Category Archives: Life

Developing as a Contractor in Belgium

My experience

As a software developer, I have been freelancing since 2010. Before that I was an employee for a consulting firm for 5 years. And one of the things that pushed me over the edge was when I found the invoice my employer had sent to the company I was consulting for at the time in the office printer. It said they “sold” me for 650€ per day, 13000€ or more per month. Given the fact that my net salary was 2500€ per month, and even if you factor in all the taxes and social charges and all the other benefits, that was still quite a huge gap. And in addition to that, I was not free to buy the car I wanted or the laptop I needed. When I needed vacation, I needed to factor in the “loss” for my employer. And when I wanted to attend a conference somewhere, I had to ask for permission. And I’m not even mentioning all the things I had to agree with (company pension plan, eco-cheques, etc.) that had simply no value whatsoever to me, but I was forced to take them because they were fiscally interesting for my employer.

For all those reasons, after talking with other freelancers to carefully evaluate the risks and constraints of having my own management company, it appeared obvious that it was the smart move given my experience. And the thing is I’m not the only one to make the same calculation. I know plenty of senior developers who have quit the rat race, stopped being an employee and taken matters into their own hands. Sure it’s a lot of administrative pain, with the accounting and all. Sure every letter you receive from the SPF Finance (tax services) makes a shiver run down your spine. Sure it’s stressful to have to find your own customers, deal with contracts, plan ahead for your periods of inactivity, negotiate your rate for each contract… but that is nothing compared to the incredible freedom you get. Being able to choose your customers and projects depending on how much you need to work. Being able to choose how you pay yourself, how you train yourself, the tools you work with. All of that is really satisfying.

The ecosystem

That being said, when you are a freelance developer, there are 3 big kinds of customers in Belgium (and I guess in a lot of other areas):

  • The big corporations, banks and public institutions (European Parliament and Commission) usually have framework contracts and Preferred Supplier Lists with big consulting consortiums and firms that force you to go through intermediaries who take a 15 to 30% cut on all your invoices, no matter how long the contract is, and often for very little added value other than access to those customers.
  • The small companies are the most flexible and you can usually work with them directly, but they are the hardest ones to find and you have to negotiate a lot with them.
  • And then there are the startups. When you are in the ecosystem, they are quite easy to find, you can also work without intermediaries, the projects are by far the most interesting ones, and you get to work in really cool teams. But that’s where the funding is often the most fragile (“no I can’t pay my bills with shares in your non-funded startup”)

The fears

Recently though, I noticed a really disturbing trend with startups refusing to work with freelancers, mainly for a few reasons:

  • Most are afraid that a freelance developer will be less “involved” in the success of the company
  • Some even fear that a freelance developer will combine several customers in parallel and thus will devote less energy to them than an employee, as if freelance meant part-time
  • I recently heard companies being afraid that freelancers would have a harder time integrating into their team
  • And I’m sure some really look at the cost and think a freelancer costs more than an employee

The reality

It’s hard to know where these fears come from, but let me bring some counter-arguments to those.

First of all, when you are a freelancer, your very ability to find work and the best work depends solely on your reputation. You can’t hide behind the reputation of a consulting company or the manipulation skills of your business manager. It’s just you and your awesome work. If you leave a customer on wrong terms, if your work is not impeccable, and if your involvement is not up to par with your customer’s expectation, no employment code, no firing cost, no prior notice is there to protect you. If you don’t show dedication, you will get fired, fast, and your reputation will suffer, making it harder for you to find a new mission in the future, especially in the startup world where everybody talks with everybody.

Second of all, most freelance developers I know hate switching between projects at the same time. It’s very inefficient and frustrating, so most of us prefer working for months or even years for one customer at a time.

As for integration time, it is of course completely the opposite: when you have to change project on a regular basis, you have to get comfortable finding your place very quickly in a new team. Practice makes perfect.

Last but not least, about the cost issue, most companies, especially the smallest ones for which economies of scale are really small, only consider the salary cost. They don’t factor in the management cost of dealing with social secretariat, car leasing companies, medical insurance companies, training companies, buying and maintaining your own hardware inventory and so on. In my experience, unless you are a big company and you can make big economies of scale on these management costs because you have a lot of employees, there is little to no difference in terms of cost between an employee and a freelancer. In addition to that, you also have to factor in the cost of firing an employee with a lot of seniority, or keeping him around despite your non-satisfaction with his work because of this cost.

The benefits

But more importantly, I see plenty of companies neglecting the benefits of working with freelance developers.

  1. By definition, they have to manage their own company, find their own customers, negotiate their own contracts, so entrepreneurship is at the heart of everything they do. They understand what it means to manage a business, and they don’t expect to be told what to do: they take initiatives and think creatively.
  2. They come with an all-inclusive package: no need to worry about company cars, vacations, insurances, gear renewal costs or training. All of that is taken care of by the freelancer himself.
  3. If you are not happy with their work, or your budget constraints change, or simply your needs evolve, you can stop the contract very easily. Agreed, it’s the same on the freelancer’s side, so you’d better offer him the best working conditions possible to keep him around, but that shouldn’t be an issue, should it? ;-)
  4. Given the importance of their reputation and the desirability of their profile, most freelancers train on all the latest trends can bring some really cutting-edge tech to your company.
  5. A key asset for any freelancer is his professional network. So he knows a lot of developers, which can be incredibly powerful when you raise a new round of funding and need to grow your team quickly.

In addition to all those reasons, considering the fact that most experienced developers have already made the switch, if you don’t want to work with freelancers, you cut yourself from an important crowd of some of the best developers around. And don’t expect to bring freelancers back into an employee status: given how much it costs to kill a company in Belgium, and all the freedoms he would have to give up, I know very few freelancers who would come back to being an employee. It’s simply not worth it.

The future

As a futurologist, I also feel the need to mention the fact that in my opinion, the employee status as a norm and default situation is fading away. More and more people are realizing that they need to adapt to a changing work environment at an ever accelerating rate. You need to train for new skills, acquire new knowledge. The very notion of career is being questioned and revisited more and more regularly. And in some industries, software development included, it’s not uncommon to work for companies anywhere in the world, from anywhere in the world. This trend is pushing more and more people to be independent workers, and even though governments and administrations are once again incredibly late in adapting to it, it doesn’t prevent us (even though it makes it incredibly painful sometimes) from doing it. It’ simply the sense of history, and it’s always frustrating to see so many awesome companies resist it, especially when they are supposed to be at the forefront of innovation.

Let’s talk about it

Given all that, I would love to hear more about the reasons why employers, and especially startup founders and managers don’t want to work with freelancers. I’m sure there are plenty of myths to be busted in there, and I’d be really happy to help. Also, if you are a freelance developer, and would like to share some interesting experience to share, let’s get the debate started in the comments of this post.

What a year!

Usually, this time of year, it’s time for looking back on the past months and reflect on what has been accomplished. Last year I didn’t even bother because I was simply too depressed. I spent a couple of weeks isolated in a chalet in Canada, I needed to regroup, I needed to flip a switch. And boy I did!

One year later, so many things have changed in my life it is scary to think about it… though energizing.

One of the biggest decisions I made during my cold retreat was to finally tackle the pain I’ve been struggling with ever since I was a child. I had started my first diet when I was 3 and struggled with my weight ever since. For the past three years, I have been working on the roots of this disease, of this malicious relationship I had with food. But it was time to face it head on and do something concrete about it. In January, I had my first appointment with a nutritionist at the Brussels Weight Loss Center, and it was the beginning of a long but inspiring journey. I was too far off to just go on another diet, the only durable solution for me was surgery, so I did what had to be done… and told the story of it (in French). The surgery happened in early July, and I’m very pleased to report that I have already lost 55 kilograms over the past 6 months… and counting. The goal is to go back to 100 and get out of medical obesity, so things are on track.

When I took the decision to have the surgery, I knew I needed some financial and professional stability, both to prepare myself and to recover properly. I couldn’t afford to live the stressful entrepreneur life anymore. So I accepted a new consultancy mission for a big bank. Sure it wasn’t fully aligned with my values and goals in life, but it paid the bills nicely and allowed me to focus some attention on my health. I started working there in early April this year and I learned a lot. Then a few months ago, a Belgian friend of mine who had moved to San Francisco and joined a promising startup there told me they might soon need some help on their technical team. It was not an immediate need, but I started dreaming of settling in this city that I love. Then a couple weeks ago he got back to me. That was it, they needed someone now! My relocation plans had changed a little (I’ll tell you how) but I really wanted to join them. I talked to him, I talked to the CEO, I met the backend developer… and the deal was sealed in enthusiasm. So starting in January, I’m back in the startup world, but not with my own company. I’m a developer for Instaply and I’m thrilled about it.

Last (not really), but not least, I told you my relocation plans have changed in the past few weeks. Here’s why. When I took the decision to have gastric bypass surgery, it was thanks to a lot of online resources and especially testimonials from other patients who told their story in videos from a few months before to a few years after the procedure. It really helped me ease my concerns about the surgery, its consequences, its challenges and the overall journey that was ahead of me. Lucky for me I understand English without too much trouble. But then it struck me that very few French-speaking patients dared to talk about it, which allowed a lot of false ideas to spread, and the surgery to be somewhat shameful in the French-speaking world. So I took it upon myself to create my own Youtube channel, my own community, my own blog, with a triple goal in mind:

  • Inspire patients
  • Educate their family and friends
  • Inform the general public

But there was one side effect I didn’t anticipate: those videos allowed me to find my special someone. I thought that after I would get back my self esteem as the result of getting back in my own driver seat, I would have a crazy “catch up” period, having fun, meeting a lot of people, getting out and not taking things seriously. But as often in life, surprises are even better. She had the same surgery I did, she watched my videos, she called me to ask questions and share her experience with me, and we quickly noticed we shared much more than an obesity journey. I used to find this concept very overrated, but now I can tell you with full certainty that I found my soulmate. She is everything I had never hoped for, she makes me feel more alive than ever, she makes me enjoy every moment of life, here and now, like I never could, and believe me when I tell you that’s quite a feat. Things went incredibly fast between us, but it was just obvious, and being far away from her became so painful, that I took the decision to move back to France, near where she lives, and be happy there. Now of course this relationship and decision to move come with greater responsibility too, because she has two kids who are going to be part of my life too. But even though I’m fully aware of the challenges ahead of me, I’m not scared. It’s fair! And this move is fully compatible with me working remotely from home for Instaply, so everything is just perfect.

So… new body… new job… new girl… and kids. What did I forget? Oh yeah! Back in October we went to TechCrunch Disrupt in Berlin with the PeerTrust team. PeerTrust is this side project we had been working on for 18 months, trying to find a solution to this trust problem that made Kodesk (my first startup) fail. And PeerTrust failed to raise the enthusiasm that was necessary to keep us on track. So we decided to stop working on it. But on the other hand, it was obvious that we enjoyed working together very much, and none of us wanted to be a consultant for big companies our entire lives. That’s when it struck us: why not create our own agency, work for customers we chose, with our own tools and more importantly with our preferred team. Hence was born ZeTeam! I won’t go too much in detail about it yet, because things are still in their infancy, but suffice it to say that if you or someone you know is looking for innovative and pragmatic software solutions for their business, feel free to contact us or keep in touch. I’ll definitely keep you updated here in the coming weeks.

So there we go. 2013 is soon coming to an end. I’m on my way to enjoy the best holidays of my life, then 2 months between 2 jobs, finishing my mission for the bank and ramping up on my Instaply work, and then moving back to France with my sweetheart in March. Things are very exciting. So have a merry christmas, a happy new year, and don’t forget your destiny lies in your own hands. Be happy, and you will be even happier.