As of this month, it’s been 10 years since I left my last full-time job and started my own business. In August 2011, I wrapped up my last project at Cisco and formed my LLC. Prior to this, the longest I ever held a job was about 3 years. However, even after 10 years of consulting, it still feels like the right fit. I still enjoy what I do, and I hope to continue for many more years.
The Ups of Consulting
I have gotten to work with some really great clients on plenty of interesting projects over the last decade. I have a low tolerance for boredom, which is one of the reasons I love this field, and consulting in particular. I’m always learning new things. I work with experts in fields I’d never even thought about prior to those projects. I love the variety in the subjects and the types of projects I do.
Much of my business comes from repeat clients. In fact, most of my clients end up hiring me again after I complete a first project with them. That means I can build relationships with those clients over time. We can build and refine processes over the course of several years when we have those repeated projects.
Working for myself gives me flexibility that I simply wouldn’t have if I worked full-time for someone else. That has been especially helpful as a mom. When my daughter was born, I took 4 months off (the 5 weeks she was in the NICU plus 3 months after she was home). Initially, we only had her in child care 3 or 4 days per week. That was partly because I needed time to build my business back up and get clients again, but also partly because I didn’t want to work full time with an infant.
When my daughter was in preschool, I continued to work only about 25-30 hours per week. I picked her up in the afternoon, and then we spent many afternoons at parks or doing other activities together. Because I was selective about what projects I accepted, I could limit my hours and continue working part time. I would never have had that flexibility as an employee. I admit, I sometimes work in the evening after my daughter is in bed, but that trade-off is worth it for me.
Over the past several years, I’ve been able to focus mostly on the niche of scenario-based learning. Nearly every project I do now includes some form of scenario. Sometimes we start small with one-question mini-scenarios for assessments or another low-risk approach. Usually, I can at least nudge my clients in that direction. If clients truly aren’t interested in that kind of approach, they usually don’t contact me in the first place. Otherwise, I can screen them out quickly and refer them to other IDs.
The Downs of Consulting
Not everything about consulting is perfect though. I have had to chase clients to pay me sometimes. Usually I get paid after sending reminders, but one company still owes me over $5K for work completed before I quit. That’s a hard lesson after doing a bunch of work to rush for a client and then not getting paid for it.
Feast or famine
Consulting can be feast or famine: too much work or not enough. While I generally manage to always have at least one project at any time, my income is widely variable from year to year and even from month to month. I once had a month where I only earned $250, followed by a month where I earned $15K. I have had a few great years, and I have had some years where I made much less than I did at that last full-time job. The years with the lowest income mostly correlate to the years I worked less overall, but sometimes I had years where things just didn’t fall into place. Expected projects and income were delayed, and I didn’t have other work to fill in those gaps.
Not seeing the impact
When I was an employee working full-time, I always had access to at least the survey results after training. Sometimes we collected other metrics too, such as impact on sales. As a consultant, by the time a client has results, I’ve usually moved onto the next project. I hear about results sometimes from repeat clients, but I’m very disconnected from those results overall. Clients mostly aren’t interested in paying me to review metrics and adjust after training launches, so I frequently don’t see the impact of what I help create.
What I Have Learned
I love working for myself
I’m happier working for myself than I ever was working as an employee. I’m mostly outside of the office politics and interpersonal drama. I spend more of my work time actually being productive, rather than chitchatting with colleagues. I like having control over which projects I accept and which clients I work for. I’m doing more interesting work now, more of the time.
It’s still important to connect
Although I enjoy working alone, I still value connecting with others. Social media has been one source of connection since before I started consulting. But now, I have groups where we regularly chat on Zoom and Slack. I know who to turn to when I need to bounce ideas off someone or talk through a challenging situation. When you’re consulting, you need to be more deliberate about finding and fostering those connections.
Helping and coaching others is rewarding
Those connections are part of a network where we all support each other. I enjoy helping others in the field, either through formal coaching or training or by answering questions in informal conversations. We are fortunate to work in a field where so many people are genuinely helpful. I’ve been supported by too many people to mention over the course of my career, and I try to share that with others as well.
Another 10 years?
What will my consulting look like in another 10 years? I’m terrible at making predictions, but I think it’s much more likely that I’ll still be working for myself than as an employee of someone else.