The price of focus

What a difference a year makes. This time last year, I had finished an early prototype of my pet project of an Irish-focused tech magazine and was shopping it around to potential advertisers, contributors and partners. I had also successfully convinced the best designer I know, Stewart Curry, to be its design director. Just a side project, no big woop.


Idea magazine on other devices


Fast-forward 365 days. With five issues of Idea magazine published, we’re now working full-time on Woopie, our platform for producing digital publications and just won a place in the new Wayra Academy in Dublin. There are a lot of reasons Wayra is a great fit for us: the great network opportunities, solid start-ups to share with & learn from, huge support from a company that knows mobile & devices, the community space Wayra provides, etc. But to be honest, the greatest benefit for me right now is the freedom to focus.


Woopie platform screenshot


Focus in any business is both critical and expensive. Building companies from scratch is costly, and until the businesses are generating revenue, you have to find other ways to pay your bills. It was important to me that we not go looking for money until we had something of value. I was wary of giving away our company before we even had anything, and bootstrapping was the right thing to do. So in order to fund my two companies which generate no revenue yet and cost me a lot of my own money, I have continued doing freelance work over the last year. Teaching in the evenings, client projects during evenings & weekends, contract work a couple of days a week, a day or two each week dedicated to Idea work, another couple of days for Woopie, and any additional time filled with community events and volunteering. Eventually, something had to give.

Earlier this summer, I began examining what I could hand off. I had many conversations with myself that went like this:

“But honestly, running this event only takes a few emails and a couple of blog posts each month.”

“But I really like volunteering, and it teaches me a lot about designing for users with different needs.”

“But I still have all of these great ideas for organisation X, I can’t abandon it now.”

In the end it comes down to the opportunity cost of focus. I am very grateful to Gareth Stenson for taking over OpenCoffee Dublin and the dynamic duo of Jeannette Vollmer and Christina Lynch for taking over and reviving Girl Geek Dinners. I have stepped down from volunteer work and teaching for now and have minimized community activities and speaking gigs.

All of these things are useful and have been invaluable in my career so far. But they each have a price. Even running an organisation which is free and involves “just a couple of blog posts” has a price. That price is focus. Every time I have to switch context, I lose time. I am slower at things. Developing all day in one language, going home to develop in another, and mentally working through different solutions takes a lot longer when you switch contexts frequently. Even setting up different work environments and rebuilding machines takes a not-insignificant amount of time.


Focus dictionary definition image

                 image courtesy of


Being a part of Wayra means we get to focus on Woopie above everything else for the foreseeable future. It means I can expend all of my energy on working with customers, solving problems and building a great experience. I thought I would be reluctant to give away a part of our company, however small, but surprisingly it felt like exactly the right thing to do. Instead, it validated our approach so far and told us we are on to something that other people can believe in, too.

So instead of feeling like we were giving something away, it felt like we were being given the very precious gift of focus. It’s going to be a very busy six months as we revise our product fit and finish based on our customers’ feedback, and continue to design and build Woopie, but I could not be more excited.

Transitioning From Working in an Office to Working From Home

There are many different adjustments required when you move from working in an office for someone else to working from home by yourself. For me, one of the challenges has been scheduling time to catch up with people. 

While working at Microsoft as an evangelist, part of my job involved meeting up with people, grabbing a coffee and finding out what they’re working on, often to see if there might be a helpful solution for them in Microsoft’s developer tools and frameworks. I enjoyed the chance to get out of Sandyford, visit other offices and just generally hear about interesting projects.

Now as I am working from home in Dun Laoghaire for myself and billing clients, I find the days absolutely fly by and I have precious little time to get everything done that I want to do.  Spending three hours to head in to town, meet someone for lunch or coffee and then head back south, is now a luxury that I can’t always make time for.  The hard thing about this is that it was a part of my job that I really loved, so it can be tough to say no to people because saying yes often comes at the cost of working late into the night or being behind on projects (and sometimes both).

Yesterday I asked Twitter how people do this, how they turn down people whether it’s because they no longer have the time, the conversations are less relevant or they don’t want to give away consultation work for free.  I received some very interesting, mostly useful answers and thought I would share them. It seems to be something many folks have dealt with or are anticipating dealing with, so I hope this is useful for others as it was for me.


“Sure I’ll let you know when I’m out your way.”

Suggest a halfway point or post-work hours where it’s handy for both

Tell them you now have to be strict with your breaks, now that you’re a freelancer.

Post something on Twitter about how you no longer have free time to meet for coffee :-)

Tell them you’re very busy with your new consultancy, etc. and that they can schedule a site visit or such

“I am sorting my belly button fluff for a mixed media presentation.”

Be honest about how busy you are and how valuable your time is.

It’s good to talk so fit them in if possible; a good test is to get them to come to you.

“No, but I can meet up after 6pm. And you’re buying the coffee.” :-)

I’ve decided nothing in life is free, so either do a free consultation if they’re going to pay, otherwise they can pay for just the consultation.

Barter. One hour of my time consulting on my specialty, then one hour on what they know about or another trade for which they’re paid.

Pre-invoice them for the time.

Invite them to your office to save your travel time.

Handle it with a call. Give high level information on the main changes needed and 2-3 examples from their site/app.

Pop over for a coffee and I’ll tell you how to deal with this!

Tell them to meet you at fastfit where there are loadsa types.

You gotta be blunt, it’s not show friends, it’s show business!


Many thanks to @blowdart, @janeruffino, @jkeyes, @mike_ireland, @jamfer09, @CAMURPHY, @dermdaly, @jaimekristene, @dotnetster, @enormous, @irishstu, @lucidplot, @User_Story, and @WebDublin for your very helpful ideas and tips.