10 tips on being a consultant

-August 27, 2014

"I'm well known in the thin laminate of thin laminates," said Steve Weir, who started his consulting business, IPBLOX, during the tech wreck of 2001. Having started in such a difficult environment, he's got some useful insights if you're thinking of jumping ship, giving the finger to The Man, and moving on. Because The Man might be your first customer, you might want to flip a figurative rather than literal finger.

His last W-2 job, that is the last job where he was given a salary, was with telecom startup CoSine Technologies in Redwood City, Calif. "Since it was built on a former dump in the San Francisco Bay, all the buildings had methane detectors." The hours were grueling and he realized that "when you're sleeping under your desk, it's time to cut the cord." Lots of cords were cut at high-tech firms in 2001. He was RIFed (reduction in force) and went on his way. Since then, Steve has built his consulting business and offers these tips.

1. If you start tomorrow, you’ll need two years savings to live on.

But if you don’t start tomorrow, if you bide your time, you can begin cultivating future customers from your current cubicle today. The trick is to establish your expertise niche, what makes you valuable and special. "If you just set up a LinkedIn page and a website it's going to be a struggle, but you can build up contacts in your current job." Keep an eye on how your company uses contract help, after all, most of your contacts are in neighboring cubicles.

2. Prioritize your business goals.

"If you’re consulting to pay the bills while you create a product, set limits on your consulting hours so that you have time to build your widget. You can’t run yourself ragged, if you do, you’ll make bad decisions and get sick. Listen to your spouse or encouraging friends."

3. Get an office.

"You can't work out of your living room. You need a door that closes. If you have children, you may well need to rent office space. Kids will interrupt you and it's unfair to kick them out all the time."

An undisclosed location near Steve's office.

4. Establish your expertise.

Steve says, "I'm well known in the thin laminate of thin laminates."

He spends a great deal of time preparing high quality technical papers for DesignCon as a way to demonstrate his expertise. He usually partners with a customer and sometimes the paper is integral to a job, but usually his DesignCon paper efforts are performed on his own time. Before starting a DesignCon project he concentrates on the prospect of providing 30-40 minutes of value to a crowd of hundreds of people. Papers typically take more than 100 hours; 100 hours that don't result in direct deposits, though those 100 hours usually generate 200+ hours of indirect deposits.

5. Network and market yourself.

As a verb, the word "network" strikes fear in the heart of introverts and, let's face it, most engineers fit that category. When I asked Steve if he were an extrovert he paused, sipped his beer, and said, "I put up a serviceable façade of extroversion."

Networking means keeping up with colleagues. Everyone's career progresses. The person who worked for you a decade ago might become a recognized expert in the industry. Collaborate with them when you can and when you compete, do it with professional affection.

Like many EE consultants, DesignCon is Steve's primary networking event. "DesignCon papers jack up your name-recognition in the SEO (search engine optimization) of your niche because they piggyback on the advertising and promotion that UBM (DesignCon's and EDN's parent company) does as well as advertising done by the event sponsors."

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