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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.

georgeeOne 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.

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In the commercial training arena for life sciences (pharma, biotech, diagnostics, medical devices), we do a lot of outsourcing to vendor-partner companies.

I worked for one of those partner companies for 10 years, and, for the last 9 years, have served as an intermediary between life sciences training professionals and outsource vendors.

I’ve seen good. I’ve seen bad. And I’ve seen ugly.

So, how can you partner more successfully with your vendor/partners?

Let me give you three top perspectives, and then offer you a Top 10 download list:

1. Always bear in mind that vendors can be a GREAT resource. Your vendor-partners typically have unique expertise in an area you need help with – managed markets, instructional design, curriculum development, technology, meeting logistics, and a whole host of other disciplines. But beyond this, the people you get to know on the vendor side have networks and contacts that can be of immense value. As you develop vendor partnerships, don’t forget to sit down over coffee or lunch periodically and just TALK. Your next job role, or a crucial new resource, or some vital bit of industry insight, may come from getting beyond current client/vendor titles and just enjoying some human networking. Further reading: Networking is Gold-Mining.

2. Your current role is only temporary. There is no job security – only network security. Therefore, you should not only network pro-actively with your peers inside your company (and in other life sciences companies), you need to remember that your vendor-partners most likely have a breadth of contacts across the industry. You not only open doors for them; they can open doors for you. When you realize that you should continually be transition-ready, vendors are not bothersome entities – they are valued friends. Further reading: Career-transition Ready is the New Black.

NetworkSecurity

3. Working with vendors with a win-lose, scarcity, competitive attitude is a losing game. You’re not there to “beat” your vendors, winning some game such that they lose. That’s incredibly short-sighted and counter-productive. Burning bridges by being a jackass is going to come back to bite you. Your most successful projects will involve working collaboratively with your partners so that everyone looks great at the end.

Want to learn more? Here’s a white paper, assembled with the input of people on both the client and vendor side, giving the top ten ways (from each perspective!) to work together: Client-Vendor Success White Paper

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Impactiviti provides vendor-client “matchmaking” services in the life sciences training area, built on a unique trusted referral network model. We consult and provide vendor advice at no charge for life science companies. Contact Steve Woodruff at asksteve@impactiviti.com

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