April 28, 2014
There were two great articles recently from PRSA offering advice on breaking out on your own. One was in the Strategist, by Joseph Curley, and the other in Tactics, by Stu Opperman. Both provided very different guidance for people thinking about starting their own consultancy. Both offered tips and checklists that I think are helpful to a degree, but what I felt was missing from both articles were passion and encouragement about the decision. Reading them both, I am definitely more in the Opperman camp, as my goal was simply to practice independently as opposed to starting a firm. But if I had read Curley’s article before making the plunge myself, I never would’ve jumped, and consequently, I would never have achieved the true balance of work and life, or felt the happiness and job satisfaction I feel now.
I think while it’s important to consider all the aspects of independent consulting, or becoming your own boss, it’s important to underscore Opperman’s point that there is no one-size-fits-all approach, and you really can’t know how you’ll do unless you try. So, if I were to give a third alternative bit of advice – if this is something you really want to do – don’t overthink it. Go for it. There is no failure in trying to make a go of it, even if it doesn’t work out for you in the long run. The only failure to be had is not even trying. When I made the decision to go out on my own, I met none of the requirements in Curley’s article. I had no savings, no business plan, no certainty about my vendor networks or networks in general, uncertainty about my level of discipline or productivity, and no funds to hire a lawyer, or other vendor to help with invoicing, taxes or paperwork. But, what I did have was twenty years of experience and faith in myself. If I learned just two things in the last two years of independent PR consulting, it’s that there’s plenty of work to go around, and some people will just want me specifically (even if others are more qualified). The rest is just negotiation and courage.
In terms of equipment and supplies, you don’t need to rent office space. All you need is a computer, a surface to put it on, a chair, an internet connection, a phone and a printer. When you are just starting out, not everyone needs a lawyer, a bookkeeper, a company name, or a business plan. Some may initially, but many don’t. I created a company name and registered it with the State Corporation Commission only because my first client required SCC registration. A friend of mine began by consulting under her own name. It really isn’t that important when you are starting out, and much of it is a matter of scale. You can always increase your scale, but it’s much harder to scale back if you start big. I didn’t need a bookkeeper when I started out, but now, after two years, I’ve hired one.
My advice about going out on your own is much simpler than Opperman’s or Curley’s. It is this: forget about lawyers and plans for a minute and be completely honest with yourself about what you want, what are you good at, and what you are willing to do. Ask yourself those three questions and pay attention to the answers – they will tell you if consulting is right for you. It’s not whether you have money saved, a stomach for uncertainty or a business plan. It’s what you want, what you know how to do, and what you are willing to do. If you want to choose your clients, your work, your coworkers, your vendors, your price, the hours and the days you work, then consulting may be for you. What are you willing to trade for it? What I wanted was the freedom to choose my work hours and work days, clients and coworkers, topic and price. What I am willing to do is, work evenings, nights or weekends, travel just about anywhere anytime, and never turn on out-of-office assistant. The only time I am not available to clients is when I am sleeping or on a plane. If this sounds unreasonable to you, then consider this, almost every time I talk to a client, I make money. When you are salaried, you likely resent working weekends or on vacations. When you are a consultant, it’s a different mindset. If I get a call for work while sitting on the beach (and this has happened to me) I don’t bemoan it. I think, “ka-ching,” because I am going to actually make money on vacation. When you are salaried, you likely resent giving up an occasional weekend. When you are a consultant and a client calls on Friday with a task she wants done by Monday, you think, “bonus, I am going to make some money this weekend,” and you do the money dance. It’s a whole different attitude. I never sweat Sunday nights anymore because I never book a busy Monday. I go to the gym on weekday mornings after the rush. I hit Costco when no one’s there.
But it’s not all roses, I’ll admit. As Opperman points out, one of the other trade-offs for this freedom is an irregular pay schedule. But don’t let it scare you away. Remember I had no savings when I started and there were months when everyone was 45 days past due. It can be stressful and scary. But, I threw a few bills on a credit card, and had faith it would soon work out, and if it didn’t, I knew I could always go back to working for someone else. Remember, you are just turning off the beaten path, you are not driving over a cliff. Nearly two years after I hung my shingle, the checks from some of my clients now keep me going until the checks from other clients come in. It’s different, and there’s no rhythm to it, but it’s the same pay for much fewer hours and much less stress, so for me, even if the pay comes late or not on a schedule, it is worth it.
Your confidence plays a big role. If you are self-confident and self-assured, enough that you can convince a client to hire you, and counsel them against something they really want to do, then consulting may be right for you. Humility plays a critical supporting role. Be honest with yourself about what you can and are willing to do. When I started out, I offered every service I had ever done. But, I found that when clients asked for some services I hated providing (or was not great at), it sucked the joy out of my day to do them and I put them off, or did them reluctantly or sloppily. It wasn’t serving my reputation or my clients to do the things I hated doing or wasn’t that good at. So, what did I do? I used my network. Now, when clients ask for things I don’t like to do or am not great at, I sub them out to freelancers I know who are interested in the work and are good at it. The Independent Public Relations Alliance has been instrumental in that respect, because it’s a large network of talented independents like me who have diverse senior-level skills and are nimble enough to take on a few hours here and there, when I need them, without a lot of red tape.
While both authors provided some good advice, the idea of going out on your own can seem overwhelming if you try to take all the advice at once. The fear can be paralyzing. Don’t let it, though. If you have ever thought about being your own boss and leaving your job to consult, go for it. Try it out. Don’t let fear, or lack of money, or lack of knowledge about the process, or anything else stop you. Like Opperman said, you likely know a few folks who are doing it already. Ask each of them to lunch, and ask them how they did it. Bring your long laundry list of questions about how they got started, the process, their story, and then go home and start your own story. Make some mistakes, learn from them and move on, but don’t let fear of the unknown stop you.