So You Wanna Be A Mac Consultant Now… 04.14.2013
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If there is one thing I have written that remains popular here on this site, it is the advice I gave over three years ago titled So, You Wanna Be a Mac Consultant…. It is a daily top search term that leads people here, and therefore I still get a lot of follow-up email and questions about the subject. I think people continue to ask because, while much of the advice there is still valid, it is somewhat incomplete and a tad bit dated.
Who am I?
My name is Patrick Rhone and I have been a Technical Consultant, with a focus on Apple products, for almost 20 years now. My business, Gladhill Rhone LLC (formerly Machine Methods Consulting), serves individuals, very small businesses, and very small non-profits (generally 5 machines or less). I own and run this business with my wife who is a Business Consultant with a focus on non-profits and arts management.
As an independent operator (who is also married to one), I have seen a lot over my years of doing this and have had to learn many of these lessons as I went along. My hope is that, if you are someone who has ever considered consulting as a profession, this article will give you a nudge in the right direction. I can confirm, from years of experience, that there is nothing more challenging or rewarding than doing something you love and getting paid for it.
Now is the time…
I think this is the perfect time to start planning for, or at least thinking about the possibility of, working for yourself. I have really come to believe that now is the perfect time to build your dream job, because if you want your dream job, the only one that can give it to you is you.
Let’s face it, the economy has changed, and it is not going to change back. That job that existed at that company before the crashes—the one they laid you off from—won’t be coming back. Those companies have either learned to do the same work with fewer employees (by promoting 60-70 hour work weeks and squeezing the life-blood out of them) or have automated what you used to do with technology. Regardless, it is a win-win for them. Just look at the record stock prices, massive profits, and growing offshore accounts of these companies versus their hiring rates and it all becomes clear.
Yet, there is a wealth of new consumer technology. The opportunities here for people with knowledge and skill are nearly endless. The speed of advancement outpaces most people’s ability to learn about it all. Apple releases a completely new operating system every 12-18 months. To a lot of people, this means they have a whole new computer, phone, or tablet virtually every year even if they have not purchased one. They need to know why. They need to know how this can make their lives better. They need someone to help when it stops doing its job.
They need people like me. And, should you choose this path, people like you.
Are you ready for this?
I recently engaged in a great conversation about my current thoughts about this on App.net with someone who is interested in getting started on his own technical consulting business (Hi, Kyle). Kyle initially expressed some concern in starting. The concern stemmed from his feeling of fear over not having enough training or certification needed to hang up an open-for-business shingle to do this kind of work. And while he lives in a great market (no Apple Store close by, high novice user population, etc.), he does not have the sort of businesses close to him that would provide more experience and skills, should he go work for them.
Now, I started my own journey over 20 years ago. Back then, the only way to gain knowledge and experience doing this sort of work was to get hired by a tech company doing it. Because of this, I strategically went after jobs and positions that would give me the skills and experience I would need to set out on my own. For instance, I worked in tech support for a PC manufacturer,a laser printer manufacturer,a networking company, and a software developer over the course of 10 years in order to gain skills in all of those areas.
But that was then. There weren’t many other real options to gain such knowledge or apply the experience. Books, blog posts, training courses (online or off), and, certainly, Google were not available when I started out. Today, of course, is much different. The resources that are available to you no matter where you are located are plentiful. Heck, Apple has a whole page devoted to the plethora of resources they offer. And anything you don’t know, you can search for on Google and find in seconds.
Here is what I say if I there’s something I don’t know, “I don’t know the answer to that. Let me research it and get back to you.” And I do just that. And then I call them back with the answer they could have searched for themselves, if they only knew what to search for. Then it fixes the issue and I seem like some mystical wizard-being to them. Then they happily throw money at me. Simple.
Seriously, just be up front with people and have a willingness to help them find a solution even if you don’t know it yourself right away. Sometimes someone just needs a hand to hold while working through a problem. You should be ready to offer both of yours when needed.
Also, be upfront about what you don’t know but still be willing to help them get help. I keep a really good PC consultant friend on deck for this very purpose. I let people know my knowledge of Windows is high level at best and I refer them to my friend who takes care of them. I still look like the hero because that solution would not have even been there if not for my leading them to him.
So, what does it take to be a consultant today? Well, here is what I would say. If all of the following are true:
a) You know more than the average user.
b) You are a natural troubleshooter and love to solve problems (and by “natural” I mean relentless and by “love” I mean they keep you up at night until you do).
c) You are a curious learner and retain that information once you learn it.
d) Nothing thrills you more than to save the day by helping others.
Then you are ready to hang up a shingle right now. Seriously.
The truth is that there is a whole wealth of customers out there just waiting for you. They have no one else to turn to. Your coming to their home is cheaper than any of the larger consulting firms that don’t really want their business, anyway. And it is more convenient and personal than going down to the Apple store. What they really need is someone they can trust who is willing to help them find a solution.
They need a Frustration Removal Agent and Simplifier of Difficult Things. They don’t have anyone like that around or, if they do, it is their slightly nerdy nephew who they feel bad about always calling for this stuff anyway. They want to pay someone and not feel bad. They want help finding a solution from someone that does this for a living. They want you.
My shingle is up, now what?
Now, it is not as easy as I make it sound. It takes a while to build up a reliable client base, one that can sustain you and yours with enough money to pay your existing bills, expenses, overhead, etc. You should probably have a sizable savings and heavily reduce your debt and spending before fully jumping in. It helps to not only reduce your spending but also to have as little debt as possible.
I should also state that I have held full-time jobs for half of the time I have been doing this (almost 20 years now). If your focus in mainly on other individuals and home users with full-time jobs themselves, this actually can be an advantage. Nights and weekends will actually be better for these folks and these are times when other full-time consultants often don’t serve.
That said, I can tell you this: there was one year that I managed to sustain myself and my two sons (full-time single dad at the time) on a gross income well below the poverty level. I was able to do this through lots of negotiation and sacrifice. By sacrifice I mean things like reducing myself to one meal a day so my sons could have three. It was a very difficult year, but it taught me that, in reality, we need far less than most of us think we do to survive.
It is also important to think about…
Health Insurance: You will have to either go without, wait for 2014 when the Affordable Healthcare Act kicks in to (allegedly) force insurance companies to offer an affordable plan, or pay what most would consider a confiscatory amount for a high deductible plan with barely basic coverage right now. I do the third option for what it’s worth. But we have a little girl with a heart condition, so we don’t have a choice.
Business Insurance: Do it. It protects you. It’s pretty cheap in most instances.
Certification: It’s less crucial now than it used to be. I still think it is a good idea, though. Nice to be able to have an official stamp that you can walk the talk. Apple does have an official certification program that covers both Mac OS X Client and Server as well as many of the Pro Apps.
Lawyer: You don’t need to retain one. Just find a good small business attorney that can help you draw up some basic things like a Service Agreement and/or Non-Disclosure Agreement that is specific to you and your service area. Sure, you can find generic ones online but there is no guarantee these will protect you in your state. Plus, now you have a relationship with one should you need some real legal help down the road.
Accountant/Taxes: Guess what, you are paying taxes directly now. No more of this not noticing it coming out of a paycheck business. You also have expenses and deductions and can write off all sorts of things that you couldn’t before. You don’t know the what/why/how of any of that stuff. You don’t want to. You want to hire either a really good accountant or a really good tax professional or both. I recommend both.
Some other things you will need…
Here are some other things you should have before, or at least very shortly after, you set up shop:
Website — This should be professional looking but does not have to be fancy. In fact, I use the default template on ours. So, you don’t have to spend a lot of time on this. It just should at least answer the following questions:
- Who are you?
- What do you do?
- What types of customers do you serve?
- How can someone get in touch with you?
It does not have to be in that order but, the answers to every one of these questions should be clear to anyone within a couple of minutes of hitting your website.
Business Cards — Get plenty. These should follow the same rules of the website—but in a much more condensed form. You should hand these out at every appropriate opportunity. What’s appropriate? Anything that might potentially bring you business.
Social Networking — You are now a business. Act like one. Be friendly, personable, helpful, and kind. Promote yourself and your services where appropriate but don’t ram them down people’s ears. If your business name is different than your name (or even if it is not), you may want to consider a separate account for that. Also, you finally have a reason to update your LinkedIn profile and maybe even use it.
OK, where are all my customers?
Most of your business will come from word of mouth (99% of mine still does). This takes time, but it starts with your first satisfied client. The next time said client is at the grocery store and runs into a friend who mentions their computer issues, they will tell them about you. And, so on, and so on, until you have dozens of satisfied clients telling dozens more.
Oh, also reward people for referring business your way. A thank you card is nice and I would say the bare minimum. One thing I have done is purchased a bunch of $5.00 gift cards from a few different coffee chains (local to international). Drop one in with the thank you card. You would be surprised how much appreciation a frilly, caffeinated beverage and muffin can provide (and win a client for life).
Another great value add that gets a lot of bang for the buck—clean the screen. I keep a few of these Klear Screen Travel Singles in my bag. If someone’s screen needs a cleaning (and, trust me, most do) go ahead and do it. It’s another “extra mile” thing that they don’t think about doing and no other consultant does, either (unless they read this, of course).
But mostly, this is about forming a long-term relationship. Most of my clients have become my friends (and I am considered one of theirs). This should never get in the way of the simple fee-for-service transaction that is going on here, but it should enhance it. You will want to help them in a crisis and they will be happy they can call a friend to help. Any money that gets exchanged will be a side result of this fact. Once it becomes about the relationship and not the dollars, the cost rarely gets in the way.
What to charge…
While we are on the subject of pricing, I’m happy to discuss my price and what I currently charge. My regular site visit rate is $75.00 an hour with a two hour minimum, billable on the half hour. This rate is very competitive and is set with individuals and very small businesses and non-nonprofits in mind. That said, I can’t even begin to suggest this is what you should charge or may want to charge. Price is always based on “what the market will bear.” In this case, the market is so localized and case-specific that I can only tell you that this is what my market (based on client type, competition, service area, and too many other details to mention) will bear. So this is something you will have to find out on your own.
This is why it is helpful to seek out other similar consultants in your area. Trust me, there is plenty of business to go around and most other consultants will be helpful to you in this department. Furthermore, there are likely clients and work you don’t want to do that the other consultants will love to do and vice versa. There are also times you may want to take a vacation and know that there is another consultant you trust that you can call upon to help one of your clients in an emergency. So reach out and form relationships with other consultants in your area. Do a search for other consultants at the Apple Consultants Network or attend one of the nearest MacTech Events near you. It is a great way to find out and get to know who else is out there.
What to charge for…
While we are on the subject of charging money for your time and knowledge—you should. That’s the point of doing this. But most importantly, be fair. If you do something for a client that takes a while or a huge amount of effort, and it feels like you should be charging for it, you likely should. That said, you also don’t want to nickel-and-dime folks into being afraid to call you or email with a quick question. If you do that, then they will stop calling you altogether. There is a balance that can be found in between these two, and if you are fair to your clients, they will not abuse it and will be fair to you.
I also provide a free initial consultation. If it is not an “Oh my gumbo, I need this fixed right now!” sort of situation that is bringing me to the door that first time, I offer it. This is mostly to get a lay of the land and make sure that myself and the client are a good fit. Yes, there have been times when that initial consultation has revealed that not to be the case. In those few situations, I have made sure to be the one to find them the right fit. If there is something I can address quickly and cleanly during this free consultation, I do so at no charge. After doing so, my now client-for-life will thank me profusely and try to insist they give me something for the trouble. I let them know it was no trouble at all and that I would rather make up for it over a long-term business relationship. Done.
Are You The Right Person For This?
It takes a certain balance of personality traits to be able to do this day in and day out. I like to say it takes an even balance of patience and tenacity. You have to be the sort of person who will exhaust every possibility in search of a fix to a client problem and, then have the know-how and finesse to tell them what to do next if you are not able to solve it. They are looking to you, hero, for the answer or, short of that, where to find it—because they haven’t a clue. You also have to be able to explain the same thing, over and over, multiple ways, until you find the one that clicks for each client. Then, once you figure out their ideal learning style, you have to remember and apply that to save you from having to do that dance over and over again, much to your mutual frustration.
If you are not a very, very, very, patient, friendly, likable and kind people person, you probably should not be in this line of work. I’ve seen tons of consultants who quite obviously would have been happier if they had never shaved their neck beard and ventured out of their mother’s basement. If that is you, please take up some line of business that keeps you in the basement. You have to be a person who honestly likes dealing with people that are clueless when it comes to this stuff. Your thrill has to come from giving these people lightbulb moments.
If you want a good window into how this works, go down to your nearest Apple Store and watch one of the Geniuses deal with an elderly customer. Watch how patient they are and how much time they take. All without blowing their cool or making the customer feel stupid. You have to be at least that good if not better because you are getting paid directly by that person, and the Genius is simply doing his job.
Also, always be on the lookout for ways that you can provide a little extra value. If you get called for one thing, then fix that thing, and if you see some other things that need fixing, go ahead and suggest doing that too as a “while I’m here” sort of thing. Under promise and over deliver. You will never meet anyone who doesn’t appreciate your going the extra mile. In addition, always be on the lookout for ways to suggest how they might make what they do faster/quicker/easier/better. If you find a cool new app or service that is great for you, it might be great for one of your clients, as well. Mention it to them and offer to come and show them how to use it and how it will help. You’d be surprised at how many people have not heard of Dropbox or TextExpander or a myriad of other services and tools you use every day.
Some books and other resources that might help…
I found more than a few of these useful. Some are suggestions from freelancing friends. Some are simply invaluable. (Reminder: Get them at the library if you don’t have the disposable cash.)
Making a Living Without a Job, revised edition: Winning Ways for Creating Work That You Love: Barbara Winter — This is the self-employment bible. Essential.
How to Start Freelancing (Without Quitting Your Job) — From when Lifehacker occasionally came up with something important to say.
Make Your Own Way – Life Without Full-Time Employment — First Today, Then Tomorrow — From my friend Randy Murray.
Frictionless Books — One of the guides I wish I had when I started.
The Princess Bride — Yes. Seriously. My friend Garrick explains the many reasons why here:
Joe Versus the Volcano — One of the most misunderstood movies of all time. Ebert loved it (which should validate my statement). This movie is a dark comedy about employment in America vs. following your passions. Only those with open eyes will be able to see this though.
My hope is that this will become the new definitive online guide on this subject that the previous post seems to have become. Of course, if you want even more great info, you may purchase So, You Want To Be An Apple Consultant… (A Minimal Guide) here:
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