June 5, 2017 • 7 minute read • by Saeed
“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” – Albert Einstein
These days, anyone can be a consultant (queue up the sound of a record needle scratch).
This is a common refrain but it is not true.
Yes, more people are getting into the consulting game because technology has made it easier to do so and because we are becoming a Free Agent Nation.
But consulting isn’t for everyone.
I understand that you’re tired of your job and want to jump ship. I understand your friends and colleagues have encouraged you and maybe even signaled that they would hire you. You feel confident in your skills and you have a large network. That’s all good. Those are all important factors when considering the jump. But there is more.
The allure of independent work is flexibility with how you use your time and the freedom to work for yourself. But this can be a mirage.
Because while there is freedom that comes with being self-employed, there is also fear and uncertainty.
Being a consultant, isn’t altogether that different from being an entrepreneur. It’s ground-up learning about all aspects of starting a business. When entrepreneurs bring a new product to market, they have to convince people they need their product. Similarly, you have to convince people to hire you, even if you are really talented.
As a consultant, you have to learn to love the hustle. You have to constantly market yourself and sell your services to get the next consulting job. Your time spent marketing your services is unpaid and in the beginning, that will be a large chunk of it.
From developing new service offerings, to writing proposals for new work, to drafting thought leadership pieces, opportunities to learn and contribute are endless.
That means learning to constantly adapt and be as flexible as possible with your aptitude, time, and work style. It also means you have to be a master at managing your time and organizing your projects.
Having to create everything yourself can be a great learning experience but it can also be overwhelming. Consulting is known for its long hours, tight deadlines, constantly changing projects, and lots of travel. It is known for its insecurity.
Consulting instills in its recruits an extraordinary amount of discipline and efficiency. You learn to be focused and quick on your feet. You learn to have a strategic mindset and to instill that in others.
A consultant is a problem-solver, a solution generator, a thought leader, a visionary and an execution machine. Being a consultant requires technical know-how and a keen awareness of how people and management systems work (or don’t as the case may be).
Consultants are like chameleons. Most employees are defined by their job descriptions, but consultants can create their own brand and to an extent, their own job description. From one project to another, consultants build knowledge and bridges of learning between issues they have previously addressed. They innovate new tools and approaches. Consulting isn’t only based on competencies. It’s based on creativity, ideation, and execution.
People often hire consultants because the skill or remedy they need is missing internally. So, to provide value means learning new skills and developing varied interests. It means having a job where no day is quite the same as the last.
Before You Jump
Consulting can offer you incredible experiences and career prospects—but it does also ask for a significant investment of your time and energy.
There are many things to consider before making the big leap but based on my experience, if you’re thinking about consulting, there are three fundamental questions you must answer that are more important than all others. If you struggle to answer these three, then you’re not ready. It does not mean you’ll never be read. It just means you need more time. I focus on these three because they are somewhat intangible and what most people don’t see when they are blinded by the shiny light of freedom and flexibility.
1. Do you know what you’re good at?
If you want to work for yourself as a consultant, it’s important to first get clear on what value you have to offer.
In consulting, there is no cap to the different areas you can get involved with.
There are many different fields of expertise to choose from: coaching, accounting, grant-writing, marketing, communications, IT, HR, PR and so on.
When you’re new and you need to build up your portfolio, the temptation is high to be a Jack or Jill of all trades and take on whatever comes your way. I am not entirely against this strategy because you can learn a lot from the variety of projects you take on. And at the end of the day, you need to pay your bills, right?
Still, the sooner you decide on your niche and your expertise, the sooner you will be defined by it and paid for it. The bonus is that by defining your niche you will be paid for what you love to do and for what you’re good at. That is after all why you decided to leave the security of your steady paycheck, isn’t it?
2. Do you like to hustle?
The second thing to know is that you have to enjoy the hustle (or learn to enjoy it).
When you first start, consulting is a rollercoaster ride of rejections, false leads and dead ends. Hustling runs the gamut. You have to work like a maniac to create brand recognition and create engaging content to drive traffic to your site. You have to learn about SEO, social media marketing, email marketing, lead generation, and content marketing. You have to write proposals that may or may not win you a gig and constantly stay ahead of your competition. You have to execute these strategies systematically to create a pipeline of work in order to maintain a steady income stream. This is all unpaid work.
Yes, you may be able to tap into your network and create a steady stream of work from your existing contacts and avoid having to do the above mentioned hustle. It is often the case that consultants are brought in by a key manager or executive who continues to be a source of work for some time to come. But if you expect to drink from this well indefinitely, you’re mistaken. Organizational politics will eventually catch up to you or the person you’ve relied upon will retire or simply move on. Your work will then suddenly dry up.
When this happens, you’ll have to expand your client base and you’ll need to learn the skills outlined above to do it.
3. Do you like to network?
Referrals and relationships are powerful in generating new work. Opportunities stem from relationships so networking is key. You have to meet people from different spheres to extend your connections. Leaders know what they need for their business, so if you can convince them of your value, they’ll bring you in.
Building the right relationships is critical. These relationships will determine the opportunities that become available to you. You can obviously use social networking sites like LinkedIn and Facebook but you’ll need to go beyond that. You’ll need to attend networking events and conferences and get yourself invited to meetings where you can seek out opportunities and leads and have conversations that generate enthusiasm for your unique value offering.
Most people don’t like networking because it’s time intensive and they feel it is distracting them from their ‘real work.’ But the truth is that building relationships is central to the ‘real work.’
If consulting sounds like a lot of work, that’s because it is! But consulting can be a lonely business too. If you don’t want to go it alone, consider working with an established consulting firm. Alongside, the big players like Bain & Company, Accenture, Deloitte, and PWC, a slew of smaller boutique firms are continuing to crop up with specialized experts in particular industries or business problems. There are pros and cons to each but both will provide you with learning opportunities, teams, and infrastructure. These three things are invaluable when you first transition to being a consultant.
If you choose to go it alone, then the best piece of advice I can give you is this: It’s best to hang your shingle while you still have the security of a full-time job.
For example, if you can establish one or two client contracts to take you through your first six-months to a year, you can provide enough of a cushion to get you started. Those initial contracts drastically reduced the monetary risk of self-employment. This is called the Barbell Strategy and has been advocated as an investment strategy by scholars such as Nassim Taleb.
Consulting is as challenging as it is rewarding. But is it right for you? If considering all of the above excites you before it scares you, then the answer may be yes. In which case, I wholeheartedly encourage you to make the jump. If you work at it persistently, within a year or two, you may actually find yourself turning down work.
On the other hand, if the above makes you uneasy, take your time, build your network, find your niche and then slowly make the transition over time while maintaining your 9-5 safety net.
©2017 – All Content by Saeed H. Mirfattah, M.A.
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