|Jack Ganssle's Blog
This is Jack's outlet for thoughts about designing and programming embedded systems. It's a complement to my bi-weekly newsletter The Embedded Muse. Contact me at email@example.com. I'm an old-timer engineer who still finds the field endlessly fascinating (bio).
For novel ideas about building embedded systems (both hardware and firmware), join the 30,000+ engineers who subscribe to The Embedded Muse, a free biweekly newsletter. The Muse has no hype and no vendor PR. Click here to subscribe.
What I Learned About Successful Consulting
September 25, 2018
In 1980 a friend and I started a consulting business, selling embedded engineering services. We were looking forward to some cool projects and getting rich.
The latter didn't work out. But it was a great experience and we both learned a lot.
First, we learned that a friendship is not enough cement to forge a business relationship. I'd known Scott since we were little, and we had worked together for many years.
Second, a partnership is possibly the worst form of business relationship extant. In a partnership it's impossible to make decisions unless both partners agree. Any disagreement means nothing gets done.
Those two lessons led us to sell the company after two years, as we both felt the friendship was more important than the business. So today, almost 40 years later, we're still the best of friends. We each started independent consultancies, and we managed to prosper.
When we opened our doors, we thought companies would come to us. They didn't. One of the first rules is sell, sell, sell. Sell all the time.
The problem with selling is that it generates business. We'd get a nice fat job, dive into the work, get the project done.... and then, having done no selling during the engineering, faced a dry spell. A better tactic would have been to hire a full-time sales person. If too much work comes in, hire other consultants or employees.
Selling is hard. Harder than engineering. It's relentless. The "nos" get discouraging.
We learned that you don't need a fancy office. Few customers ever visited our very nice facility. However, as we grew and took on employees, an office was unavoidable.
Later, in my follow-on business, I learned the importance of networking. So I joined the local Chamber of Commerce (and became a board member and VP), as well as the local high-tech council. Knowing people who know people is critical. Selling is, among other things, a matter of constantly stirring the pot, doing things of all sorts to get your name out there.
Selling is never stopping. In my years I have seen many, many consultants start up, for example, a newsletter. Rarely does that continue for long. I think Woody Allen said something to the effect that 90% of everything is just showing up. If you are going to do something for sales, well, do it!
Despite being close to Washington DC, we learned that it's almost impossible for a small outfit to get decent government contracts. ESPECIALLY near DC as so much of the work is classified, and it's not easy to get clearances.
We learned to partner with big companies. An example that was a real success: we wrote proposals, at no charge, for a 500-person outfit, with the caveat that we'd do the engineering if we won, and they would do the manufacturing. We secured a very big job to design the White House security system this way. That required a secret clearance, which the partnering company pushed through.
Later, after we parted ways, I managed to get a number of subcontracts the same way in intelligence work. Again, the partnering company pushed through much higher clearances. And some of that work attracted the attention of other agency groups, who directly awarded me a number of contracts.
I learned that the exception to the selling rule is, if you can get work with one of those three-letter agencies, make sure to be innovative and on-time. Those folks like to adopt good groups and bring them into their fold. Work will come without any sales. This is, of course, a very specialized observation.
I learned that they REALLY want to bring you into their fold, and somewhat insidiously suck you in. After a while they wanted to start clearing all my people, and for me to install a SCIF. Tired of the security, I got out of that business, and have been a happier man since.
We learned that sales and marketing is very frustrating. You never really know what works. For instance, after starting a product company I'd place a $7000 ad in Embedded Systems Programming magazine every month, but got only a handful of direct replies. It was almost impossible to track sales to ad dollars, but stopping the ads meant business dried up.
To reiterate: constantly stir the pot. Try things. Keep data, realizing it will never be accurate but will eventually paint an imperfect picture.
We also learned that there's a lot to love about consulting. Every project is different. You're always learning, always scrambling, but get exposed to many aspects of technology.
But above all: keep selling.
(I've written more on being a consultant here).
Feel free to email me with comments.
Back to Jack's blog index page.
If you'd like to post a comment without logging in, click in the "Name" box under "Or sign up with Disqus" and click on "I'd rather post as a guest."
Recent blog postings:
- Millennials and Tools - It seems that many millennials are unable to fix anything.
- Crappy Tech Journalism - The trade press is suffering from so much cost-cutting that it does a poor job of educating engineers.
- Tech and Us - I worry that our technology is more than our human nature can manage.
- On Cataracts - Cataract surgery isn't as awful as it sounds.
- Can AI Replace Firmware - A thought: instead of writing code, is the future training AIs?
- Customer non-Support - How to tick off your customers in one easy lesson.
- Learn to Code in 3 Weeks! - Firmware is not simply about coding.
- We Shoot For The Moon - a new and interesting book about the Apollo moon program.
- On Expert Witness Work - Expert work is fascinating but can be quite the hassle.
- Married To The Team - Working in a team is a lot like marriage.
- Will We Ever Get Quantum Computers - Despite the hype, some feel quantum computing may never be practical.
- Apollo 11, The Movie - A review of a great new movie.
- Goto Considered Necessary - Edsger Dijkstra recants on his seminal paper
- GPS Will Fail - In April GPS will have its own Y2K problem. Unbelievable.
- LIDAR in Cars - Really? - Maybe there are better ideas.
- Why Did You Become an Engineer? - This is the best career ever.
- Software Process Improvement for Firmware - What goes on in an SPI audit?
- 50 Years of Ham Radio - 2019 marks 50 years of ham radio for me.
- Medical Device Lawsuits - They're on the rise, and firmware is part of the problem.
- A retrospective on 2018 - My marketing data for 2018, including web traffic and TEM information.
- Remembering Circuit Theory - Electronics is fun, and reviewing a textbook is pretty interesting.
- R vs D - Too many of us conflate research and development
- Engineer or Scientist? - Which are you? John Q. Public has a hard time telling the difference.
- A New, Low-Tech, Use for Computers - I never would have imagined this use for computers.
- NASA's Lost Software Engineering Lessons - Lessons learned, lessons lost.
- The Cost of Firmware - A Scary Story! - A hallowean story to terrify.
- A Review of First Man, the Movie - The book was great. The movie? Nope.
- A Review of The Overstory - One of the most remarkable novels I've read in a long time.
- What I Learned About Successful Consulting - Lessons learned about successful consulting.
- Low Power Mischief - Ultra-low power systems are trickier to design than most realize.
- Thoughts on Firmware Seminars - Better Firmware Faster resonates with a lot of people.
- On Evil - The Internet has brought the worst out in many.
- My Toothbrush has Modes - What! A lousy toothbrush has a UI?
- Review of SUNBURST and LUMINARY: An Apollo Memoir - A good book about the LM's code.
- Fun With Transmission Lines - Generating a step with no electronics.
- On N-Version Programming - Can we improve reliability through redundancy? Maybe not.
- On USB v. Bench Scopes - USB scopes are nice, but I'll stick with bench models.