There is no one true path to becoming an independent consultant: there are many. But perhaps a look at my path may help others. There are two, perhaps three, types of consultants out there. The questions to ask yourself are, “Which are you?” and “Why does each matter?” There are concerns with each type that impact your life, your family, and your state of mind. Keeping all those in balance is important as a consultant.
The three types of consultants are:
- Consultant for an existing organization. If you work for a vendor, value added reseller, analyst firm, etc., you may be asked to be a consultant. That means talking to customers and solving their problems. It also usually means independent work at a customer site, with lots of travel. This is the usual starting point for those who wish to be consultants who like autonomy and working directly with customers.
- Consultant for a contracting agency. You are working for another business that works with customers to find the proper consultant to meet their needs. You are, in essence, paid by the agency, which in turn charges more for your time than you charge. The benefit is that you do not need to worry about invoicing, finding gigs, or even insurance. It is all handled for you. The only thing you may need to worry about is your health insurance (there is a need to hold many different insurance policies besides a health policy as a consultant) and ensuring the agency or agencies know your latest endeavors. Once more, you will be required to travel to make the best use of this form of consultancy.
- Consultant for your own consultancy. This is the hardest approach to consulting, as you need to find customers yourself and handle the business as well as the consulting. Yet the benefits are far-reaching, including the level of travel you are willing to perform. In the modern day and age, you may not have to travel at all. You will need good communication skills and tools, however. There are two forms of this type of consultancy: as a way of life, and as a business. In essence, are you doing consulting to support your way of life, or are you trying to build an ongoing business that may eventually hire others, at which point you become their agency or existing organization? Where this one takes you depends on your goals.
Now, I have worked at all three of these types of consultancies. I started as a captured employee fresh out of university, but soon went on to working for a contracting agency I found via C.E. Weekly (a then-weekly publication of potential gigs, now Contract Job Hunter).
One thing to note is that many contracts you find may lead you to full-time employment. I was offered several jobs and eventually chose one I really liked (and stayed with the company for roughly fifteen years). Eventually, I went out on my own with my own consultancy. Actually, I’d had my own consultancy since high school, and kept it as a way to work on what I wanted to while doing other things. However, this kind of situation can cause quite a few issues, specifically around conflict of interest.
You need to ensure that your consultancy, if you have one that you keep while doing other things, does not pose a conflict of interest for your other gigs or jobs. One way to do this is to be incredibly open about your work and to ensure that anything you have developed or will do for others is not considered part of your job and will not be owned by anyone else. This is where reading your employee and contract agreements comes in. Most have a place to mention prior art, patents, or works you have done for yourself.
For example, I had sold a product to a part of the organization that wanted to hire me. I was open and clear about that purchase and the need for continued support. The organization stated that this was fine, but that I couldn’t work on it during work hours and could not sell it to any other parts of the organization. The good thing is that the product was diametrically opposed to the work I was doing. That helps. If your product is too similar, you may have to give up on it while you are employed, except to grant support.
As a consultant, understanding potential conflicts of interest is a full-time part of the job. You need to be very careful here, and keep accurate records of the work you have been asked to do and by whom, and what you can and cannot say or even do. Transparency up front is very important.
Being a consultant is a decision you get to make, but in the case of the first approach, you may be forced into it by your current role. Could that lead to other things? Absolutely. What it really takes is the proper mindset and entrepreneurial spirit. Even with these characteristics, taking the leap to become a contract consultant or an owner of a consultancy is a big step, one that needs careful consideration.
However, there is no one path to being an independent consultant. My path moved from type three to one, two, and one again, and then back to type three, where I am now. It all depends on your situation, your appetite for travel, and your goals. A big part of this decision should take into account your family and their comfort levels.
We will discuss many of those considerations in future posts on the subject of being a consultant. Look for more to come soon!