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Quote: "one-man consultant" is not entrepreneurship

Our host who art in SoHo saith recently:

I think that being a "one-man consultant" is not entrepreneurship, it's not starting out on your own, it's not MicroISV-dom. It's just having a job. Another job like everyone else. You're not independent. You're at the bottom of the totem pole wherever you go. You are constantly selling yourself and trying to find the next gig. The only reason you might consider it superior to a full-time job is if you get bored easily, and you're welcome to the lifestyle of perpetual job hunting if that suits you, but do NOT tell yourself that you're a "startup" or an entrepreneur if you're a one-man consulting shop.

And it's a damn unpleasant way to find product ideas. You could find ten times as many ideas in a week by calling everyone you know from college and asking them what computer problems they have at work.

A colleague takes strenuous exception to these writings, and I respect where he's coming from:

Here's what I say:

I have been a consultant and (interchangebly) a contractor since 1993. I have had no business growth, except for a couple of very unique years during the dot com blowout of the late 90s.

In every case, the work has been performed for fee as "work for hire", so there's been nothing to be taken away from deals to re-use or resell.

Respect from "clients" has been minimal, and where it has been offered, there have been major strings, imputations of liability, and business risk. In fact, most of my clients have gone out of their way to minimize the impact I made or the value of the work I did for them. As far as "mean spiritness" of clients, I found out a while back that two of three business references I provided from my clientele dissed me in a job application situation, after I was reasonably assured that they would speak well of me.

Ok, you may give me a lot of shit for my online personality and pick apart my assertions as more indicative of my antisocialibility than any problem with consulting as a career path.

But the point is that I think Joel's absolutely correct and I can't even begin to refute it because there's no point: he just chose a brutal way to say it.
Bored Bystander Send private email
Thursday, December 16, 2004
I'll respond to Christopher's rebuttal...

>> Regarding the claim that the independent consultant is at the bottom of the totem pole, perhaps Joel was at the bottom of the totem pole when he was at MCS or when Fog Creek Consulting was young, but I have not had a similar experience. When my clients bring me on to a project, they do not bring me on solely as a pair of hands that can type things the client's on hands cannot - my clients want my active input on how they can run their businesses better with the help of technology. They want my input on how the technology will impact the way they manage their people, how their process will improve, what the most effective practices for getting a desired result are. I have rarely - if ever - been treated as a low-on-the-totem-pole lackey.

My take:  I believe that Joel was describing the worklife of being a contractor for an IT or software development organization, which for years has been the most prevalent form of "consulting" (actually contracting).  Believe me, the mushroom theory of management is well-embraced when you're working under a client's direction on an IT project. As a contractor you're an absolute interchangeable commodity.

I think Christopher is describing project work for end user business clients. I think Christopher is correct in that context.

>> Joel's argument against independent consultants concludes with "The only reason you might consider it superior to a full-time job is if you get bored easily, and you're welcome to the lifestyle of perpetual job hunting if that suits you, but do NOT tell yourself that you're a "startup" or an entrepreneur if you're a one-man consulting shop." ...
(then Christopher saying): I think I can speak for every one-man technology consultant when I say this to Joel: We are in business, whether you like it or not.

My take: entrepreneurship is the creation of a business from limited resources and no existing base of business which can become a self powered entity. The kind of statements that Joel and Christopher made can be verified or countered with real-world experience.

In my own case, contracting and consulting have lead only to ... more contracting and consulting. It hasn't even been scalable: in contracting relationships there's usually no way to increase your presence in the business except by working more hours. These activities have not lead to any lasting value feeding back into my business, except real time revenue. I stop, and the "business" stops.That feels, as Joel stated, like a "job", not a going business concern.

As always, your mileage may vary from mine, Christopher's, or Joel's.
Bored Bystander Send private email
Thursday, December 16, 2004
I knew a guy once who started out as a 'one-man consultant'.  He became his own company.  Then he hired one or two people to work along with him -- hired them onto his company, then contracted out with them to a job.

Gradually, he hired a few more people, one at a time for additional help on tasks.  Thus he was able to expand his 'one-man consultant' business into a small consulting job-shop.

I agree this path of entrepeneurship is not for everybody, or every industry.  But it did work for him.
Thursday, December 16, 2004
That form of business can also be extremely fragile unless you have excellent marketing, political, and business development instincts. Many consulting shops that got their starts in the mid 90s have vanished because the competition for contract services has become fierce.
Bored Bystander Send private email
Thursday, December 16, 2004
>>In my own case, contracting and consulting have lead only to ... more contracting and consulting.

The only way ouf of consulting, if you so choose, is to specialize, make yourself invaluable, irreplaceable. Otherwise, you're just as good as the next PHP/Java/.Net contractor.

And I hate the new colors in the forum :-)
Thursday, December 16, 2004
The company I currently work for started out as a one-man shop.  He just basically hired people and offloaded his work onto them, and it's worked so far for us.
Aaron F Stanton Send private email
Thursday, December 16, 2004
Fred, that "invaluable" can also be a career limiting trap. I don't believe that l33tness is a solution or a strategy.

Anecdote: I was *quite* invaluable to a client for several years, to the extent that I neglected marketing and networking. One day, the guy went medieval on me and voila, no contract.
Bored Bystander Send private email
Thursday, December 16, 2004
>> Fred, that "invaluable" can also be a career limiting trap. I don't believe that l33tness is a solution or a strategy.

I didn't mean that you had to be l33t. Actually, knowing a lot about the customer's business is more valuable than software knowledge since just any geek out there knows that part.

Contracting means that the customer you're currently working for is calling all the shots, and will dump you when you're no longer needed.

The solution is to try and find a common problem with a set of customers you contracted for, and offer them a standard product instead, effectively getting out of consulting and dealing on a more equal basis. Ideally, the problem is hard enough or the niche small enough that competitors won't be too numerous, and it's even better if those customers tend to talk to each other a lot, ie. you'll get business through word to mouth.
Thursday, December 16, 2004
Ok, that's clearer. I think your point is excellent and I think you're right.
Bored Bystander Send private email
Thursday, December 16, 2004
Writing articles is very different from writing in a forum.  A forum invites you to say things quickly, sometimes without thinking them through. 

When I read Joel's comments, I found myself wondering.  I think I understand he is saying something about the difference between a "one-man consultant" and other kinds of entrepreneurial ventures.  Did he write these thoughts too quickly?  Did he mean for his remarks to sound so invalidating of the one-man consultant?

I don't know, but I prefer to ask myself these questions rather than react with more emotion.

SourceGear actually started out as a one-man consulting shop.  Things changed completely when I started to think of it as a company. 

I've lived on both sides of the line I think Joel was trying to draw.  I understand what Joel is saying.  There are two different concepts here.  Experience tells me that using the same word for both concepts necessarily involves some imprecision.

So I think I understand what Joel was saying.
Eric Sink Send private email
Thursday, December 16, 2004
It's really common to confuse "consultant" with "contractor".  When I think about "interchangeable commodity labor", such as that described as just a pair of hands on a keyboard, that's a contractor, not a consultant.  What are you consulting?  If he can put his butt in a chair?

A consultant is someone to whom an organisation turns to change the way they do things.  Feel that there's something wrong with your development process, and think a swift, sharp kick to the bottom from an outside entity will help fix things?  You hire a consultant, not a contractor.  Want to learn how to manage offshore resources from someone who has done it, versus learning the hard way?  You hire a consultant, not a contractor.

Usually, contractors sell their skills and consultants sell ideas or methods, and occasionally their skills.
Art Send private email
Thursday, December 16, 2004
"using the same word for both concepts necessarily involves some imprecision."

It's a leaky abstraction.
Aaron F Stanton Send private email
Thursday, December 16, 2004
Hmm, I never thought of a contractor (er, or a consultant) as any sort of ISV either.  Last time I looked, the "V" was for "vendor" as in one who peddles a product, not personal services.
Bob Riemersma
Thursday, December 16, 2004
> So I think I understand what Joel was saying.

When you have to work hard to make sense of something we usually call that a justification. And if you have to justify something then it was probably wrong to start with.
son of parnas
Thursday, December 16, 2004
>>Let's face it, any "one-man consultant" could knock up an alternative version of his main product in a couple of days and sell it for $0.02 (as Joel recently suggested).

Actually there are quite a few alternatives that are less than $0.02, I don't expect Joel would be worried about another one.
Tony Edgecombe Send private email
Friday, December 17, 2004
Many of you are under the assumption that I have misunderstood Joel.  I do not believe this to be the case; I believe Joel's language was clear and his meaning was - in my opinion, of course - unmistakable.

I've received a good number of eMails from other one-man operators who feel similarly insulted.

But I do appreciate the various takes you all have on the subject.  Diversity makes the world work.

That's all!  ;)
Christopher Hawkins Send private email
Friday, December 17, 2004
As someone who spend 8 years as a one-man shop and has spent the last 2 years getting going as an mini-ISV I'm actually with Joel on this one... and it was only when I made the transition to mini-ISV that I truly realised these things.
gwyn Send private email
Friday, December 17, 2004
AllanL5 - I worked for a similar company. He and a friend left their regular jobs and started out "contracting", gradually adding employees. At least one of them is mentioned in The Sunday Times "Rich List" as a result of their efforts. How you start out is irrelevant, it is what you make of it that counts.

Friday, December 17, 2004
My thoughts:

Joel wasn't a 'consultant'. He was a hired hand. An interchangable commodity, being told what to do, when to do it, and how to do it.

That'll make a guy that has a big ego a little resentful, if he derives a lot of his personal worth through his station in life.

Now Joel's comments taken in that light make sense. But they are obviously patently false, if you substitute 'financial planner' or 'marketing firm' or any other type of business or service professional.

A guy that owns a plumbing business or a PR firm isn't "In Business" according to Joel's view expressed in that post.

Friday, December 17, 2004
It serves me right. By now I should have learned not to post in the discussion groups, because off-the-cuff things that I say without the full-blown multi-page article full of careful hedging and defining my terms invariably gets misunderstood.

So, I will make an effort not to post in the discussion groups any more.

But anyway, what I was referring to in that brief off-the-cuff comment was the kind of one-man contractors who do sequential long-term programming gigs.

SEQUENTIAL: not multiple clients at once, just one client at a time, 40 hours per week.

LONG-TERM: for the purpose of avoiding nitpicking, shall we say, 6 months or more. If you do 1 week gigs you have my permission to call yourself a startup. If you're a plumber, ok, you're in business. But if you work at the same big company in the same big department sitting at the same desk and reporting to the same person who treats you like an employee without benefits and you do the same kind of work for six months straight, that's not entrepreneurship, that's a job.

I did a gig like that at Viacom for a couple of years and never pretended that I was "Joel Spolsky Consulting, Inc." or an ISV and I didn't subscribe to Inc. Magazine. If you're doing sequential, long-term programming gigs and you're imagining that it's entrepreneurship, there's nothing wrong with what you're doing, it's just that you're not building a business, you're doing a job. That's all I meant.

In my original post I used the words "one-man consultant" when I meant "one man serial long term gig contractor," because it was a quick post on a discussion group and not a thoughtfully edited Joel on Software piece (which, incidentally, takes a week or more to write and edit),
and now all kinds of people are accusing me of dissing all one-man independents, people are writing elloquent thoughtful essays implying that my arguments are tantamount to racism or homophobia (ooo! you got me there!).
Joel Spolsky Send private email
Friday, December 17, 2004
Ok, everyone, take down your effigies and talismans. Joel's cool. <BG>

PS: I pretty much had decided that this was exactly what you meant: the life of a staff augmentation contractor. Thx for the verification.

PPS: yeah, you better not post on your own board anymore... gotta love it.
Bored Bystander Send private email
Friday, December 17, 2004
Eeeeeh, I think you're back-pedalling.  ;)

However, it is nice that you're making an effort to smooth ruffled feathers.  So thank you.  The effort is appreciated.
Christopher Hawkins Send private email
Friday, December 17, 2004
I would like to copy this text from Christopher's site (I hope he doesn't mind!)

"P.S. For Pete's sake, don't stop posting in your own message forum. That's just drama talking. Remember, you designed the forum to lack an edit button specifically so people would be thoughtful when they posted - just follow your own design and you'll avoid having guys like me coming after you with fangs bared. ;)"

Yes, don't stop posting Joel! Everyone is misunderstood some time or the other but that doesn't mean that one should stop expressing themselves! I, for one, simply love to know your thoughts on any topic on this earth! :)

JD Send private email
Friday, December 17, 2004
I'm a one-man consultant, and I agree with you. I also knew what you were saying without the explicit follow-up, but it was nice anyway. My story is basically: a W-2 consultant turned 1099 contractor. I do side-gigs that I consider entrepreneurial, but that's not how I make my actual living. The income I count on is from my "consulting jobs." The point about getting bored easily is accurate, and I rather enjoy the challenge of moving around and having to stay sharp.

Love your blog, and please don't stop posting on your own discussion board. People obviously respect (or are at the very least interested in) your opinion, and there's nothing wrong with a constructive argument.
Sean Chase Send private email
Saturday, December 18, 2004
i understand what Joel is talking about. Simply put the skills required to succeed as a consultant, contractor or whatever term you use are very different from the skills required to succeed as an entrepreneur. Something am learning the hard way as i try to transition. I picked up a lot of bad habits as a consultant/contractor that have been hard to shake off, things like ass kissing, back stabbing, often times misrepresenting issues. Despite all the good intentions and platitudes that  many consultants/contractors have, the real goal is to get paid, an approach that would not work for any entrepreneur because it does not create a business.
I think that's what Joel was getting at or at least that's what i get since like i said i am learning the hard way and especially trying to convince myself that i should never want  to go back to that because its not a very cool thing to do.
Most corporate places require skills that shows like "the apprentice" and "survivor" encourage, a selfish individual focused approach (the goal and focus is my pay check) . Entrepreneurial activity requires a different set of skills, a more customer focused approach because you can't succeed any other way.
amused Send private email
Saturday, December 18, 2004
I found independent consulting, of the serial-employment variety, a big step up from permanent employment as a software engineer. I believe that I now have a much deeper understanding of how the software world works from exposure to a dozen different projects (plus another 30 or more that I interviewed for and didn't work on for one reason or another) than I would have if I'd stayed perm.

I'd be the first to agree that it doesn't make you a micro-ISV... but so what? That path is not for everyone.

If I had to critique the one-man consultant way, I'd say that its major weakness lies in the Lone Wolf stance -- and this is true even for Lone Wolves who are team players, know how to add business value, and so forth. One of the major challenges in software is to work together as a team, and it's simply too easy to say Not My Problem when you're being OMAC.

I'm also glad Joel posted his smooth-it-over response; the original quote definitely had an unfair smackdown aspect to it. Maybe it was aimed at _someone_ who deserved it, but a whole lot of people who read it don't need the 'tude.
Sunday, December 19, 2004

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