Going Commando: Top 10 Things You'll Need to Make it as a Web Worker

33 Comments

It doesn’t matter what industry you’re in, or what your title is. Stepping out of the cubicle and kicking off the uncomfortable work shoes for good requires more than self discipline to work solo. The nomadic or home-based office is not for everyone. Successful web workers have a treasure chest of tech and non-tech tips & tools that make our lives a little easier.

If you’re already a web worker, or it’s your New Year’s resolution to become one in 2007, don’t leave stay home without…

Computer. Get the most you can afford. This isn’t the place to cut corners. Your computer is your lifeline and your living. Pick something that won’t be outdated before you get it out of the box. You’ll want to get out of the house from time to time, so don’t tie yourself solely to a desktop computer if you can avoid it. Make sure you have a lightweight notebook with decent battery life. You can always dock up to a larger display when you’re home. Read tech magazines and websites for recommendations. Get the extended warranty. Preferrably one that will cover you in case of accidental damage, if possible.

Internet Access. Don’t even think about dial-up. The web worker needs high speed. Cable or DSL will do, but bonus points if you live in an area with access to Verizon FIOS (fiber optic network). It’s still rolling out, but early reports are excellent, with upload speeds not matched by the more widely available broadband. You might also consider your mobile provider’s cellular high speed services with a network card for your laptop, if it’s available to you.

Phone line. You’ll want to hear the sound of your clients’ and colleagues’ voice from time to time, and they’ll want to hear you. If you can, dedicate a separate phone number to business in your home. If your high speed access is strong and reliable, consider ditching POTS (plain old telephone service) in favor of a VOIP offering like Skype or Vonage. Many web workers use their cell phones as their business lines and rarely pick up a phone that plugs into a wall.

Professional support. There are implications to working on your own, and you’ll need to consult with professionals to make sure all your bases are covered. Work with an accountant to make sure you are setting yourself up correctly for when tax time comes. Do you know all the expenses you are entitled to write-off? Talk with your insurance broker. What happens if you are having a business meeting in your dining room and a client slips on your stairs? Will your home insurance cover the claim? Maybe not if you don’t have the right policy that allows you to conduct business from home. When in doubt, take all your meetings at the local Starbucks. Talk to a lawyer about your options and whether you should start a LLC if you haven’t already done so. It’s cheaper to pay the consulting fee now than have to correct a costly mistake later.

Good handsfree headset. As much time as you think you’ll spend on the phone, you’ll be on it longer. There are days where my ear is physically sore. Handsfree headsets are a must. I much prefer the over-the-head type to the ones that clip over the ear.

Designate an ergonomic working environment. Let’s face it… web workers work longer hours and we’re in front of our screens longer than our cubicle-bound counterparts. Carpal tunnel syndrome and shoulder pain are our enemy. Avoid repetitive stress problems with a good desk configuration, ergonomic chair and good posture while you’re working. Designate a part of your house for work. Make sure it’s away from the hustle and bustle of your family life. Don’t set up shop in the dining room. Have a quiet, comfortable place to go for work that’s separate from where you’re with your family.

Port your gear well. For the longest time, I had a very uncomfortable and awkward laptop case and only one power adapter. Going on a trip or even to the local coffee shop for a change of scenery was a hassle. Be selective about how you tote your gear. Your back will thank you for it later. Invest in duplicate power adapters, charger cables and mobile hubs which you can leave in your bag. When it’s time to go, put the laptop in and you’re all set without worrying about anything else. Also make sure you have a emergency boot disk for your computer in your bag, just in case your notebook doesn’t start up when you’re sitting there in Starbucks.

Online social network. When it’s time to work, you need to focus. But I don’t see what’s wrong with a little distraction now and then. The traditional worker visits the water cooler for a little social time in between assignments. The web worker’s water cooler is the vast online community of blogs, message boards and social networks. Like anything else in life, it’s okay in moderation. Schedule that “downtime” into your day. A few minutes participating in an interesting online discussion, or some time in an IM session with a friend can recharge the batteries for the next project. It’s also a way to keep professionally connected. It will never replace getting out and seeing real people, though.

Backup system. You need a plan B. Keep an offsite backup of your most important data, both electronic and paper. Have an alternate strategy to get the job done if the technology you’re relying on isn’t there for you when you need it.

Supportive personal network. None of the previous nine tools matter if the real, live people who are most important in your life aren’t fully on board with your commitment to the web worker lifestyle. You’ll have to remind your spouse that for all intents and purposes, you weren’t really “home all day” so there was a good reason the laundry wasn’t done and the dishes are still in the sink. Your kids can’t volunteer you for the PTA bake sale during school hours because they assume that your schedule is always flexible. The traditional worker has a clear separation between work and home and can shake off a bad day on the drive home. Your loved ones have to understand that when it takes 12 seconds to get from work to the kitchen, it may take a few minutes longer to brush aside the challenges of the office.

What do you have in your toolbox that makes your web working life a little easier?

33 Comments

Joey

If you decide to incorporate your business, i suggest that you use a company that I used. I registered in california, and they got the paperwork filed in just a few weeks. I setup an LLC and I used Incorporate Fast. It cost me about $300 dollars, and it included $100 dollars of filing fee apparently. So, basically the cost was pretty cheap and i didn’t have to worry about the filing.

Judi Sohn

Kath, yes VOIP can be hit or miss depending on the provider and the part of the world you’re in. All told, we’ve been relatively lucky with Vonage. I would recommend that anyone try the service first with the default number they give you. Only when you’re really satisfied should you port over your land line number.

It’s just nice to be able to check voicemail from the web, pay a flat rate and to have phone numbers with different area codes. I’m convinced the technology will mature. Right now, it’s like having cable TV in the 70s. Anyone else remember how many hours you’d be staring at snow on the screen? When was the last time you remember that happening now?

Kath

Great article!

I don’t agree with your VOIP suggestion, tho.

I’m home-based in Denver, CO while my corporate location is in South Florida. My company has VOIP thru Avaya and for some reason the VOIP software resulted in dropped calls on a daily basis, system shut-downs, and a huge loss of productivity not to mention pissed-off clients who thought I was hanging up on them.

After 9 months of continual IS helptickets they switched my system from VOIP to landline and VOILA…perfection. No more dropped calls, poor quality calls or system shutdowns. Heaven.

Someone in an earlier post mentioned gaining 30# being homebased. I went the other way. Lost 35#. Know why? When I worked in a corporate environment, lunch was always fast food or restaurants. Now, I work out of my house where there is just one fast food place within 10 minutes (and I am SO BURNED OUT on Wendy’s) that I eat lunch at home 5 days a week. Save money. Eat healthier. Lose weight.

Grigor

Judi, those are really great advices.
I would add a CD or USB flash drive with portable apps. That way you can use your applications with personal data on someone’s else PC.

Ryan Smith

Thanks for the tips. I just started up a new business with a former boss at the beginning of the year. I think I have just about nailed all the points you mentioned, but definitely some good points to keep in mind.

Now all I need if for my new laptop to arrive so I can stop RDCing into my server at home with my ancient laptop.

Amir Alfatakh

Thanks Alec and Duane for your advice.

The sending of “how’s it going?” emails feels crucial, and so is easing my way out of my day job and having a side job to see if it works. Also, I will buy some pens and small notepad for my backpocket tomorrow.

Now for the task of explaining to the spouse… wish me luck.

Neo*utO

great post, i am a phd student, so i guess i also have an online work style. what i found most frastrating is my inability to not surf the web during my research hours

hyperreality

As Duane Brown said above, I must have some ‘analogue’ devices to accompany my digital life! A pen, couple of blank papers, a sticky notes and a pencil!
Interesting tips, thanks!

Duane Brown

I find a good blue pen, coloured pencils and some paper a great addition to my web working life. No mater where I’m, I can pull them out and start drawing how I see things in my mind or it helps me brainstorm on an initial idea. I do PR for video games and a big part of what I do is research and brainstorming crazy ideas for each products launch. I’ve everything else listed above, though I need a better chair then the one I’ve had since high school, but that can come later this year.

Amir, I just saved up money based on what I would need to pay myself to live for 3- 6 months. I also lined up a few jobs and did work at night at first while still keeping my day job and then one day I switched out one for the other and here I’m today. It’s not easy, and the hardest part is actually getting started and doing it. Everyone talks, but so few actually go and start their (dream) company.

Alec

Amir,

The way I eased myself into freelance was to line up a six month contract before I left employment.

You should also plan for a few months beforehand and a) save money and b) downsize your expenses (I failed those bits).

Make sure you get a network going as well. Depends on your industry, but I attend user group meetings and make an effort to have coffee with old contacts, or at least send emails saying “how’s it going?” on a regular basis.

Amir Alfatakh

Great tips. But so far, my personal obstacle is stepping out of my own comfort zone (i.e. salary paying job) to online life. How do you do it, especially with bills to pay?

raincoaster

Great tips. I’d also suggest lining up a physical activity beforehand. In my experience as a small business columnist the typical experience goes like this: “Welcome to self-employment. Here’s your thirty pounds.” You will need to increase your activity level, because you’re not using as many calories to get to work, etc. And using one of those yoga balls as an office chair from time to time can do a body good as well.

PanMan

The only one I don’t really agree on (but that can be local), is the need for ALL that speed. While I agree that you’ll NEED broadband, a couple of Mbit is enough for most people, and you won’t need the fiber for that
But I guess we, in the Netherlands, are kind of spoiled with 20+ Mbit DSL for E25/month.. (I just looked up the to Verizon FIOS prices, and they are quite high!)

Adam Riggs-Zeigen

I have found that its important to designate whichever computer you will be using for work as “just for work”. Whenever I have found MP3’s, videos, games etc. creeping into my work computer it made it easier to get distracted and therefore reducing my productivity. While a little here and there wasn’t too bad, I had to understand that when I sat down at that computer it was for work not play.

Steve Stroh

Get a Post Office Box at the Post Office, not one of the Mailboxes-R-Us outfits. Even if you have to get on a waiting list, it’s worth it to be able to put a P.O. Box on your business cards rather than what looks like a home address. If you’re in an area where you have a choice of Post Offices, pick the one that has the “cachet” for your business. I was amazed at how much different people treated me when I started putting my Redmond, WA P.O. Box on my card – a very big contrast to when I had a P.O. Box in a nearby suburb that had no connotation with high-tech.

Checking the P.O. Box a few times a week gives you a legitimate reason to get out of the house during the workday – I always stop at a local coffee shop and browse the Wall Street Journal.

Anne Zelenka

I couldn’t do this without a supportive personal network, most importantly my husband. He’s not just supportive personally, I get health care benefits through him, which brings up one more thing you need: health insurance. A recent commenter on WWD pointed out that that’s one of the hardest things for freelancers to get and one of the most important.

kelly

Good article. I’m impatiently awaiting FIOS here. I’ve seen the workers and I know it’s soon, just not soon enough. I’ll triple my download speed for the same price I pay now on cable.

I’ll agree on the ergonomics, too. My chair is an older one, and the designers must have missed the lecture on ergonomics in their schooling. On long days I pay for my poor choice in seating. I’m looking at upgrading to a new Steelcase chair.

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