embedded software boot camp

So you want to be a consultant…

Saturday, December 20th, 2008 by Nigel Jones

In the lede to this blog, I stated that I’d from time to time be commenting on the trials and tribulations of being a consultant in the embedded systems world. Well, today is my first post on this topic, so I thought I’d address the question I get asked most of the time ‘How do you market your business’?

Well, the trite answer is that in general I don’t! The bulk of my work comes from repeat clients. I have one client that I’ve been doing work for for nearly twenty years, another for about seventeen years, and a third for nearly ten years. In short, I’m a very big believer in keeping my existing clients rather than developing new ones all the time. Obviously this isn’t very helpful for someone that is thinking about striking out on their own and is wondering how to sign up a client or three.

My main suggestion if this describes you, is to approach previous employers / managers. If you are really good (and it helps a lot if you are) then previous managers will be extremely interested to hear that you are available for consulting work. Why do I say this? Well look at it from their perspective – here is a talented person that knows their products / procedures / tools who is available to come in and help out in overloaded situations. Thus the next time senior management is demanding that something gets done faster, it’s an easy sell for your ex-manager to suggest bringing you in to help meet the deadline.

Incidentally, this especially applies to companies that have just had layoffs (even if you were one of those that got cut). When companies have a layoff, they typically overdo it. As a result, important projects grind to a halt and only get moving again when more help is brought in. Now typically for political / legal reasons a company cannot layoff people and then hire different ones. It can however hire ‘temporary help’ – and that’s where you the consultant come in. Thus if you have just been laid off and think it’s time to strike out on your own, I strongly suggest that the first person you call to offer your services is the person that laid you off.

Incidentally, I cannot stress enough the importance of face – face or at least voice – voice contact. Sending a card or an email will almost certainly result in the approach going no where. If the thought of ‘warm calling’ makes you break out in a sweat, then the chances are you just aren’t cut out for having your own business.

What about other techniques such as advertising? I have never gone this route but I know people that have with some success. Be warned however that advertising can be expensive and can be too successful. I say this because the only thing worse than not having enough work is having too much!

How important is a good website? Well I used to think it was largely irrelevant (and my website reflects this attitude. I’ve been promising myself for a year to get it updated). However, I know of several cases where it has been extremely important in bringing in new business. I would caution you though that spending your time and money on a website is no substitute for making the telephone calls.

What about the social networking sites, such as ‘Linked In’ or ‘Plaxo’? These can be helpful if you want to track down all those folks you used to work with who might want to hire you. They are easy to use and low cost / free. Incidentally, don’t feel awkward about contacting someone you have lost touch with. Although it might be a little strange socially, it’s well worth it to both of you if a fruitful business relationship develops.

Finally, what about the myriad of technical recruiting agencies out there? I have never done any work through them. I have interacted with them, and have found a huge variability in their ethics. Personally, I’d avoid the big companies (which are nothing but key word matchers) and work with the smaller, one man companies. Notwithstanding this, if you’re relying on these folks to bring you work then you are being passive rather than proactive. Not recommended!

Next time I post on consulting, I’ll address some other important issues. But for now, just remember that a consultant without clients is like a (fill in your own analogy here). Thus the first step in becoming a consultant is getting a client. Only then is the other stuff important.

Follow up to my last post

Thank you to all of you that encouraged others to come and read this blog. I saw a very nice uptick in my readership last week for which I am most grateful.

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2 Responses to “So you want to be a consultant…”

  1. Anoop says:

    Hi,While looking for info about embedded systems and learning them, I happened to visit your blog accidentally. You have written good articles and gave very good thoughts. I would appreciate if you could add ‘Subscribe through email’ too so that we can get your post in the mail box and don’t miss. I dont use RSS feed.ThanksAnoop

  2. Nigel Jones says:

    Anoop:Thank you for your comment. Alas it does not appear that blogger allows one to set up an email list to which the public can subscribe. If it helps, I try and post weekly, and generally do it over the weekend when I have a little more time.

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