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August 22 2012

15:37

Seven tips to help kickstart your own consulting practice

OPEN

A friend recently asked me for advice on how to be a successful consultant. They’re finding that people and businesses are regularly asking for their advice and that, as interesting as those conversations are, they require a significant investment of time. The advice benefits the person or organization asking, but my friend isn’t getting compensated for the time. This is a classic situation where the thought of doing some consulting on the side, or starting a consulting practice, takes shape.

It should come with no surprise that I’m a big advocate of consulting: after more than a decade-and-a-half of consulting for some of the most interesting and inspiring organizations in the world, I have no intention of getting a “day job” anytime soon. So, when a friend or colleague asks for advice about the world of consulting — something that happens with surprising frequency — I’m very happy to wax poetic about my experiences at great length. Today I’ll share just a few of the key things I’ve learned along the way.

Reflecting back on more than a hundred consultations, I thankful for a journey full of growth and improvement. I’ve deepened my knowledge in the areas that I consult — digital publishing, software development, e-mail and content management, and so on — but I’ve also racked up a fair amount of knowledge about the practice of consulting itself. It’s actually a topic that I’m slightly obsessed with: not just how to consult, but how to be a successful consultant.

I define “successful” quite simply:

  • The organizations I work with are happy with the experience and outcomes (and hopefully make some positive changes);
  • I can survive financially doing work that I love (preferably, from anywhere in the world).

So, the question that most people ask is: “How do I get there from here?” Or “I’ve got a 9-5 salaried position, but I’d like more variety in my work life, how do I start down the path of consulting?” Here’s what I usually recommend:

  • First, invest in a copy of Peter Block’s book “Flawless Consulting: A Guide to Getting Your Expertise Used.” This was recommended to me by Jon Stahl back in 2003 or 2004 and reading it had a profound impact on my processes, and — ultimately — gave me a sense of clarity about my role as a consultant in various types of projects and situations. Given the wealth of information in that book, I won’t touch on Peter’s suggestions here.

  • Next, give some thought to what consulting “products” you can offer. Consulting is a nebulous art and to a lot of people holds little meaning. “I’m a consultant” doesn’t really answer the question “What do you do?” very precisely. And, as Peter Block points out, we are all consultants of one kind or another. In my experience, having specific “consulting products” helps people visualize something tangible that they can invest in. For example, I’m a digital publishing consultant and I have a small number of hand-crafted products for publishers around software development, e-mail and content management, and so on, and being able to say specifically, “I have a standard approach, it requires an investment of X, so-and-so invested in it, this is how it worked out for them, and I can do that for you too,” helps organizations see how that solution could apply to their own needs.

  • Along the same lines, I’ve found that it’s helpful to have some variations of the same “consulting product” to better fit with a range or needs. In my case, I use the length of the commitment, or the depth of the consultation. For example, I do a fair bit of consulting around e-mail programs for publishers, i.e., e-mail list growth, acquisition and retention, list hygiene, automation, and, obviously, using e-mail to drive outcomes. The products I offer are based both on length of commitment — i.e., an audit and recommendations would be a short engagement, whereas an audit, recommendations, and ongoing evaluation would be a longer engagement — or how hands-on the work will be, e.g., an audit and recommendations vs. actually being involved in the implementation. I’ve also found it useful to do some thinking upfront about these variations and my own comfort level, e.g., what’s the length of engagement where the client will receive the optimum value and does the client have enough internal resources to actually implement the recommendations on their own? These variations provide opportunities to test out the consulting relationship with shorter, more light-touch engagements and can shed light on how a longer project might unfold.

  • Now that you have your products and various sizes and types of engagement around that offering defined, it’s time to get your pricing memorized. At some point in the conversation with a potential consulting client you will be asked “What do you charge,” or, if you are not asked that question, you should be ready to say, “My consulting rate is X, is that something you can work with?” In either scenario, you should be clear and concise: What you charge by the hour, by the day, or for specific types of consultations. You want to be very clear about the investment required to move this conversation from “just talk” to “let’s get to work on this.” Being unclear here — for example, by waffling on your pricing or not having it memorized — often makes the next step, getting a committment from the potential client, very difficult. I usually provide my hourly rate, and then examples of the investment required for typical projects at the 20, 40, and 80 hour points, and I’m clear about what’s delivered in each of those situations.

  • If the cost of the investment is a challenge for the potential client and you would really like to undertake the engagement, the best advice I’ve ever received (which I used often in my early consulting days) is to offer to provide some extra hours on a pro-bono basis. For example, I might say “I really find this project interesting. I believe that I can bring a lot of value to it. I sense that the investment is an obstacle for you. I could invest another five hours into the project at no cost, to ensure that you get what you need, if that would help us to move this forward.” In case you’re missing the point here: don’t lower your rate simply to get the project. Lowering your rates has many potential consequences, e.g., devaluing your time in the potential client’s mind, having to explain different rates to different potential clients, billing issues (“What did we agree I would charge?”), and — eventually, as your practice grows — making some work less of a priority than other work because the rates being charged are different. Trust me: one rate, stick with it, and offer other perks or incentives to move things forward.

Finally, the step that most people who are new to consulting have the most difficulty with in my experience, is actually transitioning from a conversation about an area of expertise to a conversation about consulting, and — ultimately — to a conversation about how to get a commitment to move forward on a specific project. There’s no one way to perfect this process but, without a doubt, practice makes it much easier. There are, however, several tips that I’ve found useful along the way:

  • First, when a colleague or potential client asks to have a conversation with you about your experience — perhaps to give them some insight, or advice or what-have-you — make that initial conversation short and convenient; I usually answer “Sure, let’s have a thirty-minute conversation on the phone.” This ensures that we can both explore this relationship with the minimum time investment. I actually do pay attention to the time when on the call and try to leave the last five or ten minutes for closing the loop in some way, i.e., answering the question “Is there potential here to move forward with something tangible.”

  • Second, when we arrive at the end of that first conversation, I make a point of presenting my products and their pricing and indicating that some committment would be required to move this conversation forward. For example, I might say (as long as it’s true!) “It sounds like my Product X would be a great fit with the challenge you’re describing right now. My consulting rate is Y per hour. Clients typically invest betweeen Z and A for this kind of work, depending on the length and depth of engagement.” Now the conversation is framed properly and the person at the other end has the information they need to decide if they would like take the next step.

  • Third, if the size of the project is large and there are other stakeholders involved in making a decision, I will certainly make another hour available to define the scope of the consultation and the deliverables, but — if you do agree to move on to this step without starting the clock — be clear that the meeting is to define the scope of the project and not to brainstorm ideas, and also try to ensure that there are decision makers in the meeting, by which I mean the person who could sign the contract or consulting agreement.

Last but not least (in fact, it should almost be listed first), the most important skill to learn as a new consultant is saying “no.” I’ve (politely) turned down more consulting opportunities in my life than I’ve undertaken by a factor of two at least. Knowing when to say “no” is a blog post unto itself, but — for now — it’s worth taking a few moments to reflect on how long each consulting enagement can typically be (often months, even for short engagements) and really thinking about the fit between you, the client, and the project. If you have any reservations or red flags in the initial conversation, or any follow-up conversations about the scope, saying “no” can often save everyone time, energy, and resources. Thinking back on my own experiences, I can’t think of any projects that I’ve turned down that I regret turning down, but — on the other hand — there are projects where I said “yes” and have experienced some sense of regret at some point. Saying “no” is almost always the right thing to do if there’s any question about the fit, because, in the end, you can always use that time to improve your consulting process, to find new clients, or to just take some time off.

July 01 2011

14:35

Tao of consulting: Why working weekends doesn't work

Will return on Monday

What could be fitting for a Canada Day / Independence Day post, than a plea for you to take the weekend off?

That’s right: it’s your friendly neighborhood slacker trying to spread the message of slacktivism throughout the world.

But let’s get this whole slacker thing straight: I’m a slacker as much for your benefit, as I am for my own. How does that work you ask? Read on…

We all know people that are over-committed. Have you noticed that it’s a chronic state for many of them? It’s the classic case of “if you want something done, ask a busy person.” Busy people trend toward busier not less busy, it’s pretty much a fact of life.

The problem is: it can often lead into a downward spiral — a permanent state of busy and over-committed that self-perpetuates. I’m hear to tell you that working weekends is not the answer.

“What’s the big deal about working weekends?” you ask. The downsides are considerable, I assure you:

  • Neglecting more important “work”: For example, pursuing interests outside of what you get paid for, or charge clients for. It’s common knowledge that lateral thinking capacity is increased when a person has a wider set of experiences to draw from. Advice: Expand your mind. Take a course in something new, join a Hackerspace and make something, or push yourself to learn a new language. It’s “work,” yes; but it’s the most important kind.

  • Not giving yourself time to repair: it’s also well known that the human body follows cycles. If those cycles are ignored, not only does productivity decrease — especially creative problem solving skills — but also the body’s ability to repair itself, and defend itself from illness. Taking regular breaks, including a nice long one at the end of the work week, is critical toward ensuring better performance over the long run. You’ll be more focused when you’re working, and less likely to miss work because you’re sick.

  • Starting the week tired: The one side effect of working on weekends (yes, I’ve done it, as much as I hate to admit it) that I feel most immediately & significantly is a lack of excitement on Monday morning. The work week is a sprint for me — it’s a personal contest to see how efficiently I can use my time, and how productive I can be (within the bounds of being a slacker, of course). Starting out tired on Monday almost inevitably leads to a less productive week, which — in turn — can trigger that impulse to work on the weekend. You see? It’s a negative feedback loop! And one that you should fight to get out of.

  • Setting a bad example Most importantly, working weekends sets a bad example for your staff and peers. Sending work-related e-mails on Saturday or Sunday to co-workers says “Hey, I’m over-committed and trying to catch-up,” and “I’m expecting you to work weekends too!” Even if neither are the message you intended, that’s the signal it sends. Advice: if you have to write them on Sunday to get them out of your head — so be it — just save them as drafts and send them Monday morning.

Remember: Doing amazing work in the world usually comes from doing amazing work in your life first. And there’s no better way to start doing amazing work in your life than to give yourself the time to do it.

Weekends are a great place to start. So start by taking this weekend off.

Happy Canada Day & Independence Day weekend. :)

— The Slacker-in-Chief

April 04 2011

13:20

Daylite adventures: Migrating from MobileMe to Spanning Sync

30-second summary:

  • Apple is forcing an upgrade to their new MobileMe calendar on May 5, 2011
  • The new MobileMe calendars are not CalDav compatible and break calendar synchronization for some third-party applications like Daylite CRM
  • I use Daylite with MobileMe calendar syncing & needed a solution before May 5th
  • After some investigation & experimentation, I implemented to Spanning Sync 3 (referral link) to replace MobileMe
  • Now, thanks to Spanning Sync, I can continue to use Daylite and also enjoy Google calendar and contacts syncing (that syncs to both my Android phone and iPad)

If you want the nitty-gritty, read on...

Back in February, I got an e-mail from Apple's MobileMe department informing me that I would need to upgrade to the new MobileMe calendar by May 5th. The new calendar promised "calendar sharing with friends and family," a "beautiful new Web application," and "event invitations with 1-click RSVP" -- what could be better, right?

Sadly, MobileMe's new calendar is a bust, and has left many people like me looking for other solutions to keep our various calendars in sync. Specifically, I used MobileMe as a hub for calendar data, various applications would create calendar events and MobileMe would keep those events in sync across my Macs, iOS devices, and also provided a Web-based calendar. The new calendar breaks this functionality for third-party applications -- coming from Apple, this is no big surprise.

Since 2005, I've been using Daylite to keep my life organized. You know: appointments, contact information, projects and to-do lists, and so on. Back then, it was pretty much the only game in town for Outlook-like functionality on a Mac, i.e., something that integrated with my e-mail-centric workflow.

I've paid for Daylite maybe two or three times over the years -- the initial purchase, the mail integration plug-in, and maybe one upgrade -- so, overall, I'm pretty happy with the cost-benefit analysis. However, the company that makes Daylite (Marketcirle) is moving toward a software rental business model -- a model that I'm not super-fond of -- and that means it's probably time to think about moving on.

Alas, I've not had the time to find a replacement yet, so the looming date of May 5th to migrate from MobileMe was starting to feel ominous.

There was a feisty thread over on the Marketcircle forums about the issue. Long story short, the choices appeared to be: migrate to a Daylite-only solution for syncing (requiring a hefty investment in software licenses and ongoing annual fees), or implement a third-party sync solution like BusyMac or Spanning Sync.

I had some free time this weekend and decided not to delay the inevitable. Conclusion: after a decent amount of reading and experimenting, I migrated to Spanning Sync 3 (referral link).

So, basically, my system works like so:

  • I'm still using Daylite on my main laptop (where I create most appointments and contacts) * Daylite synchronizes to my local iCal and Address Book
  • Spanning Sync now synchronizes appointments and contacts to Google
  • My Google Nexus One (Android) phone syncs with Google calendar and contacts
  • My iPad also syncs with Google calendar and contacts using the Exchange sync option 
  • Spanning sync also runs on my Dell Mini 10v "Hackintosh" to keep iCal and Address Book synced over there too

So, after a couple hours of mucking about, I've now got the same functionality that I had before, plus I can see and edit my appointments & contacts on my Android phone and share calendars with other people -- both are big bonuses. More than that, now that I'm migrated to Google calendar and contacts, I feel like I'm one step less dependent on Daylite.

Maybe one of these days I'll be able to migrate completely. (If you have suggestions, please let me know. Extra points if it runs on Linux too.)

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