Minnebar: Consulting for Fun and Profit with Jon Dahl

Jon Dahl from Slantwise Design

Jon Dahl of Slantwise Design presented at Minnebar on “Consulting for fun and profit”

Dahl provided a Jeopardy style list of topics to choose from. The thoughts below come from a combination of Dahl and audience participation.


Pitfalls to avoid with hiring employees. Should you fire friends? The audience differed on the value of this. Don’t hurt your business by hiring someone just because they’re a friend, but do hire those who are truly valuable.

90% of working with people is chemistry. But it’s hard to know whether someone will have the right chemistry based on interviews. Try to find people with complimentary skills. Don’t mistake the effectiveness of your personal relationship for a relationship that would work in a business setting.

You may like the people you work with but not hang out with them. That’s fine.

We have found all of our developers through Craigslist and the community (events like Minnebar).

Finding Customers

Look for small projects first. Easier to complete some projects and build a portfolio.

Consider partnering with other small firms to build relationships.

Have a blog. Prove that you’re well-spoken, smart, and thing about interesting things.

Have your principles do sales. Customers want to talk to the people who are ultimately responsible for the success of the project on your end.

Placement agencies can help to find projects.

Rates & Prices

“Everyone does work hourly, but it doesn’t make sense to me.” explained an audience member. Reusable work seems to make more sense to sell on a project basis.

User-interactivity: Better off billing hourly since people generally don’t know what they want when they’re starting.

If you’re “a person on the team” consulting, hourly works well.

Fixed bids seem to work better with government and large companies who are used to bidding. But be sure to contractually lock down the deliverables.

Fixed bid requires a closer eye on the scope / more project management.

Hybrid: Do an hourly project to determine requirements. Then put together an estimate for a fixed-bid project.

Scope Creep

What to do? Get new customers if you’re doing fixed-bid work. For hourly, keep billing them.

Determine the customer’s budget when determining an appropriate scope/bid.

Don’t change features during each iteration. Write down and hold features until the next round.

Dealing with Difficult Customers

Fire them.

Raise prices until they fire you.

Do a bad job until they fire you?

You can fire customers, and you can find new work. However, even difficult customers can be dealt with if you work with them.

Tools and Work Environment


Good Accountant

Good Lawyer – Dahl uses NewCouncil.com

IRC or Campfire – Especially great when working contractors.

Basecamp for Development – Audience member: “Where programming project go to die.”

Bug Tracker

Location: Spare bedroom? Basement? Office? Whatever works for you and your team. Some developers can’t stand an office setting. Others work much better face to face.

“If you really need to know something from a client, pick up a phone.”

Consulting vs Products

“I find myself wanting to work on my own projects, but need to focus on paying the bills [through consulting].” Audience member.

Product development is really alluring. Tough to balance with consulting.

Find some efficiencies through reuse of code (almost a product) with similar clients.

Cash Flow

“Consulting makes me bipolar.” Audience member.

Checks don’t come in on a steady basis.

Figure out your baseline expense and cover that. Then aim for a huge padding above that.

Selection is important. Find clients who pay and pay on time.

Get some money up front. Discounts for early payment is mixed.

Winning Contracts

Clients are most concerned about whether they can trust you.

Improving Customers

Bill appropriate prices for your value.

Building a Reputation

Do good work.

Have a blog.

Be known in the developer community.

Establish a niche. (Ex. Ruby on Rails)


How big do you want to be?

Each person makes the team different and dynamics more difficult.

Quality vs Profits

Important question. You can’t compromise.

To be an excellent firm, you have to do excellent work.

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