A friend recently sent me an e-mail looking for advice on becoming an independent consultant and specifically how to get contracts. I thought this advice might be interesting for others. The e-mail below is unmodified for the most part. He's an animator and does a lot of stuff in Flash, so this naturally has that twist to it. For Java Developers, just replace Macromedia/Flash stuff with Java stuff.
The best thing is to subcribe to the job mailing lists in Denver.
There's a Rocky Mountain Internet Users Group and Macromedia Users
group that would probably help you.
Then I would advise you to get involved in with a local user group, like the Macromedia one. Attend meetings, talk to people, see where they're getting their gigs. I go to the Denver Java Users Group on a monthly basis and now I have a lot of friends there. It was nerdy at first, but then I realized they all went out for beers afterwards and it's kinda cool now. If you volunteer to speak at one of the meetings, you'll probably get some leads from that. It's really all about networking.
The best thing you could possibly do for you career and new clients is to start a weblog. On it you can talk about what you do and how you solve problems. Tips and tricks kinda stuff. I put a lot of personal stuff on mine (www.raibledesigns.com) too. Ever since I started my weblog, I haven't had to do much looking. Often, I can just post I'm looking for a new gig and I'll get offers. I get 8000 visitors a day and around 2 million hits a month. It's the main reason I got my last couple of book deals.
Any other advice you might have for people looking to become independent consultants?
In general, I find independent consulting a lot more fun than full-time employment. The main benefits of full-time employment are Health Insurance and 401K Plans. Stock options are not a benefit in my eyes. I've yet to meet anyone who has made money off stock options as a full-time employee.
The main benefits of being an independent consultant are higher pay and freedom. An experience full-time Java Developer (in Denver) makes around $100K year. I've heard of companies hiring employees for $120K, but the most I've known anyone to make is $108K. On other hand, a contractor with only a year or two of experience can easily make $55/hour - or $110K year. Experienced developers get anywhere from $75/hour to $200/hour. That's right folks - $150K year to $400K year! For the higher dollars you often have to travel, which kinda sucks.
People that are full-time employees often like it for the benefits - health care and such. As a consultant, you get to see how screwed up our health care system is and pay for your health insurance out-of-pocket. I've seen folks pay anywhere from $250/month to $1000/month for health insurance. We've done both (the latter thanks to Corba) and I'm happy to say that we're paying $250/month now. United Healthcare, minimal plan - but we're still insured. What about 401K? As an independent, you often will establish your own company, and then you can contribute to an SEP plan. With a 401K, you're limited to contributing something like $15K/year. With an SEP, you can contribute up to $40K! Granted, you won't have any employer matching, but you can still plan for your retirement.
The one downside I've seen personally from being independent is I tend to find a lot of projects where I'm the development team. This is great at first since I can work remotely and don't have to attend any meetings, but I tend to miss the water-cooler talk and synergy that a team provides. With full-time positions, this can happen too, but it's rare. With full-time positions, you're likely part of a development team - and if you're lucky - one full of smart developers. One myth about contractors is that they often don't fit into a team full of full-time employees. Personally, I've found this to be a personality thing and have rarely had issues fitting in with full-time employees. The ideal situation is simply to work with smart people. In my career, working with people smarter than me has always been very lucrative to my knowledge base.
Working from home is not all it's cracked up to be. I've done it off and on for a few years now and I'd much rather go into an office at this point. When I work from home, dinner tends to be a just a "break" in my day and I go back to work after the kids go to bed. When I'm in an office, the work day ends when you leave. So how do you get the team-benefits as a independent consultant? The best way I've found is to work with a group of consultants on a project - where the whole team is contractors. You'll often share the same lifestyle and attitudes about your careers. Also, a lot of independent consultants tend to be smart - so you get that benefit.
The last thing I like about independent consulting is freedom. I had 4 months last year where I attended conferences, went on vacation or worked on Spring Live. Good luck finding that kind of freedom with a full-time gig. The higher rates allow you to take more time off to spend with your family - or just enjoy life in general.
If you're thinking about becoming an independent consultant, now is a better time than ever - especially if you live in Denver. The Denver JUG mailing list received more job postings last year than any previous year. From what I've seen, at least half of these are for contracting positions. Unfortunately, most of them are in the $40-60/hour range, but that's still good money.
Any feedback on why you think being a full-time employee is better is most welcome.