By Karen E. Klein
Q: We have a new business technology and need advice on licensing and development. We contacted a large consulting firm but they turned us down, saying they were too expensive for us. How do we find reliable consultants who will work with startups on bootstrap budgets?
---- M.H.S., Muscat, Oman
A: A good consultant can be invaluable and a bad one disastrous, so due diligence is vital. Remember, too, that licensing and development are different specialties, so you may be seeking advice from more than one professional.
Personal referrals are best, so ask for consultants' names from colleagues, competitors, your alma maters (professors often know consultants or do consulting themselves), respected law firms specializing in technology, corporate acquaintances familiar with local independent contractors, your government export- or trade-development office, and the commerce departments of your target export countries. The U.S. Commerce Dept. offers commercial guides to various countries (www.trade.gov/USFCSFrameset.html). Search "Oman" and check out their "U.S. and Country Contacts" for more good starting places.
You can find consultants' resumes online at ProSavvy (www.prosavvy.com), RFPMarket (www.rfpmarket.com), and eLance, (www.elance.com). The Patent & License Exchange (www.pl-x.com) may be another source of referrals for you, says Sarah Weldon, an international technology expert with Growthink.com.
Interview the promising leads you turn up and ask about their track records on similar projects. When you narrow the candidates down to a handful, check at least three references for each.
Make sure you have legally protected your ideas and technology in your home country, then look for international protections, experts say. Depending on your technology and how extensive your costs are, a consultant who adds development value and is willing to share in the future and risk of the technology could be a godsend, says Bill De Kruif, an international business expert with consulting firm NetCel30.com. "This may be one way to overcome a tight budget as well," he says, since an independent contractor may be willing to defer payment in exchange for equity in your new venture.
Have a question about running your business? Ask our small-business experts. Send us an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or write to Smart Answers, BW Online, 6th Floor, 2 Penn Plaza, New York, NY 10121. Please include your real name and phone number in case we need more information; only your initials and city will be printed. Because of the volume of mail, we won't be able to respond to all questions personally.