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Correspondence to other Consultants?
Updated:  Monday, December 14, 2015 04:46 AM
As a result of the circuits and articles that have been published, I have been contacted by engineers who are either already consultants or who are thinking about it. Most want to know how I became a consultant, why I remain a consultant and secrets of my success. I am including some representative excerpts from my responses to this kind of correspondence. Perhaps some of these letters contain information that you might find useful. They should give you some insight into the real world of consulting. All the warts and concerns are left intact. I encourage your comments about the consulting profession.

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Dear Jim,

Thanks for your last letter. I hope this letter finds you well. Your last letter indicated that you were making a lot of changes in you life and career. How is your consulting business? Last year was a very busy year for me, but it has so far been completely offset by this year, which has been one of the slowest on record. I had a gut feeling that this year was going to be bad, so I resisted any temptation to spend any money. A new computer and a new car will have to wait another year.

Yes, I follow many of the same business approaches you mentioned in your letter. I too will not spend a lot of time writing a detailed proposal on some obscure project, unless I can get paid for it. But, I will never turn down a job that is worth less than $1000 if I know exactly how to complete the project. I have finished many projects that involved only a day or two of effort. After 17 years of consulting, I have gotten pretty good at figuring out which projects I can turn around quickly and which will require more work. In these hard economic times, I suggest that you take whatever projects you can get, especially if you know exactly what to do.

I also make some quick bucks helping some local inventors. They usually get my name from a small ad I have had in the telephone yellow pages for the past 17 years. Overall the ad has been a break-even venture. Many of the calls I get are from people that are just fishing and have no technical background. Most are classified as time sinks. I politely send them on their way in a few minutes. But every now and then someone insists in sitting down with me to discuss their widget. I make it clear that I will charge them for my time and I expect to be paid at the end of the meeting. Some meetings go on for several hours. It is easy money, when all I have to do is quietly listen to the other person and make some constructive suggestions. Only about one in twenty ever leads to any additional consulting work. But the inventors that do turn into repeat clients usually make me enough money to pay for the extra cost of having the yellow page ad.

On rare occasions I also get calls from companies that are trying to solve some sticky electronic problem. Sometimes the call comes from the president of a company who is not satisfied with what his engineers are producing. Maybe he wants someone with more experience to discretely analyze a circuit problem or maybe find out why his products are failing in the field. I have many client companies that only call me when they run into trouble. If I can squeeze such jobs into my schedule, I will always take them. Even if the task is only worth a few hours.

I've also have made a fair amount of money designing and installing special test equipment. Many companies need special electronic circuits to help them test some of their products. Often the products themselves do not involve any electronics, but they can only be tested quickly using some sophisticated electronic circuits. With your experience in computer software and hardware, I think you could make some money setting up special test stations. Perhaps you could use a PC based system with one or more plug-in cards. A multi-channel A/D card and some digital I/O channels can do a lot of neat things. I finished a big job last year that used such a system. I designed all the hardware and hired a programmer to supply all the software. The system tested some explosive devices that are used on the Trident missile. The computer system stepped the test operator through the test sequence and logged all the collected data. They are now able to test three times as many parts with the new system using one person as they were able to test with two people before the system was installed. Maybe there are some companies in your area that can increase their production with some custom test stations.

I'm still trying to figure out some other way to make some money, besides consulting. I made a little money this last year publishing some circuits. But, so far I have received very little in return for the invested time. Out of the twelve circuit designs I have published in EDN and Electronic Design magazines, the construction project article I wrote for Popular Electronics and the several articles I wrote for Midnight Engineering, I have not yet received a single response. I'm wondering if maybe the good old days are over and there just are too few people reading technical magazines anymore. Something must be going on. There have been a lot of good magazines that did not last very long. Remember "High Technology"? "Science 87"? "Science Digest"? "Technology Illustrated"? "High Technology Business"? "Venture"? "Computers and Electronics"? "Radio Electronics? "Elektor"? "Science Probe"? "PC Sources"? "Byte", They all bit the dust or were absorbed by other magazines. I think it means that any market that relies on hobbyists or do-it-yourself types is rapidly shrinking. I see that Anthony Charlton from Allegro Electronic Systems has had several articles published. I wonder if he is doing any better with his stuff. But, I understand he had to give up on his "Tec Spec" newsletter. Author's note. Tec Spec is no longer in business.

Yes, I'm still working on my optical communications book. It seems that for every page I finish I discover two more pages that need to be added. The illustrations and the circuit descriptions seem to take the most time. The real worry I have is that maybe I'm writing a book that no one wants to read. Since the book is written for hobbyists, there may not be much of a demand. Perhaps I should sell the first copies through an ad in "Nuts and Volts" before I have a thousand copies printed.

As I become older (I'm 51 now), I think I will see any demand for my consulting engineering services shrivel. As I age, I will also be less likely to be hired by some company. My wife helps a little by earning her share each year. But, unless I start making some changes, I'm going to find myself out on the street. Some of my associates have other supporting ventures on the side. Some earn a little money with rental property, some sell used cars on weekends, a few have some small SBIR grants. One old guy got a big $500K grant a few years back to help develop one of his medical inventions. One of my programming associates earns about $200 each week giving piano lessons. But, most other consultants are like me, just getting by.

I don't know what I'm going to do. One thought is to try to develop some product that has a small niche market. I've been working on several such products. One of course is my book. Another product is an accessory to an oscilloscope. It allows a probe to be isolated from the actual oscilloscope through a length (up to 1000 feet) of optical fiber cable. But, I'm not sure I want to get into the manufacturing business.

I think that businesses that involve information will be more demand in the future. With the new DVD recording systems coming out, I can imagine many such services. I thought about collecting several hundred thousand circuit schematics and putting them onto a few DVDs. However, some type of schematic graphic format would have to be developed to keep the individual files small. Almost any kind of collection could be put onto a DVD and sold. Baseball and football cards, cooking recipes, invention ideas, short stories, music bytes, electronic component catalogs, testing standards, maps, patents, clip art, old books, old newspapers, old photos, quotes and poems could all be put onto CDs. As the technology improves, the storage capacity should go from the 4.6GBs, that the existing systems have, to maybe 18GBs in the future. But, I don't know anything about the DVD business. Maybe I should start looking for a business partner. I like the idea of starting a business that involves information. If you have any ideas let me know.


David Johnson

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