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Ask HN: How do I make the move to consultant?
343 points by Monotoko on Oct 8, 2019 | hide | past | favorite | 110 comments
I sort of stumbled onto a consultancy job two years ago in cryptocurrency that's sadly just come to an end... going back into an office full time feels like a step back at this point.

I also don't really want to be anywhere near cryptocurrency for a while... and to make matters worse I live halfway around the world from my home in a country that doesn't speak English - I'm a reliable remote worker but I know that's going to put people off, how to alleviate concerns here?

I'm planning to fly home tomorrow, I rented somewhere for a month and I'm already printing business cards and trying to get myself out there on local subreddits. Perhaps other social media too?

Anything I've missed? How can I advertise myself out there? I absolutely kick ass on cloud migration and architecture (and while I know they're not everything, had the certifications to prove it).

Sysadmin stuff, troubleshooting and cloud work was my thing for a decade but I'm trying to catch up with two years worth of developments as well - I can also code but it's mostly hobby stuff.

I have some meta advice, having done a bunch of really fun consulting gigs over the past few years:

* Flexibility is super important to a lot of people. I like to tell clients “one of the best things about hiring a consultant is that you have no long-term obligations to me. You can cancel our contract on a day’s notice if you want, and I won’t be the slightest bit annoyed.” I’ve never had anyone actually do that, but folks always always react positively to that offer and appreciate it.

* Bill by the week, do a one-week minimum, and pair that with the above. You’ll be surprised how often that week turns into six months (or more).

* A lot of full-time folks get very threatened when a consultant arrives on the scene (particularly if you’re a generalist, but even if you’re a specialist). This is just a natural protective instinct. Don’t be put off by this - go out of your way to reassure them you’re there to help, work with them, and help them do their jobs better. The defensiveness will often turn into supportiveness and they can become your biggest champions.

* Think of yourself like a business, not an employee. Make sure you can be independent, go over-and-above on documentation, and communicate like a professional. Don’t get mixed up with company drama or gossip. You’re above the fray (and that’s why you should be paid accordingly.)

Me and my partner do the same. Billing weekly is what has allowed us to have no contracts in place, worst case scenario we lose 2 weeks pay but that's never happened.

We have no contracts because plenty of people have a budget but most are not allowed to sign on behalf of the company without legal and procurement involvement. We're now doing over 500k / year on this model and we've just hired our first offshore contractor to help us with a new implementation we won last week. The plan is to be at 1 million in revenue (with tiny overheads) within the next 18 months.

I'm amazed that companies with required legal and procurement processes will just pay an invoice without a contract. My employer's finance team absolutely will not write a check unless they can tie the invoice to an approved contract.

You might want to talk to a lawyer about how not having an agreement exposes you to risk. This smells like the kind of thing that works out just fine for years until something hits the fan and it explodes in your face.

I’d love to learn more about how you got to 500k in revenue. Any chance you have some time to chat?

How do you get gigs without a contract? That no doubt violates all sort of insurance, security and finance rules for most companies.

This sounds amazing for me. I'd like to invite you to an email conversation about your learnings with this experience. I have my email in my bio.

If you wouldn't mind sharing, I'd be interested in hearing what kind of work you provide to clients when hired to consult.

Do you have multiple clients at the same time?

How many weeks do you have no client work? I guess you use it for networking/marketing, right?

Can you provide the details of your consultationcy? Like - Do you code/develope a project!?

Implement, support and customise a solution owned by one of the large software vendors. We also do strategic consulting around what products to use, what to integrate, vendor negotiation etc.

We are consultants in software dev, business processes automation,finance, supply chain etc.

That is great, wish you a luck for your 1M target.

Sorry about the formatting. I don't know how to get HN to format things better.

Lots of questions attached to my comment. I'll do my best to answer some here.

Question: snowwrestler 9 hours ago [-]

I'm amazed that companies with required legal and procurement processes will just pay an invoice without a contract. My employer's finance team absolutely will not write a check unless they can tie the invoice to an approved contract."

Answer: This is common. The smaller clients that we work with don't have strong controls in this area. Some of mid-size and larger clients don't either. If the client is larger than 'owner operated' we work directly with C-level or less as long as they are the buyer. One of our clients is a large cosmetics company, the CEO directed accounts payable to make payment for all of our invoices without scrutiny. This is common to all our clients, you have to make sure you build strong relationships with the buyer / c-level as you want to act as that person peer and NOT the peer of his / her employees. When you talk to an employee you want them to see you as an extension to the CEO. For plenty of large enterprise businesses, they may force a contract but you'd be surprised at the lack of controls or care in a lot of organisations.

"Question: jklein11 7 hours ago [-]

You might want to talk to a lawyer about how not having an agreement exposes you to risk. This smells like the kind of thing that works out just fine for years until something hits the fan and it explodes in your face. I’d love to learn more about how you got to 500k in revenue. Any chance you have some time to chat?"

Answer: You don't need a contract as long as you can show that you have entered into an agreement. I usually send an SOW and get an email confirmation that's fine. Sometimes I just get them to sign off on a business requirements document instead. I also write that 'payment us accepted and deemed as agreement". This is perfectly legal in my legal jurisdiction. Oral agreements are also "just as valid as a written contract" but it's harder to prove. Our revenue is more than 500k, 500k is the retainer revenue, the rest is made up of one off implementation work. We used to for a very large software vendor several years ago. When we went independent we contract all of our old client base and won two small contracts then we got referrals (business owners know other business owners). We also run several marketing websites and I personally cold call target clients, put ads in trade publications etc.

"Question: AdamGibbins 9 hours ago [-]

How do you get gigs without a contract? That no doubt violates all sort of insurance, security and finance rules for most companies."

Answer: I don't understand the first part of your question. No we are not violating any rules.

"Question: TooCleverByHalf 10 hours ago [-]

If you wouldn't mind sharing, I'd be interested in hearing what kind of work you provide to clients when hired to consult"

I don't want to dox myself so I'll be a little vague. We used to work at a large software vendor implementing and customising a commonly used back-office system. We now offer the service independently. We also provide long term support and advisory around technology strategy, vendor negotiations etc.

"queston: hazelnut 10 hours ago [-]

Do you have multiple clients at the same time? How many weeks do you have no client work? I guess you use it for networking/marketing, right?"

Answer: Yes, we have multiple clients at the same time. Some are retainer clients and some are in discovery or implementation stage. We have never had a period of no work, we have the opposite problem of too much work which saw us working from 6am - 2am everyday for several months. We have now raised our rates to a place where we can hire contractors to help us.

Required reading. Anything by Seth Godin for marketing. Everything by Alan Weiss, the god of independent consulting and "the personal MBA" which delivers many small pieces that allow you think clearly about various aspects of business.

Thanks for the reply! I think your answer has me a little bit more confused. You mention that you get the hiring manager to sign off on the SOW or BRD. I am suprised they would have the authority to do this but not sign a contract. I wouldn’t Think a contract would help you get paid for invoices necessarily. At the end of the day the invoice is probably less than the cost of enforcing the contract. I would be concerned about my liability if I was acting without a contract. For example, let’s say I get sick and miss a milestone. This missed milestone costs the company $X in revenue. A good contract would have language that protects me from this. Without a contract you might be left on the hook( or paying a lawyer handsomely)

They don't actually sign anything. They just need to have any positive response via email followed by a paid invoice, that's enough for the client to be in contract with me should we ever end up in court. Given that I invoice on a weekly basis, there's not much risk on my side. The only risk is that I ruin their business by badly implementing their supply chain or similar but I have liability insurance to cover this.

Everything I do is on a time and materials basis and the client get an invoice every week so there's no real way for them to claim I haven't delivered scope etc. I also make the client test everything that I deliver and tell me, via email, that they have accepted it.

I do understand the usefulness of a contract but my many years at Accenture showed me that contracts don't stop you from having to go to court and spend a lot to defend yourself. I am not against signing a contract with a client, it just makes it harder to sell and it locks me into terms and conditions. No contract gives everyone a lot of flexibility.

Alan Weiss takes the same approach. If I were to enter in to a large piece of fixed scope work with an enterprise client, I would likely get my lawyer to put together a master services agreement though.

We've recently had an ex-consultant join our team as a perm and one of the biggest challenges he's faced is reducing his ego. It's taken several months to adjust his working methods into a "team player" and realise he's not the only smart person it the room.

from the other side - I've worked for many years as either the only or the primary person responsible for delivering a project. I've spent a few months on a team in a project this year. The one 'adjustment' I had to make was understanding that if something wasn't delivered, it wasn't "my fault" (or wasn't my fault automatically).

I missed a couple of delivery dates - the world didn't end. I pushed out some stuff with errors - other people on the team picked those up and fixed them. I did the same for others when I could.

The mindset wasn't so much "I'm the only smart person in the room" as "I've spent 10 years being personally responsible for nearly every aspect of every system - and done that reasonably well - and now there's other people in the process". There's some adjustments to make, and sometimes you don't always know the best way to make those adjustments.

Now, some (most?) of the people on that team had < 5 years of professional experience. A couple had ~10-12. I have 25 years. There were times when I tried to offer up my perspective/experience - not because I'm necessarily "smarter" but... if I've seen problems and know how to avoid them... shouldn't we try to avoid them, and help the business avoid those problems?

Now, I have been on teams where I am the smartest person in the room (or... the most productive, or the most accomplished, or whatever). It's not like that all the time, but it does happen sometimes, and it can be awkward. Pretending that everyone has equal skill and experience and that all inputs are valid doesn't benefit the project or business, although it might, in the short term, help team morale by not hurting feelings of some people. Some of those same people might end up leaving at a moment's notice anyway (which I've seen happen - don't upset person A - they're valuable(!) - then person A leaves with 1 hour notice).

Personally, I thrive when being a facilitator, and I love being the dumbest guy in the room as I get to learn a bunch from interesting people. Keeping egos out of the room is important.

We also had an ex consultant join recently and that wasn’t at all like you describe for us.

Surprise that consultants can be as different as normal people. Fundamentally I dont think there is a big difference, they just prefer different kind of work.

Personally as an employer I really enjoy consultants, because I habe freedom not to order their services when I dont need them anymore. With employees I am kind of obliged to keep them hired until they want to leave.

> Surprise that consultants can be as different as normal people.

That was my point, yes.

That might really depend on their experience. "Consultant" is a wide term. They can work for the Big 4 companies around people like them, or one-man-army helping small businesses with stubborn clients. What might be successful for them by having to push those clients might not be a best fit for a team. Doesn't mean they won't fit, but both the team and the ex-consultant need to know the context.

> This is just a natural protective instinct.

It is also because incoming consultants, or visiting people from overseas, often suggest seemingly practical, but actually pie in the sky solutions, that sends us off on yet another hare brained revision of the system.

By the time it turns out the solution wasn’t so practical after all, they’re long gone.

It’s very nice when you can steer them to suggest the correct things though, and management is suddenly willing to listen.

Nice summary, this is great advice.

Out of curiosity what size businesses do you target?

I wish I could say I “targeted” folks but that would give me too much credit and attribute too much intention :) The gigs I’ve gotten have been referrals / connections through friends. Sweet spot for me is post-funding startup (just beyond scrappy - eg can afford me). But I’ve also done at least one gig for a large multinational. That was the exception, though.

In my experience consulting opportunities come through personal connections and often to work with early stage clients that are not very technical. What you bring is experience they can trust because you were referred by someone they know. Clients often don’t have the ability to get the project started or hire the right people so often consultants start as the interim lead developer and then migrate to the interim hiring manager and then pass the baton. I recommend asking for equity if you’re launching early stage companies for clients.

This is great advice. Thanks

"I'm a reliable remote worker but I know that's going to put people off, how to alleviate concerns here?"

Show, Dont' Tell.

Write. Start a Blog. I recently hired someone remote and one of the reasons was their blog (among other reasons). I could go through their posts and see how they think, their perspectives on stuff and skills in writing about it. The best way to market yourself is to distinguish yourself from others as much as possible. I am always amazed to find people who are freelancers/consultants but don't have a good online presence. Yes it is hard and yes it takes time. But that is the point.

So don't print business cards. Well ok print them but that should not be your priority. I run a business and I failed to print business cards so far (too lazy). But I still meet plenty of people online and in person. Start writing about whatever you know. It doesn't have to be perfect. It doesn't have to a scientific paper. Just write.

You mentioned sysadmin, cloud stuff, migration etc. Do you know how critical this stuff is for any business ? If you kick ass on this stuff, you already are ahead. But Show, don't tell. And no, there is no easy way. No one cares how good you are because no one knows.

EDIT: I forgot to add that I also recently hired another short term consultant for a gig. This will make them a few thousand bucks and I found them online through their website/blog AND they wrote an e-book on the subject. Easy win for that consultant since I emailed him saying "take my money".

Funny thing that the title of the post on the HN frontpage above this one is titled "‘Show, Don’t Tell’ Almost Ruined Me as a Writer"

Lucky this person is not a writer. :)

>So don't print business cards. Well ok print them but that should not be your priority. I run a business and I failed to print business cards so far (too lazy).

Yeah, I have them but don't really use them.

The even more meta advice is that you need to do a lot of marketing--whatever particular form it takes. I'm biased towards writing things myself but writing, speaking, meetups, podcast, etc.

I want to write -- I love writing -- but what to write about?

Every time I want to write - I write about something that is pissing me off or something that is coming out angrily. My writing is ok and entertaining...but sure as hell does not show any "logical" thinking.

If I were to write about software...I would probably write about ideas, random ideas that catch my mind. Any pointers?

I have a programming blog, which I do cause of interest in writing and showing, but also being able to show potential employers about skills. For me, it's projects that came from random ideas in my mind. Like I have a golf background and wrote something up about scraping to get golf stats, and then analyzing the strokes gained. I also wrote something about how close Noodles and Qdoba seem to be to each other, compared to Noodles and Chipotle. I recently wrote about how to optimize an NBA DFS lineup which was a complex knapsack problem. All super interesting to me.

The key in all cases is to have actual code to show and actual results.

I bet if you take your random ideas and push forward to start writing you'll have something come up you'd be able to write about. I've found that ideas shift over time when investigating. What are some examples of the random ideas you've had?

Mostly related to cutting edge technologies & products.

I am not really passionate about "programming" per say, but I do enjoy coming up with unique & useful problems and designing solutions for them. I am not necessarily interested in the coding part.

I am a full time software engineer, but I would rather not be.

Would me talking about products, random new solutions & random new startup ideas get me anywhere? Without actually doing the coding for them?

I'd say it's definitely worth it to write about products and solutions because it shows who you are and what you like to talk and think about. That's the case for me, where I write what I like, and if people or employers find that interesting too, then having writing is a great place to begin a conversation.

Another note on this is don't feel bad if you don't think your writing is very good. I look back on my posts from 4 years ago and it's pretty clear that I wasn't very good at writing clearly, and also my programming skills really weren't that great. I learned by doing.

Not really worried about my writing.

My biggest problem is - if I am involved in a project, I want it to be profitable (i know, not very healthy).

But I get your point. The thing also would be figuring out how you want to market yourself? What do you want to be seen as?

It may not seduce employers, per se, but I'd rather read a technical blogs about what should be done vs how to do it, and I think big picture is more important that stuff that can be figured out as is, and I don't think I'm the only one. So there's definitely an audience even if it may not have a checkbook open.

> "I'm a reliable remote worker but I know that's going to put people off, how to alleviate concerns here?" > Show, Dont' Tell.

Isn't he just saying that he doesn't tend to slack off when he's working remote, like some people do? How is writing a blog going to show anyone you work just as hard remotely as in the office?

If in your spare time, you show that you are still trying to solve problems, or at least give them thought serious enough to warrant writing about, you're probably quite engaged in your field - which is a good thing.

Do you want the guy who doesn't do anything extra, or the guy who gets his jollies from analysing and optimising apis for some protocol, or whatever?

I want someone who focuses on getting work done and doesn't get their jollies from brand marketing.

Code beats blog posts.

Side projects are great when you can't find a rewarding day job. Why would I hire a consultant who doesn't find gigs that tax their expertise?

Remember this the next time you are learning something from a tech blog.

The title of his post is about becoming a Consultant. Being Remote is just another additional layer but the main issue is finding clients as a consultant. At least that is what I took from his post.

Here is something nobody mentions that seems to work. Do assessments. You charge $2k for a 2-3 days assessment. If you have relevant experience this is a very cheap and appealing offer to a company looking to improve xyz practice. During the assessment talk to the people making decisions, try to go from one assessment to a monthly freelancing gig. Personally I don’t like charging hourly or daily. Please note this is my personal experience and my personal experience in consulting is still very new. I also want to do more stuff on cloud, thousands of companies are moving to the cloud so it could be a good opportunity.

That’s a really great idea. At worst, you leave the company with a roadmap of what they need to do and that’s real value. At best, they can just hire you to do it :)

I’ve found that when you present this in a very objective way, companies are even more into it: “I’m going to leave you with a roadmap, not a sales pitch. You can use it to hire me, hire someone else, or do nothing - I’ll support you guys no matter what you do.”

Yes as long as they have a problem they care about and you can show you solved similar issues in the past they will most likely say yes. Also in the software industry people read quite a lot so they love the idea of a carefully drafted document about their challenges and potential solutions written by a professional.

Do you have any tips on how to learn to carefully draft that document like it was written by a professional?

Not OP but I’d suggest emulating well done open source projects.



(1) Start a freelance practice.

(2) Raise your rates.

(3) As you work for clients, keep a sharp eye for opportunities to build "specialty practices". If you get to work on a project involving Mongodb, spend some extra time and effort to get Mongodb under your belt. If you get a project for a law firm, spend some extra time thinking about how to develop applications that deal with contracts or boilerplates or PDF generation or document management.

(4) Raise your rates.

(5) Start refusing hourly-rate projects. Your new minimum billable increment is a day.

(6) Take end-to-end responsibility for the business objectives of whatever you build. This sounds fuzzy, like, "be able to talk in a board room", but it isn't! It's mechanically simple and you can do it immediately: Stop counting hours and days. Stop pushing back when your client changes scope. Your remedy for clients who abuse your flexibility with regards to scope is "stop working with that client". Some of your best clients will be abusive and you won't have that remedy. Oh well! Note: you are now a consultant.

(7) Hire one person at a reasonable salary. You are now responsible for their payroll and benefits. If you don't book enough work to pay both your take-home and their salary, you don't eat. In return: they don't get an automatic percentage of all the revenue of the company, nor does their salary automatically scale with your bill rate.

(8) You are now "senior" or "principal". Raise your rates.

(9) Generalize out from your specialties: Mongodb -> NoSQL -> highly scalable backends. Document management -> secure contract management.

(10) Raise your rates.

(11) You are now a top-tier consulting group compared to most of the market. Market yourself as such. Also: your rates are too low by probably about 40-60%. Try to get it through your head: people who can simultaneously (a) crank out code (or arrange to have code cranked out) and (b) take responsibility for the business outcome of the problems that code is supposed to solve --- people who can speak both tech and biz --- are exceptionally rare. They shouldn't be; the language of business is mostly just elementary customer service, of the kind taught to entry level clerks at Nordstrom's. But they are, so if you can do that, raise your rates.

This reads as one of those "how to draw an owl" memes, step 1. draw a circle; step 2. draw the rest of the owl.

I've been trying to succeed at consultancy for the last couple years, and here's my list of (realistic) steps

1) Reach out to your network and see if anyone is looking for help that you can provide

2) Realise that clients don't care about your background, or skillset, they're 100% focused on what results you can provide and how fast

3) The usual advice from the lucky ones is to always raise your rates, "raise your rates after every contract!" etc. but a more realistic approach is to lower your rates when you have to. I wish I could get steady work at my usual rates, but sometimes I will take on side gigs at a lower hourly rate just because they help keep you afloat

4) Despite what people may say, consultants that can speak both tech and business are very common. They might not be very good coders, or very good biz people, but they are common. Differentiating yourself comes down to personal network rather than any substantial difference in output.

5) Specialists are paid a lot better than generalists. If you're an awesome cloud migration expert (like OP) focusing on that will likely bring more clients and revenue than trying to branch out to other areas

Most other advice is good, but it's important to notice that it won't apply to most folks when they're starting out. I still love the freedom that working for myself affords me, and that it's allowed me to do things that I would have otherwise not been able to, but it's a lot of work, and a good chunk of my time is spent essentially working for free (writing proposals, chasing up payment, etc)

It is a catch 22: unless you are spending at least half your time prospecting new clients it is hard to keep a steady income, but it is hard to invest that much time in the commercial side of your "one man show" if you are not charging high enough.

Every beginner underestimate how much salesmanship it takes to run a successful freelancer career.

Yes, it's very difficult to balance and it's been an interesting experience in the sense that no one really cares about what work you've done in the past; if they like you on a personal level they'll hire you.

I'm comfortable doing sales, but it's maintaining that balance that I find difficult – if I spend too much time pitching I make no money as I have no employees to deliver the work and if I spend too much time working I get stuck in a cycle of feast and famine.

THIS 100%!

Yup - another resource is "the E-myth revisited" which makes the point that if you want to be a baker, don't start a bakery because now you're dealing with taxes, permits, hiring, vendors, marketing, etc - not just baking.

Similarly, if you want to spend all your time programming, a true, short term consulting business isn't going to get you there.

I'd assume that (if all goes well) you'll bill 1000 hours a year (about 50% utilization with the balance going to sales, marketing, accounting, updating software, keeping up to date with the industry, etc). It's conservative (assuming you sell enough to be busy 40+ hrs a week every week), but it's better than assuming you'll bill 2000 hrs (40 hrs x 50 weeks) and finding you have to work 70 hours every week just to get by.

I'd just like to offer a doubling down on this. If you are a software consultant you are first a salesmen and second a software developer (maybe third if you include marketing as a separate category from salesman)

I want to jump in and clarify something on point (4).

It's not my argument that it's hard to talk a good game about business and tech at the same time. Lots of people can do that.

Rather, when I wrote that, I was reacting to a long string of own-goals people were reporting about their consulting practices on HN. I saw people freaking out about scope changes, about advanced payment, about counting billable hours, about acceptance criteria, and about payment terms. I was reading people complaining about working conditions issues that are totally appropriate for full-timers to bring up, but not generally at-the-market issues for businesses relating to each other, which is what consultancies are.

Most people who write a lot of comments on HN are self-evidently equipped to represent themselves well to businesses, at least in writing. That's not a concern of mine.

Instead, I'm more interested in seeing people take full ownership of the services they want to be offering their clients. Companies hire consultants to solve problems. The more completely and decisively you can solve those problems, and the less drama you inject in solving them, the more valuable your consultancy is.

So, patterns I see among high-value consultancies --- not just the ones I've helped manage but also those run by friends and peers --- include not pushing back on scope changes, accepting industry norms on payments, not demanding up-front payment, not trying to bill for ticky-tacky stuff like individual phone calls, not being afraid to provide a reasonable estimate up front, not charging for proposals, and not pushing the (probably totally reasonable for graphic designers!) graphic design field's orthodoxy about spec work.

Not for nothing, but I see similar patterns among other professions; I get the same professional courtesies from my accountant, for instance, and from our legal (Grellas Shah, highly recommend). I've gotten similar courtesies from BigLaw firms as well, and it's no surprise: the invoices we generated selling Matasano would have paid for 10x as many random phone calls as we possibly could have generated.

The most common reaction to these observation comes from fledgeling consultancies that work with small customers on small projects. If that's where you have to be, I understand and I'm not trying to condescend. But if those are your clients and you expect to grow your business, one of two things is going to happen:

(1) You are going to stop serving clients that require you to bill hourly, account for phone calls, demand up-front payment, and charge for proposals.

(2) You are going to find a way to scale SMB clients so that you're delivering them mechanically and without a lot of interpersonal interaction, in the same manner as, say, the big PDF-to-HTML shops do.

In the meantime, do what you gotta do to keep afloat! That was the point of the original post I wrote there (I'm a bit mystified about why that post is the one everyone points to for my consulting advice; I've written what I think are more important things about consulting here). You start somewhere, and then you progress towards operating like a more mature, larger business.

I completely agree with all of this, when I started I absolutely hated being petty about things like payment delays or changes in scope; and I didn't agree at all on charging for phone calls or for proposals.

And this would all be fine if my clients (generally well funded startups, post series-A) didn't push back on budgets, but they almost always do, at least for me. So then it becomes about how mercenary I want to be, when I know the company is not willing to pay full price.

To be honest, I probably won't be doing this for too much longer.

> So, patterns I see among high-value consultancies

Curious about what types of consultancies these are? Are they generalist consulting shops that do custom app development or specialist shops similar to your own or patio11's?

If you were going to generalize, it'd be to "firms that mostly work with larger or established companies, for which a median deal size exceeds $50k and LTV of customers was at least 6 figures". There are a number of generalist consulting shops that fit this bill.

(0.2) Keep your day job.

(0.4) Start building a portfolio. Nobody will hire you without examples of past work or past clients they know. Blog posts, LinkedIn recommendations, case studies, screenshots, mockups, anything is better than nothing.

(0.6) Give free advice to your friends, former roommates, former classmates, former colleagues. Sit down, have coffee, listen to their app idea, compliment them, show them who did it already.

(0.8) It’s hard to meet people if you work at a desk. Conferences and meetups can help you build your network.

(1) At this point, every month at least two people should be reaching out to you about software projects.

You should put: - get a shiny office - raise your rates even more

Somewhere in there. Don’t underestimate the image of your business, unless you wanna play the “solo star” career.

Also, write about what you know and do somewhere (a blog, a specialized magazine): it gives you credit.

We're billing over 500k per year in retainers right now and taking on more implementation work. We work out of an extra room in a house (we're a 2 man partnership). Why would we need an office? Alan Weiss never had one...

I think it rather depend on if you invite clients in your office, or you visit the clients on-premise. If all you do is on-premise meetings then having a swanky office is fairly redundant. You'd maybe rent something fancy looking for a day for some beauty shots on your website, but even that seems redundant to me.

Anybody here that did it that way and succeeded?

In my opinion the main road-blocks are finding clients who are convinced you can do whatever you want to sell.

>finding clients who are convinced you can do whatever you want to sell.

Find clients who need what you want to sell and convince them is the solution. It's not easy and in my experience they won't all be convinced (some ever) but if you can provide what you're selling then clients only need persuaided enough to pay a deposit, first payment or some other initial small invoice and trust/capability will be build/demonstrated when first building clientele. Once you have more work than time raise your rates as high as you can without decreasing your earnings. Then if you can get to step 7 hire a convincing sales person first.

I don't know if this is a cultural difference or something, but in the UK no client will ever pay a deposit on an invoice for consulting work. I normally get paid within 30-90 days of the work being done (it sucks)

Possibly is, my experience with a few current London based clients in my day job is often recieving pushback and delays on any initial deposits or pre-payment. Holding firm that the clearly defined payment terms are a prerequisite for work commencement has been the most effective approach, even if it involves some uncomfortable emails or meetings. Polite but firm push back on a clients reluctance is very often sucessful even if momentarily uncomfortable.

I'd suggest to try proposing reasonable payment terms as soon as possible, terms that are as favorable to you as they may or possibly are willing to accept, and upon discussion (or a note included in the proposed terms) respond that an initial deposit is a firm requirement before commencement of any billable work, but you are flexible and willing to discuss a customized draw (payment) schedule if it's required (or.. you're not willing). You may be surprised how many clients will accept your terms, even after declaring them unacceptable, once you (re)affirm the terms as a firm, mandatory requirement. Willingness to walk away is often a strong, persuasive signal of competence and/or high demand of your service and can provoke decisions to be made more promptly by potential clients.

You can factor an intrest charge for payment delays that will encourage prompt payment, calculate by percentage and then format your payment terms to represent these differences as discounts for prompt payment instead of penalties for late payment. A secondary benifit of using these now slightly increased rates combined with prompt payment discounts is that you will be able to slightly increase your effective rate for recurring clients by adjusting these discount amounts in the event you can't or don't want to propose a higher rate. Also, IME (in the US) the initial disclosure of late payment terms or penalties may be a requirememt when including compounded interest on an outstanding debt amount in a situation where legal action to recover debt becomes necessary.

As tptacek mentions Net-30,40,50,...90 are all common terms, you should expect and plan for longer payment windows and more term flexability as invoice amounts increase. An advance from an invoice factoring company is an available option, you could price this into your rate at a default of Net-60 and offer a Net-10 and Net-30 discount based on factoring cost.

Same here. Although there is often some flexibility with smaller companies it is seen as unprofessional to ask for a deposit up front. An alternative approach is to break the work up into smaller chunks and have the payment for those resolved before continuing. For example (as someone mentioned above) an initial assessment of the issue, or making a project plan could be one of the first steps that provide the client with something of value and at the same time show you they do pay on time.

With large companies in UK unfortunately the payment terms are what they are (usually 30 days after invoicing in my case). If you don't like it, they'll find someone who does. It is up to you to decide if the higher rate they are able to pay covers the cost of the delay.

30-90 days is pretty normal, and what you should probably plan for if you're doing high-dollar consulting.

I mean, yeah, for whatever that's worth.

Interesting timeline. Whilst I love how it’s broken down, it just looks so much harder than just making a product and focusing on that. At least you don’t have to raise your price as often and not worry about not having enough contracts.

Making a product might be easier. Getting enough people to buy it to turn it into a profitable business, not always easier :)

I have a few friends that moved to that role and basically it is like creating a personal brand.

Start sharing knowledge on your personal website, blog, linkedin, twitter and other social media and also make sure to make it clear that you are open for conversation and could help other people/businesses. Attend local events and conferences, even become a speaker. Talk to a lot of people, see what problems they have and discuss how you could help. Get engaged with them, give an advice or do some small work for free. This would give you better impression of the project and the people that you would be working with and then tell them that you would be happy to consult them and offer them your rates.

When you have completed a project, ask if you could use them for future reference. On your blog/twitter write about your experience with this project and how you helped that company (without sharing any sensitive or business critical information) - this will show future clients that you are trustworthy. Rinse and repeat.

For many people, the problem with that is that you have to pay the bills during that startup phase.

But yes, in general you are right.

I'll give you a much simpler answer than I've seen so far, and it was given to me when I posed the same question. The advice proved to be some of the best I've ever received.

---- Learn how to sell ----

Consulting is an interesting ballgame because you might be the customer support and technical resource - but first you're the salesman.

I made the switch about 9 years ago and the first year was brutal. Alot of the advice here is spot on but it reaches past the point that you landed a customer at a project price that you can endure for some period of time.

A book that helped me with this a great deal was "You can't teach a kid to ride a bike at a seminar" by Sandler

> ---- Learn how to sell ----

This is a bigger deal when you are peddling your own wares, but the skills involved apply to working as an employee as well.

You're just selling a slightly different product (standing army soldier vs. mercenary).

Okay, assuming you are smart, skilled, work hard, lucky, organized etc this is the one piece of strategic advice that will deliver the most value if you start a consulting practice:

Define your niche as narrowly as possible.

I know it sounds counterintuitive but it works wonders. You can read crossing the chasm or just try it. You’re not a tech consultant, you’re not a crypto consultant, you’re not even a bitcoin consultant, you might be something like the best person to document the ICO process for the investment community in Europe.

Because there is a lot of competition for the former but you should basically own your market.

This.Exactly. Many years ago when virtualisation first appeared on the market I worked for a business that marketed themselves as "Windows P2V experts". We got lots of jobs from clients that had in-house IT depts, external consultancies contracted in permanently etc. The value we brought was that there was this one large job that needed to be done, the business benefit was very clearly demonstrable, once we did that job we were no longer a threat for the in house IT or the general consultancy as we only did that one job. We were also responsible for the outcome and we supported the virtual infrastructure until the other guys got trained up on it. We also did very similar stuff many times so we knew exactly what to expect, what can fail and how to fix it etc. We had the satisfaction of knowing we're doing our niche task well. This was a very good job for me back then. Now I prefer to travel less and work remotely, but back then I enjoyed it a lot.

I would recommend finding a good niche and getting really good at it to anyone in our industry. Assuming you retain the ability to swap that niche every few years if necessary. The industry changes continuously.

One way to make the most of your country of residence is to exploit the timezone difference as a positive. Look for companies that have 24/7 operations and need to have someone available for troubleshooting when their main team are asleep.

Two things that worked for me are firstly having a technical blog, which shows off not only the skill set you have, but also that you can communicate well. It also shows that you have the enthusiasm and curiosity to go beyond the day-to-day work of cranking out code.

Then secondly, go through agencies to find your initial contracts. Many companies in big cities will accept remote employees if they can find good ones, but it's hard to find those companies if you are not local. The agency essentially does that for you in exchange for a cut of your day rate. Also, they usually (in London at least) pay weekly so you don't have the big financial dry spell before your first invoice is paid. Once you have a bit of cash built up, you can go direct to companies as an independent.

All the "agencies" I know of in London are just the contracts arm of a traditional recruiting business. They are agencies in terms of how they operate (charging the customer on your behalf and taking a cut), but in terms of the kind of jobs they'll find you it's all onsite 6 months+ gigs that are often also available as a permanent positions.

If there are any agencies specialising in actual consulting gigs (meaning either short term / part time / remote and project-based, like a cloud migration), I'd be interested if someone could give a few pointers.

This, competent SRE mercenary in 24/7 business with time zone advantage is a gold.

I have no advice, just a anecdata: Me and people I know got into consulting, because we were interested in certain technologies; really interested, researched all stuff, tried to answer all questions on those matters, engage with people online, organizing events.

And all of the sudden, people come to you with business cases, questions and consulting gigs. I see consulting for money an extension of something, that you are already passionate about (I mean professionally passionate, you don't have to pour your identity into it).

The idea is not that hard, it's just that you have to have enough energy and sitzfleisch to see these things through.

Here’s what my first year of consulting was like, with tips I learned along the way: https://www.gkogan.co/blog/how-i-learned-to-get-consulting-l...

Don’t bother with social media and business cards. Figure out where your potential clients get their information, and go there. “Fish where the fish are.”

Printing business cards and going on social media are the last activities, not the first. The first should be finding someone who respects your work to hire you. If you can’t do that, all the business cards and social media in the world won’t help. After you have a first client, then build your brand.

How do you find the first client if it's explicitly something that happens before advertising yourself?

You've been "advertising yourself" for years. Not to sound too LinkedIn-y, but every interaction with a person is an advertisement, and every person is a potential client.

Most freelancers get started doing work for family, friends, or former bosses or coworkers. Having a prior relationship increases the odds of acceptance, and if you are a worthwhile consultant with a decent client (ideally, you wouldn't approach people who you know would be bad clients) it will usually result in a success story.

Talk to people you’ve worked with. They will value you more than anyone who you advertise to.

Just ask them when they try to recruit you.

Don't try to build a brand name if you're aiming to remain a one-person shop. Your name should be the brand. Having to push ACME Corp. pretty much doubles the required branding efforts, and potential clients / partners might be put off by the unnecessary front.

Try subcontracting for an existing consultancy. Local meetups often have consultancies with excess demand to fill.

This is a great suggestion - many of the big name consulting companies (Accenture, Ernst & Young, McKinsey, CGI, Capco) will happily subcontract out the work that they've sold, or bring on external consultants to fill out a team.

Any advice on how to find the right person to talk to at these firms? I used to work at Deloitte, and even there I haven't figured out how to sub on something.

I can connect you to the right person at Accenture at least, email me kthejoker gmail

How have you gone about doing this? I used to work for Deloitte, and haven't had much success finding people to sub to. Any advice would be much appreciated.

We're a cybersecurity services firm (www.tailrisk.com) that is New York based and got all of our work as the prime contractor through our networks, reputation and skills.

It's all about leads. Gigs sometimes end abruptly and you need a backlog. Find some clients on up work and try to get them off the site (be cool about it, it's a violation of up works tos). Also a lot of companies like local. Reach out to local big companies and send them a one pager on your skills. There is a huge demand for your work, it's just really hard to find.

Lack of programming skills is certainly an issue for you. I recommend remediating that, little by little. You don't need to join a bootcamp and land a developer job in 3 months (though why not?) but a little coding here and there can't hurt!

A lot of companies would like to employ open source technologies, but lack the manpower to setup and maintain that software. There is a lot of "enterprise ready"-ish projects out there like Nextcloud, Mediawiki, Keycloak etc, which can replace much more expensive and vendor-locked solutions. Maybe that is right up your alley?

You say you are living in a non-english native country. If that country generally has lower living-expenses and salaries, maybe you can use that to your advantage. With connections both to your local community and a higher-paying market you could start an outsourcing business and in the process help local developers. Or maybe there are alreay outsourcing firms in your area which might pay reasonably well?

I did that move a decade ago, but I think my advice is still valid. If you're looking for contracts lasting at least few months rather than short jobs of few weeks I recommend to talk to some recruiters. Before you do talk to them make up your mind what daily rate you would like to get depending on the length of the contract. Personally, my rates on anything shorter than 3 months are double the daily rate I ask for in a 6-12 month contract.

Also, don't let yourself be convinced by the recruiter to take a permanent job if they don't find you any good contract for a while. The moment you show any willingness to even consider a permanent job they stop looking for contract gigs for you and focus on finding you a permanent role. I have no idea why recruiters prefer placing FTE's, but I observed that many times with my colleagues.

It's easy: better returns for recruiters when placing FTE's anytime (one month salary as payment)

I'm going to give another perspective simply because it's not not listed here, though it may be unpopular.

Big consulting firms have global presence. @pards mentions a few good ones but would like to add Booz Allen to the list as well. It's a boon to the firm to hire local, but western talent. Usually they have to pay someone 15-20k to move out there plus a raise and lots of incentives.

Although many are suggesting 1099/subcontract work, I think that in some cases you can absolutely get a better deal as a full time employee. Depending on your level, you won't need to sign a non-compete this way or anything like that. When you think it's time to jump out you can transition as a subk working for your same clients and team potentially if you maintain the relationship.

Out of curiosity how would your day to day work look like? There's an interesting article that explains why "freelance developers" (or devops or whatever) are not actual consultants because they are paid to do something, not to know something (https://daedtech.com/software-consulting/). I would also like to reach a level where I get paid to share my expertise, given a specific context, without actually building the solution but, like somebody already said, seems way harder than building and marketing your own products until something sticks.

I've been consulting since 1995, and have been co-hosting the Freelancers Show podcast (https://devchat.tv/freelancers/) for about 5 years now. If I could distill all of the advice I've given (and received) over those years, it would come down to a few things:

(1) Consulting means running a business. This requires a different set of skills, and often different thinking, than you have as a developer. You'll have to learn budgeting and marketing, among other things. Learn these skills, and realize that for as long as you consult, you'll need to improve at them.

(2) There are many different types of consulting. I personally do Python training, and love it. But many consultants do what's sometimes called "staff augmentation," working as a contractor on gigs that can last one day to one year. Staff augmentation is the way that most people start off, and it's not inherently bad -- but you can make far more money, and have more influence and satisfaction, by providing insights and value from your experience and knowledge. And yes, this often means that you can make more money diagnosing problems and architecting solutions than actually developing the software that solves the problem. Also, the higher the level at which you're working at a company, the more you can make; helping a team leader is better than helping a programmer, but helping a VP is better than a team leader, and helping the CEO is better yet, still.

(3) Don't forget to budget, and to put money away for a rainy day and for retirement. You should probably have a runway of 6-8 months before starting to freelance, just because it takes time to find clients.

(4) Specialize. You want to be the big fish in a small pond, rather than the reverse. There are lots of Python consultants out there. But there are many fewer who teach courses, fewer yet who do it full time, and and even fewer who talk about themselves nonstop as trainers. So companies call me, because the problem that they have -- employees who don't know Python -- is one that they instantly understand I can solve. Specializing means that most people will ignore you, because you don't solve their problems. But for those whose problems you can solve, you'll fit perfectly. Philip Morgan has a great book and podcast on this topic.

(5) Get your name out: Write a newsletter, blog, speak at meetups and conferences, and let people know (nonstop!) who you are, and what you do. It'll take time -- in my case, it took years -- but having such a constant presence, online and off, will lead people to remember you and ask you for help.

(6) Think about how you want to bill. Many do hourly, but it's better to do daily, even better to do weekly, and better yet to do value-based pricing, in which you charge according to the value that the client is getting. Jonathan Stark writes a lot about this. You'll likely experiment a bit with billing tactics.

(7) You'll have bad clients. Companies will be mean to you. They'll stiff you. They'll say it's your fault. This is all rather unpleasant; overall, I've only had a handful of such clients, but they stick out in my mind. Learning to say "no" to clients, and to have the right gut feeling about them, takes... well, the length of a career.

(8) If you play your cards right, you'll make more money than your salaried counterparts, without too much less stability. Moreover, you'll be able to set your own schedule. When things work well, they work really well, and gives you a sense of independence and fulfillment that wouldn't be possible in a full-time "real" job. The thought that I've paid off my mortgage, paid for family vacations, and still have savings... well, I kinda marvel at it, even now. But if I can do it, then so can you.

(9) Finally: Consulting isn't for everyone. You might decide that it's too hard, or that it doesn't suit your personality, or that you haven't found the right niche. That's totally OK. If you want to go half-way, you can work as a consultant for an outsourcing agency, which doesn't pay as much but gives you the variety and flexibility of consulting. But if you end up hating freelancing, and going back to a "real" job.... that's totally normal and reasonable, and you shouldn't feel like a failure if that happens.

Be sure to read Brennan Dunn's "Double Your Freelancing" stuff (https://doubleyourfreelancing.com/) and Patrick McKenzie's extensive and inspirational writings (https://www.kalzumeus.com/greatest-hits/).

Best of luck!

Lots of good advice.


This is one of the tensions I've always needed to deal with. My inclination (for a different type of consulting) has always been to lean towards being something of a generalist but I've always had to temper that with being legitimately expert on a relatively small subset of technology and the market.

One recent example I've discussed with someone I know is that it's probably better to be an expert on AWS (or even AWS billing, for example) than "expert" on public cloud platforms generally.

>Get your name out

Especially at the beginning--but really in general--expect to spend quite a bit of time that isn't "on the clock." Beware of doing too much free work (like keynoting events) just for the "exposure," much less pay for your own T&E to do so. But you're going to have to invest time in getting known and just word of mouth is likely not enough.

AWS is a great example of a topic that used to be specific, but has now grown too general to have a great consulting practice. AWS billing, by contrast, is a fantastic topic; I actually know someone who specializes in this, and he's making a killing by saying, "I'll save you hundreds of thousands of dollars each month on AWS fees."

If you're a cryptocurrency expert you really should look into joining TopTal: https://www.toptal.com/#hire-just-bright-hackers-now - they're really looking for them a lot.

Once you're in as a crypto expert you can apply for any type of remote job, not just crypto. I've been applying to Elixir jobs for example, because I really like that stack and wanted to grow in it while I came in as an iOS developer. Just make sure you list all of your other skills as well in your resumé (and don't lie about it, please).

Disclaimer: the link has a kickback for me. Just go to toptal.com without all of the hashtag stuff if you don't like that idea. I have been working for years for them and the amount of work, the immediate trust you get from clients and the reduction of headaches (just every two weeks a payment without billing and begging) makes it worth it.

What kind of rates can you get on Toptal? That's always been my biggest hesitancy around sites like this.

First, pick a very specific niche that you know has demand, ideally by asking potential customers and then positioning yourself in that niche.

You say "sysadmin stuff, troubleshooting and cloud," but clients want to know specific platforms you know well, software you've implemented and types of problems you can solve.

Make sure you are targeting a market where they are interested in "dating not marriage." Many places will not outsource their sysadmin and try to hire you full time instead of as a consultant.

Finally, this comes from my experience running Tail Risk (www.tailrisk.com) a cybersecurity services firm. We have excess project work, tools, templates and playbooks we would like to share with independent (security) consultants. Is that something that interests anybody on this thread? If so, please reach out.

*edited for typo

This conversation seems super interesting & super valuable to a lot of people aspiring to roles like this... or also just junior level folks like myself looking for some insight into how more experienced programmers operate.

Why didn't I see this thread (with over 300 pts) pass through the front page at some point? Maybe I just missed it?

As someone who spent nearly 20 years doing sysadmin consulting: The first rule to becoming a consultant is: Don't do it.

Largely I think it boils down to: Most places consider operations work a "cost center" and the nature of cost centers (as opposed to profit centers) is that they always want to reduce them.

I have never worked harder, for less money, than when I was doing sysadmin consulting.

Come to terms with why you want to do consulting in the first place. What do you want to get out of it?

That said: First thing is you want to get your ducks in a row: Figure out accounting and billing, get a Tax-ID, figure out your company structure (do you incorporate, sole proprietor, etc?), and figure out google adwords. Also figure out local meet-ups where people who need you might go.

Gerald Weinberg's book The Secrets of Consulting might be worth your having a look.

Make the move to consultant?

I can't say how things are done nowadays, but the traditional way has been to get fired...

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