Launching an Independent Consulting Practice, Part 2

Working as an independent IT consultant offers many advantages: greater control over the types of projects you work on, increased opportunities to learn and use leading-edge technologies, and more flexibility about how you spend your time. But it isn't necessarily easier, nor does it mean you'll spend less time at the office. In fact, you may spend more time working since now you're also running a business in addition to completing IT projects.

The last two IT Career Advisor newsletters offered marketing tips for new and established indies (see "Marketing Tips for Independent IT Consultants" at http://itw.itworld.com/GoNow/a14724a55938a111463202a8 and outlined the initial steps you should take to prepare for and manage a solo business (see "Launching an Independent Consulting Practice, Part 1" at http://itw.itworld.com/GoNow/a14724a55938a111463202a6 This week, we look at how to generate gigs and next Monday, April 8th, we'll wrap up this series by looking at how to build your credibility in the marketplace and weather the downtime.

Networking with IT Pros and Managers

As with searching for fulltime employment, face-to-face networking is key to landing new clients. User groups, professional associations, trade shows, affinity groups, and college alumni associations are all good venues for getting your name out (for detailed advice on effective networking, see "Schmooze or Lose, Part 1" at http://itw.itworld.com/GoNow/a14724a55938a111463202a7 and "Schmooze or Lose, Part 2" at http://itw.itworld.com/GoNow/a14724a55938a111463202a5Becoming an involved member of at least one group is especially valuable to independents on a number of different levels:

1. Your participation has the same effect as a billboard; it keeps your name in front of other members.

2. It keeps you connected to the grapevine. If you're editing an association newsletter, planning meetings, or heading up a membership drive, then you're going to hear about new opportunities when they first arise and in advance of your competition.

3. Active participation in a group reinforces your connection to the greater IT community, which will be important to your state of mind. When business is slow and you aren't engaged with a client site or around other IT professionals on a daily basis, losing focus and motivation is easy. Even when you are working, the politics of consulting mandate that you don't get too chummy with the full-timers on your team. You won't necessarily be included in the water-cooler talk or after-work socializing that makes day-to-day work life more fun. In that context, association meetings become a viable substitute for striking up both personal and professional relationships and remaining connected to others in your field.

Prospect Online

In addition to face-to-face networking, don't overlook online prospecting. A number of job search sites offer resources tailored specifically to independent consultants and contractors seeking new gigs, such as automatic contract job search agents, online skills portfolios, and online bidding for contract jobs, plus discussion groups for contractors and other features. Some sites worth considering include the following:

* Dice.com (http://itw.itworld.com/GoNow/a14724a55938a111463202a18 Search for contract jobs, set up an automatic search agent, create an online portfolio and/or resume, and manage your certification training and testing.

* ComputerJobs.com's Consultants Corner

(http://itw.itworld.com/GoNow/a14724a55938a111463202a12 Search for gigs and/or create a skills portfolio that will be marketed to your target employers (this feature costs $25 for three months).

* The Software Contractors Guild (http://itw.itworld.com/GoNow/a14724a55938a111463202a16 Software developers can create an online resume searchable by name, keyword, location of residence, location where you'd like to work, or skill sets (the fee is $20 for one year, including a free 30-day trial period).

You can also search for software development gigs here.

* BrainBuzz.com (http://itw.itworld.com/GoNow/a14724a55938a111463202a11 BrainBuzz offers entry into the UltraShare Network, an umbrella group sponsored by Nemeth/Martin Consulting in Danbury, Conn., that pools the resources of independent consultants nationwide. This is a good way to get sub-contract work outside your geographic locale or to find sub-contractors when you want to bid on a job that requires expertise beyond your core skills area.

* Monster.com's Contract and Temporary Page (http://itw.itworld.com/GoNow/a14724a55938a111463202a17 Search for contract gigs by location, job category, industry, or keyword. This site isn't IT-specific, but IT-related job search categories include "Computers, hardware," "Computers, Software," and "Information Technology.

Moreover, you can search by target industry using keywords to pull out the IT-related listings in that industry. Save your search as an automatic agent and then check out the content and discussion boards created for contract workers.

* FreeAgent.com (http://itw.itworld.com/GoNow/a14724a55938a111463202a15 Search for contract jobs and create an online portfolio available to hiring managers. This site isn't IT-specific, but IT-related job search categories include "Internet/New Media" and "Technology." The site also offers various services for small business owners, such as advice on writing a business plan and a tool for finding health insurance (these services are offered through a link to AllBusiness.com).

* Guru.com (http://itw.itworld.com/GoNow/a14724a55938a111463202a19 Create an online portfolio and search for technology, creative, and business management gigs. Other features include online bidding for contracts and tools to help you track billable hours and manage your invoices and expenses, search for various insurance plans and incorporate your business.

Keep Up with IT and Business Trends

If you aren't already a voracious reader of IT and business publications, now's the time to become one. To optimize your networking and online prospecting, you need to be up-to-date on the latest trends in IT, which shops are moving forward with new projects and which aren't, which industries are on the way up and which are flattening out, which technologies are being adopted and which are being phased out, and what types of projects CEOs and COOs are approving that they believe offer their companies competitive advantage.

When you know what's going on behind the scenes in IT and business, you can manage your consulting practice more effectively, with an eye on both short-term and long-term prospects. You'll have a better sense of who is worth calling on and what types of projects to bid on, as well as where to invest your training dollars.

Moreover, you have to stay ahead of the learning curve - you should constantly be gazing into the crystal ball to assess what new skills IT shops will need that their IT staffers don't possess. In a skills crunch, independent consultants and contractors have a unique window of opportunity to sweep in, fill the gap, help bring existing staff members up-to-speed and gain a reputation as a valued ally in adopting new technologies.

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