By Shannon Wright
"My clients see me as the classic Gen X-er, taking my own path," Kaufman says. "They see me as a 'have dog-kayak-tent, will travel' type, and it appeals to them."
Every few months, Jody Kaufman throws his camping gear, laptop, and dog into his truck and heads off to spend several weeks traveling.
No, just independent. "I want to live my life rather than having it live me," says Kaufman, a twentysomething new media consultant and designer. An avid athlete and outdoorsman, he spends his weeks off kayaking, hiking, and biking.
"On my last vacation, I traveled 13,000 miles in six weeks and focused my time in the Pacific Northwest," Kaufman says. "Most trips involve a visit to San Francisco and Jackson Hole." In February, he'll be skiing in Washington; in March, Europe.
As the ranks of independent professionals swell with those disenchanted by a nine-to-five punch-in workday, Kaufman is living the dream: a maverick (and portable) life. While many IPs dream of taking a lengthy vacation, they may also fear it's beyond their reach. Having several projects going at once often precludes a long getaway, and in the scramble for contracts and referrals, some fear that being out of commission for too long will make clients move on to someone else.
Going Au Naturel
Kaufman, however, hasn't encountered any of those problems.
"My clients see me as the classic Gen X-er, taking my own path," Kaufman says. "They see me as a 'have dog-kayak-tent, will travel' type, and it appeals to them." This may have something to do with his field.
In new media, where creativity and an unorthodox approach to problems are coveted qualities, Kaufman's freewheeling life may be seen as indicative of those qualities. "Recently a client took me out to dinner and said, 'Thank you for helping us think outside the box,'" Kaufman says.
Still, isn't it rather odd that clients remain loyal to a freelancer who isn't available all the time? How much time does he spend on the road? "Some, not tons," he says. "I'm not spending 25 percent of my time on vacation."
Kaufman isn't worried that clients will check out other freelancers while he's traveling around. "I have a pretty small client base, but if they looked at other freelancers, that wouldn't bother me," he says. He believes that his clients remain loyal for two reasons: quality and price. "I do pretty damn good work for my folks," he says. "And I can do my work for half of what other people charge."
Kaufman doesn't worry about clients checking out other IPs while he's on vacation. His clients remain loyal for two reasons: quality and price. "I do pretty damn good work for my folks," he says. "And I can do my work for half of what other people charge."
But don't let Kaufman's no-worries attitude towards client relations fool you. The guy's a pro. He goes far out of his way to maintain good relationships with his current clients. Whether he's skiing abroad or hiking in Washington, he always stays connected to his clients via email. "I send out an email once a week -- sometimes I attach pictures -- and keep them up to date." He sends emails to anybody who inquires about his trips ("Some office secretaries want to be added to the list," he says). And to make sure that clients really feel the love, he sends postcards (the old-fashioned physical kind) to a select few. "That goes so far -- it goes miles," he says.
He's looking to tie his work even more closely to his vacations. Right now, for example, he travels with a laptop, but he can't do color work on it. "For my next trip," he says, "I probably will travel with an entire PC. You get to a point where you can only leave your business for so long."
However, it seems like he doesn't need to worry: Kaufman's personality and skills have produced clients who don't desert him while he's on the open road.
That's not to say that new clients aren't startled when he announces his intention to head off for parts unknown. "They ask a lot of questions," he laughs. "'What about your house?' Or 'You're bringing your dog?'" He announced his last trip this summer, he says, by saying, "I'm getting out of here before the hot months -- be back in September when things cool off."
"They always say, 'Wow,'" Kaufman says. "Hard for many of the corporate types to imagine."
Sayonara to Silicon Valley
This kind of freedom used to be hard for Terry Dork to imagine, too. A computer programmer and software engineer, Dork was a wage slave for more than two decades, specializing in embedded systems, like the computers in automobiles and telephones.
It was when he realized that he was becoming physically ill driving to his office in Silicon Valley every day that he decided he needed a radical change.
"Life is a limited commodity and I wanted to see something else of the world while I still had eyes and ears to use," says computer consultant Terry Dork.
"I just got sick, nearly literally at first, of really crappy jobs," says Dork of the nervous tension and dread that was making him feel ill. "Life is a limited commodity and I wanted to see something else of the world while I still had eyes and ears to use."
Dork decided to turn a yen for travel into a career move: after seven employers in 23 years, he turned to short-term contracting in 1990. Since then, by working intensively on one project for a few months and then taking a few months off, he and his wife, Chiyemi, have had ample time for travel and leisure.
"Last year we went to Guatemala," Dork says. "The year before it was Japan, Bali, Thailand, and Hong Kong. We love to travel."
A Life of Leisure
Warning: not every IP can afford this sort of exotic vacation. In fact, you have to reach a healthy level of success before indulging in some major-league wanderlust.
While Dork's arrangement of "a few months on, a few months off" is "not common at all," Dork acknowledges, "you'd have to be a complete idiot not to have built up some sort of financial reserves after working in the world's hottest profession for more than two decades, and I'm not that, I hope."
"Switching jobs often is a plus," Dork adds. "My skills are at an all-time high even though I'm 58 years old." Changing projects frequently keeps him abreast of what's new in his field, so he can specialize in what's hot at the moment.
And knowing that the next extensive break is not far away gives him a "this-too-shall-pass" mentality for dealing with irksome clients and tasks. In his last job, the director of human resources treated him disparagingly "because I was a contractor and not a 'real employee,'" Dork says. "For three and a half months, I can take nearly anything. It's like being incarcerated: determinate sentence or life without parole?"
Maintaining his clientele has never been a problem, particularly in a field that continues to grow exponentially as all sectors come to rely more heavily on computers. "The people that hire me aren't looking for stability or dogged persistence," Dork says. "I've only had the same clients a couple of times and if they don't want me back, I couldn't care less. There are more fish in the ocean and new ones being born all the time."
And how do his colleagues respond? "They respond with complete understanding," Dork says. "I'm doing what they want to do. My only regret is that I didn't do it sooner."
For now, his attention turns to the next trip, now in the planning stages. He and his family might go back to Guatemala, he muses; Turkey, Greece, and Italy are on the short list as well. "There's so much to see," Dork says. "Why wait to retire to start?"