Consulting is one of the greatest professions in the universe. If you handle it right, you can live in that special corner of the world that you've dreamed about, do what you enjoy most, have more free time than you can imagine, and make a good living while you're at it.
Benefits of Becoming a Consultant
I am sitting here on a Friday morning looking out a tree-lined suburban street and listening to a favorite and familiar tune on my iPod. Life doesn't get much better than this. Write this down somewhere and look at it often. It's really true.
I would be the last person to tell you that a consultant's life is a bowl of cherries, but it sure does have its advantages. If you play your cards well, you'll reap many of the following rewards.
Focus on What You Do Best and Enjoy Most. Despite current thinking, not many people can be considered a "jack of all trades." If you are truly gifted at just one thing, you are fortunate. Becoming a consultant will allow you to focus on what you are best at and enjoy most. It could be developing training courses, delivering training sessions, authoring computer-based training programs, or speaking on a
particular subject, such as leadership or management development. The choice is yours.
As a consultant, you will still have to do "stuff" that you do not like, but only for small amounts of time. I dislike accounting and I am also really bad at it. But when I began my practice, I spent hours doing it myself. Thankfully, my practice took off, and I was able to hire a bookkeeper who does my accounting in a quarter of the time and does it well. I also built my first website and seem to be able to keep it running and updated. While I am OK at it and enjoy working on the site, I know that someone competent will be able to do it much better. While it will be with a heavy heart, I foresee that I will shortly relinquish that as well.
Keep Your Own Hours. Few people work best Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. One of the best things about being a consultant is the ability to keep your own hours. I work best from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. The rest is gravy, so I do my most important work in the morning and leave the more routine activities to late in the afternoon. You can work a couple of extra hours on Saturday morning to make up for the few errands that you've done at less crowded times during the week. You can even take a day off to go for a motorcycle ride in the foothills with a friend With today's two-career couples, having flexible hours can be a tremendous help.
Dropping off your kids at daycare or picking them up at the end the day is a lot easier if you don't have to punch a time clock. You may even find that when you work for yourself, you have more hours in the day. I live in a suburb, where most people spend one to two hours commuting to and from work. Most days I work at my home office, so I don't have to be part of the parade of stalled cars on the freeway. This gives me a few extra hours each day to run errands or write articles and books. It also saves a great deal of money in gas and auto maintenance.
Many companies allow employees to enjoy some of these benefits by working virtually all or part of the time from home. However, I find that in most cases, these employers expect their staff to be at their desks during business hours, regardless of where that desk may be.
Move to the Country. For the most part, when you are employed, you need to live where the work is. Consultants have more flexibility. Since you will not have to visit clients every day, you can live a little farther out. If you are good at what you do, you may find that consulting will allow you to live and work in places like Boulder, Colorado, or the banks of the Hudson River. With the growth of the Internet, you can now consider moving out of the country, where life can be a whole lot cheaper. I'm thinking of Portugal.
Free Yourself From Office Politics, Meaningless Memos, and Meetings.
In their many books, Peter Drucker and Ron Zemke talk about the amount of time that is wasted in corporate America doing "stuff" that is not related to the customer.
This is what I hated most about my stint in the corporate world. This includes bitter office politics, pointless meetings, office policy memos, "we pump you up presentations," and birthday parties. I guess all this is important in some sort of way, but the best thing about being a consultant and working for yourself is that you no longer have to deal with these things.
On the flip side, isolation is also the hardest part of being a consultant. I often miss being part of a corporate "family." Many people cope with this by joining a local professional society and making that their professional "home." Networking with other consultants and communicating with clients and friends are important parts of being a successful consultant. They will provide you with the friendship and human bonding that we all need. I enjoy those interactions more than meetings and memos.
Live Large. When you work for a company, you usually need to live smaller than you are. The company's accomplishments and needs are more important than your own. As a consultant, you can finally live as large as you want. Your accomplishments are your own. All the articles you write and the conference presentations that you make are for you and not your boss. Your intellectual property belongs to you. Who knows? Maybe someday you will develop your own proprietary line of products or even write a book. Not only are your assets real, but they are permanent. Most of the relationships and emotional assets that you build within a company disappear the day you leave. This is sad, but you know it is true. From now on, your reputation, ideas, and goodwill are your own, and they will stay with you.
What You Should Know Before Going Out On Your Own
Before you quit your job and convert your spare bedroom into an office, you should know a few things.
Reality 1: Working for Yourself Is Hard. The consultant's life has lots of peaks and valleys. Most successful consultants will tell you that they have either plenty of money or plenty of time, but rarely do they have both at the same time. Life is champagne and caviar while you're on a project, but once the project is over, it's quickly back to macaroni and cheese.
Reality 2: You're Not Going to Get Rich Quick. Sure, we all hear about Tom Hopkins, Tony Robbins, and Ken Blanchard, who earn $20,000 a day, but the billing rate of the average training consultant is less than $100 an hour. If you consider expenses and the number of nonbillable hours, it comes out to a fairly modest wage. The top 10 percent earn a very nice living, but that takes discipline, hard work, and a little bit of luck. Since you are reading this book, you are probably thinking seriously about transitioning into consulting and are willing to make the sacrifices necessary. This should increase your chances substantially. Remember the pot of gold at the other end. Isn't that worth a bit of risk?
Reality 3: Life Isn't Going to Be Easy. When you work for a large company, you are judged by your professional expertise. If you know your stuff, your co-workers will look beyond your shortcomings. That changes the moment you leave your corporate home to become a consultant. Of course, potential clients want to hire the consultant with the highest level of professional skills, but the consultant who most often gets the job is the one who markets the best, has the best connections, and delivers the most convincing presentations. But always remember the upside of this: Once you are in the swing of things, life should be a great deal easier and certainly more rewarding.
Reality 4: You'll Starve Waiting for the Telephone to Ring. Once you leave the security of corporate life, you'll be surprised by how quickly your co-workers forget you. Some professionals are able to negotiate a contract with their former employer, but that's becoming increasingly rare. States are clamping down on the use of former employees as consultants or contractors, because many companies use this as a way to avoid payroll taxes. Many large corporations now have policies prohibiting hiring former employees as consultants. If you're expecting to start your practice by working for your former employer, I recommend that you find out what their policies are on using ex-employees as contractors. Even if your company does have policies against hiring former employees, there is sometimes a way around it. They can hire you through a temporary agency, though you may earn less.
When you leave the corporate world, where everyone knows who you are, you'llbe surprised at how invisible you become. At the small products division of Kronkrite, you were a legend. New recruits were weaned on tales of when you worked 30 hours straight to finish the Arden project and how you saved Sam Sniffles' rear during the Dayer presentation. Nevertheless, no one outside your company has heard these wonderful stories.
If you want to continue paying your mortgage and putting food on the table, you need to pick up the telephone and begin playing "dialing for dollars." But here is the good side: from now on, you can take credit for your efforts, and your assets are your own.
Reality 5: Consultants Are Treated Differently. Many companies see consultants as peddlers. Countless other people, who say they have qualifications similar to your own, have rung their telephone and knocked on their door. Don't expect immediate respect. To make it through the first 90 days, you need to develop a tough hide. You will need to sell yourself and roll with the punches. This means that most prospective clients will not know who you are and what you are capable of accomplishing. Don't be offended. Be thankful for the opportunity to present your value to them. Some may have far less experience and expertise than you, yet they will sit there and judge your skills.
Be patient and get used to it. Those same prospects may hire someone with far fewer skills simply because they hit it off with the other person. That's the way it rolls. The longer I am in the business, the more I realize that trying to change yourself to be more amenable to others is not the route to take. You are better off seeking those clients who relate to you and see the value that you bring to their organization. If a prospect hires someone else to do the job who is far less experienced than yourself, simply wish him or her the best and walk on. You will soon find your own clients that see and appreciate you for who you are and what you have to offer.
Reality 6: You Will Spend Up to 50 Percent of Your Time on Nonbillable Work. When you first start your consulting practice, you will need to spend many hours marketing your services and organizing your business, and you'll still need to spend time on those activities once your practice is established. I recommend no less than one day each week. Moreover, there will always be bills to pay, fees to collect, and struggles with a host of computer problems. But remember, the amount of time that you spend on these activities will diminish over time as your practice matures.
Reality 7: You Only Get to Keep Half the Money. Supplies, telephone service, administrative assistants, insurance, and computer equipment all cost money, though you often don't need as much as you may think you do, and often you can hold off on purchases until you really need them. Other times, you can lease or finance equipment. If an item is critically necessary, for the short term you can do business with the bank of MasterCard. Again, as your practice matures, things will get better. You will need to invest less over time and will be earning much more.
Reality 8: You Still Have to Do Stuff You Don't Like. I hate accounting, but someone has to do it. I detest calling new prospects, but I have not found anyone who can market my practice as well as I can. If you're serious about going out on your own, you'll need to do many things that you don't like. Here is the upside: You're the boss and at the end of the day, you can look at yourself in the mirror and know that you built a little bit more of something that's truly yours.
What You Need Before You Strike Out on Your Own
Before you rush off and resign from your job, be sure that you have the following: Money in the Bank or an "Angel." Unless you've negotiated a contract from your former employer, you should have at least six months of "living" money in the bank, or an "angel" who can carry your basic expenses. This "angel" is usually a spouse or significant other. In some cases, it could be your parents or wealthy Aunt Martha.
Access to a Good Health Insurance Plan. With the price of healthcare today, this is not trivial. The best situation is a spouse who can include you on his health plan. An affordable COBRA policy from your former employer is your next best option. If all else fails, try getting a policy through a professional or alumni association.
Ability to Accept a Little Risk. Risk is not for everyone. If you don't have savings or an "angel," this may not be the best time for you to start your practice. If you have another part of your life that takes a lot of time or emotional strength (such as a disabled child), for right now, consulting may not be for you. If you are married or live with someone, I seriously recommend talking with him or her about the issues in this chapter before you quit your day job.
Good Friends and Contacts - Or Lots of Guts. You're going to have to get your first clients somewhere. Starting from scratch by calling new people takes a long time. It usually requires nine months to a year from the first time you call a new prospect until he or she becomes a client. Your best first clients are current business associates and their network of contacts.
If you're new in town, or don't have many contacts, become active in a local chapter of a training professional association, such as the American Society for Training & Development (ASTD) or the International Society for Performance Improvement (ISPI).
What Makes a Consultant Successful?
Not everyone is cut out to be a consultant. To be successful at consulting, you are going to need to have, or develop, the following personal characteristics:
Discipline. Even though your schedule can sometimes be flexible, you should plan to be at your desk at 8:30 a.m. at the latest and leave at 5:30 p.m. at the earliest, whether you have something to do or not. If you don't have billable work to do, add another hour and do something to get that billable work - make calls, send out a mailing, or write a book.
Motivation. No one is going to make you work. You can sleep in every day and no one would know, except your family, who will be eating spaghetti and meatballs instead of steak.
Strength. Clients will not always be nice to you. Some of them may be downright nasty. They also have every right to add their two cents to the project they are paying for, and they will. You will need to have the strength and inner confidence to rise above it, be gracious, and, above all, leave it at the office where it belongs.
Good Survival Instincts. People, and surely companies, are not always fair. You will need to look after yourself. If you question your own survival skills, perhaps you should do an apprenticeship with another consultant so you can see the big picture before you go off on your own.
Presence. Clients get their first impression of you when you walk through the door. You need to look good! That means dressing well, walking tall, and using the right handshake. My recommendation is to watch others who are good at it (such as professional salespeople and political candidates) and modify what they do to fit your own style. Spend as much time as you can on your clothes, briefcase, laptop computer, cell phone or smart phone, and pen. People in corporations place a lot of importance on these things and often judge your professional abilities by your accessories.
I recommend spending a little more on your image. Sizzle sells!
Consulting can be your dream come true. In what other profession can you sit at the same mahogany desk for 10 years, look out at a couple of large pine trees on a quiet suburban street, listen to classical music in the background, and talk to corporate executives while you, yourself, are wearing shorts and sandals?
Congratulations and good luck!
Excerpted from Consulting Basics (ASTD Press) by Joel Gendelman. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, ASTD Press. To order a copy of the book, go here.
Joel Gendelman is the senior partner of Future Technologies and has published over fifty articles and two books on instructional design. He lives in Littleton, Colorado; www.fttraining.com .