A small cavalcade of readers wanted to know more about my side computer consulting business, including how I got started, how I advertised for and promoted it, and how I built up the business from scratch. While I don’t advocate this as a recipe for how to build up your own local computer consulting side business, it is fairly illustrative of the methods that you might want to use to get a small side business started.
It All Starts With A Plan
The entire idea of having a side business started with a recognition that (a) I needed to start bringing in a little extra income, and (b) I had some free time each day to devote to building it up. To me, these are two of the key ingredients for success with any side business: time and desire.
I started off by deciding what exactly I wanted this business to be and the time I could devote to it, and then writing it all down word for word so that I could see it for myself. In essence, I wrote an informal business plan, which discussed the exact nature of the things I planned to work on, the costs (space, equipment, knowledge, and time) I expected to put in, and what I hoped to get out of these investments.
The biggest key at this stage is realism. I knew that I had some strikes against me right off the bat: I wasn’t doing this as a full time endeavor, I didn’t have a network of connections built up, and my target area for the consulting business was relatively small. I knew that the pace of the business wouldn’t be rapid – and I didn’t want it to be. The key is to know your market; I knew that the needs for computer consultation in a small town were relatively narrow and thus I knew that this wouldn’t quickly blossom into a large business.
Given that I was working in a small area, I started the business by putting up flyers in all of the regular community places: the town grocery, the post office, city hall, the fire station, and so forth. This flyer very clearly labeled the types of things I could offer: recommending systems for people, small-scale repair work, and web site development, mostly. These were the types of things that individuals and other small businesses in the area might have a need for. I also clearly identified my price points – I set them quite low to begin with, so that I could start drumming up some word-of-mouth business.
Other than the flyers, there were few initial capital investments. I bought a quality electronics toolkit and that was about it.
Then I sat. And waited. And I began to realize that it wasn’t working.
Spreading The Word
After a month with zero calls, I realized that I would have to rethink my approach. Since I was already involved with some civic activities, I decided to print up a large quantity of business cards which identified myself on the front and the services available on the back. Instead of actually detailing the prices, I said “Call for pricing,” which would enable me to adjust prices if the business took off and so on.
I started distributing these cards at every opportunity in the community: community festivals, benefit dinners, community breakfasts, city council meetings, high school basketball games, and so on. I would meet people, shake their hand, and introduce myself. If they asked what I did, I would mention the business and give them my card.
After a while, I eventually became a “familiar face” in the community, at which point the phone slowly began to start ringing and business slowly began to start trickling in. The combination of the business cards I handed out, plus the flyers that were still hanging (and occasionally refreshed) in the community centers got people on board and got them to call me up.
Accounting And Taxes
Every single dollar that I collected from the business was split in half. Half of it went to a savings account, out of which I paid the appropriate income and other taxes at the end of the year, while the remainder was spent on whatever seemed appropriate (mostly debt repayment).
Where I’m At
Right now, I spend approximately six hours a week doing computer consulting related tasks. I was doing more in the past, but blogging has turned into a more successful and somewhat more demanding hobby / side business than consultation was. It provides a steady stream of income, and most of the work is very simple: suggesting systems for people to buy, setting up simple home wireless networks, and things like that. I keep my fees very low, which ensures a steady customer base and also keeps me around as a desirable alternative to the chain stores, and I’m very happy with how it’s all turned out.
If you have any more specific questions, please ask them in the comments – I’ll try to answer them.