The recent in Phoenix made me want to be an Apple consultant (see “ ,” 12 April 2017). Not in that really big way where I’d have to drop everything I do to start over. But in a small way, because when the long-time consultants are swapping war stories, there’s a sense of easy conference camaraderie that I envy. I have enough Apple cred that I can sit with the cool kids at lunch, but I’m not quite one of them.
I could have been one of the gang, though. After Tonya and I graduated from Cornell University in 1989, we were going to set up a consulting business with an acquaintance from the local Mac user group, the brilliantly acronymed MUGWUMP: Macintosh Users Group for Writers and Users of Macintosh Programs. That fell through for, well, reasons. Tonya got a job that eventually morphed into the position of New Technologies Consultant for Cornell’s Microcomputers and Office Systems group. And I became an independent consultant, the modern term for which is now “soloist.”
So that’s what we were doing when we started TidBITS in 1990. I loved consulting because I couldn’t resist showing people how to use their Macs better and being a consultant meant I got paid for what I would do for free with family and friends. Apart from one large Double Helix database development job that I shouldn’t have taken because it wasn’t well enough specced, I think I did pretty well at it.
But after a year or so, Tonya was offered a position at Microsoft, we got married, and we moved from Ithaca to Seattle. I saw no way to continue doing consulting in a city where I knew absolutely no one, so I focused all my energies on TidBITS. And the rest, as they say, is history.
So I could imagine an alternate past for myself while listening to Andy Espo of the Boston-based talk about how he got into consulting and went from being a soloist to having employees. My imagination also kicked in when Alex Narvey of the Winnipeg-based  had us laughing ourselves off our chairs as he explained how he had developed a managed services model where his clients were happy to pay a regular monthly fee rather than by the hour. His core point was that charging hourly meant that he would be selling hours, which created a conflict, since his goal would be to sell as many hours as he could, instead of solving a client’s problems as quickly and efficiently as possible. And I enjoyed hearing Remie Cremers, a happy, bouncy Dutchman with a charming accent, explain how he had focused his  consultancy in Utrecht, Netherlands, on home users.
Other sessions made it clear that the world had changed since those simpler days of 1990. I could follow along with most of the suggested solutions when Ryan Grimes of in Indianapolis exhorted the audience to “Automate the Sh*t Out of Everything.” But I felt distinctly out of my league when JD Strong of the Spokane-based  described how an Apple MSP (managed services provider) should consider using a PSA (professional services automation) solution or BMP (business management platform) to automate routine tasks like monitoring, patch management, software distribution, issue management, and invoicing. Everyone else in the room was rapt, though, and the stories of disappearing invoices, lost tickets, and flaky vendors flew thick and fast.
Perhaps it’s still possible to run a consulting business by the seat of your pants, as I did decades ago, but the modern approach involves installing software from. It provides proactive warnings that can tell you, for instance, that one of your client’s Macs hasn’t backed up in a few days and its hard drive is throwing SMART errors. For many simpler problems, consultants rely on remote management software like  or  to install software, run maintenance tasks, and do many other things from afar.
As useful as the talks by other consultants were, what set ACEs apart from many other technology conferences were the sessions by business professionals lined up by conference organizer Justin Esgar. (Yes, he’s a consultant too, doing business as in New York City.) Justin got , author of the popular business books “Profit First” and “The Pumpkin Plan,” as a keynote speaker, and while he made some useful points, I found some of the other talks even more compelling.
Business coach brought her experience founding (and selling) a software firm and then working in a large corporation to bear in talking about achieving cash flow freedom. Since I’ve always had a bootstrap mentality, I was especially glad to hear her encourage attendees to commit to being debt-free, saying that “smart debt” was BS. An important (and lucrative) hallway conversation with one of my TidBITS Content Network subscribers caused me to miss lawyer ’s session on managed services contracts, but marketing consultant ’s advice on how consultants can build their personal brands was useful to anyone in business for themselves.
But perhaps the most important session of all was’s tutorial on how to extract key business metrics from financial statements. I’d never thought about the difference between managerial accounting, which informs internal decisions, and financial accounting, which provides an external view of a company’s finances. 45 minutes was only enough to scratch the surface, but Maslov’s stories of fraud, incompetence, and criminal behavior (many of which came out during meals and hallway chats) brought home why every business owner needs to know how to read financial statements and be able to detect trends from ratio analysis.
Justin Esgar had me batting cleanup with the final session of the conference, and I used the opportunity to lay out a content marketing strategy tailored to consultants. It’s based on the work we’ve been doing with the and the stories I’ve heard from our subscribers. It’s too much to go into here, but I’ll be parceling out portions of the strategy on the  blog that I’ve started alongside TCN. (For those Apple professionals who would like to send a summary of Apple’s WWDC announcements to their clients, that article is now available as a free bonus for TCN subscribers. So it’s a good time to !)
For those people who, unlike me, toil every day in the consulting trenches, I recommend the ACEs Conference highly. Dates and location haven’t been set for next year yet, but if you’re in the consulting world, keep an eye out.
In the meantime, be sure to listen to the podcast, put on weekly by three Connecticut-based consultants: Joe Saponare of , Sam Valencia of the , and Jerry Zigmont of . They did a live show on the first day of ACEs that touched on the importance of residential clients for consultants who had previously focused only on business clients, along with a smattering of technical stories and tips. It’s very well done and worth adding to your podcast rotation.
In the end, although I had a tremendously enjoyable and productive time at ACEs, I’ll stick to writing and publishing TidBITS and the TidBITS Content Network rather than diving back into consulting. Even if I’ll never be one of the cool kids, I can still hang out with them at future instantiations of the ACEs Conference, and that’s good enough for me.