Independent consulting is a career choice that requires both a strong industry presence and the ability to work on your own schedule. It’s a path that can help you gain self-reliance and grow as a person, as well as bring improved job satisfaction, but it’s not for everyone.
When companies hire consultants, they’re looking for experienced problem-solvers; and when consultants go independent, they’re looking for freedom, control, and the choice of stimulating work.
If you’re looking for how to become an independent consultant, we have what it takes to get you started. Before we get to that though, let’s look a little more at the what and the why.
What is an Independent Consultant?
Depending on where you look, it might be easy to confuse the difference between independent consultants and independent contractors. There’s sometimes overlap in the two terms, but it’s worth spending a moment to set them apart.
The term ‘independent consultant’ isn’t quite synonymous with ‘independent contractor’, though they’re commonly used interchangeably. While independent consultants are usually contractors, not all contractors are consultants. A contractor is someone without the legal status of an employee, but who is contracted by a company to carry out certain work.
For example, a consultant may be contracted to carry out consultations for a company, in this case, they are not considered employees. Businesses may hire consultants because it’s more cost-effective as a short-term service; usually, in order to solve a specific problem.
Consultants may work for consulting firms or they may be self-employed. An independent consultant, then, is someone who works for themselves and is contracted to work on projects for various companies. These consultants typically have a lot of experience and work for themselves on contracts they get to choose.
Why Begin Independent Consulting
If you’re experienced in the industry, confident about your ability to run a business, and looking to make more money, then independent consulting might be the way to go. As an independent consultant, you’ll have the power to create your own schedule and work from almost anywhere (so long as you have a reliable internet connection).
Perhaps your career isn’t heading forward as fast as you want it to, or you’re just not cut out for the repetitive schedule of a working week. Perhaps even you love the work but you want to have more control over which jobs to take. If these are issues you’re familiar with, independent consulting may hold the solution.
By taking this path, you’ll also have the potential to beat your current salary and choose your own path. Independent consultants have a lot of options when it comes to their work and their career direction. This freedom of choice brings with it increased job satisfaction for many who take this route.
However, being independent does not typically bring with it stability. It’s an entrepreneurial venture that requires hard work and intelligent future planning; using your skills and experience in your industry and combining them with startup knowledge and business fundamentals. Essentially, you determine your success, and as the tide of work will come and go, it’s important to be prepared.
If you have the know-how and you’re not satisfied with routine and the daily grind as it stands, you may have already considered taking on an independent consultancy role, but you’re not sure how to go about it. It’s important to do the research before jumping into anything, so here we’ll list some of the benefits and drawbacks of going independent.
Pros of Independent Consulting
Before we go over some of the drawbacks, let’s go over some of the benefits we mentioned in a little more detail.
- The first and most obvious perk of being an independent consultant is freedom. This freedom comes at some cost that we’ll discuss in the next section, but ultimately, working for yourself perfectly breaks the monotony of the 9-5 schedule, leaving you with your own plans to follow and a lot more liberty over when and how much you work.
Night owls and early risers both benefit from the ability to set their own schedules and find that productivity is usually higher when they can work during periods where they feel most efficient.
- Another obvious bonus is the salary. According to Glassdoor.com, the average salary for an independent consultant in the US is $87k per year, with high ends running into the triple digits. Combined with the freedom to set your own schedule, this is a very appealing prospect for people with the right experience.
- The freedom of time isn’t the only liberating element of independent consulting. You’ll be able to choose your jobs, too. This means you get to stay stimulated with more interesting projects and you get to follow jobs that you really like. If you want to broaden your horizons by working across different industries or stick to what you know most deeply, being independent allows you to pick.
- If you like to travel, working as a contractor allows you to move around the country for jobs. Wherever there’s a market for your service, you can take up contracts and use it as an opportunity to explore and meet new people. There are also often international opportunities for certain industries, meaning you can visit other countries too.
- Finally, with the freedom of choice comes the freedom of rejection. Turning down work, or ending projects when they’re not working out is a strength of any freelancing position, and it means you have complete control over when and where to work and when and how to stop. Keep in mind, however, that as an independent consultant, your reputation holds substantial value!
Cons of Independent Consulting
While all this sounds appealing, there are a few drawbacks to consider before taking the plunge. Opportunity costs are very real in this line of work, and sometimes you won’t know that you miss something until it’s too late. Here’s a look at the cons:
- One of the biggest is the lack of stability. If you're on your own, you don't have a guarantee that you'll always have clients lined up. Plus, your income will fluctuate from month to month, that’s almost guaranteed. This makes it difficult to make reliable projections and can take you by surprise when you’re left with less in the bank than you were expecting.
- When it comes to taxes and licenses, independent consultants are typically responsible for paying quarterly and filing their own taxes every year, which can be tricky if you don't keep good records. This is true for any sole proprietor, but it’s something that is often overlooked when considering the pros.
- Travel can be a perk, but it can also be a hassle. If there’s no work where you are, you may be forced to move around looking for it, even if you don’t want to. This can result in time away from people or places you love.
- Working for yourself is liberating, but it’s a whole new level of responsibility for most people who make the shift. Suddenly, every business decision comes down to you, and this can turn into a lot of sleepless nights, especially at the start.
- Lastly, many find that they miss the camaraderie in a typical office setting or the feeling of belonging to a team with everyone working towards a common goal. Some elements of the daily grind become nostalgic memories once you’re in total charge of your working existence.
If you’ve looked at these and immediately thought of how to mitigate them, good. There are solutions to all of these problems if you’re committed to the role. So, if none of these drawbacks puts you off, you may be wondering how to get started.
How to Become an Independent Consultant
There are two main steps to becoming an independent consultant. The first is being qualified in your chosen consulting specialty. Without useful information and experience, you’re not going to be able to help anyone else with their problems. The second part is running a business. It’s not enough to simply know your subject matter – you’ve got to be able to go out there and sell it.
Your proficiency here is very important, and although you will gain valuable experience as part of the job, there needs to be a threshold level of expertise, to begin with.
So how do you make sure you’re ready to go it alone?
- First of all, decide exactly what it is you will be offering. This will be either a single specialty or a range of services you’re capable of. This first step will help you plan exactly what you need to do to reach the starting level – if you’re not there already.
- From here, make sure you have the experience needed to continue as a specialist, and if not, focus on attaining it. Chase up workshops and other certifications you can use in the industry you’re thinking of working for and consider going back to school entirely for advanced qualifications.
- Education is one part of your necessary qualifications, but experience can’t be trained, so if you feel like you need more of it, it might be a good idea to begin working with a firm to bridge the gap. Consultancy firms can set you on the right path to independence by giving you experience along with the stability of a real job.
Once your skills and experience are up to standard, the second part of going independent is being versed in running a business.
This is a skill of its own and involves at least threshold levels of understanding of sales, marketing, networking, and accounts. Since you’ll be working for yourself, taxes are probably going to get more complicated too, so if you don’t want to hire an accountant, it might be a good idea to start studying.
Once you’re ready, here are the general steps involved in finding your first clients and kickstarting your career:
- Set up your social media and websites. These should be done first, so that prospects have somewhere to be directed to, once you start reaching out. You’re going to want to list your services and how they can be obtained, along with any accolades or qualifications you think might be useful.
- Create an online presence. This will be the early form of your marketing and networking strategies. This involves reaching out and showing your presence online, in areas where your customers and professional network might be lurking. You don’t have to be pushing for sales here, you should simply be focusing on building a trustworthy reputation.
- From the relationships and contacts, you start making online, you can start forming your network of prospects and contacts. This will start off easily manageable but gradually become too much to handle on your own, at which time it’s a good idea to opt for CRM software. Products like Dex provide personal and professional networking management solutions and can be a gamechanger for consultants managing their own networks.
This software takes the hard work out of keeping track of contacts and sends reminders for when to reconnect with people, and how to channel prospects through the funnel into conversions.
- Get out and find clients. Online is one strong way to find what you’re looking for, but many companies won’t be looking where you’re selling if you’re only present online. Make sure you have your physical media available and that it links to your online information. Then, go out to places you’ve established they will be, either networking events or other locations, and make yourself known.
Independent Consultant Attributes
In summary, becoming an independent consultant is about having the appropriate level of education and experience, but it’s also about being able to run your own business. As such, there are some key attributes that make a successful consultant and self-employed businessperson. Here are some of them:
- Time Management – working on your own schedule is liberating if done correctly. Without proper signing-off hours, you may find yourself working more than you have to, or working too much in the wrong areas. It’s an important skill to have to be able to manage your efficiency and focus your efforts where they’re needed.
Unlike working in a team environment, there’s nobody to pick up the slack, so ignoring the boring or difficult tasks does not make them go away. Managing time well means managing burnout and hitting targets.
- Social Skills – finding success as an independent consultant is about making yourself your own brand. Your popularity as a person and your skills in relationships directly affect the rate of success you’re going to have with potential clients.
Pay attention to your prospects’ pain points and use conversational skills and generosity to form genuine relationships among your network. Being authentic goes a long way.
- Long-term planning – Running your own business is a gradual process and takes time to gain momentum. This needs to be kept in mind when things are agonizingly slow and the clients aren’t streaming in as you expected. Stay patient, and don’t forget to plan for the inevitable scalability issues as your business grows.
- Money Management – There’s no monthly paycheck with running your own company. You’ll have weeks and months where the money is good, and then you’ll have periods of nothing.
There’s also no sick pay or holiday allowance, so all of those need to come from your money management. Try to put aside a good percentage of whatever comes in, so you can fall back on it when you need to (and you will need to!).
- Tenacity – Finally, carving out your space in the corporate world takes some amount of grind. This shouldn’t be a surprise to you going in, and if it is, then you’re probably not ready. However, hard work pays off when it’s backed up by expertise, training, and your specific value addition. Stick at it, and watch your network grow.
With the right mix of skills and attributes, moving to an independent consultancy doesn’t have to be overwhelming. Knowing what you’ll be up against is half the battle, and the rest is about coming in prepared and ready to work. There will always be a market for a unique set of expert perspectives, so with everything ready, success is all-but-inevitable.
Independent consultants benefit from a huge amount of variety of choices in their work, as well as the freedom to schedule their time and, in many cases, a much-improved financial situation. But the job is about more than just consulting.
Going it alone means knowing your area of expertise inside out, but it’s also about running your own company. This involves combining expertise in the industry with basic startup principles and effective network management.
If you’ve reached the level of expertise needed to become a consultant, it’s time to combine money management, social skills, and hard work to begin your independent journey. For the networks you’ll need along the way, consider using CRM like Dex to keep you on top of your social commitments and convert prospects into your first clients.