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Successful Consulting

© September 2003 Tony Lawrence

So you want to work for yourself. Well, first: good for you. I think working for yourself is tremendously rewarding and you should do everything possible to make it happen. As I have been self employed most of my working life, I have more than a little advice to share with you.

First, I'm successful because I'm tall, handsome, and incredibly intelligent. No? Well, my wife says she'll give me one out of three, though she never has told me which. Sometimes she says she might be able to agree with two of those, but she's not convinced anyone else would. So that's probably not why I'm successful.

What is success, anyway? I'm not rich. My yearly income is unbelievable when compared to someone from a third world country but pathetic when compared to many corporate executives. Many a month my checkbook gets dangerously low, especially when taxes have to be paid and customers are slow paying me because their taxes are also due. I have a nice house in a nice town, but it's no mansion. We don't lack for food or creature comforts, but we don't vacation in Hawaii either. Our retirement accounts are larger than what statistics say most people have, but I'm not sure we'll ever actually be able to retire. My wife doesn't work, but that's because she is ill, not because my income is so large that we couldn't use the extra money.

So that's success? It is for me. I work the hours I choose, for people I like, doing things I honestly enjoy doing. We take a lot of "vacation", especially in the summer, spending extra long weekends in our camper (well, it's what they call a "park model") in the Berkshire mountains. When we need more money for unexpected expenses, I just work a little more. When we don't, I take more time off. For me, it's an ideal life. For someone else, it might not be: you might be someone who wants to pile up as much money as you can and enjoy it later. To each his own, but remember this: tomorrow may never come. Your life can change very suddenly and dramatically for the worse. You could have a stroke, a heart attack or an automobile accident could leave you partially or even completely disabled. If you aren't getting at least some enjoyment out of the present, if you are banking on enjoying yourself "someday", keep that in mind. If you understand that philosophy (not everyone does), self employment can be the best way to be able to both work and enjoy your life now.

Oh, not for you of course. You aren't smart enough, educated enough or whatever enough to be successful in your own business. Only brilliant people can do this, right? Wrong. Frankly, some of the most successful self employed people I've known weren't the brightest bulbs on the string. OK, if you are really hopelessly stupid, maybe working raking leaves is the best you can aspire too. But consider this: why do you need to work for someone else to rake leaves? Here's my motto: if you are skilled enough at whatever it is you do that you can get someone to give you a job, you are skilled enough to do that same work as a self employed person. Maybe whatever that skill is requires equipment or resources that you cannot afford, so that might be a barrier, but your intelligence, education or anything else you want to beat yourself up over is not. If you are good enough to be hired, you are good enough to be self employed. Repeat that until you believe it. I'm not going to try to convince you that you aren't a worthless hunk of sniveling uselessness; that's a different problem that you need to work on later. For now, just accept that bumbling idiots can get jobs. Just look around you: they are everywhere. Are you the worst of the bunch? If you are employable, you are self employable.

Or maybe you are bright and capable and know it. OK, boopy, that's great. It isn't nearly enough, and while you might expect me to say "but it can't hurt", the fact is that it can. More often than not, it isn't people who are less sure of their talents who end up going down in flames. No, it's the hot-shot know-it-all, the person who is so much better than the rest of us who is much more likely to screw up big-time, self employed or otherwise. You see, it's much more important to know what you don't know than it is to know everything. I think it was Will Rogers who said something like "it's what we think we know but don't that hurts us". That's the first secret of success: realizing that expertise is never perfect, and that true expertise includes knowing the limits of your knowledge and abilities. Don't bite off more than you can chew is awfully good advice, but knowing how much you can chew is a necessary prerequisite to avoiding choking.

Self employment isn't for everyone. There is that whole "security" issue, right? The comfort of knowing where your next weeks paycheck is coming from. One problem: if you don't own the place, you have no security. You can be let go for reasons that have nothing to do with you. A faceless person in a city far away plugs some numbers into s spreadsheet and a week later you are out of a job. That can't happen when you are self employed. Sure, you can lose an important bid or even lose a whole customer, but you aren't going to lose all your customers at once. Strange as it may sound, you actually have more security.

However, you do have to have at least two traits not everyone has. You have to be disciplined enough to save money when times are good, and you have to constantly be aggressive about finding new work. Every failure I have seen (and I've seen a few) has come because of one of these two things. So, when you have your first $10,000 profit in one week, don't go buying that Porsche just yet. There may well be some $200.00 weeks waiting for you. And whether you are having a $200.00 week or a $10,000 week, you never, ever, stop marketing. You do not stop. You keep your eyes and ears open ever single minute of every single day and unless and until you get big enough to hire somebody to sell for you, remember that THAT is your real job. The stuff you actually do, whether its raking leaves or troubleshooting computers, is not your real job. Selling is what you really do; executing is just something you do to follow through on the sales. Does that sound wrong to you? It isn't: you don't make an income from raking leaves or from plasma TV screens, because there is absolutely no money to be had from either of those things. Go ahead, grab a rake and start raking. See any money anywhere? No. The only thing that makes money is sales.

Oh, well, now there's the real kicker, right? You couldn't sell hot dogs to starving people. You are so bad at sales that you couldn't sell anything to your own mother. You are so bad.. OK, I get it. Here's a scoop: me, too.

Yeah, that's right. I'm an awful salesperson. I tried my hand at that enough times for other people to be pretty confident that I just do not have the personality traits necessary to be a salesperson. Or more accurately, I'm a lousy salesperson.. but only when I'm selling for someone else. Or maybe I'm still a terrible salesperson, and just more attuned to opportunity. That is a very important part of marketing: paying attention to opportunity. By that I don't mean that you are an annoying pest who sees opportunity in every casual remark. I do mean that you need to pay attention to real opportunities that others might miss. If raking leaves is your thing, and someone spills a ton of confetti in their yard, your thought should be that your technology (raking, blowing, bagging) is perfect for this challenge. Mention it. Don't be a pest, but make sure it is known that you can take care of that mess.

However, don't sell more than you can deliver. It will do you little good to be yet another one of the jerks who never show up to do the job. Yeah, maybe you can survive just like they do, overbooking, lying, robbing time from here to go there. These are usually the people trying to make every dime they can every day. They overbook so that the well is never dry. That's a lousy way to live, an awful way to treat your customers and it also means that you aren't charging enough. Every successful person will tell you the same thing: you have to make your pay in three days or less. Three days, twenty hours, whatever: if you can't live on what you can make in that time, your business model is screwed up. Ideally, you make it in less than that, but that's your minimum goal. That doesn't mean you'll only be working twenty hours a week. Nope, you'll probably work more than you ever would for someone else. But the rest of the hours will be for marketing, for planning, for billing..

For billing. Seems so obvious and yet so many people screw this up. If you don't send a bill, you don't get paid. The later you send the bill, the more chance it will be delayed and the more chance the customer will have forgotten why they owe you money. I've seen people send invoices months later, and you can guarantee that at the very least these things get questioned before they go to the AP clerk. Bill early, bill often. Even if the bill will not be paid until some entire project is complete, send logs of where you are at now. Ship something, send the tracking info by email. Customers need to be kept informed.

Keeping your customers informed is more than courtesy: it's good for you. If you have to cancel an appointment (these things do happen), let them know as soon as possible. If you are going to be late, even if it's just ten minutes, call and let them now. This will sound idiotic to some, but when you make an appointment, show up. Hardly a month goes by where I don't get a call from someone looking for a new consultant. They say somethjing like "The guy we have now is great, really knows his stuff. But he doesn't show up. He says he'll be here this week, and he never comes. I call him and he doesn't call back for days, if at all. I can't run my business like this". Be reliable. Do you like it when the plumber doesn't show up? Do you like waiting for the Cable Company? Woody Allen said "90% of success is showing up". Show up.

Be honest. There are all kinds of ways to lose customers, but dishonesty is the most effective. If you screw up, make good on it. It may cost you, but in the long run it will cost you much more not to. I'm not appealing to your morals here: it's good business sense to do the right thing.

Don't worry about your competitors. If you are good at what you do, you will succeed. Yeah, some slimy scum may steal some business from you here and there. Let it go: there's plenty out there. Or maybe there's just someone who really is better than you. Study and learn, grasshopper: what makes them better? Imitate and innovate, and you'll get your share of the crumbs.

Finally, I return to the most important thing of all: enjoying yourself. Don't hate what you do and don't do what you hate. Yeah, yeah, I know: easy for him to say, but some of us have to put bread on the table and we do what it takes, man, we do what it takes. To which I say: if you hate what you are doing, you can't be good at it. If you aren't good at it, you aren't making the money you should be making. If you love what you do, if you wake up every morning looking forward to today's work, you are going to be very, very good at it, and that will translate into success. Yes, it can be hard to get there, because your first few years you may make quite a bit less money. Have patience. Your first year or two is usually very hard, but things get better. Cut back here and there, go into debt a little if you have to: this is an investment in your future. If you love it, you WILL make it.

Except sometimes you don't. I had two business failures before things fell into place, and a lot of successful people will tell similar tales. I failed for a number of reasons, but each failure taught me more of what not to do. Yeah, failure sucks, it really does. It can cost you significant money, and it affects your morale, but it's the old adage: what doesn't kill me makes me stronger. You will make mistakes. Maybe you'll be lucky and you'll struggle onward in spite of them, but you will make them. Learn from them, move on, and don't kick yourself more than a few times for the incredible innate stupidity that caused them. Smart people make stupid mistakes, so you can too. Get over it and get on with it.

I wish you luck, and hope you do well.

Got something to add? Send me email.

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Sat Jun 25 00:16:03 2005: 713   Emzucker

These are words by someone who knows what he is talking about.

I'm self-employed also. My current business is 10 years old. Although my business is much different than yours- I own a small party entertainment company-my experiences are similar.

Thank you for a well-written, descriptive post.

Ellen Zucker


Mon Oct 6 20:35:05 2008: 4624   BruceGarlock

Just a few questions about some of the "warts" and other things in running a consulting business:

* Who do you get your healthcare from, and approximately what percentage of your operating costs is it?

* I think you mentioned you used quickbooks or something like that for accounting. How much time per month do you spend doing that accounting stuff, and is it worth hiring someone else to do it for you?

* How "bad" or complicated are taxes? Should you "outsource" this as well?

Thanks, Tony.

- Bruce Garlock

Mon Oct 6 20:49:19 2008: 4625   TonyLawrence

I'll cover those things in a new article tomorrow.

Wed Feb 11 21:28:54 2009: 5375   anonymous

Thank you very much. I am the person from third world. I just started it. Please inform how much liberal we have to be. I look for coding(yeah, anybody saying slavery). But, I applied for few coding jobs. I did not get them , because I am new. I applied for work of writing documenation/comments to the coding. I got the interview. You see, as I am starting i want to show the customers the kind of work I am interested. I don't want to do commenting work. do you want me to do the work? you told 24hrs of 40hours we have to earn that. but, most people(not companies) in odesk,elance and guru posts 40hrs work.
how the future customers will feel about this work.

Wed Feb 11 21:36:09 2009: 5376   anonymous

tell us about the clients also. I was invited for a project surprisingly. I saw the job application. one of his recent consultants posted low rating and gave comments. fortunately, client did not hide the comment. i read it. consultant said this client asks the money to return after 2months of work.because he did not like the consultant's work. I rejected the invitation smoothly. i have read the articles on freelanceswitch.

Wed Feb 11 21:40:21 2009: 5378   TonyLawrence

It sounds like you are talking about contracting, which is entirely different than consulting. I can't offer you much advice about that - I don't do any. There are books and e-books specifically about that though.

Thu Feb 12 05:48:12 2009: 5384   anonymous

hi tony,
the article in this page does not apply to freelancing/freelance programmers? I need reply as soon as practical

Thu Feb 12 05:53:31 2009: 5385   anonymous

why I am asking is i got this article's url thru the below url (link)

Whatever you said I think equally applies to freelance work. I did not understand the difference between consulting and contracting. Is consulting requires higher knowledge than contracting?

Thu Feb 12 11:28:41 2009: 5389   TonyLawrence

Contracting isn't freelancing. With contracting you will be working for the same company for a certain period of time. True freelancing/consulting involves different skills.

I'm not entirely sure what you are looking for help with anyway. Can you be more specific?

Thu Feb 12 14:23:20 2009: 5392   anonymous

sorry, I am asking about the difference between consulting and freelance work.Are they same? Whatever you said in this article applies to freelance work also?

Thu Feb 12 14:31:06 2009: 5393   TonyLawrence

Well, some of it does, but most doesn't.

Again - what is it specifically that you need help with?

Mon Feb 16 10:58:26 2009: 5437   anonymous

hi tony,

thank you very much for your advice. I just need advice on freelancing for beginners. Can it be reliable as full time job(except the inherent irregularity wrt when we will get the next work) after few initial difficult years? How about associating with freelance firms available? you do consulting, rather contracting and freelancing. I think freelancing and consulting in americas and europe is more regional/local. In this new internet era, it is becoming global for remotely doable works and may become/becoming lot cheaper for developed countries' small and medium sized employers. Lot of people don't even think about consulting and freelancing. They will be sycophants and anti darwinian species (as described in icahn report). I found lot of jobs posted by employers are not complete . most of the technologies are new. some employers don't know how much complex the task is and time and cost for doing that. I found it difficult to apply for such jobs. I am applying for jobs that are like normal full time job ads. what do you say about this. because reputation/feedback matters more than money here.

Mon Feb 16 12:01:25 2009: 5440   TonyLawrence

If you are looking for "that are like normal full time jobs", that's contracting.

If you "associate with a freelance firm", you are contracting.

There's nothing WRONG with that. It's just not what I do so I'm in no position to give you advice on it.

Tue Feb 17 15:42:48 2009: 5452   anonymous

you said if you are employable then you are self employable. does this applies to freelancing also? Somebody said, in freelanceswitch article comments, that if client thinks/says "I should have got you earlier!!!" then freelancing is good fit for you.this comment and your point are same? or Is it that we have to be better than average freelancer?

Tue Feb 17 15:50:20 2009: 5453   TonyLawrence

Well, my point is that if you have skills, you don't have to let someone else be the middleman. Of course some skills will require other things: if your skill is operating a bulldozer, you'd need money to buy or lease equipment before you could go out on your own.


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