Here are the gory details of how I eventually made my Jump to Consulting… complete with lessons learned…
When I received my BSEE (Electrical Engineering) degree in 1968, a consulting career wasn’t even on my radar screen. But less than two years into my first corporate job at Collins Radio, I was laid off. It wasn’t personal, as about half the company was let go due to the ups and downs of the electronics industry.
But it did start the gears turning on alternate ways to make a living. Luckily, I soon landed another corporate engineering position with Univac Defense Systems.
Though serendipity, I ended up in a group that provided in-house consulting on Electromagnetic Interference and Compatibility (EMI/EMC) issues. Although a narrow specialty, it proved quite interesting, and became the technical basis for my later consulting business.
- When one door closes, another often opens.
Still stung by the layoff, I started to explore options for making a living. At first, my sights were set low. I took a class on television repair (certainly not practical today), and then a class that led to a Master Electrician’s license. I dropped my earlier MSEE studies.
The idea was to develop readily marketable skills to tide me over in case of another layoff. Then I set my sights a bit higher, and stumbled into consulting.The initial spark was a class on the Professional Engineer (PE) license, a credential not widely needed in the electronics industry, but almost mandatory for consulting engineers.
Soon after, the consulting interest was fanned by a fellow engineer who recruited me to teach an evening class at a local vocational school. This fellow engineer was Bill Kimmel, who became my good friend and business partner.
The teaching led to a consulting contract to develop a comprehensive training program for the vocational school (now part of the University of Minnesota system), followed by numerous other technical training projects. The teaching also led to several outside projects, including selecting the computer system for a county medical society.
- Opportunity knocks often — you just need to answer the door!
About this time, I attended a seminar on consulting, presented by the late Howard Shenson. Howard had started and run consulting firms in conjunction with his full time position as a marketing professor. No “ivory tower” academic, Howard was practical and savvy about business.
Howard stressed the importance of marketing, and advocated approaches that were considered nontraditional at the time — such as seminars, magazine articles, and newsletters, as opposed to advertising, yellow page listings, etc. Had the Internet been around then, I’m sure Howard would have been blogging, too.
Thanks to Howard, I realized that my engineering experience alone was not enough, and that I needed to broaden my business experience, particularly in sales and marketing.
So I chased after, and finally landed, a position with Tektronix as a Field Sales Engineer. Tektronix is a leader in electronics test and measurement equipment, which meant my customers were also engineers, allowing me to leverage my engineering experience and credentials.
- Take advantage of your existing strengths!
At Tektronix, I was part of a small team of field engineers tasked to launch a new “Microprocessor Development System.” We were breaking new ground, and it was exciting. In addition to sales (I had a quota), my job also included field marketing (generating leads) and applications (training and supporting customers).
I decided to treat my new Tektronix job as a consulting project, and tried several of Shenson’s ideas. The first was to develop and present a local seminar to generate leads, which proved to be a a great success. This was later converted into a monthly offering to continue to bring in new leads. The second was a newsletter for my customer base. The third was providing technical talks for local professional engineering groups.
- Even if you are just thinking about consulting, you can start honing your skills with your present employer. As a bonus, they will likely be pleased with your initiative and results.
While I enjoyed working at Tektronix, the lure of small business called. I joined a startup, and provided some badly needed marketing services based on Shenson’s ideas. These included sales literature, vertical marketing strategies, direct mail, writing magazine articles, and developing and delivering a focused product seminar. I also spent time cold calling (not productive at all) while working to close new business.
Unfortunately, this did not work out. After eighteen months, the founder fired me, and replaced me with a buddy of his who had been waiting in the wings until it looked like the business might actually succeed. It was a classic “learning experience”. That means while I did learn a lot, it also cost me. The whole experience, however, greatly enhanced my BS detector, which has served me pretty well since then.
At this juncture, I decided to hang out my shingle and try consulting. Trust me, this is not the best way to start a consulting practice. Within three months, it was obvious that this was not going to work. It was also obvious there was a lot that I still needed to learn about how to start and run a small consulting practice.
- It’s OK to try and fail. Just pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and try again. To quote Winston Churchill, “Never give up!”
So, back into the corporate fold I went. I landed a job with a small ATE (automated test equipment) company that was (surprise) launching a new product. It looked like it might be fun, and it was. I got to work with several good technical marketers, and learned a lot in the process.
It appeared the ATE firm was on shaky ground (they eventually folded), so I left to join Intel as a Field Sales Engineer. A friend and colleague called one day to tell me of the position and thought it would be a good fit. Fifteen minutes into the interview, I knew I wanted to work for both the company, and my new boss. Fortunately, my new boss felt the same way.
- Networking pays off –It’s not what you know, but WHO you know…
The first day at Intel, I knew it was right. It felt great to be “back in the saddle”, in the field and involved with technical customers. My customers were fellow engineers working on exciting new products. The Intel sales process was highly consultative — provide technical information and support, and the sales will follow.
During all this time, my business partner and I had kept our part time consulting practice alive. We made sure that our projects did not pose a conflict of interest. This was pretty easy, as we had decided to focus on the EMI/EMC area, and as a component supplier, Intel had no business interest in this area.
- Moonlighting is a good way to start — but avoid conflicts of interest.
But the entrepenuarial itch still wanted to be scratched, so several years later I stated planning my exit from the corporate world. It was time to “strap on the parachute” and jump into the world of consulting. This time, preparations were made in advance.
We incorporated the company, and we loaded up the bank accounts. We developed our collateral (cards, letterhead, brochures) and we lined up several clients. We had a plan, and we intended to work that plan. I stepped out first, since we didn’t want to sink the venture before it even had a chance to succeed.
Then, on first day in full time business (October 1987), the stock market crashed! Oops — we hadn’t planned for that. Yes, it was scary for a while. But the plans we made worked, and the business continued to grow. My business partner was able to join me only a few months later.
Looking back, I often muse that “The first day in business was the worst day in business.” Every day since has been better!
- Planning pays off — particularly when unexpected disasters occur!
Since that fateful day in 1987, this business has proved interesting and much fun. In addition to consulting in almost every state in the US, I’ve done projects around the world.
One of the most interesting was a training project in Kuwait, right after the Iran-Iraq war and about six months before Kuwait was invaded. I met some fine young engineers there, and I hope they all survived. And in spite of language differences, I really enjoyed the enthusiasm of the young engineers I met in Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Europe, and Mexico. Engineering (and consulting) can be truly international.
The consulting business has treated me well, and I’ve even been able to set aside enough to feel financially secure as I approach my “golden” years. Mary, my phenomenal wife (she put up with me for over 40 years) and I have two grown sons with wonderful wives, and six extraordinary grandchildren
- Life is good!
So, that’s my story. The goal of this blog is to share things I’ve learned along the way. I often run into clients and others who ask about consulting, and how to get into the business. Some have even made attempts (as I did) and then turned back.
But once the itch is there, it begs to be scratched. I hope this helps!
Daryl Gerke — Mesa, AZ
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