General Consulting

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Opportunities Abound When Ecosystems Collapse…

This post was inspired by a 2011 post by Pam Slim (Avatars, Ecosystems, and Watering Holes), where she discusses creating you own healthy business ecosystem.

But what happens when an ecosystem collapses? Most people panic, but a few recognize the opportunities — often excellent for starting a consulting practice.

Scientists tell us every major extinction event was followed by an explosion of new life. A prime example is the asteroid that destroyed the dinosaurs, which gave rise to the mammals and ultimately the naked apes known as homo sapiens.

When an ecosystem collapses, the balance of nature is upset. Those at the top of the food chain (the huge dinosaurs) are displaced, and new opportunites explode (for the tiny mammls.) But eventually a new equilibrium is reached, and evolution resumes its slow grind.

So it is with business. Sudden changes give rise to new opportunities, at least to those willing to pursue them. The intertia of the dinosaus often prevents them from doing the same. In fact, the dinosaurs usually fight the changes and thus miss the opportunities.

A minor engineering ecosystem collapse helped launch our consulting firm.

  • Thanks to the personal computer explosion, by the early 1980s electronic interference problems to radios and televisions were increasing exponentially.
  • As a result, the Federal Communication Commission issued new regulations.
  • But there were few engineers that understood the problems, and how to fix them.
  • Most of those engineers were well entrenched in the defense industry, and not interested in tackling commercial electronics.
  • Thus, the engineering ecosystem for addressing these problems collapsed.

Recognizing the opportunity, we jumped in with both feet. But the economy was teetering too, and the first day in business the stock market crashed (October 1987.) A double whammy. But thanks to multiple opportunities with very limited competition, we did very well.

A second collapse occurred in the mid-1990s. Driven by the same interference problems, the European Union passed strict laws on interference on a wide range of electronic devices. If you could not demonstrate compliance, you could not export to the EU.

  • Once again, many big players (the dinosaurs) missed the changes (the asteroid.)
  • Once again, the engineering ecosystem suffered a minor collapse.
  • Once again, the little guys (the tiny mammals) like us did very well.

This is when we launched our training business, which took off like a rocket. This time, people were hungry for both help and knowledge. We often joked that while the consulting paid the bills, the training funded the retirement.

Would we have the same quick success today? Probably not, unless the ecosystem again collapsed. The growth would be much slower under today’s more stable conditions.

So, don’t fear the changes. Rather, seek them out. Remember, when the ecosystem collapsed, the mammals proliferated and the dinosaurs died out.

© 2016, jumptoconsulting.com. All rights reserved.

Avoid Tax Audits… Keep Your Books Clean…

Just finished gathering my annual tax information, so taxes are on my mind. It gets shipped out tomorrow to my accountant, who (as a consultant) will do the financial magic.

Years ago my accountant advised me to keep good records and to keep them clean. One never knows when one might be audited. Sometimes it is purely random, and sometimes it is the result of an abnormal condition that flags your return. .

According to a recent news article, 1 % of IRS tax returns are audited. It is slightly higher for small businesses. It seems some business owners can’t resist the temptation to fudge the numbers, either through questionable deductions or hiding income.

My advice — do NOT do this! An audit can easily cost you thousands of dollars — fees, lost time, and lost revenues. And while you can deduct the legal/accounting expenses, you can’t deduct or recover lost revenues — they are gone forever.

Furthermore, once you fail an audit, expect to be audited again. I know one small business colleague who learned that lesson the hard way. His audits went on for several years.

More advice — use a CPA! Even if you can do the taxes yourself. Nothing like having a CPA (Certified Public Accountant) sign your tax return for credibility with the tax agencies. Or at least signal them that you have a professional tax advisor in your corner.

To keep the costs down, I keep my own books. Nothing fancy here — I used Quicken for years. Although a simple check register system, it can generate various reports. Such as the P&L (profit and loss) statement, which my CPA uses to prepare my taxes.

My CPA has helped in several other ways. Setting up a chart of accounts, sharing general business advice, filing other reports, and providing vetted referrals for insurance and financial management. It has been money well spent.

If you do get audited, don’t despair. I’ve been audited twice — once by the IRS, and once by the great state of Arizona.

The IRS audit was supposedly “random.”

The conversation went something like this:

Auditor – Which is better for you? To come into our office next Tuesday or next Wednesday?

Me — Neither. But can my CPA handle this? He prepared the return.

Auditor — Uh… yes… I guess that would work.

I suspect the audit was not random at all. But the issue got resolved, whatever it was.

End of audit.

The Arizona audit was supposedly due to high medical expenses one year.

The conversations went something like this:

Auditor – I need to verify all your medical expenses.

So I sent copies of all the bills.

Auditor – Now I need to verify all your insurance payments.

So I sent copies of all the payments.

Pretty sure the auditor thought I did not save these statements. I also included a list of expenses I had missed — a couple of drug charges, plus mileage for the various medical appointments.

I then asked if I should file an amended return to get money back.

End of audit.

Thanks to a CPA, clean books, and good records, I passed both times. And I didn’t lose any sleep over either one. In fact, it felt pretty good to put a stop to any fishing expeditions.

Keep your books clean too — it is just good business to do so!

© 2016, jumptoconsulting.com. All rights reserved.

Do you sell like an engineer???

This post is for my fellow geeks. It was inspired by a recent post at LinkedIn Pulse titled “Do You Buy Like an Engineer? Probably Not.”

The author points out that many A/E/C (architectural/engineering/construction) firms stumble in their sales efforts when they assume their clients think just like them.

If the client is another engineer, that may be true. But if not (such as a government entity or even general management), there can be a serious misfire.

She points out that engineers are different. We engineers know that – see this post. 🙂 But she also points out that one must adjust the sales message to the client.

Here is my comment:

Very good article, and excellent comments. As a consulting engineer (30+ years) and former sales engineer (10 years), I agree.

But the reverse is true. If you are selling to engineers, you better give them details. If you try to “fluff and bluff” they will eat you alive.

As a young engineer preparing a capital equipment request, I was advised to limit the digits to two for managers ($20K, not $19,767.55.)

The joke was their brains could not handle larger numbers. But I quickly learned managers had a broader view. Both views are often needed.

So I use different approaches for engineers and managers in my business dealings. Your point is well taken – one must adjust the sales message to the audience. Don’t talk French to a German.

Thanks for sharing your insights!

Selling consulting services is all about communications. It is NOT about manipulation, like “overcoming objections” — how I hate that term!

Rather, it is having conversations about client problems and/or aspirations, and helping craft appropriate solutions. Like being a doctor or architect — not just another peddler.

But you must speak the client’s language. That was the author’s original point.

© 2016, jumptoconsulting.com. All rights reserved.

Some comments on travel expenses…

Had a recent inquiry on how I handle travel expenses. Here are my policies:

  • Travel expenses are billed at cost – no markup. Some consultants mark up the travel, but I feel this is cheesy.
  • Air fare purchased is normally refundable/changeable. Saves problems if the schedule changes.
  • Out of town travel time is billed at one day anywhere in the continental US. Keeps it simple. Overseas travel time is negotiated, usually two or three days.
  • Local travel time is billed portal-to-portal for less than a full day. Four hour minimum. No extra travel charge for a full eight hour day.
  • I make my own travel arrangements. If the client does, they are subject to my approval.
  • A $2500 advance is required prior to any travel. Lost money once on a bankruptcy – won’t happen again.

These details are included in my “Terms and Conditions” – a  single page of boiler plate attached to quotations. Here is the verbiage:

Expenses – All expenses will be billed at actual cost, with no markup. These expenses include all travel costs, test lab and subcontractor fees, and other expenses incurred for the client.

State or local withholding taxes, if applicable, will be treated as an expense and added directly to the invoice.

Travel – Travel time is charged at our regular rates, as follows:

-Local – No travel charge for full day consultations. For less than a full day, time will be billed portal-to-portal.

-Out of town (Air Travel) – One full day labor is added to consultation fee for travel within the contiguous 48 states.

-Outside Contiguous United States – To be determined.

-We normally make our own travel arrangements, but if made by client, they are subject to approval. Overseas travel is “business” class.

Hope this helps.

© 2016, jumptoconsulting.com. All rights reserved.

Follow your passion… NOT…

Too many “entrepreneurial” bloggers suggest you simply “follow your passion.”

Unfortunately, that alone is not enough. You better be able to make money at it! Here are two stories that illustrate the point:

The Ice Cream Store…

At a professional meeting some years ago, one of my colleagues said to ask Dick about his ice cream store.

“Ice cream store?” I responded. “We’re a bunch of consulting engineers. What’s with the ice cream store?”

“Just ask,” he responded with a twinkle in his eye.

So I did. As engineers, we often like to twist our colleagues’ tails, and I was pretty sure that was what this was all about. But it turned out there were some valuable lessons in the story.

Dick told how his daughter had long wanted to have her own business. Being a good dad, he agreed to help her. With stars in her eyes, she decided to open an ice cream store. Not a franchise, but an independent store, that she could decorate and run how she saw fit.

How cool is that?

Unfortunately, this was her first business venture. No customer surveys, no location research, no marketing of any kind. Build it and they will come, right?

With some luck, the store was moderately successful. Enough so that soon a second ice cream store opened up down the street. Another would be entrepreneur with stars in her eyes also thought it was a cool idea, and jumped in.

The net result. Neither store now made enough to break even. Within a year both stores went bankrupt.

There are a couple of lessons here:

  • Make sure there is a want or need for your products or services.
  • Make sure there are some barriers to entry.
  • Make sure there are enough customers able and willing to pay.

Just because it looks cool, doesn’t mean it is a viable business!

Roto-Rooter isn’t particularly cool, nor was our consulting practice. Like Roto-Rooter, we fixed problems that others did not care to handle.

And while our consulting practice was not as cool as an ice cream store, we enjoyed it — and we made a darn good living at it.

The Country Doctor…

In an earlier post, I told of my great-uncle’s medical bag, and how a few simple tools coupled with the right knowledge and experience saved lives in the early 1900s. His medical practice spanned a half century. A successful professional consulting career.

His first passion, however, was music. As a young man, he dreamed of being a concert violinist. But he realized the odds of making a decent living playing the violin were not good.

So he made a career out of a second passion. Healing people through the practice of medicine. Music became an avocation, not a vocation.

He found great satisfaction in both. He was an accomplished physician, and also an accomplished musician. Thanks to his decision, he lived life well.

I heard this story years later from his wife, my great aunt, who was also his nurse. Since he passed away when I was young, I hardly knew him. But I always found his decision to be very wise. Find something you like to do, AND with which you can make a living.

You can always make a hobby of other passions.

So before you quit your job to follow your passion, make sure there is a need, there are barriers to entry, and there are clients willing/able to pay. Otherwise it is just a hobby.

© 2016, jumptoconsulting.com. All rights reserved.

How we sold 130,000 books in one day…

For many years, this was a “trade secret,” but now the story can be told.

Simple — we gave them away — for FREE  — as a supplement to a leading engineering magazine. And did it ever pay off!

The original plan was a twelve part series in Engineering Design News (EDN) in 1994. The editor would not run it until we had six articles ready to go. Fair enough. So I wrote one article a month – after all, we still had an active engineering consulting practice to run.

Upon submitting the first six articles, the editor suggested bundling them all together as a book supplement to the magazine. At first, I balked. The initial strategy was a year long exposure (one article a month). Drip marketing…

But the more I thought about it, the more I liked it. So I agreed, and even offered to help procure advertisers. EDN jumped at that offer — we were in a niche market, and we knew the key advertisers.

We contacted those we thought would be most interested, and ever so gently twisted their arms. Those who did sign up later thanked us. Original copies still sit on bookshelves.

The supplement immediately went into reprints. In 2001, EDN asked us to update the material, and then they did subsequent reprints. I added two chapters and updated the a time-sensitive chapter on regulations. The rest stayed pretty much the same.

In 2005, EDN decided not to continue with the reprints. So they returned the copyright, and we then offered printed books for sale on our website and for handouts in our classes.

Several thousand copies later, we added a PDF version for download. Although not free, both versions continue to be popular.

When the original book hit, the phone rang off the hook. Overnight, it propelled us from a small local consulting firm to one of national prominence in our field.

The book ruffled a few feathers – a few complained it was not technical enough. But I was not writing for the academics or experts. Rather, I was writing for the design engineer who had just encountered his or her first electromagnetic interference problem — and a likely candidate for our services.

Overall, our first book* was a great (if somewhat accidental) success. We were paid a nominal amount for writing it, but not nearly enough to pay for the time. In retrospect – I would have done it for free, given the exposure it gave us and the business it brought in.

Some additional information. I’ve been mixing “I and we” for a reason. While I wrote the bulk of this book, my late business partner (Bill Kimmel) edited and added his comments.

At the same time, he was writing a book on medical devices, which I edited and added my comments. Later, we collaborated on a third book. So both names appear on all three books as co-authors.

Writing a book is a big challenge. An even bigger challenge is getting it into the hands of prospective clients.

Realizing our primary business was consulting — not writing — we elected to give away our first book. It was a huge marketing successes!

P.S. In addition to the books, we wrote over 200 technical articles (for free,) and published a free client newsletter for over 20 years. It has all been a lot of work, but also a lot of fun. And it greatly enhanced the visibility and credibility of our consulting firm.

Don’t be afraid to share your expertise – for FREE. The pay off is there!


* Read the first chapter of the “EDN Magazine Designer’s Guide to EMC” here.

© 2016, jumptoconsulting.com. All rights reserved.

2015 Annual Review…

Another year about gone, and once again it is time to reflect.

Got this idea from Chris Gullibeau of The Art of Nonconformity. He does this each year, and each year challenges others to do the same. Great idea!

So as always, I’ll review three categories:

But first, a quick overview…

The JumpToConsulting project is now FIVE years old. The catalysts were questions by my older son, questions by colleagues, and a fat file for a prospective book. With today’s economy, many people are considering options such as consulting.

I was also intrigued by blogging, and simply wanted to learn more about this Internet phenomena. What better way that to just start a blog. Incidentally, that was the same attitude that got me into consulting. Curiosity, and a desire to learn.

The EMI-GURU project is now almost FORTY years old, which led to full time consulting in 1987. It has been great fun, and quite successful. I’ve traveled the world, and made a lot of friends along the way.

It made me both location independent and financially independent. Best of all, it allowed me to practice my profession as an Electrical Engineer in a ways I didn’t even imagine as a young engineer.

The EMI-GURU project also provides the grist for JumpToConsulting. Much of what is discussed here is based EMI-GURU experiences. The stuff I talk about is not theory — rather, this is real world and is based on almost 40 years in the consulting business!

LOOKING BACK on 2015…

Jump-to-Consulting – The blog is up to 185 posts. Had planned on more but got sidetracked with my business partner’s cancer. Now back on track, with at least one post per week. Still have well over 100 ideas for new posts.

Not many readers (it is a pretty tight niche), but it has helped several Jumpers. So don’t be bashful — your questions and feedback mean a lot, and they inspire me to keep going.

EMI-GURU – Sad news here. My good friend and business partner of almost 40 years passed away in April from pancreatic cancer. It was a total surprise. Some days I feel like Laurel without Hardy, or Mutt without Jeff. I usually advise against partnerships, but ours was special. I’ll address partnerships in a future post.

As a result, I’ve ceased most consulting, and refer business to select colleagues. I remain involved with the technical classes, something I always enjoyed. Not ready to totally quit. More details at EMIGURU.

Personal – Although a crazy year, still put on about 8000 miles in the RV, with trips to visit grandkids in MN and CT. Also had several weekend trips with friends.

Moved back to our house, after the less than successful patio home experiment. Lesson learned – beware of HOAs (home owner’s associations.)

Sami the rescue mutt continues to bring joy, along with daily exercise as my “personal trainer.”  But due to the stress, the weight crept up about 15# as I fell off the SEC (Stop Eating Crap) diet. You just can’t fool Mother Nature.

LOOKING FORWARD to 2016…

Jump-to-Consulting – Keep on blogging, with at least one post per week. Also considering several other enhancements that were sidetracked in 2015. Watch my blog for more details. Better yet, sign up for the newsletter, or drop me a line!

EMI-GURU – Continue teaching technical classes, but not more than once month. There is nothing like seeing a younger engineer (and even an old timer) suddenly “get it.”

Personal – Spend time reading, writing, and traveling in our little RV. Restart the SEC diet. Get back into ham radio. Play with the mutt, and just goof off more!

Wishing you all the best in 2016! And THANK YOU for reading my blog.

© 2015, jumptoconsulting.com. All rights reserved.

Ten Tips For Better Technical Writing…

Writing technical articles (or white papers) can be very effective marketing methods. They create both credibility and visibility at low cost, and can produce high results. With over 200 articles, it certainly worked at Kimmel Gerke Associates!

Getting articles published, however, takes time and effort. It may seem mysterious at first, but help is on the way — thanks to Bob Bly, an engineering colleague turned very successful copywriter. (Click here to see Bob’s “success story.”)

I just purchased his recent e-book “Marketing with Articles” and found it filled with practical nuts and bolts information on both writing and publishing technical articles. Even though I’m no novice, I consider it $29 well spent.

Here is an excerpt from this 129 page guide. Print this out and review it the next time you write anything technical — article, white paper, report, or…

TEN TIPS FOR BETTER TECHNICAL WRITING
by Robert Bly

I. Know your readers. Are you writing for engineers? managers? laymen?

2. Write in a clear. conversational style. Write to express – not impress.

3. Be concise. Avoid wordiness. Omit words that do not add to your meaning.

4. Be consistent … Especially in the use of numbers. symbols. and abbreviations.

5. Use jargon sparingly. Use technical terms only when there are no simpler words that can better communicate your thoughts.

6. Avoid big words. Do not write “utilize” when “use” will do just as well. (My personal pet peeve…)

7. Prefer the specific to the general. Technical readers are interested in solid technical information and not in generalities. Be specific.

8. Break the writing up into short sections. Short sections. paragraphs. and sentences are easier to read than long ones.

9. Use visuals. Graphs, tables, photos, and drawings can help get your message across.

10. Use the active voice. Write “John performed the experiment,” to “The experiment was performed by John.” The active voice adds vigor to writing.

As a bonus, you can start doing this NOW – even if you have not yet made your own JumpToConsulting. Done right, it poses no threat to current employers, and may even enhance your credibility with your bosses.

So read it, and then get busy with YOUR articles. Yes, you can do it!

And thank you, Bob, for sharing your wisdom, and keeping it so economical!

“Marketing with Articles”, an e-book by Bob Bly (Copywriter/Consultant), 2014, $29
Order Here: www.getfamouswritingarticles.com


Disclosure – I have NO affiliation with Bob, and receive NOTHING in return – other than the satisfaction of sharing a valuable resource.


Past articles you may find of interest:

-Lead Generator #1 – Write Articles

-Lead Generator #2 – Develop White Papers

© 2015, jumptoconsulting.com. All rights reserved.

Avoid snarky political comments…

Time for a mini-rant.

With the political season in full swing, the snarky comments flow on the Internet. But as a consultant, not a good idea to publicize your views, no matter how tempting.

This post was inspired by a recent comment on a popular business blog. One guy took a cheap political shot totally unrelated to the discussion. Not only did it contribute nothing, it made him look like an immature fool.

Just out of curiosity, I visited his web site, thinking it might explain things. The site (a book store) was not political, so he unnecessarily alienated half his prospective readers/buyers.

As a strategy, leaving snarky comments might make sense if you were trying to attract those who share your views. For example, if you were selling a political book or raising political funds. Or perhaps as a political  “consultant”…

But if not, why take the risk?

Best to avoid politics, religion, and other volatile topics. And just good manners not to dump on another person’s website.

End of mini-rant.

P.S. I considered commenting on this breach of etiquette, but decided not to feed the trolls. Suggest you not feed them either 🙂

© 2015, jumptoconsulting.com. All rights reserved.

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…”

© 2015, jumptoconsulting.com. All rights reserved.

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