Marketing You!Finding work isn't the same as waiting for work to find you. A business plan of "Make lots of money" isn't a plan—it's a wish, not unlike "Win the lottery and retire." To become a successful consultant, you must have a plan. Think hard about what you do best, and build on your strengths. If you're uncomfortable around strangers or can't articulate in fifteen seconds the value you will bring to the client, attempting to be a lone-wolf 1099 is rather unrealistic. If you're not interested in marketing, bookkeeping, or the many other non-technical tasks required to run even a one-person business, plan on hiring—that means paying—someone to do these for you.
To find work, you must actively seek it out. This means marketing yourself. But don't limit yourself always to the same channels; your options will change over time. When I started out, my first client literally fell into my lap. I had invested fifteen years working for a well-known computer company until I received my severance notice, along with one-third of the other employees in my facility. I hit the ground running, looking for a W-2 job, but I was overqualified for every position I interviewed for. Then a New York company heard about the layoff and contacted me because I had the skills they needed.
For my next three or four engagements, I found work primarily through third-party groups who marketed me. On every engagement, I met people and cultivated relationships. In a short time, those relationships became a marketing channel as I began obtaining work from word-of-mouth recommendations. By expanding my base from just programming and design to teaching object-oriented technology, I aligned myself with several large OO consulting and training companies. When consulting positions were sparse, my training work served as a safety net. And, after teaching various OO courses (of varying quality) marketed by these companies, my dissatisfaction with them led me to start writing and marketing my own courses.
Next, I attempted cold-call marketing, with limited success. At the end of 1998, I made a conscious decision to try a more aggressive marketing plan, so I created a website. Then I started speaking at professional conferences. In 1999, I began writing magazine articles on object technology and OO software development and modeling tools. Then I had the privilege of being asked to serve as a judge for the prestigious Jolt Awards for software productivity, a position I have now held for eleven years. And two years ago I started a second business to produce a commercial software product for people who want to manage their nutrition and health.
My point is this: you must continually step out of your comfort zone. I'm not really kidding when I say that I'm now in my comfort zone only when I'm out of my comfort zone.
Dealing with Third-Party PlacementIf you're an independent consultant, this doesn't mean you'll always have to find your own clients. Especially in the beginning of your independent career, you might find ready-made opportunities through third-party placement or system integration groups. Some of my best work experiences have come in this way. They handle the marketing, cold calls, payroll, and other details; I do the technology. The only downside? They get paid from my pay.
Don't fall into the trap of whining about this, however. Recognize that the third party you're working through has to make money, too. After all, they are doing the marketing, bookkeeping, payroll, and so on. Should you care what margin they are making from you? My position is simple: I have no right to know the margin and I don't care what it is. If I decide to work at $45 or $75 per hour and discover that the placement group is charging $125 per hour for me, so what? If $45 or $75 per hour meets my goals, I'm satisfied. Grousing over someone else's margin is bad public relations, earning you the label of malcontent. Then you won't get any more work through that group.
Negotiate, never demand. Keep your eyes and ears open, and if you learn what the third party is charging for you, just sit on that information until the next contract renewal or project. Concentrate on what you must do to make yourself worth $100 per hour, and let the placement group worry how to pass on the increase to the client. That's what they’re getting paid to do. As you gain industry visibility and credibility, you might find that more prospective clients begin to contact you directly about providing services to them. When this happens, you'll rely less on third-party companies and contractors to find work for you
Independent consulting is a way of working that has become common in many industries. It seems destined to increase as our economy continues to mutate into integrated, electronic cottage service industries. It has tremendous reward potential, and just as much downside. You can slice and dice your independence almost any way you wish, but you must also take care of business. If you really think you want to be independent, carefully count the costs, get prepared, and charge ahead. It could well change your life forever.
(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!)