Let's start with a clarifying definition: You're not a self-employed consultant unless you have clients. It's fine to tell people you're a consultant when searching for your first client, but never forget that until someone hires you the correct job title is 'unemployed.' There's nothing wrong in being unemployed for a time, but it is important to at least be honest with yourself for motivation.
For the readers that have decided to start consulting without at least one client, I'll quickly list some simple ideas for finding clients since you probably don't have the time or interest to read about what you SHOULD have done. Your family will likely remind you of that plenty :).
- Your Past Employer. If you were at least decent at your previous positions and left on good terms, you likely have some credibility with them. That credibility makes you a low risk proposition for the company to engage, and you may still be familiar with their systems.
- Existing business contacts. Everyone you know professionally should be aware that you're a consultant. Capable people with a job and no time are wonderful resources for referring work. Take an hour every day to catch up with old contacts, and have some fun with it since nobody wants to talk to a needy charity case. Don't be afraid to ask for any references or ideas, and be sure to see if there is some way you can help them.
- Online job boards. Indeed.com is good for full time contract-to-hire or project-based jobs which is really half way to full time employment. Craigslist is a fine resource, but many people posting are not very serious and will low ball you. However you may be in a position to accept poorly-paying work; in which case just make sure you're not being obvious about your position. It's also not a bad idea to review for full-time jobs that you are a perfect fit for, and contact the company suggesting a consulting arrangement.
Now that the easy sources are listed, there is a more elegant, planned approach which takes more unpaid effort but results in long-term payoff. These are things that can be done in the nights and evenings, allowing people to collect a paycheck at their day job while planning and starting the sales process. This is mostly about understanding yourself in order to identify and acquire the best clients for you.
First, consultants needs to know exactly what they want to do, and what they don't want to do. Identify your existing expertise and expertise you'd like to gain. Why would someone want to hire you? How can you make them money? What are all the ways you can confidently explain this to a potential client? How would you explain it to a layman? How would you want people to describe your job?
Next, what type of company or person would want to hire you to do that job? There is no chance that clients will start knocking on your door just because you are putting out good consulting-related vibrations. You need to know your customer before you chase them down. Identify the companies, and then use the company website, LinkedIn, and Google to determine who the best people are to connect with. In particularly well-matched cases, I have connected with potential clients by making sure I meet them at conferences or other events. (Just don't mention that the meeting was a planned occurrence and it won't be awkward.)
Finally, with a confident understanding of why you are worth hiring, and a list of people/companies that are likely to agree with your assessment, start connecting with them. The list above is the best place to start but won't cast a wide enough net. I believe that visiting and/or cold calling is a lost art; many people welcome a carefully worded and well timed solicitation such as, 'We have the same background and interests, so I'd like to learn more about your business.' Developing the skills to properly word and time such an introduction takes experience, so don't be discouraged if you piss the first few people off sounding like a pushy salesman. Not every lead will turn into a client, so expect to burn a few while learning and save the best for last.
Remember: you're not a consultant until you sign a client. Completing most sales and marketing work before leaving your current job is the best possible play. Plus, if you have your sales pitch put together, it will be easy to turn your current employer into your first client. A part-time engagement is often beneficial for both company and employee as the transition occurs.
James Benson is writing a series on 'Engineers As Consultants' to educate and encourage salaried engineers to consider if hanging a shingle is right for them. New posts on the first Monday of every month.