My IT consultant career started out like most. I had a full-time “day job” and did some moonlighting on the side. In the evenings and on weekends, I’d design database applications or create a user’s guide for a piece of existing software. The work wasn’t steady, but those projects provided me with good experience and a few extra bucks.
When I was “downsized” from a full-time position in summer 2001, I set out to make a full-time living as an independent technical consultant. Since then, I’ve had consulting engagements that lasted as little as two weeks and as long as 12 months. The challenge, of course, is finding new clients and getting work lined up for when the current contracts run out.
I recently acquired a handful of new clients by volunteering to put on a series of technical workshops. If you’re trying to gain hands-on experience as an on-call tech support analyst or an IT consultant for small businesses, you can use this technique to expand your network of business contacts in your community.
In search of nonprofit excellence
One of my old moonlighting clients suggested that I might find consulting work through the Center for Nonprofit Excellence (CNPE), so I checked it out. Based in Louisville, Kentucky, the CNPE is dedicated to finding resources and solutions for local nonprofit organizations. Its members are companies that range in size from four employees to over a hundred full- and part-time staff.
The CNPE schedules informational workshops and training sessions for its members several times throughout the year. It took me four months to get on the volunteer-lecturer schedule for the CNPE, but it was worth the wait. Through the experience, I've snagged at least two new clients so far. I also got some great teaching experience and a nice addition to my resume.
To find out if there’s an agency in your area similar to Louisville’s CNPE, get out your telephone directory or contact the local chamber of commerce. Chances are good you’ll find at least one organization that can use your help and that you can use to find new business contacts.
Of course, you don’t have to restrict your search to nonprofit agencies. They’re just good prospects because many typically can’t afford to hire full-time IT professionals, so they need as much help as they can get with their technology.
You can also find organizations whose members are companies that provide similar services or produce similar goods. Some of those companies are always on the lookout for a quality consultant.
What can you teach?
When I contacted CNPE, the person who schedules workshops and training sessions screened me fairly thoroughly. Organizations such as the CNPE won’t allow just anyone to facilitate workshops or teach classes for their members.
When you contact organizations in your area, be prepared to provide the following information, at a minimum:
- Your resume: Don’t be insulted if you’re asked to provide proof that you’re a subject-matter expert.
- References: It will help if you can provide contact information for a former employer or a former or current consulting client.
- Detailed description of workshop topics: If you’re offering to teach a class in order to get in front of prospective consulting clients, you’ll need to articulate exactly what you’re bringing to the table. In other words, you'll need to provide a short synopsis of the presentation you’re going to make.
In my case, I pitched workshops on the following topics:
- Database management 101: In this workshop, I proposed explaining the rudiments of how database applications work and discussing how to migrate data from one application into another.
- Maximizing software, hardware, and training budgets: I pitched this workshop as a forum to discuss how to make sure companies are utilizing software and hardware assets appropriately and efficiently. I also planned to discuss resources for obtaining free training materials, such as those found in TechRepublic’s Downloads library.
- Donor-management software reviews: I proposed installing and demonstrating one or two of the most popular commercial applications for managing charitable donations—an activity performed by almost every member of the CNPE. I would instruct the workshop attendees in how to evaluate a software package, including the kinds of questions to ask the vendor.
Obviously, when you pitch your ideas for workshops or classes, you should focus on topics with which you’re familiar and topics that will be of interest and of value to your audience.
At this writing, I've completed two of my four scheduled workshops. Attendees included administrative assistants, office managers, bookkeepers, directors, and executive officers of nonprofit agencies from all over Kentucky.
The professional payback
When you volunteer your time to teach a class or facilitate a workshop, you get a chance to polish your public speaking skills, and you get a nice credit to add to your resume.
Depending on the policy of the organization that sponsors your workshop, you’ll also get a chance to sell your consulting services to the folks who attend. You’ll probably be asked not to overdo your sales pitch. However, agencies like the CNPE recognize that you’re giving up valuable time and that part of the reason you’re volunteering is because you hope to attract a new client or two. In my case, I was told that I could use the last five minutes or so of the workshop to “pitch” my services and hand out business cards.
Preparing for the workshops
When you're preparing to carry out your volunteer job, remember that you’re going to be auditioning for consulting work.
To start, establish with your contact person how much time you’ll have. The workshops I’ve conducted were each scheduled for three hours, from 8:30 A.M. to 11:30 A.M., on Fridays. Some organizations may request that you prepare a 20-minute presentation, and they'll add you to the agenda for their monthly or quarterly meeting. Whatever time you have available, plan to use it efficiently.
If you plan to provide handouts to the people who attend your sessions, be prepared for the possibility that you’ll have to pay for the costs of copying those materials out of your own pocket. (In my case, the CNPE copied and bound my materials in advance.)
Here are some tips for making sure you bring your best “game” to the workshops:
- Pore over your handouts: The materials you provide are a reflection of your professionalism and your work ethic. Make sure they’re completely free of typographical errors.
- Practice your presentation: Start by writing an outline of the topics you want to cover. If necessary, write a detailed script of what you’re going to say, and read it aloud. If possible, give your presentation in front of friends or family.
- Dress for success: Don’t even think about showing up at the workshop in “casual” or “casual business” attire. Even though you’re not being paid, you should dress in your best suit of clothes, make sure your hair is clean and combed, and polish your shoes. I hate to sound like your mother, but no matter how smart you are, you’ll be judged on your appearance as well as the content of your presentation.
- Have fun: Don’t let nervousness or stress ruin your presentation. Be confident in the knowledge that you’re the subject-matter expert. Relax, smile, and have fun while you’re teaching.
- Bring business cards: If you make a good impression, some of the people in your workshop will become your consulting clients—as long as they know how to reach you. Don’t get caught without a supply of business cards to hand out.
If you’re a consultant who never has to do any marketing or networking because customers are standing in line for your services, teaching a free class may never enter your mind. But if you’re looking for a great way to grow your consulting business, volunteering to teach will help you get connected with potential customers.