One of the most important aspects of your career is the opportunity to mentor others in your chosen field. At this year's SXSW, I had the honor of being selected as a mentor. SXSW mentor sessions are where future or current independent designers, software developers, and artists are allotted ten minutes with various experts who answer questions, make suggestions, or give advice.

April 2014 represents a huge milestone for me. As of this year, I will have been in business, as an independent software consultant, for 20 years. In 20 years, I have learned a quite a bit, some of which I hope to share in this editorial.

Structure is Important

There are a number different things that you need to know when you start out as an independent software developer, Web designer, database administrator, or consultant. The first and most important one is how to structure your company.

A lot of people start out as a sole proprietorships. It won't take you very long to realize that this is a huge mistake. Being a sole proprietor means you take on everything for your company personally. This means if your actions as a consultant cause problems for a client, they can sue you personally, and should they prevail, they can take your money and property. So what should you do? Consider setting up your business as an LLC, S-Corp, C-Corp, or some type of entity that shields you from personal responsibility. Which leads me to my next idea:

Don't Be Penny Wise and Pound Foolish

Before embarking on any business venture, it's wise to consult trained professionals. What I mean is that you should consult with a CPA and a lawyer. The purpose of a CPA is to help you understand the tax ramifications of how you conduct business. TurboTax is no substitute for the advice a trained account can give you.

The second thing to do is consult a lawyer. A lawyer can help you draft proper contracts and other business paperwork to help keep you out of trouble. What you think you know about accounting and the law is probably wrong. Spend a few dollars for these types of services. It will save you money in the long run.

If you can't afford to pay for these services, there are organizations that can definitely help you. The first organization to consider is the SBA (Small Business Administration). The SBA can point you to free resources, including mentors who can help get your business started properly. There are lots of business people who are happy to give you advice and help you with your business. At a minimum, consider consulting the business section at your local bookstore or library. There are loads of resources for helping you get started.

Share the Wealth

Inevitably, you will attract a project or projects that require additional help. How do you go about solving this problem? Easy: You share the wealth. Most consultants are looking for additional work and it is pretty simple to share work out to them. This gives you the ability to take on larger projects and it also helps you in the long run, as these types of arrangements are generally reciprocal. That consultant you shared work with will inevitably come across a large project and need help himself. Guess who they'll call first?


I think the lesson of delegation was one of the more difficult ones for me to learn. The first part was the actually hiring of someone to delegate work to. First, I had to grow my company large enough to support an employee. Second, I had to make sure that employee was someone who could be delegated to. Once these two steps were accomplished and I was able to delegate work, I reached a new level of Nirvana. Almost ten years ago, I hired my first employee; a few years later, I became comfortable fully delegating work to him. I fondly recall that time when a client called and I said, “Hey, can you call Greg and ask him? I'm out with my kids.” That was liberating. I couldn't understand why it took me so long.


Now let me give you a bit of philosophy. These five letters have provided a lot of meaning and guidance to me in my business dealings other the last 20 years. What do they mean? Let me tell you a story:

My first real job was as a network administrator/database developer for Eagle Crest resort in Redmond, Oregon. The CEO of the resort drove a car with a vanity license plate consisting of the letters ADIAD. One morning I asked Jerry what that license plate meant. He said: “It stands for A Deal Is A Deal.” This is a value that is so simple. It means you need to keep your word. The deal you make is the deal you must live with. Sometimes these deals work in your favor sometimes they don't.

Many years ago, I worked on some courseware for a company. I offered up my price for the courseware and the company accepted it. Later on I found out how much more another instructor was paid for equivalent courseware. I was a little miffed, but I didn't complain. I just made a better deal the next time. You see, I got what I asked for. ADIAD.

A few years later, my best friend and CODE Magazine author, John Petersen experienced a similar situation. He took a small consulting job with another developer. During the consulting gig, he found out how much our developer friend was paid for the job. It was significantly more than the compensation he asked for and eventually received. John and I discussed the “fairness” of this situation. During this discussion, I asked him a question: “How much did you ask for? And were you paid that amount?” The answer was yes. I responded ADIAD, and next time you'll make a better deal.

I hope that this advice helps you if you're thinking about becoming an independent consultant, are already a consultant, or are entertaining the idea of doing a little moonlighting on the side!