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LabVIEW consultancy . . . ?

Hi All,

As part of what I could laughingly call my career progression, one of the options I would like to be available would be to become a freelance LabVIEW consultant/developer.  Having met some of the CSLUG luminaries I can see that this is possible, but my question is; how did you go about achieving it?

I spent about seven years as a contractor a few years ago, but the only opportunities I saw were for standard test automation and any contract which came available always seemed to be tied down to working at a client's premises, usually involving a lengthy commute and only one client at a time - bad for IR35.  In an ideal world it would be wonderful to have a number of clients on the books, work from my own office (well, "home", in all truth) and possibly even work on collaborative projects with other freelancers.  I am, however, utterly at a loss as to how one might persue this.

I would be extremely grateful if some of the members who have achieved this apparent Nirvana could provide some hints, tips and experiences that may help lay the foundations of the road to freelancing.  I'd also be intrigued to know how coders manage to persuade customers to use LabVIEW to develop applications other than test automation.  My experience is that, once the brief moves away from interrogating testgear and devices under test, the only languages considered are Python, one of the C derivatives, Java etc.

All pointers gratefully received,

Steve

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Steve,

There are probably some illusions worth clearing up before you assume too much about consultancy. I conducted lots of research, mainly of peers who had taken the independent route, before becoming half-consultant, half-employed (I work for Draeger Safety full time and run a consultancy on the side).


Honest Answers:

If you ask a consultant, even a close one, how well they're doing, they'll always answer with something between "Yeah, fine", and "Amazing!". A consultant can never tell you they're doing badly, because the message might get our that they're winning no custom and it affects their reputation, which affects their potential win custom. So they'll always, as a minimum, tell you they're doing OK.

Money:
All consultants will tell you there's loads of work out there and loads of money to be made from it. And if you're a successful consultant, that can be mostly true. But if you conduct lots of Time and Materials work, paid by the hour, you'll not likely make that much more, once you net your business costs and sick/holiday periods, than you would in a well paid LabVIEW role.

Business Running:
A lot of consultants put a whole day aside, often Friday, to managing their business. The marketing, the administration, the financing, IT etc. Especially for seeking out new work. So if you calculate what you think you might earn on a daily basis, consider that income as potentially only for four days a week. No-one pays you for managing your business aspects, so that's something you need to factor.

Travel/Training:
If you work for a company that cover any training and travel, other expenses, that's great. That doesn't come out of your income. But if you work for yourself you find that any expenses (NI Week, NI Days, Training sessions etc.) all subtract from the business profits and hence your potential take-home pay. It can suck when you suddenly find your business travel expenses, previously picked up by your boss, are now a personal expense.

Sickness/Holiday:

Doesn't exist. It's obvious, but don't overlook this! Calculate what you're earning per day today, and subtract 25 of those days from your salary. Is that a big chunk? If you work for yourself and choose to take time off, or spent time in intensive care, you can wave that chunk goodbye. You need to earn your annual wage in about 6 months if you want to be sure that you'll still be paying the mortgage in a bad year. Or make sure you have 6 months pay in the balance before you start out 🙂

Software:

LabVIEW isn't cheap. You'll need to become an Alliance Partner to get the benefits of access to the software suite. But even that isn't free. Consider all your costs of setting up (PC, laptop, backup systems, creating/buying in legal documentation templates, creating a home office environment - don't work at the dining room table! Definitely set up a room for your work with a desk etc. otherwise you'll find yourself too easily distracted.) Add up these costs, which can be thousands, and decide if you've enough in the bank.

Office, Windows, and others too.

All I'm saying is that the grass often looks greener, but I know a few independent consultants and life is tough. Yeah, they're happy and they don't look back, but it's a whole different ball game to working for a company and you need to be the right kind of person to make it work out.

Best of luck if you take the plunge my friend!

Thoric (CLA, CLED, CTD and LabVIEW Champion)


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Hi Thoric,

Thanks for your advice, but possibly I phrased my question badly.  I have already spent seven years as a contractor, running a limited company, buying the software and doing the admin, but unfortunately the stumbling block I hit was not finding the contracts I had hoped to when I set out.

What I'm trying to determine is how those who successfully work independently find the clients.  When I was freelance, the only contracts I seemed able to find were working at customer's premises.  I'm back as a permanent employee now and have been for over three years, but should circumstances change and I decide to return to freelance work, I would prefer it to be with direct contracts (rather than through agents), on defined work packages (rather than on an hourly rate) and be able to better dictate my own terms.

I have experience enough to know I'm unlikely to make my fortune this way, but I would like to take advantage of the flexible working opportunities freelance operation provides.

Cheers,

Steve

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Hi Steve,

I often find the boundaries between the terms Contractor and Consultant are hazy. In my head I consider a contractor a bum on seat - a shoe-in that sits in a company like any other employee, working by the day on a day rate, kicked out when they're no longer needed; and a consultant someone who works project based solutions. This may not be Oxford-English-Dictionary accurate but I see now you're discussing what I call consultancy.

As you've discovered, finding work is the hardest part. A lot of LabVIEW developers are praised highly for their work and encouraged when they start murmuring about going solo, with suggestions that 'you'll do great, you're work is brilliant'. The truth is that a reputation is only as broad reaching as the community that appreciate it, so once you start advertising your services outside of the NI eco-bubble you find that it's next to worthless.

There is no magic formula for winning work, or finding clients. But keep perservering at marketing and getting your name on as many companys' approved-clients lists as possible. Pay for good marketing advise or materials - there's nothing more off putting than poorly designed visuals, it always gives the impression of a man in his shed and not the professional outfit that you wish to be.

Repeat work is a big factor too. Once you impress somewhere they will likely come back to you in the future so always remain in contact. And if you have a means of promoting your successes then get these up in big lights for everyone to see. Testimonials, LinkedIn, personal websites, etc.

It's hard work, and I suspect there's a critical mass of clients needed before you can sustain a healthy income. You'll start below that critical mass and need to keep battling to increase the numbers. My previous employer literally had over five thousand contacts in their books, all known to them, and they kept working to add more every day. And in today's economic times I expect that mass has significantly increased.

Now I don't know you Steve, but I find that most engineers, especially software engineers, are ever so slightly awkward people. Not all of them, but a good proportion find the kind of charismatic human interactions needed to win over a client are not in their nature. It's important that you're comfortable and confident as a person when you meet new clients, presenting a very professional image (I don't know how Mr. Watts gets away with his dons lol) that gives the customer a positive impression. Often this part is underestimated.

I could go on forever, but at the end of the day cannot give you an answer. Just advise that you perservere. There's no secret club that you need to join, or special handshake you need to learn. It's simple a dog eat dog world of business and you need to be dominant.

Richard

Thoric (CLA, CLED, CTD and LabVIEW Champion)


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Bit late to this, NIWeek and holidays

One way to establish how hard or easy this business is to companycheck alliance members, you will find that the numbers are a little disappointing (£60k per person isn't unusual). That sounds good but that's turnover and you have to factor costs, zero pension, zero sick cover and zero holiday into this.

That said I would never go back, truth is that it is way more fun, the stress is more pure, the jobs more varied and the best way to improve yourself as an engineer. <-- I'm talking about fixed price, multiple projects on the go at any time here. Which is our bag.

Misconception #1 is that NI engineers walk around with a fistful of quality leads, scattering them to the favored few.

Finding work is the hardest part (Sales), marketing is challenging for most engineers (hourly rate), accounts is a pain in the bum (cashflow).

Sales - Cold Calling works, call industries similar to yours or companies you are interested in. 20 calls a day will get you a lead per day. You probably will need 5 good companies on your books before you can get a reasonable workflow.

Marketing - presenting, case studies. Essentially the best thing to market yourself as is a safe pair of hands.

Accounts - sack companies that don't pay on-time, keep milestones to about a month. If your are working for large companies make sure you are down as a contractor rather than a company, they always pay companies first. Credit Check new companies, or get them to pay up-front.

The route to success is delivery delivery delivery. You will be judged on every bad bit of code you deliver, sadly your good code will be invisible (as most good code should be). If you are moving from one job to another you are doing something wrong, customers like to keep hold of their assets that deliver (cost and speed are secondary here)

Eventually you'll stumble across opportunities that you can drive yourself, or if you are naturally entrepreneurial you will be thinking of these. We're problem solvers so not really natural entrepreneurs, so for us the opportunities needed to dump themselves in our laps.

Expansion then brings its own challenges.

I'll give more advice when I'm actually successful at this!

Steve


Opportunity to learn from experienced developers / entrepeneurs (Fab,Joerg and Brian amongst them):
DSH Pragmatic Software Development Workshop


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I'll add a counterpoint to the dog-eat-dog  comment, IMO business involves people and relationships. We don't actively compete for many jobs, generally good customers look after you. Nurturing these relationships take years tho'.

To back-up my cold-calling point, our biggest prospect (worth >£100k next year hopefully) came from Adrian looking at an existing job and ringing round other prospects in the same field. This is now the main prospect going forward for us and all from some targetted cold calling.

I personally think the LabVIEW consultancy world is changing and there are great opportunities if you change with it, reducing opportunities if you don't.

Steve


Opportunity to learn from experienced developers / entrepeneurs (Fab,Joerg and Brian amongst them):
DSH Pragmatic Software Development Workshop


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