About a year ago, I left my job as a salaried mechanical engineer because I didn’t have as much ownership in my projects as I wanted. I wanted a career with more accountability and engagement with what I was working on, and I wanted more control of how I was spending my time.
So I decided to become a freelancer. Here’s what I’ve learned about how to start an engineering consulting firm (which sounds way fancier than freelancer).
Being a freelance engineering consultant means you get to pick your clients and projects and be flexible in how you spend your time. But being a freelancer also means that you don’t always know when your next paycheck is coming. That stress aside, you can make your freelance life much easier by following a few simple rules.
Engineering Consulting Requires the Right Tools and Materials
I’m a mechanical designer, which means that I make my clients’ ideas into physical things, such as an insert for a blender or a mountable light fixture. In addition to ideation, I design, model, and prototype, so to complete projects, I need access to a modeling program and a 3D printer. By joining a hardware-specific co-working space, I have access to those tools whenever I need them. Think about the tools you need and whether you have access to them. A few up-front investments in time or money can help you out in the long run.
Because I also make prototypes for clients, I need materials. Through my network of makers, I’ve discovered many raw-material suppliers and manufacturers (mostly local!) that are already vetted. Never underestimate the power of your network. You can also use the Internet; the Internet has everything.
Make Connections, and Follow Up
Knowing where to find opportunities is one of the biggest struggles for freelance engineering consultants. In my co-working space, I’m surrounded by people with ideas for physical products, so our needs often match up. But uncovering those needs requires interacting with people or—gulp—“networking.” Networking doesn’t need to strike fear in your heart. Going to industry meet-ups in your area is a great way to start. Look for meet-ups with people of various backgrounds; that way, you’ll connect with more people who may need your skill set.
Sending an email the day after meeting someone is probably the hardest thing to remember for me—but it’s critical. Be sure to include what you talked about and what a next step could be.
And don’t forget about social media. I’ve found opportunities through Twitter because I have my skills and email address in my bio. Following people on Twitter that you meet in real life is an easy way to stay connected with potential clients.
Be Smart About Quoting and Scheduling
Quoting a project for the first time is difficult, but asking people who have done similar projects is a good place to start. “It’s in everyone’s best interest to get a cost-plus quote versus a fixed bid, as the project will have lots of unknowns,” says Daniel D Lindmark, a contract electrical engineer and proprietor of Make Believe Company. “Asking someone to quote a fixed cost means that after you’ve gone over budget, you will have a contractor who is no longer making money and no longer has an incentive to help you.” But with the cost-plus quote, all production and labor costs are included. On a quote, I inform my clients that a cost for materials, not factored into the pricing, will be added. To offset the costs that you’ll incur during the project, ask for 30–50 percent of your quote up front.
Sometimes, you can’t complete a project alone due to time constraints or lack of expertise. If a client wants me to do electrical work in addition to mechanical work, I know I need to subcontract an electrical engineer. Fortunately, I know someone; otherwise, it wouldn’t be wise to take on that client.
Scheduling a project depends on your bandwidth. It benefits no one to have more work than you can handle. If you quote for more time, your client will be delighted when you deliver early. Scheduling later due dates also gives you a buffer if you find more work or something unexpected comes up.
Communicate With Your Clients
Speaking of the unexpected, be sure to update your clients often regarding any complications or delays. I’m currently working on a project that has been delayed by several months. When I was creating my schedule, I didn’t consider that the parts, sourced from overseas, would need a two-month lead time. Twiddling my thumbs isn’t something that I can bill for when I’m awaiting parts, unfortunately.
The frequency of in-person meetings you have with a client depends on the project. I’ve had some clients who wanted to meet every few days and some who wanted to meet every few weeks. Regardless, your client wants to see that you’re making progress. During your meetings, have something that shows what you’ve already done and what you’ll be doing next. Some clients will want to hire you again, so before the project is over, start talking about next steps and future projects.
Work on Side Projects to Highlight Engineering Consultant Expertise
If you’re not currently working on anything, do side projects! Josh Billions, proprietor of MB Labs, did just that: He and the MB Labs team built an LED strip window display, controlled by a phone application, behind two banks of frosted block windows. “Finding a way to put something together on the way down without the constraints of manufacture was incredibly freeing,” Billions says. “It lets you use new tools that someone may not feel comfortable working with on a commercial project.” Since completing his project and posting the code and process on GitHub, Billions has received several inquiries about building similar systems.
Creating a portfolio online can lead prospective clients to easily see past work of your engineering consulting firm. When working on any project, be sure to document the process to show your clients how you work.
Freelancing can be great, but it’s definitely not the same as having a salaried job. Sometimes you’ll have a lot of work, sometimes none. It’s just like riding a bike: It’s really hard at first, and then you have to constantly pay attention to your surroundings to succeed.