11 Realities of Being an Independent Consultant

Featured Image Independent Consultant - Me helping a customer and me in my jammies at the computer

People I meet in my line of work consistently ask me what they have to do be a consultant. They imagine I fly in on a private jet to bestow upon them a few nuggets of knowledge and then enjoy champagne and lobster dinner before heading off to Maui for a quick 3-day weekend.

If you are thinking of becoming an independent consultant, you should know it is not like riding your unicorn down the rainbow to collect your pot of gold. There are certainly peaks, but there are definitely valleys. The struggle is real, people.

Here are a few realities of being an independent consultant.

1. I Hope You Like Cold, Heat, Snow, Humidity, Airplanes

Independent Consultant - Snow StormIt is inevitable that you will be shipped off to a variety of locations. Most will be within your country. Some will require a passport. Your perspective will determine if this is good or bad.

  • I had tremendous fun in the Bahamas at a conference.
  • But I also enjoyed myself in Mansfield, Ohio.
  • Chicago in the winter was no fun.
  • Mississippi in the middle of summer was not so great either.

And I won’t even go into the frustration associated with each and every encounter with an airport.

 

2. Working From Home Is Not Always Productive

And when you are not travelling, you can work at home in your jammies!

Working from home is awesome. When I need to pick up the kids from school, I just schedule it in.  The same goes for dental appointments or unscheduled trips to the hardware store or whatever. And I do NOT have to commute. That is a big win.

At the same time, there are early mornings and late nights. When you work from home, you basically never leave the office. I am just as likely to answer emails at 10 at night as I am at 9 am.

The other problem is distractions. If the mint brownies are not calling for me, then it’s the Amazon box that needs to be let into the house. At the same time, the dogs need to be let out of the house. I might as well grab a soda, use the restroom and throw in a load of laundry while I’m at it.

3. You Will Rarely Get Paid On-Time

Independent Consultant - Empty PocketsWhen you have the traditional employer/employee relationship, you will definitely get paid on a schedule. You can count on it.

When you are an independent consultant, one business writes a check to another business for services rendered. You will already be at a disadvantage because usually your invoice terms will dictate that payment is not due for 30 days. In addition, many companies have a flexible attitude in regards to payments to vendors. In May I could have money flooding in and then in June, not a single payment.

I am certain that I make more money on average than if I was doing my job inside a business as an employee, but maybe not this week. There are big lessons to learn in cash flow management.

4. You Might Not Ever Collect From Some Clients

This has never happened to me personally yet (knock on wood), but customer non-payment is a common narrative. Sometimes, there are disputes on the invoice. Sometimes, clients are simply unresponsive. And other times, clients have fallen on hard times themselves. You might go through tremendous effort and possible legal expense to quite likely end up with nothing. It is one of the risks of this kind of arrangement.

5. A Large Percentage Of Your Time Is Not Billable

One of the things that normal employees don’t realize is that I generally do not invoice 40 hours a week. Because I am basically a one-man business, I am all functions of the company including indirect labor.

For example, part of the challenge of being an independent consultant is that you must constantly educate yourself to keep up with the changing technologies in your field.  This is generally done with your funds on your time. So that Master’s Summit in Austin will cost you 3 days of otherwise billable time in addition to the fees associated with participating in the class.

In fact there are many things that you will do that will not be billable to a client. Here is an incomplete list:

  • Education
  • Accounting / Invoicing
  • Marketing / Client Acquisition
  • Administration
  • Travel Time

6. When You Don’t Know The Answer, It Is Your Job To Get It

Independent Consultant - Buck Stops HereThere are many times when I actually don’t know the answer to a question that comes my way. Generally, the client is OK with me not knowing the answer on the spot, as long as I come back the next day with the right answer. At a micro level, this is why consultants are valuable. A company can pass the responsibility of “getting it done” to an external resource.

So the hard part of that is not only being technical enough to know most of the answers, but also agile and diligent enough to be able to get the answers when you don’t.

7. If You Don’t Like Your Boss, Wait A Few Minutes

When you are a traditional employee, you have little say about the people that surround you at work. And although most colleagues are super-friendly, there are bad-apples. And unless you want to find another permanent position, you are stuck.

As an independent consultant, engagements are usually shorter in duration. And hopefully, you become successful enough to have a variety of clients. So on the rare occasion where there is not a fit with a client, guess what? You don’t have to keep extending that SOW. Move on.

8. Variety Is The Spice Of Life

In fact, the short duration of most engagements means that you will meet hundreds of people in many different-sized enterprises in several industries solving problems in varied business functions. If you are the type of person that is easily bored, independent consulting might be for you.

9. Customers Are Not Always Begging For Your Help

Generally, when you work a “9 to 5”, you don’t have to worry about having nothing to do.

As an independent consultant, finding work is your responsibility. Especially in the first few years, you must be lucky and/or well connected to get semi-consistent work.

I definitely struggled the first year. I was able to contract with a partner who could provide customers so that saved me. And as my experience grew, so did my list of clients. Today, my biggest problem is that I cannot clone myself at-will.

But there have been slow times. The fact is, clients are not always begging for your help. Generally, you will need to devote time and energy to secure clients for your practice. And be prepared for the peaks and valleys.

10. “Fake It ‘Til You Make It” Is A Much Used Credo

Independent Consultant - Fake ItWhen a client asks if I have experience doing “Task A” and I don’t have that experience, I tell them so.

But if a client asks if I can do “Task A”, my answer is “Yes”, because it’s the truth. Even if I don’t have all the pieces, I know I will get all the pieces.

Ultimately, that is how you get the new experiences you need to check-the-box on that skill. Every task is new to you once. Embrace the unknown. It makes you that much more prepared for the next challenge.

Also, Google is your friend.

11. Technical Knowledge Is Not As Important As Your Communication Skills

Speaking of Google, technical knowledge is as simple as searching for it and absorbing what you find.

The attribute I find that separates the good developers from the great is their communication skills.

A consultant that can competently do the job and communicate effectively with a customer is going to be successful. Being able to speak in layman’s terms and help the client understand is critically important. A big part of that is language (word choice). A bigger part of that is attitude, or empathy or “meeting the client at their level”.

12. If You Work Hard Tremendous Opportunities Will Present Themselves

Independent Consultant - Opportunity QuoteWorking as an independent consultant surely has its challenges.

But, the structure of this kind of job means that you are in control of your business and your time. In addition, you will meet many influential people. You will gain knowledge in your chosen expertise, the business problems you are exposed to and an invaluable knowledge of running a small business.

These ingredients set you up to take advantage of new opportunities. You might become a partner in a larger business. You might expand your one-man business into a larger consulting firm. You have the flexibility to try something entirely new.

Final Thoughts

Is “Independent Consultant” the best path for you? Maybe. You need to weigh the plusses and minuses and make your own decisions. My caution is only that you make a realistic assessment of the risks and benefits before making a decision.

For me, I will never go back to the traditional employee/employer dynamic. I have a rebel independence and a determined nature. This can also be read as I hate following company policy and will continue clutching my Samsung Note 7 even as it explodes in my hand and burns me to the ground.

Besides, I love helping people solve their business problems AND I love working from home in my jammies.

What are your realities? I would love to hear your feedback. Also, don’t forget to subscribe to the LivingQlik newsletter. This way you never miss a post!

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12 comments… add one
  • Reply Steve Dark November 22, 2016, 9:41 pm

    Hi Aaron,

    Yup. You’ve nailed it.

    It’s damn hard work sometimes, but when it’s work enjoy you can’t complain.

    Thanks for your insights.

    Steve

  • Reply Aaron Couron November 23, 2016, 1:18 am

    Thx for the comment Steve. Thought I would post something a little outside the norm for the goliday week.

  • Reply Julian Villafuerte November 23, 2016, 3:27 am

    The story of my life! I can definitely relate to most of the points in this list Aaron. Being a consultant can be difficult sometimes, but I wouldn’t change it for anything!

  • Reply Barry November 23, 2016, 1:35 pm

    Hi Aaron,

    Excellent post, I recognize many of the things you mention. Just to add my 2 cents of experience:

    1. I am based in the Netherlands, and travel time isn’t much of an issue here. I’d say that roughly 80% of my clients are within a 45 minute drive, a few of them are actually within a 10 minute drive (I really should just bike there 🙂

    2. Working from home can be awesome, but I also found that there were too many distractions (I have 3 kids running around), and it feels like you are always at work. I decided to get some office space nearby. It’s an additional expense, but at $250 a month I find it is well worth it. Also because you can receive clients and business partners there.

    3 & 4. Doing some due dilligence up front really saves you a lot of headaches when it comes to getting paid on time, or paid at all. I find that many clients will also be flexible when it comes to invoice terms (or other terms & conditions). It doesn’t hurt to ask.

    5. This is a big one. IMHO, for some things it’s easier and cheaper to just hire someone to do it for you, for example accounting, invoicing and administration. Our clients hire Qlik specialists because they’ll know how to do it faster and better while they focus on their core business, so I apply that logic as well. Still, there are a lot of overhead activities that you will end up doing yourself. I find that in my case a 40 hour work week is unrealistic, I spend way more time than that, and don’t mind because I am doing something I love.

    One thing I see many consultants (independent or employed) skimping on is education. I believe that to be a big mistake. Yes, you may encounter new things on your gigs, but clients typically hire you for what you already know. If you don’t actively invest in your knowledge and skills you stop growing professionally, which means your services will be worth much less in the future (or might even become irrelevant).

    In that respect, being a consultant is somewhat like being a professional musician or an athlete. People will pay to see you perform, but not to see you practice. No one is paying to see a musician practice chords, or see an athlete running warm-up laps around the field. In our world, this means that you need to invest non-billable time in honing your skills, experimenting with new tools, methods and technologies and generally staying up to date with what’s going on in the market. Hopefully, this is something you already do and love, if not, then you may want to consider if you’re in the right business.

    6. Agree, although this is also where educations (and experience) pays off. There are many answers which could be considered ‘right’ in the context of ‘solves the current problem’, but would be wrong when you look at robustness, scalability, long term maintainability, readability, etc. Most of the times multiple solutions are possible, it’s important to pick the optimal one (given the information at hand). Doing this might not be immediately visible to the client, but it is what separates the good consultants from the cowboys.

    7. If you’re starting out as an independent consultant, this might be easier said than done. Sometimes you -will- need to stay at the project, because you do not have anything else lined up yet. Once you have a more established business, you will find that instead of one boss, you now have dozens (your clients), and you will have to shuffle and prioritize their wishes.

    8. This is the main reason I went into consulting, you just get so much more exposure to different people, companies, cultures, systems, etc. than you would as an employee at a single company. It really speeds up your development and also helps you build a good network. One additional perk I’d like to add, I see consultants as a sort of ‘honey bees’ of the corporate world. Instead of pollen we transfer ideas. It has certainly happened more than once that I applied an idea I heard or saw at another client (might even be in a completely different industry). The new client then thinks I am brilliant (I’m not) for coming up with a solution so quickly 😉 The main challenge there is understanding the issue well enough, being able to take it to the abstract level and applying certain ‘patterns’ that are in your toolbox.

    9. This is where good ‘account management’ comes in, most bridges aren’t burned, but collapse due to neglected maintenance. I make it a point to get in touch with my clients on a regular basis, mostly just to catch up because I like them, but often enough new work will follow from this.

    10. Again, investing time in your own education helps here. You cannot learn every skill up front, but if you make it a point to spend some time at the periphery of your knowledge you should be able to pick up relevant skills very quickly. Sometimes a skill is so out there, or requires such an investment of time that it is better to team up with another consultant who does have that skill.

    11. If you have good rapport with the client then 50% of your work is already done.

    12. I usually put it like this, running your own business means you -get to- decide what you want to do, but it also means that you -have to- decide what you’re going to do. No one is going to do your work for you.

    On if starting your own business is the right choice for you, that depends. It certainly isn’t only about technical proficiency, you will spend a lot more time working than you did as an employee (at least in the beginning) and you will face a lot more (financial) uncertainty. You have to decide for yourself if you want to deal with that. I made that assessment and found that the freedom to do what I want and love was well worth it.

    Kind regards,
    Barry

  • Reply Barry November 23, 2016, 2:05 pm

    … in my defense, I did nicely paragraph my reply when I wrote it 😉

  • Reply Aaron Couron November 23, 2016, 3:16 pm

    Wow, thanks for the comment Barry. Everything you mentioned was absolutely spot-on. I love that your clients are all very close. In my area of Southern California, I don’t have quite that kind of density and find myself all over the country(s).
    On a side note, I probably need to change the comments plugin so we can format a little better and have a few more tools.

  • Reply David Aubke November 23, 2016, 4:51 pm

    I’ve been looking for exactly this article for a while now. The idea of focusing on the type of work I enjoy rather than the jack-of-all-trades stuff I do now is very appealing. And I have the perfect home office space all ready to go!

    BUT
    1. I very much dislike traveling and the thought of negotiating airport bureaucracy causes anxiety.
    2. I don’t like uncertainty and giving up a steady paycheck is hard for me to do.

  • Reply Barry November 23, 2016, 5:49 pm

    Hi David,

    I cannot offer any advice on the traveling part, but on the uncertainty part you can do a lot to alleviate that:

    1) Make sure you have a or build a buffer that will see you through 6 months without any income, or whatever timeframe you feel comfortable with. Also consider what you really want to cover with that buffer, if it’s just your basic costs then you obviously need less than if you also want to eat out a few days a week or go on holidays etc. Knowing that you can spend some time without income can take away a lot of the financial anxiety.

    2) If you have a spouse, discuss this with her as well. Not everyone has the same level of risk tolerance and you want to make sure that everyone sleeps well at night.

    3) Pay yourself first. As you are getting jobs and money is coming in, make sure you put away some of that money to maintain or expand your buffer. What route you follow there might depend on your level of risk tolerance.

    4) Revenue != Profit. If things go well, you might be receiving some nice sums of money. Resist giving in to lifestyle inflation. Pay yourself first, but also don’t forget to reserve money for taxes, upcoming business expenses, insurances etc. I’ve seen at least one or two consultants who decided to get that new BMW, only to realize later that they also have to pay taxes etc.

    Overall, all of the above is just regular financial planning. I sleep very well at night knowing this stuff is all sorted out. If you’re still anxious about finances even with this in place, then starting your own business might not be a good idea.

    Kind regards,
    Barry

  • Reply David Aubke November 23, 2016, 6:02 pm

    Thanks Barry.

  • Reply Olegs Luksha November 25, 2016, 1:04 pm

    Пerfect hit! Not that much travel, more like Barri. That I love a lot is availability to do some sport activities on any time I want.

  • Reply Michael Schroff November 28, 2016, 6:11 am

    Hi Aaron and Barry,
    really great posts from both! While I am not independent, I have considered it now and again after having spent almost a decade working with Qlik products but ultimately deciding against it for the reasons you mention above. I would even expand your posts to be applicable to working with smaller outfits to a degree where you have Qlik experts but not as much support when it comes to doing things like single sign on which involve raw networking knowledge.

    Thanks again writing these, I enjoyed them,
    Mike.

  • Reply Cotiso Hanganu February 10, 2017, 8:10 am

    Aaron & Bart,… Love you, guys ! 😉

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