So You Want to Be a Consultant
I've been consulting full-time since 1996. I started consulting in 1992 as a part-time endeavor—after work, in the evenings, and on weekends. I began consulting part-time to bolster my income and gain experience in different disciplines; however, over time I found I also enjoyed working with business owners and executives on varied projects. I enjoyed having new challenges placed in front of me. I even enjoyed the sales and marketing activity associated with winning new clients.
Consulting part-time is a great way to develop the broad set of talents required for long-term success in full-time consulting. It's also far less stressful to jump into full-time consulting if you already have some paying clients supporting you.
Traits and Talents for Building Your Business
Let's talk about the traits and talents you'll likely need in order to be an effective consultant. First, you need to understand the difference between being a contractor and a consultant. I won't go into a lot of detail, but here's a simple distinction: If you're primarily getting work through another agency and placed on projects for a time, I would suggest you're not a consultant, but rather a contractor.
I define a consultant as one who's primarily responsible for winning clients, advising them on directions to take, providing hands-on work, and leading or advising others who are also doing work. In short, your role as a consultant is broader than simply providing a hard-skill with very little input into the project or solution as a whole. I don't claim that this definition is a hard-and-fast rule, or that it's the only definition. But, for this article, the definition works.
Traits for Success
I won't suggest that consultants fit a particular personality type, but I do believe certain traits help a consultant create a long-term and successful career:
- Proactive. Consultants must be self-directed and proactive. Not just in how they handle their client's business challenges, but in the pursuit of and management of their own careers. As an independent consultant, you'll probably be solely responsible for every aspect of your business, from sales and marketing to accounting and finance. Being proactive means you control your business, rather than being in "responding to crisis" mode.
- Broad in perspective, precise in action. Good consultants can see the impact of the advice and expertise they provide on a much broader scale than just the solutions for which they're responsible. This broad perspective ensures that your advice and the subsequent actions won't have a negative impact—and, hopefully, they'll have a positive impact—on the client's business, beyond the department or individuals working with you.
- Strong communication. As a consultant, particularly in information technology, you'll communicate with management, line managers, and technical staff. Your ability to understand and communicate with business leadership effectively, translate their desired outcomes into technical solutions, and then accurately explain those solutions to technical staff will be crucial to your long-term success.
Talents You'll Need
This article isn't about specific technical talents, but you need to know how much expertise is required to be an I.T. consultant. Quite simply, you need enough talent to solve enough clients' problems in order to be paid.
You don't need to be the top expert in five different technical disciplines, but you should have mastered one or two technologies. You also need to have an ability to transfer existing technical talent quickly to a new, similar technology. Many times, consultants are asked to provide a prototype or proof of concept of a solution that falls outside their direct area of expertise.
Your ability to transfer your existing technological knowledge to a new technology is highly valuable to your clients—they won't have to find another resource, because you're already trusted and you know their business. It's easier to have a known and trusted resource adopt a new technology than it is to find an external resource for that job.
You need two primary talents for successful full-time I.T. consulting:
- Business acumen. Business acumen should be one of your strongest talents as a consultant. Your ability to understand the business on both macro and micro levels will enable you to understand and recognize existing technologies and recognize which new technologies will best integrate into that environment. A strong understanding of the business also allows you to better translate business requirements and goals into technical solutions.
I refer to this talent as "Concept Over Process," and I've dedicated an entire chapter of my book to it. In my consulting company, it's the one talent I value over all others. Technical talents must change from year to year. Great business knowledge and understanding is a transcendent talent of high value.
- Business development. This talent is primarily for your internal business growth. If you don't believe that a consultant is also in sales and marketing, you're setting yourself up for failure. Having a consistent pipeline of new potential projects is required in order to stabilize your income. Failing in this area will result in a feast-or-famine business that is extremely stressful.
I discuss this topic in more detail in my book, but here's a shortlist of sales and marketing activities you'll need to practice effectively: cold-calling/prospecting; asking for referrals; publishing articles, white papers, and tutorials; and providing workshops. You probably won't need to be engaged in each of these activities on a weekly basis, but you should allocate some time each week to stabilizing your income through effective sales and marketing.
Licensing and Structuring Your Business
You need to check with your local governmental agencies regarding questions about business structure and licensing. Speak with an accountant specializing in small businesses about whether you should incorporate, or something like a limited liability company (LLC) will suffice. The answers to some of these questions are contingent on how much income you're planning to earn. If you're unsure, choose the least expensive options. If business growth eventually drives you to select another business structure, the additional costs are somewhat incidental. Never complain about that type of business growth!
Finding and Winning Clients
Chapter 27, "12 Weeks to Profitable Consulting," covers a detailed plan of action for finding and winning clients. I'll give a basic summary of that information in this section.
Start with a Simple Business Card
Get simple, black on white business cards with your name, email address, website, mailing address, and phone number. Your title should make clear what you do; for example, "Computer Consultant" might be better than "Systems Integrator," especially if your audience is small business owners.
If you work out of your house, consider listing a post office box address on your business cards, rather than providing your home address.
Focus Your Résumé on Consulting
You don't necessarily need an advertising flyer. In fact, I'm not fond of tri-folds, although I've used them. Instead, a one-page résumé, skills listed first and brief project summaries second, is about all you need. Make it easy for anyone looking at that document to understand what you do and the kind of problems you've solved.
Create Your Website
I recommend setting up a simple but readable self-hosted WordPress blog site as your business site. (See my article "How Blogging Can Help Your Career" for more on how to start blogging.) The goal of your blog is to position yourself as a credible expert.
Publish a Simple Newsletter
There's no better way to engender trust than to give people good information for free. Not product information, but rather business specifics that make the reader more productive. You might feel that sharing this information will make you less valuable to your prospective clients, because they now have a skill for which they might otherwise pay you, but I promise you, nothing is further from the truth.
Providing tips and tricks to your reader—even those that are direct services you provide, will make readers appreciate you. Furthermore, often prospective clients won't have the time or talent to implement whatever you teach them. You will have demonstrated your knowledge and skills; then, when the work needs to be done, those clients will hire you.
Follow Up with a Method for Tracking Clients and Leads
Over the years, I've used various contact managers, such as Outlook. Lately, for key contacts I've started using a Google Spreadsheet that I share with my fellow consultants, along with Google Contacts.
You need a way to track simple follow-ups and work requests. I have a contact date and a "next follow-up date" in my Google sheet. I look at it and update it on a daily basis.
Letting things slip through the cracks and failing to follow up are surefire ways to lose opportunities and leave money on the table.
Tracking Time and Invoicing
I wrote a custom Microsoft Access time-tracking database for my business. (You could use an Excel spreadsheet instead.) I also use QuickBooks for generating and tracking invoices and banking. My time-tracking database tracks the date and time when one of my consultants or I worked for a client. It gives some details about the work performed.
I've created a way to assign that time to a single invoice in QuickBooks. Then QuickBooks provides a single line item with the invoice total. The line item says, "See time detail report." I print a time detail report from my database, print the QuickBooks invoice, and either send or email both to my client.
Always keep track of your work time. Your tracking doesn't have to be so detailed that it becomes a burden, but failing to track time effectively will mean leaving money on the table.
A final note about this. Emphasize with your clients that you want less than 30-day terms. Consider providing a discount for invoices paid within 10 days. Stipulate that "10 days" means you've received their check in the mail on or prior to the specified 10-day due date on the invoice. These payment terms help to level out cashflow and can greatly reduce stress in your consulting business.
Get Started Today!
If you put your name out there as a computer consultant, give your card to a few people, and indicate that you're willing to share your technical knowledge, at some point someone will hire you. You don't need a flashy business card, expensive office space, or a time-consuming and detailed marketing plan; you just need a willingness to speak up and share knowledge.
Once you've started working part-time as a consultant, you may find yourself in my position. One year, I was consulting 5–15 hours per week working part-time. Two clients gave me contracts, and then I was working 20-plus hours on weekends and evenings. I soon realized that I was earning as much money working part-time as my full-time job paid me. I also realized that I was turning down work. Thirty days later I was consulting full-time, and I've never looked back.