Making It as a Consultant

Everything you need to know if you want to become a consultant

6 February 2009

With the world economy in shaky shape, many IEEE members are looking at consulting to supplement their incomes, or worse, to replace income from lost jobs. But how do you become a consultant?

“All you need do is declare yourself one, because anyone can be a consultant,” says James Chan, president of Asia Marketing and Management in Philadelphia and author of Spare Room Tycoon: Succeeding Independently, the 70 Lessons of Sane Self-Employment (Nicholas Brealey, 2000). Chan, who recently celebrated his 25th year as a consultant, was the featured speaker at the December meeting of the Philadelphia and the New Jersey Coast sections’ IEEE Consultants Network. He provided a number of tips on what it takes to make a living as a consultant.

“It takes courage and fortitude to be a consultant,“ says Chan, who says he hears a lot of fear in the questions he’s asked at his talks. There are three groups in his audience, he says: people afraid of losing their jobs, those who have already lost them, and a smaller group of people who are already working as consultants but want to boost their income. Says Chan, “I tell them all: Don’t be afraid.”

Most people, according to Chan, have trouble selling themselves or selling the qualities that make them valuable as consultants. Keep in mind that potential clients don’t just want engineering acumen, he says: “They want your viewpoint, your way of solving problems, your opinions, and your personality.” He recommends that you look at the services you can provide as your brand and have confidence in your own brand.

The hardest part is finding paying clients, Chan says. Those starting out should write letters and mail them to potential clients. Tell them what you do and how good you are at it. Send out as many letters as you can and evaluate the responses. And keep at it. Continue to fine-tune your message based on the responses you get.

“Once you have a client, other people will find you more credible, because then you’ll have a track record,” Chan says.

The question Chan fields most frequently is how much to charge. There are three points to consider when setting your price, he says. “First, there are market prices for the type of work you do. Second, your price depends on how much the market will bear. And third, you need to charge enough to live on.

“And keep in mind that there are only 2000 hours in a year,” Chan continues, pointing out that most consultants are lucky to bill one-third of those hours. “Therefore, if you charge US $100 per hour, your annual consulting income will be $66 700.” He points out that if you charge $150 per hour, your annual income would be a tad over $100 000.

Don’t be shy or timid about stating your fee, he says. “When people pay for your work, they pay attention.”

Find ways to promote yourself, Chan says. Set up a Web site for you and your company. Use technical terms on it that will help potential customers find you when they conduct a search. Meanwhile, attend conferences and other networking events in your field to expand your contacts and increase your visibility.

Despite the global downturn, the need for high-tech consultants is “tremendous,” asserts Chan. “The more specialized you are, the easier it is to find the right clients.”

Chan has put 10 chapters of his book, Spare Room Tycoon, online for free.



Whether you’re already a full-time consultant or just starting out, IEEE offers several services of value.

The IEEE Consultants’ Network is an alliance of local networking groups in Canada, India, Mexico, Pakistan, and the United States. The groups offer the opportunity for local consultants to meet and learn from each other while promoting their availability to local businesses. There’s no charge to belong.

Local IEEE consultants’ networks are overseen by the Alliance of IEEE Consultant Networks. “We help establish the local groups and tie them together,” says IEEE Senior Member Bob Gauger, who consults in the reliability, availability, and maintainability field. “IEEE strongly supports them.”

To find a local group in your area or for information on starting your own local network, visit IEEE-USA Local Consulting Network.

Gauger also conducts surveys for IEEE-USA’s Profiles of IEEE Consultants. This annually updated e-book helps you find what other consultants in your field are charging and how your skills compare with those of other consultants, based on such information as education, experience, median earnings, and hourly fees.

“It provides a very good picture of the consulting business," Gauger says. “It identifies where consultants are located and how they find their clients, which can help fellow consultants get started and know what their competition is like.”

IEEE members can buy the latest edition, the 2007 Profiles of IEEE Consultants, published in 2008, for US $9.95. Gauger is currently conducting research for the 2008 e-book, which will be available by midyear.

Another service to check out is the IEEE-USA Consultants Database, a searchable database for companies looking for consultants and consultants looking for projects. More than 20 000 IEEE members are registered in the database, which more than 30 000 companies searched last year, Gauger says.

“I find this to be a very good resource,” Gauger says. “It has brought me a number of contracts.”

Members pay a $79 annual fee to be part of the database and submit their profiles, which can then be searched by clients looking for consultants. For more information, visit IEEE-USA Local Consulting Network.

IEEE membership offers a wide range of benefits and opportunities for those who share a common interest in technology. If you are not already a member, consider joining IEEE and becoming part of a worldwide network of more than 400,000 students and professionals.

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