Launching an Independent Consulting Practice, Part 3

Over the past few weeks, the IT Career Advisor has focused on how to make the transition from unhappy employee or unemployed to self-employed. This week, I wrap up the series on independent IT consulting and contracting with a look at how to build your credibility in the marketplace and weather the downtime.

Hang Out Your Electronic Shingle

A Web presence is critical when you're consulting. Think of it as your online calling card. Don't count on it to bring in new clients - it isn't likely that IT managers are using search engines to find consultants. But having a Web site makes you look more professional, gives you a venue for showing off your work, and offers potential clients a central point of contact for you.

Put your Web address on all of your marketing material, including your resume, online skills portfolios posted at other Web sites, letterhead and business cards. If you have a business name that is different from your name, consider buying two domain names: one with your business name (e.g., www.BestDarnITConsultant.com) and one with your own name (e.g., www.JoeBlow.com). That way, if someone can only remember your name, they'll still find you online. Set your name URL to forward to your business URL.

Unless you are a professional Web site designer or you plan to hire one, don't get too ambitious with your site design. Favor function over form and keep the site design simple and clean. If you are a professional Web site designer or Ecommerce specialist, your Web site takes on a much greater importance and offers you a great chance to show off your skills. Nonetheless, keep in mind that any special features such as streaming video or Shockwave should serve the purpose of promoting your business.

Use the main page to promote your specialty and state your business mission. Include all of your contact information, including an Email link and your snail mail address and phone number (an office address reinforces that you run a serious business). There's no point in making a harried hiring manager link to a second page if all they really want is your contact info.

Promote projects that you've completed in the past. You can tease these out on the main page, with links to a "Projects Page" for more details.

On the "Projects Page" post brief, lively descriptions of what you've done for clients. Follow a "Business Problem-Technology Solution-Results" format. If you can get previous clients to write short testimonials for you, post those to your site along with the descriptions. If your clients wish to remain anonymous, you can still post descriptions of your completed projects (give your clients a heads-up first, just as a courtesy, even though you won't use their names).

Post samples of your work, such as code you've written or network schematics, in password-protected or hidden areas of your site that you make available to serious prospects. While you want to make certain information about your skills and completed projects available to all site visitors, you should control access to competitive, proprietary information. You may want to post your full resume in a private area of the site as well (for a detailed discussion of why you should control access to your resume, see "You've Revamped Your Resume, Now What? at http://www.itworld.com/nl/it_career_adv/02042002/).

Think creatively about other value-added content you can post to your site. For example, if you're a decent writer, consider doing a monthly newsletter that highlights your expertise while also offering some useful free advice (but don't give away the farm - offer just enough to make someone want more). However, should you decide to add any regular features, make sure you keep them up-to-date. Don't launch a monthly newsletter only to abandon it three months later.

Also, make sure that anything you post has value for your business or for potential clients. Don't post extraneous content just for the sake of making your site larger (remember, function over form). And under no circumstances should you include personal information about your family, pets or most recent vacation.

Get Certified

Even though you don't want to sell yourself on technical skills alone, you do want to back up the skills you claim on your resume. Since new clients won't know you from Adam, having up-to-date certifications will reassure them that you know what you say you know. In that light, certifications could be the difference between making the short list and missing out on an opportunity to interview for a gig.

Staying current on your certification is also an effective way to keep up with new technology developments in your core skills area. You may also want to consider obtaining a training certification in your core skill area. It usually doesn't require a lot more than the basic certification requires, and it can open up additional opportunities.

When gigs are slow, you can always teach a course to keep revenue coming in.

Become a Public Speaker

One of the best ways to get your name in front of IT managers, establish your credentials, and highlight your expertise and experience is to speak at IT user group meetings, trade shows, and conferences.

And accepting speaking engagements can also provide an extra revenue stream.

Look for opportunities to participate on industry panels (as a moderator or panelist), lead discussion groups or keynote at major events. Start small to hone your presentation skills and build up to larger events. Don't expect to get paid at first, but over time you can start to command fees for speaking.

Make a list of the major IT trade shows and events you attend, then check their Web sites early and often before the scheduled conference.

Often the Web sites offer information on how to propose a seminar topic. Or, you can contact the sponsoring organization to find out what they are looking for in terms of speakers and topics. Another route to finding speaking engagements is participating in the local chapter of major user groups and professional associations. And if you decide to pursue public speaking in a serious, concentrated way, check out the organizations listed in the RESOURCES section at the end of this newsletter.

If you need help learning to speak effectively in front of a group, consider joining Toastmasters International (http://www.toastmasters.org/index.htm). This is another great forum for networking as well.

Keep working even if you're not working

The unfortunate truth is that in the first year of your business -- especially in the current economy -- you may not have steady work. But don't sit around the house in your pajamas all day.

Use the downtime to cultivate new relationships, attend IT seminars, take online or live classes, work on your certifications, revamp your business and marketing plan, catch up on paperwork, reassess your retirement plan, and volunteer your IT skills to nonprofits and professional associations. Stay busy, stay connected, stay focused, and the next gig will turn up.

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