Advice to Engineers Thinking of Becoming a Maintenance Consultant

Here’s some truths and hard won learning for engineers thinking of becoming a Maintenance Consultant, or any other sort of consultant. There are important know-hows covered in this article that you need to understand if you want to build a maintenance consultancy that delivers you consistent cash flow. I could have written a lot more, but there are really only two determinants you must focus on to become a viable consultancy—marketing and innovation. Read about how Lifetime Reliability Solutions Consultants started and what we had to learn to do to market ourselves and survive when the business plan turned out to be completely useless.

If You Love What You’re Already Doing and It Has Opportunity

Before leaving a good paying job to be a self-employed maintenance consultant (in fact any consultant) there are two questions you need to answer with total confidence. Once you startup in business you’ll need cash flow to cover your new consultancy’s bills, including the Taxman. All while you’re still paying your family’s bills, the home mortgage, putting food on the table every night, keeping the utilities flowing, sending the kids to school, paying the City Council rates, and saving for your retirement from the money you make in your new venture. I nickname the two questions, the “Why?” and the “Why me?” challenges. You can see them in the image above (which is a photo of the adhesive note I keep in front of me). The full version of the first question is, “WHY would anyone want what I offer?” The second question is, “WHY would anyone pick ME?”

I wish somebody had asked me to answer those questions 14 years ago before I started my consultancy. Over the years of self-employment I reckon I’ve missed some AU $2,000,000 of income by choosing to go into consulting and not staying in my last job. I loved that job. I was good at it. It was with a great company going places. I would likely be a senior executive by now with shares in what became a billion dollar a year business. But no, instead I took the plunge!

It’s okay—everything was, and is, just perfectly fine. I still get plenty of consulting assignments from new and from old clients, and I’ve loved every minute of being in business. Yes, all the bills got paid on time, my two kids finished senior high school and went to university, we didn’t get evicted from the house—we even renovated. My wife and I get to take holidays overseas twice a year. The superannuation fund looks healthy and I keep putting money into it each month, as I’ve done every month for nearly 14 years. Things are pretty neat really. I continue loving the work I do for clients and get joy from seeing the productivity gains and profits it brings them. But the multi-billion dollar annual turnover consultancy I dreamed of starting is still a work-in-progress. The dream has always been real to me. I know exactly what things will be like when it’s built. As good as its been to work and live off my own efforts and wits for 14 years, there are still great and wonderful things I want to see achieved.

Becoming a Maintenance Consultant wasn’t a lifetime dream. But having my own business has been. I started Lifetime Reliability Solutions on 25th November 2005 offering enterprise asset management, industrial maintenance management, and equipment reliability improvement services. It was my eighth, and my last, business venture. It took me seven failed businesses to realize I had to stick with my choice and learn how to make it successful. I’d been wanting quick success and jumped from business opportunity to opportunity every few months looking for a winner. After seven failed startups I came to understand the problem wasn’t that they were bad businesses, the problem was I didn’t know how to make them into profitable businesses. Each of those seven opportunities had the potential to deliver multi-million dollar success. I didn’t need another opportunity, I needed to learn how to make a business work! I finally came to understand that I had to master how to be successful in business, and not keep looking for a successful business. When I started LRS I promised myself that I would stick with it through everything that came its way and find an honorable path to a sustainable and worthwhile business.

Understand What You are Getting into and What You are Foregoing

Below are a few truths and suggestions for those who want to start a consultancy so you can do it better than me. Answer fully and accurately those two most important questions—’Why?’ and ‘Why me?’—that I wish I’d known of before I jumped into what could have been a pie-in-the-sky dream, and a terrible waste of the great opportunity I already had in my hands. Take time to think and to look into them deeply. Investigate them well because the answers are important. If you come to realize you’re already in a job where you can do great things in the years ahead, then put as much effort into the organization you are with as you would put into your own consultancy. Unless you can create a consultancy with million dollar annual turnover, then you may not be as well off after years of consulting as you would have been by being great in the roles you do while building a career to the senior levels in an established enterprise.

When you become a self-employed consultant, you step into a busy, constantly changing marketplace already full of consultants such as you. In the marketplace you compete with many other local small consultants, with several medium size national consultancies, and with a few large international consultants. Your consultancy is just another ‘drop in the ocean’ of choice for your prospects. It’s even worse than that—the companies and people who you want as clients already have their favorite consultants. They’ve worked with them for years and are perfectly happy with their performance. That’s ‘Why?’ and ‘Why me?’ are the most important questions you need to answer truly BEFORE you plunge yourself and your family into the ocean.

Startup Business Planning: Benefit or Fallacy?

‘Why?’ and ‘Why me?’ are meant to be answered fully in your business plan. You should have seen my startup business plan for becoming a maintenance consultant, it was a beauty. Everything looked brilliant on paper. It listed the range of maintenance consulting services I was competent to provide. There was a 5-year cash flow projection. A marketing strategy with prospective companies to approach. A business environment analysis with a glorious SWOT table. Harvard Business School would have been proud of me! I even asked two other successful maintenance consultants to look the plan over. They mentioned a few tweaks to do, which I did, and then I started into business. Multi-billion dollars annual turnover here I come!

From Day 1 nothing at all worked like I’d planned in the business plan. Prospective clients already had specialist consultants just like me. They weren’t looking for any new consultants. I placed ads in industry magazines and the local newspapers—nothing! I knew I was in trouble when I’d burned through half the reserve savings and hardly any consulting work was happening except from friends I’d known when I was in industry. Becoming a maintenance consultant was turning into a serious financial risk. As you do when you get to that situation in a startup consultancy, I began to read about marketing your business and writing winning sales copy. That’s how I came across the ‘Why?’ and ‘Why me?’ questions. I soon realized the fool that I’d been! I was just a drop in the ocean!

Innovate, Marketing, Marketing, Marketing, and Sales Copy Writing

How do you make a drop in the ocean noticeable? You change its color so it stands out from all the rest. For a new consultancy that means two things—provide something important for prospective clients that no other consultant can match, which is innovation. And tell the right people what your special something will do for the well-being and success of their business, which is marketing.

Luckily, I had one special something that no one else world-wide in my industry knew—I’d invented the Plant and Equipment Wellness Way Enterprise Asset Management methodology. It was because I’d created Plant Wellness Way EAM with solutions that always turned machinery into outstandingly reliable equipment that I believed I could start and grow a hugely successful maintenance and reliability consultancy. Even though prospective clients saw me as just another maintenance consultant, I knew that using Plant Wellness Way techniques and solutions would make their operating equipment world class reliable and so make their businesses far more profits. In order to be different at something that prospective clients valued, I developed new industrial maintenance training courses with special content that included key aspects of the Plant Wellness Way EAM methodology. My marketing and sales copy reading convinced me to title those courses to capture the attention of the supervisors, superintendents and managers in my marketplace. The first course created was, Maintenance Planning and Scheduling for World Class Reliability. The hook was ‘world class reliability’—no other maintenance consultant and training provider could do that because no one else had Plant Wellness Way EAM! More courses came over the following years.

When becoming a maintenance consultant was clearly not going to work I went back through my career resume to see what else I was good at doing apart from enterprise asset management and maintenance management. EAM and maintenance are quite small and specialized niches in Western Australia. Prospect numbers are counted in the dozens. I spotted that I’d built a complete ISO 9001 Quality Management System and got it certified for a past employer. I knew I could do the same for any business in the local marketplace. Hugely important was that ISO 9001 had a massive market base. Starting with small businesses, and going up to national and international businesses with local branches, there were hundreds and hundreds of prospects for ISO 9001 work, not just the few dozen available to a maintenance consultancy. While retaining the original EAM, maintenance and reliability consulting offers, I diversified the business into ISO 9001 QMS consulting and development, and delivering training in world-class maintenance and reliability.

The training course ads ran on the LRS website and in the same magazines and newspapers in which I’d offered my first consulting services. This time the marketing worked. Supervisors and managers registered their people and I got my first students. I then took the course around the country. As more courses were developed and listed on the website I got international requests to deliver public training courses and do onsite training for large companies. Event organizers contacted me to present at conventions and conferences. The business survived and cash flow grew. During the following four to five years students from the training courses used the great content at work and it brought success for their companies. Over time my business gained in reputation and I started getting requests to also do consulting assignments.

Offer Specialist Training and Knowledge World-Wide

Once the training courses were proven to be excellent the next innovation was to offer the courses by online tutored distance education. I reasoned that people and industries across the world wanted to improve their EAM and maintenance practices. Many operations could not get the training and education they need because expert trainers never got to their locality. If EAM, maintenance and reliability training courses were online then anyone with the Internet could learn the right things that they needed to do to be highly successful in their jobs. I surveyed the Web to see what other industrial trainers were doing. Everyone was going down the computer based training path, using multi-choice questions to pass students and certify them. I knew from my years as a maintenance manager that computer-based training never produced competent workers. I decided to go with tutored online training where students were coached by a subject matter expert. Using specialist-to-student coaching to transfer expert knowledge allowed the online distance education training to produce outstanding graduates. I intentionally made the training course content highly valuable, but with hard and demanding assignments to complete. That way I was sure those people who completed a course would finish it as knowledgeable professionals fully capable of immediately delivering great results in their job.

Maintenance Planning and Scheduling for World Class Reliability was the first training to go online as a 10-module, human-to-human tutored distance education course. Tutored online maintenance planning was a big market, potentially interesting thousands of people world-wide, year after year. Whereas, if I’d offered a maintenance management tutored online course there would only be a few hundred people a year that such a course would interest. By then I’d learned to go where the chances for success were greatest. The MPS online distance education has now been running for ten years. Its graduates rave about how great the course is and how, for many of them, it’s moved their careers into higher positions and better paid jobs. There are now 12 tutored online course people can do. They cover shop floor needs through to management level needs. The RCM online tutored course is the second most popular course with a fifth the number of students as the MPS course. After that are the Applied Reliability Improvement course, the Preventive Maintenance course, and the Root Cause Analysis training course, each with a tenth the number of students of the MPS course.

Never Be Just Another Drop in the Ocean!

I want to wrap this article and finish with honest, hard-won advice for all of you thinking to start a consultancy (and those of you who have started one and are struggling). I applaud you all for your courage, the world will always need new consultancies who want to become great. But in the end, value-bringing innovative solutions and targeted marketing is what gets you work! Becoming an maintenance consultant, or any other consultant, offering competent consulting services is not what will make your consultancy into the success you want. If you want prospective clients to beat a path to your door innovate with solutions that no other consultancy has, which your prospects greatly value and will pay for. Market and sell to those decision-makers with problems you can solve, who’ll approve your proposal and later pay your invoice. Never be just another drop in the ocean! Innovation and marketing, they are the two most important things that you need to be good at doing when you start a consultancy. And then you must continue doing them forevermore to keep your consultancy differentiated from all the others in the ocean so you give yourself the greatest chances to always be successful and profitable. These words of advice aren’t my original thoughts, but I’ve found them to be true.

I’m happy to take questions, especially if your thinking of becoming a maintenance consultant. Make contact by some form of written correspondence whenever you want. I’ll answer if I think I can help you.

All the very best to you,

Mike Sondalini | Lifetime Reliability Solutions for World Class Equipment Reliability