Advice for IT Pros Planning to run their Own Companies

Earlier this month one of the IT Professionals who attended a couple of my sessions over the past few years e-mailed me and told me he had ‘written my last letter of resignation, and plan to work for myself from now on.’  It is a bold and brave decision, one that I made several years ago (read my archived article Skiing as a Parallel for Professional Life).  He asked what advice I could offer him, and I told him that I would jot down a few thoughts over a couple of days.  When I realized that these tidbits of advice surpassed four thousand words, I realized I had a lot more to say on the subject than I’d realized.  Many of you know that I am seldom at a loss for words, but I do try to not waste them.

This man is of course not alone… there are IT Pros all over the world who decide they will open their own companies, either out of an independent desire to be their own boss or, in many cases, out of necessity due to lack of employment.  Because I feel that the advice I put down in that draft can help so many others, I decided to convert it into an article rather than an e-mail.  Of course, that means I have to take out personal and one-off references, so those will go into the direct response.  Also please remember that all advice herein is general guidelines from my experience, and some of it may or may not apply to some cases.

I want to clarify before I begin that I offer these words with no warranties, and although I offer this advice do it should not be taken as implied that I feel you or anyone should quit their job (or job search) and become independent.  Most IT Pros make for lousy business people.  The advice herein is worth as little as what you paid for it but hopefully in some cases it will be worth much more.

So without further ado, here is Part I of the letter I offer as advice for IT Pros who are considering starting their own IT consulting firm.

Firstly I wish you nothing but success venturing out on your own. It is certainly not an easy road, but if you are of a certain personality type, it can be very enjoyable and extremely fulfilling.

There are several pieces of advice I can offer to you as an enterprising IT Pro, and I encourage you to read the blog article that I wrote in 2003 and reposted recently titled ‘Skiing as a Parallel for Professional Life’. I originally wrote it for TechRepublic, but it was rejected so I posted it to my own blog (which, at the time, was simply a website, and I simply added pages as needed). It should prove to be an interesting read because it discusses my feelings and mindset as I was preparing to leave the safety net of a company where I was safe and venture out on my own.  I mention that it was rejected by TechRepublic for a reason: It shows that despite rejection I was not prepared to give up.  (The next two articles I submitted to that publication were indeed published, and can still be found on their archives… deeply buried, but there nonetheless!)

I am considered by some to be a reasonably successful IT Pro, who has after several years and a number of false starts developed SWMI Consulting Group into a small but well respected and successful boutique enterprise that employs a small number of people and contracts several others.  Ten years ago I felt pressured to register a domain name, and the name e-Mitch Consulting lasted a number of years.  It was not until June of 2007, during the long drive from my old home in Montreal to my new condo in Mississauga, that I put together so many of the pieces.  As long as my company shared my name I would have difficulties growing it beyond a one-man shop, and the perceptions of that would be even harder to change.  As I followed the moving van I had a lot of time to think; around Kingston I called a friend and asked him to register the domain name SWMI.ca in my name.  It would not happen overnight, but the idea of SWMI Consulting Group was born during that car ride.  When I arrived in my new condo and new life in Ontario I arrived with something else – the embryo of what would be my new corporate identity, a company that would consult, create content, and deliver training around the Secure, Well-Managed IT Infrastructure.  For the moment it would be the same me but renamed.

It was not all sunshine and roses to get to that point, nor from there to here… I had several false starts and plenty of headache, heartache, and stress along the way. Two years after I left IGS (and then Poppy Industries a year later) my first wife left me because she felt I would never be successful as an IT Professional, and when I refused to give up and take a job in retail (I think she suggested McDonald’s) she gave up on our marriage. There were months when I couldn’t pay my rent, when I would buy a box of spaghetti and count out the noodles so as to make it last four or five meals. There were so many times that I gave up on myself and there were times when I started putting out feelers to ‘find a real job.’ Until about six months ago when people asked what I did I would tell then I was unemployed – mostly tongue in cheek, but the reality was it took me a very long time to see and begin to realize the potential of SWMI Consulting Group as more than just ‘Mitch doing the IT Pro equivalent of odd jobs.’

Getting started is one thing, but getting established is quite another. It took a few years and more than a little luck (including a very hastily thought out geographic relocation from Quebec to Ontario) to establish a reputation that someone was willing to take a chance on. Until that happened I sought out clients where I could, and was lucky enough to find The Tech Doctor, a Geek-Squad-type firm that had plenty of junior techs, but needed someone with the credibility of certifications (at the time I started with them I had passed precisely two MCP exams) to sub-contract senior work to. That relationship – started around the time my first wife left me – got me through the lean times until one customer liked my work enough to refer me and not the Tech Doctor to a friend of his, and that friend’s company became my first steady client. More would come, and eventually I broke with The Tech Doctor, even though I was almost scared off when they threatened to sue me, but my perseverance paid off.

That year (2004?) I was very relieved to have earned just enough to pay my rent and my car loan. It was just enough to keep me above the poverty line, but as my reputation grew so did my value. My gambles have paid off… but I will never forget those weeks when I regretted working for myself… my boss has always been a lousy businessman, and fortunately I have learned to surround myself and listen to people who know less than I do about technology but more about running a business.

I should clarify that my hasty move was not running from anything; John Oxley said to me in April of 2007 that if I lived closer to Mississauga his team might be able to do more work with me. Five minutes after that call I made the decision to relocate, and I am glad that I did! Aside from meeting my new wife shortly after moving, I did begin to get contracts from Microsoft Canada, and was able to meet more of the people who would help to influence my career. As is so often the case, it was so often the case of being in the right place at the right time.  For me, Mississauga (and the Greater Toronto Area) has been the right place indeed!

In this first article I have given you my history, which might scare you into buying as hotdog stand (always a safer investment because there are nowhere near as many of those as there are IT Professionals, and more people like hotdogs than computers).  In my next two articles I will post more practical advice. Stay tuned to my next article for what you should (or might want to) do! Smile

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