What it takes to be an independent consultant?

Losing the suit and the daily grind

In January this year, after 17 years in the corporate world, I hung up my suit and donned my new entrepreneurial apparel (i.e. shirt, chinos and blazer). I started running my start-up MEETIG8 on a full time basis. MEETIG8 is an online marketplace for risk and compliance independent specialists. This new job comes with lots of meetings and coffees with people interested in signing up to MEETIG8, either as a Specialist or Client on the platform.

The questions I get all the time

In the last four months, I have met with numerous risk and compliance professionals who are still in the corporate world and contemplating becoming an independent consultant. The most frequently asked questions I get were:

How do I move out of my corporate full-time role and become an independent consultant?

How can I get a steady flow of jobs to warrant leaving my full-time role?

People who want to break out of the mould

The people who asked me these questions were mostly professionals still traversing on the corporate treadmill. They have spent between 8 and 20+ years in their corporate jobs and were mostly senior managers and upwards.

Conditioning of the ‘corporate’ mind and getting off the beaten path

While these professionals are experts in navigating through their daily routines and corporate politics, they are pretty novice when it comes to deciding whether to take the leap to becoming an independent consultant. (I actually prefer the term ‘specialist’, so will use the term ‘independent specialist’ from hereon)

They simply don’t know what to think and how to weigh things up. I don’t blame them, I was in their shoes a year ago and had to learn many things for the first time myself. Our minds have been conditioned to be within the square and anything outside of the square is new and it takes time to form a new thinking and to adjust. Anyhow, it’s off the beaten path, so it does involve facing some fear and overcoming some hurdles in the mind.

After having answered those two questions many times in the past months, I have become a little bit of an expert. I thought I’d write a blog post here on the topic and include a “checklist” of what to consider before taking the leap.

Please note these are my personal views, opinions and they are based on my own experience (see disclaimer at the end of the blog post).

Checklist – for aspiring independent specialists

(1) Do I have sufficient experience?

Unless you have at least 5 years experience and in a managerial position, keep clocking that experience until you have solid expertise in your chosen field. This will give you credibility with clients. Bench time is king!

(2) Am I financially able to handle an uncertain cashflow?

This is usually a challenge in the first year as an independent specialist, as it takes time to establish relationships with clients, win work and to build a steady flow of work.

A lot of it, at the early stage, is about sowing the seeds.

Work out whether you have adequate savings to meet financial commitments (e.g. home loan repayments, credit card payments, household expenses, etc), for at least 6 to 12 months (or for whatever timeframe you set for yourself).

(3) Does my employer offer an unpaid break (like a career break) rather than having to resign outright?

To “buy some insurance”, it pays to find out whether your employer offers any form of unpaid break that you can consider before resigning from your role outright. A career break allows you to try out being an independent specialist while allowing a right to return to your corporate role if things don’t work out.

(4) Am I mentally ready to take on the new role?

It pays to carefully think through all the pros and cons, and implications, before taking the leap. As you lose the suit and take on life as an independent specialist, you lose a level of certainty, routine and structure. This would be especially more pronounced in the first year (at least). This can affect the mind and therefore, the more calculation and preparation you can make mentally, financially and physically, the better.

(5) Do I have any idea what’s involved and how to get started?

Speak to people who’ve taken the leap and listen to their experience, find out what helped them overcome the challenges and take whatever good tips they have to offer.

When starting out, below are some important aspects to get good at (not exhaustive):

  • Personal organisation skills – Have a ‘system’ to manage your new role and the jobs you take on. Have a plan and establish a daily routine, and follow it! Be organised!
  • Discipline – Going independent requires a lot of discipline. There are temptations that will come that may make you lazy, discouraged or distracted. Set clear goals (short, medium and long term ones – that are measurable) and actions to meet the goals, and track them! Hold yourself accountable (remember … you are the boss) and find someone you trust to hold you accountable, so you can forge ahead with clear intent to succeed.
  • Build your personal brand – In this day and age, people will likely check out each others’ professional networking platform (e.g. LinkedIn) profile before they meet. It’s usual practice for me to take a look at the LinkedIn profile of the person I am going to meet before the meeting (and vice versa – they check me out too!). It’s important to build a credible profile in a variety of formats e.g. social media, media (if relevant and within your budget) and in industry circles (e.g. write and publish thought leadership, speak at conferences, attend industry events such as round-tables).
  • Create a target list of clients – Be specific on which clients you would like to work with (based on your experience and skills) and write up a list of clients you can target. Jot down key aspects of the clients (e.g. what new challenges are affecting that industry, what pressures are they facing, etc). Essentially, build your business case and value proposition, as you develop the list of clients. Ask yourself why these companies need your expertise and what can you offer? Connect with relevant people in those companies (e.g. via professional networking platforms such as LinkedIn) and start building relationships.
  • Generate leads – Speak to people in the industry, your connections (gained from years being in the corporate world) and other independent specialists to find out who may need help and who’s looking for specialists. You will most likely end up having lots of coffee catch-ups with many people and will probably find potential opportunities popping up here and there. One word of advice – be selective on who you meet to keep those coffee catch-ups under control and maintain control over your precious time. Some meetings simply do not offer value and good use of time, so be careful how you use your time. You will get better with this over time (and many coffees)!
  • Brush up on those ‘soft-skills’ – As you venture into this new role, soft skills and EQ (emotional intelligence) is crucial as you will spend a lot of time in relationship building and interacting with lots of people (e.g. potential clients or partners).
  • Keep track of your admin – Stay on top of your invoicing and collection of fees to ensure you get remunerated correctly and on time.
  • Balance your workload – Be careful in taking on too many jobs and not being able to deliver them well. Work out your availability (how many hours you can work – effectively) and then take on jobs within your means. Build a buffer and keep an eye on your work-life balance.

(6) Business structure, banking and insurance

Consult your accountant to determine what business structure is right for you (e.g. sole trader, company, partnership, etc). Many independent specialists have an ABN (Australian Business Number) and are sole traders. Seek advice on the right bank account to set up for your business.

Consult an insurance company or broker to determine whether you require insurance and if so, what insurance you need. Independent specialists may require insurance such as professional indemnity and public liability with certain sum insured amounts. Work out what you need before you start work. This is meant to provide a level of protection for you and for your clients.

(7) Where do I work out of?

A common question is whether I need an office of some sort to work out of. Unless you are setting up and running a start-up, to which I would highly recommend working out of a co-working space, you can consider working from home. This will save you some money as you get established.

There are also some free work space you can consider using (e.g. cafe, hotel lounges, association lounges of which you are a member of, etc). Otherwise, virtual offices are also an option – they are usually in CBDs and business parks and offer a variety of packages such as ‘hot-desking’, permanent desks throughout the week, selected days in a week where you have a desk allocated, with the usual office facilities, etc. Be sure to check out what’s in the contract and the costs before you sign-up (I’ve heard that some of these virtual offices arrangements are pretty tricky to exit).

All the best in your journey, as you prepare to take the leap to life as an independent specialist!

 

Disclaimer: This blog post and its contents do not constitute advice (e.g. personal advice) of any sort. These are purely my own opinions and based on my own experience. Please consult a qualified professional (e.g. accountant, solicitor, insurance agent, etc).

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