Category Archives: Business

Consulting essentials: Managing & Completing Engagements

This is the second in a series of three articles on Consulting Essentials.
Read the previous post, Consulting essentials: Getting the business

Communicating well and knowing when to step in or stand back is the linchpin of successful consulting.
Some people have natural charm. If you’re one of these people you’ll find consulting is definitely for you. You’ll use that skill all the time as each new client brings a half dozen or a dozen new people to interact with.

If it doesn’t come easily, practice practice practice. Try to get out of your own head space, and hear what troubles your client, and what big business challenges worry them.

Be ready to help but don’t try to be the hero


A decade ago I worked for an Internet startup. They were having serious performance problems which was slowing down the site, and turning users away. When digging into the systems I found serious security issues besides the performance ones, and got distracted trying to wrap up those lest someone break in and destroy or steal their business assets. Communicating the situation to the client, they looked aghast. After explaining the situation to them, they understood the risks and explained that the current priorities were to get users back online.

The technical problems I saw may not have been aligned with the business priorities. Your job is to make your client happy. Provide your professional opinion and advice whenever and wherever your skills come into play, but let them run their own business.

If you’re focusing on one area, and you discover other problems or things that may need resolving going forward, bring this to the attention of the client. Allow them to prioritize for themselves. It’s their business not yours. Your job is to give your professional opinion, raise concerns that you see, but most importantly solve problems they want you to solve.

Project Your Personality

Smile a lot and listen to people. Make sure you’re talking less than half the time. When you first engage with a client, they should be speaking more like two-thirds of the time. You want to get in the habit of listening, and stepping in your clients shoes. You want to understand their pain, their business concerns and how to satisfy them.

Manage Time Efficiently

Get things done. Everybody talks about it, but not everyone does it. I personally avoid all the faddish tools for this, and use a simple checklist. Focus on the task at hand. Give yourself a doable list of tasks each day, and check them off as you go. Try hard to avoid working on things not on that list. The last point relates back to the principle of solving only the problems that you’ve been asked to solve.

Communicate Successes & Progress

In many engagements you’ll come upon struggles and get blocked by situations that seem intransigent. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to communicate with the client during these situations. Don’t get stuck thinking it will make you look weak. Communicating with the client has a number of surprising advantages.

For one sometimes they’ll have a solution, such as a different angle on the business problem, or insight and details that just simplify the problem you think you thought needed to be solved.

Second, it allows the client to adjust schedules in advance if something will take a little longer. You’d be surprised how often a client will sympathize with a difficult problem.

Lastly, involving the client intimately allows them to enjoy the triumph when you solve the problem. This helps morale, communicates more about what it is you do day-to-day and how you work through a problem. And overall it helps them appreciate the intrinsic value you’re providing.

Consulting essentials: Getting the business

Over the years, a lot of people have approached me asking how to become a tech consultant. What do I need to do to get started? How can I take my first step?

I also hear from managers and CEOs that have asked how I got my start, and how I keep the business running. What lessons from consulting can be applied to startups and small businesses? Having worked independently for many years I’ve built up my own cache of strategies and methods which I hope can be helpful to anyone looking to strike it out on their own.

This is the first of a series of three articles on consulting essentials. Part two covers managing engagements and part three: Building your business.

Networking to avoid the feast or famine cycle

If no one knows about your services, it doesn’t matter how good you are, you won’t have regular work. Some consultants get involved in a regular full-time engagement, and after a year or more experience a lot of down time when that gig ends.

Want to avoid the feast or famine cycle? Get out there and meet people. Go to meetups, and exchange cards. Go to startup and venture events such as Ultralight or The Hatchery. Participate in General Assembly  and related incubators. Start a newsletter, and say something interesting and useful every month. Add every professional colleague you encounter to your list. A newsletter is an invaluable way to keep in touch with folks in your professional world, and the value keeps growing over time.

Build your network, connect people together and keep in contact with people. This makes you a focal point, and that will bring business to you.

Proposals & Meetings – Always be Closing

  1. Take many meetings and interviews
  2. If you’re drawing a wide net, you should have tons of opportunities to meet prospects. Sometimes these may be framed as interviews, while other times a meeting of peers. Ultimately as a professional services provider, you should think of it as a partnership where each party contributes to solve a business problem. Hone your speaking skills, compliment people, smile, listen carefully to people’s concerns and try to frame answers in language that works uniquely for each person.

  3. Talk with Economic Buyers
  4. In order to get hired for your services, ultimately you’ll need to be talking with the person who manages the budget for such hiring. However often there are gatekeepers or even human relations folks between you and that person. If you’re being asked for a resume you’re probably going down the wrong road. Typically a stake holder will ask you about solutions you’ve provided for other customers, how you executed, and what were some of the highlights. They won’t be giving you a test, or asking you to solve a riddle or coding problem.

  5. Send quotes
  6. If you are active in business, networking regularly and reaching out to new contacts and colleagues then you should find many asking for advise and expertise. Always be sending out quotes. Sending out a quote is not a do or die arrangement. You should be sending out many many more than you expect to win. By continuing to pitch, you test the market for the demand of your skills, package your services in new and creative ways, and frame solutions that should hopefully resonate with your prospects.

  7. Cherry Pick the Best Clients
  8. All clients are not created equal. Some are trying to get a lot for less than market value, and will try hard to micromanage and squeeze value out of you. This isn’t personal. Business is about maximizing value for a given price. It’s important though to qualify the client, make sure they have the budget to be worth your while, and do your due diligence. Better to have a half dozen to a dozen projects in one year, than fifty tiny projects.

  9. Give Audience to fulltime offers
  10. If you’re good at consulting, you’ll gain a lot of experience, exposure to many types of businesses, many technologies, and many environments. This is valuable experience, and business owners and startups will try to hire you. As part of the *listen* part, it’s always ok to hear out a prospect. Leave the “door open” as they say. Provide real explanation for what appeals to you, from independence, freedom of schedule, choosing projects, and compensation. Creative discussion about budgets and pricing options can well turn such a discussion into how you might work together on a situational or project basis.

    Although independent consulting isn’t for everyone for those who’ve made a career out of it, taking a fulltime opportunity is a step away from that freedom unless you’re making a deliberate career change. Doing this can be a signal you don’t have a full stream of work, that you’re experiencing the famine cycle, and you’re looking for safety and security.

    Consulting services cost more hour per hour than a fulltime resource. But typically you work in shorter bursts or stints. What’s more your availability is always a business value. Lastly because you can ride the crest, stay in demand, stay relevant and stay fresh, you’ll continue to command top dollar.

Price Your Services Properly

I’ve met many freelancers over the years who struggle to get paid, or struggle with cash flow. If this is happening you’re either not keeping the pipeline full or not charging sufficiently for your services. What exact price is right for you of course will vary. My personal recommended method is to research the large firms in your services space. Find out what their junior and senior folks are billed out at. These firms of course have a lot of overhead, so 50% of those rates should be a good base number to work around. Furthermore these calculations can be used in discussions with prospects to sell your services. Remind prospects that they’ll be getting the same professional experience, more customer focus because you’re a one man shop, and pay half the price for it. A proverbial win-win.

  1. Discount by Reducing Value
  2. Beware taking too much pro-bono work, or giving discounts at the outset of an assignment. This signals to the savvy firm that you’re keen to close the deal, and will probably negotiate further. You’ll have little room to renegotiate rates higher, once the engagement has begun. You’ve already set a precedent.

    So if a firm asks for a discount, be sure to reduce the entire package in some way. Total number of hours, on-call coverage, amount of software or widgets delivered etc.

  3. Experiment with Different Billing Models

Hourly billing is not the only model in town. If you’re finding it’s a lot of work to keep track of hours, or you and your client are staying unduly focused on these details, consider other models. Pricing by the day may work, for example. Further options may include billing by the week or even by the month. Chances are you’ll want to discount somewhat for larger incremental steps in pricing. Keep in mind that with monthly billing for example, your project cannot end on June 10th or July 5th. It will always roll forward to the end of a month. So offering a discount for larger billing periods may even out in the end.

In the next post: How to manage and complete engagements.

Tyranny of a Google vote

Image by Hajo de Reijger, politicallyillustrated.com

For the past year I’ve been seeing headline blogs analyzing the effect of Google’s last algorithm update, dubbed the Panda. There was much talk of unfair relegation from the first page of Google search results, and general indignance by the SEO community.

As with any subject in which I only have cursory knowledge I didn’t think much of it. I thought that as long as I didn’t engage in link-buying and whatever is known as “black hat” tactics, the search engines would be fair. What I didn’t realise with Google was how subjective it has become in ranking websites. I was particularly tripped up in the area of duplicate content.

Some of my articles are syndicated to DZone.com, a hub for tech bloggers. They’d approached me about a year ago asking if I’d like them to carry our content. It seemed like a good way to gain visibility so I agreed.

Recently, I ran a Google search on the actual content that was syndicated and found the following results:

Title Dzone rank iheavy rank
Zero Downtime – What is it? #21 (not in first 5 pages)
Deploying MySQL on EC2 #1 (not in first 5 pages)
Cloud Computing Use Cases #5 (not in first 5 pages)

Now DZone.com’s pagerank is a 6 while iheavy.com is a 3. Google’s algorithm is probably weighing the pagerank of Dzone higher, and serving up those results at the expense of the original. It could be that the algorithms can’t determine which is original but Google’s bots know full well when content is published, so it knows the iheavy.com content was created before.

More likely it cannot supersede the ranking algorithm. It is one based on popularity.

What’s Original Content?

All of this raises the question of the value of original content. In this case we’ve given this site permission to carry our content, not knowing whether that would be good or bad for us. Nevertheless, it does seem to go against common sense, and perhaps what Internet users intuition might tell them, that they were not clicking through to the original creator of some content.

Can Google’s Algorithm Discern Original Work? Is there an incentive to do so?

The update brings up interesting questions about Google’s ranking algorithm. In a world where the popularity indicator is given the highest weight, will we find what we are looking for? In my case, I write articles related to my area of expertise, which is on web architecture, scalability and general tech consulting matters. Of course I want people to find my site when they’re looking for solutions to problems relevant to them. Yet in Google’s calculations, popularity trumps provenance.

Many bigger sites are experiencing the same thing and at an even larger scale. According to SEO Moz, Panda is forcing a change onto the role of SEOs, turning them into that of web strategists. While traditional SEO methods of optimizing for keywords, and putting out quality content still count, design and user experience, shareability, likeability; what’s known as “signals” that could predict the site’s popularity, are influencing the overall results of your site.

As an independent business owner with limited resources my time off hours is invested in writing better articles that appeal to people searching for MySQL or scalability consulting and less about putting in the bells and whistles to raise site popularity. But if that’s what Google favors then I’ll probably have to rethink my approach.

As much as I can squeeze out of a busy schedule, there’s not a high chance that this website can surpass a giant such as Dzone in popularity.

The Internet is meant to be a place where the pint-sized can have a fair chance at making an impression. With the way search algorithms have evolved, things are looking more like a reality TV talent contest where skill alone without good looks and a nice smile are just not enough to win the popular vote.

Don't be that guy–Social tips for geeks

Sheldon CooperAs a tech consultant one of the most interesting parts of the job is being able to observe human relations at work. I’ve learned through the years that because tech people and non-tech people speak different ‘languages’, bridging the communication gap is a critical part of my role as a consultant.

Sometimes the relationship between tech and other business units is less sweet. The typical complaints are that IT guys are always denying requests, aloof and even downright unhelpful.

On the other side, the geeks feel frustrated that people “just don’t listen”. We remind people to always use strong passwords, and people still make “password” their password. We train end-users and give specific guidance and instructions but they still commit the fundamental mistakes. Meanwhile, the managers expect IT staff to perform miracles.

So who can be blamed when this animosity exists? Geeks for their arrogance? Or end-users for not making an effort to improve their understanding of tech concepts? Perhaps both sides can share the blame. But as tech folks we can try to make things better by working on our communication skills. Sliding into aloofness will not only make people resentful but suspicious of our motives too. Don’t be that guy!

If you’ve found yourself slipping up in the people-skills department, here are a few tips that can help you along. Think of understanding and persuading other people as a puzzle equally complex as the biggest engineering challenge. In that light you can look at it as an ongoing project to improve your communication and charm.

  1. Please Speak My Language
  2. Martha Stewart said “the biggest mistake people make is they expect that others know stuff…”. Amen Martha. In my experience a lot of folks fall into this category. Ever been at a meeting where financial folks are waxing on about the business bottom line, margins, and shareholder value? If talk of capex, opex and other financial terms confound you, then you know the feeling. So why subject others to this when we talk tech? There’s no reason to, and people will love you for using a language that everyone can understand. Use analogies and stories to emphasize an idea or point so it resonates with your audience.

  3. Listen to me
  4. Everyone wants to be listened to; hopefully that’s obvious. But sometimes we get stuck on our own ideas, and focus more on people hearing us. It may sound counterintuitive, but psychologically speaking, listening more to the other person makes them listen to your ideas more. Start by giving plenty of time to speak, and try to repeat the other persons ideas in your own words. You’ll set the tone for a more reasoned dialogue and find your own thoughts heard more too.

  5. Be more positive
  6. Perhaps it is our engineering backgrounds, and the discipline that the scientific method ingrains in us. You may think that being critical is a common way to approach a discussion on issues. However this may come across as negative and stand-offish depending on how you communicate. What’s more if your audience doesn’t see things from your perspective, you may find yourself complaining and condemning proposals.

    Better to find the positive as a common starting point. Speak about all the things that work well first, before working your way around to points of difference.

  7. Speak slowly
  8. Psychologists have found that people sense more confidence and listen more to people who speak slowly. It may seem counterintuitive, after all if you speak quicker, you may be able to get that complicated idea out into the world before you are ever interrupted! What’s more speaking slowly allows you to think about what might come next, anticipating reactions, or even changing direction slightly in mid-stream. It also allows you more time to catch what might be a … or a slip of the tongue.

  9. A few more ideas to chew on…
    1. Smile more
    2. You may not be aware of how often you’re smiling or not. What’s more you may think it insincere to try to smile. But a frown, or other negative face can criticize your audience as much as actual words can. And it can set people off on the wrong foot, so they won’t listen to you either. Better to stay positive, and convey that with a smile.

    3. Remember & use people’s names
    4. People love to hear their own names. Remembering and using someone’s name improves the chances that they will listen to you and your ideas.

    5. Repeat what others say in your own words
    6. This one is really crucial. By repeating someone’s ideas in your own words you do a few things all at once. First you improve communication, as it is so often the case that we misunderstand someone else’s ideas, repeating them in your own words allows them to hear how you’ve digested their point, and allows them to comment or adjust if you missed something. It also shows them you are really listening. If you’re going to critique someone, and they feel you didn’t really get their idea, they’ll be very unlikely to listen.

    7. Try not to say “you’re wrong”
    8. Even in the cases where the other person is completely wrong, this statement may not have the intended affect. It may simple cause them to wall off and not listen to you. Better to point out the sides of what they are saying that you can agree with first, then come around to some differences.

    9. Read Dale Carnegie
    10. The classic book “How to Win Friends & Influence People” should really be required reading for the geek set. Being personable and charming may not be natural to all of us, but a lot of it can be learned with practice. Dale Carnegie has written a sort of bible on the topic, and it’s definitely worth a read.

“My startup is too cool for your business school”

An article I read on Tech Crunch recently got me thinking about startup culture. In Are You Building A Company, Or Just Your Credentials Geoff Lewis, expressed his distaste for a friend’s plan to get on Y Combinator’s ‘no idea’ startup incubation program. In this experimental approach, groups or individuals with a desire to be part of a startup but who have no product or business idea to begin with, can apply.

The thinking I believe, is that since brilliant ideas aren’t the only factor for startup success (many other factors like organisation skills, business savvy and tenacity matter too) YC will dig into their vault of ideas and match one that’s most suitable to these idea-starved groups.

Firstly, reading this I could sympathize with the discontent.  Venture capitalists exist for people who have an idea and want to realise it. There are already programs for people who don’t have an idea but want to achieve some success. They are called “careers”.

However, if you look at it from an incubator’s perspective, it’s a pretty clever and measured approach. YC knows what sort of group dynamic in startups have a higher chance of success and it is casting its net wide to find them.

But Lewis took issue with the fact that his MBA-qualified, credential-seeking buddy was signing up with YC presumably just to add to his blue ribbon collection.

With such articles what’s usually more interesting is the comments they elicit. Many who reacted responded with the same feelings of contempt; calling paper-chasers ‘hucksters’ and scoffing at their lack of passion and sincerity.

The tone among some carried this notion that startups were a special breed of entrepreneurs burdened with some sort of higher calling to liberate the world; money and honour being an afterthought.

Not being directly part of the startup circle, so-to-speak, I found the reaction amusing and frankly, rather foolish. Are people involved in startups turning into a sort of in-group? Do they really think of themselves as some kind of mutant-strain of businesses that are different from ‘regular’ enterprises?

If we look at the richest Internet companies today, once startups themselves, they are no less motivated by avarice and the bottomline, so why be so judgmental of Mr MBA treating the YC program as a way to gain credentials? I bet many talented individuals are going to have a go at it for the same reason if not a variety of reasons. As the program draws out, I suspect the number of participants will peter out by attrition anyway.

And who’s to say not coming up with a disruptive idea makes you less enterprising? Think of startups as team sports. There are some teams that innovate with the most creative gameplay that catch their opponents off-guard. There are teams that win by consistency and endurance, doing the same thing well over many years to pull ahead of the pack.

To cast aspersions on the motivations of others and to let silly prejudices limit participation seems discordant with the spirit of the Internet itself, where challenging convention is the order of the day and everyone is entitled to a shot at success.

The Age of the Platform by Phil Simon

The Age of the Platform book coverI picked up Phil Simon’s The Age of the Platform after running into his blog, and some of his writing online. Simon is an interesting guy with an obvious strong technical background. He’s also an accomplished speaker and you can find several videos of his speaking online.

The first thing that struck me about this book was how it came to be. The book was funded through Kickstarter, an online platform for people to fund their creative projects. Perhaps it was Simon trying to drive home the point of his book. But it gets better, he self-published the book through Motion Publishing. Furthermore the book isn’t cheap for a paperback at $20. That said I admire that he has obviously eaten his own dog food, as the proverbial saying goes, and done it himself.

The premise of the book is that we’re entering a new age exemplified by four companies, namely Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple. He takes us through a quick history of each company, then illustrates their successes and how each of them have successfully created platforms to extend their reach. Continue reading

What Wouldn't Google Do?

What Would Google DoIn his latest book, What Would Google Do? Jeff Jarvis seems to have authored a gushing tribute to the search giant that has pledged to do no evil. He paints a very optimistic picture, and shows us over and over how Google has opened up industries, and how that same openness helps consumers like you and I.

Jarvis, if you don’t know him by name, has been a journalist for some time, but gained particular cred and notoriety when he blogged with the headline “Dell lies. Dell Sucks” after his horrible experiences with Dell computers and customer service.

While digging through Googly chapters, on Real Estate, Publishing, Entertainment, Shopping, Education and even Airlines, Jarvis serves up anecdotes on how a more open approach can help these industries adapt to a new business environment brought about by the Internet. He cites interesting examples like Gary Vaynerchuk, the creator of the hilarious and insanely popular winelibrary.tv show about wines, and now a public speaker on social media and brand building; and Brazilian author Paulo Coelho pirating his own works.

Taking the cue from some of these successes Jarvis goes on to propagate the idea that sharing and dishing out services for free is the way to make money. The irony that you have to buy his book for him to tell you that deserves a chuckle, and also raises the question of whether he himself buys all of that (pun inevitable). Indeed openness is great for consumers as most of us would agree. A level playing field increases competition, drives down prices for consumers. But it also drives down profits and margins. Continue reading

The Problem with Startup Bootcamps

instant startups

Scanning Crains NY Business recently, I saw an article on ‘starting up’ in 54 hours.  It’s the brainchild of Marc Nager, Clint Nelsen and Franck Nouyrigat called Startup Weekend. Startup bootcamps seem to be the current extra-curricular activity of choice these days. Wharton is also getting in on it with their Innovation Tournament. Then there is the 48 Hour Startup  and of course let’s not forget the 3 Day Startup.

So what’s my beef?  Truth be told I admire the ambition, the optimism, and the openness of these efforts.  And for sure these bootstrapping marathons do introduce entrepreneurs to future colleagues and partners, get them asking the right questions about financing, customers, revenue, competition and so forth.

My problem with these events is they frame startups as something you *can* do quickly. As if it were a Lego set or pop-up book that gives instant results and gratification. Sure startups are 21st century tech-driven business that provide innovative products in a very short development cycle but a lot of the day-to-day running of the business are still very mundane 20th century sensibilities; not unlike running a mom and pop store, a laundromat, deli or sandwich shop.

Continue reading

Scalability Rules for managers and startups

Scalability RulesAbbott and Fisher’s previous book, The Art of Scalability received good reviews for shifting the way we think about scalability from merely splitting databases and adding servers, to include the human factors that weigh heavily on its success. Together with the authors’ distinguished pedigree (PayPal, Amazon, and eBay between them), I picked up a copy of their second book, Scalability Rules – 50 Principles for Scaling Web Sites without a second thought.

If Art was about laying a strong foundation for a scalable organization then Rules is the reference point for when you actually tackle the growth challenges. It acts as a reminder when you come to a crossroad of decision-taking, to keep with the principles of scaling. Each guiding principle is clearly explained and illustrated with examples. It also prescribes how and when to apply the rules. Continue reading

How about an easier tip jar?

Tip Jar Walking around New York you find yourself stopping at plenty of different places to grab some takeout for lunch. There are Vietnamese sandwich places, pizza shops, noodle bars, taco stands, juice bars and of course your daily coffee shop. You’ll find an endless variety.

As is customary in New York, even for takeout there is usually a tip jar at the checkout. Many of them have a large bowl, or glass jar in which you can throw your change as tips, or if you really love the place and service, a couple of dollars.

Of late I’ve noticed a few have placed those small plastic boxes with a tiny slot on the top. You try to put some change in the slot, and half of the money falls on the floor. It’s as frustrating as threading a needle while suffering from astigmatic vision. Now when I come to a place that has this plastic box, I don’t even bother tipping. I get a headache thinking about my change falling all over the floor. All I keep thinking is, why make it so difficult to tip?

Continue reading