Presented by Nate Aune, Jon Stahl, Calvin Hendryx-Parker, Geir Baekholt, Matt Hamilton and Brian Gershon as part of Plone Conference 2008, this panel discussion focused on the Plone consulting world.
We have a lot of consultants in the Plone community. As the popularity of Plone rises, so does the demand for competent Plone consultants. It's fairly common for those who hone their skills to eventually break out on their own.Nate was kind enough to assemble an esteemed panel of guests, all of whom have successful careers in the Plone consulting world.
How do these guys sell Plone to people?
Matt tells us it's a combination of doing more traditional sales and marketing, but the other half is people/companies seeking specific help on Plone. Calvin recommends creating advocates within the community, so that other people recommend your services when asked.
Brian's company prefers the word of mouth approach. Geir's company puts a large amount of effort into the global public community while seeking local contracts via a formalized bid process.
All panelists often find that it can be a struggle competing against commercial software, so the bidding process can be hard. User groups can be a great way to find other companies to partner with, but also a great way to find employees.
How Do You Determine How Much to Charge
Clayton's company started doing fixed bids, but often lost money on them. As the size of the projects grows, an hourly rate seems to work better. Matt concurs with this method, especially as the size of your own company grows. Estimates are the best way to deliver these details.
Estimates can be hard, and if you miscalculate on a fixed bid, you can be cheating yourself out of money. But many clients can get scared of the hourly rate. Geir suggests using an open scope contract, where the hourly rate is fixed and a certain amount of goals are agreed upon -- but the option to expand the scope is there.
This takes a lot more planning on the project management side of things, and Geir highly recommends having at least one person to help do the PM type of work. I know from my own personal experience it can often be difficult to convince consultants to expand and bring on someone to do project management work, so the consultant can focus on the work. Jon finds that using well-known add-on products can help streamline things, but it's good to put into a contingency plan.
Matt also suggests doing a pre-production discovery period to figure out what the client needs. He consults with the client, and then writes up a recommendation. The client can then continue into the production phase with your company, or take the recommendation elsewhere. Several panelists agree that it's actually a lower cost for clients, when they bill you per hour.
A side note from Geir: It's extremely important to talk to your clients. The code often sounds like the important part, but clients feel better about things when you do a little bit of hand holding. And yes, you still charge for your time. Nate adds that for those clients who get paranoid about being charged for project management time, you can offer a set amount of "free" time for the client to talk.
Clayton recommends that you do not underestimate the value of your work. Just because the work is easy for you, does not mean you should charge less. You need to make a living off this!
Growing Your Plone Business
All panelists agree on growing slowly and finding just the right people when you are ready to hire. It's often not obvious when you're ready to expand, and it can be hard to justify the cost when you're a one-man shop.
Matt likes to go speak at the local university, when they want people to speak to students about the "real world". He often gets applicants who have seen him speak. Clayton suggested attending university job fairs as well. There can often be a misconception that open source companies don't make any money. I think it's safe to say that many of these guys are proof that that idea is wrong.
Matt says he likes to hire people who don't know Python and train them. Geir prefers to hire only people who have a long history of contributing to Plone.
Taking contracts that are very big can often be a bit nerve wrecking. When you land a big contract, it can often seem like you're moving too fast. If you want to grow -- eventually, you'll have to start working on bigger and bigger contracts.
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