Having been any independent consultant since I first started working at the age of 16 (some 12 years ago), I’ve looked into a wide variety of services and products that help make an independent consultant more productive, professional, and profitable.  So recently I decided that I should write up a short guide to the key services that I use.

Communications

As an independent consultant, a good communications infrastructure is key.  This falls into two categories – phone and email.

For phone, I use a service called RingCentral (http://www.ringcentral.com), which provides an automated attendant service that is excellent for the independent consultant.  In my configuration, callers are greeted with a professional message, with the ability to contact team members by dialing an extension.  Once they’re into my extension, they’re prompted to state their name, followed by the pound key.  Then I have the softphone on my office computer ring for 10 seconds, after which my cell phone will ring.  I can take the call, listen to who’s calling me, and THEN decide whether to take the call.  It’s like having a secretary screening my calls.  Voicemails are then emailed to me, and I also have the service shoot me a text message just for extra measure.

For email, I am a big fan of using a hosted Microsoft Exchange Server 2007 account.  Specifically, I use Microsoft Online Services (http://www.microsoft.com/online).  The only catch with Microsoft Online Services is that there is a 5-license minimum (at $15/license).  However, there are lots of hosted Exchange providers.  A simple Google search turns up lots of results.  Exchange is totally worth the $10-$15 per month that you will spend.  Also, go with a big provider – not a budget provider.  If you email goes down and a client can’t get through to you, you can bet that next time they’ll be calling you instead of emailing, which wastes more of your time and potentially is more disruptive to your workflow.

Also, make sure to choose a provider that lets you use either Postini or Microsoft Exchange Hosted Filtering Service (which comes with Microsoft Online Services).  You get what you pay for with spam filters.  Postini is so cheap and easy to use that it’s really worth doing.  Make sure that you put hosted antispam services in place BEFORE you migrate over to a hosted Exchange provider, or the spammers will know to just bypass your filter and send mail directly to your host.

Of course, the thing that goes hand-in-hand with hosted Exchange is a smartphone.  Either Windows Mobile or an iPhone will sync with Exchange and give you realtime push email.  Blackberries can sync with Exchange too, but usually require an additional add-on from your Exchange host, which often costs upward of $10/month.  I’m a big fan of Windows Mobile 6.1 or higher, as the integration with Exchange is very tight an provides HTML email, the ability to search your entire mailbox from your phone, and remote wiping capability if you lose your phone.

One final communications topic I’ll mention is SharePoint.  If you’re working in a team, SharePoint is a fantastic way to share your data between team members.  It synchronizes calendars, tasks, and other information with Outlook,  which sure is handy when you’re disconnected from the Internet.  You can create wikis, custom lists, etc.  For example, you can use SharePoint to create an internal knowledgebase for your team.  Or use it to create an “Extranet” for each project that you’re working on.  SharePoint is provided with many hosted Exchange plans, or you can purchase a hosting plan separately from a number of providers.

Back Office

For the early part of my career, I did the whole 1099 thing.  It was a bit of a pain to file a Schedule C, worry about what I’m really able to deduct, etc.  Additionally, I always had the lingering fear of being personally sued by a client.  Insurance was another pain, but I learned that you can join your local Chamber of Commerce and get reasonable health insurance rates through them.

Several years ago, I discovered MBO Partners (formerly MyBizOffice, http://www.mbopartners.com).  I feel strongly that partnering with MBO Partners has been one of the best decisions of my professional career.  MBO acts as your employer.  They bill your clients, collect payments, reimburse you (with your money) for  your expenses, and then give you a payroll for whatever is left.  They also offer group benefits and an outstanding 401k plan, which are all very nice to have.  One of the most important parts for me was gaining the layer of liability protection, and also avoiding the risk of the IRS reclassifying you as an employee instead of a contractor.  MBO’s fee is very reasonable – 5% of your gross receivables.  I have thought long and hard about it and decided conclusively that there’s no way I could do what MBO does on my own for 5% of my gross receivables.  Filing a corporation, handling filings and taxes, and even calling about overdue invoices are all HUGE time sponges.

MBO also has a great feature called Teams that lets you give your “business” a name.  In my case, my business operates under the name “Info et Cetera Consulting”, but legally is a “Division of MBO Partners, Inc.”  The invoices that MBO sends out all have the “Info et Cetera” branding on them, so this all makes a lot of sense to clients.

In-House Technology

Firstly, you need an INFALIBLE backup system.  I strongly recommend purchasing a Windows Home Server (HP makes some very nice models), which captures complete image-level backups of all of the computers your connect to it.  If your hard drive goes, you just pop in the Windows Home Server DVD and it restores your computer onto a new hard drive.  With multiple hard drives connected to Windows Home Server, it can automatically mirror your data so a hard drive failure on the server doesn’t cause any data loss.

Next, you need to back up your data off-site.  There is a great plug-in for Windows Home Server from Jungle Disk (http://www.jungledisk.com) that allows you to easily back up your data to the Amazon S3 service.  Amazon S3 is amazingly cheap — $0.15 per gigabyte per month.  Don’t skimp; back up EVERYTHING to Amazon S3.  For the couple of dollars per month you will spend, it is really worth it.

For computers, I’m a big fan of buying cheap hardware when I see it on sale.  My primary desktop cost me all of about $450, and it is a beast.  Of course, this strategy only really works if (1) you’re willing to “self insure” your hardware, meaning that you will spring for a new computer if this one breaks and you don’t have a service plan, and (2) you can fix the little stuff, reinstall operating systems, etc.

Software

If you work in the computer field, join the Microsoft Partner Program.  The price is not trivial (~$1400/year if I am remembering correctly), but you get a TON of software for internal use as part of your membership.  They also have a lower “Registered Member” level that allows you to purchase the “Microsoft Action Pack” for a couple hundred dollars per year, which gives you a good deal of software for internal use.

Also, if you develop software, don’t hesitate to buy subscriptions from companies such as Telerik (http://www.telerik.com) and DevExpress (http://www.devexpress.com).  These software subscriptions aren’t always cheap — often between $1000 and $2000 per year — but they give you a competitive edge.  Your competitors can make that ASP.NET webpage using the built in datagrid just as easily as you can, but your’s can be a lot better and more functional if you build it using some great third-party controls!

Summing it up

I’m sure there are a lot of topics that I forgot to mention, but these are a few that came to mind that I hope will be helpful for anyone out there who is considering becoming an independent consultant.  If this is a helpful topic, leave a comment below and I’ll try to write more on the subject.

Read more posts from John R. Pattison about Independent Consulting