Jack-of-all-trades and master of some

What does it take to be successfully self-employed?
What does it take to be successfully self-employed, something I’ve managed to achieve for the last thirty years? Obviously, you need to be able to competently provide something of value that clients will pay you for, so let’s take that as a given.

Unfortunately, that’s not all you need.

Google failure
Google the term “successfully self-employed” and you’ll get over twelve million hits. No, I haven’t read them all, but what I’m going to share with you doesn’t appear anywhere in the first few hundred highest-ranked links the search returns. In my experience, there’s a make or break factor that separates competent, self-employed practitioners who are successful from those who, sooner or later, go out of business.

The make or break factor
I snuck the make or break factor into the title of this post.

Besides being competent in what you do, you need to be able to do everything else that’s required to run your business, or successfully outsource it. To be successfully self-employed, you need to be a jack-of-all-trades, or have access to folks who can fill in for the ones you’re lacking or want to avoid doing yourself.

Sounds pretty obvious, right?

Maybe it’s obvious, but over the years I’ve seen more people fail to stay successfully self-employed due to gaps in the support for their revenue producing skills than I have seen return to regular employment for reasons outside their control.

I’ve seen smart, capable people return to a job because they couldn’t get their bills out on time. Because they couldn’t keep their work files organized in their office. Because they couldn’t stay interested long enough in an industry niche they were developing before they decided to do something completely different. Because they were incapable of realistic budgeting. Because they were lousy at getting back to their clients in a timely fashion.

None of these skills are rocket-science. And, if you can’t or don’t want to do them it’s possible to find someone who will do them for you, for a price which may be a bargain by allowing you to concentrate on what you’re good at. I, for example, hate cleaning my home office regularly. (Once in a while is OK, but not every week.) So, for the last twenty years I’ve paid someone to do it. Every time she comes in I feel good about it and I never have to worry about what clients who drop in unexpectedly might otherwise think. Similarly, you can hire a bookkeeper if you can’t stand paying bills, an office declutterer if you’re habitually messy, a business coach to help you focus on what you really want to do in your professional life, an accountant who will help you stay on the financial straight and narrow, or a phone answering service to improve your responsiveness to clients.

Don’t sabotage yourself
There are many good reasons why not everyone is suited to the self-employed life, but a surprisingly high ~10% of U.S. workers have chosen this way to earn a living. I love the freedom (and even the responsibility, most of the time) of being self-employed. If you do too, and have salable skills, don’t sabotage the opportunity to work the way you want by neglecting any the routine skills your work needs to be successful. Take a hard look at the tasks you’re neglecting, and either buckle down and do them or find someone who will. Then you can concentrate on what you’ve chosen to do to make a living in this world, hopefully something that you love.

Photo attribution: Flickr user Mc-Q

19 secrets of consulting that changed my life

fortune teller 1233035451_8214d41282_oYou may not think of yourself as a consultant, but you probably are. Peter Block, in his classic book Flawless Consulting, defines a consultant as someone who has influence but not the authority to make changes. While some, like myself, are full-time independent consultants, a much larger number of people are internal consultants: people who are employed by an organization that, at times, puts them in a role of giving advice without the power to implement it.

So, how do we learn how to consult well? I’ve written before about Jerry Weinberg’s ten laws of trust and his ten laws of pricing, taken from his brilliant book, published in 1985 and still in print: The Secrets of Consulting: A Guide to Giving & Getting Advice Successfully. If these laws didn’t inspire you to rush out and buy the book, perhaps this selection of some of his (100+) other laws, rules, and principles will. I consider this book and the sequel, More Secrets of Consulting: The Consultant’s Tool Kit, essential reading (and rereading) for anyone who consults.

Here are nineteen of my favorite pieces of wisdom from Jerry, followed by the names he gives them and brief commentary from me.

You’ll never accomplish anything if you care who gets the credit. (The Credit Rule.) Check your ego at the door.

In spite of what your client may tell you, there’s always a problem. (The First Law of Consulting.) Yes, most people have a hard time admitting they have a problem.

No matter how it looks at first, it’s always a people problem. (The Second Law of Consulting.) I learned this after about five years of being engaged as a technical consultant and repeatedly having CEOs confiding to me their non-technical woes…

If they didn’t hire you, don’t solve their problem. (The Fourth Law of Consulting.) A common occupational disease of consultants: we rush to help people who haven’t asked for help.

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. (The First Law of Engineering.) Must. Not. Unscrew the tiny screws just to check what’s inside.

Clients always know how to solve their problems, and always tell you the solution in the first five minutes. (The Five-Minute Rule.) Unbelievably, this is true—the hard part is listening well enough to notice.

If you can’t accept failure, you’ll never succeed as a consultant. (The Hard Law.) Everyone makes mistakes, and that can be a good thing.

Helping myself is even harder than helping others. (The Hardest Law.) The hardest things to notice are things about myself.

The wider you spread it, the thinner it gets. (The Law of Raspberry Jam.) Or, as Jerry rephrases it: Influence or affluence; take your choice.

When the clients don’t show their appreciation, pretend that they’re stunned by your performance—but never forget that it’s your fantasy, not theirs. (The Lone Ranger Fantasy.) “Who was that masked man, anyway?”

The most important act in consulting is setting the right fee. (Marvin’s Fifth Great Secret.) Setting the right fee takes a huge burden off your shoulders.

“We can do it—and this is how much it will cost.” (The Orange Juice Test.) Jerry uses an example straight from the meetings world for this one—event professionals will recognize the situation, and appreciate the insight.

Cucumbers get more pickled than brine gets cucumbered. (Prescott’s Pickle Principle.) Sadly, the longer you work with a client, the less effective you get.

It may look like a crisis, but it’s only the ending of an illusion. (Rhonda’s First Revelation.) A positive way to think about unpleasant change.

When you create an illusion, to prevent or soften change, the change becomes more likely—and harder to take. (Rhonda’s Third Revelation.) Notice and challenge your illusions before they turn into crises.

If you can’t think of three things that might go wrong with your plans, then there’s something wrong with your thinking. (The Rule of Three.) The perfect antidote to complacency about your plans.

The best marketing tool is a satisfied client. (The Sixth Law of Marketing.) Word of mouth is the best channel for new work; being able to satisfy my clients led me to a successful, twenty-two year IT consulting career without using advertising or agents.

Give away your best ideas. (The Seventh Law of Marketing.) When you teach your clients to handle future similar problems themselves, they’ll appreciate your generosity and are more likely to give you further work or good word of mouth to others.

Spend at least one-fourth of your time doing nothing. (The Ninth Law of Marketing.) There are many good reasons for doing this—for some, read Slack: Getting Past Burnout, Busywork, and the Myth of Total Efficiency by Tom DeMarco.

Well, there they are, some of my favorite consulting gems of wisdom, as penned by Jerry. What do you think of my choices? Are there others that speak to you?

Photo attribution: Flickr user sanspareille