The following is from Karen Nyhus, originally posted on NTEN’s nptechconsult forum in response to a request for “resources and tips for our nonprofit technology community to help them start things off right in 2007.” Although Karen’s advice was focused on technology consultants, the business management tips (#4) are pertinent for all independent consultants. (Reposted with Karen’s permission.)
Advice to newbies in nptech consulting:
(1) Don’t try to be a generalist, or at least don’t try to know everything. It’s impossible: the field has always been very big, and is now expanding in complexity and scope at an accelerating rate. Rather, define what you do (and what you don’t do! an ongoing process…), find your peers, including those who do the things you don’t, and affiliate. The tech underground model (loose yet organized affiliation of npo techs who share skills and back each other up) is one of the good models out there. They/we may soon have an operations manual to share on how to do it.
(2) Get a wiki. Use it not only to advertise your services, but also to share files with clients, point to resources, clarify your working style/methods/contract, etc. It’s easy and cheap, accessible from anywhere, and will help you define your work.
(3) Find resources to build your skills, and give them time every week: webinars, listservs, online classes, books, etc. Attend conferences. Build this into your time and budget plans. Your clients expect you to know about new technologies, or at least know enough to be able to research something and inform them about it. Try out new technologies on your own when you get a chance. Even having ‘touched’ a system is a lot more than not knowing what it is. Be ahead of the curve.
(4) Learn the basic business skills that are essential to success and sanity:
– communication (timely, clear, complete, appropriate method: sometimes a phone call, sometimes an email, sometimes a memo, sometimes a meeting. paper trails matter.)
– learn how to say no. If you don’t have time, or don’t have the skills, or just really don’t want to do it, don’t. Learn to listen to your gut. If you feel pressured or uncomfortable, it’s OK to say “I’m not sure; let me think about that and get back to you.”
– get a good contract, customize it for your needs, and make sure to sign one with every client. Nolo Press has some good boilerplate contracts. Be prepared to spend some time negotiating terms (use Track Changes in Word for this purpose). Don’t negotiate away things that feel critical or risky to you: this may not be the client for you. With experience, you will learn what matters to you. Put those critical things in the contract (customize your boilerplate). A complete contract is an important way to make sure expectations are clear and agreed upon from the start.
– every contract should have a scope of work, the more specific the better. SOWs can be made as attachments to contracts, with terms for amending them as things change.
– every contract should have an exit clause.
– every contract should have your hourly rate in it.
– every contract should consider liability. If you don’t carry liability insurance, add a limited liability clause.
– push for a single point of contact with clients. You might even want to put this in your contract.
– make sure the client “owns” the project. If they can’t designate a single point of contact and commit to meetings with you, they may not be ready to work with you.
– find out what role the client wants you to play on the scale of “just do it and let me know when it’s done” to “show me every step you’re doing.” Check in on this periodically; it may change.
– document your work (for yourself, and the client): configurations/settings, inventories, assessments, options, recommendations, decisions, plans, budgets, meeting minutes.
– be clear ahead of time how you charge for phone calls and emails, especially from people who are not your point of contact, and/or in emergencies
– be clear who you are and are not supporting (“not” might include board members, organizations down the hall who stop by, sponsored projects, employees’ home computers) and ask the client to communicate and hold the line on this. Otherwise, people will learn they can ask you for ‘favors,’ which may end up eating up a good deal of otherwise billable time. If you want to donate time to people (or work for pay), make it clearly outside the arrangement of the contract with the client (unless of course the client agrees specifically to pay for this).
– likewise, be clear with yourself (and clients, if it comes up) how you handle ‘chat’ time. If you’re friendly and nice, people will want to talk with you, especially if you only visit now and then. You may have to ‘manage’ people’s desire to stop by and talk (some staff people really don’t get it about your time being billable, and you just have to set limits with them). My policy is, I say hello to people, and might chat for a minute or so. If there are 15 people in the office, I say ‘hi’ as I pass down the hall, chat for a minute with one person or maybe two, and get into my office to work. Including bathroom visits and making a cup of tea, it might all add up to 15 minutes within 4 hours’ work. I think of it as the equivalent of a coffee break, and I bill for 4 hours. If I bend someone’s ear for 20 minutes while onsite, though, I don’t bill for that time: I initiated a conversation. Likewise if I have to do emergency support for client #2 while on site for client #1, I dock my hours with client #1 (and bill client #2 instead). However, if I’m on site working, and an ED interrupts my work to bend my ear about office politics or “howdja think that meeting went?” I bill for that. That’s the client’s decision about how to use my time.
– be clear what your availability is (hours during the day/night, weekends, turnaround time, vacations, etc.)
– push back with clients who want to rush forward into a new technology without a clear goal, an assessment or a plan. You’re doing them a favor: in the long run it will save them both money and time. Assessment and planning should be part of the SOW. If they don’t want to do this, you may not want to work with them. Bad planning, or no planning, can leave you holding the ball for a system that doesn’t work, wasn’t needed, isn’t used, or doesn’t do what the client expected.
– Likewise with training: almost all new technologies require training someone, either to use it, to maintain it, or both (unless it’s only going to be you). Make sure this is agreed to.
– get a good time tracking system. Even a word doc you update every time you’re on site for a client is better than notes scribbled on post-its. Even if you’re not going to bill for all the time you were on-site, write down both the actual time spent, and the time you plan to bill for (and why). I write the major tasks I did, both to explain the time spent, and as a record of what was changed when (sometimes useful for technical reasons).
– get an expense tracking system: a mileage log for driving can include parking fees, tolls, equipment/supplies, and even function as a backup log of your hours worked onsite.
– get receipts for everything, whether a purchase for yourself or a client. Don’t turn over original receipts to clients without keeping a copy.
– get a separate credit card (and preferably bank account) for your business.
– pay your taxes quarterly. Don’t worry if it’s not the exact amount; just get in the habit of sending a chunk of money to the state and federal (and possibly local) government a few times a year. It will save you from not only penalties and interest, but also from a cash-flow crunch in April.
– use Turbo Tax. It enormously simplifies doing self-employed taxes.
– get your files organized: both electronically and paper. Get files to hold all your new categories of information (esp. for taxes): invoices, business receipts, paystubs, supplies, etc.
– get a good mobile system to take tools and critical documents with you: a USB drive, ipod, or MMC or SD card in your smartphone, etc. I also have a remote connection to my home (business) laptop available at all times.
– keep good todo lists (to make sure you follow through on commitments to clients)
– build in time for billing, organizing files, reading the trade press, watching webinars, etc. There’s a lot of overhead to consulting, even if you don’t do a lot of networking or advertising.
– whatever you need to do, whether it’s filing, going over meeting notes to take out ‘todo’ items, billing, etc.: do it ASAP. While onsite, I put reminders on my smartphone calendar to make sure I do critical things during my next ‘free time,’ or I send myself an email to do it at home that night.
– network. Get to know other techs. Find out how other people handle difficult situations you’ll inevitably encounter. Find people you can complain to; it takes the pressure off.
– be nice to your clients. They’re people, too. Their feelings about you are very important to your success. Technology causes aversion (fear, etc.) in the majority of the population. If you can laugh with them at the madness of computers, or show that you understand their frustrations, you will have more success in solving problems and getting cooperation.
– do what you tell your clients to do: back up your work. If you keep your work logs on the client site, send them to yourself periodically, or take copies on USB.
– bill regularly.
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