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Let’s Be Honest - Should You Become an Independent Consultant?

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Published:
September 18, 2020
Reading Time:
10 minutes
Lynn Hunt
Lynn's diverse perspectives on business stem from her extensive experience as a management consultant - her role as a beloved wife, mother and grandmother adds further depth to her insights.

Maybe I was jaundiced, or perhaps I’d been in the consulting game for too long? But the somewhat breathless promises about the benefits of becoming an independent consultant made me smile somewhat ruefully!

My own experience was that this was not a step to be taken lightly and that it took time, some luck and a lot of hard work to achieve the goals of better work/life balance, increased income, choosing only the projects that you enjoy, and the other touted benefits!

I must say that technology – and, paradoxically, coronavirus – have significantly changed the consulting landscape, and they have changed my opinions on the subject too.

Independent consulting is no longer about being on your own. You are not limited by your geographical location and your contacts in the local business community. You don’t have to spend so much time on marketing to ensure a pipeline of work. The online consulting marketplace has made that something of the past. The benefits of being part of a freelance consultant platform are truly life changing.

So, let’s have a look at how technology has changed the scene and then use this context to evaluate some typical reasons for making the move to independence from being a senior manager or a consultant in a top-tier consulting firm.

How Technology Has Changed the Consulting Landscape

Online and freelance consulting platforms are set to permanently disrupt traditional consulting.

They are well-placed to meet the new realities in business – including agility, digitalization and big data analysis. At the same time there is increasing acceptance of – and indeed active support for – the gig economy and a liquid workforce, with its mix of full-time, part-time and contract workers. Companies are hiring both traditional management consulting firms and independent consultants.

Millions of clients are registered on consulting platforms around the world – and these include more than half of the Fortune 500 companies. Multiple millions of jobs are listed every year. Some of these require face-to-face work and so might involve travelling but, increasingly, work can be done remotely and meetings use online technologies.

Importantly, there are now third-party firms (like Consultport) that connect professionals to jobs. As an example, Consultport pre-screens both consultants and clients on its platform, shortlists consultants best suited to a client’s project, handles all the admin of setting up contracts, tracking project delivery and billing – and leaves both client and consultant to get on with the task at hand.

Many independent consultants marketing themselves through these platforms were previously employed by big consulting firms. They are experienced and well-trained. Many have selected niche areas of interest and are highly suitable for projects that don’t require full-service consulting packages.

Traditional consulting firms are increasingly finding that they are not just in competition with each other. They are in competition with independent consultants.

As noted by the VP, Marketing, of Payoneer, “With businesses worldwide adapting to a remote workforce, it’s hardly surprising that the concept of flexible, affordable, on-demand skilled labor now offers even more value than it did beforehand. The future of work is here.”

So, what are the top 3 promised benefits of independent consulting? Do they really exist? What are the cons? And are the benefits compelling enough to encourage you to take the step towards independence?

“With businesses worldwide adapting to a remote workforce, it’s hardly surprising that the concept of flexible, affordable, on-demand skilled labor now offers even more value than it did beforehand. The future of work is here.” - VP, Marketing, Payoneer

Benefit #1: Improve Your Work/Life Balance

Having better control over your work schedule is a big attraction. People want flexibility, not just fewer working hours. This has particular appeal for women and millennials. Traditional firms have not adequately adapted their working practices towards more flexible careers that allow for personal or family needs and the pursuit of outside interests.

As an independent consultant, you could run the risk of having less balance rather than more, especially when you first start out and are working from home. Unless you are highly disciplined, it is easy to work 24/7 and never switch anything off – yourself, your mobile phone or your emails. This can play havoc with your private life.

However, the choices available today via freelance consulting platforms make it possible to select projects to fit in with your personal plans rather than the other way around. For example, if you have an upcoming special occasion or family holiday, you can choose to work on a large project or several projects simultaneously right now, and perhaps work long hours or at night to get them done. But you can then take the time and have the cash flow for your special event.

Benefit #2: Be Your Own Boss and Choose the Work that You Like

You may be tired of checking in with someone else? Or you are being allocated uninteresting projects? You might be looking for the freedom to be yourself rather than having to represent others? Perhaps you believe that you are worth more than you are being paid – especially when you know what the boss is billing the client for your work? And you probably won’t miss the office politics, toxic relationships and endless meetings of many corporate environments!

independent consultants, Let’s Be Honest – Should You Become an Independent Consultant?

On the cons side, if you decide to become an independent, you might find yourself being a tough and demanding boss. You might set standards and expectations for yourself that are unrealistic, and you may tend to be quite unforgiving of your own weaknesses or mistakes. Alternatively, you may be too lax with yourself, allowing procrastination and excuses to creep in. In both cases, there is a need for perspective – and this generally comes from someone on the outside. Real time online feedback from clients can provide the perspective you need.

Until technology changed the consulting world, it was a pipe dream to expect to do only the projects that you enjoyed. While you might have chosen a niche area, suitable projects in your local area were probably limited. This meant taking what you could get or working with clients that were less than ideal.

Today, the online consulting marketplace has opened the world to you.

It might take a while to get yourself established and you might start with projects you don’t like. A powerful tool, though, is that clients are encouraged to provide online reviews of your services and you can quite quickly build a reputation for excellence. Once you do, you can be much more selective about what you take on and you can charge more. It’s the perfect referral system.

My personal experience has been that repeat business is predictable – clients actively seek you out when they have new work. And if you have an unhappy experience with a client – as can happen anywhere – you simply move to others.

Benefit #3: Increase Your Income

Most independent consultants earn more than when they did exactly the same work as employees. They don’t have the overheads that major companies do. And, if they are affiliated with a freelance consulting platform, marketing time and costs are reduced to a minimum.

Women especially benefit from being independent. Surveys show that women working independently are more fairly compensated, with the gender gap shrinking from 28% for those in full time positions to less than 3% for independents.

Earning more may also have different connotations. Millennials, for example, quite often set lower target dates for consulting. They want to earn well on those days and be free to choose what they do on other days.

Being an independent consultant previously may have seemed a financially risky occupation. Today, and especially if you have a fairly diversified portfolio facilitated by online consultant platforms, you are probably less at risk of losing everything through being laid off or because a particular company is having financial difficulties.

To be or not to be – is it worth making the switch to independent consulting?

It would seem that technology has enabled independent consultants to have benefits in controlling their personal lives, fair remuneration and growing employment options.

There is another benefit to consider: Self-fulfillment.

The good news for consultants, both employed and independent, is that consulting is generally a very fulfilling occupation. It provides a real chance for you to realize your potential. The work fosters self-development, people skills, constant updating of knowledge and improvement in marketable capabilities. There is regular interest and challenge as you start on new projects and with new clients.

Independent consultants seem to have some additional bonuses. One reputable survey showed that 80% of independent consultants reported being happier and 69% reported being healthier than their counterparts in the corporate sector. They also reported that even though they were doing the same work as these counterparts, they experienced the work as more meaningful and impactful and felt that clients took their advice more readily.

So, it would seem that becoming an independent consultant is worth considering.

And, given the changes brought about by technology, it seems that the benefits are significantly more likely to be achieved in the online consulting marketplace and through affiliation with freelance consulting platforms.