Outsourcing

Landing that all-important first client

Find out why Chip Camden thinks that if you decide to become a consultant and then start looking for business, you're doing it wrong.

In the discussion on my article about how to market your IT consultancy, TechRepublic member bp1argosy asked me to refocus the topic on consultants who are just starting out. I replied that I thought that most of the strategies in that article would apply, except for getting referrals from previous clients -- because you don't have any.

For new consultants, gaining that first client is all-important, yet it can be difficult. Not having referrals from previous clients is a disadvantage, but that isn't the worst of it. You might be able to stretch an employer recommendation to fill the referral slot, but you might not overcome the prospect's fears associated with the idea that they're buying into Engagement Version 1.0. You may know the technical side of the work forwards and backwards, but consulting brings its own set of challenges that have nothing to do with that. Even if a prospect doesn't fully appreciate those challenges, they sense and fear all of the unknowns involved in your first attempt at consulting. They wonder if you'll be able to cut it -- and if not, where will that leave them? When a prospect looks for a consultant, they're often looking for reassurance. They want to bring someone in who knows how to solve their problem without adding new risks and uncertainties. A greenhorn is not a suitable candidate.

Thus, in my opinion, if you decide to become a consultant and then start looking for business, you're doing it wrong. Your decision to become a consultant should proceed from your awareness of a demand for your services, not the other way around. You should have at least one client lined up for business before you hang out your shingle.

That doesn't mean that you can't plan to become a consultant before then -- you should always try to think ahead of your career, and watch for the opportunities to do the things you never thought you would get the chance to do. Just don't set your living afloat on the consulting boat until you're reasonably sure it's seaworthy. Keep on cashing your employee paycheck while you take some small jobs on the side to gain experience. Contribute to open source projects to get your name out there as an expert in the field, and participate in forum discussions on related topics. Eventually someone will notice that you know a subject they don't, and they'll ask if they can engage your services. It doesn't hurt to let people know that you're available, but only in a way that doesn't color you desperate.

You might be able to convert your employer into your first client. That's what I did, and it made the transition easy. But don't force that issue, or you might not keep them long. You must be able to present your change of status as beneficial to both parties, and dispel any fears that you're taking the first step towards abandoning them. In my case, it was actually my employer's idea -- triggered by onerous regulatory requirements they would have faced if I had remained an out-of-state employee. The rate I accepted in that arrangement was too low (a common error for newbie consultants), but in the long run it worked to my advantage to be able to seek out new clients while relying for subsistence on one large, continuous, and happy engagement. I don't regret it one bit.

I lied a little bit just now: they weren't my first client, but they were my first big client. I started my consulting firm almost a year earlier, but only picked up a handful of small engagements before converting my employer. That helped me to sand off some of the rough edges before going big-time: I had already worked out issues like billing and accounting, and I already had a home office with my own equipment.

During those months of pretending to be independent, I often wondered if I'd ever really make it as a consultant. The patience to wait for the right opportunities to come along, and the persistence to keep trying to make a go of it, eventually paid off. I wouldn't have been able to do either if my livelihood had depended solely on consulting during that time.

About

Chip Camden has been programming since 1978, and he's still not done. An independent consultant since 1991, Chip specializes in software development tools, languages, and migration to new technology. Besides writing for TechRepublic's IT Consultant b...

13 comments
JLogan3o13
JLogan3o13

I enjoyed the topic, as usual, Chip. One thing I would like to see, and bet others would to, is a poll or topic about how to get over that horrendous hump we all face as consultants - that point where you have business coming in, and are faced with the decision to finally make the break from the full time job or not. For me I know it was terribly difficult; I knew I could drum up more business if I spent more time marketing myself, but I couldn't afford to spend that time unless I quit the 9 to 5. Definitely a stressful time, but one I bet everyone handles a bit differently.

Englebert
Englebert

When you land that all important first client, you have in fact opened your market to a vast plethora of possibilities. All of the other departments and staff are now within your grasp. While performing to the best of your ability for your client's direct needs, never miss the opportunity to meet and greet other people during lunches, elevator, social events. In fact, do this, not so much to open a door, but because it is a fulfilling human social experience. You never know, even years down the line, when this may pay off.

PMPsicle
PMPsicle

(Beating yourself up I mean.) ]:)

PMPsicle
PMPsicle

1. Sometimes there is no choice. 2. Even if you find your first client there is no guarantee you can find your second. One of the problems with consulting is that you have to learn to market constantly and consistantly, which can lead to problems of its own. Having one major contract to start can give you enough income to carry you while you make your initial mistakes. (BTW -- after 30+ years of entrepreneurship and five startups, I'm still finding things I should have known. Smart person is prepared to be -- if not surprised -- irritated.) Glen Ford,PMP http://www.vproz.ca

bp1argosy
bp1argosy

Great information in your reply, and a very helpful perspective! I think it's also very good to reinforce the patience and persistence aspects of the work, especially for relatively new consultants like myself. Thanks for the mention!

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... always helps more than you think it will, in ways you can't always anticipate.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... you can have easy or right, but rarely both. Re: the "should have knowns," it's a good thing that you're still learning. Beating yourself up over what you should have known is a waste of energy -- learn and move on.

apotheon
apotheon

Maybe it's not so much that the relationships in which you invest return dividends on the investment -- maybe it's that the relationships in which you choose to invest are going to pay off regardless of investment! Maybe not, though.

apotheon
apotheon

I really do believe that both factors are important to the process -- and that investing in a relationship with you has been pure benefit.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Often relationships turn out to be more beneficial than we expect (present company included), but perhaps selection bias leads us to the ones that pay off better when we listen to the inner voice (or "gut" as it's sometimes called).