Project Management

My early years in IT consulting: What I did and didn't do well

If you could do it all over again, would you do anything differently in your first few years as an IT consultant? Chip Camden answers this question.

TechRepublic member slconsultingsvc, who is exiting the employee scene to become a full-time IT consultant, asks:

So I am looking for advice from all the seasoned IT Consultants on here. What did you do right or what would you have done differently when you started up?

I think most of us who have been in business for ourselves for many years could come up with a few pointers — the serendipitous good calls that made us say, "Wow, I'll have to do more of that," as well as the costly lessons that left their stinging reminders on our business backsides.

I've learned many lessons throughout my 18+ years of consulting; here are a few from my early years as an IT consultant.

What I did right

  • Lined up a big client before I struck my employee colors. The transition to self-employment is hard enough without having to worry about the pay. I was fortunate enough to land an ongoing gig that was nearly full-time right out of the gate, which allowed me to court other clients without exuding desperation. Many consultants find that it can take a year or more to build enough ongoing business to be self-supporting.
  • Settled into a profitable niche. I capitalized on my unique experience, which just happened to be in high demand among a modest number of software developers. My niche was small enough to avoid attracting competition from large consulting firms, but it was big enough to feed me. It still does, though I've since branched out into other areas.
  • Listened to my clients. I developed software for users for 13 years before becoming a consultant, so I knew that the most important path to success was to help make your customers successful. Listen to what they need, and figure out how to accomplish that in the way that suits them best — not necessarily the industry-standard-enterprise-state-of-the-art way, or even the way that you prefer.
  • Gave out freebies. It took me a little while to learn that one, though. Free examples not only create a sense of gratitude and indebtedness, but they also demonstrate your abilities. A lot of my business comes from freebies.
  • Helped my colleagues with their careers. I often hooked my clients up with potential employees whom I thought would fit the job. I wrote letters of recommendation for people I worked with when they deserved one. I'd help circulate the resume of a good programmer who was looking for work. As a result, I got a few introductions to clients from friends whom I had helped.

What I would do differently

  • Put some research into setting my rates. When I first started consulting, I had no idea what to charge. I let my first big client drive that number, which I erroneously considered generous because it was considerably higher than my previous employee rate. I failed to take into account all of the additional expenses involved in self-employment, and it took me years to bring my rate up to something reasonable.
  • Get a lawyer to help me write my standard contract. My first contract was written by my client, which is usually not a good idea; I, at least, had the sense to dispute a couple of items and get the contract changed. For years, I worked many gigs without a contract before hammering out a good contract on my own terms. Not having a contract isn't a problem unless there's a dispute, and you need to have ground to stand on. Besides, having the terms in writing helps to set expectations, even if everyone remains amicable.
  • Refuse more business. I took many gigs in the early days that I had no business doing, just to get the business. Before you accept an engagement, you need to answer "yes" to these questions: (1) Can I really help the client? (2) Will the client pay me? (3) Is this my best opportunity for the use of that time? (Read all the reasons I list as to why you may want to turn down business.)
  • Get the entire story. I've always concentrated on the technical problems first and foremost, but I needed to pay more attention to everything else that can affect success or failure. What is the client really trying to achieve with this project? The problem they posed to you may not even lead to the best solution — you may have been asked to solve the wrong problem. Who else has a stake in what you're doing? What would they like to achieve? Who benefits from killing the project?
  • Dedicate more time to improving my skills. Starting out, you feel like you need to bill every waking hour in order to get ahead — especially if you're not charging enough. But if you just keep on solving the same problems over and over again, you'll eventually become irrelevant. It's only been in the last several years that I've set aside specific hours for pure learning, and it's really helped me to branch out.
  • Avoid paid advertising. I once paid out the nose for a big ad in Dr. Dobbs Journal and a full-page flyer distributed at JavaOne. I got so many phone calls that I could hardly put the phone back on the hook before it rang again. It led to a grand total of zero engagements. Most of the calls were people looking for a job or trying to sell me something. The very few who were initially interested in my services turned out not to be a good fit. I had cast my net far too wide. Nowadays, you can put up your own Web site, practice a little SEO, and let Google bring in your leads. You can put much more information about what you do on a Web page than you can ever fit in an ad, so your prospects can browse around and qualify themselves before they talk to you. You can pay for ads that drive traffic to your Web site, but I don't.

What lessons did you learn from your early consulting experiences? Share your thoughts in the discussion.

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...

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