Becoming an IT consultant: Do's, don'ts and disasters to avoid

Thinking of striking out on your own? Ex-CIOs who have made the jump share their hard-won advice.

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"Every single consulting job you do is like sending up a billboard on Main Street or in Times Square," says Barry Mathis, a former CIO at Bradley Memorial Hospital in Cleveland, Tenn. (renamed Skyridge Medical Center) who's now an IT consultant specializing in health care for H.I.S. Professionals LLC.

If you perform a job poorly because you're not a specialist in that particular area, word gets out and the references fall off. "And references are a consultant's life," he notes.

Another option is to team up with consultants who specialize in areas other than you do and refer work to one another. "We consciously created a network of consultants both nationally and internationally," says Strider. "We bring them in on projects and they refer projects to us. Always be on the lookout for connections," she advises. "It's more about connections than selling per se."

Work that contacts file

Whether you left corporate IT on your own or have recently been downsized, don't waste any time in getting yourself started. Chances are you left the corporate suite with a bulging electronic rolodex of vendor and CIO contacts. Resist the temptation to lay low a while and instead call or e-mail your network to let them know of your change in status and your new consulting endeavor.

"Once you're no longer a CIO, it's hard to get into the venues where [CIOs] are unless you have a lot of money," says Strider. "One of the biggest differences is that when you have a corporate job, the work comes to you. When you're a consultant, you have to go and find it. You need to use those CIO contacts as much as you can and build more right away because once you're not one of them, it's sure not easy."

Also, you should now count among your best friends all of those vendors whose calls you tried your best to avoid as a CIO. Vendors know which companies just bought new software, where projects are being initiated and various tidbits of inside gossip from IT staffers.

"Vendors are calling me and linking me up with people to get jobs," says Tocuyo. Among the valuable information he says he learned from vendors is that "J.C. Penney, Frito-Lay and other big companies in the area have openings but they can't hire anyone. They'd rather have someone come in and do a [software implementation] job as a temporary," he says.

Get involved with professional associations for independent business owners and city or regional businesses, advises Bill Farrow, who voluntarily left his CIO post at the Chicago Board of Trade in July and joined with several former colleagues from the finance and banking industry to start Chicago-based FC Partners Group LLC, a small, independent consulting firm.

"It's very important to keep your technology network up, but it's also important to extend that network beyond technology people because technology people aren't the only decision-makers out there," Farrow notes. "Get involved with the executive club in your city and with nonprofits in your community [because] you now have more in common with entrepreneurs than with technologists," he notes.

To introduce yourself as a consultant and to find work, "you've got to shake a lot of hands," agrees Moez Chaabouni, a former CIO and now an independent consultant and founder of My CIO LLC, which provides CIO services to small and midsize companies on an as-needed basis.

"I go to Chamber of Commerce events where they're recognizing growing companies," he says. Chaabouni also studies lists of best restaurants, best small entrepreneurs, fastest-growing enterprises and the like because companies on those lists "have been flagged by leaders in their industry segments." They're prime potential clients, he adds.

Setting up shop

Forget fancy office space at a high-priced address. It's a big mistake, the experts say. "The appearance of your office is not important. Your clients don't come to your office. You go to them. As a consultant, what you're selling is you," says Strider. "You're selling your experience and services, methodology and skills. It's the skills that you have in your head, and they don't need an office."

You do need a place from which to work, however, and that usually is a home office. But it can be difficult, at least initially, to stay focused working from home, says Tugman, who went off to work for more than 20 years at the Fort Monmouth base before it closed in 2006.

"It would be really easy to go and start doing the 'honey do' list, so what I had to do is set my hours and budget my time," Tugman says.

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