Do you need a public office???

It depends… If your clients come to your office, it probably makes sense… If you go to your clients, it probably just wastes money.

In the first case, a public office adds a level of professionalism, and keeps you out of trouble with home owners associations or zoning boards. But don’t get carried away – a modest space will do just fine for the solo practitioner.

In the second case, a spare bedroom works fine. You should, however, set aside a dedicated space for your office. Working on the dining room table gets old very fast. It can also be disruptive to family life.

Some people, however, simply need a separate place to work – regardless of client contact. And some need the outside human contact that an office brings. This is often true for those migrating from the larger corporate environment.

The most important thing when starting out is to conserve resources. You don’t need fancy digs with a prestige address — you just need a safe quiet place to work with adequate resources (desk, computer, telephone, file cabinets, etc.) You are selling your capabilities, not fancy brick and mortar.

Here are some examples I’ve seen over the years:

(1) Kimmel Gerke Associates (yours truly) – Since we almost never had clients visit us, my business partner and I set up separate offices in spare bedrooms.

While we once considered sharing an office, we were both traveling so much it didn’t make sense. Besides, the telephone and the Internet worked fine to stay in contact. And we both liked our twenty foot commutes.

Our “office managers” were our wives, so we truly ran a “mom and pop” operation. Not for everyone, but it worked very well for us.

(2) Advertising A one person agency, this consultant leased about 100 square feet of space from a print shop. I used her services with good success many years ago after a misfire with a fancy downtown agency. Hire the person, not the office.

That was all the space she needed, plus the shop provided a phone line with a receptionist. It was mutually beneficial, as the print shop now could offer additional services. Besides, she did all her printing with her landlord.

(3) Sales consultant – Another one person firm, this friend leased space in a restaurant, which I found quite clever.

His office had a separate entrance on a lower walk out level. The rent was very attractive, as this was bonus income for the restaurant, and parking was never a problem. And he always had a place to take clients for lunch.

(4) Attorney – My estate attorney is located in building with other small professional firms.

He has about 300 square feet, divided into two rooms. The back room is his legal office, with the appropriate lawyer’s desk, credenza, and meeting table. The front room is the reception area with the requisite legal library, with a desk for his office manager (his wife.)

The office is nicely appointed, but not pretentious. His fees reflect the lower overhead too. I discovered him after being gouged by a large law firm with fancy digs and high overhead.

(5) Web design My web designer is also located in a building with other small firms.

He has about 200 square feet with a couple of desks for he and his office manager (once again, his wife.) He has a back office in Nepal (where he grew up) so this space is modest but more than adequate. He recently became a US citizen, and is doing very well – the classic immigrant success story.

He started out working from home, but with the birth of two children, he got “kicked out” of his office. He is still close to home, but is not distracted by family activities.

(5) Consulting engineer – Now, a not so successful example story from many years ago.

When we started out as consulting engineers, this refugee from a large government agency told us we MUST get an office. After all, HIS office was located downtown with a prestigious address. He even chided us for working out of our homes.

Within the next year, he went bankrupt.

So, as you consider YOUR JumpToConsulting, do YOU need a public office? Weigh the decision carefully. Unless you are seeing outside clients (or you simply need the private space,) I generally advise against it. But if you do decide on a public office, I’ve shared some clever (and inexpensive) solutions.

Conserve those resources — you can always move to a public office later. Unless you are like me, and just love that twenty foot commute!

P.S. – I once asked a fellow consultant sitting next to me on a cross country flight where he had his office. He looked out the window, grinned, and replied, “Well, today it is about 30,000 feet over Denver…”

Copyright © 2015, All rights reserved.

Pursue the Fortune 500…

Here is a response I sent to a newsletter from Bob Bly, the direct-mail/copywriting guru. Bob is a fellow engineer turned successful marketing consultant many years ago.

I subscribe to his free newsletter (and have also bought some products) and find them useful and interesting.

The topic that promoted my response was Bob’s recommendation to pursue Fortune 500 clients. When starting out, you may be intimidated by the “big guys.”  Don’t be — they often make the best clients. As Bob pointed out they have deeper pockets… pay higher fees… and have more repeat assignments. They are loyal, too.

Here is my reply:

Hi Bob,

The Fortune 500 companies have been the best clients for our engineering consulting business too.They pay their bills, and bring you back again (assuming you do a good job in the first place.)

Sorry to say that the worst clients have been fellow consulting firms. Had to wait almost a year to get paid by one – their cash flow was abysmal as they were waiting on their clients. After that, we got advance payments from consulting firms.

Smaller firms were somewhere in the middle. If over about 200 employees, they were usually safe. One such smaller firm, however, was owned by a well known “politically connected” equity firm, and stuck us for $10K in a phony bankruptcy.

So I agree with your recommendations. Just because you are an independent practitioner, doesn’t mean you can’t play with the big boys. And once in, they can become very good clients.

Bob was featured here as a past success story – read it here.  You can subscribe to his free newsletter here.

P.S. The Fortune 1000 is pretty safe too. Even the bankruptcy was an anomaly, but I am still cautious of privately held firms. (Once burned – twice shy.)  

Copyright © 2015, All rights reserved.

A Veteran’s Day Salute…

Here is a salute to my late brother-in-law.  It really has nothing to do with consulting, but everything to do with being a gracious human being.

It is also a salute to all who have served. Thank you!

P.S. – Fifty years ago this week I was a young engineering student on my way to becoming an Air Force officer (AFROTC). A serious car accident suddenly changed that.

My career went in a different direction, and eventually I ended up as a consulting engineer where I worked on many defense projects –including those for the Air Force.

Life is funny that way…

Copyright © 2015, All rights reserved.

Be approachable…

This post was inspired by a popular RV blog I’ve followed and enjoyed for several years. The author added this to a recent blog post:


This accompanied a terse reply to an RV newbie who expressed hope in meeting her, as our blogger had inspired and informed the newbie with her blog. I found it hurtful.

While there is likely something that precipitated this, I still respectfully disagree. Anyone who RVs knows the culture encourages cordiality.

No, you don’t have to become best friends, but being friendly is the order of the day. We’ve had many a pleasant conversation with our RV neighbors. Found great places to eat,visit, and camp too!

Unfortunately, I’ve seen similar behavior with consultants – to their detriments. It may be unintended, but such behavior can come across as arrogance. Not good. Remember, people buy from those they know, LIKE, and trust.

In our case, we long had a formal policy to be approachable. As older engineers, we were particularly worried about intimidating younger engineers, so we took positive steps.

  • We responded right away to email or phone questions (at no charge.)
  • We welcomed newbies at trade shows or other events (always good for a beer.)
  • We shared advice on becoming consultants (several have joined the ranks – yea!)

We knew it worked one day when I ran across a quote on a professional forum. Asking for a referral, the response was “Call Kimmel Gerke Associates. Not only do they know what they are doing, but they are very easy to work with.” You can not buy advertising like that!

Later, that sentiment was expressed when my business partner passed away early this year. He was a quiet introvert, yet praise came in from around the world (see eulogy.) I’m still hearing from colleagues who treasured his friendly humility, grace, and approachability.

So be approachable — and work at it too. Keep your ego in check. Not only is it good business, but it is also just being a good human being!

Copyright © 2015, All rights reserved.

Five Things to Consider for a New Practice…

Here are five questions to ask yourself when starting a consulting practice — or any small business. This post was inspired by an answer to a business post on franchising vs independence.  Good advice for new consultants too.

(1) Is it interesting and motivating? There are consulting opportunities everywhere, but you will do much better and be more productive if you enjoy what you are doing. Done right, it won’t even seem like work – at least most of the time :-)

(2) Is the market big enough? I’ve emphasized identifying your niches, but make sure the niches are not too narrow. Can you identify multiple potential clients, not just one or two? On the other hand, are there too many players in your niches? You don’t want to get lost in the crowds. (We started with two part-time contract clients, and ramped up from there.)

(3) What make you different and unique? Even if you are in a generic area like accounting, what is special and unique about your practice?  What sets you apart from the competition, and why should clients choose YOU? (Think about those niches...)

(4) Will the need/market endure? You don’t want to jump in just as the bubble is about to burst. Ask where the market going, but be prepared for changes. Watch for changes, and adapt as needed. (My consulting practice today is very different from 30+ years ago.)

 (5) Last, but not least, can you make money? Maybe this should be first, since if you can’t make money, why do it? This is true for non-profits too, where you still have expenses that need to be met. (Consulting is a business, not a charity.)

Five simple questions, but worthy of serous consideration. Unlike the inspiration post, franchising is not an option. If you are making a JumpToConsulting, you are almost always starting from the ground up. But if successful, it is worth it!

Copyright © 2015, All rights reserved.

How much is enough?

How much IS enough? The question still haunts me…

Here are three stories. All three affected my thinking. Perhaps they will affect yours.

Story 1…

The question of enough was posed by a fellow consultant several  years ago. His wife had just been diagnosed with cancer, and we were talking after a professional society meeting. He was doing some serious introspection, and as a friend and colleague I lent an ear.

“How much is enough?” he mused. He had worked hard, was successful, and had enough in the bank. His immediate priority was enjoying whatever time his wife might have.

So he backed off on the business, and they went on some cruises. She responded well to treatment, and happily, she is fine today. But it did reset his priorities on what was enough.

Story 2…

My first encounter with enough goes back 45 years. My new boss hosted a Christmas party at his new house on a lake. It was a beautiful place in a beautiful setting. Being recently married, I thought how nice it might be to someday have similar digs.

Later, I thanked him for the party and complimented him on his new house. He smiled, and then offered some fatherly advice.

“Thank you,” he said. “It is nice. It makes my wife happy too. But there is a downside. We put all our money in the house, and as a result, we can’t do anything else.” He continued, “You are just starting out. Be careful about committing to a big fancy house.”

I decided that our modest house was enough. Each time we moved we stuck with enough. And today we have still have enough. 

Story 3…

My next encounter with enough came 12 years later. I was working for a successful entrepreneur, who net worth somewhere around $50 million.

An old German who had escaped Hitler, he came to America and worked as an engineer. Following a dream, he started a business in a garage. A combination of working hard and being in the right place at the right time with the right product led to phenomenal success.

But he was still  an old engineer at heart. One evening at a trade show, he hosted a bunch of us for dinner. After a few beers (after all, he was an old German), the subject of how much was enough came up.

He said, “You know, a couple of million is probably enough for most of us. How can you spend it all? After that, you are only keeping score.”

Sadly, he and his wife divorced on his way to his riches. Was it worth it? Not in my book.

Finally, how much is enough for you? Thanks to starting my own consulting practice combined with prudent living, today I can say I have enough.

P.S. Now back in Arizona. Had fun on our RV trip, but always good to be home. 

Copyright © 2015, All rights reserved.

Join the CBM Club…

I was first introduced to the CBM Club in 2012. What a novel concept!

In August 2011, we bought a small motorhome from Born Free in Humboldt, IA.

At a rally in 2012, I met John Dodgen, the 85 years old founder of Born Free back in the 1960s. What a delightful man, with a continual twinkle in his eye. Over the years, John and his family built the company into a small but highly regarded RV manufacturer.

At one point, I had the chance to talk with John over hamburgers. Always curious about small businesses, I asked him how he got started.

He smiled, and told me his story that went something like this:

After my brothers and I returned to Iowa after World War II, we realized that we could not all share the family farm. Liking the area, I decided to start a small company to manufacturer farm machinery.

One of our most successful products was a special trailer for feeding livestock. A niche product, we we eventually saturated the market. Furthermore, we made them so durable they didn’t wear out.

So I went to my board. I told them I wanted to take the company in a new direction. After much deliberation, I wanted to join the CBM Club.

At this point, John waited for my puzzled response. OK, so what is the CBM Club???

Corn, Beans, and Miami. You see, I’d noticed many farmers buying our machinery grew corn and beans, and then they headed to Miami for the winter. I wanted to do that too.

So I suggested making an RV. A highly durable RV, using the knowledge and experience gained making farm machinery. The first model was a slide in on a pickup truck. It was pretty heavy, so we added a tag axle for support. That was unique to the industry.

Not long after, we added roll bars. This was based on hearing of a fatal RV accident. I directed my design team to figure out how to add this important safety feature.

A few years later, we started building motorhomes. We focused on small truck based units (Class C), and built them with very high quality. Including the roll bars – never been a fatal accident in a Born Free, of which I am proud.

So what lessons can we glean from this for consulting?
Pick a niche. Don’t try to be everything to everybody
Be flexible. Be ready to change direction, but try to leverage on past experience.
Deliver high quality. The market may be smaller, but your customers will love you.
Don’t compromise. On safety, ethics, or anything else. Your reputation is key.
Have fun. I will always treasure the story of the CBM Club.

John recently passed away, and will be missed by all — his family, his company, and his customers. What better legacy to leave behind. Our condolences – RIP John.

P.S. –Yes, we love our little Born Free “Built for Two!”  Heading back in it from Minnesota (where there are some grandkids) to Arizona (where this is no snow.)

Our version of the CBM Club –joined as a consultant.   

Copyright © 2015, All rights reserved.

Consulting lessons from Pope Francis…

Like many others, I was enchanted by the Pope’s recent visit.  And I even gleaned some consulting lessons. To wit:

(1) Be likeable — Pope Francis radiates likeability. Nobody wants to listen to a jerk.

As consultants, this means being genuinely interested in your clients. It means really liking them, and not being mean, snarky, or vindictive.

(2) Be approachable –-Pope Francis rode in simple vehicles, rather than fancy limos.

Remember the auto CEOs and their jets? Many are angered by power when it is abused.

As consultants, we must be careful not to intimidate or annoy. Early on, we realized that as older engineers we might intimidate younger engineers. So we made it a formal business policy to be approachable. It works.

(3) Be honest — Pope Francis spoke truth to power — to Congress — and to the United Nations. Some people didn’t like it, but he let the chips fall where they may.

As consultants, that is what we are paid to do. To speak the truth. To identify and fix problems, not to praise or to suck up.

(4) Be flexible — Pope Francis made changes, even in the face of resistance. He didn’t just talk about it – he did it.

Change is often hard – particularly cultural change. Lot’s of inertia, not to mention politics. Those who enjoy advantages (fair or otherwise) don’t want to give them up.

As consultants, we are often called to be the agents of change.

(5) Be forgiving —  As Pope Francis would tell you, nobody’s perfect. Those genuinely seeking forgiveness will be forever grateful.

As consultants, accept those imperfections (including your own), forgive, and move on. You will be a better person for it.

(6) Be humble — Probably the Pope’s the most important lesson. Stories are that he was not always so humble, but had to learn humility. That speaks volumes about this man.

As consultants, keep your ego in check – you are not the center of the universe. I’ve seen too many cases where a felllow consultant’s ego killed the relationship.

No, I’m not Catholic, but I sincerely respect this man.  He is a breath of fresh air. I think he’d be one fine consultant. But maybe he already is!

Copyright © 2015, All rights reserved.

Buy Lunch for a Vendor…

Want some quick insight and exposure into a market? Offer to buy a vendor lunch. After all, they spend their lives out in the marketplace.

This is particularly effective in niche markets. You have identified your potential niches, right? If not, review this post.

A new consulting colleague in Phoenix did this with good success.

Upon hanging out his shingle, he took a local sales engineer to lunch to pick his brain about the market. In return, he offered to help the sales engineer with technical support (gratis.)

It was, and is, a win-win situation. As the old saying goes, one hand washes the other.

On a personal note, I had that happen to me as a new sales engineer.

When a customer called about lunch, I figured I was going to hear about our delivery problems. It had been a hard slog and some of his key projects were in jeopardy.

I planned to buy lunch.

But instead, he insisted on buying lunch. Then he and his boss thanked me for my efforts on their behalf. What a pleasant surprise!

As a result, guess who got very fast response to future questions and concerns? We all like to be appreciated.

 So treat vendors and sales people in your market with respect. And if you get the chance, offer to buy lunch!

P.S. Know someone who might benefit from JumpToConsulting?  Please forward a link.  Thanks!

Copyright © 2015, All rights reserved.

Small town living – a path to financial independence?

Here is a reply I left recently at my favorite financial blog, Mr. Money Mustache.  Pete, a fellow engineer, spent the last several years challenging and cajoling people to become financially independent.

He “retired” at age 30, and now does what he wants with no financial worries. Lives a nice lifestyle in nice digs, too.

His formula is simple — cut consumption and increase savings. When your income from investments equals your expenses — viola — you are now financially independent. He did it in seven years, and you can too.

So what does this have to do with consulting? You don’t need to be fully financially independent to make your JumpToConsulting, but you DO need some reserves. Assume at least six months with no income.

So if you are overconsuming and living pay check to pay check. you can’t make a JumpToConsulting, or any other jump. You first need to cut your expenses and change your mindset and your lifestyle!

One way to do this is to move to a small town. That is what my older son (the inspiration for this blog) did this year. Here is his story:

Don’t overlook small towns – particularly those about 100-150 miles from a major city.

After living in the city, my older son recently moved to a small town in Minnesota – population 5000. About 100 miles from Minneapolis, it is beyond commuting distance so it is no longer a suburb. But it still close enough for city resources (hospitals etc.) or a big city “fix” if needed.

They bought a nice house for 1/2 the cost in the city. The grade school and a park are across the street, and the high school is a few blocks away. The kids love it – they can bike all over town with their new friends. His commute is under ten minutes of country driving. His wife works in the high school as a teacher’s aide, and loves it.

They were concerned about leaving the city, but have been pleasantly surprised. Small town festivals –wineries — microbreweries — parks with uncrowded campgrounds. It may be rural, but there is still plenty to do. And the big city is still only two hours away.

Looking for a job change, he stumbled – almost by accident – on an executive opportunity with a small medical manufacturer. The company was delighted to get someone with his talent and experience, and they pay him accordingly. The school was delighted to hire his wife too. Big city wages with small town cost of living — how great is that? Plus the quality of life.

These opportunities abound, but you must seek them out. So if you are not yet financially independent, consider this as one way to speed things up — and enjoy the journey immediately. My son admits he never dreamed they would live like this.

A few more details on my son. After taking a company through a complex acquisition, he no longer had a job. Small thanks for helping grow the firm by 10x in a couple of years as their financial guru.

So he took his MBA in finance, his experience, and his proceeds and hung out his shingle as a consultant. The early discussions with him were the catalyst for this blog.

Although he was building the business, it was going slower than hoped. When one of his clients make him an offer he couldn’t refuse as the VP of Finance for a start-up, he jumped at it. Besides, like his dad, he has a love of small business.

But after a couple of years, it became obvious the start-up was stalling. Furthermore, there was friction with the founder, who was unwilling or unable to make necessary changes. (Been there myself.) So rather than wait for the axe to fall, he started a job search.

One interesting opportunity was with a medical device manufacturer in a rural community. As both he and his wife grew up in the city, there was some reluctance to purse it. Still, the job sounded interesting, so they decided to go in a new direction. So far, so good.

I’m proud of my son for taking that chance, and for working hard, like a good consultant, to make a positive impact on the world.

I’m also proud of his brother. A financial attorney in a large Manhattan firm, he recently took a chance and initiated a special project on alternate currencies. As their “Bitcoin-guru”, he too is working very hard to make a positive impact on the world.

Well done, both of you!

P.S. Thanks to the Internet and Fed-X, one can easily consult from small towns. And depending on your niche, you may even find plenty of clients right in you own backyard. 

Copyright © 2015, All rights reserved.

1 2 3 18