Independent Consulting Guide: Marketing Yourself
Table of Contents
Based on the overwhelming positive feedback that I got from Part 1 of my Going Independent series (sans the usual few naysayers that hate me in general more than the topics about which I write), I gather that there is definitely a lot of interest in the topic. In Part 2, I’m going to share with you my thoughts and experiences on personal marketing. Many developers feel that they have to be humble and shun self promotion. While that approach may make you more secure in your virtues, it most certainly will not make you more secure in your wallet. As I alluded to in Part 1, there is more than one way to be successful going independent. That includes the publicity game (or lack thereof). What I do know is that the way I do it works. I encourage those that have succeeded in both similar or different ways to share their experiences in the article feedback below. That’s enough intro crap. Let’s get into the details.
No Client, No Cry
So you’ve read Part 1 of the Going Independent series, and you have decided that you can deal with both the positive and negative implications of the independent consulting business. Your biggest obstacle now is that you probably don’t have any clients yet. Many developers do a little side work for some extra cash, but they usually find out about it through a close friend or business associate. Personal networking can be a great way to get started with a couple of clients, but it doesn’t take long before you’ve exhausted that avenue, though you’d be surprised at how many leads you can rustle up by taking a “6 degrees of Kevin Bacon” approach to your contact list.
Don’t get too carried away with the whole “6 degrees” thing, though. I’m just 2 degrees away from Bill Gates, yet he’s not going to join me on the golf course any time soon. The critical thing to keep in mind is that the more your clients chase you down (instead of the other way around), the easier your life is going to be. If you don’t have any clients right now and nobody really knows who you are, don’t despair. I’m going to show you how to change all that.
Laying the Groundwork with Certifications
Anyone out there who thinks that certifications are a true assessment of your skillset, stand up and yell “MEATBALL!”. If your co-workers are now looking at you strangely, then you are pretty disillusioned. The fact of the matter is that certifications (especially from Microsoft) are highly suspect credentials with dubious value. Luckily, Microsoft is finally starting to acknowledge my complaints about the topic and has contacted me to help them guide the future direction of their certification program. The system is going to get an overhaul, but it will still be flawed in many respects.
Regardless of what you think of certifications, though, you’ve got to get them anyway. Don’t give me your “I don’t need a piece of paper to show what I know” crap. If all you were trying to do was impress yourself or your parents, you’d be right. Unless your parents are going to hire you to code, however, take some time to earn the letters. It really isn’t that hard to do. I happen to be especially good at standardized tests, so I am able to just look at the requirements, study for a couple of hours, and pass the test. If you can’t do that, buy the Transcender CDs, use them, then go take the test. Zippo the chimp could pass the test after a little Transcender knowledge infusion. Don’t let your ego get in the way of a good marketing tool. Certifications definitely aren’t going to win you clients single-handedly, but they are a good starting point. They are also useful in that you can put your certification logos on your business cards and/or your company website. Marketing yourself is all about perception, as you’ll see over and over again in this article.
One of the best ways to market yourself is to get published. There are many different mediums and methods of getting published, and each has a purpose as well as its own unique set of advantages and disadvantages. My publishing resume is pretty diverse and extensive, so I am in a position to lay out the straight dope on this topic. I’ll spin a few words on each area.
With the proliferation of the internet, any jackass (some say I’m the poster child) can get published online. You really start to look good to prospective clients when somebody is actually willing to spend money to print your words on paper and ship it to paying subscribers. That’s where print magazines come in. It is essential that you get published in a print magazine for several reasons. First, the exposure that you get is unrivaled by any other publishing source. Consider that most technical books (even good ones) only sell around 10,000 copies. Yes, if your last name is Appleman or you happen to get lucky, you could get a larger reader base, but I’m running with the majority here. If you don’t believe me, ask any author of a .NET book that is competing against the hundreds of others. Usually not a pleasant conversation.
Now consider that even small print magazines have circulations of 10’s of thousands. Some, like Visual Studio Magazine, have readerships in the hundreds of thousands. From a brute force perspective, print magazines are an essential part of your personal marketing resume. A second benefit of writing for print magazines is that most of the time, you’ll only have to produce a piece in the 1,500 to 4,000 word range. The amount that you get paid will vary greatly depending on the magazine and your experience (e.g. your star power), but your revenue per word ratio will kick the tail out of book writing ratios. Incidentally, don’t think that I place no value on getting published in book form. Books (which I’ll cover in a moment) are important as well.
A third benefit of writing for print magazines is that your articles will almost always be published online as well. Many publishers will also publicize your article in an email newsletter, giving you even more exposure. Two or three media outlets for the price of one. You’ll want to place some emphasis on magazines that offer their content online for free, as you will be able to link to it from your company website (which is covered in a later article in the Going Independent series).
Now that I’ve hopefully convinced you that getting published in a print magazine is important, you probably want to know how it is done. To be honest, I did it the hard way. I brainstormed topics, blanket-bombed publishers with article proposals and waited to hear back. I eventually got my big break with Visual Basic Programmer’s Journal (now Visual Studio Magazine), but I definitely wouldn’t recommend that you take this approach. The reason is because editors of the good magazines get hundreds of proposals each month. Regardless of the quality of your article idea, it is likely to get buried in a pile of other ideas.
A better method is to contact the author of an article directly. Most of them list contact information in their by-line. In particular, look for authors that are also listed as contributing editors or technical editors in the masthead at the beginning of the magazine. Those individuals have direct contact with editors and if you can convince them that your article idea has merit, it will make its way to the top of the editor’s pile of proposals. The lesson here is that a personal recommendation will always trump an anonymous submission. Don’t worry that you don’t personally know the article’s author. They are used to getting a lot of reader email, and are usually more than willing to give your article idea a look. Best of all, article authors are a good source of both positive and negative (ahem… constructive) feedback that you probably won’t get if you submit your proposal directly to the magazine editor. Sometimes an idea just needs a little refinement in order to catch the editor’s eye.
That brings me to one of the most frequent questions that I get asked, which is “What should I write about?” Of course the reality is that your idea is 90% of what the editor is seeking. If they had all of the ideas, then publishing a quality print magazine would be easy. They also wouldn’t have to pay authors as much money. A less sarcastic answer is that there are several qualities to a good article idea. First, it should be concise and self contained. By that I mean that you have a finite amount of space with which to explain your concept. Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Stay focused on a clear topic and avoid idea tangents. Second, keep your idea focused on solving a business problem. It may be fun to teach readers how to build an online Tick-Tack-Toe game, but I doubt you’ll generate much interest from magazine editors. Third, come up with an idea that hasn’t already been thoroughly covered. Unique ideas get snapped up quickly. Finally, it helps if you cover a topic from which you can draw anecdotal references. Readers like to hear about your own war stories. What did you try that didn’t work before you arrived at the solution?
I often get asked whether it is better to write technical or opinion-based articles. From my experience, the more technically savvy your articles become, the more readers will remember your code, but not you. When you write a well crafted opinion, however, readers tend to associate you with that opinion. That gives you an edge. Of course, you generally won’t be able to get a regular gig writing opinion based articles until you have been in the technical arena for awhile, so you have to remember not to put the cart before the horse. Many magazines have guest opinion columns (inside the back cover, which is ideal placement for maximum readership), though, which would make a good introduction to opinion writing. You can add more to your opinion writing resume by writing for online sources. That is where you will develop your persona, which I’ll discuss in a bit. One last thing to keep in mind about opinion writing is that it is much harder than it looks. As an exercise, write an 800 to 1200 word opinion piece for Infolific.com and submit it to me. You’ll quickly see that it is tough to organize your thoughts into clear and coherent arguments. The good news is that if I like the article, I’ll publish it and send you $50, and your personal marketing campaign will be underway.
Once you land your first writing gig, you won’t have to worry too much about keeping the work coming. A chief concern among editors is finding authors that can turn in work on time. Something as simple as punctuality will keep you employed as a writer in perpetuity. As you get into the groove of writing, the article ideas will come easier and easier. As for writing style, there isn’t really much to say. Each magazine has its own personality, so the more you write for a particular magazine, the fewer editorial changes you’ll have to make to each article. After an editor trains you in the stylistic prose of his/her magazine, you will become an even more indispensable asset.
As a final note about print magazines, be sure to list your consulting company and your email address in your by-line. That is how prospective clients will find you.
Once you have cut your teeth a bit with print magazine articles, you’ll want to test the waters of book writing. There are two ways to go about this. The easiest way is to approach one of the publishers and offer to write a chapter or two for an author that may be struggling to finish on time. If you have an established writing resume and are good with making deadlines, you should have no problem getting work. It isn’t as glamorous to be a secondary name on the cover, but it’ll do for a start. If writing a couple of chapters still seems too daunting, then you may want to offer your services as a technical reviewer for a book. Those are always in short supply, so you should have no problem landing work in that area.
The second approach to getting into book writing is to write a book proposal, submit it to some publishers and spearhead the book writing effort yourself. This is the approach that I took for my book, Debugging ASP.NET. It is a tougher sell and there are some additional responsibilities involved, but the rewards are much greater. First, you are the one that has to come up with the book idea. Then, you have to convince the publisher that either your idea is sufficiently unique, or that you can tackle an existing concept better than any existing books on the same topic.
Second, the publisher may or may not assist you in finding co-authors (if you want them), but you are the point person that must make sure that all work gets turned in complete and on time. Third, you are the one that will most likely have to respond to any reader feedback.
I can honestly say that writing my book was one of the hardest things that I have done in both my personal or professional life. While writing an article is like a sprint, writing a book is like a marathon. It is hard to stay motivated for such a large writing endeavor. I have the utmost respect for people who author several books. Personally, I determined that technical book writing is not my thing. My mind just doesn’t work that way. If I ever embark on another book venture, it will probably be to consolidate this Going Independent series into book form.
One of the best ways to market yourself won’t earn you a penny directly, but can lead to many new clients. I’m talking about establishing an online presence for your writing. I chose to start a complete website, but you can accomplish the same thing by starting a weblog (usually shorted to just blog). Some developers put lots of technical material in their online articles, but I prefer to use my site as a means to publish material that doesn’t necessarily fall under any particular publication’s purview. The article you are reading now is a good example. Blogs can also be used to explore concepts that aren’t large enough for a mainstream magazine.
Obviously, nobody is going to come to read your blog unless they know about it. I make it a point to mention my site in most conversations that I have with colleagues. I also put it in the by-line of all of my magazine articles. There are several article indexing sites such as .netWire and 411 ASP.NET that you can submit your articles to, and you can also mention your blog in any newsgroup postings that you make. If your material is good (or entertaining) enough, it won’t take long before your readership grows. Potential clients often search development communities for talent, and if your name comes up and they find their way to your blog, then you’re on your way.
Sharing your expertise via articles and books is radically different from doing the same in an oral presentation format. There are several reasons why you will want to land speaking engagements. First, speaking engagements demonstrate your ability to present ideas in a coherent and professional manner. There are a lot of smart developers out there that make terrible consultants because they can’t effectively convey their thoughts to their clients. Second, speaking is a way to show prospective clients that you can think on your feet. Can you think of anecdotes and analogies to present a difficult concept in a different way for the benefit of those who don’t get it the first time around? Third, when you speak at a conference sanctioned by a company (such as a magazine or Microsoft), you are telling prospective clients that another company is willing to let you be its face on a particular topic. They usually don’t take that lightly. Fourth, you can advertise when and where you are speaking on your company website, adding some additional marketing power to your company name.
Of course, like article and book writing, you need to convince somebody that you are the right person to speak at their event. Previous speaking experience is a big factor, but there are ways to get out of the (can’t get a gig without experience; can’t get experience without a gig) problem. For instance, you can contact your local development user group and offer to speak on a topic for no charge. While some organizations like INETA sponsor well-known speakers to come to user groups, this is only an option some of the time. Most user groups have plenty of opportunity for you to get your feet wet with public speaking. Another avenue that you can pursue is to write articles for magazines or other companies that also sponsor conferences and events. If you do a good job writing for them, they are likely to give you preferential treatment when it comes to speaker selection. It is natural for companies to go with a known vs. an unknown.
Stellar experience, credentials and contacts aren’t going to do you any good without a good topic to speak about. Scratch that… several good topics to speak about. Conferences work a bit differently than user groups and article publishers, in that their organizers are looking for people who are able to deliver several sessions. It makes sense from a money perspective for both the conference and the speaker.
There are some ideas that work well for articles, but aren’t very suited to speaking engagements. The trick is to know the qualities that differentiate the two mediums. Typically, the topics discussed in conferences are narrower and more targeted. You usually only have between 45 minutes and an hour and a half to get through the concept. Some conferences offer all day workshops, but that is another beast altogether. When coming up with conference topics, keep time in mind. The second factor to consider is that your topic has to be portable and demonstrable. Some facilities that you are speaking at may not have internet access, so you need to make sure that you do not depend on resources outside of your control. By demonstrable, I mean that some topics are not very suited to a conference setting. For instance, it is hard to set up a load testing scenario in a conference session, unless you have the resources afforded to keynote presentations.
The trick is to come up with concepts that are both unique and will have broad appeal. Niche topics don’t get selected very often for conferences, because they can only host a limited number of sessions, and there likely wouldn’t be enough interest among conference attendees. However, niche topics are great for user group meetings, or for when you are trying to make a name for yourself in a particular aspect of software development. In my case, I have quite an investment in debugging, caching and page templating, so those are the topics that I speak about most frequently at conferences and user groups. The good news is that conference organizers love it when you submit lots of ideas, so include any topics that you are willing and able to present, and let them sort out what they want.
Adopt a Persona
This is the marketing tactic that I love the most, yet so few people in software development consulting use it. Let’s face it. Software development is a pretty dry topic. If you add some personality to your writing, it will become more entertaining, and your readers will remember you more (as opposed to just the contents of your article). This includes technical articles. I happen to take this concept to an extreme through my “angry” persona, but less subtle personas can work as well. As part of the process, you should adhere to certain constants in your writing.
Another thing about personas is that they don’t necessarily have to reflect your everyday persona. For example, many people meet me and say “so how come you’re not acting angry?” While it is true that I get worked up on certain occasions and about certain topics, my general demeanor is usually rather pleasant (in my opinion, anyway). Likewise, I’m sure that Stephen King is not mentally unstable, as his writing suggests. Personas are all about setting reader’s expectations about what they are about to read through your reputation as a writer. The more unique character that you give your writing, the more people will associate that writing with you. When your name comes to mind when a particular topic comes up, you are likely to be the one who gets the call for consulting help.
Get Titles and Endorsements
If you were in the market for a new car and you saw a commercial on television talking about all of the great features and performance of a sports car, you might be tempted to buy it. In the back of your mind, though, you are probably thinking that it isn’t a good idea to accept just the word of the company selling the car. However, what if J.D. Power and Associates and Consumer Reports both talked favorably about the car? What if you talked to three people who owned that car and they spoke equally well about it? You’d definitely be more tempted to take the time and give the car a test drive.
The point I’m trying to make is that it doesn’t matter how good you are if nobody is willing to give you an opportunity to show it. A great way to propel yourself into the spotlight is to earn titles and endorsements. We’ll start with titles. A “title” is a rather general term that stands for any organizational position (whether honorary or otherwise) or distinction that sets you apart from the competition. As an example, I have earned Contributing Editor status for both Visual Studio Magazine and asp.netPRO Magazine. That type of title takes a while to attain, but there are some easier ways to start out. For instance, you could start a .NET user group, in which case you can claim that you are the “founder of xyz .NET User Group”. That could potentially lead to you getting more involved with INETA, and become a member of their speaker’s bureau (another title). If you contribute a lot to the Microsoft development community through the newsgroups, you could be named a Most Valuable Professioanal (MVP). The more titles you amass, the better you look to prospective clients. Each title is yet another endorsement of your capabilities.
Speaking of endorsements, in Part 1, I mentioned that endorsements “are the lifeblood of a small consulting company.” I cannot emphasize that enough. Whereas titles get potential clients to check you out, positive endorsements from existing clients can help seal the deal, and establish that you aren’t “all show and no go.” If you are treating your clients well and doing quality work for them, they shouldn’t have any problem with giving you an endorsement that you can place on your company website, as well as offering to speak to potential clients of yours regarding their experience with your services. Keep in mind that you shouldn’t ask for an endorsement from a client until you verify with them that they are completely satisfied with the work that you and your company are performing for them. If you take care of them, they will take care of you and your marketing efforts.
The reason why the saying “Rome wasn’t built in a day” is referred to so often is because it is quite true. You’re probably not going to get very much response from the first or second thing that you do to market yourself. As your name appears in more and more places, though, your efforts will hit a critical mass, and prospective clients will begin contacting you much more often. It may be behoove you to do as I did and keep your salaried job while you are in the fledgling stages of marketing yourself. In an upcoming article in the Going Independent series, I will cover how to know when the time is right to make the break, as well as beginning steps to make it happen. I think that this article is enough for you to chew on for now. If you’re looking for more, check our part 3 of this series: Breaking Away.
Do you have your own blog? How do you market yourself to prospective clients? Talk back!