How to find consulting clients?

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I get asked this question by people a lot. Whenever I attend conferences, meetups, or social events. How do you *do* consulting? I’d love to be doing that, how do I get there?

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From what I can tell, the most important factor is being hungry. How do you teach that? If you’re fiercely independent to begin with, you may be willing to have a roomate, or do without luxury for a while, in order to build up your nest egg. To be sure you need some cushion to get started.

But you also need customers. Where the heck do you find them? Here are some tips…

1. What not to do?

The first thing you’ll find is that recruiters seem to have a lot of “customers”. Maybe I can just go that route. Sure, but just remember, those are not *your* customers. Your customer is the recruiting company. They have the relationship.

Why does this matter? Because you can’t build a business this way. You are effectively working as an employee of the recruiting company. Nothing wrong with it, but it’s not an entrepreneurial path. You don’t really have responsibility nor control over the full lifecycle of your business.

So again I would summarize, don’t use “hire a freelancer” sites.

And don’t use consulting headshops or recruiters.

Related: When you’re hired to solve a people problem

2. Do socialize

So how then? Well you need to first *peer* with economic buyers. What do I mean by that? Well if you go to technical conferences, that’s fine, but your peers are other engineers. These are not buyers. At best you may get a weak referral.

Hiring managers, CTOs, directors of operations, all will attend events where their peers will be found. If you want to be a professional services consultant, these folks are whom you need to socialize with.

First, experiment. Go to a lot of different types of events, meetups, small single track conferences. And ask where others go? What’s on their radar? Also introduce people to eachother. This may sound counterintuitive, but it’s important. Don’t have an agenda of “I’m looking for a job” but rather, I have a lot to offer.

Network by interviewing. This may appear to be an odd one, but it sometimes works. Take any interviews you can. Discuss how you solve problems. Learn by failing a few. If you talk to ten firms that have a seat to fill, one of them may go the consulting route, even though that wasn’t their original thought.

Talk to recruiters. It may sounds at odds with what I said above, but it can be very valuable. Recruiters have their finger on the pulse. Even if their not physicians, they can measure the pulse. So too they may not know redshift from Oracle, but they’re hearing what the industry is looking for. They have a great perspective to share.

Go to non-peer events. Expand your horizons. Surprise yourself with who might attend other events. Tell your story. In the process, ask others where they spend time.

Ping all the people. Yes keep in touch with folks. You may create a newsletter to help with this. See below.

Keep the pipeline warm. Once you get a gig, you may quickly give up the socializing because you just want to do the work. But this will fail in the long term. You have to like the socializing and keep doing it. Even while you have an engagement or two going.

Always *GET* cards. Giving them is fine, but be sure to get the contact of the other person. 99% will not followup. That’s your job!

Related: When clients don’t pay

3. Build your reputation

When people search your name, they should find you. On social networks like Linkedin, github, twitter, google plus, Slideshare, StackOverflow etc. Create profiles on all of these. Link them back to your professional site.

You *do* have a professional site right? If not go get a domain right now. devopsguru.io, backenddeveloper.guru, whatever! The domain doesn’t matter that much, most traffic will come from google, and it won’t be going to your homepage anyway.

Speak at non-peer events & conferences. Lunch & learns. Co-working spaces, incubators. These all have events, they’re all looking for experts. You may also apply to CFP’s regularly. Hey you might even get some conference passes out of it!

As I also mentioned above, a newsletter is also a good idea. Add every single person you meet in your professional context. It gives you something else to talk about as you are socializing. ๐Ÿ™‚

Related: Why i ask for a deposit

4. Positioning

This one is counterintuitive. Why can’t I just do the thing I love.

Well sure maybe you can. But finding an underserved niche is a fast track to success. To my mind it’s crucial. So find out what is in demand. I know you’ve been talking to recruiters, right?

So yes pay attention to the wind. And pivot as necessary. Keep reading and stay up to date on new tech.

Related: Can progress reports help your engagements succeed?

5. What you might find

Don’t expect to get in at large companies like google & facebook, or with defense contractors. There’s a terrible amount of bearocracy, and you would need a larger team to become an approved vendor. Also many of these larger well organized firms already have tons of talent.

You’re better suited to less organized, or newer companies. Because you want to be able to raise the bar for them. Better you start where the bar is a bit lower.

Examples…

o small early stage startups

These folks have some money, but they are still small so they may not need a fullsize engineering organization. They also need things done yesterday. So they are ripe with opportunities.

o medium size startups

Same as above. But they may be having trouble finding your skills. Because you’ve found that niche, right?

o greenfield

Startups building an mvp, where the skies the limit. You have the opportunity to build out the first gen. Go for it!

o second generation & legacy

Once a startup has seen it’s first round of developers leave, they may be in a spot, where the business is great, but the product needs lifting. You’re looking at a quote-unquote legacy application, and you need to use your skills to tune, troubleshoot, and identify technical debt.

Related: Why do people leave consulting?

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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.

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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.

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