First, the projects that didn’t count:
- For a couple of years, I acted as an internal consultant at a hotel management company, jumping around from project to project and hotel to hotel. I treated my full-time job as a series of consulting projects, but that doesn’t really count here.
- I did side work for past bosses – that doesn’t count either.
- I ended my presentations with “for help, contact me” and that got me a few half-day gigs on the weekends
For a project to count, I figure it had to involve multiple days, and at least 3 zeroes on the check. (No, not after the decimal place.)
My First (Real) Consulting Project
A company approached me out of the blue and said, “We’ve read your blog for a while, and we’re having a problem, and we think you’ve solved a problem like this before. We’ve got a SQL Server on a SAN, and it’s simply not performing well, but we can’t figure out whether the problem is SQL Server, the server, the storage, or the code. Can you help?”
I said, “Sure, I’d love to. Run these diagnostic queries, and send me the – ”
Client: “How about if you just come onsite instead?”
Fortunately, I’d read Gerald Weinberg’s Secrets of Consulting, and so to set my prices, I used his Principle of Least Regret. If you price yourself too low, you’ll regret it if they say yes, because you won’t really wanna do the work. However, if you price yourself too high, you’ll regret it if they say no, because you’ll curse yourself for missing the chance to win the gig at a lower price.
I was lucky enough to have an employer that let me do contract work on the side, however I’d burned up all my vacation time – so any further time off would require unpaid leave from work. I quoted them $5,000 per day plus travel expenses – assuming that they would opt for free help over email instead, or working with me over a weekend.
And they said okay.
Hubba hubba! I was seriously excited to take the time off work, drive out to their offices, and spend time with them working through the problem. We achieved real results over the span of a couple of days, they thanked me profusely, and they paid the bill. I was hooked.
My Second Consulting Project
Another company called with a similar request. In an excited rush to ditch my day job, I sold them a heavily discounted package bundle of hours (nowhere near $5k/day), discounted as long as they were paying for the entire bundle up front. They said yes, I banked the money, and quit my job.
Unfortunately, I made a few crucial mistakes:
- I didn’t set a minimum number of hours per interaction (meaning, they could schedule a 30-minute call and just draw down their account for 30 minutes)
- I didn’t set a minimum booking time in advance (meaning, they were upset if I wasn’t available for a 30-minute call tomorrow at 10AM – but I was frequently booked days in advance)
- I didn’t set an expiration date on the block of hours
This made it much harder for me to keep them happy, plus keep any other clients happy. When their bundle of hours was up, I explained that I wouldn’t be able to renew that arrangement as-is. Feelings were hurt, especially since they’d done me a favor by helping me get a vital leg up on my consulting business.
Looking Back, Those Two Summed Up a Lot
The first engagement was everything I loved about my SQL Server DBA job: the ability to parachute in, contribute a lot of value in a short period of time, and walk away after making a real, significant difference.
The second engagement was everything I hated about DBA work: jumping into help desk tickets and meetings with no context, and no ability to affect real positive change. It drained the life out of me.
I was lucky that they occurred in that order. Had they happened the other way around, I’m not so sure I’d be here doing consulting today. Funny how life works out.