Ben Collins: But here I was suddenly later in 2015, starting to get a few clients come in and starting to do some teaching for general assembly, and having to figure out how I’m going to work from home and be productive because it wasn’t easy. Yeah, it sounds easy, and it sounds fantastic. It just sounds like I can roll out of bed, make a coffee, and be at my desk five minutes later. But it’s just not like that, especially early on. It takes you some time to establish.
Intro: Ben Collins’ story is an interesting one. He went from a forensic accountant to creating and selling online courses about Google Sheets. Talk about niching down, but we talk about more than that. We do talk a lot about that, and that’s incredibly interesting, but we also talk about being location-independent and what it’s like moving from an office to working from home with a family at home, and all sorts of other great stuff. There’s a lot of really good stuff in this episode, so let’s just dig right into it.
Break: Before we get started, I want to tell you about my online membership and community, Creator Courses. I know that when you want to learn something new, the natural thing you probably do is go to Google or YouTube. I do the same thing, and that’s great for one-off projects. I used a YouTube video to learn how to change a light switch in my house, but I am not a big fan of YouTube for learning new skills. Because there are lots of videos on every topic, but “Which one is best and who do you trust? What order do you even watch the videos in, and will you get the support you need?” These are all things that YouTube or other potentially free videos can’t do for you. So, I started Creator Courses a few years ago with the idea of just putting online courses out there, and I decided to morph it into a membership last year. So stop wasting your time hunting and pecking for the right learning resources and tools, over at Creator Courses. You can become a member and take all of the courses that we have to offer included in that membership, and those courses focus on everything from just basic WordPress up to learning how to build websites without code, something you don’t necessarily need to do in this day and age. All of the courses are developed by me, and if you listen regularly that I’ve been a developer for decades at this point, and I have lots of experience building websites. I’m a teacher at heart, and I’ve created courses for LinkedIn Learning and things like that. On top of the courses, we’re also a community, and members get access to forums and Slack and office hours with me, so I just wanted to let about that and encourage you to join if you haven’t already. Listeners of this show, exclusively for listeners of the show, you can save 15% on all memberships, including the lifetime membership. All you have to do is visit CreatorCourses.com/build. Thanks so much, now let’s get on with the show.
Joe Casabona: Hey, everybody. Welcome to another episode of How I Built It, the podcast that asks, “How did you build that?” Today my guest is Ben Collins of BenLCollins.com. Today we’re going to be talking about location independence, and I know that a lot of us are self-employed and we may have that benefit, so Ben’s going to tell us how to make the most of that. Ben, how are you today?
Ben: I’m great. Thanks for having me on your show, Joe.
Joe: Thank you so much for joining me. I see you have some– The listeners don’t know this, this is not a video podcast, but we do have the video turned on, and I see some great artwork in the background already. The solar system and success iceberg, I like both of those. We’re already off to a really good start. I like your office.
Ben: Cool. Yeah, we can talk about that.
Joe: Sweet. We were connected basically because you are living a bit of a location-independent life. Is that right?
Ben: That’s right. I work for myself and mostly work from home.
Joe: Awesome. So why don’t we start with who you are and what you do, and go from there?
Ben: Sure. My name is Ben, I’m from England, but I’ve been living here in the States now for about eight years. I used to be a forensic accountant, so I worked in a corporate law firm with lawyers and spent a lot of time working with Microsoft Excel. Then about five years ago, I moved across to G Suite, picked up Google Sheets, and started building solutions for myself and clients using Google Sheets and writing about it in a blog. There isn’t much information out there about Google Sheets, and there wasn’t rather five years ago. These blog posts caught on and led to more client requests, and a little business just grew from there. Today I have online courses, I teach workshops, and I have a handful of clients still. It’s helping with primarily Google Sheets and G Suite work.
Joe: So, that’s already insanely interesting. We’re like three minutes in. You used to be a forensic accountant. I think I know what that means, but what does that mean?
Ben: Yeah, it’s a good question. It’s an interesting part of accounting. The work I was doing was sanctions-based cases. It was businesses that had done work with countries that they were not supposed to be doing work with. So, business with Iraq or Iran or somewhere. They were being hauled in front of the DOJ and being told to explain themselves, and so as accountants we would look through the transactions and try and find out– Separate the good ones from the bad ones to find out how big the problem was, and then the lawyers could build a case around that. It was super interesting when we did our strategy sessions, or we had meetings with clients and things, but then you would then spend the next month going looking through half a million records. That was not as interesting, but I did learn all about data analysis, Microsoft Excel, SQL, and that’s how I fell in love with data analysis and the technical side of things. Which led me to doing the job I do today.
Joe: Yeah, that sounds super cool. I’m sure sifting through– My friend used to be an auditor for PricewaterhouseCooper, and he would tell me things like “There could be a million-dollar discrepancy, and it didn’t even matter with these companies.” That was interesting, but I don’t think the rest of it was very interesting to him.
Ben: You have to ask where that million dollars went.
Joe: Yeah, right? I’m like, “What do you mean ‘A million dollars?’ The two columns are off by a million bucks, and it’s crazy.” But for a multi-billion dollar company, it’s like “$100 bucks is missing.”
Joe: Cool. You gained your chops for what you eventually went into doing client services and now products for, which is Google Sheets. This is interesting to me because I’m not a heavy Google Sheets user, but I try to do interesting stuff in Google Sheets, and I can never find the exact right formula or whatever to do what I want to do. So, what’s some of the stuff that you can bend Google Sheets to your will doing?
Ben: All sorts. What I love about it is that for me anyway, it’s central to not only the client work and the teaching I do, but just for me to run my own business as well. One example that’s sort of a serious example that’s helped my business is that I get students to provide feedback for my courses through a Google Form, which then goes into a Google Sheet. It was becoming impossible for me to reply to all these people because I would open the Google Sheet, and there would be 100 rows of data feedback. I just can’t spend two days emailing every one of those people, because I’d have another hundred rows of data underneath it by then, so I built a little tool with Google Sheets and with AppScript, which is the coding language that would write those hundred draft emails for me with all the feedback in and with some generic thank-you type language up at the top. That would be tailored depending on the what the feedback was like. If it was good feedback, it was a very positive thing. If it was not so good feedback, it would be, “I’m sorry to hear you were disappointed with the course.” And then those hundred emails are just sitting in my draft folder of emails, so I can click and open them one by one and then add something personal, and hit send. It just allows me to fire through, say, 100 in an hour, maybe rather than a day and a half. That was something I built about a year ago that’s just helped me reply to feedback. I obviously have a fair chunk there waiting in the draft folder that I need to get to, but it’s allowed me to keep mostly on top of that piece of my business.
Joe: That’s wild. Like the feedback, I’m sure there’s a score and based on the score–
Ben:, yeah, there’s a score, and that’s one factor. It also, I had it set up at one point to run a paragraph of text, and I can send it over to the natural language processing API of Google, and it gives me back a score of whether it was like “They liked it,” or “They didn’t like it.” But it was never perfect, so I just ended up actually cutting that piece out and just basing it on the score, and keep it pretty generic. But there was a lot of potential there. That was fun to build as well.
Joe: That’s super cool. So you got good at that, and then you built a freelance business on top of that with other accounting firms, or–? Like, who is your client base?
Ben: Sure. I did all the work in Excel, and that’s how I learned the craft. Then I started helping my wife, and she was running her business on G Suite back in 2013-14-15. I started helping her with the Google Sheets work, and that’s how I got into that world. One of the big projects that we did was I built a dashboard in Google Sheets for her business, for a digital sale that she’s running. Then that became the very first blog post that I ever wrote. People started finding that, and it was marketing people initially and digital analysts and things saying, “Can you build that dashboard or something similar for me?” A real estate firm, one of the first ones as well, because they wanted to have a dashboard like that to monitor what each of the agents were doing in terms of how many calls they were taking and how many sales they were making, and that kind of thing. It went from there, so I would say now it’s about a third digital market and about one-third of knowledge workers like accountants and business analysts and things, whose companies are on G Suite, and then about one third are a mix of educators and others.
Joe: That’s cool.
Ben: So, yeah.
Joe: I’m blown away by this, that’s awesome. Just to keep with your story, your personal story here, there was a point where you decided “I should make educational material.” Is that right?
Ben: There was, and from the Excel world that I’d come from, there were always a lot of bloggers and consultants and people making online courses in that world, so I’d seen that success in the Excel world and seen some of these business models already. I’d always been interested in that idea because I’ve done some teaching when I was at college, I did a year of mentoring/teaching to a small group of first-year students. Then I taught a tennis class for a couple of summers, and things like that. I enjoyed teaching, and my mother was a teacher, so I’d always had this idea “One day maybe I’ll do some sort of– Like an online course, but it always just been nothing more than just a thought like that. Then I started in this Google Sheets stuff and started working with the clients. After about a year, I’d been building up the blog and realizing that “There’s an opportunity here because there’s no real material outside of what Google has created for Google Sheets at the moment.” This was five years ago.
Joe: Even today, it’s not great.
Ben: There’s not as much– It’s growing a lot, but it’s still an opportunity and everything. Right about 2016, At the very beginning of 2016, I said, “OK. Time to put my money where my mouth is and see if this is something that can be successful or not, and can I see it through? And would I enjoy doing it?” I decided to create a course about dashboards, because that’s what most of my blog posts had been about, and it was quite popular and seemed to be mainly because the blog post had done well. It sort of chose that topic for me because I thought, “If I’m getting traffic to those posts, then it’s more likely that I’ll be able to sell a course than something totally brand new. So, I thought, “It’ll take me a couple of months to do.” I started it spring of 2016, and I think it was a year until I launched it because you know what these things are like when it’s something new. I had to learn the technology of recording, which tools to use, how to do screen casts well, I had to build the materials, and then I got busy with client work, etc. The usual stuff.
Joe: Yeah. You are singing the song of many. It looks like you’re using Teachable for your online courses, is that right?
Ben: I am, that’s right.
Ben: Actually, that’s one of the other choices early on. I was looking at– I had only ever heard of Udemy, I think when I first came up with this course idea so I just figured I’d do that. Then I started to do some research and found out about the way the Udemy model works vs. the platforms like Teachable or Thinkiffic and things, where they are more like a WordPress for [course creators].
Joe: Yeah, they’re more nice to their content creators.
Ben: Exactly. That’s the biggest difference. The one thing I just kept in mind was their Udemy students, and I’m providing course materials. Whereas on my own platform, they’re my students, and I can contact them directly, get their emails, and build a business on that. Once I understood that nuance, that difference, then it was an obvious choice to go with Teachable for the long haul even if it meant that it was on me then to do all the marketing and build the audience.
Joe: Yeah, absolutely. Longtime listeners of the show will know exactly how I feel about Udemy, but I don’t have many kind thoughts about them because I am a creator, and I created a course for them. It didn’t work out in a very spectacular way, so I just don’t like the way they run their business, and I don’t think they’re kind to their content creators.
Ben: I think that unless you become one of their megastars with the gigantic volume, then it’s pretty tough when they sell your cause, which you’ve taken six months to create, for $10. Because its an affiliate link as well, you end up getting $2.50 or something. When someone explained that, I thought, “I’d rather sell 10 courses at $100 myself then 100 at $2.50, or whatever.
Joe: That’s exactly right, and the quality of student that you’ll get on your own– People would essentially reach out to me and be like, “Give me your course for free on Udemy.” I’m like, “If you can’t pay $10 for this course, I don’t think you’re ready for it.” But this is neither here nor there, and this is not a Udemy bash session. That’s the second time I’ve said that in an interview for this season, by the way. Maybe I’ll have to do an episode.
Ben: There’s people who’ve had huge success, and it can work. It can be a good way to build or grow an audience if you don’t have one, but it wasn’t for me.
Break: This episode is brought to you by FreshBooks. Do you remember when you started your small business? It was no small feat. It took lots of late nights, early mornings and the occasional all-nighter. Bottom line, you’ve been insanely busy ever since. So, why not make things easier? My friends at FreshBooks have the solution. FreshBooks invoicing and accounting software is designed specifically for small business owners. It’s simple, intuitive, and keeps you way more organized than a dusty shoe box filled with crumbled receipts. As a side note, I told my accountant the first time that I used the shoe box method, and his face turned white. But in actuality, FreshBooks was one of the first things I bought when I started my business. I’ve been a FreshBooks user since 2009. It’s easily the best accounting and invoice software for small business owners like us. Create and send professional looking invoices in 30 seconds, and then get them paid 2 times faster with automated online payments. Nothing is better than sending out an invoice and getting it paid in the same day, and that’s happened for me with FreshBooks. You can also file expenses even quicker and keep them perfectly organized for tax time, and the best part is that FreshBooks grows alongside your business so you’ll always have the tools you need when you need them without ever having to learn the ins and outs of accounting. Now there are a lot of features on this list I have here to talk about, but I’m going to pick two of my favorites. The first is late payment reminders, and they are clutch. It’s one less thing that I need to worry about when making sure I get paid. I don’t have to keep track of exactly when I sent the invoice, and if I already sent a follow-up email or whether or not they viewed the email, all of that is taken care of inside FreshBooks. The other feature I like is the automated expenses. I connect my business credit card to FreshBooks, and my expenses automatically get imported. They are all there, ready for me and my accountant to review. It makes tax time easier for both of us, and it’s no secret that I love automation. These two features make my life a lot easier. After doing things by hand, FreshBooks is worth the price of admission just for those two things. Join the 24 million people who have used FreshBooks, and you can try it for 30 days for free. No catch, no credit card required. Go to FreshBooks.com/BuiltIt and enter “How I Built It” in the “How did you hear about us?” section to get started. Thanks so much to FreshBooks for supporting the show, and now let’s get back to it.
Joe: So, you’ve got your whole core stack set up, and you’re running a completely digital business that enabled you to be location-independent. Let’s set the stage for that, when did you decide to be a digital–? I don’t know if “Digital nomad” is the right term, but location-independent.
Ben: It was the end of 2014 when I had left that accounting job, so starting in 2015, I was thinking, “I want to do my own thing.” Initially, I wanted to be a web developer, so spend the first half of 2015 trying to do that. That was not working, but I was living and working from home. I would either be in coffee shops or just from the home office. Then right around about that same time is when all of the Google Sheets business side picked up, and I started getting clients, so it meant I didn’t have to go back to doing my old job. I could keep rolling with going with the flow. I’d never really set out to be location-independent because I was hoping to apply to web developer jobs and just end up working in another office doing web development instead of accounting, but here I was suddenly later in 2015, starting to get a few clients come in and starting to do some teaching for general assembly, and having to figure out how I’m going to work from home and be productive because it wasn’t easy.
Joe: Yeah. If you’re not used to it, especially, it’s tough.
Ben: Yeah, it sounds easy, and it sounds fantastic. It just sounds like I can roll out of bed, make a coffee, and be at my desk five minutes later. But it’s just not like that, especially early on. It takes you some time to establish a good work routine. You have to get your office set up, so you’re productive there, you have to set up your computer now because your home computer is also your work computer. You’ve got to make sure that you’re not just firing up Netflix, or that you open your screen and the Netflix movie from the last night is still showing and you’re like “I’ll just finish it off before I start working.” It takes time, and you have to be disciplined. I think you have to surround yourself with people who support you, most importantly, because otherwise, you’re just going to go crazy or just not achieve anything and then feel terrible at the end of the week.
Joe: That is such a great point, “Surround yourself with people who support you.” I remember distinctly not getting that when I was working, like living at home at my parents house after college, because I’ve worked from home for basically my whole life except for three years when I worked at my alma mater. My parents didn’t get it. They’re like, “Can you come up here and help me?” It’s like the middle of the day, and I’m like, “I’m effectively at work.”
Ben: You have to imagine that I’m at the office now.
Joe: Yeah, right. Of course, if they walked in and saw me on Facebook or something, they’d be like, “I thought you were at work.” I’m like, “I’m taking a break.” But conversely, my wife totally understands. She’s a nurse, so sometimes she’s home during the day, and she totally understands if my schedule is going to be bogged down or I need to focus, she’ll take our daughter out somewhere for a few hours. Having that support is important.
Ben: Yeah, definitely. My wife was extremely patient with me early on. She’d worked from home as well and built her own business, so she knew what it was like. She would just gently encourage me in the right direction to build those good work habits. You need someone who is going to understand that it’s a transition that’s going to take a little bit of time first, but also push you. They’ll give you a kick to the backside when it’s needed, sort of thing.
Joe: Yeah, exactly. I don’t want that to sound like I was bashing on my parents, because they eventually got it. They’re like, “Then close your door.” Or “Fine. We understand from 9-5 you’re not home, but when you’re home be home. When you’re home from the office, you have to help around the house.” I’m like, “Yeah. OK.”
Ben: That’s the other flip side of it, of course. You finish work and close down your computer at 5:00. It’s really important then that you can switch over to the home mode, so you can spend time with your kids and your wife or whoever, and not be thinking about work or not be checking your phone. That takes effort as well. You establish all these good work routines, but then your work, it’s only just upstairs, or that’s when you need to build a good routine also being present.
Joe: On the Focused podcast with David Sparks and Mike– Their name is slipping my mind, but they talk about having a shutdown routine at the end of the day.
Ben: That’s smart.
Joe: David Sparks has a bunch of automations where his lights turn red, and he knows it’s time to close down, and he journals at the end of the day. My shut down routine now is journaling at the end of the day and closing down my computer, and then telling my voice assistant that I don’t want to activate right now to shut off the office, and all the lights turn off. I know it’s the end of my day. It’s really interesting. If I don’t do that, I find myself thinking about work even when I’m upstairs. It’s crazy. But definitely, having a good routine and supportive people, so where did you live in 2014?
Ben: In 2014, my wife and I were living in Arlington, Virginia, just outside of Washington, DC. I love DC, and it’s a great city, it’s where I first came to America. We were there for five years and then my wife’s business, she sold that business during that time and went to work for the– Her client bought the business, and she went to work there. Then eventually, that moved us down to Florida, so we went down to Florida for a couple years, and I was still independent. Again, I was working from home, and then because we had young children– One of whom was at home because he was under the age of one, it was just too hard for me to record courses with a 1-year-old in the house, so I ended up renting an office for the first time for a year in St. Petersburg. Just a little one-person office in a big building.
Joe: St. Pete? Did you go to any Yankee spring training games there?
Ben: No, I didn’t. I did go to some of the rowdy soccer games in their baseball stadium. That was fun, that was cool. It’s a cool city. We’re not Florida people because we love the mountains, and we love hiking and things more than the beaches. But St. Pete’s a pretty cool city. It was a challenging couple of years because we had a two-year-old and a two-month-old. It’s like a intense phase, and my wife was unbelievably busy with her job, and then I was still trying to build my business as well. It was a pretty intense couple of years.
Joe: That’s wild. You were down in St. Pete, and you have children. I feel like it’s uncouth to ask that, so I’m glad you brought it up because that throws a little bit of a wrench in the location. Or a complication into the location-independence, right?
Ben: I mentioned that the wrinkle it created for me was that having a baby in the house full time with a nanny was just too noisy for me to be able to record these online courses, and that led me to say “OK. Can I find a single room where I can shut the door in a corporate office building, and then I can do my recording there?” That worked well actually for that year, but suddenly children change everything. You have to just plan everything a lot more, and whatever. It gets easier, for sure, as they grow up. Mine are four and two now, so it’s already a lot easier than it was two years ago in that respect.
Joe: Great. So after Florida, where did you go from there? You could be as vague as possible. I’m not trying to map your movements.
Ben: Are you tracking it?
Ben: It was interesting because my wife came to the end of her contract with the company that she was waiting for in Florida, early this year in the spring, beginning of spring, she had finished working in the office in Florida. We were no longer tied to Florida, so we decided to move back towards the Washington, DC region because she has family there, and we both just love this area. So we’ve ended up in a little mountain town called Harpers Ferry outside of Washington, DC, and we’ve got the Appalachian Trail running past the door.
Joe: Yeah, that’s great. I’m outside Philadelphia, so I’m familiar with the East Coast area.
Ben: We are loving [inaudible], and because now effectively, we are both working from home, we don’t need to be anywhere in particular. But it was interesting, we’d been planning for a while where we might go and things, and we’d been scouring all of the lists of the best mountain towns, and a lot of them are out west or in the Rockies.
Joe: Yeah, for sure.
Ben: I love it out there as well, but it’s also just a long way from her family, and since we’re already away from my family, we didn’t want to be living away from both families because then we’d spend all of our time just travelling. We really wanted to say East Coast, and so we had three or four places on the East Coast, and we just visited each one or one of us did, and then we just [inaudible] rolled the dice and went for it. So we’ve been here about a nice 7 months, 7-8 months, we’re loving it now.
Joe: Nice. So, you have a two and a four-year-old?
Ben: That’s right.
Joe: Is schooling a factor? You both run businesses, so I don’t know if homeschooling is a factor for you or if you are looking for a good public school. Is that something that you put into your decision making?
Ben: It is. They’re both now at a preschool together, the same one. My wife is doing the lion’s share at the moment of “Running the household,” if you like. We talk about everything, and we plan everything, and we try to distribute the home chores because it’s a full-time job to run a house. Especially when you have young children, and it changes as soon as you go from having no children to having children. You have to get on top of those things, so what we try to do with each other is support each other. At the moment, my wife’s being great in supporting me to build up my business with these courses and things, because I think she was ready for a break after the Florida job. She said, “I wanna spend more time with the kids. I am happy to take on the household side of things for a while so you can do your stuff, and then at some point in the future, we’ll sit out and rebalance it again, and just figure that out.” I think that this plays back into the working from home thing, that you have to separate out, again, your work and home balance. You have to find out where those boundaries are and who’s responsible for What, and just honestly, just communicate well about these things. Because the worst thing you can do is let things build up and not talk about them, and then there’s this resentment builds in. Because you feel like– Say if I go down and I grab my breakfast and then just grab a coffee and come back upstairs. Meanwhile, my wife feels like she has to do the laundry before she can start her day. That’s not fair.
Joe: Right, yeah. Absolutely.
Ben: But at least it’s fair if we’ve decided that’s the way it’s going to do because maybe I’ll do something else in the evenings, so she gets some time there. I think just making sure that you have talked out what the plan is, and then maybe like I said at the moment, certainly at the moment my wife is doing a lot of the care for the boys. Taking them to school and that sort of stuff, taking them to doctor’s appointments. But in the future, we’ll probably try to flip it back over when she’s at a pinch point with work where she wants to have more time to focus on the work side.
Joe: I think you raise a really good point, especially if you ever felt like when I was single and on my own. I would just go visit my brother in Orlando, who works at Disneyworld, and I would just work there for a week or whatever. It was great, but I can’t do that anymore. I’m married, and I have a child, a two and a half-year-old. My wife is expecting our second in July.
Joe: Thank you very much, we are super excited. As we record this, you’re like one of the first people I told. But it’s coming out after I’m telling everybody.
Ben: I’m honored.
Joe: Awesome. But it’s a lot to think about, right? When I went out on my own and started my own business in 2016, I left my agency job, and she was insanely supportive. Likewise, when I knew she had to work– She’s a nurse, so she works twelve-hour shifts. If there was a time where we didn’t have a babysitter, I knew I could juggle my schedule around a little bit to wash Theresa before we put her in daycare and stuff like that. Having that regular conversation because the flexibility, like you said, is a double-edged sword. I can just knock off in the afternoon and go to a movie or whatever, but I also need to get work done.
Ben: Absolutely. Once you do have children, then you have to be ruthlessly efficient and prioritize your work. Because if you decide to watch a movie in the afternoon, you’re not going to get those few hours back later in the day because you want to spend that time with your children, obviously. Then you want to help your partner, and then also by the time you get the child to bed at 8:30 or whenever, and you finish washing up and all of that stuff, you’re way too exhausted to work well.
Joe: That has been such an interesting change for me because I used to be– I’m a programmer. Programmers notoriously are night owls, so I’d be like, “Yeah. I’ll just– If I don’t get something done, I’ll just wait until Theresa goes to bed or wait until my wife goes to bed, and I’ll just code.” I am so tired at the end of the day now because when my wife works, I pick up my daughter, and then we play, and she has boundless energy because she’s a child.” By the time it’s time for bed, I’m like, “My wife’s going to be home soon, and I’m super tired. I’m not going to do– I can’t do any work. My brain is mush.”
Joe: Awesome. This has been a really fun conversation. I think aside from just focusing on the work stuff, auxillary things that small business owners and freelancers, people who don’t necessarily need to go to an office to work need to think about. Maybe we can end here with some tips that you’ve picked up from being location-independent. Things that you found helpful in increasing your productivity?
Ben: Yeah, sure. I’ll give you three techniques, or three things I do each week that have helped me. Number one is that I try to, on a Sunday night, just look at my Trello board. I use Trello and Google Calendar to organize my weeks. But I tried to set up my week on the Sunday night before I turned up to my desk on Monday morning, so that come Monday morning when I sit down on my desk– Because when you work for yourself, nobody’s there to tell you “Here’s what you are supposed to do today.” You’ve got to figure that out yourself, so if you can do that in advance and be that person, so you get there Monday morning, and you look at Trello or your Google Calendar or whatever you use, and it says first thing Monday morning “One hour, write you blog post.” Then it just means you can start, and you’re not procrastinating. That’s so easy, just spending half an hour on a Sunday night to be organized for the whole week pays off, I think.
Joe: Yeah, that’s great. Before you get onto the other two tips, I just want to expand on this. I used to be very against working at all on the weekends. Because I used to just work all the time, like before I had a family. But that like a half-hour, like you said, prepping probably saves me three hours on a Monday morning.
Ben: Yeah, absolutely. It just sets you up for the week well because you’ve– You think, “I’m now excited about the week,” because hopefully you are excited because it’s your own project and it’s your own work now. If someone had said when I was an accountant, “Can you spend one hour on a Sunday night answering, looking through e-mails and preparing?” “I don’t want to do that, and it’s my Sunday night.”
Ben: It’s precious. But now, once the boys have gone to bed, I’m quite excited to say, “What’s coming up this week? I’ve got these calls on Tuesday and one on Thursday, I don’t want to do this. I want to finish this project.” Even if you don’t even write anything down, but you just mentally have prepared for the week, I think it’s– That definitely helps a lot. It pays off.
Joe: For sure. Because like you said, there’s nobody else to tell you what your priorities are. On Monday morning, my boss would come into my office and say, “I need you to work on this today.” Then like an hour later, “Actually, work on this.” But now you’re your own project manager.
Ben: Yeah. So you have to be ready to crack the whip a little bit and start and get things done.
Joe: Yeah, absolutely. Cool. So I’m sorry, I interrupted I think what was going to be another really good tip, probably.
Ben: The next one was to be– it ties in a little bit,
is that when I first started, I was focused on having to get my 40 hours in, or whatever you decide to do. It’s only really over the few years I realized that doesn’t make the least bit a difference. Focus on instead, “My goals for the week.” This week I want to reach out to five new clients, and I want to publish one blog post, and I want to finish Project X that I’m working on or something. Then just do what you need to do, whatever you have to do to get through that list. As you get better, or more used to doing that, your estimates get accurate. You generally will get through 9 out of 10 of them. If you need to start piling on a little bit more, you can do that. If you’re obviously being too optimistic, then you can bring them back a little bit, but I think that the goal is not ours. Even in some ways, the habits and actions is replacing goals as the new way to work, to just really focus on what you’re doing, but not focusing on the hours. Because then, for example, I try and do something active every day to get away from my desk. Go for a hike or go run, and you think, “OK, I’m not working for an hour then. I should be at my desk because every hour counts.” But doing that one hour of physical activity away from a desk, I come back full of ideas, or I’ve solved problems in my head or decided how to answer that email that I couldn’t approach. That’s a hugely worthwhile hour for the business for the day. So, that’s an example of goals and hours focus.
Joe: For sure. I love that. I realized that I would get into like that post-lunch slump, and so I try to go for a walk every day after lunch. Like you said, that hour again saves me a couple of hours because it’s just sitting at my desk willing myself to work or–
Ben: It’s not worth it. You can go for a walk, and you solve all your problems in your head as you walk.
Joe: And I feel much better, and I’m getting some exercise in, which is another thing that could be hard to do if you never have to leave your house.
Ben: Exactly. Yeah, totally. Then the very last one is a much more practical tip, which helped me again early on when it was too easy to be distracted by Twitter and Facebook, and all the other places that we go was to use a blocker on my browser. It’s called Cold Turkey Blocker, and you could just list a whole bunch of websites you wanted to not have access to during certain times. So I could say, “From 9 till midday every day, I’m not allowed to look at any social channels at all.” And then again, “From 2 to 5, I can’t look at any social channels at all” Even my emails I put into there for a little while. Because then it means I just have a block where I have to focus on doing my work, but then at lunchtime, if I want while I’m eating my lunch or whatever, I can go and browse around on Twitter and chat to people on Twitter and things, and not feel like I’m being distracted from my real work. It just helped me to stop procrastinating, looking at all of those kinds of sites, because every time you jump over to Twitter for a minute or two, it’s costing you probably five or ten minutes of lost focus.
Joe: Yeah, for sure. The mental–
Ben: Switching costs.
Joe: Switching, yeah. There’s a heavy tax there of context switching.
Ben: Yeah, absolutely.
Joe: Cool. I will link that in the show notes for sure. I’m checking it out, and it looks like there’s a free and paid version. The scheduling is cool, so I will say if you’re running Mac OS Catalina, you might have access to some of this stuff in the new screentime options. But if you want something that is a little bit more stats-driven and a little bit more– We’ll say “Heavy handed,” it looks like this is–
Ben: I think that’s the best thing about it when you’re procrastinating, and you’re distracted, and you’re having a hard time focusing, you need to do something drastic and just block all those places you like to go and browse. Block your favorite news readers, block Reddit if you want. Whatever it takes to just put you in front of that blank piece of paper, or whatever it is you do, and just get the stuff– Get things done.
Joe: For sure. That’s awesome. To sum up, the three tips are to try to plan your week. Look at your week ahead on a Sunday night, and I’ll also add that I do this at the end of each of my days. I’ll write down the three tasks I want to accomplish the next day.
Ben: Yeah, same idea.
Joe: So, I’m not coming in and going, “What am I going to do today?” Focus on goals for the week. I think this is such– This is so great, because first of all if you’re self-employed, you’re self-employed either because you want to try to make millions of dollars that you wouldn’t make in a 9-5, and then you’re probably working a lot, or you want freedom. If you focus on your goals and you don’t just say, “I have to work eight hours a week,” if you accomplish your goals quickly, then you can knock off and go watch Star Wars, which is coming out in a week as we record this. Then the cold turkey blocker looks like a Mac and a Windows app. Again, I will link that in the show notes over at HowIBuilt.it. Ben, I appreciate you coming on the show. I do have one more question for you, and that is, do you have any trade secrets for us?
Ben: Trade secrets, in what sense?
Joe: I like to say that any general lesson that you’ve learned, maybe the hard way that you want to impart on somebody.
Ben: I think that the biggest differentiator between the people who are successful with their own freelance careers and those that maybe can’t get it to work and go back to a normal job, or whatever, is just persevering and sticking with it. Because it’s going to take a long time to build, and nobody is going to notice initially or care about what you write or what you do. You’ve got to just stick with it and believe in yourself and believe in your systems, and keep going.
Joe: I love that. Nothing more to say that is a perfect trade secret. Ben, thank you so much for joining me today. Where can people find you?
Ben: Thanks so much for having me on the show, Joe. It was a great conversation. People can find me at BenLCollins.com and on Twitter @BenLCollins. They are probably the best two places.
Joe: All right, awesome. I will link that, those two links, and everything else we talked about in the show notes over at HowIBuilt.it. Ben, thanks again for coming on the show.
Ben: Thanks, Joe. Have a great day.
Outro: Thanks so much to Ben for joining us this week. Again, like I said at the top of the show, lots of really good stuff, his story is really interesting to me, and I think it’s a really good path, for if you want to start selling online courses, it’s a little bit of a long game. But you start to understand who wants to learn from you, who your target audience is, and then the main points that you should maybe cover in an online course versus the more specific questions and use cases that you get from, say, consulting. I think I’m going to go out on a limb and say his most important piece of advice in this episode was to surround yourself with people who support you. If you’re a longtime listener of the show, you’ll know that when I left my full-time job back in 2016-2017 shortly after my daughter was born, I would not have been able to do that with any amount of confidence unless I had the support of my wife which was integral to me being able to start the business. Of course, I had the support of my in-laws and my own parents as well, which again– I was 31 at the time, and even at 31, that kind of support is really important. I want to say that’s the most important advice he gave, but lots of other great tips too. So thanks again to Ben for joining us this week, and if you want to get the resources and everything that we talked about, you can head over to HowIBuilt.it/156 for the show notes and more. I don’t often mention this, but there’s a full transcript over there too. If there’s a point that maybe one of us made that you want to go back and read it, it’s there. The full, clean verbatim transcript. So, check that out as well. Thanks to this week’s sponsors, TextExpander and FreshBooks, those are– I’ve got to tell you, they are two tools that I am so happy to have in my life because they make my job easier. The fact that they are sponsoring this podcast just makes me warm inside, because those are truly two products I can absolutely vouch for. Definitely check them out and say thanks for sponsoring the show. If you like this episode, be sure to subscribe and maybe give us a rating and review over at Apple podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts. If you want to learn more about my online courses, we talked all about all sorts of online courses today, but if you want to learn about mine and the membership, you can do that over at the show notes link. Again, that’s HowIBuilt.it/156. Thanks so much for spending part of your day with us over here at How I Built It. Until next time, get out there and build something.