An engineering consultant shares advice and lessons learned in his 30+ years of experience.
Ever think about becoming a consultant but then wonder "How do start? How do I get clients? How much should I charge?"
Stick around here, and in this series I will share advice and lessons learned in my 30+ years as a consulting engineer (with the battle scars to show for it).
First off, just what is a consultant, anyway? If I asked 50 people this question, I'd probably get 50 or more answers, and they would all be good.
Webster defines a consultant as “an expert who is called on for professional or technical advice or opinions.” This is a traditional view, and encompasses professionals such as doctors, lawyers, accountants, engineers, architects... and so on.
This definition can also include business specialties (often considered staff positions) such as marketing, public relations, human resources, advertising, finance, regulations, operations, and more. These business areas are often the realm of “management consulting” firms.
But my focus here is going to be on small independent consultants, and how to become one.
Small firms often specialize and operate in one or more niches. For example:
- A marketing consultant might specialize in market research, web design/implementation, direct mail, or writing whitepapers
- A financial consultant might specialize in estate planning
- An engineering consultant might focus on power electronics or analog design
- A legal consultant might specialize in bankruptcies, divorces, or taxes
Independent consultants also often specialize in markets, such as medical, computers, financial, etc. This makes it easier to both establish credibility and to target potential clients.
As a small firm, it is very difficult to be everything to everyone. If you are thinking about making a jump to consulting, you might begin with two simple questions, which might seem very obvious. But in fact, time and time again people hang their consulting signs up without having given much thought to either:
- What special skills and experience can I sell?
- Who would pay for those skills and experience?
It's OK to have more than one niche or serve more than one market. But when you are small, you can’t be everything to everyone. By narrowing your focus you can concentrate your marketing efforts and deliver a highly targeted message.
Finally, remember that consulting is a business! This means providing something of value to a client and getting paid for it.
Unfortunately, the term “consultant” has been bastardized. For example, many sales people refer to themselves as consultants, when they are really pitching products or services, not offering unbiased advice. And since anyone can call himself a consultant, one may actually be neither an expert nor a professional in his field.
By the way, there is nothing wrong with being in sales. I spent several years as a sales engineer, and I have high regard for sales professionals. But if you are selling something other than your own advice and expertise, you are not a consultant in my book.
Another common use of the term is for professionals who are between full-time jobs. In the engineering world, we often joke that a “consultant” is just an unemployed engineer. It turns out that unemployment often leads to permanent consulting. I’ve known several consultants who went that route, and have become quite successful at it.
What about variations on consultants, such as “coaches” or “counselors?” Yes, I consider them consultants, too -- often a special breed with special skills that focus on personal improvement. In a future post, I’ll address what I see as the subtle distinctions among these categories of consulting.
— Daryl Gerke, PE, has been a full-time consulting engineer since 1987. He is a founding partner of Kimmel Gerke Associates Ltd., an EMI/EMC consulting and training firm. The goal of this blog is to help you learn how to start, build, and operate a small professional consulting practice. For more information on consulting, visit his blog.