How to Get Started as a Engineer Consultant [2]

          Consultants fill a unique role in the business landscape. They come in when they are needed, put their unique skills to use solving problems for a day or a week or a year, and then disappear back into the night (or the local airport). Sometimes we never see them again. Other times they return a few months or a couple of years later when the situation calls for the use of their unique skills.

          But where do these consultants come from? Can anyone become one? Is it easy to work as a consultant? Why do some people fail as consultants? To get these answers, we turned to the experts themselves.


Networking Matters

          After money, the question consultants ask most is where to find clients and work. The first place, most consultants suggest, is with your existing contacts. When Bryant first set out on his own he struck a deal with one of his previous employers. That first consulting job, which gave him something to do for a few hours a week, gave him some guaranteed income while he went out looking for additional clients.

          “The first five or six customers are super-easy to pick up,” suggests Bryant. “It’s after that when you start having problems because you’re not marketing enough to keep your business going. A lot of people last six, 12 or 18 months and then they’re suddenly out of work because they have exhausted all of their contacts.” In fact, the experts I spoke with say they saw many other consultants fail because they did not work hard enough to find new assignments.

          Nelson suggests that people join professional organizations such as IEEE and attend networking events and conferences. “I also volunteer in trade organizations,” he says, which helps get his face in front of potential clients and to establish him as an expert.

          “A lot of my contacts are people that I know through the IEEE,” Gauger says. But it isn’t enough to just belong: you need to be active. “You participate, attend meetings, network, meet people, listen to speakers,” he says. “It’s a good way to establish a network of people that can help you when you need it.” Meanwhile, it helps to put you in a lot of peoples’ networks so they can hopefully call you.

          Several of the consultants I spoke with recommended taking speaking engagements whenever possible. “That really helps get your name out there,” Nelson says. In fact, seminars have become a second revenue stream for him. “It’s another whole wing of my business,” he says.

          The more you get out there, the more people know you, and the more people who can either hire you directly or refer you to someone else. “Consulting is definitely a referral business,” Bryant says. But sometimes you need to prove yourself in order to get that referral. “People have to trust you in order to hire you. If you’re not trustworthy, you’re not going to get around. Your reputation means everything.”

Can Do Everything

          Many high-end engineers come from environments where they have large support staffs. It may surprise them, then, when they start consulting and find out that they have to do everything from completing their high-tech assignments to changing the toilet paper roll in their office.

          “Consultants have to do everything,” Bryant says. “You don’t have to love it, but you have to be able to do it.” Tasks consultants might not realize at first that they have to handle include marketing, doing the books, collecting overdue money from clients, and much more. Some of this work can be outsourced, but they are expensive and consultants may not have the money to pay to get these tasks done. “If you can’t do everything,” Bryant says, “then you’re out of businesses because you can’t afford to pay someone to do everything.”

Something Uncontrollable

          Although consulting can be a great way to make a living, recent years have been tough on some consultants. Kip Haggerty of H&A Systems Engineering says his practice’s gross income dropped from the mid-six figures in 2010 (their most successful year) to literally zero in 2012. “We still had expenses, so we lost money,” he says.

Engineer-Consultant          Haggerty blames the decline on new rules the IRS established a few years ago to help determine who, exactly, is an independent contractor. The rules (seen in IRS form SS-8) are designed to protect workers from being classified as consultants when they are really full-time employees. One of the things the rules do is say that companies shouldn’t hire consultants in primary areas of their own business. “They criminalized my business plan,” Haggerty says.

          Of course when you’re working for yourself, the only certain thing is uncertainty. That’s why many consultants have multiple revenue streams. Nelson, for example, has his consulting business as well as work as an expert witness and giving seminars. “You’ve got all of these little islands happening,” he says. “Typically, none of them all come in at the same time. But when one part of the business is slow or goes down, the other areas can prop things up.”

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How to Get Started as a Engineer Consultant [1]