So youve decided to be a consultant. Are you prepared to go out and find, mind, and grind your own work?
Three Consulting Fundamentals
So you’ve decided to be a consultant. Are you prepared to go out and find, mind, and grind your own work?
Its 11 p.m. Do you know where your life is? Thats
a question I recently faced as I sat down to reflect on
consulting and write this column. As a consultant, you
have lots of freedom to work the hours that you want to
work. Paradoxically, you have the freedom to work too
It was my great pleasure to be on the How To Be
A Consultant panel at MCP Magazines
TechMentor conference this past August in San Jose, California.
From the standing room-only crowd, questions peppered
the panelists regarding the perception and reality of
being a consultant, MCP-style. Based on my own interactions
with the audience, I made several observations about the
nature of consulting that Id like to share with
you now. First and foremost, consulting is divided into
three roles: finder, minder, and grinder.
Ever ask former consultants why they decided to return
to a full-time salaried position as an employee? The answer
youre likely to receive is this: I didnt
realize how much marketing was involved! True statement.
One of the reasons why MCP consultants are lucky to enjoy
50-percent utilization (that is, you bill half of your
working hours) is that much of their time is spent selling
themselves. The balance of their free time is spent managing
or mindingmore on the minder stuff in
The term finder means different things to
different people. For some, its hard-core sales
and closing practices, such as cold calls. These are the
power callers of the MCP community. For others, its
writing books and giving speeches, relying on educational
marketing approaches to fulfill this role as rainmaker.
For others, its simply answering the telephone and
taking an order. And finally, my favorite, for some lucky
people its afternoons and evenings of client entertainment
ranging from sails across Puget Sound to attending professional
baseball games with the company tickets.
Surprising to me, many people dont enjoy the finder
role of getting the business. Perhaps its because
this extroverted role runs counter to the more introverted
personalities that tend to populate the MCP ranks. Others
thrive on the interaction and possibilities of making
the sale. Furthermore, many MCPs assume more finder responsibilities
for one simple reason: More sales means more income. Talk
about job security.
Now, having arrived at different definitions of being
a finder, how can you be a better finder? There are several
Being a Finer Finder
First, consider outsourcing the finder function if its
just not your thing. Youll pay a price, but consider
the following. Lets assume youre an independent
consultant who enjoys doing the work but not getting the
work. If you step back and put on your accountants
green visor, you might discover that marketing and sales
expenses for many businesses are 25, 30, or even 50 percent
of sales, depending on your business. If you sign up with
a contract house or temp agency, youre effectively
paying marketing and sales expenses within this range.
The contract house or temp agency will bill you out at
a somewhat higher rate (say, $50 per hour) than youre
paid ($30 per hour). Worth it? For many people, yes. Certainly,
having someone else get you work is worth something.
Second, consider working with an employer who, through
other business, can stir up leads for you. My present
employer is a perfect example. Ive made a long-term
home with CN Consulting, which is owned by Northwest accounting
firm Clark Nuber. The accountants are my virtual sales
force. Via their interactions with clients, theyre
able to steer viable, warm leads to me. Think
about it. If youre a business owner who relies on
your accountant for financial advice, might there exist
a trust relationship that allows for the introduction
of additional services such as networking? You bet! Ill
take warm leads over cold calls any day. And its
not lost on me that most MIS directors, network managers,
and technology managers still report to the CFO of a firm.
And guess what? Our accountants deal directly with the
CFO. What a great country...
A Marvelous Minder
OK, so youve gone out and gotten the business.
Now you have to manage it. Plus, as a professional service
provider, youre striving for referrals from your
existing client basesomething that makes future
finder activities much easier. Minding the farm results
in referrals. Here are some of the management, or minder,
challenges regarding consulting.
We computer people tend to be creative types. Many of
us arent detail oriented when it comes to management.
Speaking for myself, sometimes its just a challenge
to get my time and billing into the company accounting
system. The minder role also isnt a natural orientation
for MCPs because it isnt taught in the MCSE curriculum.
Its something that blooms from pain (read unsuccessful
consulting engagements) and lots of consulting experience.
To help shorten your journey to minder status, Ive
placed a sample document below
that I use in my day-to-day consulting practice when Im
wearing my minder hat. This document is a sample site
report that I complete after each visit to a client site.
It details the work performed and the amount billed, and,
of course, provides a thank you to the client! This document
grew from my client feedback saying that they often didnt
know what work I performed.
Site Visit Letter
November 20, 1998
RE: Work Performed November
This letter will serve as our site
visit report for the work performed
by the undersigned on your behalf.
On November 20, we performed the following.
- Updated our checklists and project
schedule, and discussed the project
internally with Steve Bloom and Vernon
- Accepted a support telephone call
from you wherein we provided extensive
guidance with respect to the Paradox
database. At our request, you modified
the properties for the Paradox application
shortcut icon so that the shortcut
icon pointed to the proper application
and working directory.
- Directed your efforts to add everyone
to the Administrators group so that
we could efficiently resolve a Great
Plains Dynamics security authentication
- Fixed the WSP-related conflict on
the workstation running CompuServe.
- Resolved a logon problem at a user's
workstation by having that workstation
authenticate on the network via the
- Fixed the Raiser's Edge client application
installation on Lynette's PC and mapped
Drive R to DS01.
- Modified the Paradox network configuration
files as per instructions from Borland
support. This modification work included
changing the network identity from
NetWare to Other (which apparently
supports Windows NT Server, the underlying
network operating system for SBS).
- Resolved Mike's Great Plains Dynamics
data reporting problem. First we verified
the status of the data copy from the
old NetWare server to the new SBS
server. Next we paged and instructed
Vernon Loveless to proceed to your
site. Once Vernon arrived, we advised
Vernon of our progress and helped
him perform several Dynamics-related
tests. We also assisted Vernon in
re-transferring the Dynamics-related
data from the old NetWare server to
the new SBS server.
For this work we billed the following.
- For item #1 we billed
one ("1") hour at $125 per
hour to Phase B of the project.
- For item #2 we billed
0.5 hours at $125 per hour to "Additional
Services" for the project.
- For items #3 to #8 we billed three
hours ("3") to "Additional
Services" and one hour ("1")
to Phase B of the project.
If your understanding of the above
work differs from ours, please contact
our office so we may discuss this matter.
Thank you for your continued use of
With best regards.
Very truly yours,
MCT, MCSE, CNE, CLSE, CNP
Network Consulting Manager
C.C. Client File,
Brelsford Reading File, Eileen Garcia
I know what youre saying now. Youre an MCSE
and you just want to do network engineering. All of this
paperwork is for Dilbert and other mid-level folks in
the Dilbert Zone! At some level I agree with you. When
Im writing project reports, Im certainly not
expanding my understanding of the new registry setting
in Windows NT Server 5.0 (Beta 2). The funny thing about
performing the minder function, however, is that the right
clients will pay for it. I implicitly bill for writing
my site reports and project updates, and the clients gladly
pay because it inherently gives them peace of mind. For
those clients who dont see value in my minder activities,
I refer them to our competitors. Its been my experience
that consulting gigs in those situations have a huge propensity
Another thing Ive tried to do in my consulting
division is hire my weaknesses. Lets face it, Im
first a grinder, then finder, then minder. So, based on
the advice of my success coach, Im foremost out
to hire a minder. This lets me add a team member who complements
my skill sets and results in the best fit possible.
Not turned on by the minder thing? Consider another consulting
alternative. The aforementioned contract houses and temp
agencies perform many of the minder functions, such as
providing client updates and collections services. So,
while you pay the piper when you dance with a contract
house (by effectively earning a lower hourly rate), if
you structure it correctly, you can avoid the finder and
minder roles and just focus on the good stuff: grinding!
A Great Grinder
Nows the easy part. Rare is the MCP who doesnt
like to grind or perform the work. In fact, Ive
found that occasionally people will hold back the gifted
MCPs in their consulting organizations. Otherwise, the
MCPs start billing 50-plus hours per week on an on-going
basis and then burn out. (See my August 1998 column for
more discussion on burnout.) These super-grinders also
forget to attend classes, conferences, and seminars, placing
their current skill set at risk. This isnt a good
trend for long-term sustainable grinding.
The only departure Ive witnessed from the grinder
model is, indeed, a function of burnout. Ive seen
haggard MCPs who want nothing more than to give up the
long hours and 24x7 on-call pagers. These individuals
tend to take positions as account executives, pre-sales
engineers, and project managers. This isnt necessarily
a bad role, but its typically far less technical
than the average MCP and can lead to has-been
Janet Ruhl has written several books
on consulting, including The Computer
Consultants Guide: Real-Life Strategies
for Building a Successful Consulting
Career (John Wiley & Sons, $19.95,
ISBN 0-47117-649-4) and The Computer
Consultants Workbook (Technion
Books, $39.95, ISBN 0-96471-160-5).
She also maintains the Computer Consultants
Resource Page at www.realrates.com.
How To Be a Successful Computer
Consultant by Alan R. Simpson (McGraw-Hill,
$21.95, ISBN 0-07058-209-4) shares suggestions
for choosing a specialty, organizing
your business, writing a business plan,
staying current, fitting into client
organizations, and handling the difficult
So, whats the bottom line on consulting? Its
great work, the pay aint bad, and its tremendously
rewarding. But be realistic. Evaluate yourself against
the finder, minder, and grinder model. Its been
my experience that you can get two out of three in any
given person. How you manage that third requirement too
will foretell how well youll do on your own.