What do Bill Gates, Paul Allen and Steve Jobs all have in common (besides raking in more money each year than a third-world nation)? They each jumpstarted their careers by working as part-time IT freelancers and consultants. Gates, Allen and Jobs all discovered that part-time work gave them extra cash to fund their own projects, exposed them to potential investors, allowed them to explore new technology and enhanced their reputations as technical problem-solvers.
But in todays economy, where IT starting salaries are at an all-time high and, despite a slowing economy, jobs remain abundantly available, why would anyone go through the trouble of starting a part-time consulting business? The answer is simple: increased money, prestige and experience.
IT consulting hopefuls must remember, however, that starting a part-time consulting business isnt for the faint of heart. The process involves plenty of hard work (and using those precious few off-hours your employer not-so-graciously grants you) as well as sidestepping potential pitfalls. But the rewards, both tangible and intangible, can be substantial. Think youre up to it? Here are some tips to get you started:
Draw on Your Experience
You may not have a lengthy resume, but in the IT world knowledge usually means more than experience. If you know how to develop, adapt or fix a certain type of software, and can prove this fact to a prospective client, youll be on your way toward a rewarding consulting career.
As a new consultant, you cant expect work to come looking for you. As difficult as it may be, youll have to go out and seek assignments on your own. Fortunately, consulting opportunities are everywhere. Successful consultants look for leads in IT publications, they meet local IT managers at meetings and conferences, they tell their friends and acquaintances that theyre looking for freelance work and they pass out business cards to anyone who may be able to help. In short, like TCP/IP, they never stop networking. Your university may even be able to provide consulting opportunities. North Carolina State University, for example, offers students part-time computer consulting work through its computer services department.
Steer Clear of Employment Agencies
Your goal is to become a consultant, not a part-time contract worker slaving for some third-party agency. Bypass the agencies and obtain assignments directly from IT managers, an approach that will allow you to negotiate your own rates and working environments.
Create a Web Site
In the old days, a consultant would advertise his or her business with slick (and expensive) brochures. Today, a well-designed Web site performs the same role, only better. Be sure to pick a URL that reflects your business, such as TomAdamsConsulting.com or MaryStevensDevelopment.com. But dont make the name too specific (SusanSmithJavaDesign.com, for example), in case you decide to branch out into other fields. Resist the temptation to use a free Web site provided by an ISP or Web portals, since the long, complicated URLs are impossible to remember, difficult to type and a sure sign of amateurism.
Carefully design your site to highlight your credentials and achievements and showcase examples of your best work. Hint: your business Web site should be strictly businessno pictures of friends, pets, rock collections or New Years parties.
Keep Careful Books
As you begin earning money, youll have to consider the tax and other financial implications of your work. This means carefully tracking your revenue and expenses. The good news is that you may be able to deduct some or all of your computer equipment, software, office supplies, travel costs, and other products and services as business expenses. Check with an accountant to get the full story.
Most part-time consultants fail because they lose interest in their work. (Why write code when there are movies to see, friends to visit and parties to enjoy?) As a result, they begin to miss deadlines and allow the quality of their work to slide. To stay motivated, focus on the benefits generated by your part-time work (e.g., money, prestige and experience).
Budget Your Time
Theres also a flip side to the motivation problem. Some part-timers get so wrapped up in their consulting work that they begin neglecting their regular jobs. If you find yourself taking sick days or leaving work early in order to attend to your consulting chores, it may be time to scale back on some of your commitments. But if you enjoy being an entrepreneur, wish you had more time for consulting assignments, like the income and dont mind forgoing paid vacations, health insurance and other packaged benefits, you may want to consider escaping the yoke of the nine-to-five world and becoming a full-time consultant.