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What mistakes did you make when starting as a consultant ?

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I was recently reading a Hacker News thread on mistakes made in consulting. While most of the discussion I didn’t agree with folks *at all*, it did get me thinking about my own lessons.

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Since these threads in HN often end up in debate, I decided to blog my answers instead. Here they are!

1. Not getting a deposit

I wrote before about When clients don’t pay. It doesn’t happen often, but it does on occasion.

Most of the time, you have a solid relationship because you’re referred by someone who you have also worked with. And a bad actor will get a bad rep among others in the network. This also by the way keeps consultants honest too, as your reputation is at stake with every new customer.

But there have been a few. And there are other good reasons Why I ask clients for a deposit.

It can be a nominal amount of a few hundred dollars. But it gets you into the finance system, provides a small hurdle that the client must also jump over, and generally provides good will to both parties. It says “we’re serious”.

And that’s important!

Read: What I learned from 10 years of blogging

2. Giving away free advice

In the first few years of consulting, I worked for so many great companies, that I figured they were all great. Then along comes one shady shop, for whom I was called in to help with scaling an application.

For a couple of hours we met face to face to discuss their challenges. What I found was an application that had grown beyond it’s original ambitions. I suggested they evaluate the product, provide new service levels to their customers, at different price points. And then for the higher paying customers, build out new hardware just for them.

It was a great solution, if I do say so myself. The customer thought so too. They went and implemented it themselves, without hiring me! I think they even offered to pay me a couple of hours for the meeting.

Suffice it to say I was pissed. There wasn’t much I could do because we didn’t have any agreement in place at that stage. I had no idea people would do stuff like this.

But I learned the hard way. Sad to say it’s the few bad actors that make us all play more carefully in business. Buyer beware!

Related: 6 Devops interview questions

3. Billing hourly

Billing hourly is how many start out. Some think of it as an industry standard. Lawyers do it, hey why not?

But hourly billing can be very confusing to customers. If you work 10 hours to solve a problem one week and 60 the next, they will find these invoices confusing and frustrating. What’s more on the 10 hour end of the spectrum you’ll be answering questions why the work was so “easy” and on the 60 hour end, what did you do wrong?

Customers often just want a problem solved. They want you and they want your availability. And the value of that may vary quite a lot. If you can figure out a way to bill weekly or monthly such that the client is happy with the value you’re providing, this will simplify your life immeasurably. Customers will be happier, and so will you.

I also recommend keeping daily notes and providing progress reports to your client.

Read: High availability what is it and why is it important?

4. Don’t step on toes

As a consultant, you will often be working with a team of fulltime folks. Not always, but sometimes there can be a tiny bit of resentment. Maybe because you’re outside opinion is threatening, or maybe for a million other reasons.

So I recommend treading carefully. Try to reassure your teamates that you aren’t trying to outshine them. Inevitably you’ll be in meetings with folks smarter than you. Certainly they will know more as they have boots on the ground, but sometimes, they are just plain & simple smarter than you. 🙂

Feel things out, and don’t step on toes. Some need to be right. Let them be that.

Read: High availability what is it and why is it important?

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