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Inspiring Alumni: A Blueprint for Freelancing Success, with Leonard Percival

While I was taking the course I quickly figured out that the most important thing for a coder is quite simply just to keep coding. The more you code, the more problems you encounter and the better you get at solving them.

Inspiring Alumni: A Blueprint for Freelancing Success, with Leonard Percival
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What were you up to before you joined Le wagon? 

 When I left university I bought a food truck and started a company called Le Rac Shack https://www.leracshack.com/ with a friend from childhood. We toured around the festivals of the UK selling raclette, working hard and partying hard. After five years of that I sold my stake in the business to my partner and spent a year splitting a property I owned in Scotland and renovating it. Having sold that I wanted to do some travelling so I went to Peru and spent a year there teaching English and learning Spanish. It was there that I first discovered how much I enjoyed teaching, and it gave me the bug to try it again although that wasn't my primary motivation when learning to code. 
 
What inspired you to get into tech? 

It was around this time that I started watching Mr Robot, and it was this that first gave me the idea that tech was something I could get into. Watching filled me with the aspiration to also hack and bring down a major conglomerate in an effort to try and save the environment in some small way. Obviously that hasn’t really happened, but it was watching that series that made me start coding. Initially I learnt by myself using freecodecamp and other online resources. 
 
After I had been stuck on a challenge for two days, only to finally discover I was failing the challenge due to the fact that I was spelling 'colour' with a 'u' I lost my temper and decided that if I was going to do this properly I was going to join a bootcamp. I did some research and Le Wagon came out as the number one choice so I submitted an application to LW London. This was back when the legendary Ed Ward was running the London office. I went in for an interview and we spent half an hour talking about cheese and laughing a lot, after which I was enrolled and haven't looked back since.
 
What was the most important thing you learned at Le Wagon? 

While I was taking the course I quickly figured out that the most important thing for a coder is quite simply just to keep coding. The more you code, the more problems you encounter and the better you get at solving them. 
 
Whereas at first I was afraid of errors (a pretty common syndrome for new students) I quickly came to appreciate them for what they were, detailed instructions on how to fix your issue. I also learnt how fun working in a team developing a project was. When one typically thinks of developers I think the stereotype is of nerdy figures plugged into laptops not talking much. 
 
I however found the reality to be completely the opposite. It was really a bunch of friends chatting away non stop while they griped and moaned about things breaking and helping each other to fix them, with plenty of laughs along the way. I also gained what feels like a second family in many ways with all of the friends I made at Le Wagon during the whole process. I often wonder what the more valuable takeaway was from the course, knowing how to code, or the wealth of connections I still have to this day.
 
How did you decide what to do next after Le Wagon? 
 
When I graduated the course I knew I didn't want to go and get a development job straight away. I am not a huge fan of being tied into a 5 days a week job working for someone else (I've never even made a CV or submitted a job application) but I did love the flexible nature of teaching at Le Wagon so I immediately applied to teach and was hired straight off the batch. 
 
The second thing I had in mind was to try and give the freelance gig a go, so along with two of my teammates from the batch Guy Bennet-Jones and Jamie DuJardin I went hunting for my first freelance project. Our thinking was that it would probably be hard to land one solo, and to be honest we were a little intimidated to take on a project by ourselves. 
 
So we teamed up and went hunting. Within a couple of weeks we had landed our first contract https://www.kitchup.co.uk/. It was a airbnb style rental marketplace for unused commercial kitchen space in London, and together we churned it out in around three months, learning a whole deal in the process, not only about web development, but also client management, project planning and teamwork. 
 
I wouldn't say it went super smoothly, and there were definitely mistakes made along the way but overall it was a great entry into the world of freelancing. Unfortunately Guy was returning to university, and Jamie already had a job lined up, so after we delivered the project and went our separate ways.
 
Can you tell us about Hoxton Digital and your journey setting it up?

That was when I started looking for another team. During the Kitchup project I had brought in Ben Wright to help out with some of the back end development, having taught him on batch 123, and quickly realised what a powerhouse he was. 
 
In that same batch I had taught Ben Fanning, and he too had really impressed me, not only with his energy but also brilliant front end talent. The fourth member of the team didn't appear until the subsequent batch, Gonzalo Diaz, who we quickly recognised as a very talented designer and a natural salesman, and so the final piece of the puzzle was complete. 
 
We incorporated after Gonzalo's batch finished, launched a website as quickly as we could and started looking for contracts whilst all teaching at the same time. The teaching helped a lot as it gave a security blanket of passive income, whilst not taking up so much time that we weren't able to work on the business. 
 
Also being able to tell clients that all of the team were lead teachers at the worlds No1 bootcamp helped a lot when signing new clients. At the time LW London very generously gave us the use of a room in the London HQ to use as our office, and we would bring clients in for meetings, which really helped to take advantage of the impact that walking into a room full of  developers busily coding away can have on a potential client. 
 
As such we gradually started to win contracts, small ones at first, but over time the larger ones started rolling in. As we worked we became better at managing them and learnt a lot from our mistakes as we progressed. 
 
Gradually our approach to project development changed, but mostly we were learning how to accurately quote and manage client expectations (which is probably the most challenging part of freelancing) as we went. It is not as easy as one might think to turn a decent profit out of a contract if it is poorly quoted. 
 
The specifications can creep and the time investment increases. The more you build, the more the client wants and the harder it can be to hit deadlines. This was the most challenging aspect of the job, along with making sure a steady stream of work was coming in. The development part is the easy bit, running a business is much harder.

Can you describe a typical day in the life of Leonard? 

After three + years running HD now though we have got into a pretty steady groove. Typically we start our days with a 10am meeting (we are pretty chilled), then all of us will work independently using basecamp to manage our projects and tasks, and intermittent google meetings to discuss issues as we go. 
 
Sometimes it's tricky when we are approaching a deadline and also the end of a batch, as now the four of us make up the core of the senior teaching team for the Web Dev course in London, so we are in high teaching demand during projects weeks. 
 
We always let our clients know that we teach before signing any contracts though, so they know what to expect. Generally it is pretty rare that on a given day that none of us will be teaching, so it is a case of balancing the workload and trying to cover each other when they are not able to work. 
 
Generally though Gonzalo will be working on designs and UX for the next project, and working at bringing in new contracts whilst the rest of us power through building the current one. 
 
We try not to take on more than one large project at a time as we do not particularly want to expand and start hiring lots of devs, and as we now have a number of support contracts they require a fair amount of attention to maintain too. Overall we will generally churn out about four large projects a year, with a handful of smaller ones smattered in amongst them, hopefully trying to line up with the batches so that we are delivering each one in the periods between batches so that all four of can work together in the batch downtime and make a lot of progress quickly. 
 
It doesn't happen that often that all four of us can work on a project at the same time, but when it does we can move at light speed :) Commit city! First and foremost though we are all friends who have fun with each other, and as such we like to retain a lot of flexibility in our working life. If someone isn't feeling up to it on a given day that's fine, have a day off. Over the course of a year it generally all evens out, and this way we can all do what we want, and not get too stressed out or tied down by the usual drudgery that comes with a regular job.
 
What do you enjoy the most about working in the tech industry? 
 
I think the part of it I enjoy the most is the ability to work from wherever I am, as long as I have my laptop, and the satisfaction that comes from making tricky things work. I also take a huge amount of satisfaction from the teaching. Helping people completely change their life by learning to code is incredibly rewarding. 
 
Although sometimes it can be challenging and a little trying (I'm not famed for my patience) on the most part teaching at LW is great, and I'd recommend it to any student who wants to give it a go. By combining it with our own business I think my partners and I have a really nice balance of being able to work on more challenging stuff in our own projects, and get the social rewards that come with teaching. 
 
It also means that we are always able to bring new things we learn into the course, and in turn enables us to introduce students to things that aren't taught by default on Le Wagon curriculum. As such I think we've been able to help lots of teams to produce some really stunning final projects, and demo day is always incredibly gratifying as a result. 
 
During lockdown especially teaching has been a real lifeline in terms of socializing. I can only imagine what a miserable year I would have had had I not transitioned into Tech before Covid. As a result though I haven't had to stop working, and I still get to meet loads of new really interesting people every 9 weeks. It's great!
 
Any advice for newly graduated Le Wagon alumni? 

The most important piece of advice I can give to a fresh graduate is to keep coding. The course is tough, and demands a lot of energy. I know the temptation can be to close your laptop and sleep for a month after it finishes. The most important thing though is to keep coding, even if it's just for a half hour a day. If you don't keep practicing it can evaporate from your brain pretty quickly, and if that happens it can be very intimidating to start typing again. 
 
In terms of freelancing advice I think the number one thing I would say for anyone looking to get into it is before you start doing any work make sure you have a signed contract with the client, clearly stating your daily rate etc. If you are not planning on charging by the day, but by the project (that's what we do) then make sure that you have a very detailed specification that is clearly defined, with each bit of behaviour specifically quoted for. The biggest pitfall we fell into early doors was having to more and more work on a project because this was not clearly stated at the outset. 
 
Our typical flow is as follows: 
 
1.    Schedule discovery sessions with the client, these we charge by the hour, and will do as many as is needed to gain a clear understanding of the project and what we need to do to deliver it. After the discovery stage is complete we will give the client a ballpark idea of how much the design and development will cost, but this is just an estimate.
2.    Design in detail pretty much every page of the project, along with annotations of expected behaviour for each page (javascript animations etc, these can be particularly annoying if not specifically stated beforehand). This will be charged on a day by day basis, and at this stage there is constant contact with the client so that behaviour can be discussed and amendments made.
3.    Once the design is agreed the design period is over and a fixed price quote along with a specification list, detailing any and all functionality for the app included within this quote. This can take a while to produce but will save a lot of time, money and headaches in the future. Provided this quote is accepted we will then move forward to the development stage.
4.    Now we code, from herein any changes the client would like to make to the existing designs must be approved by us first. If we have not yet built that part of the app and the changes don't equate to more work we always try not to charge them, which allows some flexibility, but If we have already built the functionality, or if it a big change requiring lots of additional work we will then send them a quote for implementing the changes
5.    Delivery, once the project is complete will do a run through with the client and extensive user testing before launching the app. Generally we then offer a month of on demand bug fixing after launch free of charge. Usually there isn't much to do, but as with all builds it's tricky to account for all the corner error and use cases until people start actually using it en masse.
6.    Support. Once the app is up and running we offer the clients the ability to take out a support retainer with us to maintain and improve the app as they go. Not all projects need this and they can function quite easily as is and maybe will only need a couple of updates throughout the year, in which case we will quote for the work as per normal.
 
Hopefully this helps if you are thinking of getting into freelancing, or launching your own agency with some coursemates. Overall I would say that it has been a brilliant experience and one that I would do over again in a heartbeat. 
 
My one bit of advice to that is perhaps if I had my time again I would first go and do a couple of years at a big agency to pick up some best practices from seasoned pros before going out on my own. We definitely had to learn some lessons the hard way, and experience in a professional setting beforehand would have helped to mitigate some of those mistakes. 
 
If anyone has any questions, or any projects they would like building I am always available on slack or at leonardpercival@hoxton-digital.com
 
Good luck and keep committing!
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