With companies pushing their employees off the plank into the sea of financial and professional uncertainty, one of the best options to take control of one's career is to start a consulting practice. A consulting practice is a good way to regain your self-esteem and an even better way to generate revenue. I can speak from experience. A company I had run was bought by another company, and I had no immediate options. I always hated interviewing and preferred to have more control over my life. Remember, companies still need professionals with a variety of skills but can't afford to hire full-time people. You don't need many tools to start your own practice, especially with available software, Internet, hardware and online services. Here are the essentials: 1. Microsoft Office 2007: With this ( MSFT) product, you can save contacts, send e-mails and word documents, create presentations and financial spreadsheets, design Web sites and put together newsletters. 2. QuickBooks or Peachtree First Accounting: You need to keep track of income and expenses. Both products are very good. I prefer Peachtree because I find it more intuitive, which is ironic since the maker of QuickBooks is called Intuitive. For those uncomfortable with accounting software, you can easily do the same functions by using Microsoft Excel. 3. Tax planning: Intuit's ( INTU) Turbo Tax for Home and Business is the best product on the market. It's the easiest piece of software I've ever used. If you use QuickBooks, you can download information directly into Turbo Tax. The software also allows you to plan for the following year's taxes.
4. Marketing material: There are a variety of inexpensive software packages such as Business Card Designs and My Business Cards. The software typically costs less than $30 and usually comes with business-card, brochure and other types of templates. You can also go on-line and get up to 200 free business cards. 5. Business plan: You have to develop a road map for your business. There are a few products you should look at, such as Business Plan Pro and Bplans.com. 6. PDF converter: If you are e-mailing contracts and other documents you don't want altered, purchase something like Nuance's ( NUAN) PDF Converter 5 Professional. 7. Tracking receipts/business cards: There's no question: The best product on the market is NeatDesk by the Neat Co., a Philadelphia-based entrepreneurial company. This product is a digital filing system that allows you to scan receipts, business cards and documents. The device takes up a small amount of space on your desk and connects with Quicken Books, Turbo Tax and Excel. This is really a must-have product because of the diversity of tactics it performs. 8. Traditional telephone: The best buy for the money is Vonage ( VG). You get unlimited calls nationally and some international countries for less than $30 a month. One of the things I like about Vonage is that it forwards my calls to my e-mail, which allows me to listen to the calls on my computer and BlackBerry. You can try to use Skype, but I have still found it inconsistent and inappropriate for business use. 9. Mobile phone: Everyone has a mobile phone, but as a business tool, I still prefer Research in Motion's ( RIM) BlackBerry, which allows me to collect and send e-mail. This falls under the category of "invaluable." I once was in a remote part of Panama and a client had a problem. I could respond by e-mail through my BlackBerry.
10. Laptop: I have fallen love with my Acer Aspire One, which is a mini-laptop that weighs less than three pounds and has 1 gigabyte of memory and a 130-gig hard drive. 11. Printer/scanner/fax: There are a variety of good products made by Brother, Lexmark ( LXK), and Hewlett-Packard ( HPQ). Any of them will do the job. As much as we prefer not to print things out, we still need to do it when we are making presentations and providing written documents that need to be shared. 12. Legal software: Get an attorney to develop your initial contracts, but if you are looking to save money, use software such as MyAttorney Home and Business by Avanquest ( AVQ). There are a variety of templates you can customize. 13. Binding machine: Any business store carries a binding machine, which you need for proposals and other documents with multiple pages. 14. E-mail newsletter: You need to stay in contact with prospects, clients and referral sources by sending newsletters, press releases and invitations. The two most cost-effective services are Constant Contact and iContact. 15. Linked-In: There isn't a business person who isn't using this site to make contacts. I get at least one request a week to join someone's network. 16. Web site: A low-cost way to develop your own Web site and host it inexpensively is through services such as 1and1.com. If you are looking to have someone develop a site for you, put in your request for a proposal using Craigslist and watch the responses pile up. 17. YouTube: This is a good way to demonstrate your knowledge for free. You take a video camera and have someone film you for one to three minutes providing advice on your expertise.
18. Blog: You can set up a free blog to demonstrate your expertise by going to Blogger. 19. Bank account: Practically every bank provides online banking. That said, I would suggest using a small bank that will give you more personal service and whose branch managers may be able to make introductions to potential clients. 20. Credit card: If you can get a credit card, I would recommend the American Express ( AXP) Plum Card. Every card comes with points, but not every card can get you an easy cash advance abroad, which I found out the hard way in Italy.