It was one of the low points of my life: After breaking my ass to build a business for about a dozen years I watched everything go down the drain in just a few short months during the dot.bomb crash of 2001 until 2003. My entire world fell apart on both a meta level (watching 9/11 and then seeing Silicon Alley 1.0 fade away) and on a personal level (seeing friends I worked with for years move on). But in the aftermath I vowed to rebuild, and along the way I learned a few valuable lessons.
To me things seem very bad right now, but on some level what’s going on isn’t quite as bad for the tech sector as things were during the dot.com crash. Now this isn’t to say that folks aren’t hurting, but that last crash seemed very specific to the tech sector while this crash seems to be hitting everyone everywhere. My gut feeling is that the worst may not be over, so with this in mind here are my tips (both small and large) from what I’ve learned:
Upgrade the Old Clunker
As geeks we’re surrounded by advertising for new toys all the time: Hell it’s the lifeblood of the industry! As new software upgrades and operating systems come out a realistic geek will know that it’s time to get new hardware: But in a recession that might not be a good bet. For starters ome might be tempted to shave a few dollars off by getting a lesser model computer — but the one problem with this strategy is that if you buy an underpowered computer you’ll be hitting the same problem again in a year or so. Instead of putting that purchase on your credit card a better bet might be to keep your old computer but upgrade the memory.
Most of us don’t fully stock our boxes with all the RAM that they can take, and the nice thing is that as time goes by RAM prices drop. More RAM means that those upgrades might be able to run smoother. Another thing that you might do is to install a new harddrive as the price for storage becomes cheaper everyday. Granted this may only buy you an extra six months to a year, but that can give you time to save cash — in addition when you’re done with that computer it will make a better hand-me-down for friends and family.
It may be too late if you purchased that giant entertainment system for the living room on your credit card, but now might be a good time to divest from old media especially if you don’t have any affinity for it! Cancel that cable TV account, sure keep the broadband but give serious thought is cable is worth it. Also cancelling your newspaper and magazine subscriptions isn’t just a great way to save cash but it’s also good for the environment.
Another way to get back for the buck is to subscribe to free podcasts to fill your iPod, Zune or mp3 player of your choice: Good sources of tech podcasts include ITConversations, the TWIT network and my current favorite This Week in Startups. Another place to check out is the audio books project at Project Gutenberg which does include a good selection of human-read books (including Edgar Rice Burroughs).
Also make libraries your friend: The quality of public libraries varies from town-to-town but you’d be surprised what you might find there. Also sometimes if your local library doesn’t have something they’ll be willing to do an inter-library loan if you’re looking for something specific. And if you’re in the market for analog entertainment you should also make the bargain bin your friend. As DVDs give way to digital we’ll start to see many bargains all over the place.
If you start looking around you’d be surprised where you waste money on an ongoing basis. The best technique to do this is to examine your credit card statements and ask if there’s a cheaper way to do something. A while ago I started to get hammered every now and then by my hosting company for daring to have the good luck to get lucky at some social news websites every now and then. It was never a huge charge, but $100 here and there adds up after a while — so I went shopping and found a new host. Now granted you have to be careful because service does count for something, but know in a recession in a commodity business like hosting it pays to shop around.
I also recently got angry at Symantec who loves to charge for copies of Norton Antivirus a year after you forgot that you purchased a plan. They just love this racket because it’s a great stream of income for a badly designed product. To cure this recently I uninstalled every copy I had of the program (and on some old testing machines I forgot that I had it installed on) and replaced it with the free version of AVG AntiVirus. Granted it was only a small amount of money but every time I come across a print out with a Norton product key I smile to myself that I’m paying nothing for a better product.
Track Your Time (on the Cheap)
As more of techies go freelance tracking your own time is a great way to focus on your income stream. In fact even if you work for someone else, if they see that you’re serious about how you spend their dollars on your salary the more likely you’ll survive the next rounds of cuts. My suggestion in this area is to be cheap, after all it’s more important to get into the habit of tracking your time rather than buying a fancy bit of software to make you feel better.
On the Windows side I’ve been recently playing with the gadgets Activity Tracker and Activity Timer. Tracker is great is you’ve got several tasks to track, for example I found it perfect for measuring the ratio of billable time to goofing off time. While the interface was a bit ugly it would keep reminding me that I didn’t pay for some fancy system that would gather dust. Activity Timer on the other hand is just a simple stop watch, however that’s perfect if you’re looking to track a single task. It should be noted that there are also similar shareware and freeware packages for other operating systems.
Losing Your Religion
No I’m not talking about God, but rather the bad habit that techies get into about having a favorite flavor of operating system or software vendors. Firstly in a downturn you don’t want to have your personal preference close any doors on you, and secondly trying something new in and of itself may open doors.
So if you’re a Microsoft geek, be open to open source — but the same principal goes the other way too. In a downturn companies like Microsoft need developers more than ever before, so if you’re an open source fan don’t let that stop you from looking at a program that may have some marketing dollars behind it. Now of course this may require an investment of time, which brings me to my next point:
Teach an Old Dog New Tricks
If you’ve got any serious amount of downtime a recession is the best time to learn new technologies and techniques. When you’re doing this to a certain degree you’ve got to take into account if the stock of a particular tool is going up or down. For example Ruby on Rails seemed to what you wanted to know during the web 2.0 boom, but right now that may not be the best investment of your time. So you have to think of your time learning something new as an actual investment, because it really is in terms of the market.
If the tool you want to learn costs money, think of a low budget way to acquire it. For example sometimes there may be a developers or educators discount for software. In fact sometimes if you have a track record doing something else you can use that to get into a beta track with a company. And of course in a down market open source software makes all the more sense.
Go Out and Have Fun
Given that I just advised to track your time and hunker down this bit of advice seems a bit counterintuitive, but there’s a method behind my madness: In a recession you need to reconnect and network with as many people as you can for job security. First should you be sacked you’ll need to call on this network for favors, and you don’t want to be doing it out of the blue.
So taking time and going to industry events, bootcamps and especially non-geek events is a great idea. Normally you don’t want to be known as the computer expert because you may be asked for free favors, but in this environment being known for that may be a saving grace. Of course networking with people is a two way road, you’ve got to help others which brings me to my next point:
Help Out-of-Work Friends Get Jobs
On paper this looks like the most selfless thing that you can do, but there’s actually a very selfish reason you always want to do this: Because if folks are decent on the way up — they may just remember you if you’re ever on the way down.
And in a recession people are playing a giant game of musical chairs, so when one person moves on they might just remember you in the future. Now it’s true not everyone will remember you, but it is a small world out there and sooner or later the odds go in your favor for being a nice person. Which brings me to this point:
Be Charitable (with Your Time)
As a techie you have a skill that others can use if they’re trying to do something that benefits the community. This can be a good opportunity to step outside the world of geeks and network with people from other walks of life who may think of you down the road. Over the last two Presidential campiagns I made it a point to give my time the best way I knew I could: Behind a mouse and keyboard! And I’m happy to say that a few of the folks still keep in touch a few years later.
By the way this doesn’t have to apply to something political — it can be helping out any group from your local PTA to church group. It can be something as serious as a cancer walk to something as silly as a sci fi convention. The point is to get out of your batcave and mingle, even if you’re spending more time at a job where fewer people are doing more work than ever before (assuming you’re not in the middle of some sort of software death march project).
Invest in Self Promotion
Of course all of this networking is useless unless you follow up on some level. Following up can mean just giving someone an easy way to get in touch. Now when it comes to non-techies it may be important to keep in mind that they can’t follow you on Twitter and maybe even Facebook, so this is a great time to spend just a little bit of money and get personal business cards for networking events.
Also if you’ve been neglecting your personal web domain, now might be the time to fix it up a bit and make it more professional. This way if people are searching for you, you’ll make a good impression right away. This doesn’t mean something fancy, just something that’s simple and up-to-date. And of course if you run your own business (on any level) now is the time for serious marketing. Recessions are when your competition draws back into their strengths which in turn may open new doors.
This is Your Time to Start a Startup
When I look back on most of the successful new companies that I come across they all seem to have one thing in common: They were all started during the recession right after the last dot.com crash. In fact I’m sort of amazed that pretty much all of the creme-of-the-crop web 2.0 companies were started just after all the smart folks were saying that the web was hot air.
Now frankly not every startup will turn into the next Google, in fact most startups will fail. But what’s important to think about is if you are seriously thinking of making the leap to a startup this may be the best time to do it. Of course this leap isn’t for the faint hearted, but if you’ve caught yourself thinking “what if” now may be the time to get serious.
Also not all startups need to be a full time commitment: Now might be the best time to start a part time business. This can be something practical like IT support or something more out there like that crazy web 2.0 website you’ve always wanted to try. The nice thing about this is that to start either type of business requires an investment of time, but not much capital which tends to be lacking in a recession.
Always Have a Plan B, C and D
If you’ve got the luxury of being in a good place keep in mind that it may not last forever, so it’s always a good idea to have a “plan B” of what you might do if the unexpected happens. This could mean anything from having an emergency fund to something as easy as having your resume in order. And this shouldn’t mean just having one plan, but other plans as well for other situations (for example: what of your company needed to move out of town?).
By the way some of the earlier points I covered may allow you to have a “plan B”: For example learning a new technology may make you more marketable if you’ve lost your job. Or networking with non-techies may open the door to opening some new doors.