Liberate optionality: 5 steps to become a product consultant

Consulting opens up a whole world of choice. Choice of projects. Choice of coworkers. And the choice of how much you get paid. After being a founder and a full time employee for years, I’ve found that consulting as a product designer in the Bay Area is one of the most rewarding and organic ways to blend what you love to do with “work”. I recently met several others who are less than happy in their current jobs who are thinking about making the leap. Here’s a quick guide for how to get started.


Step 1 : Specialize

Although it’s great to have a broad entrepreneurial skill-set, you have to be able to sell yourself as something specific so that other people know what they’re getting from you. After being a founder and running product and engineering for a start-up, I developed a wide breadth of skills including leading a product, building a team, full stack engineering, making algorithms, conducting user research, designing… oh my!

After reflecting on these roles and deciding which pursuit I enjoyed most, I knew I wanted to specialize in product design. From this decision, I put together a few, focused case studies displaying the type of work I’d like to do, how I think, and the end results. Now I was ready to pursue opportunities.

Step 2 : Find opportunities

Here are a few techniques I used to act as my own business development team:

  • Told my network of designers I’m looking for consulting work, since they tend to get requests for work they can’t take on if they are in a full time role. After talking to a few people, a lot of leads came in naturally.
  • Researched companies I’d be interested in via AngelList that were looking for contractors.
  • Pursued working with people you like that might not even be looking for a consultant. For example, I ran into a founder at a store with whom I had connected previously. After coffee catch-up, I took a glance through her current product and gave some feedback; it became a natural fit to do the work.

Step 3 : Set up logistics

Operations for setting yourself up takes less than a day. Here are the main items I set up to keep everything in order:

EIN vs. SSN

It only takes a few minutes to set up an employer identification number ( EIN ) on the IRS website. If you have multiple clients, you’ll need to add your SSN to several places; a more secure option is getting and using your EIN.

Open a business account

Open a separate business account to keep funds separate and organized; it will make filing easier for tax season.

Insurance

If you are engaging in any type of engineering ( even front end ), it’s important to get some insurance to protect yourself. You can get a basic plan from Geico.

Workspace

I’m fortunate enough to have a space in my apartment that I can use as a home office. When I walk into the studio in the morning, I know it’s time to get focused. I get a lot done free from distractions.

However, there are times that I think about joining a co-working space. There are a lot of options and some really interesting, more affordable setups such as Croissant or Spacious ( only in NYC right now). For now, my home office works well and there’s an added benefit of a home office deduction.

Step 4 : Choose offer(s)

After gaining some traction with networking, hopefully you’ll have a few offers to choose from! I began using the 3Ps to help determine which projects to take on and why. The 3Ps include: projects, people, and pay.

The best thing about consulting is that I don’t have to compromise one “P” for another; having the ability to choose what I want to work on, with whom, and for how much is freeing.

When choosing offers, most of the time clients will ask to use their own contracts. It’s worth it to have a lawyer review each one — especially if it’s for a longer engagement. The one clause I’ve consistently had to request is for portfolio rights, which enables you to display your work in your case studies once the design is live.

Step 5 : Decide if the consulting life works for you

While I also do retrospectives with clients, I also take some time to do it for my myself monthly. These are the pros and cons I generated over the past few months:

Pro: space to make sure it’s a good team fit.

I typically start out with a 3-month contract to make sure it’s a good fit between everyone. At the end of 3 months, I take the initiative to have an open conversation about how it went, if there’s a real need for more work, if our communication style matches, and if it makes sense to keep moving forward.

Con: socializing isn’t automatic.

While I focus very well in my home office, it’s also nice to be around people. I spend extra time to make sure I’m seeing people during the week, which has helped me reconnect with a lot of friends and past co-workers. Other consulting communities are starting to form online like Working Not Working.

Pro: learning.

I love being in the trenches with different types of founders and see how they make decisions, set up their teams, build their product, and pitch their businesses. Since every company and project is different, this additional layer of learning has been really interesting.

Con: realizing your rate is higher than you initially thought.

Most of the consultants or freelancers I’ve spoken with realize they don’t ask for enough on their first or second project. When figuring out your hourly rate, you need to take into consideration your healthcare costs and other items full time employers cover. If you’re doing a shorter project, most consultants I know will ask more per hour considering there’s a greater chance of a slight lag before finding new work. There are sites and guides out there to help you determine your rate, but like most things, it’s dependent on the market. One thing that’s great for women in consulting is there’s a potential greater opportunities to close the gender pay gap quicker.

Pro: flexible schedule.

I work the best at odd hours. Having a flexible schedule allows me to work at the times I do my best work.

Pro: scoped projects with an end point.

When you’re consulting or freelancing, given there’s a time constraint on your work, there’s a large emphasis on scoping work and putting your time towards the most important thing. I’ve been in other work situations where it feels endless and all over the place; building a contract with focused goals, milestones, and an end point leads to a greater sense of accomplishment for everyone.


It may feel daunting to take the first step into consulting, but I hope the above learnings can serve as a helpful guide!