5 Must Haves Before You Start Consulting

Please join me at IT/Dev Connections on Oct. 12 at 8:00AM where I’ll be hosting a Birds of a Feather session “Moving to Independent Consulting” Bring your questions!*

Yes, an 8:00AM session in Las Vegas, but if you’re serious about going out on your own…you’ll already be up :)*

The most common questions I’m asked during networking sessions at technical conferences and events aren’t technical! People want to know what it’s like being an independent consultant. Things like how to get started and what to look out for are common themes.  So I wanted to share the some of the discussion points I bring up when I’m having these conversations. In this post I’m going to boil it down to the top 5 “must haves” before you start consulting, there’s certainly more…many books have been written about it!

  1. Defining Your Niche This is what you’re going to sell, the thing that your client wants or needs. It’s crucial that you specialize in an area. For me I have a very wide breadth of knowledge but I also have extraordinary depth in many areas. This is due to the excessive :) amount of education and training I’ve put myself through and also my career experiences. That all makes me an exceptional problem solver. The domain of the problem doesn’t matter that much. Give me the information and I’ll work out a solution. But guess what, “problem solver” doesn’t sell! Why? Because when people are looking for consultants, they’re looking for someone to make their problems to go away. These are usually very well defined problems. So define what you’re exceptional at doing, that’s what you’re going to sell. Write it down. Try to build a paragraph out of those ideas. That will be your pitch to your client. This is such a crucial step. It defines who you are to your client. For me I’ve used marketing consultants and mentors to help define my niche. The consultants I’ve worked with are worth every penny and the mentors are invaluable. The funny thing is I’m still fine tuning this. 

  2. Finding the Right Client Once you know what your niche is, you need to identify who you’re marketing to, the consumer of your services. I’d like to be able to say that this “must have” is the most important but they’re all so crucial to success. Who purchases your services and what does that client look like? For me, the people that want my services are Chief (CIO) or Director level people that have a well defined problem to solve that they can’t solve with their internal resources. This can be a system performance issue, high availability design related or an overall system scalability issue. These are the people that make the decisions and sign the contacts. Now the people I work with are the individual contributors on the teams. The architects, engineers and administrators, we develop the solutions and solve the problems, together. What I’ve learned through the years is I like working in smaller teams that have big, interesting problems. So in this sense, size matters. Smaller teams are more agile and as a individual consultant I can affect more positive change in a smaller amount of time. This isn’t entirely going to exclude a potential client, but is something I look at closely when onboarding a new client. Because…personality matters! You need to find a group that you sync up with well. Would you want to go out after work with your team? For me that’s a big facet of finding the right client. Because when you’re in a conference room for hours working out a solution, if you get along with your client, everything will work better. What this all boils down to is…don’t just take any work. This idea is core to your success. You need to be happy with the work you’re performing and who your performing it for. If you’re enjoying it, you’ll produce better results and your client will be happy. Simple enough.

  3. Pricing Your Services You’re worth more than you think, for whatever reason it’s human nature not set your value accurately. It’s also our nature as consultants to want to make our clients happy. But when it comes to setting your rate…you both need to be happy. Think about it this way, if you give a client a huge discount today and later a perfect client comes along at your normal rate, who are you going to want to spend most of your time with? Your focus shifts and your original client isn’t getting the attention they deserve and their satisfaction decreases. Remember, we’re in the business of keeping clients happy! There’s tons of empirical data on the Internet for setting the actual dollar amount based on you’re skills so I won’t go into that. The key here is setting a value that you and your client are pleased with. After a while, your client will care less about your rate because you’re providing value. Solving problems, making their lives easier.

  4. Time Management I’m going to be honest, this is my Achilles heel. It’s hard. In fact, scheduling is proven to be NP Hard :) Again there’s tons of data in the web about this and here’s what I do.

    • Time blocking - most of my clients have me on a retainer. I work for them for a fixed amount of time each month (This ties in with pricing, longer term contracts mean better rates for clients and more consistent work for me). But we’re in IT and somethings will take longer than you’ve expected or sometimes something will blow up for one client when you’ve allocated that day to another client. So I allocate my calendar based on my commitments and leave a whole day, each week, for that potential skew. If a client loses time during their scheduled allocation because of a fire, I allocate time out of that extra day. 

    • Every day make a list - every morning I sit down and literally write down in a notebook what I need to get done that day. If it’s a big project, break it down into smaller tasks and do those. Doing this provides you a metal boost, a sense of accomplishment. It motivates you to keep moving. 

    • Get up early - I wake up around 4:30AM. Yea, don’t laugh. I use this time to wade the sea of email I get and make that list I just told you about. I also read blogs and do the social media thing during this time. It’s my time, the rest of the working day will be my clients’ time. 

    • Outsource everything you don’t like doing - Find things you can get rid of and give them to someone else to do for you.

      • Billing - in theory this is not completely outsourced as I do my own time and billing. I use Freshbooks for my accounting package, which makes this insanely easy. Freshbooks does all my timekeeping for billable hours, invoicing and expenses. It literally takes me 10 minutes to send bills to clients that include line item details of hours worked and expenses with receipts attached. 

      • Get an accountant - taxes are hard and time consuming. I used to like doing them myself, but I found I spent three to four days a year working on this. Not an effective use of my time. 

  5. Protecting You and Your Client

    • Find an attorney you trust - Have him/her write a general contract for your services with your terms. This will be the base for your negotiations with your client. You’ll send it over to them and if they have a legal team, which many clients do, they’ll send back a version with revisions and sent that right back to your attorney. I have my attorney review every contract, my eyes literally cross when I read them (Disclaimer: I am not an attorney, but I offer my experiences to you as a consultant).
    • Insurance - Be certain to have some sort of protection for yourself, there’s many types of insurances for businesses. Some I’ve seen are general liability, professional liability and even cyber liability. On the grand scheme of things these things don’t cost a lot of money and can really help you out of something goes south!

I hope this post gets you started on your road to independent consulting. Take the time to sit down and think about what your motivations are, set some goals and like any technical project you’ve ever worked on build a plan and do all the thinking up front!

Check out these references I used in this post

The Secrets of Consulting - Gerald Weinberg

Brent Ozar’s Personal Blog