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Rachel Andrew on the Business of Web Dev

It’s the People They Know

I was never supposed to be doing the job that I do. Via a series of fortunate events and chance encounters, I’ve built a career in an industry I that love and that still interests me today.

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When I was at school, the web didn’t exist. Like many web folk of my age I stumbled into my career of the past 19 years accidentally. I might never have discovered this career had a PC World salesperson not upsold me to a computer on interest-free credit. It was 1996, and my aim was to get a word processor so I could take in typing work while pregnant and taking care of my baby. The computer enabled me to earn money typing while it opened up for me this new world of the web. My journey from new computer owner to web developer is a story for another day, but that salesperson will never know what he started by making his targets that day!

It was by chance that I came to have access to the web at all, and I might have remained someone who liked to play around with computers, who built websites for fun, had it not been for people who asked me to build websites for them.

My first paid work as a web developer came via friends of friends who needed websites. I would talk about the things I had been teaching myself. I had my own site online and a couple of sites I had volunteered to build for charities I was involved with. One by one, little jobs arrived, always because someone had mentioned to a friend of mine that they needed a website. All the things I learned building those small sites—learning Perl to add functionality, learning Linux so I could install a web server locally—enabled me to find a full-time job, and then leave again to set up on my own.

My husband and business partner Drew McLellan has similar stories. The first website he was paid to create came about while volunteering at the local amateur dramatics society. He met someone who was setting up a new business and needed a website. He was someone who she trusted who built websites.

I asked some fellow freelancers if anyone else had these stories of chance, or of the unusual ways we find work or contacts who are instrumental in our business success. Andrew Areoff had already written up a tale that spanned over 40 years, documenting how a man from Rhodesia is connected to the success of his business and that of his best client. Harry Llewelyn of Neat in Somerset, UK, told me how he made a friend in the USA via posting photography on Flickr. While staying with this friend he was introduced to another friend—a web designer who ultimately outsourced front-end work to Harry, bringing enough regular work for him to make the leap into full-time self-employment.

Jonathan Rawlins of Pixel Pixel Ltd had a story of how a Christmas Eve flood at home resulted in a painter and decorator being in the house while he was working from home. They chatted and Jonathan explained what he did, and discussed setting up a simple site for the decorator’s business. The site for the decorating business never materialized, but the two stayed in touch. Around two years later the decorator got back in touch about an idea for a much larger project. Jonathan is now working on this project in stages—helping to grow the application as the business grows.

Another freelancer had a lovely story of how a project he was working on with a friend failed due to the friend having personal issues and needing to get his life back on track. Despite the failed project, he supported his friend, who then introduced him to another contact. That contact has become a great client, and also brought interesting new possibilities.

There are common themes in all of these stories of chance and opportunity. They show that it is always worth talking about what it is that you do, even if the person you are speaking with doesn’t look like an obvious fit as a client. You then need to be ready to follow up leads that come from an unusual source. Even more than that, opportunity often comes to those who are willing to give freely. That giving might be in terms of your skills as a designer or developer, but might be in doing something else entirely. It might even be in terms of being supportive of a business partner or client when things don’t work out.

One thing I know for sure is that the more generous I am with my time and my knowledge, the more good fortune seems to come my way. This isn’t due to any mysterious karma at play, but simply that people talk to one another. As one of my contributors to this piece wisely pointed out, “it’s not the people you know, it’s the people they know!”

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