How to use Agile approach when you are a solopreneur or freelancer

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When we talk about Agile we usually mean a collaboration between self-organizing and cross-functional teams but what if “the team” is a single freelancer or single entrepreneur (solopreneur)? I mean here a “one-man orchestra” who has to wear different hats on daily basis to get things done and meet clients needs.  

One man orchestra - Photo by Electra



If you feel super overwhelmed and don’t know where to begin, taking a step back and looking at things from “agile perspective” might be the best possible move.  You might think that the Agile is only for the “software guys” but in fact, it could be used in many different contexts. For instance, the Scrum Agile framework has been used to help college students to get more productive with their chemistry assignments. One of the areas I’ve used the Agile approach in the past was when I was working on opening my online store FromNature.Ca. It gave the clarity, deep focus on the project goals as well as a better understanding of the project scope and possible changes that might happen but most importantly it helped me to get “into the zone”  – the flow as described by positive psychology.

Here is my short manual how to make Agile work for you if you are a freelancer or solopreneur:

Step 1 – Define your distractions and estimate your time budget

This is the very basis for any successful project. Knowing exactly how many hours in the week we have available to get things done. Count the hourly time you allocate to other activities – grocery shopping, cleaning, commuting, social & family life or even time spent on browsing social media channels and making yourself a coffee – all of it! What you have left is the actual time you have available for the job.

Step 2 – Start your project backlog

Start writing down all the tasks that need to be done to start selling. If this is the very beginning of a business idea  – look at it from two different angles:

User perspective  Have you conducted research to define their needs? If not, that would be one of the first things on your project backlog.

Business owner perspective – what you need to accomplish to make this business fully operating.

Use spreadsheet or Project Management tools such as Trello or Asana (both of them allow to export spreadsheets anyway). Keep it simple. I would define the complexity of a single task as an activity that could be accomplished in one sitting. Perhaps your project will have several “inside-projects” (milestones) such as creating a website or completion of the restaurant interior design.

For better readability, I’ve decided to split my backlog into 3 “compartments” containing grouped categories of tasks:

1. Product Management – Product research and creating user stories, market analysis, testing, inventory, sale channels, logistics, packaging, communication with the supplier,all legally required documentation for import and sale processes.

2. Marketing and branding – Brand strategy, social media strategy, communication with clients, website design and SEO, photos, newsletters, marketing copy, and collaterals.

3. Business operations – business structure, licensing, insurance, financing, taxes, business metrics, an online store with all the necessary tools to run it ( content management system, web hosting, plugins, security, online payments, domain, etc.).

What about meetings, phone calls, and email communication? Are they the backlog tasks too? Yes! They are but you could allocate let’s say 1 daily hour for emails and phone calls under a single task. In the case of freelancing the workload could be categories by different clients. Keep in mind that this is not a set project plan but a living document. Agile emphasizes here responding to change rather than trying to strictly follow the initial “to-do” list.  

Step 3 – Estimate the time slot for each task

Take it as a starting point, so don’t dwell too much on precision. If you have an overall understanding of how long certain things will take – fantastic! If not  – just put your assumptions. Be aware of the planning fallacy – a behavioral phenomenon of human nature. In a nutshell – the majority of people tend to underestimate the time needed to complete their tasks. We will compare our estimations with the actual time spent on the tasks, later on, so it will help you become more precise along the way. Another advantage of keeping estimated and actual time logs will provide you with the total time predictions for the scope and metrics for similar future projects.

Step 4 – Prioritize your tasks

Label your tasks according to their importance:

1. Necessary 

2. Additional

This part is tricky because it often feels like ALL the tasks are necessary.  What really helps here is asking yourself what is the minimum workload that needs to be done to start selling ( Minimum Viable Product). Then define which tasks need to be done first because they block or might block other activities from the list.

Step 5 – Design your sprint and sprint backlog

And now we are getting down to the business. First, we will split our work time into intervals know in Agile as sprints. I would suggest on doing them weekly (5 work days) or biweekly basis (10 work days). They are easier to manage and create a mindset of focusing on short deadlines and getting the job done faster.  

Sprint Planning

I would kickstart my weekly sprint on Monday morning with a planning the  sprint – taking the tasks from the main project backlog(and if necessary from the previous sprint) and assigning them for the following week keeping in mind the time limit I have available for the actual work week ( the time budget from step 1) + extra contingency hours for planning and possible changes in the sprint backlog ( Try with 3 hours for the beginning). At one point I’ve started planning my sprints on the last day of the previous sprint which in this case would be Friday.

The most important part here – rather than randomly taking the tasks from the list I would focus on designing my sprint the way it would allow me to accomplish something “shippable” – possible even a milestone or an important part of it such as finishing and editing products photos our setting up the online store. Some deliverables have to be finished. 

weekly sprint

My personal sprint board


I would write down each task on a sticky note with the estimated completion time. Then here comes the whiteboard with 4 columns:

1. To do

2. In progress

3. In revision

4. Done!

All the sprint tasks would be placed to the “To Do” row which would be my sprint backlog and slowly moved it over to the next one depending on the completion stage.   At this stage, I would use such a tool as Toggl or Clockify to measure the length of each task. 

Upon finishing it I would write down in my main backlog the actual time it took me to complete it and the date of completion. 

Daily Revisions

I would start each day as a typical  Scrum/Agile team revising:

1.What I’ve done yesterday

2. What I’m planning to do today

3. Are there any blockers/issues that need to be addressed

This would be a perfect moment to analyze the sprint backlog – possibly remove some tasks, add new ones or update the time estimations if necessary.

Sprint Retrospective

It feels absolutely ecstatic if all your sticky notes are landing in the “Done” row but let’s face the reality that not every week looks like that. Some tasks might be moved to the next sprint. The end of the sprint it’s a good occasion to reflect:

1. What went well?

2. What didn’t go well?

3. How can I improve the working process?

In some cases, retrospective would happen after getting important feedback from my client or vendor and it would require revision of the main backlog.

Conclusion

If you prefer to keep an online board with Trello, Asana etc.- great, you can actually leverage it as communication/reporting tool with your clients/business partners/vendors too. I haven’t decided yet which if I prefer a whiteboard or an online tool. It feels like the whiteboard is more “intrusive” in mental persuasion to get the job done, especially when you place it right next to your desk.

Project management



Pros of using Agile of a single person setting

Well, there is plenty. Work gets done. Planning feels like an automated routine. There is not much room for overthinking and complexity doesn’t feel scary anymore. It’s also not that hard to implement, so the routine creation process is considerably short.

Cons

In the beginning, it might feel like an extra workload to run the backlog updates, write down the sticky notes, etc. Also, you might find yourself in the state of the “analysis paralysis”. The essence of the Agile approach is that the work done is more important than comprehensive documentation. I found a trick to deal with it and finish planning and backlog updates faster – If you look at the backlog/sprint planning process as NOT the “actual” work ( even though it is on your tasks list) it will be much easier to jump into action.

I hope you will find this system useful and perhaps you’ve already implemented your own business agility. Let me know in the comments below.


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