We've all done dumb things in the course of our careers. It's a law of nature. And, if you currently work for yourself as an IT consultant, or you aspire to soon go out on your own, make a point of learning from your mistakes -- and the mistakes of others.

IT consultants have specific rules to follow that relate to business practices and clients and customers. Many of them are basic rules of professionalism and you should already be aware of them if you've decided to attempt a career as a professional IT consultant.

The following strategies, on the other hand, are amateurish and boneheaded, and I've found out (the hard way) that in an IT consultant's world, they have dire consequences.

Dumb things related to your business

  1. Trying to handle every aspect of the business on your own. Sure you can apply for and incorporate tax IDs -- that's the easy part. Writing contracts and dealing with cash flow and income taxes should be left up to specialists.

  2. Not investing in the right tools. These include a good laptop computer; a smartphone you can use for email when you're out of the office; programs you need for getting your work done, such as virtual machine software and testing tools; and a good desk and chair. You don't have to buy the fancy new stuff, but you do need to have the right setup so you can be functional and productive.

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  1. Assuming that liability insurance is for big corporations. If you're a 1099 contractor, you may not need it. However, if you have a formal business and work directly with clients, you'll often be asked about both general liability and professional liability. So insurance is not only something to CYA in case you mess up, it's also a minimum requirement for a lot of the customers who'll be hiring you.

  2. Overlooking the fact that downtime equals non-billable time. It's one of the biggest drawbacks to being self-employed. When you're a consultant you have to save for those rainy days that will inevitably come. Furthermore, you must always be looking for ways to make money -- even when you currently have work. Keep that pipeline filled.

  3. Believing you'll get your name out there by placing some ads in the local business journal or community paper and handing out some brochures at a conference. You have to network (in person at events as well as online) and then network some more. It's all about who knows you. It's also about networking with the right people. Your local Kiwanis club may not have your target customer base. But, then again, your local IT-centric association might not either. Plug into your local networking scene and network with both technical and business professionals to build up relationships. Once you've established a name for yourself, get out there and network some more. It's a never-ending requirement for success.

Dumb things related to your customers

  1. Trying to be everything to everyone. IT is way too complex for one person to know everything about everything. This is why you need to find your niche. Doing so will properly set everyone's expectations and set you up for success so no one ends up getting raked over the coals at the end of a project.

  2. Believing that you are the only option your customers have. Approaching new clients and business partners with an attitude of "they need me and I shouldn't have to prove myself to them" is a recipe for failure. Instead, approach things with humble confidence and continually work to differentiate yourself from the pack with your services and skills.

  3. Assuming that you know what's best for someone else's business. Forcing closed-minded opinions on a business manager does not create customer loyalty. You have to see things from the customer's perspective. State the facts and your opinion in a professional manner if you believe it's best for their business -- that's why customers hire you. Just don't overlook the value of keeping your thoughts to yourself when that's what a situation calls for.

  4. Classifying yourself as too good for certain types of work (including subcontract work) or certain types of customers. You do need to focus on what you love doing and what you're good at, but if you have the necessary expertise and can agree on a contract, take the job. You'll gain experience and everyone wins.

  5. Assuming that customers aren't paying attention to how you use your time when you're on the site, especially if you're billing by the hour. Continually ask yourself if what you're doing now is the best use of your time on that particular job.

Mary Kay Ash, the founder of Mary Kay Cosmetics, once said: "Ideas are a dime a dozen. People who implement them are priceless." Tweaking that a bit, I say consultants are a dime a dozen. The ones who learn from their mistakes are the ones who succeed.

Kevin Beaver, is an information security consultant, keynote speaker and expert witness with Atlanta-based Principle Logic LLC. Kevin specializes in performing independent security assessments. Kevin has authored/co-authored seven books on information security, including Hacking For Dummies and Hacking Wireless Networks For Dummies (Wiley). He's also the creator of the Security on Wheels information security audio books and blog providing security learning for IT professionals on the go. Kevin can be reached at  kbeaver@principlelogic.com.

This was first published in June 2009

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