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
It 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
When 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:
- Accounting / Invoicing
- Marketing / Client Acquisition
- Travel Time
6. When You Don’t Know The Answer, It Is Your Job To Get It
There 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
When 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
Working 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.
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!