If you're someone with a talent for tech and the drive to be your own boss, a career as an IT consultant might be the perfect fit. However, don't feel like you need to start from scratch. There are plenty of IT entrepreneurs who came before you who are willing to share their wisdom about what works – and what doesn't.
These successful IT business owners share their experiences and what they wished they'd known before starting a technology consulting business. Feel free to steal their tips.
1. Decide What Kind of Consultant You Want to Be
There are so many ways to approach consulting. Before you print your business cards or launch a website, you need to figure out what kind of consultant you want to be.
"Do you want to be an independent contractor – meaning that you are hired for a fixed-term contract to provide extra resources to an existing team or project – or do you want to be an advisor or solution provider that brings specific knowledge to solve a business problem?" says
Andrew Townley (@atownley),
founder and CEO of consulting firm
Next, take a hard look at your skill set and your work style. Spend some time visualizing what your ideal day and clients would look like. For example, do you see yourself traveling between client offices, or would you prefer to work on customer computers from the comfort of your home office?
It's also important to realize that becoming an IT consultant isn't just about avoiding the corporate grind. You'll also play an important role in your clients' businesses.
"If you are starting an IT consulting business, the one thing you must realize is your customers need a trusted advisor – someone who is on their side 100 percent of the time," says
Brian Anderson, an
IT consultant and owner of
ADVYON Business Technology (@advyon).
The bottom line? When a technical glitch occurs, your clients need to know they can rely on you.
2. Start Saving
You've made the decision to become an IT consultant, and you know what your business model will be. Time to get to work, right?
Not so fast. Do you also have a long list of clients? Particularly the kind who are eager to hire you and to pay you upfront, not net 60?
If the answer is no, save some money before you dive into consulting life. According to a survey by Inuit, the majority of small-business owners (64 percent) start out with less than $10,000. Depending on what kind of consultant you want to be, though, you may need more than that.
"Some places recommend you need six to 12 months of cash reserves to get started," says Townley. "In the contractor model, you can probably use the lower end. In the advisor model, I'd recommend 12 to 18 months as a guide."
Of course, everyone's situation is different. For example, if you live with a spouse or partner who has a healthy income, it might be fine to start out with only a couple thousand dollars squirreled away. The most important thing is to be realistic. Have a clear idea of where your clients (and money) will come from in those first few months. Otherwise, you might be forced to retreat to a 9-to-5 gig until you can establish a larger clientele.
3. Figure Out How You're Going to Get Paid
While IT consultants traditionally bill by the hour, many are shifting toward offering a full suite of IT services at a fixed monthly rate.
"Move past the straight dollar-per-hour model," recommends Anderson. "All successful IT companies today offer a managed services model where a monthly payment supplements their IT needs."
founder and owner of
@ITSecureService), also endorses the managed services payment terms and says that if customers balk, point to specific examples of how this method actually benefits them.
"Really explain the return on investment," says Laves. "We cover antivirus; we cover backup. We cover a lot of things that otherwise they would have to pay out of pocket."
Anderson adds, "Understanding your business, your value, and your competency is critical to staying in business. The 'customer price sensitivity' question is more about value and less about price. People are willing to pay more if they think they are getting great value for something."
For more tips on managing finances, check out our eBook 3 Common Habits That Bite into Startup Profits.
4. Be Prepared to Sell Yourself
You might not look forward to pounding the pavement and talking up your business to prospective clients. But if you can't effectively market yourself, you won't have a business. Period.
When asked what he wishes he'd known when starting his own company, Laves said he would have focused on marketing his business a lot earlier. Another suggestion he has for newbie IT consultants is this: network, network, network.
"Find a good networking group, like a BNI group," he recommends. "They're not all created equal, so visit several and find the one that has a circle of influence within the group that calls on the types of customers that you want to talk to."
"What has worked for us is being in the right place at the right time for conversations to start," says Anderson. "Joining your local networking groups, volunteering at your neighborhood nonprofit, working at your church – many times just being where someone needs you leads to opportunities."
If you tend to get tongue tied when meeting new people, our article "14 Questions That Will Make You a Networking Rock Star" gives some pointers on how to start the conversational ball rolling.
5. Cultivate the Ability to Put Yourself in Your Customers' Shoes
Do you remember those old Saturday Night Live skits with Jimmy Fallon as Nick Burns, your company's computer guy? He showed up whenever he felt like it, was condescending to everyone, and acted like a know-it-all jerk. He's exactly who many of your customers are afraid will walk through their door when they hire an IT consultant. Don't be that person.
"Speak English!" says Anderson. "Geek speak or down speak is not acceptable. Your clients need to have an answer or solution they understand. If you cannot answer your client's question so they understand, they will look for another person or company who doesn't make them feel inferior."
Additionally, treat every problem as if it's important, no matter how minor it might seem to you.
"I think that the biggest challenge many IT consultants encounter is the ability to look at issues from the customers' viewpoint rather than from a technical viewpoint," says Laves. "A technically trivial problem can have a massive impact on the customers. Let's say it's a malfunctioning printer. If we have a client that produces documents for a living, that puts them out of business, yet it is something very trivial. The ability to look at the issue with the customer's viewpoint will help an IT consultant determine how to respond to something that, on the surface, looks like an annoyance at best."
6. Practice Patience
Finally, do your best to master the art of patience. Running a business is stressful, and when your clients don't fully understand what it is you do, it can lead to frustration on both sides.
"Be prepared for the customers who don't tell you everything, and you show up expecting one thing, but have to do another," says Anderson. "Be prepared for a low-reward, high-stress environment. Typically when everything is going well, IT consultants get little thanks. When things go wrong, it can be stressful. Having a positive attitude and calm demeanor can be the difference between a client thinking you are the problem that caused the issue or the hero that saved them when things went bad."
Patience isn't something you should just practice with your customers. Save some for yourself as well. Starting an IT consulting business is hard, and you deserve kudos for striking out on your own. When you mess up (and you will), don't beat yourself up too much. Own your mistake, learn from it, and move on.
If you're ready to take the plunge, make sure you also have the right IT consultant policies to protect you and your customers. Our article "4 Insurance Policies to Carry if You Offer Small Business IT Consulting" gives you the lowdown on what coverage you might need.
About the Contributors
Brian Anderson is an IT consultant, web developer, technology entrepreneur, and owner of ADVYON Business Technology. In his professional career, he's an information technology guru with a specialization in how small businesses use and converge different technologies. ADVYON Business Technology, his small business, was created in 2008 in an effort to empower people and small businesses with all of the new technologies available.
Joerg Laves is the founder and owner of IT Secure in Manchester, New Hampshire. IT Secure is a managed services provider focusing on small- and medium-sized businesses and has recently been included in the MSPmentor 501 list of best IT service providers worldwide. Prior to starting IT Secure in 2007, Joerg managed support organizations for Bay Networks, Digital Equipment, Eastman Software, and in the VoIP space. His experience includes working in the business intelligence and port security solutions arenas. Joerg graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Management and an MBA from Bentley University.
Andrew Townley is the founder and CEO of Archistry, a consultancy providing advice to ensure customers successfully execute their strategies by addressing, monitoring, and managing all relevant business and technology risks. He has over 20 years of security, IT, business, and management consultancy experience working with private and public sector clients in the US, Europe, Middle East, South America, and Africa.