In my last article (Advice for IT Pros Planning to Open their Own Companies) I outlined the scenario, and gave some of the history of how I got to where I am today. If you don’t know, I am a Senior IT Consultant and Courseware Specialist with SWMI Consulting Group, as well as a Virtual Partner Technology Advisor with Microsoft Canada.
I made a lot of mistakes along the way – they say that experience is what you get right after you really needed it. Hopefully you can learn from my experiences.
I still offer no warranties on the advice in this article; nor does my writing and publishing it imply or suggest that I recommend anyone quit their jobs or job search and hang out their shingle. Being independent can pay off, but it is a lot of hard work – much harder than any day job you might have… and if you are going to be successful, your boss (you) is going to be the toughest boss you have ever known.
1. Know what you are good at as well as what you want to do. Just like your potential clients want to run their businesses and do not want to be IT Professionals, you likely want to be an IT Pro and may have no head for the business side of things. While it is important to get work, there are so many components that many of us might overlook – including contracts, service level agreements, invoicing, accounting, taxes, business insurance, and more. At the beginning if you are on your own you may have to learn about many of these, or you may partner with someone who can do it – that will cost something, but not as much as not billing for work performed, or worse – getting sued into bankruptcy for perceived (or actual) negligence causing data loss or security breaches. I lost the best client I ever had in Montreal because I was too proud and too cocky, and I am lucky they decided it was in their best interest to simply sever ties. **There are companies out there who specialize in helping small IT companies with things like keeping the books, including one called www.Ca4IT.com – Chartered Accountants for IT Professionals, Independent Consultants, and Small Businesses. Check them out!
2. Have a long conversation with your wife (or husband), and listen to her (or him). Whether she ever has any active role in your business or not, she is your partner. I lost one marriage (which ended up being a win, but it sure didn’t feel like one then) because I had no plan, no direction, and never had her buy-in… and as such could not communicate what I planned to do. My current marriage as well as SWMI Consulting Group are strong because Theresa is involved in all of my business decisions – and I listen to her advice – and that was true even before we decided that she should leave her job to take the position of President and Managing Partner. I am the luckiest man in the world that not only is my wife beautiful and loving, she is also an IT Project Manager who understands our industry, and the challenges we face. If your wife does not have a background in IT you will have to explain everything to her… and when I say that I mean she needs to understand the state of your business and the industry that you are in so that she can formulate informed opinions about what is really your (plural) future. While she will benefit from your successes, she will also suffer from your failures. Make sure to be completely honest about both at all times, and if you are not be prepared for one or the other (your business or your marriage) to fail.
Although it may seem easier if your spouse is in the same business, having someone to talk to who is not so intimately involved may help you to see the bigger picture. Although both Theresa (my wife and Managing Partner) and Adam (a colleague whom I turn to constantly for advice) are both in the IT field, they both see IT from very different perspectives. When I bounce an idea off of them (or an article) I may think that it is the best idea in the world, and they can burst my bubble very quickly. Likewise I can mention something minute in passing to them, and they can help me to develop that idea into something real and profitable. The point is, having people close to you can provide both perspective and caution, as well as catch things that you may miss because you are too involved.
3. Partner up! I know a lot of people who have formed strategic alliances with other independents – you will thank me for that the first time you want to go on vacation without abandoning your client base. Try to find people with complementary skill sets – while you should all have a similar base technical knowledge, you might be stronger in Active Directory so seek out someone who knows Exchange, SQL, SharePoint, or Virtualization. That way you can complement rather than compete, but still cover for each other so that all of you can take the occasional vacation.
4. User Groups and other community events are hugely important. Never miss an opportunity to go to any UG or industry event if you can – Microsoft and others throw events from time to time, and going will not only help you to learn, it will help you to network with peers that may need your services. If you are a Canadian IT Pro, TechDays Canada is held every year and is definitely worth attending.
5. BLOG! People think that having a corporate web-site is important, but as an independent consultant you are not relying on brand recognition, you are relying on your reputation and the perception of others including peers and potential customers that you are an authority on the technologies that they need expertise in. When I wrote my first blog article for The President’s Blog in 2005 I thought it looked ridiculous, having a single article on-line. Yesterday I posted my 226th article, and in September The World According to Mitch was recognized by BizTech Magazine as one of the 50 IT Blogs You Must Read. How cool is that? How silly do you think it was in 2005 when Rick Claus and Bruce Cowper told me I had to start blogging? How ridiculous do you think it sounded when John Oxley counseled me the following year to move my blog from MITPro.ca (the user group I started in Montreal) to my own, self-branded site? How proud do you think I was at a recent meeting when a Product Manager for Hewlett-Packard stood up in a high-level strategic planning meeting with one of the top five IT distributors in the world and told them ‘You know, rather than listening to my reasonably decent answer to your questions, why don’t you read the five articles that are posted to on Mitch’s blog that focus on that technology, because he explains it better than I could.’? Rick’s and John’s and Bruce’s advice no longer seem so silly or ridiculous as they once did.
6. Maintain your curriculum vitae (resumé in the USA). Sure, you are going to work for yourself forever… maybe that will work out and maybe it won’t. Even if you never apply for another job again, you will be bidding for contracts and you will be asked to submit your CV all the time. Make sure it is not only complete, but professional. Nobody cares what high school you went to or what burger joint you mopped floors at when you were starting out; they want to know about relevant experience. It is more important to focus on your accomplishments than it is where you worked (although that is important too). Have references available and have a conversation with those people you use as references, and discuss with them the message you would like for them to deliver. You can coach them, but do not ask them (or expect them) to lie or embellish the truth; however by having that conversation you can tweak what they would say into the message you want them to say. Do not be afraid, if you feel that someone is hesitant leave them off your list. I once had someone I thought would be a good reference, but I perceived something in my conversation with them that seemed a little off. I had a trusted friend call them posing as a potential employer, and found out that while they liked me as a person, they did not really understand what it is that I had done for their company, and because of that they did not exude the respect for me that a reference must have to be beneficial.
7. Use the Internet to promote yourself, including tools like LinkedIn and Twitter. When you meet people add them as connections, and always keep notes – you will not remember who Joe Safdir is in six weeks.
8. You work for yourself? Good. Forget the concept of 9-5 days and week-ends and holidays off… not always, but know that many of these will have to be sacrificed (and make sure your wife knows and understands that). If you are lucky enough to be busy with client work all day every day, then your evenings will have to be spent documenting, invoicing, following up, bidding on and wooing new customers, and more. The nature of the job is that some of the work – especially major projects – might need to be done when your customers are not at work. Until you are big enough to hire someone, it’s you. Also read the next point carefully!
I certainly have more to say, and will be continuing with points nine through sixteen in my next article. Stay tuned!