I recently went through a whirlwind experience where I almost got a consulting job for a large silicon valley startup doing data mining work. In the end, it didn’t work out due to my being remote (tip #1: avoid remote work, companies typically prefer to work locally). Despite that, simply going through the interview process, which included a very unique skills assessment component, taught me a tremendous amount. I spoke to a number of people along the way; experienced consultants, friends in the tech industry, professors in the field. The following list details some of the more salient points they shared. I would love to hear whether you agree with these points… as I said, I’m a the rookie here, trying to learn as fast as I can.
Your most valuable asset is your reputation. Always be courteous, respectful, and pleasant. While true anywhere, this is particularly crucial in Silicon Valley; whomever you’re dealing with today knows fifteen other people who may be interested in your skill set. My interaction with people at this company may play a crucial role in whether I get a second chance elsewhere. On that note,
Your reputation begins forming the moment you start talking. Professionalism is key. Do all necessary homework before phone conversations. If you’re a poor speller, use spell check before sending emails. The fact that you’re a total n00b should be only apparent to those you’re asking for help; your (potential) client should not have to suffer at all for it.
Get help writing your contract. Contracts can be complex beasts. If you do it poorly, you may end up paying dearly.1 Here are some of the tips I was given, which you may or may not decide to use in your own contract:
- Specify both an hourly rate and a daily rate. The daily rate should be the eight times the hourly rate, plus 10-25% or so, to account for the fact that you can’t do other stuff as easily when on the road. That rate will typically be used when you’re asked to travel.
- There’s a reason the airlines call it “business class”. If you’re being asked to travel more than X miles (1000, 2000, international, whatever you feel comfortable with), it is acceptable to ask that travel should be in business class.2 Personally, I wasn’t comfortable implementing this for my first job, as in this case it would have made hiring me much more expensive, but its worth paying keeping in mind.
Ask others in the field to determine how much to charge. Towards the end of the interview process, I spent way too much time trying to determine how much I should charge for my services. In hindsight, I realized that the task of determining rates is a simple mixture of the following two factors, in order of importance:
- What people in the field typically pay for the services you intend to render
- How comfortable you are charging that amount, based on your experience
As you know your experience level, the trick is finding the “average going rate”. You can try sites like salary.com, but your mileage may vary; I was not able to find useful information from that site or a number of similar ones. In the end, I found that the best approach was simply asking people who would know the answer; experts in the field, professional consultants, etc.3 If you’re reading this, chances are you either know someone like this or have a friend (or friend of friend) with useful contacts; ask around. As a last-ditch effort, you can even try calling other consulting companies who do similar work. Remember, you’re most likely a complete nobody at this point, as you’re just starting out, so established businesses should not feel threatened by you approaching them.
I hope you find this list helpful. Please leave comments this is merely a collection of some of the advice I was given by a variety of consultants with decades of experience. I hope you find some or all of it useful!
On a closely related note, I highly recommend all aspiring consultants (as well as anyone else running a small business) watches this excellent presentation on the value of finding a competent lawyer. ↩
A note about this tip for non-regular travelers: traveling is tiring. People who don’t travel a lot will not realize this. Going cross-country for a two-day meeting will leave you a lot more wiped out than just heading down to the office for two consecutive day-long meetings. Additionally, all the time you spend in the airport, on the plane, and in the hotel will almost certainly be less productive than the time spent in your familiar, well-equipped office. It’s a lot nicer to come to a meeting after a good nap in a comfortable seat than after a ride in “cattle car” class with two screaming kids next to you and barely enough room for your laptop, let alone your legs. ↩