How to hire a Zen Cart consultant

A client of mine was looking for some OSCommerce to Zen Cart conversion work – something I don’t do, but I wanted to at least give him a bit of guidance through the process.

Hiring a Zen Cart consultant is pretty much like hiring any other consultant; you want to look at their portfolio, make sure they’re competent to do the job, and so forth. Some specific checks you can do:

Candidate Credentials

  • How active are they on the Zen Cart forum? People who are the most knowledgeable are active forum participants.
  • How many contributions have they made to the product? The easiest way for a new designer to demonstrate skill is to make a contribution; if they haven’t done so, the extent of their experience may be limited to simply skinning.

Specifications of Work to be Performed:

  • All database logic must be outside the template. A classic problem with Template Monster templates is that they don’t separate business logic from presentation, which locks you into their template and makes it difficult for you to change your site or upgrade.
  • Template overrides must be used. Don’t let them just update the classic or default template; this will make it more difficult for you to upgrade.
  • The current codebase must be used. You can easily verify this by comparing their changes with the latest codebase; if there are changes beyond what they did, they started with an old base. This will make it … that’s right, more difficult to upgrade.
  • A complete list of modified core files must be provided. The list should be as small as possible (because overrides should be used where possible).

Now let’s flip it around. Consultants who are good are busy. You need to make your firm, your job and your business seem attractive to them; don’t just assume that because they’re in business, they will automatically want to work with you. Here’s what That Software Guy looks for in a client:

  • A cooperative spirit.
  • The ability to clearly and concisely state requirements.
  • A win-win attitude

What do I mean by each of these?

  • Someone with an uncooperative spirit will not disclose their budget or schedule, won’t answer questions promptly, will blow off deadlines, etc. In extreme cases, someone with an uncooperative spirit will insult you and your services. It goes without saying that I decline these accounts.
  • An inability to clearly state requirements – in other words, ambiguous or vague requests – smells like a money-loser to a freelancer. Time is money, and rework caused by misunderstanding is something freelancers want to avoid. If you seem flaky, a freelancer will likely charge you more or refuse to work with you at all.
  • The opposite of a win-win attitude is an attitude of resentfulness that they actually have to pay a freelancer. This runs the gamut from complaining about price (“but it’s only a couple of lines of code!”) to trivializing the work involved (“this seems very straightforward, so it shouldn’t cost that much”). Clients like this aren’t fun to work with, and successful freelancers – who have a choice of clients – will avoid them.

If you want to read more about how consultants size you up as a client, Jeremy Tuber has written a couple of posts about it from the perspective of a graphic designer here, here and here. The last one is a story from my business.

5 ideas on running a successful side business

Nervous about your day job? Want some income security? Starting a small business on the Internet is one way to diversify your income. Let me share with you my five best ideas on how to be successful running a small business.

  1. Don’t be greedy! I have had a number of clients ask me to disable PayPal once they installed a payment gateway because they didn’t want to incur PayPal’s higher fees. What they’re forgetting is that some people will only deal with PayPal (or Google Checkout) because they don’t trust payment gateways on small websites. So instead of saving 1% they’re losing 100%. Provide as many payment options as possible and don’t sweat an extra percentage point. If your business is so marginal that 1% will break you, find another business.
  2. Don’t be greedy! Another developer approached me a while ago asking me if I wanted to subcontract some work to him. I said I’d be glad to, and that my standard referral fee was 15%. “Oh that’s much too high,” he said, “I’ll give you 8%.” Not surprisingly, I didn’t give him any work. When someone in my network sends me work, my response is, “Thank you! Here’s your 15% referral fee.” 85% of something beats100% of nothing.
  3. Don’t be greedy! The great Joe Girard once said he never sold a car at retail. Even the biggest rube would get a discount. Why? Because Joe knew word would get around if he took advantage of people – and word would get around if he didn’t.
  4. Don’t be greedy! One of the people I work with does great work, but consistently accepts too many clients in order to make more money. As a result, phone calls and emails go unanswered and work comes in late. This is not sustainable. Be mindful of your backlog when you accept new projects.
  5. Don’t be greedy! Give a little and take a little on price. Try to give freebies if you can. Don’t nickel and dime your clients. Negotiation is not war, it’s relationship management and creative problem solving. Yes, it will cost you a little, but the benefits in karma and repeat business will greatly outweigh the costs.

There is no such thing as a transaction anymore. Even the smallest exchange is a relationship and even the smallest customer has friends, relatives and neighbors… and access to the Internet where they can complain to the world about you if you behave badly.