The Truth About Independent Consulting

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I was such a dyed-in-the-wool corporate Sally, my husband used to say that if I cut my arm I’d bleed my company’s logo colors. It was true. I really loved my corporate job. I thought I would never consult or work for myself. The very idea of independent consulting horrified me.

When my company was sold, I was pregnant. I took the rest of the pregnancy off. I took a break from working for the first time in twenty years.

In all that time I had never had more than a week off at one time, apart from my honeymoon, which was three weeks long. I tried to be a stay-at-home mom. That was a complete failure. I adore my kids but I didn’t want to sit around with them all day. I started writing a column for the newspaper and I sang a lot of opera.

When my son was born I suddenly got itchy and wanted to work again. I called a fellow who had consulted for our company. I called him at 8:45 in the morning.

He said “Come over! Let’s talk right now. I could use your help.”

“My six-week-old is with me right now,” I said. “Bring him too!” said my consultant friend. He hired me to work on projects with him.

Oh my gosh, I said to myself, I had no idea.

I had no clue that consulting is not even a thing. You just talk to people about their problems at work. You just do the obvious thing: see what’s broken, and fix it. Then again, what else could consulting possibly be except for that?

It turns out that I loved consulting. I started to wonder why people always say that consulting is scary and dangerous. What did they know that I didn’t know?

You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to see why so many people would trash-talk consulting. There are lots of folks with an economic interest in keeping working people in the dark and disempowered. The more sheeplike working people are, the better for folks who’d rather point to a pay chart on the wall than negotiate the value of someone’s services.

The fact is that we are all consultants now, and it’s past time we realized it. We all run our careers, independently. No one else is looking out for your career welfare. You have to do it yourself. Whether you get paid through a payroll system or by invoicing your clients makes no difference. That is a small distinction. Either way, we’re driving the bus.

Let’s imagine Mitchell, who is at work right now. Mitch is a database analyst. He has a great resume. He’s only been unemployed once in his fifteen-year career. Let’s ask Mitch some questions about his work and career plans.

US: So Mitch, do you like your work?

MITCH: It’s fine. I’ve been doing it for a long time.

US: How much do you get paid?

MITCH: I get eighty-seven thousand, six hundred a year.

US: How is that number derived?

MITCH: What do you mean? It’s the market rate for someone with my background.

US: Okay, you say it’s the market, but what does that mean? What is the real economic value of your work to your employer, do you know?

MITCH: Hey, you got me — if they’re willing to pay me eighty-seven, six, I’m good with it.

US: What if the wind shifted? What would you do if your company laid you off or the entire market for database analysts tanked?

MITCH: I guess I’d deal. Why you want to be so negative?

US: What type of pain do you solve for your employer?

MITCH: They need a database guy, they call me!

Mitch is completely out of touch with the problem he solves in his work. He doesn’t concern himself with questions about the real value of his work to his employer.

Mitchell has a big mortgage and a private preschool riding on thin air, because he has no understanding of the economic machinery of which he is a part. He simply trusts employers to pay him whatever the chart on the wall in HR says they should.

Contrast Mitchell with Leanne, a home and office organizer. Leanne doesn’t have a degree. She earns a little less than Mitch does — about seventy-five thousand per year. She’s elated about it.

“I make my own hours and I have two people who freelance for me when I’m overloaded,” she says. Leanne takes in about six thousand dollars per month, and she always has a few months’ visibility into the future. She is always marketing, always doing business development and always performing a customer service function.

No one taught her how. She’s operating on instinct and the experience she’s gained as an entrepreneur and a grown-up running a business in the real world. Leanne has never been to a seminar and wouldn’t know Six Sigma if it smacked her in the face. Lots of corporate high-rise folks might look down their noses at Leanne, but Leanne is much closer to her market than they are.

Leanne knows why people call her for help. She knows what they’ll pay for her services, because she negotiates her rates every day. She is right down on the ground in the middle of the economic ecosystem in which she operates.

Mitchell, on the other hand, is miles off the ground. He has never billed anyone for his work. He doesn’t know a thing about the problems that might result if he and his colleagues in the department suddenly disappeared one day. Would problems result at all, if Mitch and his team disappeared? Mitch doesn’t want to think about that question, much less get the answer to it.

He trusts his retirement and his kids’ college fund to the faith that his large employer or some other large employer will continue to need his services and continue to pay his salary. But what if those assumptions aren’t true?

I’m sick and tired of hearing people say “It’s so hard to be independent. You have to do everything yourself.” That’s like saying “It’s so hard to go to the gym and grow muscles. Your muscles get sore and they hurt. It’s such a pain. You should stay at home and watch TV instead. It’s easier.”

Why would we want our workforce so passive and disempowered that all they know how to do is search for salaried employment and collect unemployment checks between jobs? We should teach entrepreneurism to every kid in school.

We should make the Department of Labor the Department of Self-Sufficiency, and stop treating salaried employment like the pinnacle for every working person. It’s sickening to see good colleges attracting kids by reassuring their fearful parents that the right degree will get a kid a job ‘with a good employer.’

Why are we talking to kids about good employers, when we should be teaching kids to grow muscles of their own?

Once you have the muscles, you don’t have to be grateful that you lucked into a job with a good company. You can make a company of your own, any time.

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  • I agree with your post regarding Mitch and Leanne’s positions. However it is very hard for me to identify with Leanne, who is largely instinctual and self-taught, because I went the route of getting a post-graduate education, professional qualifications and solid work experience in large corporations before I started on my own in consulting. I would hardly be as respected in my field otherwise. I just keep in touch with my network of industry contacts and so far this has kept me busy.

  • I understand your argument, and I’ve tossed the idea of consulting (or otherwise working for myself) around numerous times. I even worked with a career coach and took steps to put the pieces in place for my own consulting business, but I just couldn’t pull the trigger. Why? Because at heart I’m a work-to-live person. I’m not much interested in work, and it seems to me the role of work and career in our society has been perverted into something that approaches a religion. Nevertheless, I recognize the need to earn money so I can pursue the things I enjoy in my free time. Consulting, in my opinion, compels you to become a live-to-work person. If you’re not spending every waking hour continually tending to your business, you’re bound to fail. Your life becomes work and your passions go into the trash bin. In short, it’s a lot more “running around” and it will eat up much more of your life than a standard off-the-rack corporate job (what anthropologist David Graeber might refer to as a “bullshit job”). I suspect it would also render me a nervous wreck. If I _had_ to consult to put food on the table, I would. But that would be a last resort. For me, and for people like me, better to schlep along in our somnambulist corporate existence, basking in that surge of energy at the end of the day that carries us into the hours in which we do the things we truly love.

    • Hi Pyrrho, it sounds like now is not the right time for you to dive into consulting. If you approach your consulting business with the mindset that as a consultant, you must spend every waking minute tending to your business, you will be miserable. Many, many successful consultants — perhaps the majority of them — live the lives they choose. They do not sacrifice everything else for their business’s sake, once the business is established. I would never recommend that people get into consulting if it meant that they had to give up every part of their life apart from work!

      It is just the opposite. You have to work hard to get your business going but every big project requires hard work. Then, it’s your ballgame. It’s your show. You decide when to work and when to ride your bike or pet the cat or do whatever you want to do. Don’t kid yourself that giving most of your time and energy to someone else’s goals is some kind of victory, because you get to carve out a few hours for yourself every week. We only have one life to live, as far as we know.

      All the best,

  • I lost my corporate job almost two years ago and was not prepared at all. Assumed I would be there until I retired. Thanks for this empowering advice about taking care of ourselves and our futures.

  • Some great points with this, I like the analogy to developing your muscles – confidence in our work and that we can achieve the results we say we will is one of the hardest and perhaps most fearful obstacles to overcome. Confidence is not something that is cultivated very well, either in school or in the workplace. We are taught to follow, not lead.

  • Very interesting article Liz. I was blessed to spend nearly 20 years in adult education administration and have “counseled” hundreds and hundreds of potential students about how their past does not have to define their future… Never thought of this as a “business” but may now!!

  • Thankyou for this positive and motivating article! I started my own coaching and consulting business one year ago and I have never been happier! As a systemic coach you cannot really advertise, so I have to find other more subtle ways to gain visibility on the market, but that is part of the daily challenge.

  • I agree that being independent is wonderful… I am teaching piano… my true passion and while scheduling issues with kids and working adults don’t allow me to quite do this full time only, it makes me independent enough that my part time office job is for staying busy and the last time when they gave me a review I didn’t panic about it because, frankly, I didn’t care that much because the employer is not my measure of self worth anymore.

  • Truer words were never spoken, Liz! Consulting is empowering and often times as a consultant you garner more respect not to mention higher earnings from clients than you do from companies/ colleagues in a full time position. I’ve done both and though I am currently in a full time position, I constantly keep my consultant’s hat on, and network, learn, and take advantage of new opportunities whenever I can. In the future I plan to work myself again.

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