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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.

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