Maggie Mason posted seven lessons for small businesses, which I'm going to discuss as they apply to IT consulting."Know when to celebrate." I celebrate every time I get a check. Whenever someone says, "Thanks, you solved my problem!" Whenever I sign a new contract. When I complete even the smallest deliverable. When I finally nail that elusive bug. If you're waiting until you've "arrived," you never will. If you're not enjoying the journey, you need to change course. "Good enough is sometimes good enough." In our industry, there's always some new way that proclaims that all the old ways are "doing it wrong." Consultants sometimes chase these trends like a cat chases a ball of string. We can measure how "good" a solution is along several different axes, including but not limited to costs (time and money), leverage of existing assets, fulfillment of present requirements, and anticipation of future needs. It's rarely possible to create an optimal solution for all of those simultaneously, so something has to give. We're often tempted to focus on one aspect and try to make it perfect, rather than striking a balance between these potentially competing goals. Remember the adage ascribed to Voltaire: "The perfect is the enemy of the good." "Get an elevator pitch." As Albert Einstein said, "If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough." So if you can't state your value proposition in a couple of sentences, then perhaps you don't have a clear value proposition. You should not only know why people should want to hire you as opposed to investing in other alternatives, you should be thinking about that subject every day. The "elevator pitch" will be a natural result of those cogitations. "If you hate it, avoid it." It might take a while, but you'll find work you love if you're actively looking for it, and you're not getting bogged down in stuff you hate. I think one reason why people keep bad clients and don't farm out work they should is that they want to have something to complain about in order to show how hard they're working. Get over this guilty need to demonstrate our worth if we really want to be working for ourselves instead of for what we perceive as everyone's opinion of us. "Be generous with your knowledge." As Maggie states, this is a great way to market yourself. If you try to hoard your expertise, nobody can appreciate it. Give it away, and people will pay you for more. Sometimes I run into the penny-pinchers who ask, "Why should I pay you for advice when you answer similar questions all the time on the web for free?" My answer is "If you want to ask your questions in a public forum, I might answer them if I have the time and inclination. If you want me to dedicate myself to your problems, then contract with me." If they don't understand that distinction, then I don't want them as clients anyway. "In negotiations, be as quiet as you can." This has at least two aspects. First, listening: you can't hear what the client wants if you're talking. Second, prudence: don't dig a hole for yourself by talking your way into obligations before you've assessed their scope. "Work with good people." In my mind, this goes hand in hand with "If you hate it, avoid it." Perhaps it's more positive, though. Actively cultivate relationships with people from whom you can learn. People who can teach you more than just the technical side: learning how to deal with people is far more difficult and valuable.
Maggie's lessons paint a picture of small business as a joyous and empowered occupation. I'd be lying if I said that it's always that good for me, and although I don't want to speak for Maggie, I think she would agree. If life were always so bright and cheerful, then there would be no need to learn these lessons. Don't let them become additional whips with which to flagellate yourself. In fact, that's one I'd add to the list: don't be too hard on yourself. You know yourself better than anyone else does. Don't judge yourself by other people's standards.
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.