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Choosing a "voice" for a 1 man consultancy?

Yes, I know. Just clone JOS. ;-)

In order to have a more robust business ultimately, I have decided to try marketing to end users for certain services - not just SW development, but a broader focus.  I don't want to get into the merits or lack thereof of dealing with end users, at least not in this thread.

What I am trying to figure out is this: if you want to conduct activities that promote yourself as a professional service provider, in what "voice" do you speak? Do you talk about your company in the abstract? Do you say "we" a lot? Or do you write and speak and present using "I"?

In terms of the business itself, it is going to be me, at least for the immediate future.

And I also realize that the upside to smallness is that you sell yourself as the primary, client-accessible asset; you don't try to act like a miniature version of EDS because you're not going to fool anyone anyway.

I do look at JOS's and Fog Creek's general setup for guidance. However, nothing anyone else has done in this regard ever seems to click for me.

This is a new territory for me. In the past, I've approached "marketing" as a variation of a job search because I've dealt with owners and managers of programming shops. That is, I used a resume with line item project lists and skill bullets. To deal with end users in a more general sense of doing business, you have to assert that you're an answer to their problems, not just a guy sitting around in his boxers waiting for phone calls from HR departments...  which demands that you describe what your business has to offer.  No real business uses a resume.

Which means in turn that you have to choose a way of presenting your business as an entity that is there to help certain segments of the population.

Any suggestions on the entire subject of describing your own business in a marketing context appreciated. I'll probably even learn something from ridicule...

Bored Bystander
Saturday, November 15, 2003

I can't speak for the results as a service provider, but as a consumer, I'd say that using "we" when refering only to yourself is a lie.  It's flat-out dishonest.

Also, doesn't the wisdom say that people buy from people, not from businesses?  The "I" has a far more personal voice; the "we" is dull and gray and corporate.  Even if it's a small company, I'd try to refrain from that impersonal "we" unless it's the first part of the phrase, "we've got some skilled people around here who are really good at doing xxx and yyy".

Saturday, November 15, 2003

I'll contribute my two cents.

I am corporation.  I am the sole employee and sole developer.  I do work for both "end-users" as well as other programming shops.  All of my work is done off-site at my office and none is done on-site.

Depending upon who I am talking to is how I refer to my business/self.  If I am dealing with end-users or marketing in general, I refer to my company as "we".  It's not really trying to lie to anyone but because it is true.  It is true from the standpoint that I have access to other resources so the pronoun "we" refers to me and those resources.  These resources are things such as contract graphic designers, contract programmers, etc if a project dictates the need.

If someone asks me what I do, I often use "we do..." for the same reasons as above.  I don't want potential clients to feel because I am a single developer that what I can do is limited.  I have access to other resources to pull from.

Now, if I am working with a programming shop where I am basically a subcontractor (though corp-to-corp) it is almost always "I".  This is where being on a personal basis matters and helps.  They aren't looking to have a complete solution developed (most of the time).  They are more interested in augmenting their current staff.  I don't use "we" because the opposite of the above is true.  If I need additional resources, they are often in charge of procuring those resources, not me.

Also, in the truest sense, a corporation is actually an entity itself so saying we (the corporation and I) is not really a lie.  Of course, I am the voice, president, bookkeeper and janitor of the corporation.

Jonathan A
Saturday, November 15, 2003


That's pretty much how I see it too. My business profile is exactly the same as yours. I incorporated specifically so that I could have a legal framework for using subcontractors and and/or perhaps hiring temporary employees.

I can also see Alyosha's POV. If a prospect says "who's 'we'?", the question demands a coherent explanation.

I think what I have trouble getting past is maintaining the conviction necessary to use "we" consistently and meaningfully.

What I *want* to say is "you're hiring me with XXX track record; and my corporation can potentially be 'we'. " I see associating only myself with my corporation as undermining my ability to rise above the commodity rental-body image.

I think getting this distinction and image straight is pretty important. There are a lot of uncommitted part timers and laid off types floating around in the IT contracting world who would rather be someone's employee than run a business. I think it's important to cultivate an image that facilitates professional respect, which most desperate and/or disorganized people don't get or merit.

And I also think it's valid to argue that "if I have to ask", I don't have any business doing it... being in business, that is... but at this point, it's easier for me to get the business angle right than try to be an employee again.

Bored Bystander
Saturday, November 15, 2003

I think in general, "we" is better.  The advice I've heard from business owners is that you benefit from seeming larger than you are.  There's some truth to that, IMO--success breeds credibility, and size is a key indicator of it.

At least in certain contexts, like dealing with vendors, it's beneficial in the sense that you can represent yourself differently.  eg, you can refer yourself to the CEO or the board for the final purchasing decisions. :)

Of course there are limits to "seeming larger than you are."  Nothing's worse than twentysomethings pretending to be CEOs, for instance...

Still, part of the "we" attitude--I think--is also that you are not your business.  You may want to grow your business beyond yourself at some point, and I think that requires being in the right mindset.  Better to instill it now than at the last minute.

Saturday, November 15, 2003


When, on the rare occasion, someone has questioned "who's the we", I typically respond similar to what I said to you.  I explain to them that I am a sole developer now mainly to keep costs low and that I have the resources to draw on should I need those resources.  Most of the time this will be graphic designers, especially in the web application development area.

As far as the conviction, I find it very interesting now that I instinctively refer to myself and the corporation as we.  I don't even think about it until after I say it.  I think saying "we" presents "serious" and "complete" image.  It may also come instinctively to me because I involve my fiancée in my business decisions.  She's not a programmer nor is she even "officially" part of the corporation, but I discuss with her if I'm working on getting new contracts, proposals, making large purchases, justifications, etc.  As you've probably found out, if you buy that $1000 20" LCD Monitor for your business, that directly reduced the amount of "personal" money you have to spend.  I've been in business for about 2.5 years.

I also try to rise above the rental-body image as well.  I like to market the fact that I have business knowledge as well as programming knowledge.  I think I've read in some of your posts that you work(ed) through an agency.  I don't do any work through an agency.  There aren't any of them around here that I know of.  If you're working through an agency, I could definitely see it being hard referring to yourself as we.  Although I have a personal resume, I don't typically distribute it when working on new contracts for my business.  Usually my previous work/clients are good enough.  As you know, resumes often contain a lot of fluff and not much substance.

Yes, getting this straight can be/is a big deal.  I believe I also remember you discussing the E-Myth book by Michael Gerber.  I think this is were I read that you don't want to own a job, you want to own a business.  Therefore, you want to start acting like one.  I would really want my consulting/hourly work to be a springboard to something bigger and better such as a product and get away from hourly work.  You can only bill so much as a hourly consultant because you are limited by time.  I also don't necessarily want to get into the business of selling "people".  Basically, becoming my own body shop, but I'm probably going too far off-topic now.

Everybody has to learn.  Just because you have to ask, doesn't mean you shouldn't be in business.  I'm of the opinion that once you stop trying to learn, then you might as well quit.  You'd be surprised how much I've learned just by picking up books and talking to the right people.  Unfortunately, I really don't have enough other Entrepreneurs around me to draw from.  I wish that I did.

If you want to talk about some of the things that I sort of went off-topic about above, just email me.

Jonathan A
Saturday, November 15, 2003

<Of course there are limits to "seeming larger than you are."  Nothing's worse than twentysomethings pretending to be CEOs, for instance...>

Hey! This is me. :)  Though I often refer to myself as President/Owner because it doesn't seem as "high-up" but it still gets people interested especially because of my age.

Jonathan A
Saturday, November 15, 2003

"Though I often refer to myself as President/Owner"

I don't really have a problem with owner, and generally not with president.  But "CEO" drives me nuts.  Actually, I don't even like it when relatively established owners of small businesses refer to themselves as CEO.

I think the title just connotates "leader of a large, usually public, company."  It's like the difference between a musician and a rock star. :)

Sunday, November 16, 2003

OK, I want to add my 1.5 cents ... BB posts very insightful stuff, and if there is anything of value in my 1.5 cents I'll be glad to help :-)

Rising above the level of a lone contractor probably means providing the clients with the whole experience which leads to people feeling that they got something of great value. Think of shopping in a place like Marshall's or Burlington Coat Factory and Macy's - while in both types of places you get pretty much the same brands the experiences are vastly different. That is how Macy's sells things at such premium and still stays in business.

Thus you need to work on a sort of your own brand, and few items which will make you look a real corporation. Perhaps some shared business phone line with a secretary, as well as looking busy at all times so people understand that your time is valuable and you're a valuable and busy company owner.

Now, imagine that you expanded to a 20 people office, think about how you'd describe your company to an outsider. "We" comes out naturally, does it not? Work on such language, that is how you'll pull yourself forward by speaking in right terms. Create a corporate identity in your mind first, if you do not appear believable to yourself, why should others believe you?

If you can't say "we" as is, hire somebody for half a day, and then "we" is actually technically correct, which takes care of whatever ethical issues one might have with saying "we" when it is a one man show. In any event, if somebody wants to know full details, you'll provide those truthfully regardless, but most of the people are going to be fairly clueless so creating an air of importance is very helpful.

Mr Curiousity
Sunday, November 16, 2003

We is normal for a busiiness; you'll soon get used to it. The Queen of England did. Practise at the bar and supermarket. It will soon come out naturally.

Stephen Jones
Sunday, November 16, 2003

Bored, I think this is an area where you use your judgement and adjust your presentation for each person you deal with. As a small business, this is one of the benefits you have.

Many small business operators are multi-talented and can and do provide the range of services that a larger company might need multiple people for. Sometimes, for the same reason, they seem to be bigger too. In that context, using we to refer to a sole trader is quite appropriate.

On the other hand, if you're providing precise services of a single person, such as programming expertise to a programming team, then it's silly to pretend you're anything other than a consultant.

However if you're providing that same programming expertise to fix a problem for a user company, then you will use a range of talents and it's appropriate to refer to we.

Flexibility is the key benefit of the small business.

Sunday, November 16, 2003

You can run a million dollar practise and still be a contractor.

You have to learn to price projects, not set hourly rates.

Weiss has some good books which discusses it.

Sunday, November 16, 2003

When it's just been me and my LLC, I ususally refer to myself as some flavour of "Principal" -- either Principal Engineer or Principal Consultant. 

This does imply a support mechanism including more people, but of course, I do have such a support mechanism, as does any successful consultant.  If you think you can do everything yourself, you're unlikely to be successful, and you'll be wasting your time.  One obvious example is graphic design - I sub out this work all the time when I can, because a professional designer is better, faster, and cheaper than me doing this stuff.

Currently it's Principal Engineer for my new venture, and my (sole) business partner is Principal Consultant.  Of course, we do hope to get bigger ...

Sunday, November 16, 2003


Thanks for the observations. Especially to Jonathan, who it sounds is in exactly the same position I am now.  One small correction - no, I've only done one agency contract in ten years of consulting. Agencies are absolutely toxic to digging out of the perma-temp rut and doing the sort of thing that I am describing in this thread.

And on the business development stuff, I do consider "The E-Myth" material quite a bit in my own mind. For now, my goals are modest: quit being tied 1:1 to the technology industry (almost all work to date has been for SW dev houses) and work with less technology-focused companies to stabilize and increase my income.

Bored Bystander
Sunday, November 16, 2003

Another vote in favor of 'we'.  Actually, I sometimes prefer referring to the business name directly to using 'we'.  For example, if your one man business is "Wacky Widgets LLC" you can say, "Wacky Widgets can do a great job for you."  If someone asks you who works for Wacky Widgets, you can give the same explanation as you gave for the 'we' reference.

Herbert Sitz
Tuesday, November 18, 2003

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