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Students Can Be Consultants Too! An Entrepreneur’s Insight.

Ever since the early years of our business, we knew it was important to connect with other professionals. A great decision I made was to join the Independent Computer Consultants Association (ICCA).

It was my freshman year in college when I remember hearing about how an old friend of mine, a guy I had known since we were 10 years old, had taken the initiative and started up a software consulting business.  My immediate thought was probably the same as anyone else’s, “Who does this guy think he is?”  “Does he really think he is going to be able to be a consultant and sell some sort of supposed expertise at age 18?”  I laughed at the thought, predicted a lifespan of about 2 months for this silly venture, and moved on.

Two months came and went and much to my chagrin, my old friend persisted.  Not only was he still around, I heard he had acquired a couple clients and was starting work on some innovative new websites.  I wanted to learn more.  Who were these clients, and were they mentally sane?  Were they paying him in Monopoly money?  Were they prone to high degrees of pity?  I was in disbelief when I learned that his clients were not only legitimate, but were paying him much more than I was making in my current job, a job which I had thought was pretty lucrative for my age.

After a few more months of hearing about this I had just about had enough.  It was clear that I was jealous of his situation, and had secretly wanted to try something similar myself.  Entrepreneurship is something that runs in my family, and I had planned on starting up some sort of business one day in the future.  But the accomplishments of my friend had shown me that assuming I needed to wait was just downright ridiculous.  As a talented, motivated, and hard working computer science student, I had all the tools I needed to undergo a business venture.  I contacted my friend and proposed a partnership.  One year later UnitedWare was launched.

Like any business, our first few years were rough.  We constantly were challenged to prove validity as a real company.  But also like any business, we knew that the secret was in finding our niche and marketing it appropriately.  Our niche was fairly easy to figure out: “low cost, high quality” became our mantra.  It was clear that we could charge much less than the average IT consultant, but still make much more than we could in an internship or campus job.  Proving quality was a little harder to tackle, but luckily we had both completed work for a few campus departments and non-profit organizations, all of which had given us much praise.  We also had his current clients to show that we had a proven track record.  This portfolio, while comparatively small, went a long way towards proving our validity.

Our next task was to figure out how we would market all this.  After some failed attempts at traditional methods of marketing, we decided to embrace the very thing that made us different.  We sent out swarms of press releases, all of them announcing that a couple college students had the gall to start up an IT consulting business.  We didn’t expect much, but within days we were being contacted by major newspapers in the area.  Within the next two years we would end up in 3 major local newspapers, a radio show, a national entrepreneurship magazine, and even a couple books.  We had found our favorite method of advertising, and it paid off for us.

After the first newspaper article ran we were contacted by several local companies, one of which was a prominent builder marketing company in Cincinnati.  They admired our ambition and needed someone with that kind of fortitude to help them with a software product they were looking to create.  We spent the next 2 years helping them create BuilderFile, which is today one of the leading CRM software systems for home builders in the tri-state area.  We would later partner with them to sell it nationally.  UnitedWare has since expanded to other areas beyond the home building industry, but our work in this area was what enabled us to move from “kids with a hobby” to “entrepreneurs with a profitable business.”  We are approaching our seventh year of being in business and it has been an amazing experience.

I’m definitely glad that I did not wait to start my business.  I’m not sure if I would have been successful had I waited.  In any new business venture it’s all about standing out, and what made us different became our best marketing tool.  In the last couple years I have tried to spread this message to current computer science students.  I have tried to become something of a role model and mentor for students who want to accomplish something similar.  No longer a student but not quite a man, I think they relate to me a lot and can see just how feasible all this can be.

Ever since the early years of our business, we knew it was important to connect with other professionals.  A great decision I made was to join the Independent Computer Consultants Association (ICCA).  The ICCA [www.icca.org] is a non-profit professional association of independent and small business technology professionals, and they were an extremely valuable resource when we were getting started.  Not only did we not have any entrepreneurship experience, but we had little to no corporate experience either.  There was a lot we needed to learn and we frequented the ICCA discussion boards often.  The membership was very gracious and many of our questions were answered in a matter of a few hours.  When I heard that the ICCA was trying to incorporate students into their membership, I knew I could be of service to them.  I knew immediately this organization would be embraced by other students and so I ran for the National Board last year so that I could take this on as my initiative.

In the last year on the National Board, we have laid the groundwork for the new student membership category.  We have outlined the benefits for students: access to internship opportunities, establishing leadership on campus, participating in the Mentoring Program, gaining consulting experience, acquiring the tools necessary to run a business, and most of all, learning and networking with ICCA professionals who have plenty to teach them.  With the structure now in place, our next task was to promote it.

With this in mind, a few weeks ago I visited my alma mater, Miami University (OH) for their annual Computer Science and Systems Analysis Alumni Conference.  The conference is intended to bring together alumni, faculty, and students from the CSA department for learning, fellowship, and networking.  The conference includes presentations from alumni on various topics, ranging from entrepreneurship to new technologies in the industry.  I gave a presentation on "Finding the Tools and Resources to Break into Consulting….As a Student".  In this presentation I discussed what it means to be a "consultant" today, how the definition and demographic has changed, and many of the resources I used as well as the lessons learned while I tried to make it as a student consultant myself.  Included in this, I discussed the ICCA and the large role it played in my development as a consultant.  I also officially unveiled the ICCA Student Program.  Overall the event was a great success and the students seemed very interested in the topic of consulting and starting their own businesses.  They also embraced the way an organization such as the ICCA could help them to do just that.

With one college down, I intend to continue to spread the word of this great opportunity to students all over the country.  As someone who got started as a student myself, I know just how beneficial a program like this could be.

Kevin Fessenden is President of UnitedWare, LLC and Co-Founder of BuilderFile, LLC in Cincinnati, OH.  He is currently serving on the National Board of Directors for the Independent Computer Consultants Association and serves on several boards and councils for Miami University (OH).  He also trains information technology (IT) students in entrepreneurship and the steps necessary to build their own computer consultancies.

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