Note: This TechRepublic post originally published on April 14, 2009.

Today marks the 18th anniversary of the day I purchased my first business license to become an independent consultant. If my consultancy were a person, it would be old enough to have a beer in parts of Canada and vote and die for its country in the United States. Instead of spilling brew, ballot chads, or blood, I’ll celebrate by sharing 18 lessons I’ve learned over the years from the harsh schoolmistress named Experience.

  1. Lead with your strongest suit. Clients hire consultants for their expertise, so develop a niche in which you can excel and focus on it. When you take on work in too many areas, you dilute your expertise in any one.
  2. You have not arrived, and you never will. Always keep learning new things. The industry evolves rapidly, so as soon as you stop learning, you’re obsolete. Experts don’t know everything, but they know what they don’t know and where they need to improve.
  3. It’s not the theory, it’s the execution. Every methodology can be implemented badly, but the right people can make any system work to their advantage. The key is knowing when to follow the rules and when to break them.
  4. Don’t implement technology — solve problems. When the question is “how do we get to this technology?” the question is wrong. A new technology may provide a solution to a specific problem, but it should never be an end in itself, and it must be suitable to the client’s business.
  5. Every tool has its purpose, but no tool should be used for everything. No technology is “better” or “worse” unless you answer the question “for what purpose?”
  6. Your clients aren’t important to your business; they are your only business. Always do right by clients because making them successful is what will make you successful.
  7. Not every client is worth keeping. Not all business is good business. You need to be careful about with whom you get in bed.
  8. Cast your bread upon the waters. Give away some work, and much more business will return to you.
  9. Skill performs the job, but reputation gets the job. Give just as much attention to building your reputation as you do to improving your abilities.
  10. Be tough on yourself, so your clients won’t have to be. Own up to your mistakes. Organize yourself for productivity. Fight procrastination.
  11. Cut yourself some slack. You will screw up. You can never choose or create the perfect solution. Sometimes, you will be late. You cannot work every waking hour. Give yourself permission to be wrong, so you can admit it when it happens. And give yourself a life, so you’ll have something worth working for.
  12. Success requires trust in both directions. Trust requires working on the relationship with your client. It’s like a marriage, except that either party can leave when they want to — so okay, it is like a marriage.
  13. Honesty rocks because it builds trust. Even when your client wants you to be dishonest, tell the truth. If you’re always truthful when it hurts, your client will never doubt your truthfulness.
  14. Take care of your business — nobody else will. Do not let your clients slip into the habit of paying late. Make sure your rates are high enough to keep you afloat yet reasonable enough for the value you provide. Don’t ignore all the little details of running a business, which include tracking and reporting hours, choosing insurance policies, and managing invoices and receivables.
  15. If you’re doing this for the money, you’re psychotic — or you will be soon. Money is important, but its flow is highly unpredictable. Consulting is hard work, so you’d better be getting more out of it than a few pesos.
  16. Working without a contract is like skydiving without a parachute. You may be flying now, but it will not end well. If you don’t have a contract, start putting one together now.
  17. Consult thyself. We often get so focused on our clients’ problems that we forget to take our own advice. Periodically, step back from your work and look at yourself and your business as if you were one of your clients. What would you tell them?
  18. Every consulting maxim is wrong, even this one. “Wrong” is too strong a word, but it helps to make the point. More accurately, no consulting maxim is always right. Every situation differs — use your head when applying rules.

I’ve linked to it before, but Steve Friedl’s So you want to be a consultant…? contains even more pithy consulting maxims. What are your favorite consulting one-liners? Share them in the discussion.