Consulting (Part 5) — Finding Work
December 11, 2011
One thing I haven’t addressed in this series on consulting is how to go about finding work for yourself. This is a huge topic in and of itself, and I’ll likely spend several posts covering this subject.
At a high level, there are two basic approaches to getting your next assignment: you can go find the job, or it can come find you. Going and finding the job means watching mailing lists and job boards for possible openings, and running down the leads. Possibly you’re looking at even “cold calling” organizations in your area to see if they can use your expertise. This is process is quite a bit of work, which you must remember ends up on the unbillable “overhead” side of the ledger. It can also be difficult to conduct this kind of search while you’re working another contract. And as I mentioned in a previous post, it’s desirable to have your next assignment lined up before your current one ends.
One option is to out-source your job search to somebody else– whether that’s a recruiter or a professional sales organization. This, of course, has a cost associated with it. I’ve never entered into such a deal myself, so I can’t speak to the exact costs, but you’ll have to decide whether the amount of work you get is worth the cost of acquiring the business through one of these means. If you’re a solo consultant like me, I imagine a really motivated external sales person could bring in way more work than I could handle, which would make the whole arrangement less valuable on both sides.
So as you can no doubt guess by now, I’m going to advocate for the “let the work come to you” strategy. First there’s the benefit of less overhead costs in finding your next assignment. Second, you can generally command a higher billing rate. Consider that the organization contacting you has identified a problem they’re having and recognized that you may have the expertise to help them solve it. They wouldn’t be calling you if it weren’t urgent. And the combination of those factors makes it easier to get the billing rate you want, and with less negotiation.
While it’s all very nice to say, “I want my work to come to me”, you can’t just wish things were that way. You have to put yourself into a situation where that’s likely to happen. So think about some of the directions that unsolicited work can come from and then position yourself in the path of those forces so that the work hits you.
This one might seem obvious, but I often feel that a lot of consultants don’t think enough about this. The best customer to acquire is one you already have. You already have a trusted working relationship in place, and you’ve probably already dealt with the annoying contract and accounts payable issues that waste time at the beginning of every new engagement. So from a “cost of acquisition” perspective, getting additional work from a current or former client is a no-brainer.
Also, the more work you do for an organization, the more valuable you become to them. You have knowledge of their processes, procedures, and systems– perhaps because you’ve implemented many of them! You know the people at the company and have probably identified the “gate-keepers” who can either facilitate or thwart new projects. That means you can (and should) demand higher billing rates on subsequent contracts. And it will be worth it to the client because you’ll spend less time “ramping up” on their environment. So while your hourly rate will be higher, you’ll still cost the customer less than bringing in a brand new firm to do the same job.
And even if you don’t end up doing multiple contracts for a given firm, there’s still the chance that they may recommend you to their friends in other organizations. Referral business is great, because a “trusted third-party” is vouching for you with the new firm. And this is one of many reasons why you need to work hard and focus on doing an outstanding job on each engagement. Because nothing sells your service in the future better than your past performance with your clients.
While we’re on the subject of referral business, it is possible to formalize such arrangements. One approach is to create an arrangement to provide specialized services to an organization that can’t or doesn’t wish to maintain an in-house capability. For example, this would be me making a deal to provide forensic services for a law firm that perhaps doesn’t have enough need to employ somebody full-time. If I could make arrangements of this type with several smaller firms, then I’d likely have as much work as I could handle.
Another example would be a sub-contracting arrangement, similar to the one I currently have going with Mandiant. When they get busy, they have a small group of consultants that they can call on to help deal with the overload. Obviously, if I’m on another assignment when they call then they’ll have to get somebody else to fill in. And when they’re less busy, I still need to find my own work. But so far the arrangement has been quite agreeable.
Finally, as a individual, there are often times when job offers come in while I’m busy on another contract. It’s better to be able to at least give the prospective client a referral to somebody else than it is to just say, “I’m too busy”, and leave them to find somebody for themselves. People will remember you helped them, even if that help is getting them to the person who did the work for them.
So it’s good to have your own network of trusted friends in the consulting business who you would feel good about referring the business to. You can try formalizing this arrangement if you want. At various times I’ve made agreements with other consultants to receive a “finder’s fee” for work we refer to each other. But because this is such a small industry, keeping track of how a given firm actually acquired a particular customer can be a difficult headache. And there can be hard feelings if one side of the arrangement thinks they’re not getting their fair fees. I find it’s better in the long run to just refer business without expecting direct compensation in return. Karma is a powerful force– believe that you’ll eventually get what you deserve. Because you will.
But in order to have a trusted group of people to refer business to, you have to get out and network with your peers in the industry and figure out who’s smart and trustworthy. So this means a level of interaction greater than just shaking somebody’s hand and exchanging business cards at some social event. This is one of the reasons why technical gatherings like conferences and local user group meetings are so important. You have the chance to meet people– sometimes at multiple events– and see how they interact with their peers when discussing technical challenges. And of course you have the opportunity to model your own behaviors under the same conditions, which makes it something of a double-edged sword.
To leverage your professional network for business, you need to “stand out” in a positive way and not just be somebody who’s there but fades into the background. That means providing value to the community you’re interacting with. Value can come from doing your own research and publishing the findings, giving presentations, answering questions in a helpful, timely manner on community mailing lists and forums, organizing events and gatherings, and even just making people in the community or who are new to the community feel more comfortable and accepted.
How did I end up in this subcontracting arrangement with Mandiant? Because of my professional network. Rob Lee and I are both active in the SANS Instructor Community and had talked a lot about issues in Forensics. And I’d helped him with Linux questions and issues with the SIFT Workstation. So when he was looking for people to help Mandiant, I was a “trusted entity” he felt good about calling on. And I got involved with SANS in the first place (almost 20 years ago now) through my professional network as well: one of my former co-workers, Michele Guel.
So your professional network is one of your most important tools. Try to give more than you take, and you’ll do great. Besides the unsolicited referrals you may get from other members of your community, people will be more likely to help you when you ask them directly. The trick is to build up enough good will so that when you do have to make an “ask” request, people will be motivated to help you.