If you’re still relatively new to the consulting game, and you’re determined to strike out on your own, you’re in for some challenging work. Having a few years’ experience working on numerous projects with a consulting firm has likely afforded you a strong background and level of comfort working within a particular area of expertise, but are you ready to go out there into the wide world and find your own projects?

To many newbie independents, the myriad opportunities that attracted them to going solo also come with a drawback: It’s difficult to know where to start. What companies should you call? Who should you speak to? In this article, we’ll cover some basic networking tactics and give you pointers to get started making contacts to help you find projects on your own.

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Finding some ins
For consultants, networking equals visibility. This means hitting the streets and making contacts.

“There’s no substitute for that kind of footwork,” said Ed Joseph, cofounder and director of consulting and training for The Performance Institute, an Alexandria, VA-based management consultancy.

You should also search newspaper classifieds and the Web for organizations that match your skills to give you a good base from which to make contacts from scratch. Tom Raef, an independent consultant in Chicago, also advises that you look for ads that talk about mergers or acquisitions. For example, an ad saying that an organization that has recently merged now needs network developers could signal that it might also need a network consultant.

Make a list of the possible organizations and start making phone calls to each company to find out to whom you should speak about your services. Often, many businesses’ Web sites or classified ads include the names of CTOs or CIOs, which may prove to be the best starting point.

Remember to be aggressive. If you’re not contacting the right person, try to get more information from the organization’s human resources department. For example, if you were interested in working with a software company’s support department, Raef suggests that you “ask for the person in charge of their support department and keep after them.”

Cold calls, flyers, mailers
Once you’ve determined who to contact, it’s time to make the initial “cold call.” When making a cold call, Raef suggested that instead of just calling an organization and asking them if they need a consultant, you should try to understand what the organization wants and needs. In other words, make cold calls effective by marketing the value of your services—figure out what problem the company might need solved and tell them why you’re the right person for the job. “It’s just a matter of asking the right questions,” Raef said.

For example, an organization might need a network upgrade, but they won’t always see a consultant providing that service. Market yourself by thinking like the organization and explaining to them why your services would provide the best solution. “Do they want to realize the full value of a network upgrade? Yes. Do they want a consultant? No,” he said.

Sending flyers to a CTO or CIO is another way to get your name out. Raef said that mailers work fairly well but advises that you always make sure to include some “target” information in the flyers—specific items you wish to market about your services or a question you might ask the organization that would demonstrate your knowledge of their needs. For example, use a mailer to ask an organization if they understand the benefits of migrating to Microsoft 2000. If they don’t, they may call you to explain, and then you’ve made a contact, Raef said.

Don’t be discouraged, however, if an organization tells you they can’t use you. If you call back in three or six months, they may have a place for you then. The important thing is to stay in contact with the organization so that you remain fresh in their mind.

Attend industry gatherings
Networking also means, of course, that you go where others in your industry are gathering. Some networking opportunities include:

  • IT conferences
  • Trade shows
  • Consulting affinity groups or associations
  • IT headhunters and recruiters

Attending shows and conferences increases your visibility. And with some salesmanship, you can use the contacts you make at conferences to reach organizations that need your services.

A recent TechRepublic poll showed that the greatest percentage of the 143 respondents—44 percent—indicated that attending user group conferences was the best way to find new clients (see Figure A).

Figure A

Another 20 percent of respondents said that cold calling worked, while 15 percent indicated they preferred finding new clients at trade shows. And both directing potential clients to your Web site and advertising in trade publications were listed by 13 percent of respondents, respectively.

If you’re really ready to sell yourself, you could also make yourself available to sit on a conference panel regarding your area of expertise. This can generate leads and increase the perception that you understand the problems and solutions of your area.

“It’s a great way to build credibility, and even if you attend three or four events a year, that’s still something to put on a resume,” said The Performance Institute’s Joseph.

Contacting headhunters and recruiters
Newbie independents may also want to contact headhunters and recruiters before looking for contacts on their own. “They can give you the initial contracts to get started,” said Tom McFadyen, president of Vienna, VA-based McFadyen Consulting.

But Raef cautions newbies to be wary of headhunters and recruiters. “It is an easy way [to make contacts], but looking at it from a more experienced person’s view, I wouldn’t like to see that. New consultants are more likely to be taken advantage of,” he said.

To protect yourself from a headhunter, make a plan to break out after your first projects are completed. It’s easy to become stuck with a recruiter, Raef said.

Some of your best contacts are probably ones you already have. Think of former coworkers or employers. Do you know a sales representative that might steer you to a software company in need of help? Does a former manager or CIO know a friend who needs a consultant?

While there are plenty of difficulties associated with becoming an independent contractor, finding new clients doesn’t have to be one of them. If you’ve found a method that works, tell us about it in the discussion below.