If you spend time on e-mail lists or posting boards, you know it is a dreary scene: too many consultants battling for too little work. But remember that it’s in times like these—near-recession moments with extended periods between clients—when businesses—both yours and your clients’—can expand and make strategic shifts not likely during busy times.

A recent TechRepublic poll in IT Consultant found that 40 percent of respondents had up to six months of downtime between jobs, while another 21 percent had more than six months before they were hired again. We asked IT and business consultants how they use those weeks to expand and diversify their businesses. Here are their suggestions.

Assess your strengths and flaws
After working with more than 200 tech-related clients in 30 years, consultant Aldonna Ambler finds the most painful business situation to be that of the “incorporated career,” when the only revenues come from your billable hours, while you scramble from project to project.

Assessing that situation, asking how it can be improved, and reevaluating why you’ve entered the “incorporated career” in the first place, is a starting point. Before a consultant strikes out and begins working on expansion, Ambler suggests taking the time to do an inventory of your business strengths and weaknesses. An assessment would include these questions:

  • At which part of the business am I best?
  • Would others agree?
  • Which parts do I struggle with the most?
  • Where do I want to improve?
  • Does the service I provide have staying power?
  • How will it need to change in the coming years?
  • Could I be considered an expert in my field?
  • Would I want to work with other people as an employer, or an employee?
  • What would expansion or growth look like for this business? More clients? Hiring employees? Better paying projects?

The answers will help provide a roadmap for how to tackle expanding the business, or deciding whether you should be in business at all, Ambler said.

One of Ambler’s recent clients, Rojas Group, Inc., a small IT consulting firm in Connecticut, underwent a similar analysis designed to evaluate the company’s business and marketing strategies. The goal was for the company to reduce reliance on its two main partners so that it could grow.

The result of the evaluation was that the company focused on what it called its “ideal clients,” said Rojas Group president Lillian Rojas. From its client list, the company picked several of the best: those that could pay for the services, and those that had business values that matched their own. Rojas began to focus heavily on those few clients and decided she would build relationships instead of just winning one project at a time.

Though it has taken five years, Rojas Group has earned a small but steady client list that has kept them afloat during the slow times, with another added benefit. “As I started to hone in on the appropriate clients for us, I found we could take care of clients with a lot less staff and be making more money,” Rojas said.

Influence the information channel
Once the business roadmap is laid out, the next task is evaluating how to expand your reach beyond standard networking practices. Ambler suggests getting your name and expertise into the flow of trusted information your potential clients receive. Writing articles for publication in trade journals, writing and publishing books, and participating in speaking engagements or panel discussions at industry convention and trade shows can all help solidify a consultant’s expertise.

“Just like Pepsi might buy a restaurant that sells its sodas, for a consultant, it’s about asking who buys their services, and how can they increase their control of the ‘distribution’ channel,” she said.

Software and project management consultant, and TechRepublic community member, Glen Ford of Can Da Software, has been penning a book on project management principals during his downtime, as well as occasional articles on the same subject for publication. He hopes to capitalize on his six years of project management experience and to gain recognition for his expertise in the PM industry.

“The fact that I have articles published helps to generate credibility,” said Ford, referring to content in Managing Change & Technology and other newsletters. “People reading my resume are aware that I am able to communicate, since third-party professionals have said so by publishing my works.”

After three years as a freelance Web developer and designer, Bryan Zmijewski completed the outline and introduction to a book on how to run a creative-oriented business, based on principles he has used to keep his Web development business, Zurb, afloat in Campbell, CA. Zmijewski took it a step further last November and hired a public relations firm to help get his name in front of a potentially larger client base.

“I knew that PR is the successful ingredient to a lot of larger organizations,” said Zmijewski. “I can’t put an ad in the yellow pages and expect people to start calling me.”

So far, Zmijewski said, the agency has netted him an increase in traffic to his Web site—up to 50 percent, with an average of 160 unique visitors a day. He said the opportunities the firm may create for him, including press and speaking engagements, may nab him larger clients later, though it could take up to a decade. “I am willing to put the time in now and kind of take those chances,” Zmijewski said.

Expand your knowledge
It’s the time between projects when your concentration on new ideas, languages, or practices can be most acute. The time also offers the ability to bring your skills up to date by taking or teaching classes, or by earning certifications.

For five months at the end of last year, New York-based Web developer and consultant Stephanie Cockerl found herself between projects. To add to the three certifications she holds, Cockerl became a certified Webmaster through the International Association of Webmasters & Designers, and earned a Dreamweaver certification through International Webmasters Association/HTML Writers Guild (now eClasses.org).

At the same time, Cockerl branched out into teaching classes for Metropolitan College of New York, including an introductory course on management of information systems. She had taught in the past, and was able to take on three courses last semester.

“There are so many things that are changing in terms of browser technology and different languages,” she said. “Don’t be afraid to explore and learn, even if it falls outside of your area. You never know when you might need it.”

IT courses are not the only type to consider, Ambler said. Downtime is a good opportunity to expand knowledge with business, marketing, advertising, or even accounting classes for small businesses. Regional Small Business Development Centers, area Chambers of Commerce, and local colleges and universities often offer inexpensive classes.

What is important is to attend the classes with an open mind, said Ambler. “There are a lot of IT people that will listen to something about marketing and say, ‘I don’t have time for that,’ or, ‘It doesn’t apply to this industry,’ or, ‘If I get a project, I couldn’t go.’ They spend the whole time saying, ‘Yes, but …,'” said Ambler, who counts AT&T, Bell Atlantic, British Telecom, and the U.S. Navy among her clients.

“What you’re looking for is something you can do … even if there is one idea that you think you could do—it at least starts the idea chain,” Ambler said.

Start an organization or volunteer
While not every effort made during a downtime can translate into billable hours, one important aspect of how you spend your time between projects is remaining professionally and personally active, Ambler said.

Combining a love of technology with the desire to positively influence young women, database and mainframe programmer-turned-IT marketing consultant Susan Wheeler founded SAGE, the Sacramento Advocate for Girls’ Empowerment in January 2002. The organization provides speakers to local schools to discuss computer-related technology, life sciences, engineering, science, math, and law.

The group has a database of more than 80 women who volunteer their time, and has sponsored over 30 events for young women in the Sacramento area.

“It fills a personal need, yet it pulls on the strengths I have in terms of business,” Wheeler said. Besides broadening the scope of her contacts and relationships, the group has also provided some IT volunteers the opportunity to work on projects they have not done before, such as Web site and database development.

“Especially when people have downtime, they are so focused on the next job they don’t realize the benefits of doing something like this,” she said.

Start a side project
On occasion, even a related hobby can help a consultant realize additional revenues. For Zmijewski, it was a love of photography that propelled him to build a Web site to host his photos, and rent gallery space to display them. Zmijewski devoted one day a week to the studio, and as customers came to view the work, they also inquired about what else he did for a living.

While he did sell some of his work, Zmijewski also scored two consulting gigs as a result, which “turned out to be worth equivalent to everything I’d made selling the artwork,” he said. Zmijewski stressed that the project was a result of pursuing one of his interests, and that he believes the critical component to gaining additional clients is the ability to create “forward momentum.”

“It’s similar to some of the things I do, but it’s not exactly,” said Zmijewski. “But it does show my passion and interest for creating quality work.”

Band together or acquire a company
The ultimate maneuver for expanding one’s business is to create alliances, partnerships, or even actual companies. Ambler suggests individual consultants consider grouping themselves with consultants who offer complementary services, especially in a more formalized manner, with the benefit that “a collegial group can go after bigger projects that last longer.”

Consultants between projects or with reduced workloads may find this situation a prime time to expand their business and services, using the extra time to research potential partners and formalize relationships. An example of such collaboration, said Ambler, is US Connect, where 35 Internet-related companies came together under one roof to compete with enterprise-level firms offering similar services. Ambler helped negotiate the companies’ participation in the group and said many of the firms were struggling against the economy, lack of projects, and fear of massive capital investments required for growth.

“A number of them did it because they knew they needed backup,” said Ambler. “There were three purposes: to go for bigger projects, not to have the capital investments all to themselves, and to fill holes when one market was hot while others were light.”

One of Ambler’s clients, Tom Salzer, owner of Advanced Information Services, has decided to acquire either another IT firm or a division within a company.

While Salzer is unclear on just how much his 15-year-old company will spend in its acquisition, he is looking at companies that may be even larger than his seven-employee firm. “The idea is that in these times, there may be opportunities bubbling up that might not when the market is booming and the valuations are sky-high,” Salzer said.

Ambler insists that for those willing to take the risk and who already own a profitable business, most acquisitions can be financed using a company’s own accounts receivables, along with laying out the legal fees.Among Ambler’s six companies, one firm, Hong Kong Auto Parts, which has 365 employees, was acquired in a similar manner.

“While everybody whines about the economy, the people who are making money are doing it quietly,” Ambler said. “It’s a matter of looking for a CEO who is ready to retire, who did a really great thing you admire, and showing them you will take care of it.”