How can I develop my consulting business?

I have been working on and off as a consultant for a couple of companies since I lost my job almost two years ago.



Q: I have been working on and off as a consultant for a couple of companies since I lost my job almost two years ago. Despite my extensive project management experience and reputation in the photonics industry, I am unable to find any work recently. Any suggestions?

A: You may want to brand yourself as a contractor instead of a consultant to at least get a block of days at one time. To many people, "consultant" implies a high billing rate and intention to work only sporadically—both of which are not really the case. And given that we are just coming out of a severe recession, companies are more likely to hire temporary workers than permanent employees to avoid increasing their overhead costs just in case there is a double dip in the economy. Also, it is unlikely that companies will aggressively pursue new projects that require consultants at this point of the recovery.

You have to increase the number of clients and get beyond the photonics industry in order to get a stable income and feel less impact from economic cycles. Given the usefulness of photonics, you should be able to find companies that want to apply photonics but need your help.

You could first leverage your reputation and the network of people who are aware of your capability and reputation. Generate a target list and let your friends know your availability and predicament. You can also prospect broadly and promote your credentials: Develop a web site and come up with ways for search engines to find you, attend conferences to renew acquaintances, talk to companies on the exhibition floor, and even spend a few dollars to run an ad campaign (such as using Google AdWords) for potential clients to find you.

One other tactic that may be worth considering is to promote your expertise and name recognition to help companies win contracts. You can boost the likelihood of winning contracts by participating in writing proposals and by lending your name to give the proposal more pizzazz. By getting written into contracts, you are assured of work when the contract is awarded.

Q: I would you like to discuss how to start a company to commercialize my solar energy invention that I plan to patent.

A: In order to succeed, you must first put in place all the necessary ingredients for building a successful enterprise: technology, application, business model, human and financial resources… as well as leadership and management skills. Having a patent is a good starting point but is no guarantee that the idea is useful or the technology works.

Solar energy is a "hot area," which also means risk increases exponentially with time to market. What you don't want to do is raise lots of money to try to build out the company quickly to gain "first mover" advantage. That is in essence putting the cart before the horse, betting on a wing and a prayer, etc., that your assumptions are correct—a risky proposition, based on VC statistics, with less than a 50/50 chance that you might succeed.

Now I will stick my neck out a bit to suggest what you might do. Work toward an early acquisition by focusing resources to verify what a potential acquirer might want to ascertain: The technology works, the product is manufacturable, and customers want the product. Getting acquired is not easy but at least you will be spending less to find out earlier whether your idea is valuable. Adding a feature to the product line of an established company could provide a competitive advantage, and you may get a high valuation if several companies compete for the ownership of your IP. And taking this approach does not deprive you the opportunity to "go for it" if you find your invention is a barnburner.

MILTON CHANG is founder and managing director of Incubic Management LLC. He is also director of Precision Photonics and mBio. Chang is a Fellow of IEEE, OSA, and LIA. He has received Distinguished Alumni awards from the University of Illinois and Caltech, is a trustee of Caltech, and is member of the Committee of 100. Contact Chang at with questions, and visit for other articles he has written regarding entrepreneurship.

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