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. 🙂

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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Why would I help a customer that’s not paying? The reason might surprise you

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I just received an email. It was from a woman building a website, and wanted help with AWS. She wondered if I might be able to provide any assistance.

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Having a popular publicly facing blog, I get a lot of leads that seem to come out of thin air. This is the good problem of publicity. 🙂

I followed up with her and asked what she was building. “Nothing” she explained, I just want to learn about AWS. I was a little confused at first, but as we talked further, it seemed she was just beginning to branch out onto the wild world of the internet, and didn’t know where to start.

I explained that to build an e-commerce site, she could use a service like Shopify, and would likely not need to use AWS directly, and certainly wouldn’t have to learn it. That might take five to ten years learning computing first!

I realized I was telling her she didn’t need the services of someone like me, and further giving her half of a solution. Though I couldn’t help her build a product, the information could surely help her sell it.

Then I thought to myself, why would I do that? Why give away your time & advice for free?

1. Find time to followup

LESSON: a quick call is always worthwhile networking

Yep it’s true, I’ve learned over the years it’s always worth your time for a quick call. I even talk to recruiters on occasion though I don’t work with them.

You’d be surprised how often you learn from someone, especially when they don’t work in your domain. You learn from the way they frame questions, how others might view or search for you. You learn how better to explain & sell your services to future customers too.

Also: When clients don’t pay

2. Be helpful

LESSON: Provide some real help or value

In a call like this one, it costs me very little to “drop some knowledge” as the cool kids like to say. 🙂 Sure my time is worth something, and yes I’m giving something away for free. But in this case it was someone who currently doesn’t have the budget for my services so isn’t my target audience anyway.

Read: When you have to take the fall

3. Pay forward

LESSON: Always be networking

Be patient. As Keith Ferrazzi likes to say “Never Eat Alone”! I’ve taken hundreds of calls like this one over the years, and some later get funded & call me back. They’re eager to put me to work, already sold on my integrity & personality.

What’s more she may run in different circles than I do, bump into a colleague or recommend me at some point. If your openness really stands out, it’ll leave a memorable impression long into the future.

In a place like New York where we’re often singularly focused on profit & personal gain, it’s easy to stand out by a small act of kindness.

Related: A look at the serverless hype cycle

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What events are good for tech & startup networking in New York City?

garys guide events

I’ve worked in the NYC startup scene since the mid-nineties. It seems to keep growing every year, and there are so many events it’s hard to keep track.

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Here’s where to look for the best stuff.

1. Gary’s Guide

Gary Sharma hosts an authoritative guide to all the events in the new york tech & startup scene. It’s sort of the one-stop shop for knowing what’s going on.

Lucky for us, in a city the size of new york, there’s an opportunity to meet & network with people everyday of the week.

Also: 5 core pieces of the Amazon cloud puzzle to get your project off the ground

2. Meetups

Meetup.com is another invaluable resource. There are technical groups & social ones, and plenty of niche groups to for specific areas of interest.

For example there’s NYC Tech Talks, NY Women in Tech, Tech for good & NY Entrepreneurs & Startup Network. There are plenty more.

Related: Some thoughts on 12-factor apps

3. Eventbrite

A lot of events us Eventbrite for ticketing, so it turns out to be a great place to search. Some of the startup related events .

Read: Why dropbox didn’t have to fail

4. Techdrinkup

Michael Gold’s #techdrinkup event keeps getting bigger & better. More social hour than presentations & such, you’re sure to bump elbows with some folks in NY’s exploding tech scene.

Take a look at some of the event photos on their facebook page.

Also: How do hackers secure their Amazon Web Services account?

Get more. Grab our exclusive monthly Scalable Startups. We share tips and special content. Our latest Why I don’t work with recruiters

Don't Miss Percona Live 2013

The biggest event on the MySQL calendar is the yearly Percona Live and it’s just around the corner.

This year you’ll be able to pick from a whopping 110 technical sessions by 90 different speakers from companies like Facebook, Amazon, Google and Linkedin. Learn what’s happening at the cutting edge of open source database deployments. Besides the technical sessions, there’s plenty of hobnobbing with fellow DBAs, developers, and industry folks. A great opportunity all around.

It’s just a couple of weeks away, so don’t waste any time. You can register here and enjoy a 20% discount code “SH-Live”!

Get to it!

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

Hacking Job Search – Three Meaty Ideas

Also find the author on twitter @hullsean.

Demand for talented engineers has never been higher. It is in fact the dirty little secret of the startup industry, that there are simply not enough qualified folks to fill the positions.

What this means for you is that you have a lot of options. What it means for a hiring manager is that you will have to work even harder to find the right candidate. Just going to a recruiter isn’t enough. Use your network, go to meetups, follow Gary’s Guide daily.

Also check out our Mythical MySQL DBA piece where we talk about the shortage of DBAs and operations folks.

Further if you’ve dabbled in freelance or independent consulting, I wrote an interesting an in depth look at Why do people leave consulting. Understanding this can help avoid it in your own career, or avoid your resources leaving for better shores.

Find us on twitter @hullsean and linkedin where we share content and ideas everyday!

1. Build your reputation

As they say, your reputation precedes you. So start building it now. Fulltime or freelance, you want to be known.

Speaking, yes you can do it. Start with some small meetups, volunteer to speak on a topic. A ten person room is easier than 30, 50 or 100. Once you have a couple under your belt, fill out a CFP for Velocity, OSCon or some software developers conference. There are many.

Blog – if you’re not already doing so you should. Start with once a week. Comment on industry topics, controversial ideas, or engineering know-how. Prospects can look at this and learn a lot more than from a business card.

Write a book, yes you can. It may sound impossible, but the truth is that publishers are always looking for technical writers. Pick a topic near and dear to you. It’ll also give you endless material for your blog.

Go to meetups, you really need to be getting out there and networking. Get some Moo Business Cards and start working on your elevator pitch!

Social media – being active here helps your blog, and helps people find you. Twitter is a great place to do this. Interact with colleagues and startup founders, VCs and more. If you’re a hiring manager or CTO, you may find great programmers and devops this way.

We also wrote a more in-depth article Consulting and Freelance 101. It’s a three part guide with a lot of useful nugets.

Also take a look at our MySQL DBA Interview Guide which is as helpful to devops and DBAs as it is to managers hiring them!

[quote]
Above all else, build your network & your reputation. It will put you in front of more people as a person, not a commodity or a resume in a pile of hundreds.
[/quote]

2. Qualify prospects

You definitely don’t want to take the first offer you get, and managers don’t want to hire the first candidate that comes along. You want two or three to choose from. Best way to do this is to have options.

If you’re a candidate, network or work through your colleagues. When you do get a lead, be sure you’re speaking to an economic buyer. If you’re not you’ll need to try to find that person who actually signs the checks. They are the ones who ultimately make the decision, so you want to sell yourself to them.

Get a Deposit – I know I know, if it’s your first freelance job, you don’t want to scare them off. Or maybe you do? The only prospects that would be scared off by this are ones who may not pay down the line. Dragging their feet with a deposit can also mean bureaucratic red tap, so be patient too.

Sara Horowitz has an excellent book Freelancers bible, we recommend you grab a copy right now!

Commodity You Are Not so don’t sell yourself as one. What do I mean? You are not an interchangeable part. You have special skills, you have personality, you have things that you’re particularly good at. These traits are what you need to focus on. The dime-a-dozen skills should sit more in the background.

You’ll also need to price and package your services. We talked about this in-depth in Consulting Essentials – Getting the Business.

We also think there is a reason Why Generalists are better at scaling the web.

3. Play the numbers game

For hiring managers this doesn’t mean working through recruiters that might be bringing subpar talent, it means networking through industry events, meetups, startup pitch and venture capital events. There are a few every single day in NYC and there’s no reason not to go to some of them.

For candidates, be eyeing a few different companies, and following up on more than one prospect. You should really think of this process as an integral and enjoyable part of your career, not a temporary in between stage. Networking doesn’t happen overnight, but from a regular process of meeting and engaging with colleagues over years and years in an industry.

At the end of the day hiring is a numbers game so you should play it as such. Keep searching, and always be watching the horizon.

Read this far? Grab our Scalable Startups for more tips and special content.

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.

Book review – Trust Agents by Chris Brogan & Julien Smith

Trust Agents Stumbling onto 800-CEO-Read, and their top books feature, I found Brogan and Smith’s work.  Brogan’s blog intrigued me enough so I walked down to the Strand here in NYC to pick up a copy.

What I found was an excellent introduction to the nebulous world of social media marketing, where you find all sorts of advice and suggestions on how to engage your target audience.  If you’re feeling like an ignoramus on matters of social media, Trust Agents is a great place to start and will give you ideas of how to ‘humanize’ your digital connections.

The authors illustrate the Trust Agent idea with Comcast Cares for example and how they engaged customers, and what worked so well for them.  Or Gary Vaynerchuk and his game changing Wine Library TV about wine.  He also emphasizes that building relationships online is a lot like building relationships in the real world a la Keith Ferrazzi of Never Eat Alone fame.  Engage in meaningful ways with people, don’t market to them. Share valuable tidbits, and the community will reward you tenfold.

A ‘trust agent’  lives by six principles:

  1. Make your own game – be willing to take risks and break from the crowd
  2. Be ‘One of Us’ – be part of the community by doing your bit and contributing to it
  3. The Archimedes Effect – leverage your own strengths wisely
  4. Agent Zero – position yourself at the center by connecting people and groups
  5. Human Artist – learn how to work with people; help others and be conscientious of etiquette
  6. Build an Army – you need allies to help spread your ideas

The book is excellent.  Put it on your holiday list.

Dummy's Guide to Linux firewalls

Security experts will probably tell you it’s not a good idea to be a dummy and also in charge of your own firewall. They’re probably right, but it’s a catchy title. In this article, I’ll quickly go over some common firewall rules for iptables under linux.
First things first. If you don’t have the right kernel, you’re not going to get anywhere. A quick way to find out of all the right pieces are in place is to try to load the iptables kernel module.

$ modprobe iptable_nat

If you get errors you may need to compile various support into your kernel, and of course you may need to compile the iptable_nat module itself. The easiest way is to download the source RPM for your installed distribution, and do ‘make menuconfig’ with it’s default configuration, that way all the things that are currently working with your kernel won’t break when you forget to select them. For details see the Linux Firewall using IPTables HOWTO.
Once the module is loaded, start the service:

$ /etc/rc.d/init.d/iptables start

You will also have to have your interfaces up. I did this as follows:

# startup dhcp

/usr/sbin/dhcpd eth0

# bring up twc cable connection to internet

ifup eth1

You’ll need to set some rules. Be sure to get your internet interface, and local network interface right on these commands. First to setup masquerade which allows multiple machines behind your firewall to all share your single dynamically assigned IP address from your internet provider:

$ iptables -t nat -A POSTROUTING -o eth1 -j MASQUERADE

On my firewall, eth1 is the device which talks to the ISP, and gets the IP address we’ll use on the internet. The other interface, eth0 is for my local internal network.

Next be sure to enable VPN traffic through the firewall if you have a VPN connection to your office:

iptables -A INPUT -s 10.0.0.0/24 -p 50 -j ACCEPT

iptables -A INPUT -s 10.0.0.0/24 -p 51 -j ACCEPT

iptables -A INPUT -s 10.0.0.0/24 -p udp --dport 500 -j ACCEPT

Lastly enable ip forwarding:

echo 1 > /proc/sys/net/ipv4/ip_forward

Of course you don’t really want to be a dummy forever, so you should read up Linux Firewall HOWTO and other linux docs.