CXO

Ask yourself these questions before changing your consulting focus

It doesn't have to be a perfect economy for you to make a switch to a new technical discipline. Before you decide to change your skills set, ask yourself these five questions.


Changing the focus of a successful business, taking on additional financial responsibility and even employees, and finding a market may be the opposite response to a poor economy from what you'd expect. But it is the response of several IT and business consultants who aim to remain relevant, profitable, and even personally satisfied during a recession and reduced IT budgets. Here are some of the questions they asked themselves before they made a major career switch.

Does this move align with your professional values?
Before deciding to alter the nature of your consulting work, an evaluation of your professional values is in order, according to certified business and entrepreneur coach Steve Mitten. Mitten cited a 2002 Gallup survey, which found that only 29 percent of American workers were "engaged" in their job. Those who said they had high degrees of satisfaction were productive and felt fulfilled. The same survey found that a whopping 71 percent were either “not engaged” or “actively disengaged.”

Such dissatisfaction stems from finding one's professional, and personal, values misaligned with career choices, Mitten said.

Identify your professional values by looking back on critical moments in your career and pinpointing what exactly made those projects or time periods fulfilling. He finds that the most common professional values for IT consultants he has worked with include:
  • The need for challenging work.
  • The desire to work with groundbreaking technology.
  • The opportunity to be creative.
  • The personal freedom of owning your own business.
  • The ability to succeed, or fail, on one's own terms.
  • The ability to work on projects that affect people or make a difference.
  • The ability to work as a team or on an individual basis.

For Eric Evans of Creative Consulting Solutions in Bloomington, IN, the decision, after a decade, to switch from a career in networking and hardware consulting to a career as a Web developer came from a desire for more creative projects and less crisis-driven work.

"It's like being a doctor. People only call you when their computers are sick, when they are in a crisis situation," Evans said. This new situation is "completely unlike me. I spent the majority of my life being reactive to things that happen."

Although Evans says he had always planned to do more Web site, database, and software development, not until clients began asking him to do their Web work did he begin to make the change. Last year, Evans decided to move the business away from the financial safety net that hardware repairs and white box PC manufacturing had provided, and to take more serious steps into Web development.

"He wants more creativity and to be more proactive in his life," said Mitten of Evans' decision. "He has some values that are lining up better with his new direction."

Is there a market for your new service?
Once consultants have identified their professional values and chosen their practices' new direction, the next step is to research competitors and whether there is a market for the prospective services.

The near closure of a major Web design firm in Evans' city also motivated him to pursue a change in his consulting path. By conducting research online, asking colleagues, and even scouring the phone book, Evans realized that there were just a few small Web design firms in his area and that no company held a majority of the local market share.

Frustrated at the poor service that ISPs offered their business customers, IT consultants Liz Milio and her partner, of Innovative Computer Services in Freehold, NJ, saw an opportunity to provide small to mid-size companies with hosting, connectivity, and Web services.

Milio's firm had been providing clients Web development and publishing services since 1995 and, through work with other ISPs, she and her partner realized it could also provide business-specific services and improved customer service.

"There was a great deal of frustration with the ISPs out there. Mainly because they didn't understand what businesses needed," Milio said. "We were looking at how we could expand the business. How do we take this out of our homes? How do we turn this into a revenue-making operation and have this be a large firm?"

In both cases, Evans and Milio could identify their market and pinpoint the competition, which allowed them both to draw up business plans for their proposed ventures.

Can you take a trial run?
Before betting the farm on the new idea, consider a test run of actually providing the new services, suggested small business consultant David Harkins, who counts Microsoft and Lucent among his clients. Even doing a soft sell of your new services, said Harkins, to one or two trusted, long-term customers can help refine the new service.

"It will give you the opportunity to fine-tune the offer based on what the client wants. As consultants, we often think we know what the client wants or needs, but once we start working with them, we realize we might be a bit off base," said Harkins.

A potential outsourcing deal between Evans and a local ISP that offers standardized Web sites with certain subscription packages could enable Evans to test-drive his new Web development service without making major marketing, financial, and resource commitments. The test will also help establish the workflow among his employees and subcontractors.

Do you have a transition plan ready?
One of Mitten's clients has taken his trial run a step further. The client works for a major technology company in a full-time position. After deciding that he wanted to start his own network consulting business, he and Mitten worked on a plan to make the transition.

Mitten expects it will take his client six months or longer to build up the business to sustain him once he leaves his salaried job. But, because he's working from a transition plan that outlines each step, he has been able to hire additional employees, gain clients, and build the business while still working for his employer.

"Very few people have the resources to say, 'I'm going to quit this job and start up a new company.' Nearly everybody has to make a smooth transition that doesn't risk their assets or cut into their savings," said Mitten.

Besides a new business plan, you should implement a transition plan, much like what Mitten helped create for his client. Such a plan would discuss, for example:
  • Your "endpoint." What is the new direction?
  • Your ideal timeline to make the transition.
  • Whether you will continue to provide your original set of services.
  • How to manage your previous clients. Will you continue to work for them?
  • How much time you can devote each day to acquiring clients for the new service.
  • Whether you need to hire additional contractors/employees to take over old or new duties.
  • How you will spend time marketing your new services while still performing your original services.
  • Any sales goals associated with the new service. (For example, you'll sign on three additional clients for the new service by the end of this quarter.)

What type of assistance will you require?
Changing your focus will likely call for additional resources such as equipment, office space, employees, or advertising and marketing. For both Evans and Milio, a Small Business Association guaranteed loan helped jump-start their firms into the new line of service.

After attending a local Small Business Development Center class on business planning nearly three years ago, Evans rewrote his business plan and calculated that he would require at least a $20,000 loan and a line of credit. The financing would make possible the purchase of equipment and the ability to hire at least one additional employee.

Last year, when the local Web development market shifted in his favor, Evans shopped his new business around to several banks and received a warm reception.

"I had the advantage because I had been around for close to 10 years, I have an already-established client base, and I've never been in the red," Evans said.

Sometimes, the assistance is not so clear-cut. Besides the SBA-backed loans that helped the company rent office space and purchase equipment, seeking outside help from business consultants and other colleagues to proofread the business plan is what Milio credits with getting the bank and SBA to approve the company's financing.

She says the original business plan was heavy with technical information about how the ISP would operate, until several people pointed out that the bankers and financiers would probably not understand the technical detail, which could hinder getting the loan.

"So all the technical backing became a footnote," recalled Milio. "We could see that when people weren't technical, their eyes were turning."

How will you get the word out?
The final hurdle, once all the elements are in place, is remarketing the revamped business to old and new clients.

Besides additional listings and larger ads in the Yellow Pages, and a membership to his local Chamber of Commerce, Evans also is planning a series of low-cost, high-frequency cable television ads that highlight the change his business has undergone. And, in much the same way his original business was marketed, he is relying on current clients who have used his Web development services to pass the word around.

Along with new business cards and brochures, Milio worked with a marketing team to develop a marketing plan that includes newspaper advertising to announce the company's new services.

But, it is the existing client base that both companies initially relied heavily upon as part of their transition. Milio says her company's first clients were crossovers from the Web development and consulting side, but in the last six months, they have added new customers. Evans' first Web development clients came from his hardware work even before he began to market the change in his business.

Among the biggest mistakes consultants make during this time, according to Harkins, is forgetting about the core customers and the existing business.

"You have to have a period of transition when you're going from what you used to be to what you want to be. Unless you're independently wealthy, you can't stop doing what you were doing before," said Harkins. "Don't blow up the existing business yet."

 

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