Landing that all-important first client

Find out why Chip Camden thinks that if you decide to become a consultant and then start looking for business, you're doing it wrong.

In the discussion on my article about how to market your IT consultancy, TechRepublic member bp1argosy asked me to refocus the topic on consultants who are just starting out. I replied that I thought that most of the strategies in that article would apply, except for getting referrals from previous clients -- because you don't have any.

For new consultants, gaining that first client is all-important, yet it can be difficult. Not having referrals from previous clients is a disadvantage, but that isn't the worst of it. You might be able to stretch an employer recommendation to fill the referral slot, but you might not overcome the prospect's fears associated with the idea that they're buying into Engagement Version 1.0. You may know the technical side of the work forwards and backwards, but consulting brings its own set of challenges that have nothing to do with that. Even if a prospect doesn't fully appreciate those challenges, they sense and fear all of the unknowns involved in your first attempt at consulting. They wonder if you'll be able to cut it -- and if not, where will that leave them? When a prospect looks for a consultant, they're often looking for reassurance. They want to bring someone in who knows how to solve their problem without adding new risks and uncertainties. A greenhorn is not a suitable candidate.

Thus, in my opinion, if you decide to become a consultant and then start looking for business, you're doing it wrong. Your decision to become a consultant should proceed from your awareness of a demand for your services, not the other way around. You should have at least one client lined up for business before you hang out your shingle.

That doesn't mean that you can't plan to become a consultant before then -- you should always try to think ahead of your career, and watch for the opportunities to do the things you never thought you would get the chance to do. Just don't set your living afloat on the consulting boat until you're reasonably sure it's seaworthy. Keep on cashing your employee paycheck while you take some small jobs on the side to gain experience. Contribute to open source projects to get your name out there as an expert in the field, and participate in forum discussions on related topics. Eventually someone will notice that you know a subject they don't, and they'll ask if they can engage your services. It doesn't hurt to let people know that you're available, but only in a way that doesn't color you desperate.

You might be able to convert your employer into your first client. That's what I did, and it made the transition easy. But don't force that issue, or you might not keep them long. You must be able to present your change of status as beneficial to both parties, and dispel any fears that you're taking the first step towards abandoning them. In my case, it was actually my employer's idea -- triggered by onerous regulatory requirements they would have faced if I had remained an out-of-state employee. The rate I accepted in that arrangement was too low (a common error for newbie consultants), but in the long run it worked to my advantage to be able to seek out new clients while relying for subsistence on one large, continuous, and happy engagement. I don't regret it one bit.

I lied a little bit just now: they weren't my first client, but they were my first big client. I started my consulting firm almost a year earlier, but only picked up a handful of small engagements before converting my employer. That helped me to sand off some of the rough edges before going big-time: I had already worked out issues like billing and accounting, and I already had a home office with my own equipment.

During those months of pretending to be independent, I often wondered if I'd ever really make it as a consultant. The patience to wait for the right opportunities to come along, and the persistence to keep trying to make a go of it, eventually paid off. I wouldn't have been able to do either if my livelihood had depended solely on consulting during that time.