Advice for Future Consultants and Freelancers

Because I have a successful consulting practice, friends and colleagues occasionally ask for guidance on starting their own business. Working for yourself is thrilling, which can be both joyous and scary. We can all imagine that running your own business is very different than being an employee, and that consulting is much more than being paid for your advice.

We are witnessing a growth in the number of freelancers in the United States, both in response to the 2008 economic downturn but also to meet the demand of businesses and organizations who are looking to build capacity without the ongoing cost of more staff (which is typically the largest expense in a nonprofit organization). Free Agent Nation by Daniel Pink (2001) is a helpful introduction to the major changes occurring in the workplace and will help you decide if freelancing suitable for you (it’s not for everyone).

My best advice to those who are contemplating the move to independence is:

  1. Understand broadly what’s involved in successful consulting practices. You’re running a business, not enjoying a hobby. Making the jump to freelancing is most difficult for CEOs and executive directors, who were comforted by assistants and staff who would manage their schedule, handle bookkeeping, and prepare meeting minutes. Something that looked easy to do during retirement turns out to be a disappointment—both for them and their clients. Before you make the leap and misjudge what’s on the other side, gain a solid understanding of consulting by reading Getting Started in Consulting by Alan Weiss (2009) and Flawless Consulting, Second Edition by Peter Block (2000).
  2. Find your distinctiveness. Clarify what services or products you can offer better than anyone else or that no one else is offering. Strategic planners are legion, as are collections managers and interpreters. Figure out your niche; it’s usually a unique combination of your skills, personal passion, and market demand. Mine is interpretive planning for historic sites and house museums; not fundraising, exhibition design, nor visitor research (I value those skills and consider them in my plans, but others are much better at it). You should be able to explain it in a sentence. Share your “unique value proposition” with others. Maybe it’s better (or worse) than you think. Don’t be a jack of all trades and accept every job that comes your way (although you will be tempted at first). Don’t learn on the job; it’s not fair to your clients. Did you notice I call it a business that provides products and services, not consulting? There’s a different set of expectations that I prefer.
  3. Find your distinctiveness, part 2. The way you work is part of your services. What’s unique about your process? I work in a collaborative manner with my clients, use research and experts to inform decisions, and conduct extensive testing and prototyping, which means I typically decline projects that need to be completed in a few months. That approach may not be appropriate for you and you shouldn’t feel that you have to squeeze yourself into another’s mold. No matter what, I strongly suggest you devote more time to listening than talking. Consulting is NOT about providing advice, but discerning a client’s problems and concerns so that you can provide the right advice in the appropriate manner. The greatest failure I’ve found with consultants is that they’re too quick to render advice (well, actually this applies to lots of people not just consultants). If you want to avoid this trait, read Humble Consulting by Edgar Schein (2016) or Stop Guessing by Nat Greene (2017).
  4. Who is your client/audience? Figure out if there’s sufficient demand for your services and what is the best way of connecting with these potential clients. If you’re not sure, pause and start listening to potential clients, read widely in their fields of interest, and review what projects are receiving awards or grants. This is what lies at the core of marketing, although it’s often confused with promotion or advertising. Learn the difference.
  5. Be realistic about your passion. Passion is often mentioned as a path to happiness and success, and I’ve seen far too many people ground down by a job they hate, but figuring out your passion is harder than it seems. Reading might be your passion, but it probably won’t allow you to earn a living. Beer might be your passion, but that doesn’t mean you should open a microbrewery. I haven’t found a book that helps one figure out their passion, but Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes the result of finding it.

Starting my own business was incredibly scary at first because I was faced with potential failure every day. Fortunately, my wife’s fulltime job provided stability; my decade as an internal consultant for the National Trust for Historic Preservation gave me an understanding of process and practices; and when I went out on my own in 2011, colleagues Jim Vaughan and Randi Korn brought me in on projects at key moments that propelled me forward (which confirms the importance of networking to freelancers). Hope this advice helps and if you need more ideas after you’ve read a couple of these books, contact me at your convenience.

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