My approach to community consulting

There’s a danger in reading guides from people who are very new to what they are writing about. It would be better if these articles came from people who had put in the proverbial 10,000 hours. Trouble is people tend to be the most excited about sharing what they’ve learned while they are learning. I’ve been pursuing consulting full time for [checks calendar] two months and now that I’m making progress I figure it’s a good time to explain my method.

Find your niche

When I joined EDB, I started my consulting business on the side in order to keep a connection to community management. My first client was Vested Finance. They were starting a community and I gave some advice. But my heart wasn’t really in it. I sensed they wanted a community in order to check off the “we have a community” feature box. The person assigned to the project was great to work with, but didn’t really have the aptitude or interest to carry out the tasks needed to create a community from scratch. My contract wasn’t renewed and the company closed up the community not long afterward.

As it happens, I don’t have a lot of enthusiasm for communities built for the purposes of marketing a product. There’s a place for them, of course. It’s just companies that settle on this sort of community miss out on the better prize:

This time around I decided to monitor the Discourse Marketplace where people go when they need help with their Discourse community. The jobs I’m most interested in are people who want to make the most of their existing communities.

As I put it elsewhere:

By hiring a professional community manager part-time, mid-range communities get the assistance they need at the price they can afford. This is exactly why I created Civitas. It allows me to take what I’ve learned about community management and share it with organizations who can’t afford an experienced community team.

Even if they don’t end up hiring me, I’ve enjoyed talking with the people running these communities. They are my people. What’s more, they have been incredibly appreciative of my unique combination of technical and social skills. So it’s been, well, not easy, but satisfying to search for clients over the last two months.

So that’s the first tip: determine what you can uniquely offer and spend your time finding like-minded customers. If you can’t figure out what your niche is, maybe you aren’t ready to put yourself on the market.

Be open to opportunity

Here’s how I got my best client (so far):

  1. I saw a question on Meta Discourse that offered $30 to fix a problem with emails.
  2. Since I happened to have experience in this area, I sent a private message with my solution.
  3. When we agreed I’d solved the problem, rather than taking the $30, I suggested that this could be an audition for an ongoing consulting agreement.

It would have been tempting to either turn up my nose at $30 or just take the money for job done quickly. But then I would have missed out on a lot of interesting and profitable work. Here’s another example:

  1. When I was working at Stack Overflow, my manager, Abby, suggested a title change for me. We didn’t know exactly what it meant, but “Community Product Manager” sounded like it fit what I was doing well enough. I started using the title including while at College Confidential.
  2. Someone who is about to start a job as a “Community Product Manager” found my blog post about the title. It includes a link to schedule a meeting with me. So he did!
  3. We talked for an hour or so and at the end he asked if I might be willing to be a (paid) career coach.

I don’t know if anything will come from it, but it could be a new line of business for me.

Notice that this bit of advice somewhat contradicts the “find your niche” advice. But they do fit together in the sense that, at least for me, building a business is less about following the blueprint and more about discovering a scheme that works.

Billable hours

As to myself, my guiding-star always is, ‘Get hold of portable property’. —John Wemmick, Great Expepectations by Charles Dickens

For consultants, the guiding-star is “Get hold of billable hours.” There are a lot of things I’ve done that don’t directly bring in income. It may be important to do these things, but only if they will eventually result in billable hours. So I participate on Discourse Meta in order to find people who need my services in order to sign them as clients in order to bill them for the time I spend solving their problems.

It’s really easy to get distracted by the work you can’t bill. The further you get from working billable hours the less likely you’ll be to pay your own bills. It can be useful to measure the distance between what you are doing and billable hours thusly:

Priority Task
0 Billable hours
1 Writing a proposal to a client for more billable hours
2 Signing a new client
3 Engaging with a potential client
4 Activity in the place potential clients might find you
5 Self-indulgent posts about your business

This can help prioritize time during designated working hours. Things lower down the list matter and might become important enough become higher priority, but try not to put off billable hours in order to “save them up”.[1] The more you do for a client, the more likely they will think of new things for you to do.

Early on I asked around for recommendations of time-trackers and Toggl fits the bill. It lives in its own tab group and I open it when I start a new project for a client. (Each client also has their own tab group too so that I can keep track of what I’m doing for them.) It requires some effort to remember to start and stop the timer, but so far I’ve found that I’m far more motivated when I know the timer is the key to tracking billable hours.

There is one activity that takes priority over billable hours and that’s billing hours. My chart should start with -1, which is the actual act of sending clients an invoice and encouraging them to get the cash into your bank account. This has been a challenge for this week since I forgot to include details of how I might be paid in my first invoice. Now I’m on an online chat with my bank to see why my first payment was capped at $40.

Calculating an hourly rate

I estimated my rate by taking my most recent salary, divide it by 52 weeks and 40 hours to get an hourly rate. Then I multiplied that by 1.3 to account for the various expenses (payroll taxes and benefits) that the company paid and are now my responsibility. It’s a reasonable estimate for what my employer would pay for my time as a part-time employee.[2]

But that doesn’t reflect my value to a client as a consultant. There are a lot of formulas out there, but none of them matter. All that matters is finding a rate that clients agree to. I’ve definitely scared off a few potential clients with my prices, but I suspect I’m below market rate:

Fact is that there are not many good developers for Discourse so the rates are not as low as for the average PHP job.

Neither I nor my clients have a clear idea of what my services are worth. Truthfully my services are worth more to some clients than to others. My goal in setting a rate is to produce more value for clients than what they are spending on you.

Honesty wins

People hire me because I know more about my speciality than they do. It’s tempting to, you know, push work that pays well even if it’s not particularly helpful. I can take advantage of the information imbalance to increase my profit and extract the most from my clients. But that’s a losing strategy.

Early on I talked with a potential client about migrating from another platform to Discourse. The client didn’t have much to spend and I figured I could do the job for the price if I cut some corners. But the corners I’d need to cut would leave the community worse off than if they just stopped using the other platform and switched to an empty Discourse server. Instead of taking the job, I explained the alternative, which they decided to do.

I also recommend Literate Computing who is a nominal competitor. Jay Pfaffman, the owner of the business, does great work and is extremely active on Meta Discourse. He has substantially more experience than I do. If I lose business to him, at least I know their site is in good hands.

I said my value to customers comes from having certain skills. In the long run I can be more valuable by caring about what my clients care about. And if I provide value, my clients will be happy to pay me.

It’s not a smooth ride

As John D. Cook notes:

I notice a sudden uptick in leads and wondered what might be causing this.

Then I remembered the “spring thaw” that happens around this time every year.

Businesses kinda reboot over the holidays and don’t start new consulting projects until around February.

So far I’ve had days where I’m convinced I’ll need to take a job at a call center or something. And then I’ll have days like today where I solved someone’s problem and then signed them as a new client. Consulting is a business for people who are either confident or patient. Ideally both.

  1. This might be unique to me, but I sometimes treat meaningful work as a reward for first doing mundane, but necessary, tasks. ↩︎

  2. Obviously this assume a US company. Other countries would have different rules of thumb. ↩︎

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