As a consultant, you are a water faucet resource – easy on, easy off.  A big part of your value proposition as a consultant is being able to throw you in on a big problem or special situation, often very quickly if it’s urgent, and shut you off as soon as the issue is resolved.  One of my key areas is product development program turn-arounds, so I frequently jump in when things are a big, urgent mess.

Easy On, Easy Off

My longest project ever ran a little over three years.  My engagements are typically 9 – 18 months, so it was more than double my usual project.  I had a lot of autonomy and I earned over half a million dollars in revenue over the run of the engagement.  I knew things were winding down, but I found out the project was officially over when I went to log in one day, and my passwords had all been changed.  After more than three years!  I didn’t take it personally, no one likes to be the bearer of bad news.

You Won’t Find Stability Here

If you are looking to lock in stability and security, you are in the wrong place.  In fact, you probably need to time travel because those days are gone, long gone.

I do a lot of speaking about how to start a successful consulting practice.  There is a recurring fantasy that frequently comes up.  Someone in the audience asks about contracts or a discounted rate for a long-term commitment.  When I dig deeper the person is always looking for the elusive stability and security.  They are hoping to lock in a healthy stretch of work, so they can forget about all that nasty networking, marketing and business development required to keep the pipeline full.  But here’s the thing, what do you do when the water has been running too long?  YOU. SHUT. IT. OFF.

I had a project several years ago.  It was a company where I had previously been a full-time employee, so I had a lot of tribal knowledge about the technology involved.  It came during a dry spell, so I was especially happy to have the work.  It was supposed to be 30 hours a week for 9 months.  Phew…  I really needed the work.  The project was going well, but a couple months in, at the beginning of November, the CEO walked into the Monday morning 7:30 am executive staff meeting and said, “You know those hefty bonuses you are all expecting to take home at the end of the year?  We are not on track to meet our bonus numbers unless we slash expenses and slash fast.”  All of us corporate folks have seen this edict before.  What are the first three things to go when a company needs to slash expenses as quickly as possible?  Travel, advertising and outside consultants.  I was doomed.  Although I didn’t have a formal contract, I did have a commitment for 30 hours a week for 9 months.  Even if I did have a contact, this was one of the largest medical device companies in town and I work a lot in medical devices.  What was I going to do?  Sue them?  I don’t think so…  I negotiated one more month and then I took my toys and went home nicely.

Even when you think you have locked in stability and security with a contract, you are dreaming.  It’s a sweet dream, but it’s a dream.  And the truth is, you can walk into your full-time job on any day and find out, much to your surprise, that your position has been eliminated.  I speak every month at an outplacement services firm, and I have heard this story so many times.  Layoffs used to always happen in groups, but now sometimes only one position is eliminated so you really have no idea it is coming.

You Can Protect Yourself

Now I protect myself by never giving more than 10, 15 maybe 20 hours a week to any one client.  I typically have two “major” projects at 10-15 hours a week and drizzles of other projects starting and wrapping up.  I shoot to bill 30 hours a week which is full utilization.  A quick note on how my time breaks out: 30 hours a week billable, 20 hours a week networking, marketing and business development, and 5 hours a week for infrastructure and admin.  This is how my 55-hour work week stacks up.  These are averages.  There is some ebb and flow from week to week.

Having two major projects means not having all my eggs in one basket.  This way if a client changes the passwords, I still have billable hours going so I am not thrown into a dry spell.  This is very, very important.  It’s hard to make enough rain to recover if you are completely dry.

This has the added benefit of protecting you from job offers.  What???  Nothing ends a good consulting relationship faster than a job offer.  Once they offer you a job that you turn down, you are mostly likely done.  If you give them 40 hours a week and take up residence, you are asking for it, so don’t do it.  You are a water faucet resource and it is your job to be dispensable.  Work your magic all around the company, but eventually you must go away.  You may come back another day, but it is your job to go away.

$30,000 – $50,000 or More

Most of the proposals I write are for three-month projects.  But most of my engagements are 9 – 18 months long.  Once I dig in, we almost always find more things to do.  I get a chance to see inside and they get a chance to see my work.  I am shooting for engagements of $30,000 – $50,000 or more, often a lot more.  I have learned that it can take more work to close a $3,000 project than a $30,000 project and it isn’t usually worth the time.  Once in a while, if I’m sure a little project will lead to a lot more, I will do it.  But if a $3,000 – $5,000 project is a stretch for the client, I take a pass.

Never Ask When the Project is Ending

I have learned that if I don’t push for end date clarification, the engagements last several weeks longer.  So, you run the risk of having the passwords changed out from under you, but I figure I got an extra six weeks of work this way.  I have learned to embrace the fact that I am a water-faucet resource.  During your morning meditation, you can repeat, “I am a water faucet resource. I am a water faucet resource. I am one with the water faucet.”

Make It Work

In all seriousness, you really must not only embrace but leverage the fact that a big piece of your value proposition is easy on, easy off.

For Bigger Fish

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