Experience at work. (starting up a home-based computer consulting business)
by Rosalind Resnick
Pick up just about any magazine these days, and you're sure to find a story about starting a home-based business. The range of possibilities is broad--word processing, mail order, even termite inspection, just to name a few.
But like most opportunities, launching a business typically requires a sizable investment of time, talent, and money. Even so, if you know your way around a computer and already have a PC at home, there is one home business you can start with only a modicum of trouble, using the same skills you've honed at your office job: a computer consulting firm.
With a PC, a portable phone (so your clients can reach you whenever their systems crash), and your valuable expertise, you can quickly turn the same skills that have lined your employer's pockets to making money for you.
Consulting generally pays better than doing the same kind of work for a bank or business--once you get your customers lined up.
Many computer consultants spend years toiling away on mainframes and minicomputers at Fortune 500 corporations before striking out on their own. Consulting wouldn't make much sense if you're still struggling to master DOS 5.0 or your first word processor. but if you have the skills, all that's left to do is to execute the business fundamentals: Zero in on your target market, and make your customers so happy that they'll keep coming back.
Easier said than done? Absolutely. What isn't? But veteran consultants say that with luck and patience, your fledgling home business will begin to soar.
Find your niche. Marketing yourself as a specialist can help you stand out from the crowd. Irvin Feldman, a consultant in flushing, New York, turned his experience as an accountant and controller into a thriving business developing custom accounting systems. Paul Ferrara, owner of ColumbuSoft in Columbus, Ohio, used to work for a firm that provided management consulting for big companies. Ten years ago, Ferrara took his skills and went our on his own, as a data-base-language programming consultant writing custom software for corporate customers. "The majority of the successful consultant I've met over the years have been specialists," Ferrara says.
Market, market, market. Few computer consultants are household names, and advertising in journals or the Yellow Pages is often too expensive for budding entrepreneurs. That's why many consultants rely on person-to-person networking, either through industry contacts or logging on to online services and joining bulletin boards.
Ferrara, who says he's never advertised, met a partner in a Big Six accounting firm on CompuServe and soon snared the contact as a client. Feldman, who is also active online, line, says he maintains a high profile in his community by speaking to civic groups and volunteering computer services at his synagogue.
Don't sell yourself short. Unlike some businesses, consultants can't afford to lowball their rates and make it up on volume. That's because they're selling their time, not some product that rolls off an line. It's important--before you quit your job-to do some serious market research about your customers, competitors, and the average fees paid for the consulting services you'll offer.
But be flexible, especially when you're starting out. Ferrara says he hates to turn down a job for fear of losing out on a long-term customer. "I don't get hung up on a particular rate, what other people are charging," he says. "If somebody came in today and said, 'I can only afford to spend $3,000,' and I thought the project was interesting and it looked like he was going to be a long-term client, I might eat some hours" and take the job.
Keep 'em coming back. The more repeat business you can get from your regular clients, the less time you need to spend hustling for new ones. Keep your promises and never nickel-and-dime a client, Ferrara advises.
Regular clients also help you get new clients. "The bigger your client base, the more repeat business and exposure you have, and that sells new projects," Ferrara says.
But by the most important ingredient in the recipe for launching a successful computer consulting business (or any business, for that matter) is persistence. As Feldman asserts, "Not knowing when to quit certainly helps."