Towards the end of 2013 I realised I’d just passed my fifteenth anniversary as an independent consultant. Back when I started out, Google was a shiny new start-up, Apple had just released its first Mac computer and Bill Clinton was trying to salvage his reputation after the Monica Lewinsky affair. Reflecting on this passage of time, I thought it might be helpful to share fifteen things I’ve learned over that period. The advice offered here is based on my own specialism of public relations but I suspect works equally well for consultants in just about any field:
1. Lots of people – client-side or agencies – still don’t know how, when or why they should use an independent consultant. There remains a big education piece to be tackled. Maybe I’ll try, if I ever get round to it.
2. You can work from pretty much anywhere with a broadband signal. I used to be in London but, since 2006, have based myself in the sunny South of France. I’ve also worked a fair bit out of hotels all over the place. Still not convinced? Read Beatwax PR founder Chris Ward’s book ‘Out Of Office’
3. Think hard before giving your time away for free; it tells people that you don’t value it. And if you don’t, why should they?
4. New business: if you spend most of your time trying to identify new prospects and pitching to them, you’ve got the balance all wrong. Most sales time should be spent getting closer to the network you already have. Not every individual, just the ones who can refer you or with the budget to hire you. This is where profitable new revenue will most easily be found. It’s the basic ‘cost of sales’ argument.
5. Take lots of holidays. If you don’t, you may as well go and get yourself a ‘normal’ job and enjoy the perks and benefits of being a wage slave. Just remember though, lots of holidays won’t be one of them.
6. Hone your risk management skills. If you take on work beyond your capability to deliver, you’ll live to regret it. Stretch yourself, by all means, just resist the urge to say ‘yes, I can do that’ unless you’re pretty confident you can. In a normal job, you can spread the blame or at least share it. When you’re on your own, there’s nowhere to hide.
7. Having yourself for a boss can be both good and bad. You’ll know their strengths and weaknesses intimately. No one will steal the glory when you do great work. And all of the fees you bring in will belong to you, not to shareholders. But you can’t fob them off with some lame excuse. And they’re more inclined to settle for second best, so be ever vigilant.
8. Work hard at staying fit. You won’t be getting any sick pay, so you need to do all you can to stay healthy. Take out critical illness insurance if you have debts to repay or family to provide for.
9. Resist the urge to tell people what they want to hear. Tell them what you believe and why, and be ready to back it up with strong evidence to support your position.
10. Keep learning. Read widely and often. Stay at least one step ahead of your clients and aim to know more about their sector than they do. They probably suffer more from time poverty than you do, so use that to your advantage.
11. Forget the whole career thing. Careers are mostly over-rated. By contrast, total working freedom is still very much under-appreciated.
12. Don’t skimp on IT. Pay for technical support. Back up data offsite and pay for the service. Do trial runs to see how quickly you can recover from a total loss situation. It will happen.
13. Find an accountant who will guarantee to save you more than they cost in fees.
14. Work on side projects you enjoy. At the very least, they make you more interesting. They could give you a valuable second income stream if consulting work dries up for a while. They might even provide an exit at some future point if you want to change what you do.
15. Try to be nice to people. Share your knowledge and experience. Be helpful. If nothing else, it will give your morale a lift. Earning your living as an independent consultant is no easy ride; if it were, a lot more would be doing it.