So you want to be a software consultant, eh? I hear “how do I get into the business” questions a lot. I suppose I could save this for my next Monday Consulting Questions article, but I think I’d like to finish the month with a bang. So, let’s talk about it today.
There are several things I think you need in order to launch and have some assurance of success. Note that this list is by no means conclusive, it only represents the things that occurred to me in the shower this morning.
Experience. Ideally, you’ve been developing software professionally for at least 5 years, with steadily increasing responsibilities. You want 5 actual years of experience and growth, not 1 year of experience repeated 5 times over. But wait, there’s more. Hopefully you’ve also been able to spend about a year as a Team Lead or in some other position that lets you work at a slightly higher level, learning to manage people and allocate workloads. It would be super super ideal if you managed to get some project management experience too. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that when launching a software consulting business, being a good project manager will be at least as important as being a good coder. If you don’t have any project management skills, be prepared to learn some.
Humility. Just because you’ve been a dev for 5+ years does NOT mean that you know it all. Preferably you’ve made some serious blunders, learned from them, and done better the next time a similar situation presented itself. If you’ve never fallen on your face, odds are you haven’t attempted anything worth a damn.
Wisdom. Read these: Peopleware; The Mythical Man Month; Code Complete; Under Pressure and On Time Project Planning, Scheduling and Control; Slack; The Art of the Start; Book Yourself Solid; Million Dollar Consulting; Influence; The Time Trap; The E-Myth. Don’t argue, just read them. Read them all. Then read them all again. You don’t have to agree with them or even do what they tell you to do. But you do need to read them.
Contacts. When I say contacts, I’m talking not just about people you know, I’m talking about people you know who can be of help to you in launching your firm. People who can hire you for project work. People who can introduce you to other people who can hire you for project work. People who like you. People who want to see you succeed. People who will benefit if you succeed.
Clients. I can hear you already: “Well, DUH, Christopher.” But bear in mind that when I say you need clients, I’m saying that you need clients BEFORE you launch your firm. Don’t form a corporation, rent an office, buy computers with fancy 20" dual LCDs, hire a staff of 5, and then try to find clients. Oh no. Get yourself a few projects first, THEN launch. Deposits for several projects can make for decent start-up money. Work your network of contacts to find your first clients before launching your business.
Money. I’ve heard it said that professional services (like software consulting) are the easiest type of business to bootstrap. This may or may not be true. There’s another saying, though, one that I particularly like: always be prepared. Try to have as much of a financial cushion as possible before you launch.
A Team. Now, this is going to be controversial, since there are plenty of successful one-man operators. In fact, I used to be one, and even argued with Joel Spolsky about it. But the fact of the matter is, the sooner you are able to start delegating work, the sooner you can spend time working ON your business instead of working IN your business (kudos to The E-Myth for that saying). Working ON your business means you are building a system for doing business that will work even if you’re not actually billing. Basically, having a team means that you don’t have to do ALL the billable work. Starting out you will likely not be able to hire employees full time. Find some trustworthy subcontractors (former co-workers seem to work best) to begin with and make actual hires once you’ve fattened up.
Nerves of Steel. Launching a business of any kind is tough. When you’re just starting out, you can’t just code. You need to do your own books, you need to sell, you need to write the proposals, take out the garbage, negotiate the lease on your office, pay the bills, serve as technical support, beg your creditors for extra time to pay bills, and oh yeah, you might even write a little code from time to time. Clients will abuse you, they will slow-pay you, they will change their minds twice daily about what it is they really want you to be building. Cash flow will ebb and flow sharply sometimes. You may experience the rush of feeling like you hit the lottery one month, then the despair of feeling near bankruptcy the next. Of course, all of this can be managed, but you probably won’t know how at first. If uncertainty is emotionally difficult for you to deal with, re-think launching a firm.
I’m sure there is more to launching a software consulting firm than what I’ve laid out here. In fact, I know there is. However, I’m not going to be able to think of it all in one sitting; it’s a strange and varied universe we live in, and there are plenty of things that can make your consulting experience very unique.
If you would like to suggest additional requisites that belong on this list, go ahead and leave a comment.