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Should Your Small Business Work With a Moonlighting IT Consultant?

Small businesses depend on numerous facets of technology to improve productivity, facilitate communication with clients and vendors, and promote their products.  For many business owners, hiring an outside consultant to handle web site design, web marketing, networking, software setup and telephone systems are a must.  Small businesses, in particular, often use moonlighting consultants to help them with their IT needs but may not consider the numerous pitfalls to such an arrangement.  How can one determine whether hiring a moonlighter is the right fit?

One of the greatest appeals is the consultant’s fees.  Many times, the consultant is employed elsewhere at a full-time job.  Since he doesn’t depend on the income from the sideline work, he can charge a lower rate than a full-time independent consultant.  Small businesses may find that a moonlighter charges fees of at least 30% less than full-timers – certainly worth considering, especially for a business with a tight budget or a long-term project.

What about the downsides?  Depending on the nature of the work and its time sensitivity, there could be a lot at stake.  Here are some of the questions that must be answered to make an informed decision.

On-site or off-site consulting?

Any work that can be done off-site is a better fit for a moonlighter.  Web design and custom programming are good fits for off-site work.  Remote connectivity tools such as Terminal Services, PC Anywhere, and VNC can allow a consultant to access resources while off-site.  Also, the consultant may prefer to use his own tools and equipment and may be more productive if working in his own environment.

Networking, computer setup and maintenance of other office equipment usually requires on-site work.  If the consultant has a full-time job during regular working hours, he may need access to the office environment after-hours.  Are you willing to give him keys and access codes to allow him to work alone?  If not, are you willing to stay at the office after-hours for as long as he’s there and during the times that he’s available?

How Long Can You Wait for Help?  training

A part-time moonlighter will likely be available when his time permits.  IT professionals are often required to work 45 to 50 hours per week or more, be available on-call during evenings and weekends, and handle maintenance tasks during late hours.  Juggling these demands with a family and personal schedule can be a big chore, especially for staff that supports mission-critical applications and services.

One of the biggest concerns I hear working out in field is moonlighters who can’t help their clients in a timely manner.  Problems don’t just happen after hours – from my experience, they tend to happen at the worst times right in the middle of a big project with a looming deadline.  Depending on the nature of the consultant’s full-time job, he may not be available to help you when you need it, even by phone.  If his day job is as a consultant for a consulting company, he may risk his job by helping you while he’s providing billable services to his employer’s client.  For that reason, it’s important to know what you can expect for his availability and responsiveness.

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