Thursday, October 20, 2011

Hanging Out the Shingle

I know a number of knowledgeable and talented people who declared themselves to be consultants but never got enough work to make a living at it. The message I got from these experiences was that it doesn’t matter how good you are if nobody knows you’re there. One man’s experience particularly sticks in my mind. I’ll call him Kevin.

Kevin is very bright and had considerable experience in the broad domain of software process improvement, so one day he left corporate America to become a consultant. However, Kevin made some mistakes getting started. He didn’t take the necessary actions to let prospective clients know that he was available and could be helpful to them. Kevin never created an official company name and never developed a website to market his services. He didn’t publish articles in software magazines or on websites. This is one way to get your name out there. Blogging is another useful technique, as is being an active contributor to blogs and discussion forums, such as those on LinkedIn. If people realize that you have good ideas and useful information to share, they might want to learn more about you and perhaps hire you.

Kevin did give a number of presentations at software conferences. Unfortunately, he didn’t seem to realize that the types of short presentations and even full-day tutorials that one typically delivers at conferences do not necessarily have a good market in the commercial world. Even if you do get hired to come into a company to give a short talk, it won’t pay much, and there’s only a small chance that it will lead to longer-term engagements. Kevin also positioned himself in too narrow of a specialty, just a couple of subdomains of software process improvement. In my experience, few corporations bring in consultants to help with those particular areas, important though they are. The net result of all this was that Kevin never gained much traction as an independent consultant. Eventually, he had to go back into the corporate world to have a reliable income.

You can learn a lot from Kevin’s experiences as you chart your own path for independent consulting in the software world. Somehow, I was very fortunate. I always had all of the work I wanted to do when I was an active consultant. Maybe I just hit the sweet spot in terms of developing training materials, other resources, and expertise in areas that were in demand, such as requirements engineering and software quality. But I think I did take some of the right actions, too.
  • I thought long and hard about what to name my company. I didn’t want to call it just something like the Wiegers Consulting Group or Wiegers & Associates. You’d be amazed how many such-named companies have but a single employee—no group, no associates. After considerable contemplation, I realized that my goal was to have an impact on the processes that software organizations use to build their products, and for those processes to have an impact on the organization’s business success. Hence the name: Process Impact.

  • I created a website immediately, ProcessImpact.com. I confess that this site is rather dated and simple, but it has a lot of useful content, and I’ve always favored substance over fluff, function over form. I now have three additional websites: ProjectInitiation.com, KarlWiegers.com, and PearlsFromSand.com.

  • Building a website is a good starting point, but then you need to attract people to the site. Over the years, I posted increasing quantities of material, including articles I had written, document templates and other useful work aids, and so forth. This kind of “bait” clearly draws visitors. The most popular item on ProcessImpact.com, my software requirements specification template, is still downloaded nearly 20,000 times per month. This astonishes me.

  • I wrote many articles for numerous software magazines on a variety of topics: requirements, project management, people management, quality, metrics, process improvement, and so forth. I published up to ten articles per year early in my career. Publishing generates good visibility and establishes the author’s credentials in multiple areas of expertise.

  • I spoke at as many as six or eight conferences per year, often giving multiple presentations at each conference. This is a way to reach hundreds of people a year with your message. You know your career is progressing when conference producers invite you to submit papers, to sit on panels, and ultimately to give keynote presentations. As you gain visibility, you can get paid increasing amounts to give your presentations. And the conference fee is virtually always waived for speakers.

  • I gave quite a few presentations at meetings of professional organizations throughout the country. If you can find such organizations close to home, that raises your profile in your own community and presents the opportunity for generating local work.

  • I began writing books. As of now, I have published six books on software development and management, in addition to a nontechnical memoir of life lessons titled Pearls from Sand: How Small Encounters Lead to Powerful Lessons (PearlsFromSand.com). Having your name on a book gives you both visibility and credibility. This is not to say that I am the world’s expert on any particular topic. You only have to know a little more than the next guy to be helpful, though.
Doubtless it was the combination of these activities that helped generate awareness of my presence and capabilities in the software industry. As a result, I made a decent living as a consultant and trainer, and I never had to think about going back to work in a larger company.

Do you agree with my premise that it doesn’t matter how good you are if no one knows you’re there? If so, think about various ways you can let the world (or at least the part of the world that might give you money for your services) learn of your existence and talents. It might pay off.

(If you found this article helpful, please consider making a donation to the Norm Kerth Benefit Fund to help a consultant who has been disabled since 1999 with a traumatic brain injury from a car accident. You can read Norm's story or donate here. Thanks!)

11 comments:

  1. Sound advice Karl, thanks for sharing your process happy path. I find that volunteering in my field yields a deeper and broader network of referrals.

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  2. Excellent point; thanks, Joan. Can you share any examples of what sort of volunteer work you've performed?

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  3. Good stuff Karl. Thanks.

    Couple of comments if I may:

    CONFERENCES...
    ...(speaking at) is a good idea, visibility and all that, but in my experience (a) they tend to be attended mostly by practitioners (b) these practitioners do not have check books (c) their ability to influence people who do have check books to open said check books is not as great as they often think it is.

    SPECIALIZATION...
    ...versus generalization is a challenge. I have found that companies will not usually hire general skills off the street. They usually have (what they perceive to be) a localized problem and they want experts in the fairly narrow field that will "solve" their problem. It is a challenge to find the intersection between your specialized skill and their need.

    However, once in at a company, I find one's generalized skills to be most in demand; certainly the ability to work beyond any narrow boundaries is essential. The specialized skill opens the door, the generalized skills keep it open.

    AFFECT vs EFFECT
    Unfortunately, many companies still seek the sliver bullet. I often find that organizations really want some kind of a pill that will solve their problems quickly and painlessly and if you explain the real options you might explain your way right out of the gig--especially if someone else is offering the snake oil. There are consultants and consultancies that make a living offering such palliatives. Slick marketing and quick fixes may trump open appraisal and honest effort it seems. Not sure what the answer is to this. Your views?

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  4. Great comments, Phil; thanks for sharing. Regarding the snake oil phenomenon, consultant Tim Lister once said, "The best liar wins" when it comes to prospective contractors making silly promises about when a given project could be finished. The same could certainly happen with consultants who are trying to solve a client's problem. Often, the real solution requires cultural and behavioral changes, which don't happen nearly as quickly as you can buy a tool or decree a new methodology. There's no shortcut I know of for a cultural change.

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  5. Hi Karl!

    With regards to consulting, I would have to agree that "it doesn’t matter how good you are if no one knows you’re there."

    Certainly, the two go hand-in-hand. But I would ask, have you come to value one over the other?

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  6. @Duane: Well, first, it's a good idea to be good at what you do, of course. Once you've established some marketable capability, then you need to let the world know that you're available and at their service. I'd favor this sequence over the other option, which would seem to be landing a consulting job but not being suitably proficient at what you've agreed to do for the client. So I'd favor competence over marketing.

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  7. Karl,

    I can't help but think that everything you describe (creating a website, having a business name, producing quality content, writing for magazines, etc.) is important but not sufficient for building a successful consulting practice.

    In other words, people "knowing you are there", and even that you are really good at what you do, won't be enough to bring in clients.

    The reason I'm saying that is that a couple of times during the past 5 years I was invited by successful consultants to partner with them in a new consulting business. None of these enterprises took off. And I've done everything you mentioned (not with the intent of building a consulting practice, mind you, just because like you I enjoy sharing what I learned).

    Even with clear indicators that I was producing quality content (e.g., authors constantly writing to ask me to review their books based on the fact that my name was included in a short list of "most qualified bloggers" in the field, invitations to speak at conferences, etc.) the clients did not come to us.

    During this period, my success as a consultant came from the fact that I was an employee of a small but reputable consulting firm in NYC (which was OK with the side businesses that my partners and I were trying to build).

    Doing work for this firm's clients helped me get exposed to executives who then started to ask specifically for my consulting services in different projects. This kept me busy all the time without having to go after clients myself.

    You mentioned in your first post that most of the work you've done has been training, and I have a feeling that this is the salient factor here. I did have success venturing on my own in training in the past, but for actual consulting work (as in providing advice through the analysis of existing organizational problems and development of plans for improvement), the key for success was to become an employee of a consulting firm with an already established portfolio of clients.

    I hope I'm not crushing anyone's dreams of starting their own consulting business, but unless one is interested in providing training, I'd say that the odds are high you are going to end up like Kevin in Karl's story.

    In my experience, companies prefer to hire services from well-established consulting firms (from the "Big 5" to small "boutique" firms that offer very specialized services, like the one I used to work for in NYC). If you are starting from that place, and are able to leave to start your own business legally and ethically taking some of your employers' clients with you, then your changes of success would greatly improve.

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  8. @Adriana: Thank you for sharing these important insights. I agree, letting people know you exist is a necessary, but perhaps not sufficient, step for getting consulting and training work. I landed my first corporate speaking engagement because someone heard me speak at a conference. I landed my first consulting gigs because someone heard me speak at a local professional society meeting and had read my first book. In fact, early in my career I got quite a few clients because of presentations I gave at professional society meetings. And I got invited to deliver those presentations because someone had read articles I had written or had heard me speak at a conference. So these mechanisms all intertwine.

    I did get some other long-term clients through the channel that you suggest, while working on a short-term contract basis for an established small consulting firm. However, that company wouldn't have hired me had I not already established a reputation through my writing and speaking. They came to me and offered me the job because they were familiar with my work. So a combination of strategies to acquire both skills and visibility is necessary to get doors to open for you.

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  9. It really is key to have good market represenation, these are good low-cost but impactful ways of getting your name out there. Start small at user groups and with websites/blogs/twitter and LinkedIn groups, these are great ways to establish a base-level reputation for being a good tech problem solver. Great article Karl!

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  10. Karl, your input has helped me become more competent and more marketable. Thank you -- for so much.

    I enjoyed the article, and also the comments about it.

    For me, a key point is that marketing should be an ongoing process in which seemingly unrelated efforts eventually combine to, seemingly magically, create a sort of critical-mass effect whereby a consultant becomes desirable to a corporate decision-makers. Simply maintaining top-of-mind awareness goes a long way -- stay on someone's radar screen pleasantly yet persistently.

    Any defensiveness, or show of frustration, will poison the relationship forever, even if the client is being unreasonable.

    As to getting new clients, here's what has worked for me:

    - A referral from a friend in the industry, whom the client trusts.
    - Client crises on very specific subjects for which folks found me on the Web, and then the issue grew in scope to: "since you're drowning and you know I'm savvy, please involve me to get your entire project back under control."
    - An on-site consulting gig (butt in a chair, all day long, on-site) during which I make a good impression on decision-makers.

    For example, I did a nine-month gig at HP in 1996, and as a result, at some point I had HP as my client and I was working on 7 different projects simultaneously. I could hardly keep up. One of these projects is still helping me pay my bills, 15 years later, and I worked on it as recently as today.

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  11. Following up on the volunteering concept - as I shifted my professional focus from facilitating face-to-face workshops and forum I gained real world experience by volunteering with organizations interested in hosting virtual workshops. Two particular assignments – the professional network American Society for Quality and the state department Maine Commission for Community Services - introduced me to industry leaders outside my usual network of IT professionals. In addition to expanding my network, these volunteer projects helped me along the learning path by broadening my exposure to virtual collaboration tools and working remotely with the project teams.

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