Practical Information -
So you Want to be a Consultants?

Updated:  Monday, December 14, 2015 04:46 AM

What is a Consulting Engineer?  -- What is a P.E. License?  -- Correspondence to other Consultants     
So You Want to Be a Consultant    --    Consulting Methods & Practices   --     Dave's Business Journal

Plan Your Career Change --  Business Risks -- Do your Homework -- Know your Strengths
Education & Credentials --  Experience & Technical Skills --  Social Skills
Necessary Financial Resources --  Support of your Family --  Consulting Methods & Practices

Are you tired of your 8 to 5 job?
Do you want more control of your life and your career?
Do you want to work on a variety of interesting projects?
Do you relish the idea of working out of your house,
instead of driving to work each day?

Then, maybe consulting is for you. Or is it?

Plan your career change

So you want to a consultant?  If you are tempted by the allure of being a consultant, take my advice and plan such a drastic career and life change carefully.  Quit your existing job only after you have thoroughly research the pros and cons of being a consultant.  Forget about becoming a consultant if you have been recently fired or laid off from your job. Doing so will almost guarantee that your new business venture will fail.

In addition, if you decide to be a consultant, then do so with determination and not with the attitude that you are going to give it a try.    Many companies don't like to hire ex-consultants a full-time employees.   They often think that you will view their job as a temporary one until your consulting business picks up again

I don't consider myself an expert on the consulting business. But, after having been a consultant for over 17 years I do have a lot of experience. The purpose of this article is to share some of my experiences to help prepare you for the career change.  I will also disclose some of the consulting business methods and practices that have and have not worked for me. Understand, that the methods discussed may have completely different results for you.

It is impossible to cover the subject of consulting in depth in only a few pages, but I will try to touch on some of the main points.

I welcome your comments.  Please email any comments or other stories about the consulting business?   
E-mail: Dave Johnson, P.E.


Business Risks

As in any business, there are some risks associated with being a consultant. Based on the comments of others,  it seems that only one in five people survive and remain in business more than three years as a consultant. To survive the first few years will require a lot of luck, skill and planning.

If you are unlucky, your failed consulting business venture will hurt you financially. It may take years to rebuild your savings, retirement funds and investments. The lack of income during a  failed business attempt will also put a tremendous strain on you and your family.   It is not uncommon for marriages to fail and for other relationships with friends and relatives to suffer as a result of a unsuccessful consulting business.


Do Your Homework

Before you launch your new business venture, learn as much about the subject as you can. There are many good books written about starting and managing a consulting business. I have listed below some books that are available from Amazon books.    Buy and read as many of those books as you can. Try to buy a couple of books that are written specifically for your consulting discipline. Use the books to devise a plan for your own business.

You should contact some consultants in your field and talk to them. The first place to look is in your local telephone yellow pages for consultants in your discipline.   Randomly call a few and tell them you are considering going into the business and would like to get their advice. Some will be rude but many will provide you with useful information. Try to visit them at their office. Observe how they have organized their home offices and what kind of office equipment they use. Ask them why they became a consultant, how they get job leads and handle invoices. Short of being a pest, ask them a lot of questions. Some will love the idea of being a mentor to a new kid on the block.

Some areas around the country may have consulting organizations that meet periodically. Ask if you can attend some of their meetings. Plan to collect of lot of names and information. After the meeting, try to contact some of those consultants.

Search the internet for consulting service companies. Notice the kind of services they provide and the kind of projects they have completed. Also take note of how their web site is organized. Contact some of them by e-mail and pick their brains.


Know Your Strengths

Working for yourself as a consultant may sound like a glamorous job, but you must consider the change from a full time job carefully. A consulting profession is not for everyone. It may not be right for you. You need to honestly evaluate your personality, your credentials, your life style and your financial situation before starting your new business venture. I have listed some of the more important things to consider below.


Education and Credentials

Every profession has certain standards for education -- some disciplines require only a bachelor degree while others require advanced degrees.   Many engineering consultants have degrees in mathematics, computer science, physics and chemistry rather than traditional engineering degrees. If you feel you are weak in some technical areas, consider completing some college refresher classes before launching your career change.

If you are engineer, a professional license may be required for some consulting projects.  The P.E. license is especially useful when doing work for a city, county or state organization. Obtaining a P.E. license is not easy but having one will add to your credibility. I have a more detailed discussion on what is involved in getting a P.E. license for the state Colorado at: What is a P.E. License?.

Membership in a nationally recognized professional society may also help. For electronics, you should consider being a member in the I.E.E.E. (The Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers).


Job Experience and Technical Skills

Potential clients seek consultants for their knowledge and experience. They expect a consultant to know more than those on their staff.  This experience can not be acquired over night. I would say at a minimum, you should have at least 5 years of true hands-on experience before you consider calling yourself an expert in anything.    Any less experience and potential clients may not take you seriously. In addition, I think your resume should include some project management experience. The most valuable experience would be jobs where some technicians, designers and perhaps assembly workers report directly to you.

Good verbal and written communications skill will also be needed. As a consultant you will be required to conduct meetings, manage people and write countless engineering and progress reports. Many projects involve more clerical work than actual technical services.

One job that would be a great place to learn about the consulting business, without the risks of being self employed, is a contract service company that provides consulting-type services. These companies may respond to proposals on complex projects that require many engineers and technicians. Often these companies perform many of the same services that individual consultants might offer. Working for one of these companies would be a great launching pad for your own business.

In this day and age you must be skilled at using a computer. Additional experience with certain computer aided design or CAD programs would also be a plus. Experience with database management, spreadsheet, mathematical and simulation programs would also be a bonus. You should also be skilled at using the internet. You should know how to conduct searches for technical information using various Internet search engines.

If you plan on offering any specific consulting services that involve special tools or instruments, then you should be very familiar with those.


Social Skills

As part of any consulting business, you will have to talk to clients, sell your services, manage projects and conduct meetings.   So, unless you can team up with someone who can sell your services,  you will have to have some social skills. You don't have to be the life of the party, but you will need to know how to handle people from all walks of life.  You may be asked to manage a group of people that may not like the idea of an outsider. 

A majority of a consultant's time is spent looking for and developing new business. You will also spend a sizable amount of time interfacing with clients during face to face meetings, telephone conversations and e-mail. Overall, most consultants will spend only a small portion of their time actually doing the technical work associated with a particular consulting project.

Most successful consultants have the innate ability to walk into most any consulting situations and quickly make their clients feel at ease for having selected the right consultant for the job. These successful consultants convey  honesty, confidence, knowledge and experience to their clients.

If your new consulting career is to be defined as being self-employed then your social skills should also include the ability to work Independently for long periods of time without day to day face to face human interaction. If you can't make it through a day without face to face human interaction, you should reconsider your decision for being consultant.


Support from Family and Friends

A new career as a consultant will trigger a complete change in your daily activities.  It will be difficult for you to juggle the demands of a new career and a growing family.  You will find yourself working long hours.   If you plan to use your home as your office, your family must learn to leave you alone during working hours - whatever hour of the day they end up being.   Many consultants I know, waited until their kids were grown before launching their new consulting business venture.  

Your lifestyle will change drastically.  Your activities will be much less routine than a standard 8-to-5-job.  In almost all cases a consulting career will require more of your time than a regular job, not less.  You will also have periods of time when you will have no income.   Your neighbors will think you have lost your job and gone on welfare.  Your in-laws may think that you are nuts for dumping a well paying job. 

You will need help, advice and cooperation from your family and friends in order to succeed.   If all your friends and family member think that you would be making a terrible mistake by becoming a self employed consultant, then perhaps they are right.    Include your family in your career change quest.   Your family members can also be helpful in some of your business tasks. 


Financial Resources to Start Your Business

Almost all consultants will make less money in their first few years of business than on a regular job. The larger number of out of pocket expenses needed to start your business will cut into your overall profits. If you are already having difficulty paying your bills because you are short of cash, don't consider a consulting career.

Every business will have its financial ups and downs. The consulting business will be no exception. Some consultants may start out with a few spectacular years followed by a dismally slow period. Without some reserve cash, the lack of income during those slow times will often kill a business. You should have at least 6 months worth of living expenses saved up. A full year's worth would be even better.

Only You Can Decide

If you have made all the necessary plans, then the best time to leave your day job and launch your consulting career is when you have a nice juicy consulting project lined up. That way you can hit the ground running.  If in spite of all the things I just told you, you are still determined to press forward, then I will help you get started. Hardest job is figuring out how much something is going to cost. Without some experience everything is going to be a guess.

The first thing you must do is truthfully evaluate yourself to see if you have what it takes to be a consultant. You will need to evaluate your financial, social and family situation before making the plunge. You need to go into the business for the right reasons. Don't expect it to be easy. 

Ask  yourself:  Do you have the education, experience, social skills needed? Do you have support from your family and friends? Do you have money in the bank that you draw on to get your business started?


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