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Many people as a first step to leaving permanent full time salaried employment think, ‘I can just carry on doing what I’ve been doing, but as an independent freelancer working for my existing employer, then go and find some other organisations that I can be an independent freelancer for’. This can be a great way to start, if you have a plan to move on from that. But there are a number of reasons why it’s not ultimately going to serve your future;
1. I spend too much time looking for work rather than earning significant money
A freelancer is just selling their time by the hour, typically around projects. They’re going in and helping out with a piece of work, of a short duration, and then they have got to find the next piece of work. The challenge is that you spend too much of your time looking for the next piece of work, and not enough of your time, earning significant money.
2. There is a need to clarify and define a specialism
Too often freelancers do not clearly define what they do. They can end up in a situation where they are promoting themselves as being able to do anything for anyone. The challenge of doing anything for anyone means that people will believe that you can do nothing for no one. You need to clearly define what your offer is and what your specialism is.
3. The workstyle has become famine or feast
You are full-time looking for work and then, too often you end up with two or three clients at once. Now you’re full-time doing work. You’ve got no time to find work, so it is always famine or feast. When you’re in famine mode, then it becomes very attractive to become an Associate for a larger consultancy that will find work for you. That can be an option, but you are no longer an independent consultant, your future is controlled by those larger consultants who may or may not choose to give you work.
4. It is a challenge to keep up with the ‘fashionable problems’
Consultants see the world through the lens of ‘find problem, fix problem. As things evolve and as the world moves on the fashionable problems become less fashionable. You need to make sure that you’re ready to solve the next fashionable problem. So let me give you an example. There was a time when it was very fashionable to solve the GDPR problem. Now that’s no longer the fashionable thing, but it’s now very fashionable to solve the computer security problem. Both of those things are in the realm of information security. But the fashion has moved on. As an independent consultant framing the next proposition you’re going to take to clients, it often means you then need to resell yourself all over again. So, alongside the challenge of doing work and finding work, you also need to find the next problem that you’re going to solve.
5. Over time you can start to get in a situation where ageism comes into play
Unless you build a long-term trusted advisor relationship with your clients, then the risk is that after a while, they will see you coming round and round again challenging them with problems. Sooner or later they will then be looking for new younger fresher people to come and find the newer younger fresher problems they’ve got and solve them, rather than keep going back to you.
6. It’s difficult to estimate the effort required for a project to succeed
It’s often difficult to properly charge for all the work that you do. If you are a consultant, you will be quoting a price for a job, to fix a problem, for a client. However, it’s very difficult to estimate how much work is going to be involved in a job. As you’re exploring new problems, then it becomes difficult to estimate how much effort it is going to take solve those new problems. As a consultant, a lot of your ability to deliver depends on the activities of the clients. Some clients will be very engaged in the project, other clients will require a lot of chasing, support and management to get them to do the things that you need them to do in order for your project to succeed.
The upshot of this is that you might well quote, five days’ work for a piece of consultancy work, or even 20 or 30 days’ work for a piece of consultancy, with an expectation that things will be delivered within that effort. But you find you’re spending a lot of extra time, organising meetings, chasing up clients to do things and having additional meetings because things haven’t happened. Suddenly, although you’ve quoted for 20 days’ work, you’re finding that some of those days are very long.
You are doing unpaid work to prepare for meetings, to follow up, chase up people to do things or organise meetings. Although, what’s on the face of it might have looked like a very attractive project where for 20 days you are bringing in £20,000, by the time you finish the project, you realise that you’ve done the equivalent of 30 days of work, and you’re still only getting £20,000. You’ve lost a third of the fee expected.
7. You don’t want to travel as frequently
As an independent consultant you will need to have a lot of contact time with clients. Once you’ve moved beyond your immediate network, you may find that you’re spending a lot of time traveling to clients, both to make sales and to deliver. As you get older and as the demands of your family change, you might find it less and less attractive to drive tens of thousands of miles a year to visit clients all over the UK.
In fact, there’s a person that I’ve been working with now for nearly nine years. When we first started working together, he was traveling for between two and three hours a day, every single day to visit clients. As he got older, that was taking its toll both on his health, and on his ability to manage other aspects of his business.
8. You don’t feel you are connected to a community of practice
As an independent consultant it can be difficult to build a community of practice of other people that you’re working with. It can be difficult to feel that you’re part of anything if all you’re doing is going from one short project to another. Many people do want to feel connected to an organisation or connected to a community of practice. Independent consultants that I’ve met often end up solving that problem by becoming associate to larger consultancies or finding their community elsewhere outside work. It can otherwise become a very, very lonely task.
9. The requirement for certification is expensive
There can be a large amount of investment that you need to make in accessing proprietary tools and technologies. I see lots of consultants who start out very enthusiastic about their own skills and their own capabilities, but quite quickly they decide that to win clients, they need to be qualified in this, be certified in that. In effect, they’re now moving more and more to a relationship where they are in effect becoming a franchisee to somebody else’s intellectual property. These certifications and training programs and ongoing, continuous professional development can become quite expensive. It’s not unusual for a certification to cost five to ten thousand pounds. It’s not unusual for you, then to spend a lot of time and energy, engaging with the provider of that certification so you keep your continuous professional development up to date. It’s not unusual for you to find that the thing that you became qualified in, is no longer a premium resource that you might have relied upon in the past.
So let me give you an example from project management. There was a time when being a PRINCE2 qualified practitioner was a meal ticket to a profitable project manager existence. Now, it’s a hygiene factor if you’re not PRINCE2 qualified or equivalent, then you will find it really difficult to become a project manager. Behind PRINCE2 came a whole set of agile project management qualifications. Now you need to join the Institute of Project Managers and become qualified by them.
Even in a profession like project management, once you’ve got the project management qualifications and certifications, you may need to further specialise in programme management: another course, another certification to pay for. Continually evolving your external accreditations can become vital to your marketability as an independent consultant.
10. You get tired of always finding problems and fixing problems
Wouldn’t it be wonderful to think that you’re building something rather than just being in the break, fix world. I do find people get very tired of just being seen to be fixing problems. If you’re analytical, then it can be quite attractive. If you’re an engineer, then you’re trained to solve problems. But, even engineers like building things such as bridges, machines or devices rather than just fixing broken things. Unless you’re a person who sees their whole life in terms of fixing broken things, a sort of corporate repairman, then being an independent consultant will not make your future work.
It seems attractive to get paid twice as much for half the responsibility as an independent consultant. Often the reality is you work twice as hard for half the time and then spend the rest of the time and significant money finding work and remaining valuable to your market place.
There is another way. Check out http://2ndhalfcareer.com/ to find out more.
Charles McLachlan is the founder of FuturePerfect and on a mission to transform the future of work and business. The Portfolio Executive programme is a new initiative to help executives build a sustainable and impactful second-half-career. Creating an alternative future takes imagination, design, organisation and many other thinking skills. Charles is happy to lend them to you.