How to Become an Independent Consultant - The Answer In Technology
Some people’s strategy for becoming independent consultants is to quit their jobs and look for their first clients!
Unless this is thrust upon you by losing your current job, it’s not a strategy I’d recommend. Freelance management consulting can be a highly rewarding occupation but it’s not without its hazards, especially when you are first starting out.
There’s no shortage of advice available. I Googled How to become an independent business consultant – and had 137 million returns. I was surprised by how out of date even the top-ranked articles appeared to be. Most of them seem to ignore how technology has dramatically changed consulting.
So, I wondered what the advice should be to people wanting to become independent consultants in the age of the online consulting marketplace and freelance consultant platforms.
No matter what branch of consulting you are considering, there are common concerns for everyone. These include issues around viability, finance, marketing, and self-management. Unsurprisingly, some conventional wisdom prevails for these issues, regardless of technology. But there are some significant differences, which I’ll try to highlight.
The standard approach to viability is to clearly define what you have to offer, what skills/knowledge or certification you might need, whether there is a market and how much it can support. This takes self-assessment and research. You can read about it in more detail elsewhere.
Here, let’s consider the impact of technology on viability.
The fascinating thing about the online consulting marketplace is how it opens your eyes to possibilities. Rather than sitting in your own small corner trying to describe what you are good at, you can look at the millions of projects that are available and recognize how many of them you are in fact pretty well-equipped to handle. And you may identify others that interest you, provided you took some learning steps.
You can immediately test out viability, even if you are still employed. You can bid for small projects that you can handle in your spare time and see what happens.
As for any business venture, you may not be successful at the start. My personal experience was getting only five of my first 60 bids. But I learned from the experience, and it cost me nothing but some time and a bruised ego.
Here is some of what I learned:
Your online CV is critical
Later on, people tend to look at the reviews of your clients on various platforms. But in the beginning, you have only your CV. Good freelance platforms will give guidance and even provide templates and examples to help you set up an online profile.
It will take a surprisingly long time to get it right. This is because it must be short, with your self-assessment and research crystallized into a few powerful paragraphs – a bit like the traditional elevator pitch. If it is compelling enough, the client will ask for more.
Update your profile regularly, adding new skills and achievements and removing those that are no longer relevant. Ask clients to leave reviews. If you have delivered well, they are generally happy to do this and are generous in their endorsements.
Your online profile is your number one marketing tool, so give it the attention it deserves.
Take the time to respond very specifically to the requirements in the project scope.
One of the drawbacks of online bidding is that the client can be bombarded with thousands of responses. Yours will stand out if you have addressed all the issues, you have done some research on the client, and you have shown exactly how your skills/expertise/approach will solve the client’s problem. Try to demonstrate how you will deal with a specific issue – reframe a problem, provide a framework, perhaps write a short section of the strategy.
This is no different from what we do in the normal corporate context – excepting that it must be short, succinct, and to the point. There is no place online for long descriptions and explanations.
No matter where in the world you and the client may be, try to set up an online meeting to get to know each other and talk face-to-face about requirements. Relationships are as important for freelance management consultants as they ever were.
Don’t Undersell Yourself
In the beginning, you may accept projects that obviously underpay. You may have to do a few like this to establish an online presence, but don’t let it continue.
I have learned that clients often don’t know what a project is worth. They quite readily adjust upwards if you have shown the reason for it.
When you become an independent consultant, it’s inevitable that your personal and business finances become intertwined. Your business plan becomes easier when you are clear about your personal circumstances and how long your financial runway is. Your model to test financial scenarios and assumptions should include how long you could survive with zero income and still cover business expenses that may drain your personal coffers.
A big plus of being part of the gig economy and working from home is that office/workspace and facilities costs are dramatically reduced, even if you bring in a partner or an admin assistant. For local client meetings, the norm is to use coffee shops or offices and meeting rooms that you can hire for a few hours.
Another plus is that you have so many opportunities to find work, even if they are just small projects that keep income ticking over until you find your feet.
The online consulting marketplace has opened the world for consultants. But you have more competitors, they come from all over the world, and some are prepared to work for very little. So, you do need to market yourself.
Technology has changed the focus of this marketing. Much of it is through actual bids for projects and through ensuring that you have an online presence. Your profile should be on social media platforms and on freelance consulting platforms. You need a basic website that is attractive and responsive – and allows potential clients to contact you.
In Conclusion …
Much of the information on the millions of How to sites remains relevant, and you would be well-advised to read some of it. However, the online consulting marketplace and freelance consulting platforms have definitely changed the landscape. They offer some surprising protections and opportunities and make the move to being a freelance management consultant considerably more predictable and satisfying.