I have been talking about independent consulting a lot at the Joint Statistical Meeting, and I wanted to summarize some of my commentary about publicizing your consulting career. Publicity is important because people don’t like hiring a total stranger as a consultant. Your publicity efforts work towards making your name known to potential clients and to people who might refer you to potential clients.
If you’re just getting started in consulting, there are some preliminary steps that are vital before you start any publicity campaign. These steps include:
- finding a good lawyer and a good accountant to advise you.
- setting up your consulting business as a sole proprietorship, limited liability corporation, Subchapter S, or some other legal entity.
- getting liability insurance coverage.
There are important considerations for the legal entity that you choose for your consulting business. A sole proprietorship is simple, but does not offer you protection is you take out loans and makes it difficult to seek funding from outside investors. Talk to both your lawyer and accountant about the ramifications of these various choices. If you are looking at a partnership, things are especially complicated and you need to carefully document everything.
You also need to make sure that your personal activities and professional activities don’t intermingle. This means
- creating a separate checking account for your business
- getting a separate business telephone line
- getting a separate business email account
- getting a domain name and website
The separate checking account is especially critical if you want to claim deductions for business expenses. All of your income is deposited exclusively to your business account and all of your expenses are paid out of your business account. The Internal Revenue Service (or the comparable tax agency for people outside the United States) will not be happy if your personal and professional expenses are intermingled.
Your accountant will probably advise you to purchase an accounting program like QuickBooks or PeachTree. These are a legitimate business expense (as is your payments to your accountant and lawyer).
If you get a separate phone line, you might want to consider getting a toll free line (800 number). A toll free number is not that expensive and it makes it a lot easier for potential prospects to call you.
I’ll discuss how best to use your domain name below.
I’ll list the methods of getting publicity roughly in order of their value. Don’t feel like you have to do EVERYTHING on this list. It would take too long, and besides, some of these suggestions may not make much sense in your particular setting. I’ll be happy if you find a couple of things on this list that you are not currently doing and which you might find helpful.
The best source of publicity is word of mouth. The way this works is that someone likes you and they say nice things about you to their colleagues. You can encourage this by asking, at the end of a successful consulting gig, “Do you know anyone else who might benefit from my services.” Most of the time, you won’t get a referral through this, but you might. The importance of asking this question, though, is that it places a thought in the brain of your client. The hope is that they will remember you when a colleague starts talking to them about a problem that requires statistical assistance. There’s nothing wrong with following up with old clients on a semi-regular basis (maybe every three to six months) with a comment like, “Hi, how is everything going. Did you ever get that paper published? [or some similar small talk] and then ask them if they know anyone who might need statistical consulting help.” Most people won’t be annoyed by this, and the few who are, you can cross them off your list.
Consulting is an old person’s business, for the most part, and the wide range of business contacts is a large reason for this. A fresh Ph.D. or Masters student in Statistics is unlikely to have as many professional contacts as someone who has been working for many years in the real world. Don’t let that stop you if you are young, but keep in mind that you will have to work especially harder on making contacts and getting known.
Another excellent source of publicity is writing a book. Not everyone can or should do this, but a book creates instant name recognition and credibility in many people’s minds. A book is far more effective than peer-reviewed publications, even though peer-reviewed publications will probably represent a greater degree of talent. The thing about a book is that the size implies that you are more than someone who knows a lot about a very narrow area. A book implies a breadth of knowledge that is perceived far better than even a wide range of peer-reviewed publications. Writing a book, of course, requires a lot of time and you have to have a compelling topic to write about. I don’t want to discourage people from self-publication (through so-called vanity presses). These books do help and they don’t have nearly as bad a reputation as they used to. Even so, a book published through a mainline publisher will be far more effective.
You should also take every opportunity you can to give talks. There are lots of venues for giving talks and you should find as many of them as you can. Talks in front of non-statisticians are especially important. Even so, talks to statistical audiences (who presumably aren’t going to need your help) still have value because these statisticians may know of consulting opportunities and pass your name along.
Please don’t use the talk to pitch your services. Overt commercial pitches are likely to backfire. If someone is introducing you, give them a suggested written introduction that briefly mentions that you do consulting. If you are a part-time consultant, try something like “in addition to his regular job, Jane Smith has provided assistance to many clients as an independent consultant.” If you are a full-time consultant, include a sentence like “John Doe has just started a new career as an independent statistical consultant” or “John Doe has been working as an independent consultant for the past five year.” If you have a company name, be sure to list it (and possibly the company website URL) on the title page right beneath your name. If you have a company logo, place it in an out of the way corner of each slide.
Another good way to get name recognition is through volunteer efforts. Volunteer to serve as an officer in your local chapter of the American Statistical Association (ASA) or take part in some of the activities of the various ASA sections. Again, the people who you interact with at ASA are not potential customers. But you want them to think of your name first when someone asks them about consulting help. Other places you might volunteer are local user groups for statistical packages like SAS or R. There are other professional societies, such as the American Society for Quality, that might be well suited for you, depending on the type of experience you have and the type of work you are looking for.
You should consider volunteering for professional societies that are not statistical in nature. If you have the right group and you can offer appropriate talents to that group, this is a very valuable thing to do. You’ll be placed in a position of authority among people who are your potential customers. For some groups this may be inappropriate, as these groups might expect a credential like a medical degree from their officers and members. But others, such as the American Marketing Association, would not be so fussy. If you can find the right fit and if you are sincerely interested in helping in these organizations, this is an excellent way to get known among a wide range of potential customers.
You can also volunteer for non professional societies. When you help out at the local humane society, you won’t get any business from the cats and dogs at the shelter, but there is always the opportunity for a serendipitous encounter with another volunteer. Talk to people about what they do and what you do, and you might get lucky. It may also be that your local humane society has a project that needs your statistical skills (see pro bono consulting, below).
Perform pro bono statistical consulting. Pro bono means free. Don’t ever offer free consulting to a commercial company, because you will lose them forever as a potential customer. You might naively believe that you will do such a bang-up job that they will want to pay you for your next job. Don’t fool yourself. Once someone gets used to using you for free, they will never want to pay for your services, no matter how good a job you do.
There are plenty of non-profit groups that need good advice from a statistician. Find a group that is closely aligned with your personal values and approach them with some suggestions for help on a member survey or an audit, for example, and show them how Statistics can help make the survey or audit better. Be sure to get a good recommendation from them when you finish the project and ask them if they know of any paying clients who might want similar help.
The other obvious advantage of pro bono consulting is that you have something new to add to your resume and your skill set.
Write articles about Statistics and offer them for free to various newsletters, trade publications, local magazines, and so forth. Don’t think that you’ll get on the pages of the New York Times or Harpers, but there are plenty of smaller venues that are looking for good quality content. Try to hold on to the copyright of these articles if you can so you can republish them on your website or blog. You can also send letters to the editor of your local newspaper talking about statistical issues if they are timely and appropriate. For example, my local newspaper had published a couple of letters criticizing the “wasteful” practice of the U.S. Census in sending out multiple reminder notices about the upcoming census forms that would be arriving in the mail. I wrote in explaining that a small investment in reminder notices was a standard business practice that reduced the cost and need for expensive follow-ups for non-respondents.
Create a small static website to promote your consulting business. I’m not talking about a big fancy website (which is discussed under blogging), but rather a simple website that talks about your company, the types of consulting that you do, your fee structure, testimonials from satisfied clients, and so forth. Think of this as an electronic business card. You can set this up and then forget about it, for the most part, but do remember to include the website URL on your business card and include that URL in your email signature file and on the title slide of any talks that you do.
You should register a domain name for your website, rather than piggybacking on another website.
Never place ads on your website in exchange for getting the website for free. It looks tacky and gives the impression that you are not serious about your consulting business.
Start blogging. A blog is a specialized website where entries are listed in reverse chronological order with newest entries at the top. A blog typically also has a section where others can share their comments on your writing. I personally dislike the idea of letting other comment on my writing, but this does increase partcipation and adds interest. A blog without open commentary is probably better characterized as a website.
Whether you do a website or a blog, you need to make a commitment to add content regularly. Set a schedule, somewhere between once or twice a day and once or twice a week to add new material. Don’t try to add too much at once or you’ll burn out. Similarly, don’t start a blog and then stop posting altogether. Regular updates are vital to keep your website or blog noticed.
While you are welcome to write about a broad range of topics, you should consider finding a niche that is currently unused and target your content for that area. Some example of niches that people have filled are:
These niches are already filled, of course, but they give you an idea of ways that you can specialize.
You can find an earlier version of this page on my website.