Where to Start an Independent Career?
One of the most captivating aspects of beginning an independent consulting career is that your work life is suddenly a blank page. It’s yours to do with as you please—to assert control, to proactively become the super-successful professional you always knew you could be.
On the other hand, a blank page can be intimidating. Gone is the comfortable linear inevitability of the traditional job. In its place is a vast landscape of choices, each of which plays a part in determining how you get from where you are to where you want to be.
So where’s the best place to begin? Having spent more than a decade working and speaking with thousands of independent consultants, my suggestion is simple, yet frequently disregarded: Look in the mirror. The better you understand yourself—your abilities, your goals, your work ethic, your finances, etc.—the better equipped you’ll be to make smart decisions and get your solo career off on the right foot. You’ll also be better prepared to meet soloists’ most daunting challenge: marketing yourself.
Unless you choose to begin your independent career using staffing or placement companies (which help match you with projects), there’s no way to avoid the fact that you have to get your skills in the minds of potential clients. In the beginning, getting yourself “out there” may seem like a blur of phone calls, dead ends and strange Web sites you’ve never heard of. Don’t worry. You’ll soon whittle away the ineffective methods in favor of what works for you. Of course, there’s no single self-marketing method that’s right for everyone. However, an ability to understand your skills and desires is the universal springboard. Here are some questions you can ask yourself to help see where you might fit:
- How Skilled Are You? Most likely, those certifications on your wall are your ticket to greatness. They’re evidence of expertise that someone is surely going to need—and pay handsomely for. But if you lack confidence in your current skills, keep learning. Make sure your licenses and association memberships are up to date, and don’t hesitate to expand your skills.
- What Arrows Are in Your Quiver? Online assignment matching sites have evolved in recent years into mature and helpful tools. Some, like the popular Dice.com, are dedicated almost exclusively to IT positions (heavily contract-based), while other biggies like Monster.com and CareerBuilder.com span all occupations and include only a smattering of contract assignments along with their full-time jobs. There may even be sites dedicated to your specialty—a quick search should let you know.
- What Can You Handle? As I explained last month, the four categories of consultants (staffing company contractors, 1099s, small corporations and employer-of-record contractors) incur widely differing amounts of administration and busywork. How much time are you willing to give up to run your business? Many consultants like the control of doing it all themselves or are unwilling to pay the fees associated with letting someone else help with the burden. But if you’d like to see your family every now and then, or maybe even take a weekend off, you might want to stick with administratively friendly W-2 options—using a staffing company or an employer-of-record service.
- How Much Should You Charge? The Web is full of rate and salary surveys that are often helpful in determining how much you should charge for your services. Surveys produced in the past six months are better, of course, as economic swings can drive significant rate fluctuations. And never be afraid to ask for help from colleagues and past managers. Even recruiters can be a big help in coming up with a fair rate assessment.
- Who’s In My Corner? You can ignore everything in this article up to now and still be a successful consultant—if you have a network of friends and colleagues who can help you get your face in front of the right people. And you can tap and expand your network without inflicting your friends with the dreaded schmooze factor. Simply drop them a short, polite line every so often and let them know you’re in the market. If you’ve got the skills, you’ll be amazed at how quickly your work calendar will fill up.
Gene Zaino is president and CEO of MyBizOffice Inc., and is the primary force behind a consultant engagement process that provides independent professionals with a “portable” employment and benefits infrastructure, while helping their clients reduce the costs, risks and administration associated with using them. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.