So, you want to be a consultant?
Who hasn’t put in a number of years “on the inside,” and then gazed out longingly at the world of paid consulting, liberated from all corporate restraints? The thought of trading out bureaucracy for free agency entrepreneurship seems irresistible at times.
It turns out that many of your colleagues have done just that.
One of those is George Ericsson, whose career has progressed from sales representative (“pre-Revolutionary War era”); through various leadership roles in training (GSK, Wyeth, Pfizer); out into consulting with both small and larger training/consulting services firms; and, yes, working as a freelance consultant and contractor.
In other words, George has done it all. I’ve known George for quite some time, and as fellow entrepreneurs, we’ve brainstormed and commiserated regularly over the years.
I asked George for his input on what he’d want to share with a fellow training colleague thinking about the “greener pastures” of consulting. His advice is on point for anyone looking to launch a new business. Here are 5 main thoughts:
> Defining your area of expertise is critical. You can’t just hang out a shingle that says, “Consultant for hire.” That’s a lot like walking around with a sandwich board that says, “Will Work for Food.” Consultants (and all businesses) need to articulate precisely where they provide value, and exactly how they are going to make a tangible business impact. No-one hires you for simply being smart and experienced. Remember – people are looking for tangible answers to their issues. You have to be able to succinctly describe the pain relief you offer.
> Business Development is a major key to success. Just about every entrepreneur and consultant bemoans the fact that so much of their time has to be devoted to finding new work. Some really talented providers simply don’t have the skills to sell their services. Having a referral network can be a huge help here, but you should not assume that a network of “friends” and former co-workers will generate enough continuing income to pay your bills. This is also one reason why it is such a challenge to know how to price your services in the marketplace – you’re not just earning an hourly rate, you’re seeking to grow a business. Non-billable hours and sales efforts all have to be calculated in the cost of business.
> Finances can be really choppy. In most cases, you’ll be without a predictable paycheck. No annual bonuses. And benefits? That’s an expensive cocoon to replace. Cash flow ends up being an issue for almost every entrepreneur/consultant/contractor, and it’s risky to launch without a 3 to 6-month cushion of savings, and at least one guaranteed major client. If you have a spouse who earns a steady paycheck and has a benefit package covering your family, this can smooth out a lot of the wrinkles. This is probably THE number one concern I hear about, from all sorts of small businesses and consultancies.
> You may or may not be cut out for consultant/contractor life. Some take to it immediately and never turn back – the corporate setting was toxic to their soul. Others, however, wilt, not flourish, when working on their own. They have a high need for social contact, collaboration, and team energy. It can get very lonely on the other side of the fence. You have to avoid the temptations (golf, sleep, TV, Facebook, etc.) of not having to report to an office and boss every day. I once counseled a solo consultant to get back into a corporate position, because their makeup and skill set really had much more to do with building/leading a team, than providing short bursts of outside expertise.
> Get ready for no (or fewer) support resources. In the cushy corporate world, there are Help Desks, expert fellow employees, and all kinds of other helpful infrastructure resources. Unless you’re working with a pretty large consulting firm, you’re going to have to do a lot of things yourself. Remember all that stuff other people on the payroll did for you? You’re the one making travel reservations, Staples runs and doing computer virus scans all by your lonesome now. Allocation of effort and time can be a lot more challenging when you’re on your own.
Everyone gets tired of the corporate rigmarole (“politics”) and it can seem very appealing to jump ship and sail out on your own. Some succeed in the endeavor, quite admirably. And there are major benefits to being out on your own or with a small consulting outfit. But I’ve seen many of these businesses from the inside, and I’ve lived the life for over 10 years. The word EASY does not come quickly to mind. Do you love/hate your job? Guess what – you’ll love/hate being a consultant! You trade one set of rewards and frustrations for another (sorry to burst that bubble).
I’ll add one item that I know George would affirm as well: if you’re thinking about making the move to being a consultant, get some solid career and business advice first. Over the years counseling many folks on this topic we’ve seen plenty of solo (and small) businesses fail for these and other reasons. It can be expensive launching out on your own, and in some cases, it can prove to be a career-limiting move if you change course and try to get back inside a corporate setting, especially if you assume that you will come in at the same job level and compensation.
One piece of advice that is always in season: build your professional network NOW. Actively cultivate relationships with great people inside and outside your company. They will most likely be your first customers if and when you go out on your own. Don’t forget to (re-)connect with former co-workers who have moved other other companies.
With that said, there are some really great, really smart consultants out there. Experienced consultants can provide their clients with a perspective that is lacking on the inside – they will have been inside a wide range of companies and can use that experience to help their clients build better solutions.
Remember, as a consultant, if you’re good at several things, but great at one thing, you stand a good chance of succeeding if you can promote your unique message to the marketplace.