Category Archives: Consulting

5 conversational ways to evaluate great consultants

Startups and more mature businesses alike, and those large and small, at some point will need to hire a consultant or two. Want to get the best bang for your buck? Ask some tough questions!

Join 8000 others and follow Sean Hull on twitter @hullsean.

1. Make sure they’re not going to quit

I’ve heard so many crash and burn stories over the years, it makes my head spin.

One client had hired a consultant who was supposed to be the best in NYC. After only a few weeks of working with the client, he explained that they were “doing it all wrong”. Furthermore he had a travel schedule to meet, with speaking engagements in South America.

So he basically dropped them! As the client retold this story to me, I wonder if they could hear my head shaking, I was stunned. Who would turn away from a customer in pain? And furthermore turn away from one who could clearly use the expertise of someone who had seen a lot before!?

Keep in mind the reasons why people leave consulting.

2. Be sure they have some war stories to tell

Any consultant who’s been in business for a while, surely has some good war stories to tell. Talk about those, and find out the battles they’ve been in.

I can tell a few myself. In one case I was only 12 hours from leaving for summer vacation when a long time colleague and former client called me. They were in a serious emergency. The big boys, the remote DBAs that many in the industry use, had broken their database. Replication was misconfigured, and they were running blind. I ended up on a SKYPE call fixing the database and troubleshooting problems on Virgin’s inflight wifi. You don’t forget that kind of firefighting.

[quote]
Be sure they won’t quit, ask about war stories, test for some push back and be sure they empathize with your business pain. But more importantly ask them to tell their own business story. You’ll learn a lot.
[/quote]

For another client, back in the dot-com days, their application was stalling completely. Customers were leaving, and so was an 80 million dollar buyout deal. Nothing a few Oracle parameters couldn’t fix!.

And there are always a few tales of woe between sales teams, and the engineers that then must deploy solutions in the real world. Beware the sales wolf in sheeps clothing and do your homework aka due diligence on technical solutions.

3. Ensure they can provide resistance & push back

Good consultants have to walk a tightrope all the time. On the one hand they are tasked with making their clients happy. At the end of the day, improving their position, business bottom line, yes these are crucial. Sure that means saying yes, that means trying to be a problem solver as much as possible.

But always saying yes, avoids hard truths that you have to share. I had one client whose primary Oracle dba went on vacation. Before he left we reviewed systems. Multi-master replication in Oracle is brittle by nature. We both agreed. And I agreed not to change the configurations lest it break other things down the line. Not one week into his vacation a mandate comes back from on high, this change absolutely has to happen now. There are millions of dollars at stake!

Applying strong resistance is necessary to avoid breaking something even bigger. And it was not easy to stand strong in the face of such pressure. But I assured the team that such changes would mean even bigger problems for the company.

4. Find out if they empathize with your pain

In one of the biggest ironic twists, consultants should understand the pain of building a business. Because they themselves have experienced when clients don’t pay so they understand cash flow problems themselves. That is what every small business struggles with, and most startups too!

5. Ask them how they built their business

For me, one of the least appreciated things about independent consulting is, that in the most important ways, it is about running a small business. So someone who has built and kept running a freelance or consulting business knows how to make hard decisions, and keep their eyes on the ball.

A consultant needs to know how to get business first and foremost. But then how to manage engagements carefully. Once you’ve got those two down, keep building your business incrementally.

Someone who has successfully run a real business for years can share the story of what they’ve done. What has worked, what hasn’t worked, how they have pivoted when necessary, how they have failed fast, and moved through it.

They can tell you how they stay cash flow positive, can deliver on time, can be likeable and communicate with teams, and really understand every side of a business.

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A Pagerank of 5 Is Possible – Here's How

Join 4500 others and follow Sean Hull on twitter @hullsean.

A highly trafficked website is a valuable asset indeed. For a services business it helps you build reputation and reach prospects.

Here’s how to get there.

1. Longevity

We’ve been around for a while, as you can see from a quick whois search below. I’ve owned the web property (aka domain name) iheavy.com and used it for the same purpose, since July 1999! Google notices this and ranks accordingly.

Until 2011 I wasn’t blogging much. I had a pagerank of 3 though. That’s attributable to two factors:

o 12 years owning the domain at that time

o Writing a book for O’Reilly which got a strong backlink

[code]
$ whois iheavy.com

Registered through: GoDaddy.com, LLC (http://www.godaddy.com)
Domain Name: IHEAVY.COM
Created on: 14-Jul-99
Expires on: 14-Jul-15
Last Updated on: 18-Feb-13

Registrant:
iHeavy, Inc.
Box 5352
New York, New York 10185
United States

Administrative Contact:
Hull, Sean hullsean@gmail.com
iHeavy, Inc.
Box 5352
New York, New York 10185
United States
+1.2125336828
[/code]

2. Authored a Technical Book (pagerank 3)

I authored a book for O’Reilly in 2001 called Oracle and Open Source. This bumped up our ranking from a flat 1 because we got backlinks from O’Reilly’s author blog, a strong authoritative signal to Google.

Why is database administration talent in short supply? They are the Mythical MySQL DBA

Here’s Why I Wrote the Book on Oracle & Open Source.

[quote]
Consistent ownership and use of a domain name, along with backlinks from other authorities in your area of expertise weigh strongly in your favor.
[/quote]

3. Started blogging weekly

In Spring of 2011 I started blogging regularly. This was an effort to build out my services business, solidify my voice, and bring prospects and customers to my site.

[mytweetlinks]

4. Installed Google Analytics & Feedburner

It might seem crazy but to that point I didn’t track much. Without metrics you don’t know which pages users are visiting, how long they’re staying, or where they’re converting.

Also take a look at: Why Generalists are Better at Scaling the Web

A conversion – for those out of the analytics loop – is when a user does something you want them to do. For an e-commerce site, they buy or start the process of buying. For a services website it could be visiting your about page, downloading a pdf or e-book, or signing up for a newsletter.

5. WordPress SEO plugin

WordPress is a great publishing platform. Among the many plugins to choose from, Yoast SEO is a very important one to include. It exposes all the hidden SEO fields and functions in a powerful way. Edit your short description, keywords & categories, and a lot more.

Check out: A CTO Must Never Do This

It also helps you frame and think about how your content is seen both by search engines, and searchers alike.

6. Keyword research

A little keyword research goes a long way. You might be a subject matter expert in a given field, but if you don’t know how your customers search, you can’t help them find you. Remember they don’t know what you do, so likely don’t know jargony terms or the vernacular your expertise uses within.

SEO Moz has some great tools to help you, along with Wordtracker and Google has a keyword research tool for adwords.

[quote]
Strong titles should make you click to open the post. A dash of keyword research and regularly watching your analytics should be revealing. Give your readers what they want!
[/quote]

See also: My Blog Traffic is Growing Using these 5 Killer Tactics

7. Watch your analytics (pagerank 4)

After about six months of regular blogging, and a few viral hits, our pagerank went up to 4. What was I doing? All of the above, plus watching analytics closely. I asked myself questions about visitors:

o Which pages do they like and why?
o What causes them to stick around?
o What causes bounce rate to go down?
o What causes them to convert?

I found that adding links to relevant content right in the text helped reduce bounce rate right away. This was a real discovery that I could apply everyday.

Hiring a Cloud Engineer? Get our 8 Questions to Ask an AWS Expert for Recruiters, Managers & candidates alike

I also noticed that good content helped, but directly imploring readers to signup to the newsletter got regular conversions daily. Huh, that was a surprise since all along I had the signup form along the right column. Go figure.

8. Guest posting

Guest posting is great. It allows you to work with real publications who have paid editors. These folks with provide you with a more professional view, and that is great for your own writing and understanding your audience. The hardest thing to learn is how to write to a broad audience.

You’ll also of course get a backlink which is a major authority signal to the search engines. You might get paid a bit too, but your mileage may very.

I managed to do some regular writing for INFOWORLD and Database Journal. I wrote one piece for ChangeThis.com called Get Out of the Technology Hex.

From there I signed a syndication deal with Developer Zone. Since I have embedded links to content, that brings me regular traffic, even besides my profile, and the authoritative backlink.

Lately I’m working on some stuff for Gigaom and ACM’s Queue. Steady as she goes!

9. Get on the aggregators

Most likely your industry has some sort of aggregator site which will carry your RSS syndication feed. Get on those. That will drive regular traffic and RSS feedburner subscribers. We’re on Planet MySQL and it’s been great!

10. Patience, rinse and repeat

Easier said than done, I know. If you want this to happen overnight, you had better get onto the real world celebrity track. Otherwise work on your content, work on your voice, write clicky titles and keep your audience interested with solid content. And watch your traffic grow!

Get more. Grab our exclusive monthly Scalable Startups. We share tips and special content. Here’s a sample

When You're Hired to Solve a People Problem

Also find Sean Hull’s ramblings on twitter @hullsean.

A good five years ago I worked for a firm in online education. Among various products they provided through their website, they were struggling with a process to get content churned out more quickly. The bottleneck was slowing down their business, and limiting the new products they could offer.

Help Us Publish, Please…

Among a number of things I was asked to look at, one particularly vexing problem surrounded publishing. Adding new products had become a cumbersome & difficult process. It took days sometimes weeks. For obvious reasons the stake holders wanted to wrestle this process out of the hands of engineering, and place it were it arguably belonged in the hands of the business units.

[quote]
When you’re hired to solve specific technical problems it only figures that you go looking for software solutions. But sometimes the problems turn out to involve the people and processes of an organization. Getting them unstuck is one of the biggest challenges an professional services consultant can face. But it is also one of the most rewarding to solve.
[/quote]

Bumping into Fear, Uncertainty & Doubt

As I dug into the meat of the problem I began to work closely with the database administrator. He was a very smart gentleman & friendly in his own way. But he also spoke with a very thick accent and brusqueness about his manner that proved difficult at times. After working together for some awhile, however I began to win him over, and he started to trust me.

Looking for a top-flight database administrator? Here’s our interview guide for recruiters, managers and candidates alike

It became apparent that he was rather resistant to handing over the keys to the publish process to non-technical folks in other departments. Having handled his share of outages, and bungling screw ups, which sometimes fall on operations during some of the least hospitable hours on the dial, I could understand his concern. What’s more he knew the code which had grown unwieldy.

If I were to use a polite euphemism I would call it spaghetti code.

Management, Managers & Trouble Brewing

Around then the CTO decided to send a manager to sniff around. Unfortunately the manager in question was a very hands off type. His edict was simply to get this done in two weeks, and proceeded to go on vacation. Upon his return when things were still hitting snags, things started to go south.

Despite AWS failures firms like AirBNB and Reddit didn’t have to go down.

Though some of the process had been automated, I refused to move the changes into full push-button automation without first testing on dev environments. Of course those requests had fallen on deaf ears.

Problem comes to a head

Next the hands off manager escalated things upstream, of course adding his own spin on the situation. Shortly thereafter I’m called into the CTOs office only to get royally chewed out. A serious smack down which I’ll admit came almost out of nowhere.

A related article which readers also found quite popular: A CTO Must Never Do This

Oh, honestly I’m not complaining. On some level this is the job of the consultant. To act as the third party, wise or unbiased second opinion, and even punching bag at times.

Once things calmed down, I explained the situation from top to bottom. Yes there was messy code, and yes the process was complex, but it could of course be automated. What really stood in the way was a very resistant engineer who currently owned the process.

As much of the Sandy recovery continues, Devops can learn real lessons from the hurricane.

The CTO for his part concurred, having had trouble communicating with the engineer himself, and really not liking him much. He then appointed a proper project manager to oversee redoing the publish process from scratch.

A Plea for Cooperation

If I were to do it all again, for my part I’d sniff out the people dynamics more carefully. It’s often the case the companies have the engineering talent in house to solve a particular problem, but not the will or knowledge to put it into play.

Is your business growing? Having trouble scaling? Here’s how we do a performance review. It’s the first step on your way to hyper growth.

To managers & CTOs I’d encourage where possible to look for people, process and communication issues. Try to ferret out when something is an engineering problem, or whether it is one of people, silos and territory.

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When Clients Don't Pay – Consulting War Stories

Also find Sean Hull’s ramblings on twitter @hullsean.

It’s a cold cold winter out there, so as they say you need money to keep the lights on? Yep, that’s true whether you’re a small business or a consultant. Everyone has to pay their bills. Or do they?

It’s an unfortunate fact of life in business, but sometimes there are differences. Disagreements about deliverables, timelines, milestones, and deadlines. But when all the work is done, there are still sometimes differences over dollars.

Over the years most of those I’ve managed to work out with clients, but there were a few that went sour. One case was with a large entertainment firm. The music business is one that I hadn’t interacted with much before. For these guys I’d done a few days work in the past, and was paid promptly. Now they were in a bit of a jam. They called me up and asked if I could help.

Related article: A CTO Must Never Do This.

These types of emergencies often come at the worst times, and I explained that I was already juggling a few other things. They pleaded for help, and I relented. I carved out a full day of time for them, explaining the day rate and so forth. While on the phone though, I expressed caution.

[quote]I understand that your issue is urgent now, what happens if your needs change in the next 48 hours, I asked? Not a problem they replied, we can use your help anyway, so we’ll book you either way. Fast forward 48 hours, work canceled & client won’t take my call.[/quote]

Great I thought, verbal assurances. That works for me, I thought.

Fast forward 32 hours, and I receive an email saying the problem is resolved, and offering a “kill fee” of which I knew nothing, and which was never negotiated or discussed.

Along comes the day of reconning, and I call the client. They don’t take my call. Shortly there after I receive additional emails. I reply and explain we should talk on the phone. Still the client can’t find the time to pickup the call.

So I judiciously put together an invoice for the work. I email it directly to finance, and CC all parties. From there I get responses ranging from disinterest to denial. Over the coming months I periodically resend the invoice, but to no avail.

Or was it? I actually feel that this experience is to great avail.

1. Small disagreements foreshadow larger ones down the road
2. A relationship between client and vendor is a mutual one. If parties can only pickup the phone when they need something, then things are out of balance already.

Sure I lost a day & the fee associated. But I gained a lesson.

Patience and polite persistence

I firmly believe that being patient and persistent wins in the end. Sometimes clients have hiccups in payroll or budgets. Keep communication lines open.

Freelancers & consultants: Grab my Consulting 101 Guide.

Appealing to fairness

If you maintain a healthy relationship with your client, then appeals to fairness are normally heeded.

Appealing to promises

Emails are important to keep a paper trail of agreements. Communicate clearly and often so you know when you get derailed, and can refer back to what was agreed previously.

Popular: AirBNB didn’t have to failed – AWS hosting outages.

Setting precedents & expectations up front

This is an important one, that freelancers and consultants alike sometimes forget. Setting and agreeing on expectations is key. Often details are in the fine print or left out completely. So ongoing communication can iron out those differences or bring them to light.

Want to hire the best? Read our DBA Interview Guide.

Getting a protective deposit

If you haven’t worked together before, a deposit makes a lot of sense. Executing on this is more than a show of faith. It underlines that accounts payable is on board with your hiring, and you are now in the payments system.

Related: Hiring is a numbers game

Sizing each other up

Websites provide the first representation of you and your client to each other. How you carry yourself and how they feel meeting them face to face is important as well. Ideally you’ll meet each other at the client’s offices, where you may meet others on the team, and put names to faces. At the very least a skype call will go a long way as well.

Managing spend – communication along the way

Keep a close eye on invoices. If a client is getting behind, resolve it before continuing to work. Deadlines are mutual in a business relationship. Yours to complete work by a certain date, and theirs to pay by an equally agreed upon time.

Read also: Real Disaster Recovery Lessons from hurricane Sandy.

Never go to court – defer to the handshake & gentleman’s agreement

I know the lawyers out there may think I’m naive. But I’ve been in business a long time, and I believe a handshake means and says a lot. Also common sense language & contracts, in the form of emails and so forth are better than heavily legalese ones that no one but a lawyer can understand.

What’s more going to court has a huge cost in time & stress. Don’t go that route. I also think it appeals to clients knowing that you’re not the litigious sort.

Want more? Grab our Scalable Startups monthly for more tips and special content. Here’s a sample

A master isn't born but made

A review of Mastery by Robert Greene.

Also find Sean Hull’s ramblings on twitter @hullsean.

Robert Greene’s 48 Laws of Power was a great read, offering endless lessons for business and personal dealings. When I saw he just published a new book, I was quick to grab a copy.

What I like about his writing is that he’s replete with counterintuitive bits of wisdom, that really offer new perspectives on old topics.

[quote]
Many people might find the notion of an apprenticeship and skill acquisition as quaint relics of bygone eras when work meant making things. After all, we have entered the information and computer age, in which technology makes it so we can di without the kinds of menial tasks that require practice and repetition; so many things have become virtual in our lives making the craftsman model obsolete. Or so the argument goes.
[/quote]

You might also enjoy our 3 part consulting 101 guide and our very popular DBA hiring guide.

He goes on to elaborate on this idea…

[quote]
In truth, however, this idea of the nature of the times we are living in is completely incorrect, even dangerous. The era we have entered is not one in which technology will make everything easier, but rather a time of increased complexity that affects every field. In business, competition has become globalized and more intense. A business person must have a command of a much larger picture than in the past, which means more knowledge and skills. The future in science does not lie in specialization but rather in combining and cross-fertilization of knowledge in various fields. In the arts, tastes and styles are changing at an accelerated rate. An artist must be on top of this and capable of creating new forms, always remaining ahead of the curve. This often requires having more than just a specialized knowledge of that particular art form — it requires knowing other arts, even the sciences, and what is happening in the world.
[/quote]

I couldn’t agree more. We wrote a piece a while back called Why generalists are better at scaling the web and that aligns nicely with what Greene is getting at here.

He begins with insight on finding ones life task, then apprenticeship & mentoring then working through the social challenges that are always present and finally ways to stimulate the creative-active impulses.

I really like that he emphasizes it as a process and one of life-long hard work. This resonates a lot for me, as that’s how I’ve found success doing independent consulting over the years. There have been a lot of ups and downs, wrong turns, and missteps, but tenacity wins out in the end. He even dispells the myth of the naturally gifted, such as Mozart or Einstein, arguing that in fact they did put in the requisite 10,000 hours of study and were not born with mastery as such.

Greene’s lastest book is a pleasure to read, and full of insight for startups, programmers, designers and business people alike. I highly recommend it.

Want more? Grab our Scalable Startups monthly for more tips and special content. Here’s a sample

Why do people leave consulting?

Join 12,100 others and follow Sean Hull on twitter @hullsean.

As a long time freelancer, it’s a question that’s intrigued me for some time. I do have some theories…

First, definitions… I’m not talking about working for a large consulting firm. Although this role may be called “consultant”, my meaning is consultant as sole proprietor, entrepreneur, gun for hire or lone wolf.

1. Make more money in a fulltime role

I’ve met a lot of people who fall into this trap. They take a fulltime role simply because it pays better. That raises a lot of questions…

o Are you pricing right?

You could be pricing to high to get *enough* work. You may also be pricing too low to cover benefits, health insurance and so forth. Or perhaps you can’t sell to your rate. You can be smart skills-wise, but do you feel your clients pain? Are you good at being a businessman? Consistent?

o Can you sell, and put together an appealing proposal?

o Can you execute to the clients satisfaction?

o Can you followup consistently while accounts payable gets tied up in knots?

o Can you followup if your client executes past their spend?

Running a business is complicated, and a lot of expenses can be hard to juggle. You will find times when a client may have spent a little faster than their revenue, and have trouble finding money when the invoice arrives. Followup, patience and persistence is key.

Read: Why high availability is so very hard to deliver

Want more? We wrote an in depth 3 part guide to consulting.

2. Make a consistent paycheck in a fulltime position

o Are you networking enough?

If you take a longterm gig and get comfortable, your pipeline can dry up. And your pipeline is the key to your longterm strength, and regular business. You must get out there, and let people know about you, your services, and your availability.

If you don’t network regularly, post across the web, engage on social media channels, blog regularly and so forth, you’ll likely just land a series of 6-12 month fulltimeish gigs through recruiters or headshops.

Related: 5 ways to evaluate independent consultants

[quote]Being a freelancer or entrepreneur involves wearing many hats. Finding business involves networking & marketing. Delivering to their needs involves emotional intelligence. And actually getting paid on time is a whole artform in itself. Leave a good taste in their mouth and your reputation will spread quickly by word of mouth.[/quote]

o Do you really *LIKE* being an entrepreneur?

Are you consistent? Consulting is like running a marathon, if you burn out you may give up!

Have a large web property or application which is experiencing some growing pains? Take a look at how we do performance reviews. It may be just what you’re looking for.

Related: MySQL interview guide for managers and candidates alike

3. Do you like the lifestyle of larger corporate environments?

o Fulltime roles allow for much more jedi sword play. Maneuvering up the ranks involves relationship building as much as consulting, but with a more well defined ladder to climb.

o Sometimes you’ll find pass the buck and pointing fingers quite common.

o There are roles involving managing people and processes. These less often lend themselves to short term or situational consulting arrangements. If you lean towards those roles

Trying to hire top tech talent? Here’s our MySQL DBA hiring guide & interview questions

[quote]Working as a sole proprietor for a couple of decades has taught me to be very entrepreneurial. It is every bit about building a real-world startup[/quote]

4. Want to do more cutting edge & at the keyboard work

Consulting can and often does allow you to bump into the latest technologies, and get your feet wet with what cutting edge firms are doing. However in a fulltime role you can more completely immerse yourself in the technology, and those long term solutions.

Also: Why devops talent is in short supply

o You can take part in R&D – Google’s 20% projects, for example

o You can build hypothetical projects

o You can work in more idealistic environments, operations and even lectures & training

Though you can certainly do all of this as a freelancer, you have to build enough capital, and so forth to make it work.

Juggling job roles as a consultant isn’t easy. What a CTO must never do.

5. Don’t like running a small business

Consulting as a sole proprietor and staying in business for almost twenty years, I’ve learned that it is every bit about running a small business or startup.

A. Acquiring customers, networking, marketing
B. Understanding their needs and delivering to improve their position
C. Pricing in a your customers understand
D. Offering value to your customers, at a competitive price
E. Managing relationships so your brand or reputation precedes you
F. Making sure payments and invoicing isn’t a hurdle, followup
G. Pacing yourself like a marathon runner – keep doing what you’re doing right

Read this far? Get our scalable startups monthly newsletter. We cover these topics in detail, year in and year out.

Consulting essentials: Building your business

In the last two posts on how to build a successful consulting business I shared advice and tips on closing deals and managing and completing your engagements.

This post will look at where to focus your efforts in order to sustain your consulting business, and build skills.

Focus on your subject matter expertise

Being a subject matter expert takes years of education, and professional experience to build. It’s your most valuable asset. Build it, and use it. This is not to say there isn’t great value in being a generalist as I’ve emphasized in blog postings. But don’t get distracted trying to do things others can do better. Web-based newsletter managers can do it better than you can, professional invoicing solutions as well. Though you might be able to do a bit of HTML and graphic design, if that’s not your expertise, hire someone to do your website in WordPress. You’ll save time and money in the long run, and their professional experience will surely include a few surprising nuggets of value that you wouldn’t have known yourself.

Manage your business with online tools

There are a myriad of online tools to help you run your business better.

Google Analytics – Get insights on what parts of your site your customers find valuable. Learn to convert those visitors with downloads, newsletter signups and ebooks for sale.

Freshbooks, Zoho or Paymo – There are many online invoicing solutions, so best to evaluate them for your specific needs. The point is, using a solution will save you money in the end, and make you more professional in the process. It’ll help you track monthly & yearly, send reminders, and summarize things for you all in one place.

Mailchimp – Newsletter creation can’t get any more fun than with mailchimp. With endless video howtos, documents, and great support, plus templates for your newsletter that come in every shape and size, these guys have really thought of everything. What’s more the graphs and campaign reports will give you insight into what topics are popular, and what resonates with your audience.

Google Docs and Calendars allow you to share your schedule and work with a small team. So whether it’s communicating things with your clients, or your subcontractors, these tools are essential.

Dropbox – Another indispensable tool for collaboration, share documents easily across the web.

Don’t Be a Commodity

If your prospect is asking you for a resume, and comparing you to some outsourced resources provide, you’re not going to get very far as a consultant. Don’t be a generic resource that sits at the keyboard and churns out code.

What’s the alternative? Learn about business, talk to business stakeholders, listen to their concerns, and learn to speak their language. Use stories, and analogies. Reach across the table to speak in terms that everyone can understand. Your value is in symplifying complex technology.

Be Hungry & Don’t Give Up!

Being hungry means continuing to improve on your weaknesses, experimenting with different rates until you match the market demand, managing multiple projects and always networking widely. Spend less than you make and build up six to twelve months cushion. This will allow you much more freedom to take only the projects you want. Learn to pick and choose.

Further Reading…

There are lots of other areas you’ll lean about, running a successful consulting business. Here are a few:

  • managing cash flow
  • paying quarterly & yearly corp taxes
  • paying subcontractors
  • managing & accounting for expenses

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.