Every other day or so I receive an email from a reader who asks, "please tell me what I need to do to become a consultant," as if there were some standard five-step process that magically bestows consultanthood upon anyone who checks off that list.
Sure, depending on your jurisdiction there might be business licensing requirements. Depending on your specialty, you might need to learn some things. But there is really only one requirement for becoming a consultant, and that requirement is shared by all successful business ventures:
Provide a service for which people will pay you.
Everything else is in furtherance of that goal. Let's break it down a bit.
In order to have a service to provide, you need to choose an area of specialization where a need is not being sufficiently met, or where there's room to expand on the services that people might want. One of the ways in which you can create that sort of niche is to learn things that not many people know. What everyone else knows can only be a foundation upon which to build. You will not find specialized knowledge in an undergraduate college course, a certification program, or a conference seminar. Independent study and experience are the best ways to obtain it. A wise mentor can give you a boost in the right direction, but you need to outgrow your mentor before you can truly claim a niche.
Technical professionals, the true geeks anyway, often enjoy learning their trade -- and the more esoteric the better. But they sometimes ignore the last half of the requirement I stated above: "for which people will pay you." That means that your specialized knowledge must be applicable to the problems faced by enough potential clients to provide a reasonable demand for your services.
Furthermore, nobody will be willing to pay for your services if they don't know you exist. Solving that problem is called "marketing." Those of us who have worked in a corporation large enough to have its own marketing department may from experience equate "marketing" with "lying," but it doesn't have to be that way. In fact, misrepresenting your business proposal is the quickest way to lose a client short of assaulting them physically. Marketing should always begin with the honest conviction that you can solve the prospect's problem, and then proceed to the strategy for letting them know that. If your business proposal presents a rock solid case for the benefits they will receive from using your services, you should be able to get the contract.
But don't get discouraged if you don't. Prospects have many reasons why they might refuse. Company policy, politics, and budget constraints can get in the way. Sometimes, they may simply have a better option available. If you did your homework and presented your case as well as you could, there's really nothing more you could have done. But there's almost always some lesson to be learned. Look for it.
Of course, landing the contract is only the beginning. To insure that the client will keep on paying you, you must deliver on your promises. If you ever surprise your client, it had better be a pleasant surprise. Doing more than you committed builds great customer loyalty. Yesterday, I drove up to a latte stand I hadn't visited before. Checking my wallet, I found I had only five dollars. I thought to myself, "For a Grande Breve it will be either three-something or four-something. If it's close to five, then they don't deserve much of a tip." The lady handed me my coffee and said, "That'll be $2.50, please." I was so pleasantly shocked, I told her to keep the change. She got a 100% tip because she didn't gouge me like every other latte stand in Washington State. She thanked me profusely, and because the coffee was just as good as any other I've had, you can bet I'll go out of my way to give her my return business (though I might not always tip her that well).
I dislike the general trend in our industry to try to establish fixed rules for how you must do things. The concept of "best practices," for instance, implies that it's possible to create a formula for how certain problems should be solved. In practice, every problem has its own nuances, and so-called "best practices" often obscure those differences. The same is true for running your own consultancy. Rather than adopting a long list of rituals upon which those who have gone before have bestowed their blessing, use your brain. Break things down into "what am I trying to accomplish," and then examine all options. The best practice is the one that works best for you, today.
You might find, for instance, that how you project yourself to your clients breaks out of the stereotype. Yes, you are a consultant and they are your client, but far above that you are both humans. The typical roles assigned to each of you have evolved as a way of dealing with certain recurring concerns, but that doesn't mean you can't adapt them where your specific concerns differ from the norm. In fact, it's almost axiomatic that by the time societal roles become well-established, they're already obsolete.
Andréa Coutu posted a poem about the experience of being an independent consultant, titled Nobody told me. Nobody can tell you -- because nobody else is traveling along your own unique journey.
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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 blog, he also contributes to [Geeks Are Sexy] Technology News and his two personal blogs, Chip's Quips and Chip's Tips for Developers.