So You Want to Be an Independent Consultant
5 Tips for Surviving the Leap
Don’t do it. You will go through hell. I went through hell.
The next thing I tell people is, “I’m happier than I’ve ever been. I do great work with people I love. I make my own schedule and my own destiny.”
In the last six months, I’ve had several people invite me to coffee to find out how I made the leap from the corporate world to being an independent consultant. They want out. They want freedom. They want to have it all.
Being a solo consultant is amazing. BECOMING a solo consultant is grueling. Here are five tips from someone who jumped off the corporate cliff in 2008 and landed on her feet (five years later).
1. Your relationship skills are far more valuable than whatever you’re getting paid for.
I am a CFO-for-hire. I love analysis, metrics, and complex business problems. I am a numbers person and a classic introvert. To find and retain the right clients, I have to come out of my shell and employ a whole range of soft skills. I build relationships.
A friend recently told me the two keys to success: Make friends and don’t fuck up. Concise, elegant, perfectly said.
Of course you need to network network network. This never works for me when I’m trying to get business. It only works when I’m open and curious about who is in the room, and when I’m genuinely looking for connection.
Once you have sparked a new connection and intrigued a potential client, you are in the dance of discovery. The obvious thing you have to do is convey your value — why you and why now. The less obvious thing you have to employ is discernment: you’re judging whether or not they are a good client for you. That call is critical to your success.
I only take on clients I would want to hang out with. Work is just another way of hanging out: it is a structured, productive, and goal-oriented hangout. If I’m going to spend a lot of time with these people, I have to like them. By the way, if I like them, we probably have similar values. That deeper alignment is going to allow us to do successful work together.
If you don’t make friends easily and find networking to be terrifying, consider hiring a great executive coach or taking a high quality sales course. Also, if you’re like me and love to read about what makes great romantic relationships work, all of that knowledge applies to business. Relationships are relationships.
2. Maintaining relationships is just as important as building them.
If the type of consulting you do is a rarified service, it takes a TON of work to create a new client relationship. For me, this is amplified by the fact that I work with the financials: I have to build trust, and trust takes time. With a few exceptions, typically your prospective client will have heard about you from others, and then knows you for a while before engaging you. This means one of your most critical assets is your reputation. It opens doors.
Because of the high cost of acquisition, the key to long-term success is maintaining relationships. Happy clients mean lower turnover and you can leverage your skills to add value — this is where the gold is, and why you do what you do. The first and second clients I took on four years ago are still my clients today.
I have worked with many other businesses over the years and while I enjoy the novelty of one-off projects, the most satisfying thing is to be on the journey with a CEO. I am truly invested in their business and their peace of mind. The longer you work with a client, the more value you add because you have lived the history and bring unique insights from past events.
How do you maintain relationships over the long run? The advice above about studying the qualities of happy marriages applies. Be present with them where they are, don’t blame or shame ever, appreciate what’s working and build on that, create and maintain a shared vision for where the business is going. And always be kind.
Choose carefully, and then play the long game.
3. Start where your network is, and then build a bridge to where you want to go.
Recently I had coffee with someone who lives in New York City and wants to move up to Kingston full time (about 100 miles north). He does marketing and business development, and wants to do it as a consultant. He wants the freedom to make his own schedule and the benefits of living in paradise. I heavily advised him NOT to jump into this market without a safety net. I told him to start consulting in New York City, and slowly build a bridge to clients up in Kingston.
As a consultant, your fate is built on the quality of your connections. People have to know you, or know someone who has had huge success with you. Moving to a new town and hoping to have a client base within three months is crazy. I moved to Kingston without knowing a soul here, and it took me two and a half years of waitressing and ad hoc freelancing to start doing my real work. DON’T DO IT. I nearly commited career suicide.
Start with an anchor client; this is how most independent consultants get their start. Build relationships in the new market you want to enter, and slowly transition to that new base. You can’t possibly overestimate how long it will take.
4. You’re being paid for your leadership and authority.
If someone is going to pay you a lot of money, what they want you to do is either too complex for them, too painful for them, or not the highest and best use of their precious time. If they hire you, it’s because they want it done, and they want peace of mind that they no longer have to worry about it. It’s covered.
Of course you’re going to make sure you are highly qualified to execute before you put yourself out there. But besides being highly qualified, you have to demonstrate leadership to the client. You have to set the agenda, the schedule, and the expectations. You have to communicate progress and course correct when things aren’t working. You have to demonstrate outcomes very clearly.
They want you to lead them. That is part of your value. They want you to speak with authority. That is what gives them peace of mind. Cultivate confidence and clarity. You may be doing an excellent job, but you also have to be good at making sure your client perceives it that way.
Leadership is not just for running a group of people; it’s necessary to navigate one-on-one interactions. There are a million ways to learn leadership skills. I recommend taking tango classes.
5. There is no rest.
As an independent consultant, you are either out there winning business or you are busting to perform at a level that delights and impresses your clients at every turn. You never get to coast. Ever.
If you’re lucky enough to win some retainer clients, your client is going to write a check and pay your invoice every month. You have to justify your cost every day. You have to add value with every hour. You live under constant pressure. If you’re wired for it, you need that to thrive.
This work lifestyle keeps me engaged. I can’t fall into the droning complacence I used to feel working at a big company. Even in a high-performance corporate environment, I had yearly reviews and one boss. Now it’s like I have seven bosses doing monthly reviews. But I love them all, I do great work, and I am fully expressing my gifts. What more could I ask for?
But whatever you do, don’t do it. You will go through hell.
P.S. When you have to do something, no amount of advice or naysaying will keep you from it. Good luck. May you soar.