminating experience for me to work from home as an employee for both companies. It’s been even more interesting since. Since then I’ve focused on serving small business clients and individuals. And my telecommuter journey keeps evolving as I take on new projects, and create other income streams in an ongoing effort to face today’s economic headwinds.

It might not be the best time to think about working from home. You might be unemployed. Or about to be. Or it might just be the best move you’ll ever make, depending on your situation. If your company has a work-from-home policy and doing your job keeps you in front of a computer all day, it’s still worth looking into.

One other benefit of being a telecommuter? At least you can grow a garden and spend quality time with your family, and your dog.

To be continued…

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