Project Management

Small business lessons for IT consultants

TechRepublic blogger Chip Camden discusses Maggie Mason's seven lessons for small businesses from an IT consultant's perspective. What lessons would you add to the list?

Maggie Mason posted seven lessons for small businesses, which I'm going to discuss as they apply to IT consulting.

"Know when to celebrate." I celebrate every time I get a check. Whenever someone says, "Thanks, you solved my problem!" Whenever I sign a new contract. When I complete even the smallest deliverable. When I finally nail that elusive bug. If you're waiting until you've "arrived," you never will. If you're not enjoying the journey, you need to change course. "Good enough is sometimes good enough." In our industry, there's always some new way that proclaims that all the old ways are "doing it wrong." Consultants sometimes chase these trends like a cat chases a ball of string. We can measure how "good" a solution is along several different axes, including but not limited to costs (time and money), leverage of existing assets, fulfillment of present requirements, and anticipation of future needs. It's rarely possible to create an optimal solution for all of those simultaneously, so something has to give. We're often tempted to focus on one aspect and try to make it perfect, rather than striking a balance between these potentially competing goals. Remember the adage ascribed to Voltaire: "The perfect is the enemy of the good." "Get an elevator pitch." As Albert Einstein said, "If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough." So if you can't state your value proposition in a couple of sentences, then perhaps you don't have a clear value proposition. You should not only know why people should want to hire you as opposed to investing in other alternatives, you should be thinking about that subject every day. The "elevator pitch" will be a natural result of those cogitations. "If you hate it, avoid it." It might take a while, but you'll find work you love if you're actively looking for it, and you're not getting bogged down in stuff you hate. I think one reason why people keep bad clients and don't farm out work they should is that they want to have something to complain about in order to show how hard they're working. Get over this guilty need to demonstrate our worth if we really want to be working for ourselves instead of for what we perceive as everyone's opinion of us. "Be generous with your knowledge." As Maggie states, this is a great way to market yourself. If you try to hoard your expertise, nobody can appreciate it. Give it away, and people will pay you for more. Sometimes I run into the penny-pinchers who ask, "Why should I pay you for advice when you answer similar questions all the time on the web for free?" My answer is "If you want to ask your questions in a public forum, I might answer them if I have the time and inclination. If you want me to dedicate myself to your problems, then contract with me." If they don't understand that distinction, then I don't want them as clients anyway. "In negotiations, be as quiet as you can." This has at least two aspects. First, listening: you can't hear what the client wants if you're talking. Second, prudence: don't dig a hole for yourself by talking your way into obligations before you've assessed their scope. "Work with good people." In my mind, this goes hand in hand with "If you hate it, avoid it." Perhaps it's more positive, though. Actively cultivate relationships with people from whom you can learn. People who can teach you more than just the technical side: learning how to deal with people is far more difficult and valuable.

Maggie's lessons paint a picture of small business as a joyous and empowered occupation. I'd be lying if I said that it's always that good for me, and although I don't want to speak for Maggie, I think she would agree. If life were always so bright and cheerful, then there would be no need to learn these lessons. Don't let them become additional whips with which to flagellate yourself. In fact, that's one I'd add to the list: don't be too hard on yourself. You know yourself better than anyone else does. Don't judge yourself by other people's standards.

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
EJLear
EJLear

Wow!  This is one of the best articles that I've read on the practicality of life as and IT dude.  If I had this wisdom 5 years ago I wouldn't have had a heart attack at 42 from stress!


I'm bookmarking this page so that I can come back and be reminded "Good enough is sometimes good enough."

reisen55
reisen55

Most of them are exceptional small businesses and some of the strange ones have their own benefits. I enjoy PEOPLE, not users - a word I hate. PEOPLE are more interesting and I take a real interest in their business and lives. Consultants often avoid the latter. I also bring food, and this morning delivered a box of doughnuts to my new local law office which will be demolished by the end of the day. (Trick: if they leave something behind, maybe I have a crack at it later too). I enjoy finding out about their business, how it works, what they do. I have often wanted to work as a client's employee for a day so I CAN KNOW their jobs instead of just the IT aspect of it. Give a bit too. On many invoices, if I can get away with it, having a NO CHARGE line item works wonders. For a few dollars you can gain entry to your larger projects. If it is no skin of your back,do it. In that vein, deliver extra whenever you can. And advertise yourself. No one else will do so.

Randy Hagan
Randy Hagan

I buy the overall concept that you want to avoid doing work you hate, but that doesn't mean that you shouldn't make sure that it gets done anyway. On the client side, you'll quickly find that as you develop successful solutions, especially for smaller businesses, you'll quickly become the "computer guy." The danger of such expertise creep is that it may quickly take you outside your comfort zone and into areas of your client's mission in which you don't want to be involved. That's where having a network of other consultants you can trust pays dividends. Whether you farm out those projects as referrals or sub them out as jobs done under your practice's umbrella, it reinforces your image as the "solutions man" even if you don't provide the solution yourself. Just make sure you find folks that can deliver on what your client is looking for, or honestly and immediately say that's beyond your field of expertise. That kind of credibility will almost always get you more business down the line. Don't forget to apply the same rules to in-house issues as well. If you don't like handling the books or payroll, rent a bookkeeper or a payroll company to make sure that things get done the way they should be. If sales isn't your thing, rely on your partners to build referrals and consistently ask your existing clients for referrals that can reduce the need to cold call. Because putting off things you don't like to do personally is a recipe for disaster.

dregeh
dregeh

Thanks for posting this quick and powerful advice. It gives me plenty to think on and guidance for progress.

PMPsicle
PMPsicle

I think Maggie Mason nailed it with this set. And you've expanded on it nicely. However (I know I keep doing this) for IT Consultants especially, "Get an Elevator Pitch" needs to be two different lessons. The other lesson is "See Your Differences From The Customer's View" which is the USP discussion. You need to know what is different about your business. But that isn't enough. You need to see your differences from the client's perspective. In IT we tend to have a "Just the Facts" attitude. And we drive down until we find the facts. Most customers don't have the time or inclination for that. They don't know our jobs and they don't understand our jobs. And most of all they make decisions from an emotional stage. Unless you can identify what the customer actually sees and feels about your business (vs others) you'll never be able to sell the client on your USP. (There's a reason SELLING is the linking word in the phrase). As an example, we constantly complain about jobs ads where the skill set is out of touch with reality. Sometimes, it's the result of incompetence. But most times it's the result of being focused on the vertical (specific industry, company, software, task) rather than the horizontal (focused on the discipline). Accountants, lawyers and anyone whose skill set is consistent and industry independent are in the same situation. Glen Ford http://www.VProz.ca

jayd_taylor
jayd_taylor

In most engagements a strong executive sponsor brings the consultant onboard for the management of the "project." This does not automatically mean that all Client management is supportive. For whatever reason some or one individual is opposed to the effort contracted; i.e. political, priority against another project, consumption of resources, etc. The conflict is normally insidious versus outright non-supportive. The consultant must actively work to engage all management in the establishment of the project plan, assignment of departmental resources and acknowledgement of the dedication of resources and agreement on the plan. This is fundamental and does not guarantee continuous suppotrt. Constant monitoring of staff performance against plan and continuous communication to all management of progress, weakness, (non-performance), mitigating steps required and meetings of involved management in collaboratively resolving the issues log. This does not guarantee success, but if commenced early enough it can set the stage for prodding involved staff in completing their assignments on time and bringing senior managment attention to the progress of the project.

DaPearls
DaPearls

As a consultant, you try to do whatever the client is asking. However, you need to manage expectations. Don't say something can be done or you can deliver in x amount of time if it is just not feasible. Down the road this will become a point of contention. Manage expectations upfront. Be honest with your clients. They may not like the answer, but they will appreciate not wasting their time or money.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

What we mean by that is often what we think other people are thinking. In truth, they'd probably go easier on you than you are on yourself. Most of the time, they really don't care.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Clients (especially small ones) can sometimes be a little intimidated by the tech person. Unfortunately, we techies love to absorb the worship -- but that can eventually lead to resentment. Celebrating what makes the client special gives them a status lift that they aren't likely to forget.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Unfortunately, "putting off things that you don't like to do personally" is often the unconscious, automatic response. Getting someone else to do it still requires taking action -- it isn't the lazy alternative.

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